Inching Up an Ice Highway in a 70-Ton Truck

A tractor-trailer crawls along the 360-mile road running north from Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories. The road, which runs mostly across frozen lakes, is rebuilt every winter.
A tractor-trailer crawls along the 360-mile road running north from Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories. The road, which runs mostly across frozen lakes, is rebuilt every winter. (Photos By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

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By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

ON THE ICE ROAD, Northwest Territories -- Elden Pashovitz eased his big truck and 28 tons of aviation fuel onto the ice of Tibbitt Lake and set out in low gear for his destination, dozens of ponds and lakes away.

Ahead, the scene was bleak, white and flat. The temperature was minus 10. The ice crackled under the 30 tires of his tandem rig.

Pashovitz moved his vehicle to its place in a caravan of heavy trucks, one of many processions now crawling across frozen tundra and iced-over lakes in the grip of the Canadian winter. Their mission is to deliver a year's worth of supplies to remote sites -- mines and drilling rigs and small native villages -- that depend on the ice road for all their needs.

The trucks ply the wilderness along a tenuous artery. Maintenance crews work in the bitter cold to flood the road, continually thickening it. The drivers watch for buckling ice rising as pressure ridges on the road. And the heavy trucks bend the ice sheet, creating waves underwater that can blast through the surface in a "blowout," making treacherous holes.

But there's no turning back.

"Once you're on the ice, you're committed," said Pashovitz, 35. "You've got to keep going. If you stop, little by little the weight of your truck would sink into the ice."

There are many winter roads through Canada, and some in Finland, Russia and Alaska, short-lived lifelines to places that otherwise can be reached only by plane. But at about 360 miles, this road is the longest in the world that runs almost entirely over water -- 85 percent of it is on ice. It also carries the heaviest traffic.

On a typical day, the cold winter sun struggles to the horizon to reveal an unending line of fuel tankers, flatbed trucks and tractor-trailers, all huffing exhaust into the cobalt sky.

This ice road was first built in the winter of 1983 to service the Lupin Gold Mine, 250 miles north of Yellowknife. The gold mine is now closed, but four diamond mines have been opened along the route, each requiring huge construction equipment, vast quantities of fuel and supplies, and thousands of bags of cement for mines and dikes.

"The economic lifeblood of the Northwest Territories depends on these roads," said Erik Madsen, director of winter road operations for Diavik Diamond Mines, which shares with Billiton BHP most of the cost of getting the road built each year.

This year, the companies hope to send a record 10,500 truckloads out from Yellowknife on this road. The trucks leave in groups of four, every 20 minutes, night and day.

But that is only a hope. Last winter, one of the warmest on record, the road opened late and melted early, stranding tons of needed supplies. Mining companies spent $100 million trying to airlift the cargo. Diavik cut a 500-ton excavating shovel into pieces and rented the world's largest helicopter from Russia to lift the pieces to its mine site.


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