Inching Up an Ice Highway in a 70-Ton Truck
Remote Sites in Subarctic Canada Depend on Rigs Plying Hazardous, Heavily Traveled Winter Road

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.

"We can't afford another season like the last one," Madsen said.

So far, this winter has allayed fears that global warming will make last year's weather the norm. The winter road opened early, on Jan. 28, after a sustained cold snap, and has strengthened with steady arctic temperatures. Road controllers use ground radar and boreholes to monitor the thickness of the ice, gradually letting heavier trucks onto the road as the ice grows to 40 inches, at which point it can support a 70-ton vehicle.

But the road's hard appearance is deceptive: Ice bends, cracks, becomes brittle, flows and shrinks in unexpected ways.

"Ice is really kind of funny stuff. We really don't know" anything about it, said John Zigarlick. That's quite an admission from the man who built the first road as president of the Lupin mine, retired, then started Nuna Logistics, a company that does arctic drilling and construction, and rebuilds this road every year for the diamond mines.

Zigarlick's 140 employees here carve an eight-lane-wide path on the ice, build express bypasses for the returning empty trucks, and mend cracks and holes with water.

"We've gotten better at it," said Zigarlick, 69, who leaves his yacht parked in Vancouver to prowl the ice road. "But I think we're starting to push the limits of what this road will take."

The radios in his pickup yap away: the truckers on one VHF channel, nudging each other along and chatting to keep awake; the road crews on another, including the squad of retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who spend their winters patrolling the ice road to keep the truckers' speed down.

The radio barks out news of an accident on portage 27.

"I hope there's no fuel spill," Zigarlick said with a sigh. "If you spill fuel, you have to dig up the ground, and it will take six weeks of explaining."

Zigarlick said no truck driver on the road has ever been lost to the ice, though the dangers are there. Several trucks have sunk, but their drivers scrambled out. In 2000, a snowplow operator died of a heart attack after his machine plunged into the frigid water. In 2004, the son of one of Yellowknife's major trucking company families drowned while clearing another short ice road near this one.

The drivers, however, say the biggest problem is tedium, as their loaded vehicles crawl along at mandatory speed limits of 6 and 15 mph to keep from damaging the ice.

"It's a different way of driving," Pashovitz said. "It's slow and long. You have to keep occupied." The radio chatter gets annoying. He has satellite radio and a CD player; others watch movies on mini-DVD players. Pashovitz swears he has seen drivers reading, and one serenaded his pals with a fiddle on the long straightaways.

The radio chirps with drivers reporting a rare sighting of a timber wolf. Caribou cross the road sometimes. Red fox dart tentatively amid the snowdrifts, searching for jack rabbits or ptarmigan. Ravens will fly idly beside the trucks or perch on the big rearview mirrors as the vehicles move, demanding a bite of a trucker's sandwich.

Pashovitz and his father run an organic grain farm in central Saskatchewan. There is not much to do in the long winter, so he has been coming north every year for 10 years. He works seven days a week for about 10 weeks, sleeping in a bed behind his seat in the roomy cab, with the engine running. He stops at the camps set up along the road to shower and eat, watch some television or call home.

Many of those plying the road are like Pashovitz: farmers or construction workers looking for winter work, or retired hands seeking the novelty and beauty of working in a subarctic winter. And the money: Pashovitz said he can earn $800 for the two-day trip to the BHP mine, more if he goes farther up the road. In a season, he can earn enough to help ease the squeeze on his family farm.

It also gives him some bragging rights, Pashovitz acknowledges. "Nobody back home has done anything like this."

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