WASILLA - With tires taller than most children, the Tundra-Cat could be considered an Alaska-sized toy for big boys. That would be a mistake.
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The vehicle designed for use in the oil fields - looking a lot like a monster truck - has a tender touch when it comes to the delicate Arctic tundra.
Its huge tires, at 5 pounds of pressure per square inch, do less damage than a golf cart, said Mark Tope, the man who came up with the Tundra-Cat after having a brainstorm a couple of years ago while watching a monster truck show at 1 a.m.
Tope said he recalls the moderator saying, "Man, they have a big footprint."
"Then the light bulb came on. I said, 'Why can't we do that for Prudhoe Bay? Why can't I put a crewcab on big wheels?"' Tope said.
"Mark dreams big," said wife Trisha, who acknowledges that she thought her husband had lost his mind when he first came up with the idea. Now that one Tundra-Cat is built and another is taking shape, she's not so sure.
"He said, 'This is my niche,"' Trisha Tope said.
"I never gave up on my niche," Tope responded.
Tope, 36, was born into a family that hauled heavy equipment to the North Slope oil fields. He'd done his share of bumping around Prudhoe Bay in Rollagons and Tucker Snocats - large all-terrain vehicles used to transport equipment and crews.
Tope thought it was time the oil field workers had a more tricked-out ride.
But he knew if his idea was to have commercial success, the 15,000-pound Tundra-Cat - priced at between $240,000 and $270,000 - would have to be gentle as a pussycat on the tundra.
State regulations are strict when it comes to tundra damage. The Department of Natural Resources has 20 stations on the North Slope where frost and snow depths are measured to determine what types of vehicles are allowed on the tundra, and when.
Most tundra traffic shuts down in mid-May. Operators then have 72 hours to get off the tundra. The tundra is later opened to a short list of vehicles approved for summer use only.
The tundra is what keeps the permafrost frozen, said Leon Lynch, a natural resources specialist with DNR in Fairbanks. Permafrost is ground that remains frozen year-round.
"Once you disturb the vegetative mat the frost gets exposed and melts, so you basically melt the permafrost," Lynch said. That also leaves the tundra even more susceptible to scarring.
A warming Arctic also means that oil companies now must wait about three weeks longer for the ground to sufficiently freeze to begin the winter work season, the busiest time of the year when repairs and exploration work gets done. Next summer, DNR will test the Tundra-Cat for inclusion on a very short list of vehicles approved for summer use.
DNR this fall approved the Tundra-Cat for prepacking snow. Prepacking is used by oil companies to build ice roads that allow crews to get out on the tundra to drill pads and get rigging in place weeks before areas are officially reopened to vehicle traffic. The snow is tamped down and then water is sprayed on it, which turns into an ice road.
"We've been encouraging them to use the Tuckers, the Rollagons, the Tundra-Cats. We want them out there to drive the frost level down faster and capture the snow (before it blows away)," Lynch said.
The Tundra-Cat's tires are 66 inches tall and 44 inches wide. They are agricultural tires used mostly by sod growers. Tope has equipped them with metal studs for a better grip on ice and snow.
The Tundra-Cat comes with four-wheel drive, two-axle steering, allowing the two front wheels to point in one direction and the back wheels in another. The advantage of that is that the Tundra-Cat is gentle, moving more like a snake slipping across the tundra.
"You can crab it," Tope said.
With the front steering one way and the back steering the other, the Tundra-Cat can cover an impressive 14 feet of ground in one pass when prepacking snow.
Tope turned to Mike Dropik - who for three years built and raced monster trucks as a member of the Indiana-based Bearfoot Team - to build the Tundra-Cat.
Dropik, 39, who also worked as a petroleum engineer on the North Slope, had a good idea of what the industry needed and what environmental laws would allow.
It took Dropik three months to build the Tundra-Cat.
"There is no better way to move six guys around and some equipment than the Tundra-Cat," he said. "It is actually less damaging than a man walking."
Not only is it light on the tundra, it is designed to leave nothing behind - not even human footprints. It comes with extensions for a 3-foot wide metal catwalk for walking around the truck.
The Tundra-Cat also has an undercarriage drip tray to catch any fluids that could leak on to the ground. It has triple-sealed axles to keep gear oil in. And the belt-driven transfer case is dry, making it impossible to leak fluids.
It's look also can be versatile, accommodating a variety of bodies atop the big wheels - including a large truck crew cab, a 15-passenger van or a flat bed truck.
"I could put on an ambulance or a motor home if I chose to," Tope said.
Mike Matteucci, who works for oil field services company UIC and consulted with Tope, said the Tundra-Cat is light, maneuverable and cost-effective when compared to the Snowcat and the Rollagons.
And it is way more comfortable, he said.
"The Rollagon is like rolling down a hill in a wheelbarrow over a bunch of rocks. It is not a comfortable ride," Matteucci said.
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