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Ice Jockeys

by Marco Beghetto

We get lots of calls and e-mails here at highwaySTAR asking about jobs in the north, trucking on the frozen lakes and rivers that make Arctic travel so difficult in the summer. Come winter, all those lakes and rivers freeze solid enough to support the weight of convoys of trucks, thus straightening the route and shortening the distance between any two points considerably.

With so much freight taking to the lakes this time of the year, there's a steep increase in the demand for drivers. But whoa! Before you stuff your parka into a rucksack and head north to Yellowknife, dreaming of danger and high adventure in the Arctic, there's one thing you need to know: if it's adventure you're looking for, look elsewhere.

The companies that specialize in this kind of trucking don't regard the work they do as a passport to thrills and excitement. It's highly specialized work, demanding attention to detail and respect for the conditions and the environment. There's no room for the 'screw it, we're goin' through' types. You can play those kinds of games on I-80 in Wyoming if that's what you're into.

"For sure, it's no joke up there," says Allen Scraba, president of ARS Trucking and Welding. Based in Edmonton, the company builds, maintains, and hauls freight along ice roads in the Northwest Territories. "There's no room for plow jockeys here," he adds, noting that ice-road hauling is one of the most dangerous and highly regulated industries in the country. "If you say you can do something, you better mean it or it can cost you."

Much of the southern Arctic is inaccessible to any kind of vehicle for nine months of the year. Permafrost conditions and the terrain make even a gravel road prohibitive to build and maintain, but with all the oil exploration, mining, and archeological work going on in the north, all the necessary equipment and supplies, like building materials and fuel, must be hauled in during the winter. Over the years, supply routes like the Lupin Winter Road have made huge contributions to the territorial economies.

The Lupin Road snakes its way from Yellowknife, NWT, to Contwoyto, Nunavut, nearly 400 km away, serving dozens of remote communities and mining ventures located in the area. About 70% of the road is built upon frozen lakes. Under ideal conditions, the trip can take from 16 to 18 hours. Last year, a record 3700 trucks traveled the Lupin. Another of Canada's more famous ice roads connects Hay River, NWT, with Yellowknife, 250 km to the north, straight across Great Slave Lake. In the summer, it's a 400-km trip by road.

In addition to the ice roads constructed by the mining industry, the government of the Northwest Territories builds and maintains over 1200 km of these temporary highways to provide land access to the vast and sparsely populated regions of the north. There are miles of ice roads in northern Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec as well. These are roads cut through the bush, impassable in summer, but virtual super highways in winter.

Seasonal Demand

RTL Robinson Enterprises of Yellowknife specializes in winter ice-road route selection, construction, and maintenance. They have been building and maintaining winter roads all over the north for more than 30 years. In 1997 the company hauled more than 100 million litres of fuel and 20 million kg of dry freight across the winter roads.

Moving that quantity of freight in a very short season (three to four months at the most) requires a substantial fleet. RTL grows from a couple of hundred trucks in the spring to almost 800 during ice-road season. The number of drivers RTL hires is dependant on the company's projections of the local economy for the upcoming winter, and they take great pains in weeding out the northbound cowboys who view the job as an opportunity for adventure instead of serious work. Recruiting starts in early summer.

Professionalism and a positive attitude are priorities, but with applicants from all over the country, aptitude tests are hard to conduct over the phone. The best way to get a fix on a driver's disposition is during the orientation and training stages, where new hires spend more than a week going over the equipment, convoy procedures, speed strategies, tactics on hills, emergency procedures, recovery and rescue, and first aid.

The stringent demands of the training and the winter road orientation process is sometimes enough to filter out the applicants who may be up there for the wrong reasons. Or, it may be even simpler than that. As Mike Suchlandt, RTL's human resources director puts it, "We've had some excellent, top-notch drivers come up here and take one trip on the road and say, 'Nope, this isn't for me.'"

Through a recruitment campaign directed all across Canada, RTL receives interest from all walks of life. Drivers with experience in the oil patch, logging, and mining tend to get the first look, but when those industries are booming, drivers with off-road experience are hard to find. Seasonal workers such as fishers also get serious consideration from RTL.

Scraba, on the other hand, says some of the best ice-road operators he's hired are farmers. He likes their work ethic and ability to react and think clearly in tricky situations. "They know the fundamental laws of gravity," he says. "Field workers who pull cultivators routinely have to be able to handle situations like when the equipment starts spinning and goes down. Knowing what to do in situations like that really helps on the ice roads."

Scraba says he won't know how a driver is going to turn out until he's taken at least one trip on the ice. "We usually know on their first day out on a trip if it's going to be their last day," he says.

Out On the Ice

A driver needs to be constantly aware of the changing operating conditions around him. There is a close relationship between the thickness of the ice, proximity to land, the gross vehicle weight, the speed, and distance between vehicles. RTL is large enough to have a dedicated team monitoring the conditions on the roads they maintain. But at a smaller company, Scraba, who himself heads out in the lead truck at the beginning and end of each day, says his drivers have to be able to make the right call about the conditions and their ability to travel safely. A miscalculation or lapse in concentration can spell disaster.

Aside from what might be considered the obvious challenges of Arctic operations, bitter cold, blasting wind, blinding snow, and darkness, the roads themselves can be a real threat to your longevity if you don't do it right. One big problem is blowout, which occurs when a heavy truck drives too fast across a lake. A wave formed beneath the ice by the compression from above will crash at the shore and rebound, breaking up the ice and shutting down the road.

To thicken the ice, crews use big augers to drill holes through the ice, then they drive pickup trucks around the area. The weight of the trucks forces water up through the holes and onto the ice, where it freezes. This can add three inches a day to the thickness of the ice.

So what sort of character makes the best ice-road driver? Those intangible qualities are essential. For safety reasons, trucks travel in convoys, so a driver has to be able to work and communicate with other drivers yet still be at ease with the isolation and monotony of nothing but snow ahead at 10 km/h. The ability to work unsupervised, or in a team environment, are good skills to have, as is the proven ability to follow instructions closely. And of course, excellent communication skills are high on the list. But if you're including these attributes on your application to run one of Allen Scraba's ice-road tractors up in the Arctic, you'd better be sure you can back up every single word.

"If you have personal problems, or your head isn't in it," Scraba says, "stay home."

Recruiting the best driver for the job isn't just a cliché when you're hauling on ice roads. It doesn't particularly matter where a driver comes from, says Scraba, as long as his will is strong and he has the fortitude to finish what he starts.

If you're still wondering just how strong the ice is, in 1978 RTL transported a 190,000-lb generator over the ice road from Yellowknife to Port Radium on Great Bear Lake, over 300 miles away. Feel better?

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