Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

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.

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