Working the Water Road

It is May, and the road from Tibbitt Lake, just outside Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, to the northernmost mine, called the Lupin, has melted. Along its 353-mile stretch there are gold mines and diamond mines stuck back in the jagged wilderness not far south of the Arctic Circle. But they can be reached now only by canoe or airplane. So you have to be careful when talking about the road. Call it a seasonal road, a winter road, an ice road, but you can only talk about it as if it exists in the present for two or three months of the year. Except for the parts of the road that portage across the occasional spit of land, it is as if the road never existed. Even the portages grow back partially, returning to swampy muskeg. The road is water.

There are plenty of ice roads in the Northwest Territories and some in other provinces. There are some in Alaska. But the Lupin Road is the big road – the road supplying everything the mines need for a year. Some 8,000 loads went up the Lupin this year, hauled by a very few companies. Robinson Truck Lines hauls the lion’s share, using about 575 trucks. Drivers used to come from all over the world for the experience and the money: One driver I talked to figured on about 10,000 Canadian dollars a month (or about 7,500 American dollars). But despite a shortage of drivers, the Canadian government has decided to discourage the use of non-Canadians. A resourceful driver can still work the road. First he needs to get a work permit from the government. Plenty of red tape, one expects, but working in conjunction with Robinson it can be done.

Everybody runs legal logs and legal weights on the road. The ice has not been very good the past couple of years, and the hauling season is getting shorter. But the 105-hours-in-seven-days rule still applies. When I was there in February, trucks were running at about 85 percent payload. The road had just opened, and the ice was still thickening.

The ice is not the only thing that matures on the road. It is 350 miles of the most meticulously cared for, heavily policed roads I have been on. Technically it is a public road, but you will find very few four-wheelers. The pickups you see are driven by security men looking for speeders or guys in trouble. There is very little speeding. Speed limits are seldom more than 10 or 15 miles an hour, and trucks are required to stay in the order in which they were dispatched. Nobody passes anybody. Nobody goes around somebody who is in trouble. The rules get obeyed. The common human courtesy and common human concern that has been bred out of us in the crowded and frantic south is very much in evidence. There is a kind of maturity among the drivers, especially the veterans, that is heartening to see despite knowing it is enforced by an extremely harsh environment and security officers who have the power to ban a driver from the road.

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Of course, there are plenty of hazards. You might expect running an ice road to be a little like trying to walk on water. Plenty of faith and a pair of water wings are all you need. And it’s true that getting wet is what kills up here. Plenty of trucks drop an axle or part of a unit through the ice. Very few go all the way through, and there has been only one death on the road in the past 12 years. The water just sucks all the heat out of your body, your organs shut down and it’s probably curtains. A driver has two or three seconds to jump clear in most cases. Guys I met don’t worry about that. They worry about spinouts in the portages where Canadian B train tankers are notorious for losing it and clogging the road for hours. They don’t worry as much as they fight the boredom of 15-mile-an-hour speed limits and not being able to stop for 10 hours at a time. That’s what you get paid for.

Once in a while you can have a run-in with a caribou, but they are usually dead. The aboriginal people still own the land and are not shy about using it to gut a kill. This becomes a problem when they leave the frozen carcass on the road. A carcass can snap a plow blade or break an axle, and you have a problem. Like a lot of hazards up here, a frozen carcass can appear out of the snow and mist in front of you long after your reaction time is a dead issue. You can follow a mirage off the road and out onto the thinner ice of the lake. You can lose your way in a whiteout. You can run into a pressure ridge that pops up out of the ice, or you can hit a blown out portage because somebody, maybe you, hit the ice at the other end of the lake too fast and the pressure wave under the ice just blew the road out at the other end. You can take a run at Charlie’s Hill, a little grade that is a big obstacle coming onto one of the portages, and slide off into frozen swamp. Like I said, the guys I talked to don’t worry about this stuff. They worry the season won’t last as long as it’s supposed to or that the lead guy in the convoy is in a super B tanker.

It is probably more dangerous to run 80 from the Windy to the Apple than to run the winter road. The ice seems more dangerous to us because it is unknown and exotic. I’ll tell you one thing. It’s different. If you decide to go, make sure to keep your boots
on when you’re driving. In the truck camps, they make you take them off.

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