YELLOWKNIFE, N. W. T. -A cable TV show focusing on the trucking industry brings viewers the cold, hard facts about the challenges of driving in the north. Or does it?
History Television’s Ice Road Truckers follows a group of drivers hauling supplies over ice roads built on frozen northern lakes. According to the channel’s Web site: “Sometimes the ice cannot support the heavy rig, and driver and cargo plunge through the ice and sink to the bottom.” The blurb ends with the invitation to “Hitch a risky ride along with the Ice Road Truckers as they drive headlong into bone-chilling danger,” as if life on the ice is reminiscent of the old-time bush pilots who helped open the arctic decades ago.
But is Ice Road Truckers really an inside look or is it merely some Hollywoodized entertainment show?
“It came across as a bunch of cowboys up there,” says Glenn Bauer, president and general manager of Ventures West Transportation, which hauls fuel to the diamond mines featured in the show’s first season. “But in reality it’s very, very controlled.”
Bauer also says that, unlike the image of drivers being lone wolves prowling the wilderness, “trucks go out in convoys of two or four and in the height of the season you have four trucks going out every 20 minutes, with experienced convoy leaders to ensure speed limits are adhered to and that there’s proper spacing. You’re never allowed to travel alone.”
Bauer’s company hasn’t participated in the show, though some of its equipment was seen in the background.
“We had mixed feelings,” he says, “because of how they sensationalized and portrayed the ice roads.”
He claims the show wasn’t allowed back to the original venue for the second season because the mines didn’t like the portrayal, either; season two was set in Canada’s high arctic while season three moved to Alaska.
As for a much-repeated segment showing a tanker disappearing through the ice, Bauer just doesn’t buy it. “The only incident of a breakthrough I know of was with the equipment building the road and getting it to the proper thickness,” he says. “I know of no-one transporting on that road who has gone through.”
Bauer says the tanker incident portrayed actually happened at Mackenzie Crossing, on the highway south toward Alberta. “There was a fully loaded truck,” he remembers, “and the road was apparently open to light loads only; whether he missed the sign or whatever, I don’t know.”
According to a Toronto Star article on the show by Wheels editor Mark Richardson, the TV truck was actually a one-sixth scale model “being pulled through a snowy scene that’s made from sugar and shaved ice.” Richardson’s piece credits the series’ DVD with spilling the beans that the scene was actually filmed in California by “some of Hollywood’s greatest special effects masters. After all, transport trucks don’t crash through the ice anymore.”
To Bauer, the ice is perfectly safe -as long as you follow the rules.
“There’s lots of security there,” he says, pointing out that the critical issues are speed and following distance (follow too closely and you can stress the ice), and “as long as you follow the rules the risks of going through are nil.”
Quite different from the TV version. ” I understand TV and all that,”
Bauer says, “but the ice road is done very, very seriously -the engineering, how they measure ice thickness, security and the rules of the road. There’s never been a concern of anybody going through.”
Another issue Bauer has with the show was how it portrayed truck maintenance.
“You can’t afford to go up there and have a truck break down,” Bauer says. “There’s nowhere to fix it up there so if you break down on the road you have to be hauled out of there.” Bauer says his company is particular about the trucks because “the cold brings out the worst in anything and you can’t afford to have issues up there.”
Driver TJ Tilcox, on the other hand, thought the show did a reasonable job. One of the stars of the first season, Tilcox was a comparative newcomer when he went to the ice roads from his stomping grounds in southern Ontario.
“I’d only been driving for about a year and it was still hard to get work,” he says. “So I thought I’d go out west and haul Super-Bs of grain, and (the owner) said he was going to send me up to the ice roads. I didn’t know what it was at the time.”
It was a steep learning curve.
“The first trip scared the snot out of me -getting going in the middle of the night and not being able to see well, with snow blowing around and hearing the ice cracking -I thought for sure I was going to be swimming.”
With a little experience under his belt, however, he had a good time.
His adventures included “nearly freezing to death in the first truck,” and having to be evacuated from the area by plane. “I got hurt doing up a load binder, ended up slipping on the ice and got slammed into the rub rail of the deck. I got bruised ribs, torn muscle -it hurt something else.” Tilcox says they shut down the road, landed a rescue airplane on the lake and took him to Yellowknife.
Tilcox made 24 trips, 23 of which were filmed, and remembers the last one in particular, when water on the lakes came up to the bottom step of the truck. “It was melting in early April and I was coming down from the North,” he says. “There were a few lakes that had water on top of the ice and I said I wasn’t going up there again without a life jacket or a rubber dingy. That was sure nerve-wracking.”
He says his experience working with the TV folk was pretty good -he even ended up marrying one of the producers -and he thinks the show did a decent job of portraying the ice roads.
“I think some stuff was a little different than what happened,” he says, “but for the most part I believe what you saw was what really happens. Now some stuff, like the dollar figures they put on loads, were best case scenarios, not necessarily reality,” he admits. “And some things that happened were a bit exaggerated -like the accident I had with a new truck.” Tilcox says the show made it look as if he were doing 50 km/h at the time whereas “I was almost stopped. But for the most part I think they did alright.”
For better or worse, the Ice Road Truckers show has had an effect on the industry. “There was a bit of a rash of interest from people who wanted to come up for the experience, for the sense of adventure,” says Ventures West’s Bauer. “We were getting calls from various places in the US, places where they probably haven’t seen snow, let alone ice.”
Bauer never hired any, though. “They don’t have the experience with Super-Bs and they don’t have the winter knowledge either.” Besides, he says, “we have a waiting list because drivers can make a premium dollar over their regular work.”
The ice roads are open for about two months, from about the last week of January until perhaps the first week of April. Bauer says it’s a good seasonal job for the right drivers.
“It’s the type of thing where drivers do other stuff during the year but with the ice roads they can make good money in a short period of time.”
How has fame affected the drivers featured? It appears to be a double-edged sword. “From what I’ve been told,” Bauer says, “those drivers are not allowed back on the winter road to the diamond mines.” Tilcox, however, looks on it as a positive experience, one that has paid dividends.
Besides “meeting lots of new people,” Tilcox has also become an ambassador for Volvo Trucks North America, going to truck shows and getting to see how his preferred truck is made at the factory. And of course there’s the adoring public. “People recognize me and come up and say ‘you’re the guy’ or ‘we really respect what you do up there.’ I’m famous!”
He also thinks truckers’ portrayal in the show helps the public see them in a better eye. “It explained things about the routine, coupling, the industry; it helps drivers look better.”
Would he travel the ice roads again? “The
y asked me to go to Alaska for the third season,” he says, “but I couldn’t. Maybe another year.” In the meantime, Tilcox wants to become an owner/operator. “My family owned trucks and it’s in me to drive,” he says. “I tell a lot of people that I’d go back, but as an owner/operator.”
“But if you want to go for the experience,” he advises, “go as a company guy first and figure it out.”
Assuming you can get to the top of the waiting list.
‘We were getting calls from various places in the US, places where they probably haven’t seen snow, let alone ice.’