Friday, February 6, 2009

"That – now that – would be an adventure."

Here is an article from the Toronto Star about the Ice Road heading out of Yellowknife up to the diamond mines. Nuna Logistics is located about a five minute walk from where I am living.

Driving with the ice road truckers

Driving an ice road through Canada's chilly Barren Lands is for hardy truckers – and the birds


Feb 06, 2009

LOCKHART LAKE, N.W.T.–The sky is as white as the ground as we drive across the lake ice. Short trees dot the shallow hills along the shoreline while the distance rolls by. Then suddenly, the window fills with black.

PHOTOS: Ice road odyssey

A raven, as long as my arm, flies alongside, so close it can be touched, looking at us in the Jeep.

"The truckers feed them, you know," says Pat McCloskey, riding shotgun in the passenger seat. "The birds will take bread right from their hands at 30 km/h."

It's forbidden, though. "Feeding wildlife while operating/travelling on or near the Winter Road is strictly prohibited," states the rule book. "Penalty, First Offence: Banned from the Winter Road."

There are many, many rules that truckers must adhere to if they want to be flown up here to earn $500 a day, plus all food and expenses. They haul supplies north from Yellowknife to the three diamond mines of the Northwest Territories, but just for the two months each year that the 400-kilometre ice road exists across the frozen lakes of the Barren Lands.

McCloskey, director of community and corporate affairs for Diavik Diamond Mines, hands over the rule book:

No speeding on the ice. Limits are no more than 35 km/h, and down to 15 km/h in some places, even 10 km/h entering and leaving the portages between lakes. Any faster sends a wave of water under the frozen surface that can build with speed and blow the ice, sending a truck down.

No stopping or parking on the ice. Concentrated weight and heat from the truck will damage the ice, perhaps even melting it past its ability to support a 60-tonne truck and load.

No messing about on the ice. Trucks travel in convoys of three and four, spaced half a kilometre apart. All drivers carry survival kits to cope with temperatures that routinely drop below —40C.

And last year, there was a new rule: No media cameras in or attached to the trucks, and no transportation of media personnel. The Winter Road Joint Venture organizers were fed up with the Ice Road Truckers.

"I don't know what I'm doing now," says Alex Debogorski, one of the stars of the cult TV show's two seasons. "They say they want to film a third season but they haven't called me yet. And now I'm losing money because I could be out there driving the Road."

And then he laughs, a deep, rolling laugh, a laugh now recognized in more than two dozen countries and so popular that it can be downloaded as a ring tone. A laugh heard by 3.4 million people in the U.S. alone when Ice Road Truckers became the History Channel's highest-rated show ever.

And it's a laugh that will be heard across Canada next month, when the series' first season debuts March 4 on History Television.

"When it airs in Canada, I have a little bit of trepidation about what's going to come out of the woodwork," says Debogorski, 56, born in Grande Cache, Alta., but a Yellowknife resident since 1976.

"This movie thing has put a twist in my life – things just aren't the same anymore."

Debogorski gets mail from around the world from people who send him warm underwear, bottles of Jack Daniel's whisky, you name it. On the show, he's the religious one, a devout Catholic with 11 children and nine grandchildren.

In the summertime, tourists stop by his house to meet him, and all year long, truckers call to find out how they can get jobs on the ice road. After all, it was Debogorski's photo in last year's People magazine that proclaimed Ice Road Truckers to be "TV's Hottest Manly Men."

Ice Road Truckers is a reality series to its fans and a docu-soap to its critics. In the first season, half a dozen truckers are followed risking their lives on the ice. It's a daylong crawl to the farthest mine — it used to be 600 km, a day and a half, before a more distant mine closed down — and the show plays up the danger for all it's worth.

Every week, the heroic drivers brave whiteouts and bitter wind chill to survive the haul. Every week, the same footage is replayed of a transport truck breaking through the ice to a frigid, watery grave.

But whiteouts are less dangerous at 15 km/h, and the truck cabs are generally warm. Dispatchers along the way close the road if it's deemed too dangerous by the security crews who patrol constantly.

And the crashing truck? It's a one-sixth scale model, four metres long, being pulled through a snowy scene that's made from sugar and shaved ice. It was filmed in California by "some of Hollywood's greatest special effects masters," according to the series' DVD. After all, transport trucks don't crash through the ice anymore.

"As long as you drive within the rules, it's about impossible to wreck," says Debogorski. "For me, it isn't dangerous. In fact it's boring, but TV's got to make something out of all these truckers doing 15 mph on the ice."

One of the longest lake crossings, says McCloskey, is called "Two Movie Lake" by the drivers, because they have time to watch two movies on dash-mounted DVD players as they plod slowly north. The scenery is monotonous and usually dark, and even the magical Northern Lights on a clear night seem routine by the 10th long haul.

Out on frozen Gordon Lake, we pull up in the Jeep Grand Cherokee to a pair of ice inspectors, dragging a radar monitor behind them to measure the ice depth.

"Ice Road Truckers! That fairy tale?" says Paul Nobert of Kamloops, who comes here each winter to work for Nuna Logistics, the road's constructor.

"You watch that show and you think the ice will give way any moment, but I'll tell you – when the ice is three-foot thick, it's not giving way."

The ice does crack under the weight of the big rigs, but this is a good thing. As anyone here will tell you, ice is a flexible membrane across the top of the lake's water, and it will bend under load. Cracking means it's healing itself as the weight passes over. No cracking means the ice is too soft – not strong enough.

In fact, the most dangerous time on the ice is at the beginning of construction season, usually early December, when the road first takes shape. Helicopters fly overhead and measure the ice depth, and once there's a consistent 12 inches of ice – that's 30 cm, but ice is measured in inches up here – Hagland vehicles, tracked and buoyant, head out onto the portages to compress the snow and help the ground to freeze.

At 16 inches, Sno-Cats go onto the ice to clear away the insulating snow. The road is flooded to create ice on the surface and help increase the depth. People and equipment do go through the ice at this time; every several years, somebody is lost. A plate of ice will break away and tip the vehicle into the open water, bobbing back into place afterwards and preventing escape from below. The shock of the cold is swift to kill.

The truckers, however, see nothing of this. By 29 inches, the first lightly loaded transport trucks can head out; this season, it opened last Sunday, the first day of February.

The most fragile area of ice is close to the shoreline, where it is warmest and thinnest. Sometimes, especially if the truck has been travelling too quickly, an axle will break through; the driver leaps from the truck and waits inside the cab of another in the convoy for rescue, and the tow truck will wait for the ice to freeze again properly before lifting the transport out.

The ice gains thickness at about an inch every couple of days. Once there's a minimum of 42 inches of ice, measured in the centre and at each edge of the 50 metre-wide roadway, it can carry whatever load the trucks can haul.

"The days of just driving and stopping and saying 'Gee, the ice looks good here,' are long gone," says Erik Madsen, director of Winter Road operations.

"With this road, safety comes first all the time, and Ice Road Truckers just made a mockery of everything we do."

By the end of the two-month season, the ice can be more than 60 inches thick. The road closes because the snow melts on the land and turns the road to gumbo, not because the lakes can't bear the weight.

We press on north to the rest point at Lockhart Lake, 300 km northeast of Yellowknife and right on the edge of the treeless Barrens, where we'll check on the facility, eat lunch and then turn back for home before the short day finally fades. Our Jeep and a GMC Sierra pickup from the maintenance fleet pass the crawling trucks with ease, though swirling snow cuts visibility and slows our speed. Light vehicles have a speed limit of 80 km/h.

The ice is the best part of the drive, smooth and flat, sticky as pavement in the cold. The portages between lakes are bumpy and jarring, sometimes a steep ascent off the ice for which trucks must build speed to conquer. The radio crackles with conversation among the drivers.

"Welcome back to the ice road," says one trucker to another in his convoy, touching his tires to the ice for the first time this lucrative season. "Up here, there's only two temperatures: Cold, and Effing Cold."

Those drivers are lucky to be working. Loads are down this year. Demand for diamonds has dropped as the world's recession bites into the vanity of humanity. The clear diamonds found in northern Canada have lost some of their lustre.

Ice Road Truckers portrays the season as a desperate race against time to get vital supplies to the mines, too costly to fly in during the rest of the year, but it was only in 2006, an unusually warm season, that the road failed to achieve its maximum capacity.

It made up for it the following year, when the show's first season was filmed and almost 11,000 loads were hauled for a record 330,000 tonnes. This year, though, the target is just 200,000 tonnes of supplies, mostly diesel fuel, cement and explosives. Besides, the mines have been constructed now and their open pits are being replaced with underground tunnels – there's less need for prefab buildings and new gravel trucks.

Those southern drivers who call Alex Debogorski looking for work up here are now out of luck. The 800 drivers of 2007 became just 550 drivers in 2008, and there are fewer still this winter.

This didn't deter Ice Road Truckers, though. The second season is arguably more exciting, as it follows Debogorski and others on trucking missions across the frozen delta north of Inuvik, hauling massive equipment on the (allegedly) less stable ice of the Arctic Ocean.

Will there be a third season? Debogorski, at home in Yellowknife, smiles at the thought.

"You know, a guy told me about an ice road north out of Cambridge Bay, right on the top of Canada, heading a hundred kilometres out over the ocean to some places on the islands. There's a huge truck that hauls sleds behind it, just piling black smoke from the stack straight up into the air, and the Inuit go ahead and clear the road of polar bears.

"That – now that – would be an adventure."

Mark Richardson is the editor of wheels. Email him

1 comment:

0s0-Pa said...

Nothing funner than driving on some ice in a big huge truck ;)
-Jack @ Trucking Jobs