On Thick Ice

written by David K. Henry

  “Four North on 49, last one is wide”

  “Ok, Convoy we have a wet spot right after the portage and security is making sure we’re staying at 10, then we’ll be back to 25 at the half K sign. Keep your spacing in the slow zone”

  The instructions over the radio sound like a convoy operating with military precision, and it is that very thing. Mine resupply in Canada’s Arctic is an operation that lasts approximately 2 months in late winter. It is busy, closely monitored, and has no room for error. About 85% of the “road” itself is floating on water, with anywhere from 500 to 800 trucks cruising on top; the main stretch is 400 kilometres long branching out in spurs to various mines.

  This is extreme trucking that few in the world get to experience. And it is essential to the economy in Yellowknife and the survival of the mines.

  Every year since 1982 a road has built over ice-covered water to bring supplies northward. It’s been there so long it is even found on most Global Positioning Systems. The route can change a little from one year to the next but usually not by much. Once established it will support anywhere from 3,500 to almost 11,000 loads in a single season.

  The skills needed to drive the route are familiar, but a demand to closely follow the rules is exacting. Some experienced drivers arrive in the north with a cocky outlook. Before you know it, they head home for good. The next driver may be a rookie with very little experience who takes to the job and returns for many successful years.

  The pioneers of this road, and the ones in charge, have tested and proven what works safely. If you follow instructions from your convoy leader you are less likely to make a mistake that will lead to a warning or suspension.

Long hours, little wiggle room

  You must drive for up to 7 hours with no breaks; all at 25 kph. When loaded northbound you must slow to 10 kph when you go on and off the ice and follow the speed limit religiously. Any deviance from the posted numbers will land you in hot water, which is not good if you want an ice road career. 27 in a 25, or 15 going on or off the ice will net you a 5-day suspension and loss of a safety bonus. There is very little wiggle room and for good reason. A ‘blowout’, where the ice cracks and water flows up onto the ice, caused by speeding or unsafe actions can shut a road down to really slow speeds, or in the worst case, the closing of the road for the season.

  All loaded northbound trucks are dispatched from Yellowknife in convoys every 20 minutes. A convoy consists of at least 2, but usually 4 trucks. The first 70 km is on a narrow territorial road that twists and leaps over and around small hills. Drivers are required to stay 1 km apart from each other so you rely on the leader calling out the mileage markers and gauging where you are in relation to that. You will have security patrolling that road and watching for speed and spacing.

  Try to imagine that challenge. Narrow road. Each truck with different weights. Twists in the road only allow for the occasional glimpse of the truck ahead. Convoy leaders calling out locations. Maintain your speed and spacing. It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect for 69 km; if you slip up in the wrong place you could end up in the ditch or getting suspended by the ever-watchful security teams.

  Some people can’t handle the boredom. Hour after hour of avoiding cracks in the ice, straining to see through the blowing snow, hoping your truck doesn’t die in the -40C, or need a regen, takes it toll. Speed and spacing is the mantra. Follow the speed religiously and keep 500 metres away from the truck in front. Security is everywhere and listening on the radio. They’re in a pickup so they can travel much faster than you. It makes it seem like they’re everywhere.

  You do this for 60 days straight. Legally allowed 16 hours on duty per day, it is exhausting. No days off required. Yes, that’s 112 hours per week! You get to the point that you want a road closure to get some extra rest or you voluntarily take a day off in Yellowknife.

Solitude, yet closeness. 

  Constantly in a convoy with at least one other person, except in special circumstances. The solitude, yet closeness to the same people can cause some to crack. No foul language, harassment or bullying of any kind,is tolerated whether from drivers or security or other workers. People who act like that are quickly weeded out.

  During the season you’ll probably spend some quality time stranded on a portage in a howling blizzard, trying to keep warm and hoping you don’t have a case of diarrhea. (There are only 2 areas that have “bathrooms”) Cooking in a small area, no room for exercise, no one to talk to, except by radio which is constantly monitored by the authorities and hoping the truck keeps pumping heat and that you’ll have enough fuel to get to the next fuel stop. It is nerve-wracking.

  The fear of plunging through the ice is hard for some to manage. This is despite the fact that no resupply truck has ever gone through the ice into the lake below.  An ice worker vehicle has, but never the resupply trucks. It’s an amazing safety record for the Joint Ventures who manage the road. Still, many drivers have gone home early, never able to get over the tension.

  A good portion of the road is above the treeline so it is like a barren moonscape. Harsh, but beautiful. It’s wonderful to see the animals roaming, or flying around. Here the authorities are extremely strict. All of the land belongs to the natives and nature is king. If you throw a breadcrumb out the window to feed an animal you will be immediately sent home and banned for life. It’s the most important rule. Leave the land as you found it. The parking areas and the roads get scraped at the end of the season and disposed of in a safe manner. The same portage, or land crossings are the same ones every year and are quite narrow. No more land is crossed than is absolutely necessary. You are never allowed to approach wildlife, or honk your horn to get them to move. Burial grounds are gone around at slow speeds to respect the ancestors.

Road work

 Construction of the ice road starts as soon as there is enough ice to support an amphibious vehicle that maps the thicknesses of the ice using ground penetrating radar. These radar sleds are towed up and down the ice constantly until the season is practically over. This data is used to determine the weights allowed and where ice needs to be made better or thicker.

  In an area of poor or thin ice, a crew will go out with a truck-mounted auger. Usually they set up in the middle of the 150’ wide road and drill holes several yards apart. Others in the crew take special water pumps and suck water from the hole. Like flooding a backyard rink, they pump water over the ice, one side at a time. Traffic will pass by at 10 kph on the dry side. There are many crews constantly repairing the road 24/7. It’s a great system and they do a tremendous job, all at temperatures that would frighten most sane people.

  On any large body of water, pressure ridges can rise up and form as the ice freezes. This is where ice pushes together forming an impassable peak. The crews work hard to reinforce the ridges and shave them with graders. Traffic here can be reduced to 5 kph on a bad one. On rare occasions the road will have to go out of the planned route to find a better place to cross the ridge.

  Everyone sees the toll that heavy vehicles take on the roads made of cement and asphalt or stone. It’s no different on the ice. A loaded truck will cause the ice to deflect up to  3”, creating a wave effect. Have ever watched a train at a crossing and felt the road move up and down and the rails flexing? It is the same idea on the ice, except the “solid” roadbed is a minimum of 39” of ice. The approaches to portages are rarely straight in, but rather curved to allow the wave to dissipate away from where you need to land. All of this flexing also causes cracks in the ice. These cracks can swallow a tire if you’re not careful so you watch to avoid damaging your equipment.

  Sometimes as you’re passing near a crack, the flexing causes a snowball, or soccer ball to pop up and skid across the ice. These chunks can literally be as big as basketballs and if they haven’t broken totally free, can present a real hazard. The ice workers highlight them with reflective paint so they’re easier to see. If you’re sleepy and one fires up under your truck you will certainly sit up a little straighter for a few minutes!

Keep moving

  There are no special trucks for up here. Each trailer is loaded to the maximum allowable, either by weight or space. A super B unit on the ice with full weight allowable can be permitted to 67,000 kgs (3.5 tonnes more than most jurisdictions). Every vehicle must be stocked with emergency rations, spill kits, and have a working VHF radio. Extra insulation and belly tarps are used to try and keep the cold out.

  One main rule is to never shut off your engine. If you are in Yellowknife fueling, you can to check oil, but the hard rule is to leave your truck running. At -40 or -50, it doesn’t take long for it to freeze and not restart. No one wants to take the risk of freezing, while trying to re-fire a truck.

  At the end of the season you feel relief and may swear you’ll never come back. If you’ve made it the whole season with no suspensions or incidents you’ll walk a little prouder. But just making it is an accomplishment no matter what. The bonds with the other drivers is never forgotten and will continue when you go back home.

  It’s brutally tough, monotonous, frigidly cold like you’ve never seen before, rules strict beyond belief and the pay is decent.

  Don’t worry, you’ll come back for another “last” year just to do it all over again.

 This article was in the February 2017 issue of Today’s Trucking.