John Parry: 40 years on the North Slope, and he'd do it again

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John Perry. Photo by Nathaniel Wilder.

When John Parry stepped off the Wien Airlines flight at Prudhoe Bay in September 1974, he was met by 30 mile-per-hour winds that dashed across the Deadhorse runway, creating misty clouds of sand-dry snow.  Peering into the desolate North Slope landscape for the first time, all he could see were snowdrifts, the dark forms of parked vehicles and further into the gloom, some lights.

He was told to grab his luggage from a wooden cargo box that had been placed on the runway.  He shivered as he shook snow off his suitcases and located his ride into North America’s newest and largest oilfield, which was still three years away from starting up. This was a far cry from Holiday Inn in Syracuse, New York, where he had been a chef; or even the Holiday Inn in Anchorage where for two years he’d plied his culinary skills. 

After security check in, room assignment and orientation to his new home--Construction Camp 1 (west of BP’s Operations Center (BOC)--which later received the moniker “BP Hilton”) John made his way to the kitchen to assume his new role as chef. 

“For dinner I cooked 22-ounce Porterhouse steaks, and the meal was really a hit,” he recalls.  “I’d heard the workers had been served some rather poor food over at the Deadhorse camp, and they were really appreciative of my crew’s efforts.  On that first day I had some doubts about how long I would last on the Slope--but then it became the second day and the third and the fourth…”

And now, four decades later, John Parry is still on the Slope doing what he does best, and what he has come to thoroughly enjoy: making workers as safe and comfortable as possible during their two-week shift.

“On the Slope people are far from family and friends and familiar home surroundings,” John says. “The Slope is unique because people are living and working in the same location. As camp manager my job, and the job of my crews, is to provide a pleasing working and living environment that is not only conducive to their safety, health and overall well-being, but also enhances their ability to perform assigned duties--often outdoors in extremely hostile weather.” 

A good selection of palatable and nutritious food, John affirms, is an important part of that equation.

“I’ve said this before, and no one has ever argued the point with me--but what’s on the dinner menu is just as important as going out there and fixing wellheads. It didn’t take me 40 years on the Slope to figure that one out.”

Seeing the field grow:  In the years leading up to Prudhoe Bay startup in June 1977 and in subsequent years, John helped develop camps to house increasing numbers of workers as facilities were added to the field and new wells were drilled . These included Construction Camp 1, 2 and 3.   In 1976 an addition to the BOC was installed, called OCX-1, bringing the BOC’s capacity to 250 beds. A third and final addition to the BOC in 1981-82, OCX-2, included a new dining room and kitchen and another 200 beds.

After Prudhoe Bay production startup in 1977 and during the field’s early development years, there was considerable national interest in this unique and far-flung industrial development. Celebrities that John recalls seeing on the Slope included singer John Denver, ‘Laugh In’ comedian Ardie Shaw, actor Jimmy Stewart and Hall of Fame football coach Larry Csonka. Others included actor Cornell Wilde; astronaut Harrison Schmidt, who later became a New Mexico senator; CBS broadcasters Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith; and Harvard professor John Kenneth Gaibraith.

In 1991 John participated in a BP Expression of Interest (EOI) program.  He left the Slope for a brief stint on Sakhalin Island, working for Doyon Universal Services.  But by the following year, he was back on the Slope--employed by Doyon, Ltd. as camp manager at Endicott. That job, he confides, was the best in his career.

“Endicott is small and I got to know everybody,” he says.  “We became the North Slope tour showpiece because in a relatively brief period of time, we could show visitors the entire operation-- from drilling to oil processing to shipment; as well as the living environment.  I have great memories from my Endicott time.”

In 2005 NANA Management Services took over Doyon’s contract at Milne Point, and John was offered a job as general manager of the VECO camp. He later became manager of the Milne Point camp, where he remained until the Hilcorp transfer. 

Ongoing challenges:   John is currently housekeeping manager at the large Main Construction Camp (MCC), which houses 500 workers, and is also filling in as operations manager at the BOC and Prudhoe Base Operations Center (PBOC).  He currently supervises 55-60 NANA staff.

John says that despite the fact catering jobs pay relatively well, and include overtime, it is a challenge to recruit people to the far north.  “It is hard to recruit and retain entry-level people,” he says.  “It’s been a challenge for as long as I can remember.”

He notes that logistics, which includes keeping the Slope supplied with food and other necessary items, has been an ongoing challenge, but has significantly improved over the years.

“We have a great supply system that includes trucking food and other materials over the Dalton Highway,” he says. “We have good working agreements with Sysco Foods, Sagaya, Costco, to name a few of our food providers.”

John adds that improved communications across the Slope--which include Harmony radios and extensive cell phone coverage-- have made camp management much easier and more efficient.

“I recall going into the BOC’s communication office and sending FAXes,” John remembers. “That was really back in the day.”

And speaking of days, what about all those days John has racked up since 1974, including the first one--getting off the airplane in blowing snow?  Given the chance, would he do it all over again?

“You bet,” he nods with a big smile.  “I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world.”