Alaska has two seasons – winter and construction season
Does it frustrate you when you are standing in a queue – one car after the other and nothing moves anymore because the road is one-lane-only due to construction? And of course, you had the luck to arrive when they just stopped the cars from your direction and now you have to wait two to five minutes until your direction gets the right-of-way? Well, then you have never seen road construction in Alaska! Road construction in winter is a total different game. Seasonal winter roads and ice bridges anyone?Click To Tweet
Alaska’s highway network
Alaska has only seven highways (!) and the normal European would not even consider them as such. Most of the highways have only one lane in each direction except close to the three major cities, Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Most of the highways are unpaved over long stretches, i.e. they are dirt roads – the Dalton Highway, Alcan, or the Denali Highway, for instance. Some of the highways have traffic lights or are even crossed by the Alaska rail road!
Construction season is short, but long at the same time
Due to below freezing temperatures, construction is only possible during construction season, which starts in late May after greenup, which seems like pushing a button, and ends in September or early October when the first flurries fly and the temperatures stay below the freezing point all day long. However, due to the midnight sun, construction takes place 24/7 in three shifts from May to mid-August. In mid-August, nighttime work still continues 24/7, but with the night shift using float light.
Multiple equipment at work
When a paved road has to be re-paved huge heavy equipment will take off the upper layer. Typically, there is not just one, but many of them working at the same time, and often they work on both lanes at the same time! Once this is done, the new layer will be put on, again with multiple equipment all working at the same time. Finally, the painting crew will draw the lines.
Save fuel and shut down the engine
When you arrive at the construction area, there will be a flag man or woman holding a sign onto the ground. On one side, it says “slow” on the other “stop.”
Your likelihood to see the “slow” is less than maybe 2%. When you arrive at the “stop” sign you count yourself lucky when you see already cars arriving from the other direction. If not, the best you can do is shut off the engine. Depending on the length of the construction area, you may have to wait 20 to 30 minutes. No, I’m not kidding!
Two times are critical
Therefore, the driver of the car closest to the flag (wo)man typically asks “how long.” Once the next car arrives, this driver gives the estimate with the time of when the estimate was issued to the driver who just arrived. This driver then conveys the message to the next arriving driver and so on. The longest estimate I had been given so far was 25 minutes and we were the 5th car in line.
It is critical to convey both times, as on Alaska roads, one may drive for very long time without having any oncoming traffic. On the way from Fairbanks to Whitehorse close to the Canadian boarder, we had no oncoming traffic for over an hour in the middle of the day! Scary, or not?
The first car that arrives from the other direction is a pilot car. Think of it as a four wheel-drive SUV or pick-up truck with a yellow flash light on the roof, usually white with orange stripes. It is followed by about 20 cars. These cars pass the pilot car that parks on the side upon arrival. After the last car passed, the pilot car turns around and positions itself in front of the first waiting car. That’s when you are supposed to start your engine.
On the go to go off-road
The flag (wo)man will now turn the sign to “slow.” The pilot car will go off the road onto some provisional temporary path made up of dirt and stones. This path may be parallel to the road under construction or farther away. It just depends on what was the easiest way to drive thru the dirt off-road towards the other side of the construction area. Do I have to mention that the speed of the pilot car is not slow at all?
Keeping up with the 4×4 crowd is a challenge
You must keep the speed of the car in front to stay on track and to be able to get back to the road. In the taiga with lots of dry creeks that look similar to the temporal path, it is not necessarily obvious where to drive next when you don’t drive the construction area every day or you fail to keep up with the car in front of you.
10 minutes to an eternity
The next ten minutes can feel like an eternity, even longer than the 20 minutes wait before. Despite the pilot car moves slowly keeping up with the speed can be challenging with a regular (rental) car. Normal cars are not made for dirt roads. If you drive a camper you will be sweatier than after a sauna visit. The camper will swing in all direction. After being back on the road you feel lucky it did not topple over.
One lane constructions
Even when there is one lane left for the traffic there will be a pilot car when the beginning and end of the construction area are out of eyesight. Depending on whether the lane has already been finished or not, the drive thru such a construction area can be stressful too. You have to closely follow your front(wo)man. If it is a truck it may throw split and stones at you. A broken windshield anyone?
Do I need to say that I have never seen so many broken windshields than on Alaska roads? When I was still a greenhorn in Alaska, I always wondered about the weird ad that wasn’t so weird at all after we had travelled the haul-way and other unpaved roads. So, what do you think about how highway construction is done in an Alaska fashion? Unbelievable in Europe or the Lower 48!
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Photos: G. Kramm
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