The American Dream
In 1988, Kasco Marine is a small family owned business in Prescott, Wisconsin (just across the line from Minnesota) manufacturing circulating motors to prevent ice in and around marinas. “Windmill” Bill Skluzacek (sklu-za-check) had developed a submersible electric motor and propeller system that would efficiently move water for this purpose. After successfully protecting his marina against the Wisconsin winter ice, he decided to market the motor system to others. Bill and his wife Bert and are actively involved in marketing the deicers and frequently on the road to promote them.
Son, Rick Skluzacek is involved in the ongoing engineering and manufacturing process. He is 28 years old, and married 3 years to wife Joyce, with a 6 month daughter.
Bill and Bert’s daughter, Sandy Skluzacek Ferrian is 8 months pregnant and married to Greg Ferrian. Greg is working for Peterson Sales, an independent sales rep firm. Since he was the new guy he was left at the home office while the other two salesmen were at a show in Seattle.
Whale of a story…
Monday, October 17th Greg spots the initial coverage of three whales trapped in ice near Barrow, Alaska on TV. A local hunter spotted them on an excursion. They evidently did not start south early enough on their migration. The ice was too thin to walk on and everyone assumed they would just swim out. That was October 7th. By October 11th Geoff Carroll the local North Slope Borough biologist decided they were stuck. The press is tipped off on Wednesday the 12th, and by Thursday, a wave of press begins pouring into Barrow, Alaska.
By Monday night, October 17th the story was on multiple stations in St. Paul, Minnesota and they are stating that they have no solution.
Greg talks with his brother-in-law Rick about possibly traveling to the site. Rick has been spending time with his new daughter and has not been in watching news reports. Greg’s enthusiasm quickly spreads to Rick and they begin making calls.
Through ABC news in New York they acquire contact information for Col. Tom Carroll with the Air National Guard, and Ron Morris with the National Marine Fisheries Service, who was the onsite decision maker in Barrow. Ron had received direction from his boss on the 15th to go ahead with rescue efforts for the whales.
Greg talked with Ron Morris and was given a firm “no thanks.” Then after calling a second time Ron said we “don’t have time…” . Greg was fit to be tied. Rick calls and his conversations confirm that there are generators on site to run the deicers. They contacts are still convinced that if it was big enough to work in Alaska it was too big to take out on the ice. When Rick tells them a person could carry two deicers they were sure the deicers wouldn’t work. Rick’s former classmate was an owner at KSTP. He inquires to see if they would be interested in flying up the pair and cover the story. They also just offered to send the equipment, just to buy the whales some time. At this point KSTP is not ready to make that commitment.
Greg, Rick, and Sandy immediately start planning the trip. Meanwhile the owners of the company Bill and Bert Skluzacek driving back from the Annapolis Power Boat Show check in daily, and give their blessing for the adventure that is about to begin. They are kept up to date by radio broadcasts.
Rick and Greg have their first interview at the airport with the local St. Paul news before they depart October 18th.
“It was 10 days of my life, each crazier than the next.” Rick Skluzacek
They travel from Minneapolis St. Paul to Salt Lake City, then to Fairbanks, Alaska where they spend the night. The next leg of the trip was to Deadhorse, Alaska above the Arctic Circle. Greg describes the crowd on the plane as oil field workers, hookers, and media. After all the hookers and workers depart in Deadhorse, then it is just Greg, Rick, and the media. They tell the media group their story and what they intend to do.
As they arrive October 19th, Greg and Rick had somehow managed to book two dorm rooms at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory which was now owned by the North Slope Borough. Since there were some reporters arriving with no room they agree to give up one to the reporters and share a single room. It is a barracks style dorm with 2 single beds and a bath down the hall.
They call Fish and Wildlife the first chance they got, but they aren’t interested because every crackpot is calling with a solution. Knowing little about the deicers, the directors of the rescue are convinced that if the machine is effective, that it will be too big to bring onto the ice. The Jacques Cousteau crew calls in but their talents were not useable for the rescue event. Another person wants to use whale recordings to lead the whales to safety…but they were recordings of Orcas,… which prey on grey whales.
Geoff Carroll and Craig George are staff biologists with the North Slope Borough and in charge of the rescue on the ice. They met Geoff and Craig coming off the ice site, exhausted with only 1 hour of sleep between the two of them.
The staging area for the press is a search and rescue hanger. Greg are Rick schmooze with several people in the room and hand out brochures as they were waiting for Ron Morris to arrive. When Ron arrives and opens the press conference to questions, many are asking Ron “When are you going to try the Kasco circulators?” Ron agrees to meet with the two Minnesotans and Greg turns the meeting over to Rick and his technical expertise about the circulators. The basic principle is to bring the warmer denser water up to the surface to keep the breathing hole free of ice. As long as it is a little warmer than freezing, the water moving past the area will keep the hole open.
Ron is cautious, and annoyed, but doesn’t shut them down. He also will not commit to giving them a shot. Rick and Greg are told to go wait…they leave depressed about all the money they had spent to get this far and the failure to get a trial.
On the evening of October 19th, they are heading back to the dorm, expecting a call later to talk again, but a frantic messenger is sent looking for them earlier at the dorms with a message to “get on the ice”. The temp was negative 25 F and dropping to negative 35-40 degrees that night. The workers can no longer keep the holes open for the whales to breathe. In fact, the mission is in such jeopardy that if something didn’t start to work the whales are going to be harvested.
They have nothing to lose and it was a last ditch effort, but Greg and Rick finally had their chance.
Craig George remembers saying that Rick and Greg were the most cold-hearty of the “lower 48er’s” on the project. They were dressed for the occasion.
There are three gasoline generators in the hanger and they take one to the rescue site where they have the hole cut in the ice. The circulator motors are compact and, at less than 7 amps, very efficient. So operating them on a generator is not difficult; except for one thing…the generator is too cold to start. Greg returns to the base hanger in a helicopter and starts another generator. They put the generator in a spare compartment of the helicopter and leave the door open for ventilation The helicopter returns with the generator running all the way back to the station on the ice.
They plug the deicing circulator into the generator. The breaker trips. The deicer has been sitting outside at -30 degrees, 58 degrees colder than the water. The cold viscous oil in the motor is making it difficult to start. Trying again several times results in the same pop of the breaker. Then at last the propeller turns and begins to move water. The powerful water flow immediately pushes the broken ice to the opposite side of the hole. Everyone is excited because they think it is working. That is just the beginning. The unit had opened it up but they don’t realize that it will soon start to assist in melting some ice and keep the new ice from reforming, giving rescuers a rest from icebreaking.
There is also the question of how will the whales respond to the motors in the water, any resulting vibration, or the artificial flow. Will it drive them away? The question is answered shortly. One of the whales surfaces in the hole directly in front of the water flow, rises several feet out of the water, turns around, and gives a relaxing blow of air, before submerging again. Everyone cheers spontaneously.
Now the task is keeping them operating, and planning how to use them to get the whales to safety. At least now, the rescue team has time.
The Kasco team’s job is to make sure the circulators are working correctly, continue to add fuel at careful intervals, and station units at the new locations as needed. Rick agrees to work nights and Greg works days. The first nights are spent sleeping in a 4 x 8 plywood shack with a space heater on land near shore. Rick takes off his shoes to keep moisture from building in his socks and sleeps on a stool in the corner near a Coleman lantern. Each time the door opens, snow blows in, melts then freezes on the floor to a thickness of 2 inches. The lantern and heater will keep the air temp just at freezing. He is also given a shotgun. Instructions are clear, “The polar bears sense that the whales are in distress and they are in the area. If they approach, don’t shoot them until they are close, and a head shot is ineffective.” Cold? Rick walks out with a warm Coca Cola and drinking it rapidly. Before he finishes, it turns to slush.
The next morning Rick returns off the ice via snow machine. ABC interviews Rick and Greg about their involvement. The second day brought donations of more generators, chainsaw bars and chains (from Oregon Chainsaws) and other equipment.
There are three holes open, but the whales are only surfacing at first location with the deicing circulator. Craig continuously monitors the whales for the time they spend below and the number of blows that they make at the surface as an indicator of stress and well being. They were stressed previously, but now two seem to be improving overnight and are showing normal metabolism.
In an attempt to get the whales to move away from the hole they even cover it with a tarp to try and hide it, but with no results. October 20th is Greg’s birthday. In the afternoon he is setting at a second hole on a frozen deicer box frustrated that the whales won’t move. Watching the circulator push the ice he is thinking, “All I want for my birthday is for one of those whales to surface.” Just then, one of the three whales surfaces and drenches him with a spray of water. Then the whales begin appearing at all three holes presently in the ice. The rescue team realizes now that they can hear the propeller fan blades in the water and will associate it with another breathing hole. This is helpful in moving the whales further out to deeper water and nearer any possibility of an ice breaker rescue.
The cold temperatures are thickening the ice and now driving is allowed. The reporters from People Magazine are arriving as well as another corporate media plane with additional deicing equipment through Greg and Rick’s connections with KSTP. Robbie Hubbard accompanies reporter Jason Davis as well as cameraman and producer from KSTP in St. Paul.
The oil drilling companies, the local Inupiat, Greenpeace, government, and even reporters are all now involved in a strange alliance, as well as the adventurers from Minnesota…
ARCO, the local oil drilling company is donating supplies, personnel and funds. And their oil pipeline service contractor, VECO, has full permission for any expense and resource to help. They eventually spend over $500,000 in transport fuel. They attempt to bring in a hover barge towed by sky crane helicopters over the ice so that it could help break the ice.
Present on the site are Rologon trucks with huge tires so that they could roll over the ice without breaking it. An Archimedes screw vehicle operates with huge rotating pontoons and can enter and exit the water and ice. It is disassembled in Prudhoe Bay and brought in bycargo plane.
There is also discussion of using an ice smasher which operates in conjunction with a sky crane helicopter. It can break the ice, but keeping it open is another matter. It leaves the ice debris in the open hole like jagged floating boulders.
Cutting holes in the ice with chainsaws is the preferred method of keeping areas open for now. The rake portion of the chainsaw teeth have to be filed away for the ice-cutting function. The Inupiats cut out blocks 3 to 4 feet wide feet long 10 feet wide, push them down, and then over to keep the ice open. The cut blocks rest under the adjacent ice. Roughly 20 feet, long 12 to 15 blocks must be cut for each hole.
Rescuers cut more holes and try to get the whales to move further out. “Bone” is the smallest and weakest. The other whales will not move on without him. He eventually dies and then the other whales feel free to move on. Arnold is another key rescue team leader. An Eskimo with a practical nature, he rallies the team after the loss of Bone and inspires them to move forward to rescue the other whales with renewed enthusiasm. After the death of Bone, the remaining two whales move directly to the hole furthest out.
The rescuers continue to cut 40 holes to take the whales ¼ mile to deeper water where the icemaker would be able to meet them.
The whales continue to improve, surfacing with mud on their mouths indicating that they are eating and rooting around in the mud. They are also associating the sound of the chainsaws as preceding the deicers and a new hole to swim towards.
Even though the original 4’ x 8’ shack is now insulated and had grown to a 20 x 40 building with good heat, Geoff and Craig need a break and real sleep. They are finally sent back to the base for sleep.
Another stopping point develops when the whales refuse to pass through a shallow area. The team would have to make encourage them or find a deeper path. A brainstorming meeting is held. While the meeting was ongoing, Arnold takes a weight and string with a chainsaw and makes a layout of the depths, allowing for design of a pass to get the whales closer to the open water.
Shore fast ice forms attached to land. That is where the rescue operation is currently ongoing. There is floating or pack ice developing in the open water of the bay, and there is an “open lead” in between the two normally. As the two formations eventually collide and join, an ice ridge forms as a result of the crushing upheaval. Like a mountain range formation, 40 feet high and 80 feet wide, this is a barrier presenting itself to any icebreaker attempting to rescue the whales and connect them safely with open water.
The US only has about 2-3 ice breakers. The US Coast Guard Polar Star was previously in the area but was unable to return at Geoff Carroll’s earlier request. The Soviets have a whole fleet of nuclear powered ice breakers manufactured by Finland.
Gorbachev has ongoing efforts to cast a favorable light on the Soviet Union. The Soviets see and opportunity for good press and offer the use of an ice breaker. Of course getting permission for a Soviet ship to enter United States waters in 1988 is quite a ticklish situation.
Ronald Reagan makes the decision to allow the ice breaker in and the invitation is sent.
Tom Carroll is in charge of regular phone calls to the white house to keep the administration and specifically Reagan informed. His regular phone calls acquaint him with Reagan’s personal secretary. First friendship and then a romance develop. They are later married.
It only takes a couple of days for the ice breaker to arrive. It blows through the ice ridge in about 2 hours, and comes through about ¼ mile from the whales and Rick. It has been a 10 day project and Rick is sleep deprived when the icebreaker finally brakes through. A nap of exhaustion and relief follow.
There is some talk of tagging the whales for monitoring but it is decided that the added stress would not be worth the risk.
As the whales pursue the trail of broken ice to open water they become stranded shortly. They are freed again with the assistance of the Inupiat, who are on the ice against orders, escorting the whales to safety.
The North Slope Borough is a “dry” area, but this calls for a celebratory drink.
A pilot flies in some contraband alcoholic beverages from another borough to celebrate the whales rescue. They all celebrate together exhausted and relieved. The celebration is relatively short and the strange alliance disperses from Barrow shortly afterwards.
Greg makes it home just in time to see his first son born, Colin Ferrian.
The Kasco team receives an award from the Department of Commerce and a tour of the White House’s West Wing where they meet the Chief of Staff, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Soviet Ambassador.
Letter from Craig George-“There were three things that worked: chainsaws, Inupiat, and Kasco deicers!”
Kasco deicers are used in thousands of locations around the world to do the same job every day.
• Anchorage Daily News Coverage of the event
“During the day, one of the whales snagged an extension cord used to power the floating water circulators that keep their breathing pools free of ice. The whale swam from pool to pool, the 50foot extension cord and circulator streaming behind. Officials were unable to pull the wire free and feared it may be stuck in his baleen, the bony tissue inside its mouth through which it filters its food. However, the scars from their ordeal will mark them for life, Morris said. With more than 20,000 gray whales swimming the oceans today, they may never be encountered again. But if they are, Morris said, they will be recognizable especially if one is trailing an orange extension cord.”
Read more here: Anchorage Daily News and Soviet Ice Breaker
• The rescue resulted in a book, a textbook reference, and now a Hollywood movie, “Big Miracle” starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Ted Danson, and Kristen Bell. Due to release February 3rd, 2012. Kasco Marine is portrayed as Hootkin, Inc. and has the amazing Hootkin 450.
• Rick does remember Cindy Lowry from Greenpeace being involved but he was mostly involved in the night shift so there was not a lot of interaction. Greg remembers her and said that she was personable. He does remember her having a crush/romance with one of the local media.
• Reporters: The cold was too much for some of the reporters. Several suffered from frostbite.
• One reporter revved up a snowmobile until the clutch kicked in and the machine jumped into an ice hole. The reporter jumped to safety. Rick held the back bar of the machine until help came to pull it out.
• Greg recalls that the reporters just couldn’t resist helping during the project.
• The Inupiat people hunt whales but also are compassionate to them and a firm belief that they are a give from their Creator.
• As his first news about the adventure, Greg’s boss was in Seattle watching the event unfold on TV when Greg came on for an interview.