KATHRYN, Alta. –Growing up in Golden, B.C., Irene Friesen didn’t want to be a truck driver, ever. Yet the Kathryn, Alta., resident is not only a veteran driver now, she helps others become better driv- ers as well.
“When I was about 15 I worked in a truck stop,” she says seriously, “and there was no way I was going to have anything to do with those guys.” Yet within a few years she had not only married a truck driver, she had followed him into the cab.
Irene met Wayne Friesen at an interdenominational Bible school on an island off Chemainus, B.C., during what she describes as the toughest year of her life.
“You work there,” she remembers. “You keep garden and they have animals, you’re thinning out thorny blackberry bushes -and you’re kind of out of the mayhem of civilization, so to speak. I’m glad I did it but I never want to do it again.”
Meeting Wayne changed her life. “He wanted to go back on the road,” she explains. “And so I literally went from being very active – into sports, horses, that kind of thing -to getting my licence, being a wife and learning to sit still in the cab of a truck for hours on end. That was tough,” she says, her words punctuated by a sparkling laugh.
Friesen says she’ll never forget that first trip, taken in a 32-inch bunk glider kit. “I was straight out of driving school, while Wayne had been driving six or seven years,” she says. “And he’s going from being a bachelor to where he’s got to put up with me in this tiny little cab, which means he’s got to break his old bachelor ways.”
She describes her husband as a focused individual who concentrates on the destination, not the trip. This caused some issues. “I wanted to stop and treat it like a picnic,” she says, “but Wayne said, ‘No way, we have to keep going until we hit our destination.’ You can imagine what that was like!”
They left from Calgary on that initial adventure, hauling hanging beef to Sydney, N.S., then heading back to Trenton, Ont. to pick up orange juice bound for Vancouver. But somewhere in Ontario, after having a tough time sitting in the cab for about a week straight, Irene decided to go AWOL.
“He didn’t even get that tractor dynamited and I was out of the cab and running,” she remembers. Her new husband was left wondering if she were planning to return at all. She did, of course, after an hour or so “when I’d kind of gotten my legs again,” she says. “We had a lot of that.”
It was the beginning of a two-year odyssey during which they eventually worked out a system: Wayne would drop Irene off a mile or two short of their destination and she’d walk to their prearranged meeting place. Their very different personalities ensured, however, that it wouldn’t become a long-term arrangement, and she left the road in the late 1980s, enrolling in nursing school.
But trucks, if not the trucking life, must have wormed their way into her blood, because it wasn’t long before she snagged a part-time job hauling milk -heading out to different farms to pick up raw milk and bring it back to what, at the time, was Palm Dairies. “I came home smelling like an old barn,” she says, “but I enjoyed the job.”
Daughter Brittany was born during that time and Friesen continued her milk runs part-time, even taking the new addition to the family along with her. “She was about a year old and she had a great time, hiding out in the bunk and going to see the cows,” Friesen says.
Then her husband, who was driving trucks again after having taken time off to pursue a career as a travel agent, made a surprise announcement.
“I came home from school one day,” Irene says, “and Wayne tells me he got me this part-time job working with him. I didn’t know what to think because I hadn’t even applied and I wasn’t really interested. But he likes the togetherness of a husband and wife team.”
So it was back into the cab, which required a new balancing act -work and a young family. That balancing act ended up minimizing the “together time” Wayne and Irene had on the road, but it was successful nonetheless. “We were working off of one truck,” Friesen says. “He would be home with Brittany when I would work and vice-versa, so there was always a parent at home.”
They kept up that arrangement for several years, during which time their son, Brandon, was born.
As the kids got older, the Friesens started going out in separate trucks, with her starting at nine in the morning so she could take the kids to school and Wayne starting at 3 a.m. so he could pick them up afterward.
Irene eventually earned another opportunity to stay closer to home when Trimac offered her a gig as a driver-trainer. It involves taking new drivers for a road test and, she says, “If I’m happy with it they go up for more training and then they come back to me.”
She teaches them their paperwork, the pneumatics, loading and unloading and the like, “basically from the point where they know nothing to where they’re comfortable and ready to go.”
She still spends time behind the wheel, too, though she tries to limit herself to day trips. “What I didn’t like (about driving) was the long distance,” she says. “I’m too much of a social butterfly and being on the road and always in an environment where you don’t belong, I didn’t enjoy that.”
Her day trips currently are mostly around the city of Calgary, but she also runs to points between Edmonton and Lethbridge. Until last fall, she also hauled coal from the Line Creek mine in the Elk Valley of British Columbia, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Calgary, delivering the product to Exshaw, about an hour west of the city. Friesen remembers that it could be a difficult trip sometimes, though she says she never got tired of the beauty of the spectacular Elk Valley.
Hauling the coal was especially challenging during winter snowfalls.
“The first year, we ended up pulling Super-B combination trailers,” she says, “and they were not nice.” The trailers, she explains, open by clam doors and quite often the rams would get frozen, “so we’re sitting up in Exshaw for three, four hours trying to open up the doors. We had to use come-alongs and I tell you it was tough, not fun at all.”
She persisted, though she was one of the few who did. “They had a full crew of guys, mostly out of the Crowsnest Pass,” she says. “And they only retained about two. The rest couldn’t handle it.”
Things have improved since then, she says. “They’ve treated the coal with calcium chloride so it comes out easier now, and they also installed a heat shed so you have these huge heat elements that make things easier.”
Despite the improvements, she still finds herself wanting to stay closer to home. “It’s funny, but as I get older even that day trip is getting to be too long,” she says.
Fortunately for her, it looks as if her wish is coming true. Not only is she tapped regularly to fill in at the office when the local manager is off, but her training duties are about to increase.
“They have moved the training centre down to Calgary,” she says. “And the driver-trainer called and said he needs some help and he’d like me to give classroom training as well.”
So she’ll be doing a little driving, a little fill-in as a desk jockey, and a little training -and that suits her just fine. “I love the variety,” she says. “I’m just going to be assisting everybody and the nice thing is that I still get to keep my truck,” a 2006 Western Star “with only 147,000 clicks on it.”
As if she doesn’t have enough irons in the fire, Friesen is also vice-president of Trimac’s drivers’ association. ” If drivers have any problems or issues,” she says, “if they’ve been unfairly treated or terminated by the company or whatever, they come to us and we try to iron it out. We are also involved in their fact finding.”
And she’ll continue sharing job and parenting responsibilities with husband, Wayne, hauling cement, mostly.
“Coal isn’t a steady run for us Calgary guys,” she notes. “So we just help out as requ
ired.” She says the company has two trucks dedicated to two drivers, “one of whom happens to be my husband,” she notes, “and he and I will slip-seat off it.” She says that, if everything goes well, it’s about an 11-hour day for them, but, “We figure out our own shift, so it works out quite well.”
Friesen has high praise for Trimac, which allows the couple the flexibility to schedule the job around their lives. “They’ve been super,” she says, “With a good staff and a good team.”
Being a woman in a man’s world has made Friesen a bit of an oddity, she acknowledges, but says it was never a problem.
“I knew that all eyes were on me when I was initially hired,” she says. “And I knew I had to be twice as good as the guys to be considered one of them.” One of her policies was to always leave a truck cleaner than she found it and “For the most part it all worked out fine. I never ran into any issues at all. I got that respect early and it paid off.”
She’s also very careful to manage possible male/female issues right off the bat. “I have a boundary and (the men) know I won’t take any guff,” she says. That includes swearing. “I tell the guys as soon as they step into the truck that (swearing) is just so unprofessional. I have very high standards, and so I instill that respect right from the beginning.”
Friesen says acting professionally is something she learned early on. “They knew I was married and I worked within those parameters.” It hasn’t all been sweetness and light, though, and she has mentored men who scared her.
Friesen remembers one such man in particular. “They sent me on a trip down to the Crowsnest with him,” she says. “They wanted me to assess his driving because he’d locked horns really badly with another driver. So they put him with me and I had to be quite firm with him -and at the end of a couple of days he wasn’t hired. He was an interesting case; I wouldn’t want him on our team.”
Friesen says the respect she has earned from the guys is one of the reasons the company wanted her to be a trainer.
“I’m very friendly and I can relate to the students because I remember what it’s like to drive, and to learn. They know they’re being evaluated and they’re nervous. I take that into account.”
Friesen’s advice to young women who may want to pursue a career in trucking is simple: Don’t lower your standards.
“Ask for help when you need it,” she says, “but, especially for a woman, don’t cross that boundary (between being a friend and being a colleague).” She advises young women to be friendly to the guys, “but don’t lead them on -you’re one of them and don’t take advantage of being a female.” It boils down, she says, to “do the work and act like one of the guys. Act professionally.”
As it turns out, Friesen received much of her own training from a perfectionist: her husband. “If I even scratched a gear,” she says, “he would let me know about it. But it’s paid off in the long run because they’ve obviously noted that I’m a good driver and they want me teaching.”
Quite a change from the teenager whose only goal involving the trucking industry was to avoid becoming part of it!
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