The Dangers of Ice Trucking

by Pride Transport | Feb 27, 2019

On June 17, 2007, the History Channel premiered a new series called “Ice Road Truckers.” This reality show about truck drivers who operate on the ice roads in the Northwest territories was an instant hit. Adventure, drama, danger, it had it all and it introduced the ice roads to America. The show is into its 11th season and going strong.


Ice Road Truckers: More Than a Reality Show

More than an entertaining show on the History Channel, the ice roads of the Northwest Territories are very real, very necessary and, very dangerous.

Ice roads are naturally frozen water surfaces - a river, a lake, or an expansion of sea ice - connected by enhanced iced areas of tundra, that are accessible only during the coldest months of the year. These roads allow for temporary transport to isolated areas with no permanent road access. Most of the roads provide goods, equipment, and necessities to mining camps deep in the Northern Territories.

The ice roads allow for trucks to move into these isolated areas and reduce the transportation costs of material that otherwise would ship as expensive air freight. These roads also allow for transport of large, heavy objects such as mining gear, building materials, and machinery for which air freight would be impractical.


Are These Actual Roads?

It can be confusing because when people talk about the ice roads they talk about building them and maintaining them the way they speak of regular roads. However, ice roads are not roads in the traditional sense. These roads occur every year when waterways have frozen to a thickness that allows for a truck to drive over them safely. In general, these roads are built in areas where construction of year-round roads would be expensive due to muskeg.

Muskeg is an acidic soil type common in the Arctic and boreal areas. The word is synonymous with bog. It is a soft, frozen soil that is not conducive to construction, However, in the coldest months, workers are able to water it and layer ice over it to form connecting roads, or portages, between the ice roads on lakes, ponds, and rivers. Once it gets too warm to sustain these portages, the ice road season is over.

The ice roads themselves are “built” and maintained by various companies such as Nuna Logistics Construction Firm. These companies send out about 140 workers to set up and maintain the roads. They clear away any top snow which is an insulating layer to allow the ice to thicken. They also check for shallow or shoal areas under the ice. The deeper the water, the thicker the ice. When workers find these shallow areas, they will bore holes in the ice and flood the area so that the ice will thicken and the road itself will have a more even surface. Once the road has reached its thickest, usually 40+ inches, then it is capable of supporting a 70-ton, eight axel, Super B Train Articulated truck and they start the season rolling. The roads are maintained by using graders, the same way regular streets are maintained. These men work twenty hour nights in weather that sometimes dips below -70 degrees.

The roads are cleaned and leveled all through the season and workers also look for blowouts. A blowout occurs when a wave under the ice creates a slow-motion upheaval in the surface. A jagged bomb crater-like hole appears. The road maintenance men have to then divert traffic away from the area and do what they can to repair the damage. They also watch for thinning areas in the ice and dig auger holes to release water and thicken those areas. Safety is utmost in the minds of the trucking companies so everything that can be done will be done to make the ice roads safer.


How Dangerous is Ice Road Trucking?

Ice road trucking is without a doubt dangerous. The combination of extreme weather, heavy machinery, and ice makes for a combination that is not for the faint of heart. Luckily most trucks are limited to a speed limit of 15mph and most seasons pass without significant accidents. The speeds are limited to such lows in order to keep the waves underneath the ice from becoming too big and causing cracks in the surface of the ice. 


Who Benefits From the Roads

Military and Geological Out Posts

In Antarctica, the South Pole Traverse is about 870 miles long and links the United States McMurdo Station on the coast to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The United States Antarctic program also maintains two ice roads during the austral summer. One road provides access to Pegasus Field on the Ross Ice Shelf. The road between Pegasus Field and McMurdo Station is about 14 miles. The other road provides access to the ice runway which is on sea ice. The road between the runway and McMurdo station varies in length from year to year depending on many factors including ice stability.  These roads are critical for resupplying McMurdo station, Scott base, and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.


Northwest Territories

With only 570 miles of paved highway serving a scant 42,000 souls, getting anywhere in the Northwest Territories requires a plane or the ice roads. The Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road is a private road jointly run by mining giants Rio Tinto, De Beers, and BHP Billiton. This road is the longest of its kind, running 353 miles up into the Canadian tundra. This road serves the mining camps that tap into the rich deposits of diamond-bearing Kimberlite.

Samples of Kimberlite were first found in 1991. Canada went from marketing no diamonds to being the world’s third largest producer by value, behind Botswana and Russia. In 2008 two mines in the territories produced more than 12 million carats worth an estimated $1.5 billion. Another mine opened at Snap Lake halfway up the Tibbitt to Contwoyto road and 300,000 tons of fuel, explosives, steel, and concrete had to be hauled over the ice roads.


Why Drive the Ice Roads

One of the main reason people are interested in driving the ice roads is the pay. Most of the ice road routes run from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, to the mining camps.  A round trip drive is 225- 250 miles and may take two to two and a half days. The average pay for a round trip is $2000. Depending on the loads carried and other factors, an ice road trucker’s salary has been reported as high as $250,000.

Most companies requiring trips on the ice roads provide accommodations at no charge as well as food at the mining camps. Hours are different as Canadian regulations allow for 15 hours of driving time per day.

If you can handle the cold, the solitude and the dangers, then ice road driving may be a good job for you.


Some Stats

If you do decide to try ice road trucking here are some tips you’ll want to keep in mind.

  • 70% turn over of drivers coming and going form the ice roads.
  • Many drivers quit after their first trip.
  • The average temperature in the region hovers at about -37 degrees Fahrenheit
  • -50 to -60 degree temperatures are not uncommon.
  • Severe cold causes steel to become brittle and snap. Everything from the truck rims to truck frames is subject to failure.
  • Fuel gels at these temperatures and evening changing a fuel filter by the side of the road can be dangerous.
  • There are whiteouts, fractures in the ice roads and accidents which can also affect the number of trips a driver can make, thus lowering the amount of money a driver makes during the ice road season.
  • Average speed is 15 MPH, ultra-low speeds can make for very long and dreary days. The speeds are so low because the faster the loaded truck moves the bigger the waves that are created under the ice. Bigger waves lead to more dangerous ice blowouts.
  • There is no cell service, only satellite telephones which can only be used for emergencies. So, making the hours of a dull drive pass by chatting with friends on your cell phone just doesn’t happen.
  • If your truck does breakdown, the sub-zero temps could turn a routine roadside stop deadly very quickly.

There are few openings and there is a tight-knit ice road trucker community. The requirements are experience and the ability to be self-reliant. Know your tuck, how to fix it and don’t lose your cool in tight situations. First-year drivers won’t even be considered by most companies due to lack of experience. If you want to be an ice road trucker, drivers suggest getting experience by driving in Michigan, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, Montana, and Nebraska to get used to the foul weather conditions.

If you’re lucky to get the job, do it well and you may wind up being called back season after season. You could conceivably earn more in three months driving the ice roads than you make all year driving the highways of the country.


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