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A life of iron and wheels

Truck is too small a word for the oversized configurations that Gene Gauthier hauls, and driver doesn't seem to go far enough to explain the skills he needs to handle the things. But whatever you call...


Truck is too small a word for the oversized configurations that Gene Gauthier hauls, and driver doesn’t seem to go far enough to explain the skills he needs to handle the things. But whatever you call what he does, he has been doing it – and doing it very well – for a long time.

At 18, he began driving at the wheel of a 1956 Dodge 600, a turquoise five-tonner. By 21 he had moved from working farm fields to working Alberta’s oilfield, and by 23 he had bought his first truck – a used red-and-white ’67 Kenworth – and graduated to driving longer hauls. The 52-year-old has dedicated his life to the industry ever since.

In fact, it’s because of his work that Truck News and Truck West have named the Edmonton trucker the Canadian Owner/Operator of the Year, acknowledging his lifetime dedication to safety, professionalism, and drive to improve the way his industry operates.

Not only has he accomplished some extraordinary feats at the wheel, he’s helped provide maneuvering room for the trucking industry within a variety of law books, including the Dangerous Goods Acts of Alberta and British Columbia. As head of the Grande Prairie Regional Safety Council of the Alberta Trucking Association from 1980 to 1988, he helped update that province’s dimensional laws. And he built and operated Alberta’s first tridem trailer. He’s now involved in a series of tests with the B.C. government using tridem tractors.

On most days, however, he spends his time moving loads from Point A to Point B for Premay Equipment, an oilfield company that has contracted his services since 1996.

Gauthier began driving large trucks in the farming community of Nameo, Alta., where his cousins still farm and not far from where he now lives with his wife, Francis, and their 17-year-old daughter Pamela.

“I just enjoyed driving things and the bigger the better always seemed to be what I liked, so it was a natural progression to move on,” he said after an award ceremony at the Truck World 2000 trade show.

“Most of my early years trucking were in Fort St. John, in northern B.C., and around up the Alaska Highway,” he says. “As a young driver it was very hard. The older drivers were always very critical, demanded you achieve standards, demanded the highest standards, so I worked very hard to do that. Sharing the road up there is a great priority because of its narrowness, so you learn very fast.

“I can remember being 20, 21, and knowing that I wanted to be a truck driver and, at that time, Canadian Freightways was the marquee highway hauler on the Alaska Highway. They were the guys, the ones with the highest standards,” Gauthier says.

But the standards included a minimum driver age of 25. “I kind of kept my eye on the Canadian Freightways thing, using them as the mark-setter of abilities and capabilities. And as I progressed along, they raised the entry age to 28 to even put an application in, so I was very happy that I was able to buy my own truck and carry on, because if I had waited to drive for Canadian Freightways I wouldn’t have made it.”

He purchased his first new truck, another Kenworth, with a 400-hp Cummins engine and a 13-speed transmission, when he was only 24.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the northern latitudes, “you listened a lot. There wasn’t a lot of road up there, there were no telephones,” he says.

“Very few people had the old mobile telephones, and very few of them worked in the remote areas. So you had to have your life skills in order, had to know all the little tricks about not freezing up.” Tricks like knowing “not to park your truck in a warm shop with a half-full fuel tank so you get condensation, to drain your air tanks all the time, and little things like that that save your life when you’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Gauthier says.

Survival kits were the norm, and back then, “(if) you asked most guys what their spare tire was for, it was to burn if you got cold.” Through his dedication, Gauthier worked the lanes through the sub-arctic without serious mishap.

He drove, married his first wife and had a girl, now 30, and a boy, now 26. However, like many first marriages, it didn’t last. It’s no secret that long distances can be hard on a marriage, but Gauthier says that trucking had nothing to do with its end.

He married Francis in 1980.

“The good part of being married to a truck driver is that he’s not always there to mess up the house,” Francis says, chuckling. “It gets a little bit lonely sometimes and we’re often there alone at Christmas parties and all sorts of functions,” she says of her and Pamela’s lives. “So you learn to be very independent.”

Francis is clearly her own person. “Housecleaning isn’t my ambition in life,” she says. She has worked in healthcare all her professional life and has been an administrative assistant at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital since 1998.

“The first 10 years, and when I had Pamela, it was tough, because you want to do family things and you’re always alone – there was no dad there lots of times.” Pamela was happy, though understandably, she could be resentful sometimes, like when her dad couldn’t make Christmas pageants.

“But Gene, he keeps close contact with her, and he makes up for it. He spends quality time when he’s home,” Francis adds.

“I was involved in choir a couple of years past and he only made it to a few of the pageants,” Pamela says in a telephone interview. “But he’d always ask me how it was going and he wasn’t happy about missing them. He always tried to come and he did come to a few of them. So that was great.” She figures that out of a total of 10 Christmas choirs, her father attended about half of them.

Times can be bittersweet with on-the-road spouses and parents. Missed milestones include birthdays and anniversaries, Fathers Days, “all those traditional good times,” says Francis. “He’s never been away at Christmas, so that was good. He’s probably 60 to 70 per cent of the time away at New Years, so I’m always alone then.”

Stick together long enough and strange things can happen. Like the time in 1987 when Francis went down to the basement around 10 p.m. and stepped into ankle-deep water. “So I’m phoning him and saying ‘Gene, how come you’re in this truck-driving business? I always have to look after these problems by myself.’ He said ‘Well, the roof’s leaking in my hotel, too!’ Rain was leaking into his bedroom so it was kind of funny.”

Technology, namely cell phones, have made the distances seem shorter. “He calls just about every day, touches base,” says Francis, adding that he and Pamela talk every single day.

As for her, though, Francis jokes, “he says he gave me a cell phone so that he can keep track of me.”

Gauthier acknowledges the importance of family, but admits, “if you’re not working you’re not making any money in our business, so you try to make some trade-offs.

“I try to be realistic and tell my wife and daughter when I’ll be home, and lots of times that doesn’t happen because I won’t hurry a job just for the sake of getting home,” he says.

He works time into his busy schedule for holidays, admitting, “if you wait until you could afford to take a holiday you’d never take it, so you just have to do it for peace of mind and family salvation.

“The cell phone is a wonderful tool,” he says, adding however that bills can add up. “Telus loves us,” says Francis. But she says she’s careful of when she calls, since some of his work needs his full concentration.

Indeed. Francis put on the award application that he works moving “large, oversize, overweight loads for the resource industry.”

But that’s only a ballpark description. The picture accompanying this story shows one of the biggest operations of Gauthier’s career. It shows his 1999 Model 378 Peterbilt Tridrive (it’s powered by a 550-hp Cat, with an 18-speed Eaton Auto Shift, two-speed auxiliary and 46,000-lb. Rockwells) hauling a “hexane” tower from Edmonton to Joffre, Alta. The tower, which is used to make plastics in the petrochemical industry, was 250 feet tall, so that “from the tip of the truck to the tip of the trailer we were
311 feet long.”

The gross weight of the rig and tower was 730,000 lb. The height, including the trailer and tower, was 28 feet; the tower, wider than Gauthier’s Peterbilt, stretched 29 feet, while the load rolled on 128 wheels. It is so heavy the trailer needed two push trucks-which are nearly invisible in the picture. It needed so much room that four cars were used to clear the lanes of traffic and helped plot how to steer the corners.

A video recorded the trip, which started with the loading on Dec. 7, 1999 and ended with delivery in the early hours of Dec. 29. To take advantage of lighter traffic, much of the journey took place in the wee hours of the morning.

With the tower resembling an intercontinental missile, a small army fussing around it and a disorienting swirl of emergency lights and reflector tapes shining all over the place, it looked like a scene from the X-Files.

Another of Gauthier’s draw-dropping jobs occurred in March. Driving a 64-wheeler loaded for the maximum seasonal weights, he delivered a natural-gas compressor to a location in the Rockies near Nordegg, Alta.

That trip required a “jack-and-roll crew” to make a bridge accommodate his load. To traverse it, “I had to take a Caterpillar (with a winch) that was towing off the front, and put it around the behind as a hold back for coming down a hill.” As he descended toward the bridge he had to turn a pretty sharp corner and, “in a one-chance deal, due to weather conditions – the frost was coming out of the ground – and go over the bridge with one wheel hanging over each side.”

“That was probably the toughest job,” he says.

Premay Equipment’s terminal director Dale Marchand says Gauthier contributes in the planning of such operations. “We have a certain group of drivers that we have a lot of trust in, and he fits in that category,” Marchand says, adding, “he really does set an example.”

Companies “don’t throw a driver out cold into this sort of situation. You have to earn your stripes, for lack of a better term,” Gauthier says. “That’s the big, big thing that’s lacking today. There is no work-your-way-up. All of a sudden, bang, you’re behind the wheel of a couple-hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment and going down the road with virtually no training.”

Gauthier doesn’t blame the drivers. He blames the system and the times. “Drivers today have to bring a lot more to the table than when we started driving.”

“Probably the single biggest skill you need to be a truck driver these days is math,” he says, “because you have to work out your logbooks.”

Like almost every driver, Gauthier is frustrated over the logbook’s dominance of his workday, but he remains true to what he does.

“Truck driving has been very good to me over the years, it’s always fed my family, I’ve never been unemployed and I consider it to be a pretty honorable profession,” he says.

And he’s found an honor within it. n


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