Alaska's haul road

| November 01, 2006

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.

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