by Peter Carter
Lake Kalamalka, as viewed from Highway 97 south of Vernon, B.C., is a stunning turquoise color; it's so beautiful in fact that National Geographic magazine has written about its splendor. It's not surprising, then, to learn that it's so much of a distraction that the government created one of those scenic-lookout places so tourists can pull over and take it all in.
But the average tourist's eyeful of Kalamalka is nowhere near as sensational as the one Dean Nagy got one autumn afternoon back in the late 1970s.
He was pulling a three-quarters-empty dry van behind a Kenworth cabover when he hit a nasty patch of slush rounding a tight curve atop the hill.
"I felt the trailer move and there was a mountain on one side of the road, but I didn't hit the mountain. Instead, I went down, over the bank," the 63-year-old owner-operator recalls.
"All's I could see was water, and I kept thinking ‘God that water's going to be mighty cold. I'm going to have to swim fast.' Imagine driving along and then suddenly thinking that you're about to sink."
Down toward the frigid water the truck and trailer traveled, with Dean hanging on to the wheel and slamming the brake.
He estimates now that the trip down was about 150 feet, over rocks and boulders until, amazingly, his rig came to a stop on an old logging trail.
"Good thing I always travel with my guardian angel," he laughs.
"The only serious damage," Nagy says, "was to my wallet. I got a lump on my right butt cheek and pulled a muscle on my ribs, but the worst thing was that the truck had $7,800 worth of damage."
It was one of only a handful of times Dean Nagy felt like tossing away his keys and changing careers. But he hung in. And these days, he says, he's having so much fun he can't imagine doing anything other than driving, and part of the reason is that more than just his guardian angel is riding shotgun.
Everywhere Dean travels as an owner-operator under contract to Calgary-based Snowy Owl Transportation, his wife Bernice goes, too.
The pair met on November 15, '02, and married a year later. Truth be told, they were set up. Dean's daughter-
in-law posted his name on a country-music radio-station dating website, and Bernice's pal posted hers. At the time, Bernice was running a high-school cafeteria in Calgary and had never been in a tractor-trailer. After she and Dean shared a few long-distance chats and then a few dates, she agreed to a two-week trial period in the truck, she says, "I was hooked."
Now, the newlyweds keep a home in Arnes, Man., on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, and while they're on the road, Bernice does the books while Dean does the steering.
If the trucking industry is ever searching for a poster-couple to recruit newbies to this profession, they needn't look any further than Dean and Bernice.
This pair has so much fun, and makes such a healthy living doing it you'd almost forget it's a job.
Joanne Ritchie, president of the Owner-Operator's Business Association of Canada (OBAC) has this to say about the Nagys: "They're making money at the same time as they're having fun driving truck. They have the big fancy show truck but it's not at the expense of making a living. I think a lot of their success has to do with attitude."
"Our motto," says Dean, is "if you're not having fun, don't do it."
And Bernice says Dean "when he was 60, thought like he was 40 and acted like he was 20."
The Nagy "fun formula" has five secret ingredients.
First, the Nagys haul for Snowy Owl Transportation. They traipse around Canada and the States, nipping into various towns for small loads, so they get to see more out of the way places than they might if they were running truckload. Bernice, who doesn't drive, says she loves seeing the countryside. "I very seldom ever sit back in the sleeper, because I don't want to miss anything."
Second, Dean says, Snowy Owl pays drivers a percentage of the freight rate, as opposed to per-mile. "I calculated a little while ago that on one 3,500 mile trip, we were making $2.67 a mile. Not bad, eh? Why should I run for $1.25 a mile if I can get that?"
He says that running for a percentage of the take with LTL also encourages him to be a very efficient loader.
Snowy Owl, he says, lets him perform like an owner-operator. They don't micro-manage and, according to Bernice, "they let him do things Dean's way." Snowy Owl seems like it has the West Jet approach to human resources. "They really want you to have fun," says Bernice. They don't mind if you do a bit of sightseeing while you're delivering, as long as you hit the docks on time.
Third, the Nagys pilot a breathtaking ride. HighwaySTAR first caught up with them at the Calgary Big Rig Show' n' Shine last summer where the Nagys claimed first prize with their sparkling 2000 Kenworth W900.
"It's the only one of its kind in North America," Dean boasts.
It's pearl white with gold and "viper red" stripes. It's powered by a 550 hp Cat, but last year Dean installed an electronic boost switch that he can operate from the cab and that kicks the Cat's spec up to 650 - instantly.
"It's a racing truck," he says with a sly smile. "And that extra booster is like an overdrive."
With 8-in., 16-sided mirrored stacks, mirror-finish stainless steel steps, and a mirror finish around the fuel tanks, the truck cab glistens in the sun.
Inside, too, it shines. Bernice has installed oh, about 2,000 chrome buttons and there's stainless everywhere - on speakers, around the headlights. "You take care of your truck," he says, "and it'll take care of you."
Since becoming an owner-operator in the early seventies after growing up in Manitoba, Dean has been religious about his choice of truck. And engine.
"If you cut one wrist, I'd bleed Kenworth," he says, "and if you cut the other, I bleed Cat."
Fourth, Dean just loves driving. He says he grew up hoping to be a race car driver, and even though he had some near misses like the one in Vernon, he enjoys being behind the wheel. "I'm never bored.
"The problem with a lot of truckers is that they don't like driving and those are the guys who get into trouble. If you enjoy what you're doing, you'll think about it and not think about what you'd rather be doing." He also likes to, um, get the most out of his truck.
He puts it this way - when he's talking on the record: "The day they make us all get speed limiters is the day I'm gone."
The fifth ingredient in the Nagy success formula? Each other.
Dean and Bernice both believe in the three-times lucky theory of marriage.
"The key to our successful marriage," he says, "is that she comes in the truck with me."
That's only part of the story. When you meet this pair, you see they're made for each other. Dean finishes Bernice's sentences. He quotes her. They both love to meet people and they're teasing each other like kindergarten playmates.
"He's a real romantic," Bernice, 62, says of Dean.
"She makes me see things I'd never see otherwise," he counters. "This arrangement makes driving a completely different story.