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Northern Exposure

by Duff McCutcheon

 

When you’re driving the ice roads up in the Northwest Territories and those frozen lakes start to talk, it can spook the most hardened driver.

And with good reason: even with five or six ft of ice beneath you, you’re still sitting in a fully loaded 62-ton B-train or maybe even a 90-ton heavy hauler. When that ice starts to creak and moan, you develop a pretty healthy respect for nature, according to Gradus Vanden Heuvel, a Drumbo, Ont. trucker who decided to take on a little adventure last winter hauling supplies up to the Jericho diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.

“You have to remember that you’re driving on floating pavement; not everyone can handle that,” he says. “I’ve seen guys turn around the first time they heard the ice crack. That was it for them. They couldn’t handle it. You’re driving on top of water and you have to respect it. You hear a crack, you watch: if it opens up you don’t have a lot of time to jump out of the truck.”

And if you get wet when it’s -50C, your chances of survival are pretty slim unless you can get into another truck ASAP.

Vanden Heuvel’s a long-time trucker who started driving almost 30 years ago in his native Netherlands. And he’s not one to work for others. He had his own trucking company in Europe and promptly built himself another one – Legacy Express – after arriving in Canada eight years ago. But after selling his eight-truck fleet to his son Ton recently, the 49-year-old Vanden Heuvel conceded the boss’s chair for a chance at driving way up north with ice-road specialists RTL Robinson in the Northwest Territories.

There are some significant challenges to driving on ice, and in the Arctic in general, and his new employers were pretty strict in their testing and training. Vanden Heuvel first had to travel to Edmonton to undergo a medical test to ensure he could handle the rigours of northern driving, as well as a pretty serious road test, before taking an extensive training course.

“You go into a class and they show you pictures of what can happen, and explain what happens underneath the ice when you’re driving along. And they really stressed the importance of staying with your convoy,” he says. “If a driver breaks down, you stay with him. If it’s -50C, it doesn’t take long for a broken truck to freeze up and the driver with it.”

And then he picked up his truck – a specially spec’d Western Star with a belly tarp and closed front – and drove straight north to Yellowknife to begin the adventure.

Most of his work involved hook-and-drop trips driving B-trains to supply mining crews at the Tahera Diamond Corp.’s Jericho mine, a 720-km one-way trip from Yellowknife over ice roads, with portages between lakes. The trips were always done in convoys, with at least two trucks and a maximum of five.

“You have to stay 500 yards apart for weight safety, and there’s 20 minutes between each convoy. Maintaining speed limits was also very important and strictly enforced,” says Vanden Heuvel. “You get caught speeding, you’re done. No second chances.”

Further south, where the ice was thinner, loaded trucks kept to 25 km/h, further north 35 km/h, and at the furthest reaches where the ice is thicker drivers could do 40 km/h. Empty southbound trucks could do 60. And you might think that ice would be a fairly smooth surface, if a little slippery, but in fact it’s very rough, according to Vanden Heuvel. “There’s pressure cracks, ice ripples, it’s just like a washboard.”

Now, 720-km trips might not sound like much to the southern driver, but considering the speed limitations, it can make for a pretty long haul and driver convoys break them up by driving from camp to camp spaced out along the route.



“You drive about seven hours to the first camp, another seven or eight to the next one – it’s about 21 hours altogether. The camps are set up for the drivers. You have your meals there, take showers, do laundry, maintenance. You sleep in the trucks, which you have to keep running non-stop. When you’re sleeping you have to rig the engine so it’s running at 1800 rpm just to keep the cab warm.”

Challenges
“For me, the biggest challenge was nature itself,” says Vanden Heuvel. “It’s white, it’s open and it’s a very harsh climate. You really have to be aware of what you’re doing because if you make a mistake, it’s not a forgiving environment.” He recalls driving through snowstorms that were like driving through a solid sheet of white with zero visibility. “There’s snow banks on the side of the road that are six ft high, but you can’t see the difference between the road and the snow bank when you’re driving in those conditions. You actually have to focus your eyes inside the truck to adjust to what’s going on outside.”

And it’s cold. During his time in the north from February to April, the average temperature was

-50C and he says the coldest temperature he experienced was -68C with the wind chill. “You have to be able to handle the cold – I wore two pairs of thermal underwear, regular pants, insulated coveralls and a jacket over top. You take a deep breath in that kind of cold and it feels like your lungs are being pierced with needles.”


What about breaks? Ice-road drivers don’t have to worry about making it home for the weekend, because there are no breaks. You sign up for the season and you’re working seven days a week. Vanden Heuvel says he got one break when he was snowed in for three days during a particularly brutal snowstorm. And he knows of one veteran ice-road driver who was once snowed in for 16 days – unpaid. There’s also the risk of breaking down or getting stuck far from camp, and drivers always keep a four-day supply of food with them in their trucks.

The Plus Side
It’s gruelling work in one of the harshest environments on earth, “...but when you see the sunrises and sunsets and the wide-open tundra, it’s just amazing. You’re well above the tree line and the polar latitude,” says Vanden Heuvel. “You see rocks, tundra, wolves, ravens, caribou, and wolverines, which have no absolutely no fear so when you’re around them you really have to watch them.”

He even saw an upside-down rainbow one day, which he believes was formed because of all the ice crystals in the air. And the Northern Lights, of course, were stunning.

And then there’s the all-important consideration of salary. Vanden Heuvel admits that the job pays pretty well, but stressed that he went for the adventure, not the money.

“Everyone wants to hear about the money. I didn’t go for the money,” he says. “It was an adventure and the money was a bonus. But it does pay well. If you work hard you can make a year’s salary in three months. But you’re working non-stop, seven days a week.”

Meanwhile, back home in Drumbo, Vanden Heuvel’s now back working with his son as a driver and maintenance guy. He drives a regular route between the Kitchener-Waterloo area an hour west of Toronto and Ottawa or Montreal in his Volvo and has become something of a minor celebrity for his northern exploits. His adventures have been written up in the local Ayr News, as well as in a Dutch trucking magazine. But Vanden Heuvel doesn’t let it go to his head – he’s too busy planning for the next season in the north.