The most dangerous thing that guy did," says John O’Callaghan, a technician with Toyota in Cambridge, Ont., but more importantly a big fan of reality TV shows, "was marry that California number."
O’Callaghan was referring to a truck driver named T.J. Tilcox.
Tilcox is one of the drivers featured in the hit American reality show called "Ice Road Truckers." During the course of working on the show last year, Tilcox, 23, fell in love with and married Michelle Palmer, 37, one of the show’s producers.
He’s from the central Ontario town of Erin — population 11,000. She’s from L.A.
He’s wearing a cowboy hat and looking rearward out the driver’s window. But instead of the back of his head in the rear-view, you see a tractor-trailer sinking through a crack in the ice. The steer tires are holding on to the surface, the fifth wheel is half submerged. Over the image are the words "Take an adrenaline-pumping ride on one of the most dangerous roads in the world."
Anyone who has worked the ice roads can tell you that the job is many things — demanding, lucrative, overly regulated, even boring at times — but dramatic? Hardly. (O’Callaghan the card again: "The only thing that might make that job exciting would be global warming.")
The point being Hollywood could make quilting sexy.
Think about it. They do it with "American Chopper" and home-renovation programs. In the right hands, even something as tedious as drywalling can be a spectator sport.
Who hasn’t been caught up by the crab fishermen in the show called "World’s Deadliest Catch?" If those jobs weren’t tarted up with clever editing and breathless narration, who would watch?
The producers at the History Channel — the American, not the Canadian one — decided a few years ago to glam up the world of ice-road driving the same way their competitors at Discovery Channel did to those crab trappers.
"Ice Road Truckers’" first season broke ratings records. At certain moments, more than 3.4 million Americans tuned in to watch guys like T.J. drive. And argue. And have near misses with machinery. And phone their wives.
Some participants from last season said the show misrepresented the trucking business.
We see tearful kids watching their daddies leave the house, headed for the ice roads. In one episode, Wade "Polar Bear" Rowland bids his wife in Kelowna adieu, adding "thanks for the quickie."
In one scene, driver Alex Debogorski — introduced as a deeply Roman Catholic father of 11 — makes the Sign of the Cross as the weather starts to worsen.
One of the more dramatic moments has T.J. en route to a drilling platform on the McKenzie ice field, looking like he’s about to have a heart attack. From behind the wheel of his Volvo, T.J.’s frantically radioing for help and keeling over in agony. He finally pulls into a checkpoint and gets medivacced out to Yellowknife for help.
Turns out the episode is a dramatic recreation of something that had happened a few weeks earlier. Tilcox was in fact losing strength and feeling pain and he attributes it to the fact that when he had been strapping down his load when a ratchet let go and the strap caught him across the chest and knocked him clear across the trailer.
It’s the sort of accident that could happen in any truck yard anywhere but because it happened to an ice-road driver, the producers made it appear like the type of accident that ice-road truckers face on a daily basis. Another particularly dramatic moment? A truck hits a moose on the Dempster highway.
How about this? At one point, driver Drew has to borrow somebody else’s coat. Pretty scary, eh?
Still, the History Channel turns regular guys like Wade Rowland into larger-than-life adventurers. Why else do you think he and a few of his fellow ice-road drivers were invited to be guests on the Leno show in mid July?
The one thing that the people at the History Channel don’t do is lie.
The first season of ice-road trucking drew criticism from some northern companies who accused the producers of over-dramatizing the business.
A marriage made in Yellowknife: Trucker Tilcox and his TV wife Palmer.
They (the producers) were glorifying the dangers of ice-road driving and depicting professional drivers as cowboys "making a dash for money at a very high risk," said Tom Hoefer, a spokesman for diamond mine company Diavik. "It’s very far, far from the reality of how we operate the road, and so we just didn’t see any value in continuing that message," he told CBC, adding that the filming and mounted cameras were creating distractions for drivers.
Jerry Dusdal, who has been with Mullen Transport for almost 19 years, disagrees.
He appears in the second season. He says these kinds of shows thrive not so much on the excitement of the trucks but more on the interaction between the characters.
"They know how to make the most out of any little thing," he says. "And in the new episodes, I kinda give Keith and the other guys a thrashin’ because they don’t know that much about our end of the industry. It’s all in good spirit but the producers pick up
"The thing is, they’re amazed by what we do and we’re amazed by what the producers do. It was lots of fun for our crews and for theirs.
"The producers show what we do to the rest of the world and they also make us appreciate what an amazing part of the world we live in."
Dusdal, 46, says he agreed to help out with the show as long, he says, "as they didn’t put me in a situation that wasn’t real or expect me to be an actor." Neither happened.
Scott Dallimore, of Victoria, is a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. One of his big projects at the moment involves the exploration of gas hydrates — a potential energy source found below the permafrost — and his station in Mallick is served by ice-road trucks. Dallimore agreed to participate with the producers but only according to strict rules. "Under no circumstances was there to be an exaggeration of hazards associated with the exploration."
Likewise, Kurt Wainman is founder and owner of Northwind Industries Inc., a very reputable Yellowknife outfit with 25 trucks that figure largely in the second season. Northwind not only carries freight to the gas-exploration fields, Wainman’s outfit helps build the ice roads.
When he was approached, he said he established the ground rules –that the producers couldn’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of the trucks and that everything had to be portrayed accurately, and he’s glad he did.
He’s ready to participate in the third season, echoing Dusdal’s suggestion that it was fun and the truckers saw how Hollywood works.
Also, Wainman says, he’ll never face a driver shortage.
Since the show aired, he has had hundreds of drivers applying for work with Northwind. From all over the states. "And," he says, "hits on our Internet site have gone up by about 1,400 percent."