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Extreme Trucking

by Don McTavish
Untitled Document Try to imagine trucking on your very own road where size and weight don't matter, traffic is scarce, and the few vehicles you do share your road with are in constant radio communication. Sound too good to be true? The northern end of Vancouver Island in B.C. is literally crisscrossed with a web of these private roads. This is where the famous west-coast loggers operate, and the trucks they drive stagger the imagination.
It's not only the sheer size of these log-packing brutes that will shock you. It's also where their fearless drivers take them. This whole island is a vast mountain range, and the best timber in the rain forest clings to the sides of snow-peaked cliffs. It boggles the mind to see endless stands of these world-famous trees, eight to 10 ft wide at the ground, reaching 150 ft into the air.

Harvesting this timber calls for very rugged machinery, operated by equally rugged people. One of these brave souls is Ian Humphrey.

Humphrey owns and operates what is commonly referred to as a 'fat truck'. The dimensions and statistics of this rig - and Ian, by the way - are hard to believe. We'll call it a truck because Kenworth built it, but 'monster' describes the rest. Ian isn't sure of the exact figure, but with 300 gallons of diesel and 600 gallons of brake-cooling water on board, plus an immense tandem-axle pole trailer sitting in a cradle on back, she weighs a whopping 50 tons - empty.

Humphrey's 1977 KW T850 is powered by a brand new five-and-a-quarter Cummins N14, which replaced the original V12 Detroit. An Allison 60-61 automatic provides the twist to the 91,000-lb Clark planetary-drive rear axles.

There's no air ride under this rig. In fact there's not much that resembles anything a highway hauler might call a suspension. The frame is a pair of steel girders, and the springs are simply foot-and-a-half-high stacks of steel plates. I suppose that 'leaves' is the term to use, but that would imply some give. Any bounce at all comes from the 18 granite-hard tires that squish down like radials when under a full load.

The only reminder of this truck's 26 seasons in service is the standard 1970s-style KW dashboard. Every other piece on this and other rigs like it gets replaced on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, anything found not quite right during the almost hourly inspections is replaced immediately.

Safety is a prime concern for these custom-built brutes because they're designed for one task only: climbing 30%-plus grades on trails not much wider than their 11-ft stance. Then they load 250,000 lb of logs on the things - stacked 14 ft wide and 20 ft high - before man and 350,000-lb machine creep down miles of rock- and mud-strewn trails that are really more like elevator shafts.

With a flat-out speed of 35 mph, fat trucks are engineered to climb like a goat, and then hold those huge loads at a crawl speed on the way down. With the engine brake a-barkin', the locked-up Allison back-pressure-induced transmission brake whining, and clouds of steam billowing from the water-cooled oversized brake drums, it's an awesome thing to behold.

Each trip up and down the mountain takes about four hours, so a 12-to-14-hour workday is the rule around here, not counting the continuous roadside maintenance these drivers do.

Seeing Ian Humphrey come thundering out of the trees onto the main road, where we had agreed to meet, made me a little apprehensive about climbing aboard for a trip. With the log load twice the height of the steel-protected cab - and hanging partly over, and with all the wheels hidden in a cloud of steam and flying bark, I really wondered what I'd got myself into.

But the big grin between his hardhat and his 300-lb frame put my mind at ease. I expected a nervous wreck or a huge lumberjack type of guy, but there stood a soft-spoken, laid-back guy about my own height.

Once I climbed up the ladder and got settled in the cab, I found myself in a different world. The controls for this fat truck were just a few switches mounted on a pedestal, where the gearshift should have been. Other than the brake and fuel pedals on the floor, Ian ran this monster with one hand. Engine brake, converter lock, range settings, and brake-water controls were all at the fingertips of his right hand. Two fingers of his left hand did the steering.

"Two power rams," he pointed out. "Steers like a sports car."

With seemingly no effort at all, the 350,000-lb rig started rolling, and for driving over a road that was just washboard and potholes, it was surprisingly smooth. Ian leaned back in his air chair, obviously in complete control, and started fielding my questions.

Ian Humphrey is 39 years old, and he's owned and operated this truck for 10 years. He purchased it from Stan McLean, the man that Kenworth built the unit for. The McLean name is still on the door, and the company that Ian bought - McLean Trucking - still holds a long-term contract with Western Forest Products, the logging contractor.

Humphrey lives in and works out of the small community of Zeballos, on the northwest end of Vancouver Island, bordering the Pacific Ocean and right in the middle of Big Timber Country. He grew up in Campbell River and has lived on the island ever since. The youngest of nine children, with a construction contractor father who introduced him to trucks, Ian took to heavy machinery and logging at an early age.

He was already sticking his neck out as a teenager, hauling explosives around the Island in a five-ton truck. Then he tried his hand at logging, making it to foreman status before the fat truck craving set in.

He and his wife Leanne make a good living with the rig, and the pair does 90% of their own maintenance. Ian has a mountain of spare parts for this one-of-a-kind workhorse and can repair or replace everything on her except the engine - Cummins looks after that.

For those mechanically inclined types, Ian has had only nine flat tires and has broken only six wheels all year, which he figures is "real good." The rig burns about 200 liters of diesel a day which, I'm told, is half of what the V12 Detroit went through.

No expense is spared keeping the rig as mechanically fit and safe as possible. Brake drums are never turned - they're replaced with brand new ones, along with new linings, every six months. Hoses and such are replaced regularly, needed or not, and three times a day, Ian uses his 'Big 8' rule. Before he starts down the mountain with a full load, he checks the rig over from stem to stern - connections, pin locations and such, items he's numbered one through eight. He religiously checks each because forgetting any one thing could cause the dreaded runaway. If it ever got away on him, there'd be no way of stopping it, and leaping out the door would get him just as dead as riding it down. Experience and nerve (too much nerve, if you ask me) are all that guys like Humphrey can count on. Even loading the logs is a skill.

As each lift is placed on the rig, Ian watches his trailer tires.

"When the duals squish down and touch each other at the bottom, she's pretty well loaded," he tells me quietly.

From what I can see, there isn't room left on top for even a hockey stick when Ian looks up at the loader operator and nods.

A few rather skinny-looking cables called "wraps" are cinched around the logs, but there's 'sweet bee-ay' tying the load to the rig. Matter of fact, the first 10 minutes of pounding and shaking down the mountain left the wraps dangling like wet laundry on Aunt Nellie's clothes line. Thank God for gravity because it was the only thing holding those big peelers in place. There were odd seconds-long periods of silence on the way down, which Ian says were the wheels skidding. That shook old Donny up pretty good, but the grin never left Ian's face. After we'd reached the bottom of one grade and had the rig roaring and rocking up another at crawl speed, I popped a question.

"Does any of this scare you, Ian?"

All he said was, "Ice!"

After a timed pause and the flip of a switch, he elaborated.

"Rain and runoff pour down these trails steady, not to mention that each rig (there were four of them using the same road) dumps 600 gallons of water on it every trip. Cold weather provides some tense moments."

"Tire chains shred up in minutes," he continued, "so we just park them. Matter of fact, these brutes spend a lot of time parked. Spring breakup, fire season, washouts, market conditions and such prevent us from running much more than six months a year."

Ian spends much of his winter driving sand trucks and operating snowplows for the Forestry Department.

I've described this operation as best I can, but no words can do justice to what I witnessed that day. What Ian Humphrey does all day is the stuff people with diesel in their veins can only daydream about. It's a unique part of the fabric of the Canadian trucking industry, and one that deserves more recognition than it gets. Thanks, Ian, for a peek into your world, and thanks for the wonderful supper, Leanne! We'll do it again some time - when I get the nerve up.