Tok, Alaska (Part 2 of 2)
“No, NO, nooooo!” MacGyver wailed from the driver’s seat.
“CLOSED. It’s closed. How can it be closed?”
Truck drivers, even by-the-book owner-operators like us do a mental happy dance when we find a closed Weigh Station, relieving us of exposure to a Department of Transport inspection and the Book of Possible Violations and Fines. It’s like going through US Customs after an overseas holiday. You’re not doing anything wrong, but you’re nervous. A big truck’s gut is a mysterious black hole.
This is seven o’clock on a crisp, clear Sunday evening in April. We are at the Commercial Vehicle Weigh Station in Tok, Alaska, that we’re told is 24/7. And we need it to be 24/7 because we must purchase a permit to, legally, make on-time delivery of our team load to Anchorage.
We prepared for our first Alaska load for almost five years, collecting information, asking questions, but we were still confounded by the bureaucracy that followed this load from the US through Canada and back into the US.
There are rules to crossing borders and transiting countries, regulations, fees and taxes. There is no step-by-step guide called Everything-a-Truck-Driver-Needs-to-Know-But-is-Afraid-to Ask-Guide-to-Loads-to-Alaska-Through-Canada.
The Weight Station officers in the Yukon and Alaska are friendly and helpful, but it’s still a dog’s breakfast of details.
So, our story, from the loading in South Dakota where I made my first of many calls to the Tok Weigh Station.
The load confirmation said 25,000 pounds, but MacGyver choked when our onboard trailer weigh scales showed us exceeding our maximum payload of 39,000 pounds. And way over our US legal gross weight of 80,000 pounds. While he’s trying to figure why we’re being loaded so heavily, I called Tok to confirm that they accepted credit cards for the Alaska permit, which registers our truck in the state. At the end of the call, the Officer threw me an “oh by the way….”
“Do you know we have weight restrictions?” he asked.
Uh no, I thought. WTF! And what’s a weight restriction.
Instead, I responded professionally, “What is the current restriction?”
The weight restriction on the Alaska Highway from the US/Canada border to Tok and the Tok cutoff to Anchorage had been raised that morning, he said cheerily from 75% to 85%. “It’s all on the website,” he offered helpfully.
The information that is on the Alaska DOT website, although, available and correct, is NOT helpful. It’s a mash of text designed for an Alaska-based driver and means almost nothing to a non-Alaska, non-northern driver. Something an underemployed graphic designer can quickly solve with a color-coded map, marking each route with the percentage restriction.
What does it mean? To us, at 85% we are limited to 32,300 pounds on “all two-axle groups,” the officer said. This made no sense until 1,000 miles down the road, deep into Canada, we found information that in Alaska the maximum weight on two-axle groupings is 38,000 pounds, four thousand pounds more than in the Lower 48. Off came 14,000 pounds. Sub-arctic roads are best in winter thanks to perma-frost (perennially frozen northern soil). In the Spring melting temperatures create asphalt heaves and cracks. The highways department wants to lessen the strain on the roadways until the melt is finished and the ground hardens for summer so it restricts the weight.
Our trip plan took us from Vermillion, South Dakota, through North Dakota, Fargo and Minot to the Canadian border at North Portal, Saskatchewan where we presented our 7512B. This form says I have American stuff that will travel through Canada and back into the US and the Canadians get no tax on this load. While we’re hiring underemployed designers, let’s get a few underemployed English grads. Who writes these forms? They are confusing. FYI, the Canadians do want to know the value of the freight. Luckily I had a cell number for the guy who loaded us. He provided the missing information, the load’s value.
The trick with this form is that it MUST be stamped by the Canadians on entry.
We were shocked by the lack of truck traffic on our 3,224 mile drive through the Canadian north. In 2014 we pulled two loads on the same road through Dawson Creek, BC, kilometer marker 0 on the Alaska Highway, and turned south to MacKenzie. The oil and mining industries were booming in Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. The highways were jammed with trucks. There wasn’t an available parking spot from Minot to Dawson Creek on those loads. This time, the oil bust into its second year, the roads were eerily quiet. Premium parking spaces sat empty.
We were surprised by the warm temperatures, the lack of snow and the blooming landscape along the route in April. The locals said early April usually has a foot of snow on the ground. Not a month later Fort McMurray, Alberta, the Tar Sands epicenter burst into flames. Wildfires fanned by already parched vegetation.
Our first fee stop was Watson Lake, Yukon where the Weigh Station collects a $60 Cdn.,($45 US at current exchange) travel permit, plus a $72 Cdn., fuel emblem, which Landstar covers for us. They take Visa. The Yukon and Alaska are not part of the North American IFTA fuel-tax sharing program.
The Canadians were cheery and helpful providing a list of pullouts big enough for a big truck and trailer and plowed in winter. Watson Lake is 576 miles from the Alcan Crossing, the re-entry point for the US.
Fueling full before leaving the US in Minot, our possible fuel stops are the Flying J in Sherwood Park, Alberta — the exchange was under construction and very confusing in the dark so we skipped it — east of Edmonton at the Esso Grande Prairie, the Esso Ft. St. John, British Columbia, followed by the Esso, Ft. Nelson, BC, the Yukon Motel in Teslin, Yukon, Otter Falls, Yukon and the Shell in Tok, Alaska.
The Flying J and Esso took our Comdata card, in Otter Falls, Teslin and Tok we used credit cards. (See diesel prices below.)
The last stop in the Yukon, 20 miles before the actual border, is the Beaver Creek Crossing and Canadian Customs. The 7512B says we must get a stamp to show that the freight left Canada. However, at Beaver Creek, there is no big truck parking for the outbound lanes. Why, in a land of wide-open space, I dunno? We were told, a little snottily for Canada — we were warned in Whitehorse that the newbie officers are broken in at Beaver Creek — that their policy, in April, was that trucks in transit do not stop. We continue to the Alcan Crossing, were US Customs stamps the form accepting the freight and sends Canada its copy completing the bureaucratic trail.
Ah hem, and how would we know that if we didn’t stop. There is a sign on the door, but I prefer to hear work-arounds to government forms in person.
This is the most frustrating thing about dealing with the Weigh Stations and the borders in the US and Canada. Everyone expects that we know how each particular office works and if we don’t we’re morons. But EVERY place applies the rules in a different way and there’s no list of rules. We are constantly at the mercy of whoever is at the gate and if they’ve had their morning coffee.
Stamped into the US, it is a 90 mile drive to the Tok, Alaska Weigh Station where we pay for a 30-day permit to register our tractor and trailer and be granted the authority to run in Alaska. We’ve been told that, during business hours, which means 10:30AM to 3:30 PM Monday-to-Friday, the Weigh Station will allow drivers into the Tok Department of Motor Vehicles to buy a one year tractor and trailer plate, saving $14, and return to the scale with their proof of purchase.
So. Here we are. In Tok. At the Weigh Station. It’s closed. Now what? We have a delivery deadline and Anchorage is seven hours away.
There are two options. Use an online form or take our chances that all the inbound and outbound Weigh Stations are closed. We have talked to drivers who claim they have driven in and out of Alaska without crossing an open scale saving them a bundle on permits. We’re not that type of drivers.
We turned to the Internet where Alaska has provided a fall back plan for the closed Tok scale. Drivers can open a My Alaska account online, apply and pay for the temporary permit.
Easier said than done. This was a crashing nightmare because of one question. The form wants MY name, MY address, MY CDL number, MY birth date, MY credit card number, MY, MY, MY information. And finally a T-I-N, a Taxpayer Identification Number. So we entered mine and we were denied.
In the world of IRS taxation there is the E-I-N, the T-I-N and the F-I-N. They are essentially the same. This form wants the T-I-N of the owner of the DOT number, which is Landstar in our case, not the T-I-N of the owner of the truck and the person paying for the permit.
Carve my eyes out with a spoon!
“Oh yes,” the DOT officer told us later. ”That’s a little confusing. It needs the T-I-N associated with the DOT number.”
“Why isn’t that clarification on the form,” I asked.
“It could be,” he said. “That would be good.”
Landstar has an F-I-N, not a T-I-N. At 03:00 ET, there’s no way to get this information.
There is no note at the scale saying when it reopens or message on the telephone, but we had to deliver. We started driving south, all the while, when we had cell reception, because this is wilderness, calling the Tok scale house.
Finally, they picked up!
Without the permit, we were told, we are not legal to run in Alaska. Yes, there is a scale inbound before Anchorage.
“What’s the fine?” I asked. The officer evaded the question, not wanting to offer an amount, hinting that it’s discretionary. “You could explain to them your situation, but it’s up to (officers at the Anchorage scale) to decide.”
I will put your name and phone number into the log here so they know you have reported your situation,” the officer told us.
He suggested we visit another DMV branch. We found one in Palmer, 50 miles east of Anchorage, with, miraculously, a dirt lot that fit our tractor and trailer. In a surprisingly easy bureaucratic encounter, we were in and out in less than an hour with my prized trucking souvenir — an Alaska license plate — and proof we are legal to run.
While the inbound scale was closed when we drove into Anchorage, it had reopened when we drove out. The outbound scale was closed.
We stopped at the open Tok scale on drive out to ask a few more questions and spoke to the officer who had spent so much time with us on telephone.
“This scale is supposed to be 24/7,” I said. “But it’s not, why?”
Staff availability changes, he said. “There are deployments, training, so it’s not always 24/7,” he admitted.
And he had one more piece of advice. He warned of us that the Alaska plate could cause us some grief in the Lower 48.
On the front of our tractor we have our Illinois base plate, next to it is the Alaska plate and then the Washington, DC special permit plate for pickup and delivery at the convention center. The officer has heard “that tractors in Arizona, running two plates, their own and Alaska’s are being ticketed by Arizona DOT.”
“It’s not illegal”, he said. “It’s covered in their own regulations, but it’s going to take some Owner Operator to go to court and fight it.” The trucker’s job is never done.
Two final warnings, two weeks after we returned, renewing our physical damage insurance I noticed we are not covered north of Fairbanks on the Dempster Highway.
And don’t hit a moose, they’re everywhere!
Is your Alaska rate profitable?
Our team Alaska load was based on 3,201 loaded miles at $4.69 a mile, but we had an almost 1,000 mile deadhead to pick up and we had to cover the cost of the 2,266 mile deadhead to return to a freight zone. We paid $433 in fees. After fuel and fees, we made $1.67 all miles to the truck. Our fuel costs were based on driving 58 mph.
Compare that to another posted load, 38,000 pounds from Cedar City, Utah to Palmer, Alaska. Posted at $2.84 for 3,074 loaded miles and assuming a 170 mile deadhead from Las Vegas to pick up and 2,133 miles deadhead back to Blaine, Washington, the truck earns $1.11 all miles after fuel and fees, including a 100% to the truck Fuel Surcharge of $523.
Fees to Alaska from the Lower 48.
Alaska 30-day temporary permit, $350 for the tractor, $15 for the trailer. The DMV charges $351 for a one year-permit for the tractor — renewal each year by mail — AND a lifetime plate for the trailer.
$60 Cdn., Yukon, loaded, travel permit. No fee if empty on the return.
$72 Cdn., Yukon Fuel Emblem.
$13.05 US Customs fee into Alaska, raised December 28, 2015 from $10.75. And $13.05 again to re-enter the US at Blaine, Washington to complete the load.
Our fuel costs, pump price with six-cent cash discount, starting with the fuel up before the Alaska load and ending with the next load.
$2.14/gallon on April 5 in Eloy, AZ
$2.08/gallon on April 7 in Fargo, ND
$2.00/gallon April 8 in Minot, ND
$2.24/gallon (we benefited from the low Canadian dollar) on April 9 in Ft. St. John, BC
$2.29/gallon April 9 (Ft. Nelson, BC)
$3.80/gallon April 10 in Otter Falls, Yukon
$2.35/gallon April 13 in Tok, Alaska
$3.80/gallon April 16 in Teslin, Yukon
$2.54/gallon in North Bend, WA.