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15 November 2016

Ice Trucking in the Frozen North

In winter, it can be bad enough getting up to a cold room in the morning (although we’ve got your back there), but at least our jobs generally take place in in relatively warm offices with little chance of an icy demise. That’s not the case for the ice truck drivers who make their living hauling critical supplies to the remote outposts of Alaska and Canada, plowing across frozen lakes at temperatures so cold that even steel can become brittle enough to snap. Made famous by the reality TV series Ice Road Truckers, this definitely has to be one of the coldest workplaces in the world, requiring nerves of steel… or perhaps something more cold-resistant.

Img source: Ian Mackenzie
The truckers bring vital supplies such as fuel and food to remote colonies for mining, oil, and other industries. To get there, they have to cross hundreds of miles of frozen lakes, in the small window between the snow clearing and the ice roads themselves melting. The time pressure and workload is intense, so the trucking companies must find the balance between risk and reward.

These risks can be great indeed. Temperatures out on the bitter icy lakes can plunge as low as -50°C, so the drivers really don’t want to break down. Sitting in a cab with no heating at that temperature would be a very unpleasant experience to say the least, even with the most high tech of winter gear. In fact, the ice truckers often travel in convoy to avoid this very eventuality. Even so, three deaths have occurred on the world’s longest ice road, Yellowknife, alone.

The temperature is not the only thing that can take the plunge, as thinning ice, which can thaw to under a metre at times, can break, leading to a truck plummeting through it. Amongst ice road truckers, the frozen carcasses of sunken cabs mark waypoints on the route, like the bodies of frozen climbers on the extreme slopes of Everest. The trucking companies constantly have to assess the state of the ice, timing their runs so that they don’t get blocked by snow, but even with this careful analysis, the less experienced truckers must wince every time they hear the ice creaking and cracking, worrying that they could become the wrong kind of refrigerated shipping.

The trucking companies have a lot of these runs to fit in. Due to the extremely seasonal availability of the roads, most of the heavy supplies for the year must be brought in during a short window of 3-4 months, before the ice really starts to deteriorate. This means a heavy workload, with the truckers basically on duty nonstop for the time period.

So what exactly do these supplies consist of? Mainly, they are the essentials to keep the outposts running throughout the rest of the year. This includes oil, food, medical provisions, building materials, and industrial machinery such as furnaces or boilers. The amount of runs, and the loads carried are phenomenal, given that they’re going across frozen lakes. In the 2006-2007 season, for example, there were 10,922 loads totalling 331,000 tons.

Img source: Marke Clinger
With all these incredibly heavy loads, the trucks have to keep in mind the physical forces at work. They have strict speed limits to adhere to, and going over these limits can cause the ice to crack, known as a blow-out, so excessive speed can be punished with bans or even expulsion from the ice road for that season. And it’s not just going too fast that can be dangerous, with some of the thinner parts of the ice unable to take the weight of a static truck, so stopping is not advised either. On top of this, when travelling in convoy, the extremely heavy trucks must remain evenly spaced so that a swell of water doesn’t go ahead of them, cracking the ice and causing yet more blow-outs.      

So given the extreme risks and stress involved, what drives these drivers to get out on the ice? Well, as you may expect, it’s often the monetary reward. Compensation for the rigours of the ice roads is generally generous, with drivers able to take home a whole year’s pay from three months’ work. Inexperienced drivers can earn a minimum of $20,000 dollars, with the most experienced earning up to $120,000.

Even then, some drivers decide the stress is too much, with many not even making it through the first season. Drivers have to be brave, or maybe just slightly crazy. This is especially true given that there are concerns going forward about how the ice roads will be affected by global warming, with shorter trucking seasons and unpredictable weather patterns changing ice behaviour.

Still, if somehow this article has made you fancy driving a huge metal truck over a few feet of ice, the truck companies are always looking for new drivers. Alternatively, if we’ve piqued your interest in throwing metal vehicles around icy tracks, but you’d prefer not to have the risk of death, maybe you should try the latest winter craze of ice karting.

Hopefully the truckers pack plenty of winter gear in case they get stuck in their cabs for 2 months. Although at -50° they might need a few layers. Still, ice trucking has to be one of the coolest jobs on Earth - literally.

Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot caf├ęs.