Training Tools Spotlight: Challenges of Working in Alaska

By Philip Chen, Manager of Research & Development

Calling a work environment harsh or challenging can be a matter of perspective. For most in our industry, the bleakest work environment imaginable involves a cubicle and computer. For others, a cold rainy day. When preparing for my first trip to Alaska to work with Alex Olesen, Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) right-of-way (ROW) manager, I had little idea of the harsh reality Alaska can present to its workers.

Wildlife
Before our trip, we talked extensively about bears. In our ignorance, we thought Alaska had bears everywhere. “We haven’t had a bear attack around Fairbanks in years,” we were told by GVEA staff. “We rarely see bears, or any wildlife on the ROW. We make so much noise getting there on ATVs and snow machines; plus, we are always running chainsaws.” There was merit in what they told us. Before our visit, there had only been 15 bear-caused deaths in the state from 1980-2015, only three of which were in the Alaskan interior.

However, sometimes the past is not representative of the present. In the first three weeks we were in Alaska collecting field data, there were four bear attacks resulting in two fatalities in the community. One of these occurred only a couple of miles from one of our sample sites, just a few days before we traveled there. We never saw a bear, or any other large wildlife while sampling data, but we were acutely vigilant.

Access – Terrain
During that first trip to Fairbanks, I spent three weeks collecting field data on GVEA’s electric system. Some of our plots were on a stretch of remote transmission line called the Northern Intertie. This transmission line crosses the Tanana River out of Fairbanks and moves south across the river flats, spruce bogs, over the foothills, through the Alaska Range, and south to Anchorage. At a few places along its path, this circuit is less than 10 miles from the Parks Highway.

“Nobody has been out there without a helicopter in 20 years, especially not in summer,” GVEA said. We heard iterations of that statement over and over from their staff. Then one lineman suggested we investigate the Rex Trail, which is used by hunters on snow machines in winter to access the deep parts of state lands. We did some Googling, loaded the ATVs, and made our way to Clear, Alaska.

Before visiting Alaska, I had ideas in my head regarding access and wanted to avoid visiting in winter because I thought the snowpack would affect access. Never once did I consider that there would be access issues due to a lack of snow and ice.

We set off on our ATVs on what we expected to be a quick ride into the lines. I thought we might be able to knock out a bunch of transmission plots that day. It took us eight hours to reach lines that were only about eight miles off the road.

Everyone made it to the line and back safely and I left Alaska proficient in using a winch and operating an ATV.

Access – Manmade
The heavy use of ATVs and snow machines in Interior Alaska led to another access issue. Without a dedicated trail system, utility easements often become superhighways during the Alaskan winter. These cleared areas become a natural pathway for ever-increasing off-highway vehicle (OHV) traffic. As more people move out of the city, the traffic increases, and ROWs become increasingly leveraged for the clear space to move. However, this is an annoyance to many homeowners. This OHV pressure can create property damage and may lead to other deplorable acts on private landowner’s property. Not to mention, most people who live in rural Alaska enjoy their quiet place in the woods and OHV traffic can disrupt that peace. As a reaction, some homeowners have started blocking the ROW on their property to prevent OHV movement. An unintended consequence of this reaction is that ROW maintenance activities are now slowed as they are blocked by the same cars, barrels and other materials placed to stop OHV operators.

Winter
Although I didn’t get to ride a snowmobile, I did have the chance to visit Alaska in the winter. Only one week before the winter solstice, Alex and I were walking the circuits that were recently cut to see how the program had been progressing. Our time to do so was limited as the Fairbanks winter has less than four hours of full daylight. It was also very cold. That week, highs were in the single negative digits and lows hovered around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the National Weather Service, exposed skin can succumb to frostbite in just 30 minutes at minus 12 degrees. I’m a native-born Iowan and I enjoy winter, but that day I was happy we only had a few hours of light.

Workforce
To avoid the harshness of doing tree work in the Interior Alaskan during winter, GVEA employs a seasonal ROW maintenance crew. The start and end dates for the team are driven by weather and budgets. Reaping the benefits of the 22 hours of sunlight during the summer, crews often work long hours, which can lead to burn out. Additionally, due to their location, few of the crew members have any line clearance experience outside of GVEA as their crews are the only Line Clearance Certified tree workers within a 300 mile radius.

These are just a few of the challenges I experienced while working with GVEA over the last two years. Their program is evolving and progressing because of the work Alex and his crews have dedicated to the system. They face all the same obstacles encountered by other utilities, as well as the extraordinary challenges that come with working in a challenging environment. Each region has its own unique idiosyncrasies. Working with Alex and his team has helped me understand more about working in the Alaskan Interior and the power of human perseverance.