By Capt. Christopher LarsenAugust 14, 2010
First in a series
CAMP MERTARVIK, Alaska - In this remote camp almost 450 air miles from Anchorage, a multi-service force of less than 100 is building a new home for the native Yup'ik people who live here.
The village of Newtok, along the Ninglick River, is disappearing. The soil, a mixture of loose dirt and sand, on top of permafrost, washes away easily in the rapid current of the river. Exercise Alaska Move, a five-year plan to move Newtok and its inhabitants to the new village of Mertarvik, is in its second year. Members of the Army Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, Navy Reserve, and Army and Air National Guard from all over the continental United States are taking part, bringing hope to the local population.
The environment is austere. Summer temperatures hover in the 50s. Days with clouds, rain and fog outnumber those with sunshine. Cell phones don't work, there is no television or internet, and all electricity is provided by generators. All supplies, from fuel to food, have to be brought in by boat or helicopter. There is no landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft; the nearest hospital is at least an hour away by air.
Capt. Chad Hailey, of Portland, Ore., commands Headquarters and Support Company of the 6th Engineer Support Battalion. A Marine reservist, he's been here since June 11. His Marines had the job of building a new road across the tundra. Since concrete can't be used here, the job was a lot tougher than it sounds.
"Marine surveyors came out to survey the path," he said. "They were also able to determine the depth and grade; you don't want it too steep."
Once the path was surveyed, and stakes driven into the ground to mark it, the real work began. Using earth-moving equipment, the Marines dug down into the tundra, taking away the rocks and wet soil that make up the ground here. Rolls of black, woven plastic were laid in the newly-cut path, to assist with drainage.
Then, layers of sub-base gravel - some pieces as big as softballs - were laid along the roadway path.
Next came smaller, top-fill gravel, made up of stones about the size of a fist, laid on top of the sub-base. On top of that was laid smaller finish-grade gravel and another layer of the plastic matting.
Depending on the surveyors' findings, the road's base could be several feet deep - in some spots, four or five - before it was ready for the final touch: large pieces of preformed roadway called Durabase.
Each Durabase mat weighs more than 1,000 pounds. Lifted into place with a forklift or other heavy loader, the mats are lined up end-to-end before being nailed into the road base with steel pins, which look like overgrown tent pegs.
It's heavy, backbreaking work, made more difficult by the lack of amenities in the camp. But Hailey said despite the inhospitable climate, things were going better than scheduled. The project was planned to last until mid-August.
"We've actually finished early," he said. "We've used all the gravel that was allotted for the project, and gotten more of the road laid than we'd anticipated. The biggest job now will be getting everything packed up."
The whole camp, from tents to dump trucks, has to be transported out of Mertarvik. In somewhere with an airstrip, this could be accomplished with cargo aircraft. But here, the only way to get the equipment out is by boat, the U.S. Army Vessel Palo Alto, crewed by members of the 709th Transportation Company, an Army Reserve unit from Tacoma, Wash.
Next: Mertarvik Medics
Capt. Christopher Larsen is the public affairs officer for the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Seattle.