Alaska's haul road
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.
“Look at that thing,” he scoffs when spotting a pickup with three gasoline containers strapped to the roof. “We call that a Molotov Cocktail. When they go off the road, boom! Just like in the movies.”
Among the few signs on the Haul Road are the new Scenic Byway signs, which show a blooming fireweed.
The plants not only dot the roadsides, but they thrive in large swaths recovering from Alaska’s many wildfires. In the distance, they add purple shades to the mountains’ green quilt. Up close, they cluster in thick patches of stunning pink, punctuated by thin burnt spruce trunks that look like giant thorns.
Spears repeatedly says the state should instead spend money on signs warning of curves, grades and other dangers. Or putting in many more reflectors to mark the road edges that often disappear in snow drifts or snow storms, leaving drivers an undefined field of white to navigate.
“Signs with a picture of a flower on it – come on!” Spears says. “This isn’t California.”
Roundish, talkative and gray-bearded, Spears wouldn’t have much of a stretch to pass for a kindred jolly old soul who lives at the North Pole. (Not to be confused with North Pole, Alaska, a touristy, Santa-drenched town 13 miles from Fairbanks.)
With no vision of trading his current job for hauling toys on a reindeer sled, Spears hopes to retire in a few years and return to his family’s 325-acre farm in Illinois.
“I came to the state in ’74 and started driving in ’79,” says Spears, 56, a Marine veteran of Vietnam. He’s chowing down on a big breakfast at the Hilltop Truckstop, between Fairbanks and the Haul Road. “I drove a company truck ’til 1983, when I bought my first truck. Wrecked it in ’92.”
Taking his 1979 Kenworth on the Haul Road, which was even more punishing back then, was quickly wearing it out. Not to mention the wear due to fellow truckers’ interest in the artwork inside the hood of three sexy women.
“I think I wore out a set of hood hinges,” Spears says. “It was a hot set-up.”
When a fellow trucker helps you out of a jam – pulling you back onto the road, for example – Haul Road etiquette dictates more than a slap on the back. One response is to buy a $20 meal credit in the name of your guardian angel next time you stop at the Hilltop, and post the ticket by others on the wall.
Hilltop waitress Susie Brooks knows the drivers’ names and how to make them smile. One April Fools’ Day she put toilet lid seats on the chairs at the long drivers’ table and bedpans at each place setting. Some days she leaves a plate of cookies she’s baked.
This morning, there’s another surprise: Carlile driver Barry Walker’s pancake order arrives not as a stack on a plate, but as one pancake covering the serving tray.
“I told her to bring me one big pancake,” he says as he spreads butter. “It’s a good thing I didn’t ask for two big pancakes.”
During the construction of the road and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s, Fairbanks and Anchorage boomed. Walk into a bar and “You couldn’t buy a drink,” Spears says, because drinks on the house were in front of you before you knew it.
During the heyday, owner-operators got $5,000 to run from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay and back, Spears says. Eventually that dropped to $3,000. A round-trip from Fairbanks now pays about $2,000, he says.
Carlile’s company driver pay for the Fairbanks-Prudhoe round trip, based on hourly and overtime pay, is $700, Keator says. Company drivers start at $16 per hour.
Spears, whose experience merits a higher rate, earned $66,000 in 2005 and $75,000 in 2004, when he worked more. Average Carlile driver pay last year was about $80,000, Keator says. Heavy haul drivers, with loads approaching half a million pounds GVW that can take four or five days one way between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, can make more than $100,000.
Alaska truckers have more leeway on long hauls because the state operates under more liberal hours of service regulations due to its size and low population density. Drivers can be on duty for 20 hours, 15 of those driving, say Carlile officials.
Dale Harris, a Sourdough Express driver from Fairbanks, doesn’t mind pausing over breakfast at Hilltop to recount how on his first Haul Road trip, as a trainee in 1974, the driver rolled their fuel truck going down a 12 percent grade. “By the time he hit the corner, he was doing 50,” Harris says.
The driver broke his back and was put in a pickup, but the pickup’s driver, drunk, overshot another curve and rolled over.
Another pickup driver picked up Harris, then spun out on another curve. The truck plunged down a long hill, but Harris couldn’t bail because the passenger door wouldn’t open.
“It was so steep they dropped a fire hose down to me and I climbed out,” he says. “I was 19 years old then. I told the boss, ‘No more student trips.'”
During the pipeline’s construction, “every curve, every side ditch, had a load of pipe on it,” Spears says. “There’s only two kinds of drivers – the ones who’ve gone in the ditch and the ones that’re going.”
Spears is in the first group. Driving on Thanksgiving Day, 1981, he was beginning to climb a grade and didn’t realize his brakes were too cool from lack of use. “I see the trailer go off, then I see the hood rearing up.” The trailer twisted, flipping the tractor onto its side, leaving him standing up. “I walked out the windshield.”
According to the History Channel, Haul Road accidents have caused 400 injuries and fatalities. State DOT spokesman Mike Chambers says he could verify only that 15 known fatalities occurred between 1977 and 2005.
Like Spears, everyone tells of wrecks and being stranded in life-threatening weather as nonchalantly as someone in the lower 48 talks about driving through a thunderstorm.
Last winter, Carlile driver Kenny Jones sat 20 hours waiting for a snow blower to rescue three or four trucks. He made it to Prudhoe, where he was stranded a few more days. “You could barely see the end of your hood,” Jones says. Such episodes might happen two or three times in the winter, says Jones.
At the Beaver Slide grade, Spears says, many truckers have used their brakes too heavily, catching tires on fire. “I’ve seen trucks at the bottom burn clear to the ground,” he says.
We reach another hill, where Spears recalls a bicyclist who was walking his bike up. A tourist came “banzaiing off this curve downhill and ripped that bike right out of his hands,” he says. “That was the end of his bike trip.”
Soon we’re at another curve that became known for its many wrecks.
“This is called Oh S*** Curve,” Spears says. “The state put up a sign, and that’s what it said – Oh S*** Curve.”
The sign, soon stolen, was not replaced.
The same spirit that brings many people to Alaska, – independence, strong work ethic, opportunity to earn the big bucks – meshes well with the owner-operator mindset. But that mindset doesn’t always mesh with Alaska, particularly after passing one winter.
Many guys, like Harris, find far less trouble and plenty of dollars as a company driver. He did manage to survive 22 years as an owner-operator, putting 1.8 million miles on a 1981 Western Star, before becoming a Sourdough driver. Back when pipeline construction was hopping, “I could earn a year’s wages in four or five months and take the rest of the year off.”
Karl Appel lasted only a year as an owner-operator. Now he works at the Carlile terminal in Prudhoe, operating a forklift and doing local delivery.
Pat Davis was an owner-operator for about 15 years in Idaho. Now, hauling dirt for a construction company, “I could make more money driving here than I could with my own truck down south.”
Burleigh Thornton went 15 or more years as an owner-operator in Alaska before getting rid of his truck. “They don’t pay enough to run,” he says.
Other owner-operators never turn back. Because the Haul Road eats equipment for breakfast, successful owner-operators say you must have your own shop and be handy with on-the-road fixes.
There are few owner-operators left in Fairbanks “because the money’s not there,” says Shawn Ruff. He has lasted 10 years as an owner-operator leased to Alaska West. “We can’t afford to buy insurance and retirement off what we make,” he says.
Bart Mauldin says he is one of eight or nine owner-operators leased to Lynden Transportation in Fairbanks. With a $200 to $300 fuel surcharge on a typical run with his 1998 Peterbilt 378, he gets almost $2,300.
“It pays the bills,” he says. “I try to take it easy on my truck, so I haven’t had too many breakdowns.”
Another survivor is Lonny Lofts, also leased to Alaska West. He’s been an owner-operator for 26 years – first in the Northwest, hauling logs, then in Alaska since the early ’90s. “The only way you can make it is to put in a lot of hours,” he says.
Spears lucks out, catches the pilot car right away through a rerouting construction project where waits can run 30 minutes. Soon we are at the Yukon River Bridge, home to the Yukon River Camp, which has a diner, lodging and gasoline. Hunters, rafters and fishermen often visit.
Camp coordinator Brett Carlson hands me a reprint from the March 8, 2005, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, describing a giant grizzly that broke into his facility during its winter closure to hibernate. As Carlson and two other men, all armed, began their search, they discovered a nest of promotional shirts. No bear. After probing dark rooms and closets at close range, they noticed a lump in the hallway. A head moved. They shot until the bear was still.
“It was a very long 10 minutes,” Carlson told the newspaper.
During the summer, state road graders stay busy smoothing potholes and bumps. The grading is followed by deposits of calcium and water, which dries to a hard pack. In winter, the road ice is graded smooth, sprayed with water and scratched to leave a rough texture that provides good traction.
The rough ice allows trucks to climb many hills without chains, though failure at this is perhaps the most common Haul Road hazard.
“If you’re not in the right gear, and there’s a little hesitation, the first thing you know you’re sliding backwards down that hill,” Spears says. Spring and fall are most challenging because the tires can warm and create a slick at the first bit of spin.
The combination of grade and ice is tough enough that certain loads require special help. Keator says Carlile’s heavy hauls can require as many as four pusher tractors, bumper-to-bumper, to keep one tractor-trailer moving steadily up some grades.
The current state administration has focused on putting chip seal on the Haul Road south of the Brooks Range, Chambers says, and is spending $7.5 million this year on road maintenance.
As for Spears’ complaint that Scenic Byway sign money would be better spent on warning signs: “I’m not saying the trucker doesn’t have a good idea,” Chambers says. “We just can’t do it.” The $350,000 to $450,000 of federal Scenic Byway money Alaska gets each year must be spent on tourist-related uses for the Scenic Byways.
Also, “In the grand scheme of things, $450,000 is not a lot of money.”
A third of the way to Prudhoe, we reach the Arctic Circle. It starts at a latitude line where the sun stays above the horizon for one full day on the summer solstice (June 21) and below the horizon for a full day on winter solstice (Dec. 21).
A plastic-covered bulletin tacked to the Arctic Circle sign warns of a wolf that bit a woman camper who was jogging here this summer.
“Bull,” says Spears, who has heard another account. “You feed a wolf and turn around and run – what’s a wolf going to do?”
After a meal at Coldfoot Camp, the road’s only truckstop, the scenery blossoms as we ascend the Brooks Range. We’re approaching the 4,800-foot Atigun Pass, the Haul Road’s highest point.
This is where, according to Alaska: Dangerous Territory, there are more than 200 snow avalanches a year.
“I didn’t know of any 200 avalanches a year,” driver John Slater says.
“The road would be out half a year,” Spears says. “It’s more like two or three a year.”
“There was a little glamor in that movie,” Keator says.
Chambers had no count but says the state does avalanche preventative maintenance. “The state DOT has the unique distinction of owning its own 105-mm recoilless rifle,” he says. When an avalanche guru warns of impending problems, the state hauls up its tiny cannon and blasts away to dissipate the accumulated snow.
Over the day we spot a herd of muskoxen, a few caribou and white dots on a cliff that are Dall sheep. Spears recalls a migrating herd of 49,000 caribou. “You could hardly get on the road,” he says. “Quite a few got hit.”
Spears says some grizzlies got a little too cozy after being fed by construction workers years ago. Once when he was parked, a bear ambled up, and he threw Ritz crackers from his window. The bear “started stepping up on the steps here,” he says. “So I put it in gear and moved slowly out.”
Welton recalls how grizzlies fed at Prudhoe Bay food dumps until big fences were put around the dumps. “Now they wander around town,” he says. Polar bears can be seen at some of the remote drilling sites.
Slater tells of a guy having an outdoor bathroom “emergency” when a bear attacked. “He shot it from 3 feet away,” Slater says. “He’s still not regular.”
Spears says the backcountry has few hiking trails, largely because of bears. “You’re just a walking pork chop to them.”
Ranking up there with tourists and Scenic Byway signs for Spears is the University of Fairbanks Toolik Camp, a summer research facility in the tundra north of Atigun Pass.
There are better uses for his tax dollars, Spears says, than funding six-figure salaries for professors and jobs for students “counting mosquitoes.”
“See how big that deal is down there?” He points to the lakeside complex. “Hey, buddy – that is a money pit!”
As we near Prudhoe Bay and midnight, heavy clouds and light rain try in vain to squelch the 24-hour daylight. But it’s dark enough for Prudhoe Bay and the adjacent commercial complex, Deadhorse, where we will stay, to glow on the horizon.
The Prudhoe Bay Hotel resembles a dormitory or barracks. Muddy boots sit drying outside the doors in the halls. My room is reminiscent of a sleeper cab, with a small TV on a ledge above the foot of the bed, though sleeper bunks are more comfortable than these sagging springs. A bath is shared with the adjoining room.
The most noticeable feature is the window treatment – black plastic duct-taped to block the summer sun for those who like their sleep with no cream.
The $110 rate seems high, but everything in Alaska tends to be expensive. And when you consider the food – free to guests – it’s not a bad deal. When we arrive hours after full-service dining has closed, the room’s spread of pastries, fruit, soup, beverages and more looks like a food-laden mirage.
Breakfast doesn’t pass without more discussion of Alaska: Dangerous Territory.
Slater, assuming the deep voice of mock authority, imitates the voiceover from a segment about a Carlile heavy haul that had wrecked on its first outing: “This is the second attempt to get this load up this treacherous road.”
He mentions a driver who referred to the road as the “Kamikaze Trail,” echoing the old Sam Little song of the same name that celebrated the road.
Spears chimes in: “He’s the only one who calls it that.”
I spot Spears after breakfast, stuffing pre-wrapped sandwiches and other goodies into a paper sack like some crafty homeless person. He assures me it’s cool – there are the sacks, and use one of those Ziploc bags for the carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs.
Suddenly the seven hours between breakfast and a Coldfoot meal don’t seem so intimidating.
We step into Carlile’s terminal, where Spears is assigned an empty dry van. He points to a large photo on the wall – three trucks in line, the first plunging into roaring water that bisects the Haul Road.
“That’s from a company training video,” he kids. What’s not visible is the submerged cable and its connection to a dozer that would pull each truck through the washout.
We splash through the Deadhorse potholes as we pick up the van and refuel amid drizzle and 40-degree air that feels like Christmas in July. We’re not quite beyond the metal buildings, tanks, forklifts and tractor-trailers when a splash of bright purple atop a pole interrupts the industrial gloom, as if placed by some prankster. It’s a reminder, thanks to our tax dollars, that we’re still on a Scenic Byway.
A Road Unlike Any Other
If it hadn’t been for the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1969, there would be no Haul Road. In a massive effort of money and manpower, the road was built in only five months during 1974 as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction.
The 800-mile pipeline, completed in 1977, took three years and cost $8 billion. At its construction peak, 21,000 people were employed.
Today’s road is built 3 feet to 8 feet above the permafrost, following a painful lesson. In early 1969, the first road to the bay was blazed in an eight-week frenzy. Because the permafrost was scraped off the ground, when the first convoy set out in March, the sun melted the surface. Trucks were mired in muck and averaged 3 mph. It took 23 days to reach Prudhoe Bay. Today, the trip can be done in about 11 hours’ drive time.
The curves and hills make it dangerous to stop on the road. Because the road was built higher, there is no shoulder for safe stops, only an occasional pulloff.
COLDFOOT: No Services Next 239 Miles
Forget the polished, multi-service truckstops that are everywhere on the lower 48’s interstates. Once you’re on the Haul Road you’ll pass only one truckstop, and it’s as homegrown as they come: Coldfoot Camp, halfway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, reportedly the world’s northernmost truckstop.
There’s fuel, tire repair, food, lodging, laundry and pay phones. When you’re traversing 414 miles of rough road, virtually barren of development, that’s a lot. There’s food and lodging a little south at the Yukon River crossing, but it’s closed during winter.
Coldfoot began around 1898, earning its name when thousands of gold-hungry settlers arrived, then quickly got cold feet about the prospect of wintering there, according to the settlement’s website (www.coldfootcamp.com). Many made like birds and headed south.
“At its height, Coldfoot had one gambling hall, two roadhouses, seven saloons and 10 ‘working girls’ (many of the local creeks are named for these friendly women),” says the website. By 1912 the miners relocated to richer ground 13 miles away in Wiseman, and Coldfoot became a ghost town. Wiseman, just off the Haul Road, still offers lodging.
Coldfoot revived in the 1970s when a camp was established during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. “In 1981 Alaskan dog musher Dick Mackey set up an old school bus here and began selling hamburgers to the truck drivers,” says the website. Truckers, using crates that had held pipeline insulation, began hammering together what grew into the Coldfoot truckstop.
Now Coldfoot bills itself as “your base camp for exploring Alaska’s Brooks Mountain Range.”
That means rafting, fishing and “flightseeing” tours in the summer, viewing the Northern Lights and enjoying mushing excursions in the winter.
PRUDHOE BAY: Home to Few, Home to Many
After riding for hours through the unpopulated, treeless tundra of Alaska’s North Slope – everything between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean – you would be inclined to agree with the 2000 census. It says Prudhoe Bay, terminus of the Haul Road, has one household. Population: 5.
In reality, the nation’s biggest oil field has far more people. Thousands of temporary workers live for days or weeks at a time year-around in Prudhoe Bay or in Deadhorse, the adjoining settlement with an airport, lodging, general store and other commercial facilities.
The area also draws tourists, curious about the area in general or about the Northern Lights, the Arctic Ocean or the vast tundra. Some are on two-day rides via bus or airplane.