Alaska's haul road
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.