Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

A Truckers News editor shares a bumpy, long, well-lit day in the life of a veteran hauler on one of the continent’s most dangerous truck routes.

The buzz up and down the Haul Road this Thursday in mid-July is the History Channel’s Alaska: Dangerous Territory, which aired the night before. All the drivers, especially those with Carlile Transportation Systems, which worked closely with the film crew, recall the visit.

The general verdict, rendered at the few available diners on the 414-mile road: thumbs down.
It “focused on accidents,” Jeremy Welton complains to his fellow drivers. “You didn’t miss much.”

But then, come on. They all know it’s the spin-outs while climbing slick double-digit grades, the helpless sliding off curves, the careening down endless slopes, the avalanches, that give these guys their street cred.

I’m northbound from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay with Carlile driver George Spears. It’s a 1,032-mile round trip, most of it on the Haul Road, the common name for the James B. Dalton Highway.

The rough road slams the nose of Spears’ 2005 Kenworth from side to side. The truck could be a racehorse in its stall, snorting as it waits for the gun to crack, except this W900 is out of the gate, plodding no faster than 40 mph. With its 475-horsepower Caterpillar and 18-speed Eaton, it easily handles wide grades that exceed 16 percent, maybe 18 percent, depending on who you listen to. We’re hauling insulation and spools of tubing over a road that alternates between gravel and chip seal, a thin pavement used to seal gravel roads.

“This is the best truck I’ve ever driven, and it’s a company truck,” says Spears, a former owner-operator.

He estimates that continuous Haul Road driving doubles normal maintenance expenses.
Suspensions, tires, tie rods, struts, filters – you name it, they get beat up, chewed down, snapped, choked with dust in summer and clogged with snow and ice in winter.

Given the terrain, trucks get only 4 to 4.5 miles per gallon, says Lane Keator, Carlile’s Fairbanks terminal manager. And most of the year, don’t even think about improving that figure by not idling when parked.

They’ve got another word for four-wheelers on the Haul Road: tourists. They’re hunters, fishermen, campers and those who take the road just because it jumps off the map – it’s the only route that runs from central Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. It beckons them to explore, to search for wildlife, to take photos of each other at the sign marking the Arctic Circle.

Haul Road truckers have as much love for tourists as truckers in the lower 48 have for air-headed four-wheelers. Tourists often fail to keep their lights on. Some drive too fast. Many don’t slow down when meeting an oncoming vehicle.

“You’re throwing rocks, he’s throwing rocks,” Spears says. He uses front bumper flaps to mitigate that.

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