Transportation is the lifeblood of America's largest state, but challenges posed by geography and weather mean options are severely limited for eight months of the year.
Almost everything Alaskans use in daily life come from someplace else. While Alaska is the place to go for some of the best salmon, cod and haddock on the planet, not to mention king crab, the more mundane stuff of life, like milk, cars, shoes and video game players must be shipped up to The Last Frontier from the Lower 48.
The state of Alaska is physically separated from the lower 48 states by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Canadian province of British Columbia to the east. To the west, Alaska is separated from Russia by a mere 51 miles of open water called the Bering Strait. If you consider Little Diomede Island (American) and Big Diomede Island (Russian) which sit in the middle of the Bering Strait, then the distance between the two nations is just 2.4 miles.
On the other hand, its a 44-hour, 2,260-mile road trip from Seattle to Anchorage, or a 3- to 4-day, 1,700 nautical-mile sea voyage.
Barges sail on a regular basis from Seattle/Tacoma into Anchorage, bringing containers full of different supplies and equipment. But if you must get something to Alaska in a hurry, steamship is the way to go.
"They will usually leave on a Friday and they're here and unloaded by Monday or Tuesday," says Greg Morrison, the Mack Truck sales rep at Construction Machinery Industrial, a construction equipment dealer that offers, among other products, Mack Trucks and Volvo construction equipment.
"If you're shipping by barge, everything is exposed and it takes five to seven days to get here," he says. "Trucks can make the trip in about two days coming up through Canada if the weather is good and they are running team drivers."
And that's just to Anchorage, which, while not the capital of Alaska (that's Juneau), is the commercial epicenter of the state and home to more than half of the state's residents.
"I was born and raised in Anchorage," says Morrison. "I like to joke that Anchorage is a nice place to visit, and it's not too far from Alaska. Anchorage is a big metropolis; half the population of Alaska is pretty much in Anchorage. Alaska has about 740,000 people, and the population of Anchorage is 350,000. It's got that big-city mentality, you know. Like I said, you drive 20 minutes north or south and now you're in Alaska."
At 663,268 square miles, Alaska is 40% the size of the United States, and twice as large as Texas. It measures 2,261 miles east to west and 1,420 miles north to south. If you laid a map of Alaska over the map of the United States, it would go from New England states down to Florida, Morrison points out proudly. Alaska also has more miles of coastline than all the other U.S. states combined.
Getting stuff to other parts of the state from Anchorage is another story.
Planes, Trains and Ferries
A good highway network exists in the eastern half of the state, with good two-lane highways linking major centers like Anchorage, Valdez and Fairbanks. The highways all bear route numbers, but they are known to the locals by names like the Richardson Highway, Seward Highway, Glenn Highway and others. Services along the routes are sparse, and most of the businesses in these towns are served by truck.
Ironically, if you want to drive to the state capital of Juneau, you have to drive through Canada's Yukon Territory. It's also accessible by boat.
The road north to Prudhoe Bay from Fairbanks, The Dalton Highway, is a 414-mile gravel road that's heavily travelled by trucks hauling oil field equipment. It's open year-round, but it's often impassable due to weather. This route is served by rail lines as well.
A freight rail corridor exists running north-south between Anchorage and Fairbanks, while a coastal line also connects Homer and Seward to Anchorage. Passenger service is also available on these routes and other short spurs.
Truck size and weight regulations in Alaska are pretty progressive, and obviously take efficiency into account. There's no gross vehicle weight limit per se, but weight is limited by axle groups. You're allowed up to 38,000 pounds on a tandem group, and up to 50,000 pounds on a four-axle group. Long combination vehicle turnpike doubles and other combinations are allowed on certain routes on a seasonal basis, and overall length can go up to 120 feet.
But trucks and trains can go only so far. Remote areas of the state to the north and east are served primarily by aircraft and boats.
"In the summertime, barges move back and forth between some of the coastal cities up north like Kaktovik, Barrow and Wainwright and Point Hope and Point Lay and other places all the way down the west coast," Morrison says. "Goods are trucked north to Prudhoe Bay and put on barges that sail along the coast in the summer months, May to September.
"But usually that one barge just stays up there and goes back and forth in the summertime. The last barge into western Alaska, leaves Anchorage in early September. Your product must be at the dock by September 3rd, and then that barge leaves September 6th. It comes into Anchorage, unloads, loads stuff for the north and then it goes all the way around to the western part of the state. And then that's it for the winter because the seas get all iced up."
That's where the planes come in. There are more airports and landing strips in Alaska per capita than any other state by some margin. Commercial airlines serve the larger cities like Bethel, Dillingham, Nome and Kotzebue, but there are hundreds of small commercial and charter services operating all over the state.
Morrison says he flies parts and equipment to remote locations all the time, and he has even had to fly whole trucks to those outlying areas.
"We once sent a sewer truck and a fuel truck to Point Lay," he says. "The tanks had to be built and installed on the chassis here in Anchorage to make sure it all worked properly. Then, we had to take it all apart, put them on skids and load them onto a C130 transport plane. When the plane arrived in Point Lay, we had to reassemble them. That adds about $40,000 to $50,000 to the price of the truck by the time you fly it in and again, a lot of these areas where we have equipment and trucks, we must fly in and do the introduction to the truck, too."
Morrison says transportation costs are a fact of life in Alaska. For example, he says a gallon of milk costs about $4.00 in Anchorage but can cost as much as $12.00 by the time it reaches a remote village on the north or west coast. Same for truck parts, clothing, food, fuel, etc.
That said, Amazon Prime does a roaring trade in Alaska.
"Of the smaller commuter prop planes that come and go from the smaller outposts , most of what was being unloaded was Amazon Prime stuff that they're subcontracted to get into those places. That's probably the biggest part of their business besides passengers," says Morrison.
For Morrison, living in Anchorage is like any other good-sized U.S. city.
"You've got all the amenities you want right here, but when you get out in some of those rural places there's not a hotel, there's not a café, there's not a restaurant, there's not a convenience store," he says. "If you don't take it with you, you don't have it."
Alaska is very different from most of the contiguous U.S. states in many ways, but it also shares some common problems -- like a shortage of qualified Class A CDL drivers. There's not shortage of jobs in the state, many in the skilled trades and construction, pipeline work and the like, so folks wishing to drive trucks are few and far between.
"All the transport guys have had signs out for the past couple of years: 'Drivers wanted. Bonuses given. Signing bonuses.'" He says. "So, they're all kind of in that same mode, and in Alaska, of course, more stuff is being moved by trucks than ever."