A high demand for oil drilling pipe and steel, as well as the addition of seasonal ice roads have increased trucking activity to support oil exploration on Alaska's North Slope. Business has jumped so much, it's attracting outside trucking firms to the state.
Ice roads across frigid expanses of the Beaufort Sea to locations west and east of Prudhoe Bay are full of vehicles headed to exploration sites and the camps that support the petroleum industry.
"We have 15 trucks a day, seven days a week on the Dalton Highway, and at least 10 more working the Slope," said Tom Hendrix, business and heavy haul manager for Carlile Transportation Systems. Carlile is one of a half-dozen trucking firms working on the North Slope.
According to Linda Leary, Carlile's newly appointed president, the increased traffic differs from years past.
"The trend this year is not so much with construction materials, but with metals and drilling pipe up on the Slope," she said. "A lot of steel and pipe seem to be the norm this year."
This is evident as fully loaded trucks virtually every hour leave Deadhorse to distant destinations across Prudhoe Bay. After a 6 a.m. safety meeting at the Carlile warehouse, pipe-loading starts at a storage yard before the sun comes up.
On a recent spring day in late March, the temperature was at minus 28 degrees, and the wind was blowing out of the northeast at about 15 miles per hour. Drivers and workers wore layers of clothes under heavily padded overalls, heavy parkas, facemasks, helmets, safety glasses and bright orange safety vests.
Front-end loader operator Buddy Overturf gingerly loaded sets of pipe using a Volvo loader onto a flat bed truck that driver Tom DePriest hauled to the Alpine field to the west over an ice road later in that morning.
It's March and everyone agrees that this is the worst month for weather. As the day wore on, the wind picked up and the sun could only be seen through a mist of eerily blowing snow. The temperature dropped to minus 33.
On a typical day on the Slope, no one can be seen working outside; at least, not for long.
Back at the Carlile warehouse, dispatcher Floyd Waldo took calls and dispatched trucks to Franklin Bluffs. He kept in contact with drivers, asking when they were headed to Kuparuk.
Waldo was interrupted when a driver came in with a loaded Doyon Drilling pickup truck on a flatbed that caught fire while it was idling.
The driver said the truck only had 700 miles on it and didn't know much about the circumstances leading up to the fire. Waldo needed to take a look, slipped on a coat, hat and gloves, and bolted out the door. In the meantime, the Carlile warehouse was busy with forklifts moving tons of freight around.
The warehouse looked like a mini Costco. The only difference is that it was full to the roof with huge tractor tires, shiny black pumps roughly the same weight as a Volkswagen beetle, and spools of electrical wire. Tubing wrapped around large wooden spindles sat on the floor.
"Everything that you use in a day's work comes through this warehouse," said operations manager Ray Whittum. "If you are up here on the Slope and you have something that you use for your job or eat in a camp, it likely comes through this warehouse and is trucked up the Dalton Highway."
According to Whittum, six to eight vans a day are unloaded here, re-organized and reloaded to be trucked to various locations across the North Slope. Whittum credits the dozens of hardy line haul truck drivers with connecting Prudhoe Bay to the rest of the world.
"They are the lifeline of supply up here from Fairbanks," said Whittum.
Increased traffic on the Dalton, referred to as the Haul Road, is due in part to shipments of ultra-low sulfur diesel, Whittum said. During the peak season there isn't enough ULSD on the Slope, so it has to be shipped from Fairbanks.
In addition drivers, the Haul Road is seeing more traffic from independent drivers from outside Alaska.
"This is not a trip for an inexperienced driver," said driver Jerry Miller, who has seven years experience on the Dalton. "The worst thing about this trip is the weather."
Drivers Stan Williams and Pedro Tena said the highway harbors the odd curves and grades, deep snow, long patches of sheer ice, thick fog and blinding snow, but the new and real danger to those along the road is the inexperienced driver.
One wreck or stalled engine along the road can back up drivers for miles. That's dangerous, even deadly, in the temperatures that far north.
Everyone at the Carlile terminal at Deadhorse could recall one particular story. A driver from Houston brought a load up the Haul Road and stalled out.
"We had to send our rigs down to Coldfoot to pull one trucker up a hill," said dispatcher Waldo. "I told that guy when he called, ?This isn't Texas, you flatlander.' You have to have power and the know-how to drive this road. But we got him out."
Rob Stapleton can be reached at email@example.com.