50 Stories in 50 States
I'm writing a story for every state we visit and sharing many of them with you on the blog. After the Adventure, I'll make the entire '50 Stories in 50 States' available as an e-book. Below, 'Alaska,' is my gift to you, something to cool you off during the long hot summer.
This is based on a true story I heard from a previous ice road trucker.
"Jimmy, this trip you cut across Galbraith Lake. Cuts off about twenty
miles." Darren, the truck boss, pointed to the map. Old school.
"Is it safe?"
"Yeah. Bradley's boys been running it all week."
What could I say, particularly being the rookie. If they said it was safe, it must be okay. The dry ice of winter stung my face and burned in my throat as I stepped out of the place. I headed out through the snow to the truck, a '99 Peterbilt. The truck started after considerable cranking. It didn't like the cold either. Yesterday I had picked up a trailer of food to take to Prudhoe Bay. Today I'd finish the last leg of the trip, 240 miles of snow and ice.
Television has glorified Ice Road Truckers, making the job seem glamorous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting out in subfreezing weather and moving forty tons of killing machine through frozen backwoods is no picnic.
I've trucked all over the United States, and a friend assured me there was good money to be made in Alaska, particularly in the winter. How bad could it be, driving with the heater on, steady work, and low cost of living, since we would bunk in the Coldfoot Motel, with nothing around to waste money on.
Okay, I should have figured it out at the 'motel.' The building, a throwback to the pipeline project in the 70's, was just crude dorms with particle board bathrooms stuck in them. And the low cost of living? Right. Two hundred bucks a night for the room, and spendy meals at the only restaurant for over two hundred miles either way.
Even all t50 hat would be okay, but we drove day and night-make that night and night. It's almost never daylight-through horrible conditions. Yet I persevered. Until somebody came up with a shortcut. Driving across the lake made sense, as the ice must be a foot or more thick and the road is smooth and fast. Cuts an hour off the haul. Everyone loves that.
I made it with the trailer fully loaded and dropped off the food at Prudhoe. Driving back, the sun shone, an anomaly for sure. I turned off the road right where Darren indicated and cut across the lake. Everything in Alaska is big, and the run across the lake must be thirty miles. Ten miles into it the sun set and it got black right away. Another ten and we got problems.
The headlights shone on the ice and made for a white glare that can hypnotize the driver. A solid sheet of white. Then I saw something different, all right. Water.
I don't know when it started, how far back, but the ice is under water. My blood ran as cold as the liquid beneath the truck. Stopping, I opened the door and checked the depth. It was almost to the bottom step, must be a foot deep.
How does water get on top of ice? A frozen river could break through and cover it, or the ice could have been broken, perhaps by another truck. But water on ice makes it weaker, both because it softens it and it adds weight to the load of the truck on the ice. I tried the CB.
"Anybody out on Galbraith Lake?"
Nothing but static.
Well, I can't sit here until the truck fall through the ice. I jammed it in gear and headed South, my mind whirling. Soon the water splashed ahead of the truck, meaning it was up to the bumper. Must be eighteen inches deep. It splattered up on the windshield and I turned on the wipers. They pushed some away, but most of it froze to the glass, and I watched the shrinking of my twenty inch window to the world. I jacked up the defrost to stave off the oncoming ice.
Since the water sloshed so much off the bumper, there was no choice but to slow down. The speedometer showed twenty five. So much for the shortcut.
Then it got worse. I could see the water was over the headlights. I gripped the wheel and thought of the awful options. The truck just drives into the lake, through the hole and I'm dead. The water refreezes, the truck gets stuck, and I die cold and slower. Would another truck cross? Have they told each other of the hazard? What if the engine sucks in water and quits? I can't wade out in this stuff, it's forty below and I'd die in ten minutes. Not to mention walking through ice water up to my knees. Five minutes. Suppose I break an air line? I have a spare and tools to fix it, but the exposure to the cold would kill me.
The engine labored and made a funny noise. I figured out it was the fan blades spinning through the water. That would be ironic. Break the fan blades off, the engine overheats and quits and I freeze out here. Frozen from an overheated engine. I unclenched each hand from the wheel. Got to get a grip, but not like that with your hands.
The view through the windshield shrank, from ice buildup outside and fog inside. I felt the air from the defrost. Lukewarm. If I don't get this truck out of the water soon, I am dead.
I tried the CB again, with the same dismal results. The lights illuminated two pie shapes, only fifty feet through the water. As slow as I went, twenty miles an hour, it was almost overdriving the headlights.
The wind blew ice crystals and snow from right to left. Between the ice on the window, the snow and the underwater lights, my vision shrunk to a few feet. I checked the GPS on the dash. Thank God for it, we ran on track. Looked like a couple miles to go. Might as well have been a thousand.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes and used a rag to clean the fog off the windshield. The gauges looked normal... no. I groaned. The water temperature stood at 260 degrees. Dear God no, please don't melt down on me.
The blue line of our journey crawled along the lake. I seesawed from staring out the windshield to peering at the temperature gauge to glancing at the GPS and willing it to the lakeshore. Even a quarter mile would mean certain death, no chance of getting to help. Actually, even fifty feet from shore and I would swim in, then succumb to the elements. This became an all or nothing deal. Make it to the shore and live. Don't and don't.
The gauge crept up to 290, moving entirely too quickly while the blue line crawled to the lake edge. Glancing to the side, I realized that all the windows were frozen inside and out. The two circles of vision in the front shrank to the size of coffee cup saucers.
Next the gauges fogged over, and my breath came out in a fog too. I started making deals with God, promising church every Sunday and no cussing around my wife and kids.
Finally, at last, the truck rolled up onto terra firma and I felt the tension ease in my shoulders. I accelerated and upshifted, not too fast as I didn't need the slick tires sliding on the snow. I pulled the truck over at a flat spot so I would be able to start again and got out to survey the damage. The wind shrieked, ice crystals stinging my face. Way better than swimming.
Ice hung from all around the body like an old man's beard. The tires quickly turned white as they cooled upon being stopped. I popped the latches and tried to raise the hood, but it stuck fast, frozen. The engine sounded okay, however. I climbed into the cab. The gauge already dropped to 275. I slipped it into gear and headed to Coldfoot.
Every mile, the truck improved. The fan blades must have shed heavy ice and the engine sounded smooth. The water returned to operating temperature, and the heater blew warm air, melting two bigger circles in the windshield.
When I arrived at Coldfoot, I parked in the truck area and left it running. I walked into the motel and greeted Tanya at the front desk. I set my gas card on the counter.
"Tell Darren I quit."
Tanya didn't even raise an eyebrow. She'd seen it a hundred times before. "Okay Jimmy."
I walked to my Toyota pickup and fired it up. Went to the dorm and packed up my stuff, which took only a few minutes. Threw the stuff in the back seat. Popped the truck in gear and eased out of Coldfoot. Headed south. I'll keep going until I can't see snow. Anywhere.