Life of a real ice road trucker
Bennie Burk, formerly of Minnesota, was one of the pioneer truckers who helped to build the famous Haul Road, as part of the Alaskan Oil Pipeline project.
Have you experienced biting wind chills of 110 below zero? Bennie Burk has.
Have you ever cooked a frozen steak on a hot truck manifold in the frozen tundra of Alaska? Bennie has done that, too. He has also driven a large semi through snow so deep that he had to pull in the side mirrors so they wouldn’t break off driving through a tunnel of snow.
Working as a truck driver in the largest state for 23 years, Bennie, who was raised in Minnesota but now lives in Tennessee, has many stories to share, for he can claim that he is one of the pioneer truckers who helped to build the famous Haul Road, now known as the Dalton Highway, in order that the over 800-mile Alaskan Oil Pipeline could be built from Valdez at the Gulf of Alaska to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.
He believes that the reality television shows depicting the life of truckers in Alaska is “phony.” Knowing that Bennie was a trucker on the iced roads of an unforgiving terrain, his friends starting asking him if the TV shows were true, to which Bennie replied that the people on the reality shows weren’t there in the l960s when the entire project was started with surveying and test drilling in an area where there were no roads.
“I wanted to get my stories down so my grandchildren would know what their grandfather did,” said Bennie, “and I didn’t realize I was a part of history.” His sister, Arlean Rosemore, encouraged her brother to write a book in order to share his story.
“I said okay, let’s head down that road and see where it may take us.”
Sitting at his kitchen table in Tennessee, he taped his many stories of his life on the frozen tundra, where he and his wife, Christine, raised four children. Arlean, whose quilting talents were featured in the March edition of the Senior Perspective, typed the story from the audio tape. The Alaskan Haul Road was released in October.
Bennie and eight other siblings were raised on a small farm near Finlayson, Minn., where he learned to drive farm machinery. At the age of 18 he went to Alaska and worked as a laborer for a construction company. He returned to Minnesota and married his wife, Chris, in 1962. Two weeks later the newlyweds moved to Alaska, where they lived for 33 years.
“I had many adventures, dealt with some terrible weather and difficult conditions,” he stated, “but my love for driving truck and heavy equipment was more powerful than the fear of what might happen to me out there.”
The northern part of Alaska has two oil reserves. The Prudhoe Bay oil field was discovered in 1968, and at that time, there was no road that ran between Prudhoe Bay and the town of Livengood, 400 miles south. Alaska’s governor, Walter Hickel, ordered a gravel road be built to provide access for truckers to haul steel pipe up to 80 feet in length and 48 inches in diameter, and other equipment and supplies in order to construct the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) at a total cost of $8 billion. This was the largest privately financed construction project at that time. Oil began to flow the summer of 1977.
Bennie noted that the most people don’t know that the large steel pipe was made in Japan, as the U.S. wasn’t set up to make such large pipe, so oil was traded for it. The pipe was shipped on a barge into Anchorage, by train to Fairbanks and by truck, 498 miles to Prudhoe Bay.
It was a treacherous drive, Bennie added, as the truck he was driving with a large trailer behind on which the steel pipe was hauled could total 100 feet and could weigh up to 400,000 pounds. With the icy and hilly terrain, push trucks would follow to help the supply trucks make it up steep hills, with up to an 8 percent grade.
In his book, he wrote, “Imagine driving on a curvy, icy road where you can hardly see 10 feet in front of you and hauling a load that big and hoping you would not meet another truck on a curve or hill.”
CB radios were a common means of communication, and truckers always updated their location when going around curves or up and down icy hills. Bennie’s handle was “Bennie Badger,” as he worked for Badger Construction. The CB radio was a tool to all the truckers and it was a necessity in helping to keep them safe.
“Parts of the road were gravel where truckers would drive 70 mph or more, but north of the Yukon (River), it was like driving down a cow path,” he laughed. Bennie enjoys telling stories about the older trucks first used on the Haul Road especially the trucks with floors made of plywood.
“The hole would rot down by your feet so that would make a good hole to spit your chewing tobacco through. That was great in the summer but not so great when winter arrived.” Following a hearty laugh, he continued, “To keep the cold air out, we came up with using a coffee can as a heater. We’d pour a little sand into the bottom so it wouldn’t tip and then soak a piece of toilet paper in white gas and put it into the can and light it. It worked, but you hoped you wouldn’t get in a wreck or catch yourself on fire!”
Before hauling pipe and supplies along the Haul Road, Bennie performed core samplings.
“I started core sampling at Finger Mountain for the pipeline,” he recalled. “Driving in such extreme conditions, 110 below with the wind chill factor, and sometimes there was ice fog so thick you couldn’t see past the end of the hood of your truck!”
While taking samples, Bennie explained that some areas weren’t accessible except by helicopter.
“The pilots, who flew in Vietnam, were excellent pilots, and they would just slightly touch the bull dozer so that I could climb down onto the dozer without even touching the snow,” he shared, shaking his head with amazement.
Many times Bennie worked by himself while sampling and had to use his cold weather training skills to survive the night if he wasn’t picked up at the end of the work day.
“I had to spend one night in the wilderness,” he remembered. “We had to carry a down sleeping bag that was good for 110 below and a piece of plastic. No one came to pick me up so I dug into the snow with my sleeping bag and covered myself with the plastic.”
The next morning he heard the helicopter, and he knew the pilot was probably wondering if Bennie was still alive.
“I heard them coming toward me, so I jumped up quickly to scare them!” he laughed.
The construction of the pipeline was one of the first large-scale projects to deal with problems caused by permafrost (frost that remains in the soil, rock or sediment for two or more years), and special construction techniques had to be developed to cope with the cold weather, frozen ground and the diverse terrain.
The Alaskan oil project attracted thousands of workers to the northern-most state which caused a boomtown atmosphere in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Valdez.
In his book, Bennie said, “A lot of people flooded into Alaska at that time, a lot of them unfortunately undesirable. That comes with the territory. The thought of easy money attracts all kinds.”
The pay was good but the work wasn’t easy.
“At times we had to work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” Bennie added. “It’s hard to imagine we could get so tired with very little sleep. I swear at times you could ask me my name and I would have to pull out my driver’s license just to check!”
Dermot Cole, a journalist with a daily newspaper in Fairbanks during the pipeline construction, reported that workers earned $11 to $18 per hour in 1976 depending on their position. These workers made more than members of Congress who, at the time, made $40,000 per year and professional football players at $40,000.
There were 31 camps along the pipeline and 12 pump stations. The camps, which housed from 250 to over 3,000 workers, were built on many layers of gravel in order to insulate the permafrost and help prevent pollution.
Bennie said the union workers ate like kings – lobster, prime rib and steak, due to a cost-plus contract between the food preparers and the subcontractors.
“The food was great!” he recalled. “It was better than the food served in the fancy restaurants in New York City or Chicago.”
Trucks not only hauled the large pipe and equipment for the construction of the pipeline, but also equipment and supplies to build the camps, food, and even the sewage.
Bennie and Chris raised their two sons and two daughters in North Pole, a city 15 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Their daughters, Tammy and Trisha, live in Tennessee, the reason Bennie and Chris decided to retire there in 1995. Tim, the oldest, received a scholarship from British Petroleum to become a field operating engineer, and he worked in Prudhoe Baby before moving back to the lower 48 states.
Son, Todd, still lives with his family in Alaska where he runs a large wrecker along the Haul Road.
“He has a lot of experience with that road,” Bennie said proudly. “He started riding with me when he was a kid. He’s a great driver, may be even better than me! He never stopped for a storm. Other drivers would wait for him to come through, knowing he would travel at a safe speed and make it there safely, so they would follow him.”
Chris also became experienced driving rough or icy roads by driving pilot cars either for her husband or for other companies. “You had to drive about 75 mph up an icy hill just to get up it!” she said.
Bennie eventually bought his own truck and designed it to have more power with a higher speed transmission and larger fuel tank to meet the challenges of the weather and rough terrain. He had his own trucking company, 4 T’s Trucking, named after his four children whose names start with “T.”
During a recent visit to Minnesota, Bennie visited the sixth grade classes in Pequot Lakes to share his adventures in Alaska. The children asked about the wild animals – caribou, moose, wolves and grizzly bears. He told the young audience about the time he was heading north to Prudhoe at a speed around 70 mph.
And then there was “Moocher,” a large, old grizzly who would sit up like an old man on his haunches and wait for the truckers to throw a sandwich out the window as the trucks rolled by.
Or how about the time when truckers drove through water that would come up to their waists as they sat behind the wheel.
At the age of 73, Bennie still drives truck and works with heavy equipment, but he admits, “I can’t get used to working only 40 hours a week.”