‘Ice road’ trucker Tony Dotson’s weekly route links Fairbanks, Prudhoe’s arctic oil field
By Hilary Reeves
Tony Dotson’s first memory of Alaska is the snowdrifts piled high on the tarmac as he walked down the stairs of a plane on his way to an Anchorage baggage claim. It was 1970. He was seven years old.
Dotson was born in Clinton Oklahoma. His father was in the U.S. Air Force, and the family moved to Alaska for the first time when Dotson was three months old. His sister was born a year later. The family moved to Maryland for a few years to be near family, but at seven, Dotson once again found himself up north.
“My Dad drove from Maryland to Alaska, and we flew in seven months later. It’s crazy when you think about him driving his ’69 GTO on the Alaskan Highway,” he laughed. Dotson’s lived in Alaska ever since and has worked as a line driver for Carlile Transportation for the past 25 years.
“My Dad said his biggest mistake was leaving Alaska – he called it a ‘young person’s state,’” Dotson continued. “He knew there were vast opportunities.”
Teacher turned driver
Dotson graduated from high school in Anchorage in 1982 after a stint during his sophomore year as a ranch hand working big farm equipment at the Diamond J Ranch in Nevada, accepting a football scholarship to the University of Montana.
“I was really into sports in high school,” he said. “In college, I was an offensive guard and tight end. My last couple of years there, I really excelled. I was playing against guys who were 300 pounds. I was fortunate not to get seriously injured. Honestly, I never really thought about going pro. It takes a real toll on your body.”
Instead, Dotson graduated from college with a teaching degree and planned to teach history back in Anchorage. He came back in the midst of a building boom, a surge in population across the city. But by 1985, oil prices had dropped to $10 a barrel and Alaska fell into a major recession. More than a third of the population left town.
“Back then, the minimum wage was $4.25 per hour,” he said. “In high school, I’d been working construction – I was a laborer. So I started running parts for a small automotive company. I was a student teacher, and then working a couple of other part-time jobs.”
By early 1985, Dotson was loading trucks on Elmendorf Air Force Base, then began driving for Big Country Foods. After a stint with Keytrans, he heard Carlile was hiring.
“I met the man who was giving me my test drive and he introduced himself as ‘John McDonald,’” Dotson laughed. “I was 29 years old at the time, and that name didn’t mean anything to me – I thought he was just a driver. He looked like a driver.”
McDonald turned out to be one of the two brothers who owned the company. Hired as a line driver, Dotson dug in, learning everything he could about trucking. He spent the first two months receiving and breaking vans, and delivering packages.
“After that, I switched to nights and learned how to tie flatbeds down, and put sets together,” he said. “Eventually, I drove a switch [small trip] and did that for a year.”
He spent the following eight years driving to Valdez, and the past 16 driving year-round on the Haul Road between Fairbanks and the Prudhoe Bay oil field. Also known as the Dalton Highway, the Haul Road is one of the most dangerous roads in the world.
“This year has been challenging – we still had snow on the road in July.”
“There are no ‘safe havens’ in the State of Alaska.”
Dotson leaves every Wednesday night and returns every Monday morning. He found out last month that his friend, former Carlile driver Joy Wiebe, died in a rollover accident 30 miles from Deadhorse. She’s the first woman tanker driver who’s died on the Haul Road.
“What people don’t understand is that if you’re leaving Seattle bound for Portland, there are lots of truck stops. Once you leave Fairbanks, the only place to take any real shelter outside your truck is Coldfoot. There are no ‘safe havens’ in the State of Alaska.”
Coldfoot Camp is more than six hours from Fairbanks in good conditions. Dotson said that while it has some of the best water in the country, the coffee – he laughed – is undrinkable.
“I’ve been in some of the worst snowstorms you can imagine,” he continued. “When you’re two hours into a trip and it starts blowing – you have to shut it down, or you could be stuck there – buried – for three days.”
Dotson and his wife have a son who lives in Billings, Montana, and two grandchildren. One of Dotson’s favorite things to do is to road trip in the Lower 48.
“When my grandson was coming, I flew into Seattle, then drove I-90 all the way to Billings. I got there two hours after he was born,” he laughed.
For the past decade or so, he’s started with a trip to Montana, then rented a Harley and set out on the open road. He carefully explained he wants no part of glamourizing the dangerous work that he does up north.
“When they did that television show [Ice Road Truckers], I wasn’t interested,” he said. “I work with a lot of people that I have a lot of respect for, and I’m not down with all that drama stuff. The dangers up there are very real, and I’m thankful every day for the opportunities I’ve been given.”