Monster trucks give tall tours of national park

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska (AP) -- Silty-gray water from the West Fork of the Chulitna River topped the tires and started sneaking into the cab of the truck. This would not have been a big deal, except it took a five-step ladder to get into this truck.

The tires on this monster are 6 feet high.

But that alone wasn't enough to stop the force of the raging river trying to push the monster truck downstream. The truck's 300-horsepower engine and its two transmissions, which allow gearing down to a crawl, made the difference.

The payoff?

On the other side of the Chulitna awaited an otherwise inaccessible, well-maintained dirt road and a smooth ride into some of Alaska's most isolated, beautiful backcountry as well as the rarely visited historic Golden Zone and Dunkle mines.

For the past four years, Steve Voth and Charles Hastings and their company Denali Sightseeing Safaris have been offering monster-truck tours into this remote, eastern corner of Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska's most popular national park.

How could that be? Monster trucks in the national park? Well, there's some dispute on exactly how their tours are characterized.

Park officials take issue with the company describing their tours as headed ''into'' the park. Technically, the monster trucks drive a 100-foot-wide band of state-owned land called the Colorado-Bull River Road that penetrates about 5 miles into the park.

As long as the tour operators keep their trucks on the road, the park has no jurisdiction. The park does have a say, however, when they step out of their trucks. So Voth and Hastings got permits to take their clients hiking once out of the trucks.

''We don't consider it monster-truck tours in the park,'' explained Mary Wysong, a concession specialist with the park. ''It's a state right of way within park boundaries.''

Wysong couldn't think of another national park with monster truck tours, but she doesn't consider Voth's tours in the park.

Voth, however, described the tour his company offers as ''the best deal in Denali.''

''You can ride a school bus with 40 other people into the park with some college kid, or you can come ride in a truck with your friends and spend the day with a couple of Alaskans,'' Voth said comparing his tours to the ones offered by the park service into Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake.

''It's kind of a scenic, history, wildlife, adventure tour,'' Voth said. ''It's an all-in-one trip.''

The trucks aren't the kind that rumble over stacks of 20 cars or that have engines that cause a loud ruckus. These actually have mufflers. Voth estimates he spent about 500 hours retrofitting two, 2 1/2-ton Chevy crew cab trucks for backcountry tours. Seats were added to the truck bed. Wheel wells had to be cut bigger. Air pressure in the tires is kept at 8 pounds to soften the ride. The final product is probably worth about $40,000, he said.

Voth, a union laborer, said he came up with the idea because he's had a cabin and has snowmachined in the area for 20 years. He's always looking for something new to do.

The monster truck tour starts in the parking lot in front of the giant, abandoned concrete Igloo at Mile Post 188 on the Parks Highway. From there, Voth gives clients a ride back about two miles to where the monster trucks wait.

The first obstacle is a gate across the road at the railroad tracks. Voth's 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, hops out of the van to open it. This is what stops the public from access to the otherwise public road to the Golden Zone and Dunkle Mine. Hawley and Voth got a permit from the Alaska Railroad to build a road crossing. They pay for that privilege to build it and are required to maintain it and carry liability insurance, Hawley said.

Once on the other side of the gate, there are a few minor streams to cross. They could be forded by foot or on any four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The next obstacle is the 60-foot-wide and 3-foot-deep Bull River. There used to be a bridge across the river, Voth said. Without the monster truck's 6-foot tires and the cooperation of Hawley, it would be impossible to get back on the road.

The next stretch winds through alders, climbing slowly while crossing the park boundary into high alpine country. The view is great because the truck's cab sits high enough to see over the alders. The road forks, with the northern route heading to the Dunkle Mine and the southwestern route leading out of the park and the Golden Zone Mine at 3,500 feet elevation.

The real challenge for the trucks comes at the braided West Fork of the Chulitina. A bridge across this river was lost in the 1964 earthquake. Voth said driving one of the trucks across the constantly shifting, braided river bed takes some whitewater reading skills.

Bears, moose, caribou, wolves or wolverines can be seen on 80 percent of the tours, he said, as well as ''some type of small game, waterfowl, eagles, hawks, owls, varmints or furbearers.''

The trip generally takes six to seven hours, which allows plenty of time for stopping for short hikes, Voth said. The company also offers pickup and drop offs for backpackers, Voth said.

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