Over Hill, Over Dale, These Engineers Build a Trail
By Master Sgt. Ron Holbrook and Sgt. Jean Craft
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP WY WUH, Alaska, Sept. 20, 2000 A joint task force of Army and National Guard engineers, Navy Seabees and Marines is taking on a literally mountainous task here on remote Annette Island.
The men, women and machines are engaged in Operation Alaskan Road. Their work schedule calls for some of the toughest construction in the most rugged terrain they have ever encountered.
Alaskan Road is a seven-year, $33 million project to build 14.8 miles of paved two-lane road with no more than a 7 percent grade. That makes road building on Annette a tremendous challenge because hills with original grades of 100 percent or more are common. A 45-degree slope equals a 100 percent grade. When finished, the road must meet federal highway standards.
Standing on a rise 50 feet above the future roadway, Lt. Col. Jerry West, commander of the operation, was pleased with what he saw. He has worked on the project almost since the day it started in March 1998. He was operations officer the first two years and took over as commander earlier this year.
"We have made some good progress this year and expect to meet or exceed all our goals," West said. "We are right on target despite all the obstacles.
"The first time I saw this area, I thought, 'Wow, we have got some learning curve here.' But we have received good assistance from Dan Reid of the Federal Highway Administration. He has built this type of road before," he said. "The real key to our success has been our rotational troops that come in here. They have done great work.
"This is definitely the most ambitious building project the Missouri National Guard has ever undertaken," West said.
The military is scheduled to finish its part of the project in 2005. He said federal or state government agencies would then hire contractors to put in the paving, striping, guard rails, permanent bridges and other remaining roadwork.
West is from the Missouri Army National Guard 35th Engineer Brigade headquarters at Fort Leonard Wood, where much of the year-round exercise planning is done. The brigade is leading the project.
Operation Alaskan Road will fulfill a government promise made more than 50 years ago to Metlakatla, Alaska's last Indian reservation. The government pledged to build a main supply route from Metlakatla village to the other side of the island. A ferry terminal to be built at the end of the road will link the island with Saxman City and nearby Ketchikan.
The road and ferry will give Metlakatla residents year-round access to markets, banks, and medical and educational facilities. The community also hopes the new Walden Point Road, as it will be named, will bring tourists and businesses to the town of 1,850 people.
"Metlakatla" means "calm channel" in the Tsimpshian Indian language. The name is misleading. During the winter, the island community is sometimes completely isolated for a week or more at a time because high seas and winds shut down seaplane and ferry service.
During this year's April-to-September construction season, the task force expects to complete 3.2 miles. The engineers built about 2.5 miles of roadbed.
"We will have a footprint of about 5.5 miles of the road at the end of our construction. We started on the hardest part first," said Maj. Marie Bennett, operations officer for the road-building project. "This is excellent training, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our soldiers. We will train almost 1,700 soldiers this year in a very challenging, austere environment."
When new rotations arrive, they train one-on-one with the permanent party during the first week to become familiar with the heavy equipment. Safety is the project's No. 1 priority, Bennett said. In three years, the task force hasn't had a serious accident, despite the dangerous terrain with steep drop-offs.
The road-building process begins with surveying, then blazing a trail through the dense Tongass National Forest, which covers most of Annette Island. After clearing a path, engineers remove obstacles and burn deadwood. Then, they drill, blast and grade the roadbed to the desired level.
If visitors and soldiers have time to look, Annette Island has scenic vistas right out of a travel brochure. Snow-capped mountain peaks form a majestic backdrop to the roadwork. The bright blue waters of Hemlock Bay can be seen from some of the construction areas.
"This is really good training for our soldiers. Some of the best training ever for us," said Company C's 1st Sgt. David See, a 29-year veteran of the Guard. He is a science teacher at Benton County IX High School in Warsaw, Mo.
The soldiers have nicknamed the 84,000-acre island "the rock" for obvious reasons. The land is rocky and the work is hard. But the troops remain enthusiastic about training in Alaska.
"I think it is a good thing we are building this road for these people," said Spc. Jennifer Shepherd, Company C, 110th Engineer Battalion, Lexington, Mo. "It will improve their lives and make it much easier for them."
This year, Guard and Reserve engineer units from Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Hawaii and Guam moved 166,798 tons of rock and muskeg, a soft peat-like substance. Navy Seabees operate large core drills to cut holes in the rocks for blasting. They estimated they drilled nearly 46,000 linear feet this year.
"This has been a great production year," operations officer Bennett said. The Army's 84th Engineer Combat Battalion crushed 45,825 tons of rock, which is used for fill areas on the road. "That's enough to last us for the next two years," she said.
Muskeg is just one of the many obstacles soldiers face in Alaska. It turns "soupy" when wet, so troops have to remove it completely and fill in the resulting holes. The rain and winds also challenge troops, as rainfall is 10 to 13 inches a month.
The island is also an environmentally sensitive area, so soldiers must take extra precautions. Bennett spoke of a 15,000-ton boulder in the path of road work. "We need to drill and blast it, but we can't because an eagle's nest is nearby," she said.
The Guard works closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these symbols of American freedom. Anytime construction gets within 500 feet of an eagle's nest, work halts in that area, she said.
The rocky terrain also challenges the maintenance crews. Sometimes they replace 20 heavy equipment tires in a single day. Mechanics in the task force's complete maintenance facility rebuild motors on-site rather than ship them off.
The task force base camp, Camp Wy Wuh, was named by Metlakatlan school children. In English, it means "let's go," an appropriate challenge for the camp support team. The camp supports up to 305 personnel per rotation, generates its own electricity and has its own laundry. An Army water purification unit produces 7,500 gallons of purified drinking water a day. Everything supporting the base camp arrives by boat, including heavy bulldozers and graders. The operation uses 1,700 gallons of diesel fuel a day.
During Operation Alaskan Road's first three years, about 4,500 service members have trained in construction, maintenance, boat transportation, dining facility management, personnel administration, medical, safety, water purification and law enforcement.
"I wish you could be here to see this place come alive at 4 a.m.," said Lt. Col. Dwight Hudspeth, a former Marine known for getting people fired up. "We have a slogan here: '80 degrees and sunshine.' Yeah, that's what it is today. It might be raining again or windy. But these troops keep on going through it.
"They think we motivate them, but their spirit is so uplifting to us. They motivate us. They are the reason why we have been so successful."
West said the Annette Island training is realistic, and that's why soldiers like it.
"Every unit that comes in here makes a contribution and walks away very proud of what they accomplished."
(Master Sgt. Ron Holbrook is assigned to the 70th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Missouri Army National Guard, and Sgt. Jean Craft is assigned to the State Area Command, Missouri Army National Guard Headquarters.)