Dalton Hwy., Alaska & Linden Trucking
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Anything can happen to a winter trucker on the perilous and desolate Dalton Highway
By Doug O'Harra
Achorage Daily News
(Published: February 27, 2001)
On The Dalton Highway -- Just how bad could it get?
Fred McMillan downshifted on a steep uphill grade four hours north of Fairbanks - 11 hours south of Prudhoe Bay -- and considered the notion. As the Peterbilt tractor labored to pull 26 tons of freight through the dark, snowy hill country south of the Yukon River, four 150-watt head lamps illuminated a fairy-tale scene: pale road and glittering frost, walls of ghostlike spruces so crusted with rime that many bent over, seeming to bow after the droning rig.
Early on the all-night run up the 414-mile haul road to the North Slope oil fields during the first week of February, conditions couldn't have been more prime: 7 degrees, clear skies, full moon, no reports of wind.
If anything, McMillan said, it ought to be colder. Ten below produces better traction.
But after driving more than a million miles on Alaska's most extreme highway, McMillan never takes a single grade or straightaway for granted.
"It changes hill to hill," he said.
Bad blows or cold snaps hit without forecast. McMillan has seen 70 below near the frigid valley of Prospect Creek and hurricane-force winds on the Arctic plain. A north wind through Atigun Pass can load slopes with snow in an hour and spill avalanches that nail trucks in motion.
McMillan has waited full days for state plows to punch through snowdrifts that rose as high as the windshield. Three weeks earlier, McMillan idled for 14 hours without seeing another vehicle, passing the time reading, listening to tapes, sleeping, snacking. A few years back, one ground blizzard forced his truck to a crawl, transforming the last 50 miles into Deadhorse into an 18-hour ordeal.
One breakdown 10 years back parked him eight miles from Deadhorse with no heat, oil field lights on the horizon. As the temperature dipped to 42 below, McMillan crawled into his sleeping bag, waiting nearly eight hours before the state grader arrived in the morning and gave him a ride to the terminal.
He was chilly but not worried. Not yet.
"I've been traveling this country all my life," he said. "Somebody would have come along before I got that cold."
And then there's the danger of rollover and collision, present during even the best weather. McMillan has responded to some of the 30 fatalities recorded over three decades by Alaska State Troopers: drivers mutilated or broken, trucks rolled and crunched. He has helped hoist 250-pound victims from crushed cabs, struggled to free survivors when leaking fuel soaked the ground. One dying driver kept gasping a final refrain, something that McMillan, a father of five, says he will never forget: "Tell my wife I love her. Tell my kids I love them."
McMillan survived one head-on that ripped open the cab right through the driver's seat. While he was bringing up the rear of a slow-moving convoy on the North Slope in the mid-1980s, a swirling cloud of dust cleared to reveal an oncoming semi straddling the middle. McMillan sprang up and dived right, toward the passenger seat, and was airborne when the impact brought his truck to a wrenching, metal-screaming halt. McMillan's forward momentum pitched him through the right side of the windshield. Aside from cuts and bad bruises, he was OK.
He went back to work within days. "I just told myself, 'Hey Fred, you got to be a little more careful. More alert.' "
Rules of the road
Since then, McMillan has experienced "hundreds of close calls," but he has never gone into the ditch.
With a quarter-century of haul road experience, McMillan has mastered trucking as an art with its own technical nuances: how to feel the shoulder's soft edge through the throttle and wheel, how to navigate ground blizzards when you can't see the berm, how to "feather" three sets of brakes when backing down an 11 percent grade to make another run up or reach ground safe enough to chain up.
He goes prepared, carrying tools to repair hoses and lines and filters and motors. Like many of the estimated 120 drivers who regularly drive the Dalton Highway during winter, McMillan stashes enough food for two or three days. The truck has been modified by the owner, Lynden Transport, for extreme conditions too: fuel heated and circulated in its tank, alcohol in the pressurized air to the brakes, special filters, heavy-duty tires. He packs Arctic gear and an $800 sleeping bag.
"You're a fool if you don't have one, and there are a lot of fools out there," he said. "They break down, and it finally catches up to them."
But most of the time, the bag remains stowed. As the Dalton Highway maintenance has improved over the past decade -- with regular avalanche control in Atigun Pass, a raised roadbed in places prone to drifting, the use of ice and gravel to smooth out holes and give traction -- what once took 24 hours can regularly be knocked off in a straight-through 12-hour shift.
To pass the time, McMillan sometimes counts stark white hares that ricochet from his headlights into the brush: 477 on one recent trip. He listens to 12-hour books on tape. He checks the trapline he maintains along the foothills with a powerful spotlight mounted on the cab. He counts the number of shifts while traversing a dozen steep grades.
What worried McMillan most this trip were new truckers drafted into service for the recent surge in oil field activity. The road surface was streaked with the shiny stripes where inexperienced drivers had ridden the brakes during steep descents. Those ultra-slick patches could make other rigs lose traction. Others were just losing it.
"You look along the road, you'll see all the holes in the snowbanks where they've been driving off the road," McMillan said, the drawl of his Texas roots still evident despite 47 years in Alaska. "Over the years, they take out the trees too."
The proof appeared in the deep ruts that veered into rumpled snow every few miles like bad plow jobs. Several embankments had no trees. One featured a gap in the forest that outlined the rectangular dimensions of a tractor-trailer rig.
Only the night before, a truck had dumped its load of 85-foot oil pipe bound for Alpine at the bottom of Beaver Slide, a notorious hill north of the Yukon River.
The report of that wreck had since passed driver to driver over the citizens band 19, traditional channel for highway chatter. Whether true or not, it was said that the northbound driver had descended the slope too slowly and reached the bottom without enough momentum to climb the grade. So he pulled onto the side and parked, not realizing he had veered over just a bit too far.
After calling for help, the man had leaned toward the shotgun seat to pour himself a cup of coffee. That incremental shift in weight was enough to alter the balance of tractor and trailer straddling the soft shoulder. So the cab and the trailer toppled sideways into the ditch. The man was OK, but a big cleanup would commence the next day.
"Spilled his coffee" was how McMillan summarized the mishap.
'You're on your own'
Call it extreme trucking, the profession of driving 50-ton rigs to the Arctic Coast. Ever since the haul road was completed in 1974 to fuel the construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the sprawling oil complex at Prudhoe Bay, the route has attracted a unique breed of driver. Traversing the Dalton, especially in winter, requires a level of independence and road savvy absent from summer travelers or even winter truckers on Lower 48 interstates.
"Once you leave here and you're out of town, you're on your own," said Art Delong, the operations manager at Lynden Transport's Fairbanks terminal. "It's a lifestyle all its own."
"You have to be very independent," added Jim Young, assistant operations manager. "They have to be very resourceful."
It's partly a function of the sheer isolation. The distance between Hilltop Truck Stop just north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway and Deadhorse is 470 miles, with only one place to buy gasoline or a hamburger during winter: Coldfoot Services (founded as "the farthest-north truck stop in the world") at Mile 175 on the Dalton. That's comparable to driving from Seattle to Boise or from San Francisco to San Diego with only one pit stop.
"Up here, more than anywhere else, you have to be able to fix whatever happens," said Kevin Cilk, Deadhorse terminal manager for Carlile Enterprises, which runs up to 28 trucks a day to the Slope this winter. "You can't just call a repair truck, and you can't call a tow truck unless it's a total wreck."
That distance includes some of the most treacherous driving in North America: a dozen steep grades that range from 10 to 12 percent, the 4,800-foot Atigun Pass through the Brooks Range with frequent avalanches, a raised gravel highway that approaches the Arctic Ocean across a wind-scoured plain.
To be sure, it's not really a wilderness trek. Along the route live a handful of people at mining camps and other outposts, as well as the tiny village at Wiseman. Crews operate six Alyeska pump stations and seven maintenance stations for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
While summer traffic volume has swelled in recent years to include private vehicles, tour buses and Winnebagos, winter traffic narrows to the Dalton's industrial heart: a few hundred vehicles a day, most of them heavy trucks pulling loads. Thus another trucker is often in sight and almost always within radio contact.
You glimpse the community of the road through the dry-humored drawl that comes over Channel 19, in the talk at the truckers' tables at Hilltop and Coldfoot. This is a place where beefed-up 4x4 three-quarter-ton pickups are called "four-wheelers" and a semi without its load gets named "a bobtail." It's a community that values huge slices of pie and fresh coffee and the good sense to leave a clear path for rigs speeding down steep hills like Roller Coaster and Ice Cut to build momentum for the demanding uphill grade.
"You know who seems to make the best truckers are the loggers," Delong said. "We've had a lot of guys come up from Montana and Idaho and Oregon who seem to fit in. They've had that off-road experience."
New drivers often push too hard at the wrong times, Cilk said. Cut corners on their gear or food. Drive off shoulders. Take the grades too slow -- or too fast.
"That impatience thing is what gets guys to drive into areas where the wind has come up," he said. "Impatience will make a guy leave Coldfoot when he shouldn't."
Supply and demand
At Lynden Transport in Fairbanks, preparation for the regular Tuesday night haul had taken all afternoon. It came during a season of accelerating work, according to operations manager Delong. They've been sending 20 to 30 loads north a week.
"Nobody did anything last year," Delong said. "This year, they're booming. They're doing a lot of work up there."
Tonight Lynden would send out two rigs: McMillan's with 53,000 pounds of mail, food, tools, oil and other miscellaneous cargo in a heated 53-foot trailer, and independent trucker Kevin Lowry's with a massive tundra tractor heading to a seismic crew.
To maximize traction, the Lynden yard crew had shifted Lowry's load forward on the tractor, transferring several tons from one axle to another. A fork driver spent hours loading McMillan's trailer with pallet after pallet: Chips Ahoy and Dr Pepper for Alaska Commercial Co. in Nuiqsut, drums of transmission fluid, stacks of soda ash, boots, tools.
About 6 p.m., the two men would pull out. Radio contact with dispatchers would reach about 40 miles up the Elliott Highway. "After that, they're on their own," Delong said.
But the era when a haul-road trucker disappeared into the whiteout and didn't surface until Deadhorse has begun to close. Lynden now equips each truck with a special computer that records every gear shift, brake and acceleration -- basically a trucking version of an in-flight data recorder. But that's only the beginning.
Delong strode into his office and called up a monitoring program on his computer. It generated a map of the North Slope and placed a tiny icon of a Linden truck about 60 miles south of Deadhorse, near the Franklin Bluffs. A Global Positioning Satellite receiver had relayed the truck's position via a cellphone. As an experiment, Lynden had installed the devices in two other trucks in Southcentral Alaska.
None of the drivers like being tracked, Delong said. "They think it's like Big Brother watching them."
But the ability to analyze a trucker's performance plus find him on the road pleases customers and increases safety.
"The biggest disadvantage for us is the cell coverage," Delong said. "We find that there are lots of blank spaces out there."
The biggest void still covers most of the Dalton, about 350 miles, or nine hours of driving time.
Behind the wheel
McMillan, known along the road as "Trapper," has worked the haul road since the beginning. Born in Livingston, Texas, McMillan came to Alaska as a 10-year-old with his five brothers and sisters in 1954 after his father, a plumber, took a job with the Alaska Railroad. He dropped out of high school to go to work, moving from the railroad to seasonal work for the federal government to heavy construction. He lived for a time in Livengood, spending his spare time trapping and hunting. When the construction of the haul road from the Yukon River to Prudhoe commenced in 1974, he seized his stake of the boom, eventually becoming a crew foreman based in Five Mile Camp.
"When we connected our part of the road with Old Man Camp, I quit that day," McMillan said. "Said I was going to do some driving."
That was the beginning of 27 years in the cab of a semi. He drove during the crazy days of pipeline construction -- including 1975, when 10 drivers died in accidents -- then kept going as it supplied the oil patch. He met his wife, Colleen, when she drove a pilot car for one freighter.
"We built our home and paid for it, all during the pipeline," he said. "It's been a good living for me."
For the past 20 years, McMillan has driven for Lynden, pulling down about $70,000 a year driving the regular daily run two to three times a week, with plenty of time subtracted for hunting and fishing. "It's been great working for Lynden. I've never known finer people. We (kid) around all the time, but it is a good place."
His truck for the past three years has been the 1997 Peterbilt with a 475-horsepower Detroit engine. He likes the cab fine but has been disappointed with the engine's power. He says he's ready for the trade in a few weeks, to a truck with a state-of-the-art automatic transmission and a more powerful engine.
Still, after making about 300 of the 1,018-mile round trips from his home base to the slope, McMillan said the old truck speaks to him.
"I know everything about this truck," McMillan said. "I know every sound, you know, just like your own auto. If there's a change in the sound, I'll get it right quick."
The run north begins in Fairbanks evening traffic, about 6:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., he has passed the weigh station at Fox and then pulled alongside the popular springs to fill his plastic jugs with water from the ice-coated pipes, his custom since he was a kid running a trapline in the hills.
Another half-hour took him to Hilltop, where he pumped 161.94 gallons of diesel and exchanged pleasantries with drivers he has known for decades. Soon he was on the road.
Sitting nine feet above the road in the Peterbilt cab, eyes rarely straying from the view, McMillan guided the rig up the Elliott, turning on to the Dalton's first steep uphill grade just after 9 p.m.
Within seconds, the speed of the 90,000-pound tractor-trailer plunged. The engine grumbled under the load. Flicking switches on a console at his right hand, McMillan locked the drive axles and differentials to gain traction. He guided his right-hand wheels into the crunchy snow on the shoulder. His progression down through 18 forward gears syncopated a droning rhythm: acceleration, hesitation, acceleration. Sixth, fifth, fourth high, fourth low.
"We'll have to go into third on this one," he said. "We're heavy."
The rig slowed to a crawl but held momentum and crested the grade. Releasing the locked axles produced hissing reports like pistol shots. McMillan began shifting up as the rig began its descent and then gained speed, pushing 50, then 60, then 70. If needed, McMillan had three kinds of brakes.
Over the CB, a young man exclaimed to another trucker heading north: "Boy, they graded all through there. Hills are good."
McMillan shook his head "That's inexperience talking," he said. "I let it in one ear and out the other. If it's a new voice you haven't heard before, don't believe it."
Crossing the divide
For another 11 hours, McMillan guided the rig north. He waited an hour or two at the top of Beaver Slide with a dozen other trucks parked patiently in line while a tow rig pulled the toppled truck from the ditch. He delivered the mail in Coldfoot under clear skies and a temperature of 4 below.
Hours passed as swiftly as the miles, landmarks and steep grades triggering quick tales: Here's the hill where a kid let his rig "get away from him" and radioed "Get out of the way!" and blew by McMillan with brakes flaming "like a jet" as he ran 4.5 miles before easing to a halt. That kid, McMillan said, was chattering with fear when he caught up to him.
And there was a place where another friend realized the $2,000 investment of an anti-moose bar across the grille when he nailed one - a chronic problem along the route, along with caribou.
"Those caribou are just plumb dumb," he said. "They'll be 200 yards off the road and a whole herd will run right at you."
To keep them away, he keeps his two headlights and two truck lights shooting a quarter-mile ahead. And he watches, listens, sits forward in his seat.
Over the years, McMillan has followed various strategies to stay alert. "One of the worst thing on this road, guys going off, is fatigue."
For a long time, McMillan carried a songbook with sheet music and lyrics that he read during stops and then belted out while under way: Beatles, musicals. Then he discovered books on tape and worked through histories, mysteries and Westerns: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," presidential biographies. Tonight he's working his trapline, checking sets with his spotlight mounted on the cab.
"I've taken 28 (lynxes) and three wolverines this year," he said. But nothing showed that night.
The moon illuminated the Brooks Range foothills with a pale glow. Atigun Pass loomed, bright enough to see the folds of gullies and ridges, the white expanse of avalanche chutes.
"Who could want a better job?" McMillan said. "Driving pretty country like this twice a week."
Dawn came up on the coastal plain, America's biggest oil field spanning the horizon like the lights of a great city. As the day grew stronger, the drilling modules and pump stations and warehouses exaggerated in size, a row of bulging rectangles, the fata morgana mirage caused by still, cold air. But they shrank as the light brightened.
At the last milepost, maybe 10 minutes out from the terminal, a driver in a passing truck recognized McMillan's rig. "Hey, Fred, what are you doin' here so late?" the man radioed.
"Well, you ran that guy off the road at Beaver Slide," McMillan drawled. "They had to get him back on the road."
"When I run somebody off the road, they never get them back on."
"Well, we'll see you in a bit."
McMillan wheeled into Lynden's terminal and backed the trailer into a bay at 9:44 a.m. In seconds, he had shut down. In a few minutes, he would go inside to eat or maybe catch a ride to the Lynden bunkhouse for a six-hour snooze before the 12-hour haul south to Fairbanks. But first, McMillan did a brief inspection and report, working barehanded.
A left rear outside tire on his tractor had gone flat, the same tire the maintenance crew had fixed earlier in the week. A light had burned out too.
"There's going to be some *** chewing when I get home," he said.
But he smiled as he walked to the frosted door.