For most drivers, anxiety and frustration sets in when traffic has you cruising less than 50 km/h on the highway, but for David Henry, 47, of Landmark, Man., moving slowly is all part of his job.
Henry has been a driver for more than three decades, but recently he traded in the turnpikes and headed north – way north to Yellowknife, N.W.T. – to drive on the ice roads, where going 25 km/h is commonplace and strictly enforced on most roads.
Making the change from bush roads to ice roads wasn’t something he originally wanted to do, until a recruiter at a truck stop let him know what his paycheque could be if he was interested in the gig.
“There was a recruitment open house a couple years ago at the Roadking Truck Stop in Calgary and there was a guy who was telling me about the ice roads in Yellowknife,” he recalled. “And I had been to Yellowknife before, and crossed on the ice to get here before there was a bridge, so driving on ice had never bothered me, and the guy convinced me to think about it. The money seemed very attractive and I needed to pay off some bills. When I told my wife, she really didn’t want me to go and then I told her how much money I could make and she said, ‘So, when are you leaving?’”
After graduating high school and not being able to get into an engineering program (his first career choice) because of residence issues, Henry began working at a feed mill where he got his licence.
“I figured (getting my licence) would be a good fallback if I ever needed a job,” he said. “Driving a truck just seemed to be the easiest way to make money or the most profitable way for a Grade 12 education, anyway.”
He moved to the US shortly thereafter, where he drove semis for almost three years.
Almost 30 years later now, he’s worked with all different aspects of trucking. He’s been on bush roads, done heavy hauling and specialized freight and most recently pulled turnpikes in the prairies.
Henry claimed he’s been an owner/operator since he started driving because he’s a natural entrepreneur, always wanting to run his own show and earn money on his own.
“It’s always been my goal to have my own stuff instead of making money for somebody else,” he said. “I’ve been like that from when I was young. Growing up I would cut grass and had my own paper route.”
For the last two years, he has been working for Continental Cartage out of Edmonton, Alta. as an owner/operator, and is sent to Yellowknife for ice road season.
“We drive very slow on what I call the Southern Lakes,” he said. “On the lower half we run 25 km/h and on the Northern Lakes we run 30 km/h. The fastest we go is when we’re empty. There are express lanes we can take and we can get all the way up to 60 km/h on those. And that feels like you’re flying.”
When on the ice roads, driving slow and in tandem with other drivers ahead and behind you is key. Drivers must stay a minimum of 500 feet back from the driver in front of them so as to not put too much weight in one area. Going too fast or travelling too close to others can cause the ice to break and the consequences of speeding on the ice roads are severe.
“The security up here is tighter than any cop you’ve ever seen,” he said. “If the speed limit is 25 km/h and if you’re doing 26 km/h, security will tell you to slow down. If you go 27 km/h, you get kicked off the roads for five days. They don’t fool around.”
He claims the ice roads aren’t for everyone, even veterans who have accumulated millions of accident-free miles.
“Just because you’re a good driver, or you’re good at what you do in the rest of Canada, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good ice road trucker,” Henry said. “You know there’s people who come up here who have all the qualifications and who have hauled a lot of heavy equipment and when they get up here they can’t handle it and they go home. Some people can’t get over the fact that you’re driving on ice.”
He says his job is nothing as it is portrayed on the TV show, Ice Road Truckers and that it takes a very specific type of driver to stick it out and get the job done day after day.
“If you get bored easily then it’s definitely not a job you want to do,” he said. “You have to be able to take any circumstance and find a solution. You have to be able to get out there no matter what the conditions are and tie your load on or assist somebody else. You have to be mentally very strong.It’s very long hours and there’s very little sunshine…and all you’re doing is driving and loading and unloading.”
Though that may seem boring for some, Henry said he is willing to stick it out because of how much driving on the ice roads feels like “old-school trucking” where trucking is a very close-knit community of drivers, and where anyone is willing to lend a hand. In addition, because of the conditions, all of his trucking buddies who are in the convoy with him have to stay on their radios at all times, maintaining communication.
“To pass the time, we spend a lot of time talking to each other most days,” he said.
Other than the gorgeous landscape surrounding him, Henry says his favourite part of working in Yellowknife is the respect they pay to the environment and wildlife.
“They work very hard to keep the environmental impact very minimal up there,” he said. “That’s the one thing that will get you kicked off the ice faster than anything – is if you’re caught throwing something out the window or littering. You’ll be banned. And not for a day or two – banned for life. If you see wildlife on the road you literally do not approach them – you don’t blow your horn, you don’t flash your lights. You just stay back and tell security. You stay away from them, and let them live their life. And I think that is really cool.”
Henry said he is already convinced to stay the course and drive the ice roads again next year and is looking forward to it. You can view pictures and videos of his time in Yellowknife by following him on Twitter at @crazycanuckdave.