The final frontier - Building roads in Alaska

Building a road through a rocky, mountainous Alaskan forest was never going to be easy on the construction equipment, but when the operators are novices it creates extreme demands.   BRIAN O’SULLIVAN reports from Alaska.

Alaska.jpgIf America is the land where everything is big – then Alaska is surely the land where everything is vast. Now the 49th state of the USA, it was bought from the Russians for two cents an acre in 1867; is twice the size of Texas and, if laid on top of mainland USA, would stretch from New York on the east coast to San Francisco on the west. Alaska’s very name comes from the Eskimo word for ‘great lands’. And not only is it vast, it is also largely unspoilt; with the Tongass National Forest being the largest in the United States.

On the edge of the forest is Annette Island, a 19 kilometre long idyll that is leased from the US government and is home to the Tsimshian tribe of Native Americans. While the island is full of Hemlock, Spruce, Red Cedar, deer, black bears and salmon, its isolation has meant that getting around it is a problem for its 1200 inhabitants. With high unemployment in the island’s main town of Metlakatla, job seekers traveling to the city of Ketchikan on the bigger and more prosperous Revillagigedo Island have to fly in a six seater DeHaviland Beaver. This is expensive and inefficient as only hand luggage is allowed and any supplies bought have to be shipped back separately to Matlakatla. What the community needs is a road that allows easy access from Matlakatla to the Ketchikan ferry, which takes just 15 minutes to make the crossing. Just such a road is being built, albeit slowly.

Roads through difficult terrain don’t come cheap and the local community can ill afford to finance one. But a compromise has been reached whereby a joint team from the US Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force are constructing the road as a training programme; teaching their regular and reservist personnel techniques in road, drainage and bridge building – as well as how to operate construction equipment.

A marathon in every sense

The programme is set to run for 10 years, which may seem excessive for a road that is only 15 metres wide, 42 kilometres long and made of rock that has been drilled, blasted, crushed, spread and compacted rather than paved, but the project’s length is mainly due to the severity of the climate, which restricts construction to only four months of the year. The weather in Alaska can vary from +38˚C to -62˚C, and despite its position in the far north, Annette Island qualifies as a rainforest; with more than five and a half metres of rain falling each year. This, combined with the need to create a high quality road and blast through solid granite as high as 150 metres, contributes to the project’s duration. The unpaved nature of the road is not unusual in Alaska; the gravel will be super-compacted to prevent pot holing during the rainy season and it is more sympathetic in such an environmentally sensitive and beautiful area.

Local Volvo dealer CMI is supplying 29 machines for the project on a five-year rental basis. Excavators, graders and nine new and used haulers are all at work at the site. Each machine’s use by as many as 16 operators a year (many of them inexperienced) places an additional maintenance burden on the machines; providing what one might consider a renter’s dilemma and a mechanic’s nightmare.

“There is certainly plenty of wear and tear,” laughs a sanguine Chris Gerondale, CMI’s general manager for the region. “Inexperienced people make mistakes, and parts break and don’t last as long; operators shift gear incorrectly and things go wrong. But that’s how people learn and this, after all, is the main point of the exercise. That said, these rocky abrasive conditions would be tough on machines anyway, with extreme wear to buckets, tracks, undercarriages and tyres expected.”

In such a remote area, having the ability to get machines up and running as quickly as possible is vital. In addition to having technicians permanently on site, the CMI has also trained the military, who in turn train the recruits on good practice and machine maintenance.

When the short work season is over CMI ships the battered machines the 250 miles to the port of Juneau and begins the unenviable job of bringing them back up to Volvo standard.

“Last year we had three technicians working full time on them for three months solid,” laughs Gerondale.

While it may have been hard on the machines that made it, thousands of people will have learned how to build roads and use modern machinery. Not only that: when finished, the residents of Metlakatla will be able to jump in their cars and be in Ketchikan in under an hour, bringing not only their purchases back with them but also an improvement to the social and economic prosperity of little Annette Island.

Contractor Vol.31 No.2 March 2007