Doyle Bartel began driving for Carlile Transportation Systems more than 20 years ago, never anticipating that his most frequent and demanding clientele would weigh in at more than 2,000 pounds.
By Hilary Reeves
“It’s awesome,” he said of the wood bison herd at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. “I get to help reintroduce a species that was thought to be extinct.”
Bartel has spent the past seven years making monthly trips up Alaska’s Seward Highway to deliver hay to the bison. Carlile provides the truck, trailer and Bartel’s time at no cost to the Center. Loading the hay, he said, takes him back to his roots.
Bartel grew up working on a 2,200-acre farm in Oregon where his father, also named Doyle, enlisted his children’s help in harvesting crops such as green beans, corn and apples. Bartel began driving a truck along the farm roads at the age of 13.
After earning an associate’s degree in Heavy Equipment Diesel Mechanics, Bartel went to work for Caterpillar, a farm equipment manufacturer based in Illinois with a 300,000-square-foot plant in Dallas, Ore. He spent nine years with the company before receiving word in 1989 that the plant would be shut down and jobs moved oversees. Bartel was one of 50 whose jobs were lost.
“They had a program in place to help us,” he said. “(Caterpillar) would either pay 90 percent of my tuition if I wanted to go back to school, or 90 percent of the cost for me to relocate. I had always wanted to go to Alaska; I threw everything I owned in a u-haul and drove up.”
Bartel found work immediately in the state’s forestry division, driving chainsaws, food and water to the firefighters working to control that summer’s raging fire season. But after two weeks, he was back in line at the unemployment office.
Bartel said he eventually landed an interview with Carlile, but since he was from Oregon, there was concern that he wouldn’t know how to handle driving in the snow.
“I said, ‘Well, how about the warehouse?,'” he said, laughing. “I started in the warehouse, but then they found out that I really could drive, so I started driving a box truck. I did three years in heavy-haul, then I got out and did freight. Then Harry (McDonald) came up with this idea for hauling hay. I had hauled square bales before on the farm, but these were round.”
Almost a decade later, Bartel has it down to a science. He collects hay every month from the Pt. Mackenzie Game Ranch near Wasilla — as well as from Alaska Pacific University’s Spring Creek Farm in Palmer and the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ experimental farm — and drives more than 300 miles roundtrip to the Center, where the hay is unloaded and distributed to the herd. The 122 bison currently at the Center eat between three and five bales of hay every day. Last year, a shortage of hay in Alaska led to the hauling of hay from Washington State.
“When I come with the hay, they all come up to the fence. They can smell it,” Bartel said. “Weather-wise, the trip is challenging, especially in the winter. It can be pretty nasty, or it can be pretty beautiful.”
Bartel will celebrate his 25th year with Carlile in July.
“They’ve been good to me,” he said. “I started out with nothing, and they gave me a job and a chance. It’s like family.”