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Driver Profile: Bob Stranden

by Rolf Lockwood

Some nine years ago, Bob Stranden took a driving course, got his Class 1 licence and went trucking. A few months earlier, he’d been selling life insurance. Go back a couple of years before that and you’d have found him managing the automotive and hardware section at a Sears store.

It’s not the usual path to a career in trucking.

A driver for the Yanke Group of Companies in Saskatoon, or a ‘professional transport operator’ as they’re called there, he says that route really isn’t so strange.

“It’s surprising, the people you meet out here and some of the things they used to do,” he says. “I’ve run into ex-ministers, doctors, a lawyer. The lawyer, I asked him why he was trucking and he said he got sick of the rat race. It’s still a rat race out here but it’s a different rat race. There’s a couple of hours at either end when you’re going crazy, but it’s actually fairly relaxing between the moments of stark, screaming terror,” he says with an ironic grin and then a hearty laugh.

Stranden figures it was kind of inevitable that he’d end up on the road at some point. He’s always liked being at the wheel, any wheel, and during his university days, he spent a couple of summers in driving jobs.

“From the time I first did it, I’ve loved driving,” he says. “And especially in the rain, for some strange reason. So I figured why not combine something I enjoy with something that gives me a pay cheque. It worked out to be a good idea.”

An ex-farm boy, Stranden says he’s a conservative driver who’s happy to go slower than some others might do. As a result, he has an untarnished record that’s led him to be part of an interesting experiment at Yanke as one of two ‘office trainers’. All the company’s office staff are being given the chance to spend some real trucking time on the road – serious time, not just an easy rounder to Edmonton – so he’s been taking people on trips like a 10-day run to the east coast and back.

Stranden says it’s a good opportunity for anyone from dispatchers to rate clerks to get a feel for what drivers do, what they go through to deliver the freight. In the end, he figures it ought to make them a little more understanding when drivers call in with a query or complaint.

“It seems like a heck of a good idea to me, and most of the other guys think the same,” Stranden says. “It’s an education. I remember the first guy I took out, he couldn’t believe what it was like. He was a dispatcher and he couldn’t believe what it was physically like to be in a truck. It’s like he said, ‘Hey, these guys have been telling me the truth all this time.’

“That’s why I think it’s an excellent idea,” the 44-year-old Saskatchewan native says. “I can tell from just the first two trips that it’s going to make a difference. Now if we could just figure out how to do it in the opposite direction, because I’ve always thought that the two toughest jobs in trucking are driving and dispatching. But at least when I’m out on the road I don’t have anybody staring over my shoulder.

“It’s not like running team on this trainer thing, because I’m doing the driving. The basic rule is, when I’m up, you’re up. It gives them an idea what it’s like to make a delivery at 1:00 in the morning.”

With that exception, he much prefers driving single to driving team, which he did for his first five years at Yanke, on a wild-card basis with no designated runs, though often hauling mail. He was lucky with his partners for the most part, but he did have a couple he’d like to forget. And then the company disbanded almost all the teams and Stranden discovered the joys of being alone.

“I’ve been running single ever since,” he says. “I’d started running team so I didn’t know any better. When I started running by myself I discovered it’s a whole lot more relaxing. And I get to sleep at night!

“Team is tough, but there are people who just love it. It’s the husband-and-wife teams that have always baffled me. How you can be locked in basically something the size of a bathroom for weeks on end and not kill each other?

“Actually, I like it when I’m out there alone. I operate best alone. I do like people, but I just like being by myself. I’ve always liked it, whether reading a book or driving down the road.”

Stranden figures he’s got the best of both worlds. He still gets to deal with customers as he did during his many years at Sears, but aside from communication with dispatch he’s on his own the rest of the day.

Always ready to laugh, it seems, Stranden jokes about coming to know Canadian roads as a long-haul team driver while sleeping – or trying to. “You could tell when you were crossing a border even if you were in the bunk. It started out with pretty good roads in B.C. – winding but good quality – not quite as good in Alberta, then a little worse in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“But as soon as you crossed into northern Ontario, that’s when you discovered what the belts in the bunk are for. To keep you on the mattress! A lot of guys don’t use them, but that’s where I discovered the use for those belts. Terrible roads, absolutely terrible. For the richest province in Canada, it’s a disgrace. At least out here, we’re poor, we have an excuse,” he says with a chuckle.

So what makes a good driver in Stranden’s view? I suggested that people with farming backgrounds are often the best, and he agreed.

“It’s somebody who can solve a problem on his own,” he says. “When you’re out on the farm, a lot of the problems you run into, especially with machinery, are problems you have to solve yourself. It’s not like you can walk next door to the store to buy parts or call your co-worker over to come and give you a hand. You’ve got to solve it on your own or it’s not going to get solved. It’s self-reliance and lots of patience.

“That’s what I’ve found in the better drivers. They’re patient, they don’t panic over every small situation.”

Given the mellow nature that a farm background brings to his own trucking life, he’s well suited to the truck he drives nowadays. It’s one of six Freightliner FLD 120 tractors Yanke recently bought as a trial – they’re fitted with Eaton Fuller AutoShift 10-speed transmissions. Stranden says he’s very happy with a semi-automatic box, but he adds that you’d better be patient because it’s going to make many driving decisions for you.

“Give me another 6 months in that thing and I won’t know how to shift a gear,” he jokes. “But I love it. I wasn’t 100% sure about it when I heard we were getting some automatics in. I was willing to give it a chance once I found out that it was actually a manual transmission with the computer taking control of the shifting.

“You can hold it in a gear, but it’s not like there’s a true manual over-ride, which I’d like to see. I’ve run into a couple of situations where that would have been nice. There are times when I’d like to be able to do it myself. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn near there, once you learn how to use it. And I can see where it’s going to save a fortune in fuel and wear and tear.”

Stranden works in Yanke’s international van division, frequently hauling paper from a mill in Prince Albert to almost anywhere in the U.S. He’s generally away for three weeks at a time and then a week off, a schedule he doesn’t mind, though he admits it’s made easier because he’s divorced. When he’s home, the priority is his 14-year-old daughter and in second place, his hobby, fooling with computers.

His favorite destinations are the American southeast – Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia — and “basically anything in the mountain and central time zones.” Least favored? Big cities anywhere, and busy, populous southern Ontario, where he figures just about every piece of land has been paved over. That just doesn’t suit him.

Stranden’s a country boy and happy to stay that way, living in the little town of Outlook, 60 miles south of Saskatoon. And while he may have come to it late, and by an unconventional route, he’s also happy to stay a truck driver.

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