To our north, where the lines on the map change from red or blue to grey or disappear entirely, there’s a whole world of trucking going on that hardly anyone knows about.
It’s not the tame and safe world of EOBR- and ECM-controlled LCVs on four-lane highways. It’s a world where drivers and machines live on the edge — sometimes literally — in a barely-managed co-existence with nature, the elements and the terrain. Drivers push their trucks into places they’re not supposed to go, but go they do on a tenuous lease from Mother Nature.
This is the kind of training you could never get from a simulator. And if you’ve ever wondered why so many truckers are dubious about how EOBRs or the like could ever save their hides, here’s your answer.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, type “Pickle Lake, ON” into Google Maps. Pickle Lake sits about 300 km north of beautiful downtown Ignace, ON. on Hwy. 17 — about 250 km west of Thunder Bay. It’s the northernmost community in the province with year-round paved highway access, Hwy 599. From Pickle Lake, switch the map view to satellite, and zoom in to the 1 km level, then start scrolling the map north. After 250 km the “road” ends at Windigo Lake. That’s where the fun starts.
From Windigo Lake, zoom in to the 500m level and keep scrolling north. You’ll see a faint grey line extending as far north as you have the patience to scroll, and off that road are innumerable branches leading into the bush as they fade from the satellite’s view. Every day hundreds of drivers make their living racking up the meters on roads like this. Your basic Texas bull-hauler wouldn’t last an hour up there.
It’s worth mentioning — insofar as the conditions in such places are bleak and forbidding at the best of times — that much of the trucking activity in the far north takes place in winter when it’s cold enough to keep the ground solid enough to drive on.
For the record, I’m not talking the gravel roads that lace certain populated regions of the north, like Hwy 389 running north of Baie Comeau, QC, and into western Labrador, or the Trans-Labrador Highway. Or even the famed Alaska Highway that links Ft. Saint John, BC and Fairbanks, AK via Yukon.
Those roads, complete with their own challenges, are like four-lane highways compared to the goat paths some truckers work on.
(Your scribe has spent a little time in this world, though he’s the first to admit that the men and women who work there for real have forgotten more than he knows about it.)
Since the days when Les Coureurs des Bois traversed the hinterland, lakes and rivers were the preferred arteries. Portages meant backbreaking labor and risk. Water remains the preferred route, even for truckers, and the portages still pose many a hazard. Frozen lakes and rivers are flat and smooth and easy to drive on when the ice is thick enough. They also keep road-building costs to a minimum. Grooming and maintaining the ice comes at a fraction of the cost of cutting a road through forest or over muskeg.
Despite whatever else you might take away from the TV show “Ice Road Truckers,” the risks of running on frozen bodies of water are real. Owner-operator and former Highway Star of the Year Dale Hadland has earned his stripes on the ice roads of the Northwest Territories. He says the biggest challenge there is boredom.
“Imagine driving from Toronto to Windsor at 25 km/h in fog,” he says. “The challenge is staying alert. The surface is flat and featureless, so there’s not much to keep you interested. But if your mind wanders for a second, you’re onto a snow bank and you’re stuck. The snow banks are made of ice, so they’re very unforgiving.”
Hadland says speed limits on the ice are to prevent fractures or blowouts.
“The ice actually bends as you drive on it, forming a sort of wave in front of the truck,” he says. “If you get going faster than the speed the ice can safely flex — if you run over the crest of the wave — it will break and open up. There’s a risk to the driver, but it also may close the road, and that’s something the operators of the road get very unhappy about.”
The maximum speed loaded is 25 km/h, empty on the return trip you can go a little faster he says.
Off- Off- Off-Road
Not to diminish the skill and patience required to survive a winter on the Ice Road, but those other winter roads, like the aforementioned trail heading north from Pickle Lake and Windigo Lake, are another kettle of fish.
It’s as if somebody got a big Caterpillar D9, pointed it north, lowered the blade and stuffed it into drive. The trail it carved through the bush and over the hills became the road. There was little concern for the steepness of the grades or the tightness of the turns. It’s all about keeping costs down. Often, the bush road would open onto a river or lake, and a few miles of relative calm would ensue. As above, close attention to speed was called for, and when crossing off the ice back onto land, one had to be careful not to hit shore too fast; the ice along the shoreline is much thinner.
Those roads generally are no more than 16 to 20-ft wide, making passing an oncoming truck a real dance, especially with a wide load. There were turn-outs every so many kilometers, and you had to call out positions on the radio so other traffic knew where you were, which direction you were travelling, and how wide you were.
With no exaggeration, the grades on some sections of the road were 15 and 18 percent. They crest more like a set of stairs than a road. You literally had to go as hard as possible at the hill to gain momentum, hoping gravity would kick in at the right time to prevent you from launching into mid air. If the trailer bogies got hung up on the crest of a hilltop, your drive wheels would just spin uselessly in midair.
It was worse going down. The roads were iced-over logs laid end to end and frozen into place. Ice and snow made the hills like bobsled tracks without the sidewalls. Once over the top, it was a one-way ticket down. Hopefully, you didn’t overdo it coming over the crest because a 90-degree turn often awaited at the bottom. Sometimes the turns were so tight that over-length trailers, like the ones we pulled, hung up in the brush on the corner. That brought you to a stop in mighty hurry.
My mentor and tour guide on my first couple of trips north of Pickle Lake was Keith Wrigglesworth, a veteran of difficult situations and as bullheaded a man as you’re likely to meet. His usual response to my many questions was, “just follow me and don’t back out of it.”
Wrigglesworth learned how to truck in Sudbury when the mines that once dotted that part of the province were in full swing. He had more miles on such roads behind him then than I had on-highway at the time. These roads were second nature to him — and while a skilled and dedicated truck driver, he had little patience for nervous-Nellys or stupidity.
“On these roads, you have to know what the truck is capable of and what you as the driver are capable of. Unfortunately, there’s no way to find that out until you get to the edge,” he told me. “Stay behind me and just give ‘er.”
I’m sure the safety people reading this are cringing. There’s no way to prepare for this kind of operation other than get in and do it — best done behind an experienced guide and mentor like Wrigglesworth. I wouldn’t say he took any unnecessary risks, but there were plenty of white-knuckle moments on those first few trips.
Learning on the Easy Roads
My first taste of off-road trucking came in the early-’80s hauling diesel fuel into the mines and logging camps in northeastern Ontario. With three years of experience on tractor-trailers, I was out of my league (and my mind, come to think of it) hauling A-trains on bush roads. When you’re on the bottom of the seniority list, you take what you can get.
The roads ran north from a staging area at La Sarre, QC., about 90 km north of Rouyn-Noranda, where trucks bound for points north checked in. The roads were wide and smooth and gravel-covered most of the year. In winter, they used a few rivers and lakes to cut down the miles. The greatest risk was getting lost.
Mostly we ran in small convoys; three or four trucks with the lead driver having a better idea than the followers where to go. Sign posts were colored markers planted in snow banks. The pink road went to one mine, the yellow road to another. Sometimes the signs fell over or were uprooted by plows. Sometimes the weather was so bad you couldn’t see the signs from the middle of the road.
There were helicopters staged at the checkpoints to fly off in search of wayward drivers like me, who missed a sign or made a wrong turn. That was in the days before GPS and satellite tracking and satellite phones. And because my company wasn’t a regular on the roads, we didn’t even have two-way FM transmitters. A CB wasn’t much help with no landmarks to provide a bearing.
We shared the roads with loggers, who were hauling their loads southbound. They’d come screaming down the trails with bunks overflowing with pulp wood — sticking out five feet wider than the truck on both sides. Not unlike a knight’s jousting pole, these things posed a real threat to the northbound trucks. The roads were wide enough, and you couldn’t be sure that the truck coming at you wasn’t loaded like a porcupine. You hit the snow bank and ducked your head when they went by.
Aside from the potential for getting lost or speared by a Spruce butt, there wasn’t much risk driving on those logging roads in northern Quebec and Ontario.
It was a good place to get your feet wet — and probably safer than the trip between Edmonton and Fort McMurray on Alberta’s Hwy 63.
Still wondering why some oldtimers look askance at EOBRs?