Jack Jessee braves the 'Ice Road'

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — The average commercial driver on the Dalton Highway, the route to an oil drilling outpost at Prudhoe Bay, doesn't have a radio "handle." Woodlawn native Jack Jessee seems to be the exception, however, since he started appearing on the History Channel's "Ice Road Truckers."

The drivers know each other and call each other by their first names, he explained. But after his TV appearances, the other truckers saw an opening to give Jessee a hard time.

The History Channel's Web site promoting the show refers to Jessee as the "Dalton Ace," but that's something the cable network started.

"They made that up — nobody ever calls me that up here," he told The Gazette on the phone at the end of a run back to Fairbanks.

The truckers see each other every few days on the road, at the diner, at the terminal, at Prudhoe.

The biggest challenge for Jessee since appearing on the show isn't the whiteouts and avalanches he battles while running supplies deep inside the Arctic Circle — it's the teasing from other drivers.

"Guys on the road raz me a little more, 'Hey, there's Hollywood,'" he recounted.

Jessee seems prepared to accept the History Channel's gloss on his profession as entertainment and the television show exaggerations.

On the Road

He's been trucking for 15 years now, since 2000 for Carlile Transportation Systems.

Jessee started hauling in the states, in a cross-country run for produce to the West Coast. He moved up to Alaska after that, attending University of Fairbanks for about 3.5 years.

He figured that school wasn't for him, though, so he started driving a dump truck and running equipment for a residential construction company.

In his first year at Carlile, Jessee did the overnight run, where he'd meet another driver halfway to Anchorage and they'd switch loads and head back to their starting points.

Then he tackled the long haul road through the tundra. Dalton Highway in summer is a gravel chip and seal road and in winter it's paved with ice.

They take out tankers to put down water, Jessee explained. The perfect temperature to do that ranges from about 10 to 20 below — colder and it freezes in the truck, warmer and it just runs off.

"I don't think the History Channel is going to tell anyone it's a year-round road," he said. "They had fun with some of that stuff... It's not as dangerous at they portray it. It's one of those things if you do it all the time it does not seem that bad."

That contrasts with a quote from him on the cable channel's Web site: "You learn the road really fast… or you end up dead,” said his profile.

Nothing too exciting, in his opinion, happened to him while he had the film crew riding in the cab of his 2008 Kenworth. He didn't come close to rolling or flipping, though he did spin out.

Also, the different film crews could become annoying, asking the same questions several times over the course of taping.

Alaska's well into summer now — it has experienced highs of 85 degrees and gets around 21 hours of daylight.

Trucking in Alaska is different in other ways, Jessee said. It's more of a challenge and takes more concentration to drive, to build up speed to get up the next hill or to get through a frost heave.

His Kenworth sports a 310-inch wheel base, where the norm is about 240, and the loads are heavier.

The road and the below-zero temperatures are hard on a rig, and the drivers have to fix what goes wrong during a trip or adjust loads, he said. The trucks normally give out after about five years of use.

The roadsides are just dirt in summer, and if a rig goes off the side, there's a good chance of recovering, depending on the embankments.

"In wintertime, the snow drags you in and you have no chance at all," he said.

Jessee developed an appreciation of the outdoors growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Alaska is the outdoors on steroids.

"Thirty minutes out of Fairbanks, you can be in the middle of nowhere," he noted. "Thirty-three miles north of Fairbanks, the cell phone stops working and it doesn't work again for another 450 miles. Twenty miles south of Prudhoe, it comes back on again."

Truckers like him are essential to the continuing operations at isolated Prudhoe Bay.

(Online encyclopedia Wikipedia, by the way, says 2000 census figures showed only one family of five living there permanently, along with thousands of transient oil workers.)

"They don't grow anything, they don't make anything up there," Jessee said in a video on the show's Web site. "All they do is drill holes in the ground and oil comes out."

So the rigs take Prudhoe anything a little city needs — food, equipment, replacement parts and more.

Dalton Highway stays relatively busy, and the truckers depend on that in case they have trouble or have a problem they can't fix.

In the wintertime, the trucks' many lights create a glow visible far down the road, Jessee said. In the summer sun, the plumes of dust let you know other trucks are coming.

Other drivers will pick up those stranded and take them out of the freezing cold when the truck conks out.

There's only two times that's happened to Jessee.

Once, a trucker in front of him slowed down suddenly for traffic, and Jessee couldn't avoid hitting the other guy. As he says on video, he warned the other driver about the collision on the radio.

"Another two feet and I think I could have had it stopped."

Even then, he was able to drive another 20 miles before he abandoned his truck in the 20-below weather.

Not seeing anybody else is both "exhilarating and scary," as a driver tries to figure out why no one's on the road.

Getting on the Show

The producers of “Ice Road Truckers” asked Jessee to appear on the show after he made a test video. Jessee felt the producers must have liked what they saw.

He indicated that he liked the exposure for his company. He has no clue what's going to happen in the remaining 10 of the 13-episode series.

The History Channel says in this Sunday's show "Jack Jesse has to make a moral decision between helping a stranded passenger vehicle, whose passengers could freeze to death, or potentially losing his load in the effort to save them."

Jessee, a 1990 grad from Carroll County High School — and before that, Woodlawn School — now lives about 5,000 miles from where he grew up.

The things he misses most are nighttime thunderstorms and the range of fall colors, Jessee said. Fall in Alaska means there will be some yellow mixed in with the evergreens.

"I would hope some day I would be able to come home and enjoy the things I grew up with."

Jessee doesn't have the opportunity to visit much. "Tell everybody back home that I knew, I say 'hi.'"

Jessee is the son of Carroll residents and educators Jim and Linda Jessee.

Linda Jessee decided to wait until school was out at Dobson Elementary, where she's school counselor, to give the show her full attention.

"Right now, we're taping and fast-forwarding," she said. "If we don't see Jack's face, we're not interested."

When Jack decided to move to Alaska, it was upsetting that he'd be so far away. Linda Jessee believes he's like the other residents there, striving for their own independence.

The move has given him some interesting experiences and stories to tell.

But his spots on the show confirm that he's the same as he's always been. The TV show gives them a feeling of closing the miles between them and their son.

"We're just thrilled that he's on TV and getting to do his own thing."

New episodes of “Ice Road Truckers” air Sundays at 9 p.m. on the History Channel. Reruns can be seen at 8 p.m.