All quiet at Dalton Highway checkpoint

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The Mile 40 Dalton Highway checkpoint is often swept by strong winds which obscure the lights that identify the recently opened checkpoint just south of the Yukon River bridge.

One night, the wind blew signs over and covered lights with enough snow that they were not visible and a hunter passed the checkpoint without stopping.

The Fairbanks resident and his two hunting partners were stopped by Alaska State Troopers stationed at the checkpoint before he reached the Yukon River bridge where Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. security personnel were stationed.

''He had no idea,'' Trooper George Kammer said. ''The weather was making it too hard to figure out there was a checkpoint.''

Kammer also stopped a German man who was driving a rental car to the North Slope. The rental company was unfamiliar to Kammer, the man didn't have any winter survival gear, wasn't dressed properly for the weather and was carrying enough cash to arouse Kammer's suspicions.

However, after radioing Fairbanks and having another trooper drive to the car rental company, the man's story checked out and he was allowed to continue northward.

Otherwise, the hours at the checkpoint pass uneventfully.

''So far, it's pretty quiet up there,'' Kammer said on the phone Thursday, the day after he returned from the Dalton Highway to his post in Cantwell.

So quiet, there's not much to do besides check driver's licenses, vehicle registration, itinerary and reasons for driving the Haul Road. Every vehicle going north or south, including Alyeska trucks, are stopped and logged.

Trooper Lt. Greg Tanner said just over 1,300 vehicles have passed through the checkpoint in the first two weeks, 90 percent of those are commercial vehicles.

Troopers and members of the local battalion of the Alaska State Defense Force have been working rotating 12-hours shifts at the checkpoint.

The checkpoint was set up Oct. 30 to protect the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft urged all governors to be on heightened alert after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''Certainly one of the major concerns and major threat areas was perceived as the pipeline,'' said Bob King, the governor's spokesperson.

Troopers patrol the pipeline north of Fairbanks to the checkpoint camp as often as the weather permits, Tanner said.

Four troopers made the journey Oct. 30 and two returned after two days when the Defense Force brought up a small trailer with radio equipment and supplies to support the checkpoint for the long haul.

Maj. Darrell Needham, commander of the Alaska State Defense Force's 3rd Battalion headquartered in Fairbanks, said the soldiers had everything set up within 30 minutes.

So far, there haven't been any complaints about the checkpoint.

''Everybody seems to be a good sport about it, even the truckers,'' Trooper Walter Blajeski said. ''Everybody, which surprised me, had a license.''

There have been glitches. A generator had to be replaced. And, ice on the antennas hamper radio communications with Fairbanks.

''The temperature is doable, but the winds, when you're out there trying to get the information from the driver, the winds are constantly blowing in your face. It gets kind of tough there,'' Needham said.

Between checking vehicles coming through and attending to equipment, there's little time for much else.

Trooper James Gallen would break up his night shift at ''Checkpoint Charlie,'' as it has been dubbed by Alyeska employees at nearby Pump Station No. 6, by getting out and jogging up and down the hill when he cramped up.

In between vehicles, Blajeski tried to catch up on paperwork from his caseload.

Soldiers alternate sitting in a diesel truck that runs continuously with occupying the 8-by-27-feet trailer that holds supplies, the high frequency radio and bunks where the soldiers were staying until Alyeska extended an invitation to stay at the pump station nearby. The checkpoint workers are being fed and housed at Pump Station No. 6, something they are thankful for. Alyeska cooks even send the checkpoint workers off with a sack lunch.

Two troopers man the checkpoint for five-day increments while the defense force rotates another six-person crew every week.

The Defense Force has 252 soldiers statewide to pull from, Needham said. The soldiers volunteer their time for once-a-month weekend duty plus two short training tours a year. On activations such as this, they'll get paid.

King said the money for the checkpoint will initially come from the general fund that also pays for emergencies. At this point the checkpoint will be there indefinitely and funding will have to be approved by the legislature at the beginning of the upcoming session in January.

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