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By air, land and sea: Lynden does logistics in Alaska

Everything in Alaska is outsize – the sprawling land mass, the harsh weather, even the logistics companies aiming to tame the last frontier. One of the state’s largest transportation services providers is Lynden Incorporated, an Alaska-based family of companies that pioneered regular trucking to Alaska with over-the-road service in 1954 and now does everything from shipping Alaskan seafood around the world to delivering mail and other essentials to remote bush communities via hovercraft.

“We enjoy the challenge of fitting the puzzle pieces together to arrange pickups and deliveries to some of the world’s most remote and inaccessible locations,” said Eric Badger, President of Alaska West Express, one of the Lynden companies, in an email. “From the extreme north of Prudhoe Bay to the smallest village half a world away, we are known for making the impossible possible.”

Lynden grossed $950 million in 2017 and operates in Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and other locations around the U.S .and the world.

The company declined a telephone interview with FreightWaves, but Badger did respond to a few questions via email about how the company moves cargo in Alaska, as well as news about recent service expansions.

Weather and infrastructure, or the lack thereof, rank among the biggest challenges –  one-third of the roads are paved, and only one of the state’s northern ports, the Port of Valdez, is ice-free year-round. These conditions mean that a variety of transportation modes – trucks, ships, barges or aircraft – must be used to service the entire state,  Badger explained.

Every April through October, for example, Alaska Marine Lines (AML), a Lynden company, barges supplies to local villages in western Alaska and provides support to the seafood industry.

The barge service also provides a critical connection between the Alaska Railroad and the rest of the United States. The state’s 470-mile rail line connects Fairbanks with Anchorage and the Ports of Seward and Whittier in south-central Alaska. AML helps fill the gap with a unique fleet that includes barges fitted with rail tracks on the deck and container racks overhead, linking rail service between Alaska and Seattle.

“The railcars roll right onto barges and sail right down to the lower 48,” said Darren Prokop, a professor of logistics at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. (A Lynden vice president is a member of the university’s logistics advisory board.)

The service is rare, Prokop added. “There is no railroad in the continental United States or Canada that does that sort of thing.”

Another one-of-a-kind service is the C-130 Hercules aircraft fleet operated by Lynden Air Cargo. The heavy lift airplanes, which were originally built for military service, help move oversized cargo to remote parts of the state to support isolated communities and construction projects and in emergencies.

Badger described one such crisis. In 2015 the Dalton Highway, which links Alaska’s North Slope oil fields with the rest of the state, flooded and had to be closed for several weeks. Trucks were unable to carry food, fuel and supplies to the workers and operations on the North Slope.

So Lynden’s multimodal operation kicked into gear.

“Trucks brought supplies as far as possible on the highway, then our Hercules aircraft were used to fly the supplies over the flooded highway and to the North Slope,” Badger said. “Once there, Lynden’s personnel and equipment were able to unload the aircraft and deliver the supplies to our customers.”

Seasonal weight restrictions are a predictable weather challenge that take effect every spring, usually between March and June. Limits are placed on axle weights due to the thawing road beds and can reduce the allowable weight by up to 50 percent, Badger said. So extra planning is required to meet project and freight transportation needs.

Lynden, as Prokop observed, is one of the most important intermodal companies in Alaska. But it’s not the only one. Carlile Transportation Systems, a trucking and logistics operation that is a member of Saltchuk Resources, a Seattle-based family of transportation and petroleum distribution companies, is another major player.

In 2019 Lynden expanded its barge service to include North Slope villages in the Arctic region of Alaska, including Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainwright, Utqiagvik (Barrow) and Kaktovik. (The North Slope Borough is the most-northern municipal government in the United States.) In January the company also released a new mobile app that provides real-time shipment information directly to iPhone or Android devices, eliminating the need for tracking numbers.

Many people envision shipping to Alaska like shipping to another country, Badger said. With nearly 1,500 air miles between Seattle and Anchorage, this sentiment is understandable, but an experienced shipper can make shipping to Alaska simple. “We earned our reputation the hard way – by moving all kinds of freight over some of the most rugged, remote terrain imaginable.”

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]