Yukon fleet has rugged haul

From Bus and Truck Transport October 1960

Despite appalling road and weather conditions, the White Pass fleet safely delivers mail and freight along 1,000 miles of the Alaska Highway. Here's how:

By Lyn Harrington

OPERATING CONDITIONS that would make the average Canadian trucker shudder, are all in a day's work to White Pass and Yukon Route, pioneer transport firm of the Yukon.

Over 1,000 miles of gravel roads, muskeg tracks and passes through glaciers are the "beat" of this fleet, which carries mail and freight along the entire Canadian section (1221 miles) of the Alaska Highway. Add to this low winter temperatures that would freeze engines solid if they were not kept running day and night, and dust clouds in the summer that force drivers to use headlights during the day, and it can be seen that the word "pioneer" is appropriate for the White Pass fleet.

Despite these rugged conditions, the company is eager to expand its operations in the far north. It recently won a contract as sole mail carrier along the Alaska Highway.

This year, too, White Pass stepped up its bus service out of Whitehorse, to accommodate increased tourist traffic to Yukon and Alaska. Every second day, passenger coaches took off from Whitehorse to the Alaska boundary. Additional runs were put on the scenic highway to Haines, Alaskan seaport, every four days. This road is not kept open in winter.

Fifteen diesel-powered truck tractors -- all Kenworth -- and 3 5 pieces of various other equipment are used in the regular schedule freight runs of the company. Once a week, freight goes north to Mayo and Dawson City, south to Lower Post (Mile 620) and to Cassiar, B.C., delivering freight direct to the customer. Tankers also haul fuel oil and gasoline south to Atline, B.C., where goldmining still goes on.

The equipment includes eight tractors and flatbed trucks bought last autumn for an oil exploration freight haul; a new 30-ton lowboy trailer, two new 7,000-gallon tankers, two replacement vans, two new "pup" trailers.

The Alaska Highway is one of the world's toughest long distance truck hauls, complicated by low temperatures in winter and blinding dust in summer. Although asphalt is slowly creeping up the Alaska Highway, most of it and all of the other Yukon roads are gravel, where haulage costs are obviously greater. Part of this is in repairs, since road vibration affects the sheet metal in fenders and radiator hoods, and the general loosening of radiator caps, nuts and bolts.

Heavy Chains
HEAVY CHAINS are carried all year round. They are used particularly on icy roads in winter, but also in summer when a truck uses muddy back roads.

These are constantly under surveillance at the White Pass garage in Whitehorse, where the crew does all the rebuilding of its motors. The garage is well-equipped with heavy gear for complete overhaul: A-frame On rollers, lathes, valve grinder, honing machine, 40-ton press for pressing out bushings, rivetting crown gears, a thread-cutting machine for pipes and bolts.

"We clean the wheels and inspect the brakelinings of our vehicles every 20,000 miles," said shop supervisor F. R. Buckway. "And we re-pack the bearings."

The White Pass & Yukon Route began with the narrow-gauge railway that carried goldseekers from Skagway to Whitehorse. It has grown considerably since 1898, with a cargo vessel plying between Vancouver and Skagway, the railway itself, and a fleet of trucks and buses.

Freight is now "containerized", which cuts down on delays, breakage and pilfering. Some containers are insulated, and heated in winter. They are moved by forklift from railway to truck.

ALL MAINTENANCE and overhauls are carried out at the company's well-equipped garage in Whitehorse. F.R. Buchway, shop supervisor, turns down brake drum on lathe.

Deliveries to northern points have been greatly speeded this past summer by three new bridges over the Yukon, Pelly and Stewart Rivers. Hauls were frequently delayed for the ferries or icebridges in winter, and completely stopped during freezeup and breakup.

When White Pass took over the mail contract on the lower section of the Alaska Highway in June, 1960, it also took over the experienced drivers of the mail vans. For this is the longest rural mail route in the world, and not without hazards.

Two new Columbla vans were purchased to carry second- and third-- class mail twice a week between Whitehorse and Dawson, and first- class mail to points not served by air. Two powerful diesel tractors were converted to single axles to haul these mail vans. Two smaller vans continue to be used on the western stretch from Whitehorse to the Alaska border whlch White Pass has served from the beginning.

CONTAINERS such as these form a large part of the fleet haul. They are colored differently to indicate type of goods carried. Lighter color (orange) is insulated.

Yukon Fleet Operates Under Rugged Conditions

Mail vans and all others find the long stretches of gravel hard on tires, which average only 35,000 miles of life. Grader steel (slivers from the grader's blade) are a major source of punctures. These fragments get pushed to the side of the road in one grading operation, but are brought back into the middle at the next. Flat tires are a serious item, for unless watched, the friction heats them sometimes to the point of bursting into flame.

A section of gravel-starred windshield tops Mr. Buckway's desk. "Windshields don't last long," he says. "We feel lucky if we get a whole season out of one. But it would be far worse if the regulations didn't demand rubber rock-guards behind big wheels."

Flying gravel and billowing dust are two of summer's problems. Trucks often travel with their lights on during the day so great are the dust clouds., which, incidently, take a heavy toll of filters. In fact, filters have to be changed at every oil change.

For all its discomfort, drivers prefer winter operations There's less traffic. You can see headlights a long way off in the winter dimout, and the road surface is immeasurably smoother.

But it had plenty of hazards, too. Visibility is poor on sunless days, when a lack of shadows results in a "whiteout", making it difficult to gauge distances. "Frost fog" from crystallized exhaust vapor lies driver height in the still air. Fuel may chill to the cloud point, then clog the filter until the flow stops. Below 20 F, starting fluid is no longer satisfactory. Unless in a heated garage, the diesel motors run all night. Even so, there's the risk of wheels freezing to the axle, of grease so cold its hard to turn the steering wheel.

All drivers respect icy roads. They carry steel chains which get frequent use in winter, and sometimes off the road in summer. When the wheels spin, the driver gets out his shovel, for the many sandboxes along the roads are vital to the freight haul. Sanders attached to machines have not proved satisfactory in Yukon. The sand freezes, and importing the special sand recommended is too expensive.

"Glaciers" are something else again seepage of meltwater from between the frozen surface soil and the permafrost. It spills out over the road, sometimes combatted by a wooden culvert, sometimes by bulldozer. A driver may have to heat water and thaw out a culvert to get past safely. Mr. Buckway has seen these "glaciers" deflected by heavy building paper propped on edge; in fact, as many as three widths of it, one above the other.

For all that, the White Pass expects to push farther north again this winter, continuing its freighting to oil prospecting parties. Last year it supported such a group over a winter road 385 miles north of Elsa, or 670 miles north of its Whitehorse base.