FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Driving trucks on the Dalton Highway is an adventure, which is why Jack Binder has braved the famed highway since it opened in 1974.
Binder, 68, is in the twilight of a 50-year truck driving career. He relishes the challenge of driving in Alaska's harsh conditions and takes great pride in what he's accomplished.
“It's a career that's paid me well and given me a lot of independence,” Binder said.
Originally from Bemidji, Minnesota, he first came to Fairbanks at age 18 to drive a cement mixing truck during the summer construction season.
“I came up here in '68 and Alaska got in my blood,” Binder said. “It's sort of hard to explain. It was a frontier atmosphere and it was an adventure coming up here.”
After falling in love with Alaska, Binder did a three-year stint in the Army as a Laotian translator. He was never deployed to Vietnam but said he was willing to go. During that time he missed Alaska. So he returned in 1972 to drive the cement mixer during the summer.
Binder's father was a truck driver, too, and when the Alyeska Pipeline and the Dalton Highway opened in 1974, the father-son duo moved to Fairbanks to drive for the now-defunct Weaver Brothers truck company and deliver supplies to the camps in the North Slope oil fields.
“I fell in love with trucks at an early age. He and I were really close. I suppose I was following in his footsteps,” Binder said of his father. “I grew up with this idea that truck drivers were kings of the road and they'd stop and help everyone.”
The Dalton Highway was different then. It was only open to commercial vehicles, the road wasn't as straight and there was no bridge spanning the Yukon.
“In summer, I'd drive onto a hovercraft. It was attached to a cable and wench” that pulled the hovercraft across the Yukon,” Binder said.
“I wondered, ‘If that cable broke how far down river I'd go until I hit a sandbar and got stuck.’”
It was while hauling bridge beam pipes for the construction of the E.L. Patton Yukon Bridge, Binder's first true heavy haul, that he really fell in love with trucking.
“It just got in the blood,” he said. “Trucking is something that is easy to get into and difficult to get away from.”
However, Binder has made the decision to transition toward retirement.
“I want to stay in the game but not necessarily behind the wheel,” Binder said. He has recently decided to take on the role of mentor and trainer at Alaska West Express, where he's worked the last 13 years.
“It's been a rewarding career and I guess I'm ready to be off the road,” Binder said. “It's nice to be home every night.”
Binder spent a recent Friday evening watching his grandson's football game, which is the type of thing he missed a lot of while driving. Now that he's off the road, he's looking forward to more quality time with his big family. After marrying his high school sweetheart, Binder had six children and adopted three more. He has 25 grandchildren.
Binder didn't permanently move his family to Fairbanks until 1987. He tried driving trucks “outside,” but he said driving trucks in the Lower 48 is boring.
He could always expect the unexpected while driving on the Dalton Highway. When asked about his most bizarre truck driving experience, he told the story of a baby musk ox that would not come out from underneath a fellow driver's truck. The young musk ox had walked underneath when this other truck driver was taking photos of the musk ox herd.
Binder said he used a broom to push the baby musk ox out of the way but it then crawled under his own truck. Binder said he was quite nervous at this point because of the onlooking musk ox herd. Binder said a third truck driver eventually arrived and picked the baby musk ox up in his arms and carried it out of the way himself.
Dalton Highway has changed over the years with a decrease of wildlife sightings as traffic has increased.
“Right north of Atigun Pass, we'd always see grizzlies. It wasn't a matter of if, but how many. They're not so prevalent anymore,” Binder lamented.
Instead, he's seen more college-aged tourists seeking adventure, who are often ill-prepared to drive on the icy, snowy, dangerous road.
“I never would have guessed it. Spring breakers going up the highway becoming stuck in ditches,” Binder said. “I've pulled them out. Truckers have saved a lot of young people up there.”
Binder had one of his most memorable and most terrible experiences this past winter. He was hauling a trailer with a housing module when the trailer came unhitched and wound up in a ditch. He was stuck three full days in subzero temperatures before the trailer was safely pulled from the ditch and attached to his truck.
Binder said it was the experience with the unhitched trailer that spurred him to transition toward retirement. He's looking forward to camping with family, hunting and feeding his self-diagnosed motorcycle addiction.
“After all these years hunting, I still haven't had the chance to shoot a bear,” Binder said. “I'm hoping I have that now with more time on the weekends.”
Kevin Baird writes for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 8