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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Solace in Thespian Antics, TV Golf

ARDALIN OIL FIELD, Far North -- With its cheerful receptionist and plastic cafeteria trays, the Polar Lights Co. command post could be anywhere in the United States.

But such illusions fade quickly at the Ardalin oil field on Russia's Arctic fringe.

The hiss and rumble of a natural gas flare provides the background noise in the foyer. Hard hats and earplugs are dress code accessories, and visitors must promise not to hunt or trap the local wildlife.

Conoco Inc. began pumping oil at Ardalin in 1994, as one of the first U.S. companies to form a joint venture for producing crude in Russia. It operates Polar Lights together with Arkhangelskgeoldobycha and Rosneft. Now, as ConocoPhillips, it pumps 30,000 barrels of oil per day.

Ardalin is a village of derricks, workshops and dormitories perched on steel pilings in a wilderness of ice and stunted conifer. No roads or railroads connect it with populated areas to the south, so all supplies -- from drilling mud to light bulbs -- arrive by overland, winter-only routes or by helicopter.

The environment at Ardalin is one of the most challenging for oil workers anywhere. Wind chill drives winter temperatures down to minus 57 degrees Celsius, so employees suit up like astronauts leaving a space station before stepping outside their housing modules.

Summer has a harshness of its own. The icy turf becomes a spongy morass, and voracious mosquitoes swarm.

Russians and Americans put in 12-hour days for four weeks at a stretch, before an alternating crew shuttles in by air to relieve them. Engineers and the roughnecks who manhandle equipment at well sites share cafeteria meals, then spend their evenings watching videos or playing darts and ping pong.

For field construction manager Frank Hauser, each month off means daily games of golf at his home in Austin, Texas. His only taste of the sport at Ardalin is what he can catch on satellite TV. "I've got one club up here, just to look at from time to time," he said.

Hauser, 57, worked for Conoco in Alaska before transferring to Polar Lights nine years ago. He brings a few goodies with him after every visit back home: coffee, popcorn, and one bag of trail mix for each day of his rotation.

"You wouldn't be here if you weren't making a good living. The worst part of this job is getting here and getting home -- the travel," he said.

The men and women of Ardalin have their own version of fun, which climaxes each New Year's Eve with skits staged in the mess hall before an audience of workmates stoked on alcohol-free beer.

One recent gala included a cross-dressing roughneck sporting imitation reindeer antlers and dancing the can-can, and competitors playing a kind of Russian roulette with eggs -- five that were hard-boiled and one that was raw.