The sheer scope of diesels is something we sometimes forget. Outside the borders of California, people take their trucks out for more than just hauling campers, building houses, or charging through sand dunes.
In the far reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, Kris DeVault puts a lot of trust in his truck.
For Kris DeVault, the diesel is an indispensable aspect of how he makes his living. In the forbidding and treacherous reaches of Alaska, the man has a commute that would chew up and spit out most vehicles. But he’s willing to make the journey to earn his living and provide for himself, his wife, and the family they hope to build up there. Right there with him is a 2015 Ram 2500 Tradesman, ready for the unexpected but still able to get the man there and back comfortably.
We learned of Kris and his story by visiting the Cummins Forum, where he keeps a thorough and intriguing thread alive talking about what it took to get the truck from square one to where it is today: lifted, kitted, and ready to roll out. He agreed to give us a closer look at the truck, as well as discover more about it’s actually used for. Needless to say, what followed was an extraordinary tale of perseverance, hard work, and not a few close calls.
Kris faced great odds with not only getting his truck well-built, but also doing so in time for mining season in a faraway location.
From The Golden State To The Frontier State
Kris cut his teeth in California as a diesel mechanic for six years, then went into the powersports industry until 2010. Along the way, he met a beautiful half-Inuit woman who was eager to get back to her homeland.
“I had always wanted to move up there, and when the economy took a crap in 2008, it spurred us into motion,” said Kris. “She had just become a Registered Nurse, and a hiring freeze in California made it impossible for her to find work. We learned of opportunities in Alaska, so we sold everything we couldn’t take, packed up, and drove north. She got a call from one of the places she had interviewed for as we were driving up, telling her she was hired. It was an exciting time.”
Kris’ wife, who is part-Inuit, was eager to return to her roots in Alaska.
Kris got into construction early on, but deep down, he was itching to try his hand at gold mining. “I grew up spending my summers in Northern California, exploring through a lot of mineshafts and mining districts when I was younger,” he explained. “We would go to places and jump off of waterfalls, walk around, and if there were mining equipment and caves, we would go exploring.”
In the first winter there, Kris started picking up equipment to do dredge mining. For the unfamiliar, this is a mining process that involves a riverbed or other body of water and using a vacuum to suck up loose dirt, rocks, and other debris. The collective sediment routes to a sluice, which lets it all filter through and leave only gold behind.
Kris (pictured above) makes his living as a dredge miner. His workday consists of suiting up in a drysuit and lead weights, staying on the bottom of a freezing cold riverbed for hours, and working a suction hose back and forth in search of gold.
This coincided with a unique opportunity that Kris quickly went after. According to him, there was a region north of Anchorage where people were discouraged to go mining due to the sheer legal complexities of doing so.
“I was approached by the owner of the claims in that area, who asked me to make the property mine-able,” explained Kris. “I worked with the National Parks Service, and mainly their geologist, and got my plan of operations approved in July of this year. There was more red tape with the EPA, but I eventually was given the green light to begin mining this place.”
The Truck Rises
The stock truck, seen here back in March 2016 after Kris purchased it.
For a time, Kris was using a 2000 Toyota Tundra to haul himself and his gear (including a trailer) some 300 miles from his home near Anchorage to the remote reaches of this mining site. When loaded down, the weight was simply too much for the vehicle, and Kris could tell it was high time for an upgrade. He shopped around and found a 2015 Dodge 2500 Tradesman.
“I bought the truck in the middle of March, before I had gotten approval from the government to go and start mining,” said Kris. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and so I had to get ready as quickly as possible.”
The Fabtech lift kit (left) was crucial to Kris' ability to traverse harsh terrain and three miles of running river water. The Warn winch (right) was to help him get over certain sections, as well as remove any large boulders he came across.
To that end, Kris started picking up all of the parts he needed online. “It was kind of a nightmare,” he confessed. “There are no places like 4 Wheel Parts up here, so everything has to come on either a plane, which is really expensive, or a barge, which takes forever.”
Starting in April, Kris had the build going on the driveway of his home. Much of the Cummins community hemmed and hawed over the choice of either a Carli or Fabtech lift kit, but Kris went with Fabtech due to it being the only one that offered a seven-inch kit. Thanks to that modification, Kris was able to fit in a set of 17×8.5-inch Method wheels and 37-inch Toyo MTs.
Left, middle: The Fabtech seven-inch lift kit ticked all of the boxes for Kris, letting him fit in larger wheels and tires while still retaining a good ride. Right: the set of drivetrain parts from Nitro Gear & Axle that Kris still has to install.
“I picked up a used Yakima rack and welded the whole thing, braced it, and made it into a spare tire mount,” said Kris. “I used Go Rhino front and rear bumpers, and installed a Warn 16,500-pound winch with Master Pull rope line and all of the extensions.”
Kris’ winch has seen a lot of use as more than just a recovery tool. He’s also used the winch to act as an excavation device, removing gigantic boulders with a net and letting the winch do all of the work. “I’ve pulled six or seven-thousand-pound boulders out of the way before,” he said.
The Daily Grind
The full load making its way up a creek.
A typical work schedule for Kris is two weeks on, four days off, and this cycles through a 115-day mining season. Kris uses a six-inch dredge (measuring twelve feet long), which fits onto his flatbed trailer and weighs about 500 pounds. “The trailer is lifted 12 inches from flipping the axles around and adding six inches of frame, and has 33-inch BF Goodrich All-Terrains on it,” he said.
Left: Kris' original setup was a 2000 Toyota Tundra and a non-lifted flatbed trailer. It quickly became clear that the truck and trailer weren't up to the task. Right: Kris' setup mid-modification, equipped with a lift and 33-inch BF Goodrich All-Terrains.
The work is arduous and demanding, and Kris is the first to admit that it can get to him at times. “I have to have people here, because doing this solo would be asking for it,” he said. “I wake up at 7 am, make breakfast, suit up in a 6 mm-thick drysuit and 70-pound lead weights to help pin me to the bottom of the riverbed, and go to work moving the dredge nozzle back and forth sucking up debris. A hookah system with a regulator lets me breathe underwater, at a depth of about four to six feet.”
Kris said the average shift is eight hours, split in the middle for lunch/recovery time. “You can only last about four hours or so before your hands and feet are frozen,” he stated. “Typically, it’s just me and one other person.”
Kris has to drive through three miles of creek to get to a job site. And you thought your commute was bad…
The locations he works in are as remote as you can imagine. One area is a 300-mile trek comprised of 200 miles of driving to the entrance, and then about 90 miles of wilderness, ending with 3-4 miles of driving upstream. Rocks can be either smooth or jagged, depending on how much water erosion they’ve been exposed to, and it takes steel nerves to drive over them in a four-door truck with a trailer, as you might imagine.
Can you imagine what it would be like to drive through this in a three-quarter-ton truck and a loaded-up trailer?
The Present And Future
The Leer canopy was one issue with the truck. Kris solved it by bolting it to the truck instead of clamping it.
Thankfully, the problems with the truck have not been glaring or dangerous. “All I’ve had to do is clear some trouble codes, which I do with my own scanner,” said Kris. “The only other thing is the Leer 122 canopy. The clamps that came on it were not good enough, and one time, the canopy came loose and hit the back of the cab. I bolted it down and now it’s sturdy.”
I spend weeks at a time in 4-Low. The drivetrain really gets a workout. I also go through DEF about once every two weeks. – Kris DeVault
It goes without saying that Kris really puts this truck through its paces. “I spend weeks at a time in 4-Low,” he said. “The drivetrain really gets a workout. I also go through DEF about every two weeks.”
Naturally, the truck has a little bit more in the way of modifications before Kris has a winning combination. He told us he has new 4.30:1 gear sets from Nitro Gear & Axle, with an AAM TracRite front E-locker awaiting installation.
In the meantime, Kris wanted to express his gratitude to several people: “I want to thank the owner of the claims, he has been a great pleasure to work with. I also want to thank my wife, and all of my friends and family that support what I do.”
Kris made his own rock sliders after finding nobody made ones for his truck. Here, we see it go from mandrel-bent tubing (left) to mock-up (middle, right).
Allow us to also tip our hats to you, Kris. It’s a difficult job you’re doing, and you have our respect for the willingness and ability to take it on day in and day out! We look forward to hearing more about Kris’ Alaskan exploits and Cummins build over on the Cummins Forum.
Photography by Kris DeVault