YELLOWKNIFE, NWT – With the Tibbitt-Contwoyto winter road closing early it stranded hundreds of owner/operators for a week without so much as a place to take a shower.
Some 500 truckers came north this year and were the backbone of re-supply efforts to four diamond mines in the NWT and Nunavut as well as countless exploration camps.
The goal had been to move roughly 9,000 loads of supplies and fuel, during what was last year a 76-day shipping window.
But this year the road became unsafe thanks to warmer than usual weather and closed after just 42 days and 6,882 successful deliveries.
Facing millions of dollars in additional transportation costs, the mining firms which operate the seasonal route, kept everyone in town guessing there was a slight chance cold weather would allow the road to re-open.
So with no work, the truckers settled in to wait for an opportunity to maybe squeeze in another run. Despite the inconvience some remained upbeat.
“Life goes on – I’ll just have to find another job somewhere else,” said Eric Brown, an O/O out of Nova Scotia. “It’s better to close the road than end up in the drink.”
The lack of truck parking and facilities where the professional drivers could wait out the week, however, left most completely frustrated.
“We’re just sitting around,” said Calgary O/O Steve Parker. “I’m spending money while I just sit in my truck.”
What bothered him most was the fact Yellowknife did almost nothing to assist the truckers stuck in limbo.
“They have kicked us out of parking lots,” he said. “It’s hard to find a place to eat and get a shower.”
The Yellowknife Direct Charge Co-op was one business that asked rigs to vacate its premises.
“We understand the truckers are between a rock and a hard place, but the Co-op is not a truck stop and it never intended to be,” said Ben Walker, Co-op general manager.
While most of the truckers are respectful and only stay at the Co-op a short time, he said some abused the situation and wore out the welcome for everyone.
“Some of those guys were staying 24 to 48 hours on the premises,” he said. “It’s a danger issue…we’ve had complaints from our members.”
Instead, Walker suggested it should be the City of Yellowknife’s responsibility to take care of the stranded drivers.
“We worked with them as best as possible,” said local Mayor Gord Van Tighem.
Bylaw enforcement officers tried to be diplomatic with the truckers, he said. While he wanted them to feel comfortable in the city, he admitted there was little he could do to help them.
“We are not set to take this volume of truck drivers all at one time,” he said.
Even when the road was operating, rigs were forced to carry partial loads on the almost 600-km route due to thin ice, said Tom Hoefer, supervisor for the Joint Venture Management Committee operating the route.
At its peak, four trucks were being dispatched every 20 minutes.
“With the warm weather, the portages and the ice conditions weakened,” he said.
“We can’t fight the weather and we can’t predict the weather.”
One operator pointed out the road was in great shape considering how warm March had been.
“If the weather were colder, at -20 C, it would’ve been a little bit better,” said trucker Edwin Fillier.
While there had been more slush than usual on some lakes and portages, he said many people worked together to keep the road going as long as they could.
“The security and road crews did a phenomenal job,” he said.
Trucks are required to maintain speeds of less than 30 km/h on the route because travelling any faster can tragically send the vehicle breaking through the ice no matter how thick it is.
Until this year, the shortest season on record was 1991 when the Tibbitt-Contwoyto road operated for just 49 days. By contrast, 2005 was the second longest shipping window for this mine lifeline with 8,200 loads going out on the road between Jan. 25 and April 11.
The length of the Tibbitt-Contwoyto ice road season varies greatly from year to year. Here’s how it has done since 1999: