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Four-Legged Friend Helping Truckers Navigate Northwest Freight Markets

FreightWaves

The Northwest Region can be challenging for companies involved in all aspects of the freight business. Volatile weather plus volatile markets often add up to lost time and money. Then there's the topography, with plenty of mountain passes to conquer.

The Northwest Region, or Pacific Northwest (PNW) as it's also known, is typically made up of backhaul markets year-round, meaning there's usually more freight entering the region than leaving it. This can loosen capacity as more trucks get stuck waiting for loads to haul away. This results in carriers rejecting fewer loads since they have fewer freight options from which to choose.

SONAR Tickers: ROTRI.URNW, RITRI.URNW

During the winter, though, carriers often reject loads for a specific  reason — the weather. As temperatures drop, shippers who would normally ship freight in dry vans request more and more reefers to keep temperature-sensitive freight, such as cosmetics, chemicals, water and beer, from freezing. Reefers are climate-controlled trailers that allow drivers to set a desired temperature for the inside of the trailer. According to FreightWaves Market Expert Zach Strickland, only 10-15% of trailers in the U.S. are reefers. All the others are dry vans, which are not climate-controlled.

The latest FreightWaves SONAR data, in the map above, shows Northwest Region outbound tender rejections for reefers (ROTRI.URNW) as well as inbound tender rejections for reefers (RITRI.URNW) at 19.39% and 20.91%, respectively. Each is higher than its national average by 5.5 to 6.5 percentage points. "Tender rejections" refers to the percentage of electronically offered loads by shippers that carriers turn down for various reasons. In this case, it's likely because of high demand for reefers and not enough of them to go around.

SONAR Tickers: FREEZE.WAYakima, ROTRI.URNW, RITRI.URNW

Since the beginning of the year, strong mountain snowstorms have routinely slammed the PNW. More storms are in the forecast for the rest of this week.

Carriers may be rejecting a fair amount of outbound and inbound reefer loads right now because, when bad weather hits a region, carriers who travel regionally on a regular basis often react the same into and out of that region. This could also be a function of where they're going. Some carriers are dedicated to the Northwest, but freight is sometimes hard to come by there. This, combined with frequent snowstorms, can keep drivers stranded. This reduces capacity in the process, driving up rejection rates and freight rates.

Safe roads are key to drivers navigating the terrain, as well as shippers, carriers and brokers navigating the markets.

The GOAT to the rescue

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has a four-legged friend who has been attracting a lot of attention lately. But it's not a staff member's pet or simply an agency mascot. Mazama the Avalanche Rescue Goat helps keep roads safe for truckers and the general public, especially during the winter. She has thousands of social media fans and is surprised and humbled by all the adoration. People say she's taking it all in stride.

Mazama wearing her trusty whistle and avalanche beacon as she assists WSDOT crews in measuring snow depth. (Photo: WSDOT)

Bursting onto the scene last winter, Mazama has become the furry face of WSDOT's northern snow and ice program. Sometimes she pops up on SR-20, the North Cascades Highway, helping assess conditions at Washington Pass. Other times, Mazama goes to Stevens Pass on US-2, keeping an eye on avalanche danger for crews clearing the highway. Wherever she shows up, fans follow.

The most important area for freight movement that Mazama works is Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90. Lauren Loepsack, communications manager for WSDOT, said it's a "big freight corridor" in the region, even during the winter.

"Getting that traffic through is a high priority for our team," Loepsack added. "They [truck drivers] are trying to get to the ports over there, or bring from the ports. That's the lifeblood of those highways."

Loepsack also said truck traffic often increases over Stevens Pass on US-2 when Snoqualmie closes.

Mazama's debut in 2018 became an instant sensation.

"Mazama is the hero we all need," one person said on social media, according to WSDOT. Her posts often receive more likes, comments and questions compared to the rest of the department's content.

"All the attention I've gotten, it's humbling," Mazama admitted. "It's nice that I can bring attention to the great work our avalanche teams do because they're the true stars. The fans, I love them, but it's not something I ever expected."

"It continues to grow," Loepsack told FreightWaves. "It's fun to see people become engaged at that level and then be able to have an idea and sort of an identity for Wash-dot [WSDOT]. It gets people on board with us."

Born in the deserts of Patagonia, a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, Mazama made her first stop in the U.S. at Mount Hood, Oregon. This is where a chance meeting with a ski area worker brought Mazama to WSDOT. That worker was the son of Mike Stanford, the avalanche forecast and control supervisor for WSDOT's North Central Region. WSDOT is always on the lookout for great employees, so Stanford recruited Mazama on the spot and she made her way to the Washington Cascades. She was named after the town of Mazama in the northern Cascades.

"And the rest is history," Mazama said. "It was really meant to be."

Stanford, who leads avalanche control work on some of the region's busiest mountain passes, said Mazama hit the ground — with all four legs — running.

"She's really a perfect employee," Stanford said. "She follows directions, she never complains and she does what we need her to do. Plus, she's got a pretty good sense of humor."

The snow was falling hard on the SR-20, North Cascades Highway, when Mazama was checking conditions in late November 2019. (Photo: WSDOT)

But just what does an Avalanche Rescue Goat do? "Whatever I want," Mazama jokes, but there's more to it. Her main job is to assist WSDOT crews in relaying safety information. She helps keep the public up to date as the team watches weather forecasts. She also checks snow depth, helps set up equipment, and clears snow and debris off roads. Mazama always tags along with her team members when making her reports, so there are no goat-exclusive trips involved in her work.

Mazama has been quite busy this year, with several snowstorms in the Cascades over the past few weeks. The only thing she avoids on the job is setting off explosives used to trigger controlled avalanches.

"It's a little loud for me, and I've got pretty amazing hearing," Mazama added. "So I keep my distance in those situations."

The avalanche control crew does some dangerous work in harsh weather conditions. There was initially no deliberate agenda with Mazama.

"To keep spirits up," Loepsack said. "Keep it as light as possible when you're out doing that sort of work."

Stanford simply posted a few pictures of Mazama to boost morale, and the response blossomed from there.

Mazama assisting crews with clearing US-2 Stevens Pass (Photo: WSDOT)

Fortunately, Mazama has never had to rescue anybody. WSDOT has safety precautions and policies in place to try to keep everyone safe in potential avalanche situations. But Mazama does train for possible rescue situations, and she carries a whistle and an avalanche beacon just in case. Being prepared is key for any team member, human or goat, and that goes for travelers as well.

"You really have to take safety seriously," Mazama stated. "Yes, I know I look good in my gear — really good — but it's first and foremost about safety. We train hard so that we're ready, but the goal is never to have to use our training."

After taking some of the warmer months off last year, Mazama has been happy to be back hard at work this winter.

"I just love being a part of this, it's really fun," Mazama said. "It's hard work but very rewarding keeping people informed and letting them know what all goes into keeping roads open and travelers safe."

In fact, you could say the job is tailor-made for Mazama, and a lot of people think she's the GOAT.

"I get to do what most goats couldn't even dream of," Mazama added, gazing up at the mountains that have become her second home. "I get to be a part of a great team, see beautiful scenery and help share some great messages. And play in the snow. I'm one happy goat."

Image by Annette Meyer from Pixabay

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