Column: The infamous Dalton Highway

Published 3:16 am Thursday, December 21, 2006

By Staff
The other night on TV there was a program on Alaska's Dalton Highway. That brought back memories from a couple years ago when wife and I drove the infamous Dalton, or haul road as the locals call it.
Running 400 miles between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, it was built back in the early 1970s to supply the oil fields up on the Arctic Ocean. We quickly found calling it a highway was twisted humor. It's narrow, sometimes winding and the crushed concrete surface is hideously wash boarded and pot holed. They say don't even try it without at least three spare tires, extra gas and to expect a shattered windshield. We could only find two car rentals in all of Alaska that would allow their vehicles onto the Dalton and the only one available at the time was a tiny Chevy Tracker. The Pregnant Roller Skate we called it. But it's sewing machine engine got about a zillion miles per gallon, a good thing because there's only one gas station along the haul road, at a cluster of buildings called Coldfoot half way to Prudhoe Bay. We substituted cans of Fix-A-Flat for spare tires, with our great mileage forewent the extra gas and had no worries about the windshield because it was already broken when we picked The Preg Skate up in Anchorage.
We turned onto the Dalton Highway with great anticipation for adventure. The first hour was uneventful and we could only marvel at what a construction feat this was. Soon we came upon the engineer's first obstacle of note, a little thing called the Yukon River. Today there's a bridge across the mile wide creek but in the early days trucks were ferried across on gigantic hovercrafts.
The first 200 miles winds through sub-Arctic boreal forests. The Dalton is privately owned but the public is allowed access. They make a big deal about the public giving way to the trucks. No problem there. The first monstrous truck careening toward the Pregnant Roller Skate like a run amuck scud missile sent me diving for the ditch. The second scud hurtling up from behind made me a devout believer. There would be no contentions over road space.
The trucks plying the Dalton are specially built. The frame strength is doubled and the wheelbase lengthened six feet to improve stability. I soon found out why. Dodging a constant barrage of scud trucks was intense but far worse was the endless pounding of potholes and wash boards. Da-da-da-da-Boomp-da-da-da-da-Whump-da-da…. on and on and on. I couldn't go over 30 m.p.h. and kept the bucking Roller Skate on the road. During the winter they put water down to fill the holes with ice but this was August. After ten hours of it, I was nearing insanity. I was about to drive off a cliff to end it all when we hit pavement, the only paved stretch on the Dalton. That bit of Heaven took us limping into Coldfoot, the half way point. From Coldfoot on it's back to wash board and potholes.
The road builder's next obstacle was the lofty Brooks Range. It took grades far steeper than allowed on traditional highways to scale those peaks. The haul road trucks have 600 horsepower to get them over, twice that of normal semis. In the winter they must often be towed over the icy Atigan Pass by road graders. Once past the mountains the final 150 miles to Prudhoe Bay across sloppy tundra was perhaps the most daunting construction of all. They hauled in 24 million cubic yards of fill at a cost of $1.5 billion in today's money to raise the roadbed as much as eight-feet above the permafrost.
Once the road was completed work started on the Alaska pipeline, which would parallel it. During pipeline construction 20,000 trucks a year plied the haul road, making it the busiest highway in North America. With its steep grades, sharp curves, white out blizzards and 200 avalanches per year the truckers called it the Kamikaze Trail. In the first two years there were 500 accidents. Over 400 people have died in accidents on the Kamikaze Trail. I'm glad we weren't among them. Carpe diem.