CASTLEGAR, B.C. — There’s an easy way and a hard way to get your Class 1 driver’s licence, and if you want the easy way out, choosing Mountain Transport Institute (MTI) may not be the right choice for you.
MTI instructor Mike Boultbee shows one of his students how to navigate around tight residential streets with a tractor-trailer.
I visited the West Kootenay driver training school at the end of January to do some ride alongs with a couple MTI students and get an appreciation of the daunting mountainous terrain wannabe truck drivers have to navigate in the area.
It didn’t take long before I was dealing with the challenges of the mountain passes on my own. On the drive to Castlegar, B.C. from Alberta, the Kootenay Pass on Hwy. 3 gave me a taste of what was to come. Road conditions were barely passable – at least from my perspective as a non-resident of the area – and as I was traveling at a tenuous 40 km/h at the highest elevation points, I couldn’t help but think of the truck drivers who navigate this stretch of highway on a daily basis.
“If you can drive a truck in this area, you can drive one anywhere” is a motto echoed by MTI and its students.
And it’s any wonder.
Steep grades, long grades, mountain passes, sharp turns, inclement weather, literally traveling in a cloud…the number of factors that can turn a driver’s day into a nightmare are endless.
Day 1 (morning)
Arriving at the MTI office around 6:45 a.m., instructor Mike Boultbee was sipping his coffee while watching Chris Teather, an MTI student since November, perform his morning walk around safety check of the Freightliner truck he was about to take out on the road.
Despite 70% of new trucks being automated, all MTI students are trained on manual transmissions to ensure they have that skill under their belt. Teather has a unique way of shifting the gears, as he lost his right arm in a sawmill accident in 2006.
A mold was taken of a gearshift to ensure his prosthetic fits perfectly for ease of movement while shifting.
“It’s nice and short so I get feedback from the gearshift, so it works out nice,” Teather explained, adding that he normally does not wear a prosthetic during the day, so he was originally concerned with how he would deal with a long day behind the wheel.
But that worry subsided with a driving arm that weighs about 10 lbs. less than a typical day-to-day prosthetic.
Eventually Teather will have a small finger-like piece attached to the end of the prosthetic to enable him to more easily hit switches in the truck.
Teather chose MTI and driving as a career for the diversity of choices he has seen offered in the high demand profession.
“Every time I looked at the job board it was 10-to-one driving jobs,” he said, “so there is a big gap for drivers in the industry.”
For the ride along, we first headed out to the local weigh station before hitting the mountain highways.
We did a loop that took us west on Hwy 3 and then south on Hwy 3B, known locally as Strawberry Pass. The roads on the pass were snow covered and posed up and down grades and sharp turns on a single-lane highway.
The scenery may have been breathtaking, but so were the roads, and I found myself from time to time envisioning us sliding down a hill with a severe turn right into the ditch, or worse.
But as Andy Roberts, owner of MTI, repeatedly told me prior to my visit, “We always have a plan to get home safely,” and that was certainly the case with Boultbee in the passenger’s seat.
Boultbee provided Teather with driving tips throughout the ride along: everything from avoiding encroaching on the center yellow line; ride on the snow dust rather than icy tire marks if you can; black tires means they are not picking up any snow, resulting in less traction; water spray from the tires means roads are wet, which is better than the alternative, icy with no water spray.
Eventually, we came upon the daunting Rossland Hill, a 9% grade that thankfully was in good shape as we made our way down. I can only image what the hill would be like during or after a snow storm.
Boultbee pointed out a vacant lot near the bottom of the hill where a house once stood before an out-of-control transport truck slammed into it years ago.
There is now a pair of runaway lanes coming down Rossland Hill and the decision was made to forego building another house at the bottom.
We made it back to Castlegar safe and sound.
By the time you read this, Teather will have graduated from the MTI course.
He hopes to be able to stay close to his family, and even said starting out driving a garbage truck would enable him to be home with his kids every night.
But Teather’s mind is not far from the diversity of choices a career as a driver could offer him in the future.
“Further down the road as my kids grow up and as I learn more about the industry, definitely an owner-operator is in the cards for sure,” he said.
Then I asked him if he’d like to be an instructor one day.
“Well, one of the instructors said I have the potential for it, said I have the right personality and I’m outspoken and stuff, but at this point in the game I haven’t given it that much thought,” Teather said. “But as I get older it could be something of interest.”
Day 1 (afternoon)
Next I headed out with Victoria, B.C.’s own Jason Rivard. It was his first time operating a tractor with the trailer attached, and he was tasked with having to navigate the roads of Castlegar – not just the main roads, those tiny residential ones as well.
Boultbee started out in the driver’s seat to show Rivard the route he’d be taking and what he’d have to do to get around narrow streets, particularly in the winter time having to deal with snowbanks.
Rivard traveled over 700 kms just to attend MTI. He had been driving his entire working career, and getting his Class 1 was the next step.
“When I saw what ‘The MTI Way’ program offered that was what drove me to this school over anything that Victoria had because they do more than just teach you how to driver around in a circle in the city,” said Rivard. “It’s two months of very intense training where when you leave you feel better qualified and prepared as an entry-level truck driver.”
With a wife in the Canadian military and having traveled the last five years for work, it was Rivard’s time to put the pedal to the metal on his driving career.
“The goal is to go on the road for a couple of years and make some money and then after that maybe look a little bit more local,” he said.
Having just started his training with MTI Jan. 15 – about two weeks before I arrived – his first attempt at driving a truck with a trailer through the streets of Castlegar was a raving success from my perspective. We didn’t get stuck, didn’t hit anything (other than a snowbank, but that was intentional), and managed to “work with the other drivers,” as Boultbee instructed was a key skill drivers must have.
Rivard’s graduation date was March 6, and though he had just got started prior our ride along, the way MTI trains its students is something he relished.
“They never let you sit in one spot for long,” Rivard said. “They’re always tightening the screws and pushing you a little bit further every day.”
Getting used to the size of a Class 1 vehicle, using air brakes, and upshifting and downshifting were all things Rivard had to get used to.
He was happy, however, to be learning the trade on a manual transmission.
“Automated is the way of the future,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that when I leave school, unless I buy my own truck, I’ll never see a stick shift ever again. But at the same time, it’s a good skill to have, I’m having a lot of fun, it’s a learning experience and it keeps you on your toes.”