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Great White North ice road truckers

by Bonnie Whitehead

CLIFFORD - Two lady truck drivers shared their experiences transporting dynamite to the diamond mines in Yellowknife in a presentation at the Adult Fellowship meeting Sept. 1 at the Knox United Church here.

Some may have heard of the show Ice Road Truckers, drivers hauling cargo along the frozen waterways in the north. The two traversed ice roads north of Edmonton and south of Great Slave Lake for three months, and are going back.

They hope their friend Esther Jenkins will give ice road trucking a chance. 

Debbie Pletsch and Miriam Hinz found the RTL Robinson Trucking Company would fly them in for a driving test. They were handed the keys and climbed into two Mack trucks and headed to the loading docks in Edmonton to pick up cargo. They found manoeuvring on flat frozen roads of the lake at speeds of 20km per hour a little easier than entering a portage at 10km an hour while maintaining their grip on hilly, slippery portions of the road.

Imagine driving 20 km/hr for 400kms with one stop at the half way station to eat, sleep, shower, do laundry, and refuel. Once the cargo is unloaded, they got to drive back to Edmonton on the other ice road at 60km/hr.

Drivers must have a partner for safety reasons. The rules are strict and seem silly to some, but trucks can break down for any number of reasons, and it is good to have another truck only a half kilometre away. Radio communication is essential.

Above the 60th parallel, the average temperature is minus-68 degrees. One time, within ten minutes of breaking down, Pletsch returned to the cab of her truck to retrieve her parka. She found it had actually shattered in the extreme cold. In the north, a truck never shuts down, except for refueling.

Pletsch broke down seven times and earned the nickname Truck Buster from her personal tow truck driver and the other 200 male drivers. The nickname is emblazoned on her new company coat for all to see.

Isolation pay and danger pay are a bonus, but when the truck is not rolling, there is a good chance a buddy’s truck is not hauling a load either. Being paid per load, there won’t be a pay cheque until they reach the end of the road.

Cracking ice is a little scary. Even a crack the width of a pinky finger is cause for concern. A two inch crack is really scary. Faults in the ice that heave the road make for slower driving to lessen the possibility of an underwater wave that could wreak more havoc on the road.

The road is not straight. It winds with lots of switchbacks following the terrain to find the best possible route.

The women marvelled at the beauty of the snow, the sunrises, the sunsets, the full sun dogs, the northern lights, the shorter path of the sun, the brutality of the wind, and the scarcity of trees, buffalo, caribou, fox, and wolverine. The huge ravens that fly along with the trucks are a beauty of their own.

Although, it is against company policy to feed any animals or birds, the occasional sandwich seems to fly out of the truck into their frost encrusted beaks. 

The solitude and serenity of the scenery accompanied with the subtle sounds of waves on the CD conjured images of the turquoise blue of the Caribbean as Pletsch looked out over the ice and snow. Hinz finds the best time of day is the sunset that colours the snow a deep hue of blue.  They both found the isolation a spiritual time to test their faith in the Lord and take a closer walk with God. They embraced “the tunnel” driving and sleeping for three months solid.

Pletsch credits the Lord for calming her nervous personality and soothing her soul.

Thankful to be home to see their loved ones, they found settling back into the bustle of the south a challenge as they experienced an assault on their senses with so much traffic and so many people.

So they flew back to Edmonton to careen anew the ice roads of the far north, to snap more photos, and to experience the peace and vastness of the frozen wilderness.


September 16, 2011


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