How dangerous is your job?
When asked this question, Clifford Benson replied, “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say it’s a 15.”
You might be tempted to write his answer off as an exaggeration until you hear what he faces every day.
“The environment is dangerous: freezing temperatures, high winds, whiteout, snow storms, deep snow, rough ice, cracks in the ice, polar bears, wolverines, and wolves,” Clifford explained during an interview with B&W.
Not to mention the fact that the nearest sign of civilization is often hundreds of miles away.
Are you convinced yet? If not, keep reading – it gets better.
Towing on the Tundra
Clifford lives in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. During the winter months, Clifford makes his living by towing loads of freight across the Alaskan tundra. He travels along two major routes: one from Barrow to Prudhoe Bay and the other from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks and Anchorage.
However, these aren’t your average towing routes. The path from Barrow to Prudhoe Bay stretches along the coastal shoreline of Alaska and often crosses over frozen swaths of the Arctic Ocean.
His other route, from Prudhoe Bay down to Anchorage, is along the Dalton Highway. Although it’s classified as a highway, this route isn’t a walk in the park either. The Dalton Highway has been called “one of America’s loneliest roads,” and rightfully so. Almost none of it is paved, and it contains the longest stretch of unserviced road in North America. That means no fuel stations, cell phone service, or any other signs of civilization for hundreds of miles at a time.
Clifford went on to explain, “All my hauling is done in the winter, so it’s an ice-covered road from Prudhoe Bay to Fairbanks and sometimes all the way to Anchorage.”
With those conditions in mind, it is no surprise that people hire Clifford to tow their goods across the barren land for them rather than make the trip themselves. Clifford has been hired to tow everything from lumber and building materials to cars, ATVs, and boats.
In the summer the ice melts and the towing routes become too dangerous to travel. During this offseason, Clifford works as a carpenter for the Arctic Slope Native Association. However, once the ice is thick enough to drive on again, he’s back on the trails.
A Day in the Life
Clifford’s workday is nothing like an average day in the office. He explained, “A typical day is very long; we drive until we are too tired to keep going, which is like 14 to 15 hours. We sleep in the truck; one [person] will sleep in the front and one in the back. We take turns sleeping in the front and back each time we sleep.”
He continued, “We do not always sleep at night. Nighttime is usually the best time to drive because during the daytime you get whiteout.”
Whiteout occurs when snow obscures visibility and the sky and land seem to blend together into one big mass of white. The horizon disappears and there are no visible reference points with which to orient oneself.
“It is so strenuous to drive in whiteout conditions and it takes a lot of energy to see and be aware of the conditions,” Clifford said. That is why he prefers to avoid them by driving primarily at night.
Although there are very few other people along his routes, Clifford certainly isn’t alone out on the tundra. “I have seen polar bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines, caribou, and muskoxen,” he recounted.
Good equipment is a necessity when towing in such brutal, severe conditions. Three large LED light bars on Clifford’s truck provide the light he needs to drive through the night. Mattracks® give his truck traction so he can scale and cross the uneven patches of ice and snow. Finally, a B&W hitch serves all his towing needs.
“I never know what size of hitch ball each different trailer will need. With the B&W [Tow and Stow] hitch, I have all three of the most common balls in one. I can tow any size of trailer out there,” he said.
He continued, “Driving with Mattracks® compared to regular tires is like putting a six to eight-inch lift kit [on my truck]. However, I can adjust the drop and height of my hitch with ease. I don’t have to take a whole bunch of different sized balls and drops with me – just the one B&W hitch. [It] saves time and space.”
Clifford explained that extensive safety precautions must be taken when towing in such a desolate area. “We have to be prepared for the worst – a break down. We take all the safety gear with us [every time we tow]: portable gas heaters, tents, sleeping bags, extra warm gear, tools, extra fuel, extra food, and more food and water. If something breaks down, we have to set up camp, call town and have friends or family get us the parts we need, and then wait for them to deliver [the parts] to us with snowmobiles. We camp out while we wait and… prepare to put the new or replacement part on when it arrives.”
Since there is no cellphone service out on the tundra, Clifford and his coworkers carry satellite phones in case they need help or get caught in a bind.
Don’t Break the Ice!
Breaking down isn’t the only danger that Clifford faces. He described one particularly harrowing experience that he and his cousin faced during a haul.
“I was hauling my 28-foot PJ gooseneck trailer loaded with 15,000 pounds of lumber. The total weight of the truck and loaded trailer was over 30,000 pounds. I was driving on the frozen Arctic Ocean [with my cousin] when the ice cracked a little bit and I saw the top layer of snow move up and down as we crossed it.”
Any good tundra driver knows that shifting snow is major red flag. Clifford was afraid that the truck was going to break through the ice and plunge into the frigid water below, but it was too late to turn around. He didn’t want his cousin to panic, so he said nothing and just kept driving. Thankful, the ice held. “I did not say anything to my cousin until I knew we were on safe ice,” Clifford recounted.
Why He Does What He Does
Clifford said he “loves driving in difficult conditions,” despite the dangers. He also mentioned that he loves helping people while on the job. “We run into people who try to make the drive from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow but don’t have the experience and/or the proper equipment to make it. We end up helping them home,” he explained. He also enjoys being able to help his family and friends.
Once, Clifford had the opportunity to help someone close to him. “My good friend was taking his truck and two others from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow and he broke down 86 miles south of Barrow on the Arctic Ocean. The conditions were not good for the other two trucks to make it, so I went out to rescue them and towed all three trucks back at once.”
Because Clifford had the right tools, the knowledge, and the guts to go out and save a friend in need, everyone made it home safe and sound.
For Clifford, it’s moments like this that make his job worth it.
Mattracks is a registered trademark of Mattracks Inc. The term “Mattracks” and any references to Mattracks products within this article are for reference purposes only. Neither B&W nor its products are sponsored or endorsed by Mattracks, and vice versa. Nothing in the use of the Mattracks brand designation is meant to imply, suggest, or create an association between B&W and Mattracks.