At one point, Red Dog Mine was the world’s largest Zinc-producing mine by volume. In the recent years, it fell to second place. Rampura Agucha in India is now the world’s largest Zinc mine.
Red Dog Mine is located on the western edge of the Brooks Mountain Range in North West Alaska about 90 miles north of the village, Kotzebue, which is just north of the Arctic Circle.
The only way to get to the mine is by plane. A runway, large enough to handle a Boeing 737 aircraft, is the lifeline that supports the mine. Alaska Airlines has a contract with the mine. Every Tuesday and Saturday weather permitting,Alaska Air flies in a 737 from Anchorage, filled with whatever supplies and people.
A typical work stint is 2 weeks on, 1 week off, 12-hour workdays the whole 2 weeks. No days off unless you are sick. No stores or shopping center. No alcohol allowed. No way to drive off to a store because the only road at Red Dog takes you to the shipping port about 60 miles west of the mine.
So for those workers at the end of their 2-week work stint, they are more then ready to fly out.
The mine operates year round. They mine the raw zinc and lead from the earth, then process it to its rawest form and load the raw mineral onto large dump tracks. The trucks drive down the only road out of the mine to what they call Port Side. At Port Side, there are 2 massive buildings--storage buildings, 250 feet wide and about a ¼ mile long. The dump trucks fill these building up during the off-season.
Port Side is about 60 miles west of the mine. It sits at the edge of the Chukchi Sea. This is where the mine exports its yield, via cargo ship.
During the summer season, Port Side is hopping with workers. About 80–90 people work Port Side for the shipping season. The Chukchi Sea freezes over starting late October through early June. The window of time for the cargo ships to get close to Red Dog Port Side is when there is no ice, July-October.
The coastal edge of the Chukchi Sea is rather shallow, not deep enough water to dock a cargo ship on a traditional pier or dockside. The ships can safely get just 3 miles off the coast and have enough water under it once they are fully loaded with zinc or lead.
The ships get loaded 3 miles off the coast of Alaska in open ocean via barge.
Foss Tug Boat Company built 2 custom barges, designed to be loaded with raw zinc and lead and with the ability to offload the product using conveyor belts into the cargo hatches of cargo ships.
Red Dog Port Side loads the barges, 5443 metric tons of zinc or lead per barge load. Foss Tug boats drag the barges 3 miles out to the ship and tie the barge alongside the anchored ship. The barge crew cranks up the conveyor belt system on the barge and begins to offload the 5443 tons product into the cargo ship.
This cycle continues around the clock until the ship is loaded.
Two different classes of ships come to Red Dog Port: the Handymax class with 5 cargo hatches and the larger Panamax class with 7 cargo hatches. Handymax ships hold 9 barge loads where as the Panamax can take as many as 16 barge loads.
When I worked at Port Side my job or part for this operation was Ship Agent--more or less liaison between the Port Side operation, Barge operation, and Ship operation, overseeing and being the communicator for the loading process. My role required me to stay on the ship while it was being loaded: help tie off the barges when they came along side and help the ship’s crew with the documentation of the loading sequence and the amount of product that got loaded onto the ship.
My contract had me working 3 week on 10 days off.
A relatively easy job, though some eyes. Really, it was more of an endurance test.
When we were loading a ship, it was a 24/7 operation. Weather permitting.
When a ship came in to be loaded, one of the Tugboats would run me out to the ship. The tug would pull alongside the ship while it was still moving toward the anchor area. I would climb up the rope ladder that the ship's crew hung down. Once aboard, I would send down a rope to the tugboat so I could hoist up my bag of personal effects to live out of during my stay on the ship.
Once the ship was anchored, one of the loading barges would be making its approach to come alongside the ship.
I would help tie off the barge to the ship. The barge would start its 3.5-hour long offload. By the time the barge was done with its offload the second barge would be coming towards the ship. Around the clock this process would go until the ship was loaded.
I would have about 3 hours of downtime once a barge started its offloading. It was during those 3 hours that I would sleep, eat, get caught up on paperwork.
Get 3 hours of sleep, wake up to get the empty barge untied from the ship. Tie up the next barge. Go back in and get another 3 hours of sleep. About an hour of work, then 3 hours of down time to sleep, the cycle would go.
It took 2 days to get the smaller Handymaxes loaded. A Panamax would take 3 days.
I can still hear the barge chief make his calls over the radio.
“Commencing offload at whatever time. 5443 tons to offload.” He would do the same once he was done offloading. “ 5443 tons offload complete at….”
The number 5443 will be stuck in my head forever.
|Standing on the highest mast of the one Panamax. |
The next Panamax in the distance, anchored waiting to be loaded
Once a ship was loaded, the next ship would be anchored nearby waiting to be loaded. We would not stop the loading operation unless weather conditions where too bad for safe loading. Onto the next ship it would be.
|Standing on Top of the the Mast. |
Tugboat Sidney Foss in the background
I once went 14 days without touching land. Load one ship, go to the next. All the while getting 3-hour catnaps at a time for sleep.
That was the hard part of the job--enduring lack of good solid sleep.
The best part of the job was living and working on the ships. Meeting the ships’ crews. Eating their food. Trying to have conversations and learn about their culture, families or towns. Most of the time the crews either didn’t speak English, or they had one or two that had limited English skills.
It was a very interesting way to work.
The majority of the time, the ships’ crews were Filipino or Chinese, but I was on ships with crews from Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Myanmar, Indonesia, and India.
I always looked forward to working on the ships with Indian crew. The food was amazing.
The best and most memorable ship was the ship with an all-Turkish crew. Only the Captain and Chief officer spoke English. The second officer travelled with his wife and 2-year-old daughter on the ship with him, which was unusual.
It was very strange to see a little 2-year-old running around a cargo ship in open ocean off the coast of Alaska.
That ship had the most amazing cook on board. I have no idea what it was he made for us. But each meal was over the top. Turkish food was outstanding. The best part was the cook pulled me into the ship’s kitchen, and he made it clear to me that his kitchen was welcome to me.
He opened the refrigerator and pointed to all types to various Mediterranean cheeses, prosciuttos, salamis, cucumbers, and the best olives that I have ever eaten. He said to me the best he could in broken English. ‘Help yourself, for whenever you get hungry…midnight snacks.’
And snacked I did. Those olives…
I worked at Red Dog Port for 3 loading seasons. I helped with loading about 64 ships during my time. That was some time ago. About 10 years. I miss it.
I’ve been thinking about Red Dog this passed week. They always start the loading Season July 1st.
Perhaps, some day, I’ll get to go back.
So many stories to tell from my time working at Red Dog. Watching Brown Bear meander over the arctic tundra just a few hundred yards from Port Side camp. Strolling the beach and coming across a washed up Walrus carcass.
Many crew member stories from the many ships that I was on. Getting told by a 20 something year old Indian nationality crewmember, that my English isn’t proper. And many stories of friends that I made at Port Side. One of them, the legend of Portside, is Maxine. She is one of the cooks at Port Side and is in a way a mother figure for the Port. She and I still stay in contact through social media. I hope to reconnect with her in person to kick her ass in cribbage. She is one dirty player with a big heart.
|Standing on the forward Mast looking down at crew spooling in ship line|
|Three of the four Foes Tugboats huddled together alongside one of the ships|
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