By Aaron Ladage
Brian Skinner’s a guy with a lot on his mind. Besides sky-high fuel costs and a laundry list of federal regs to follow, he’s also quite concerned with the growing caribou problem.
Stop the truck. Caribou?
Most drivers don’t spend their days fretting over Rudolph’s cousin stepping out in front of their rig, but then again, most drivers don’t haul their loads through the treacherous passes of Central Alaska.
Skinner, an OOIDA member since December 2004, owns B&C Trucking in Anchorage. His operation consists of a pair of tricked-out blue Kenworths pulling dual 45-foot Pepsi trailers. The 120-foot long, 133,000-pound behemoths make the weekly journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks – a round-trip of more than 700 miles – through rocky, sloping terrain. And although it’s sunny now, the area sees little light during the long winter months.
“We’ve got some good hills, some good pulls – they’re not very long, but it’ll knock us right down to about 25 miles an hour,” Skinner said. “If somebody’s got just an average motor, they’re probably running about 12 to 15 miles an hour, but I ordered the power to handle it.”
Indeed, Skinner’s rigs are built to withstand what the conditions dish out. The Kenworth W900s – one with a Cat 600, the other a Cat 550 – each rig features a 72-inch sleeper, 300-inch wheelbase, 46,000-pound rear end, 18-speed transmission with double locking differential and a full set of RideKing custom-made shocks.
Each of his massive machines boasts a very necessary moose bumper, four 1 million-candlepower lights, extra backup lights, two sets of train horns, a gauged mirror that reads outside and road temperatures, and even extra lighting on the headache rack.
“Sometimes you’re kicking up so much snow, you can’t see taillights. You can’t see anything,” Skinner said. “Amazingly enough, you can get a glimpse of the headache rack in the corners, and those lights kind of let somebody know where you’re at.”
While summer is short and sunny, Alaska’s long, sunless winters – which often cast the area in complete darkness for weeks at a time – only help to compound the problems of driving across sheets of ice and snow.
“The beginning of winter and the end of winter are probably the slickest, because it’s a real warm snow. As soon as you run over it, you just pack it down,” Skinner said. “There’s quite a bit of chaining up going on.”
The chains and rough roads have taken their toll on the trucks’ tires. Skinner can wear through a set of drive tires – Michelin 11R 24.5 duals – in about 90,000 miles. Kind of rough, considering a set of drive tires in most parts of the lower 48 can survive for about 215,000 to 230,000 miles.
Even the heaviest of heavy-duty trucks can’t always survive Mother Nature’s worst in an area this treacherous. Skinner recalls a particularly nasty snowstorm near East Fork that ended with his entire rig – a brand-new Kenworth T2000 – on its side in the middle of the road.
“I’d had it for three weeks,” Skinner said. “I didn’t even have plates on it yet.”
Fortunately, no one was injured, but the truck did require a new paint job and repair for a crack in its roof.
In June 2004, Skinner stopped driving the route on a regular basis and took a job in business development at a local trucking company, Sourdough Express. Skinner, now 37, has hauled massive loads through some of the most dangerous territory out there. Yet somehow, he said his wife always managed to take it all in stride.
“She worried, but had confidence,” Skinner said. “We’ve got to worry every time the trucks go out, especially in the wintertime.”
Some might wonder why a man like Skinner would even bother with the added stress and danger of trucking in Alaska. It’s probably a question he asks himself on a regular basis. But somehow, driving anywhere else just wouldn’t be the same.
“I very much prefer the winter,” he said. “If you get back to town, you feel like you accomplished something. It’s like, ‘Wow, that was fun.’ ”