EDMONTON, Alta. - By now all the leaves have turned and most have made their final journey to the ground. The days are getting shorter and colder, and for Pat Patmore, that means it's time to start th...
EDMONTON, Alta. – By now all the leaves have turned and most have made their final journey to the ground. The days are getting shorter and colder, and for Pat Patmore, that means it’s time to start thinking about life in the Great White North.
Patmore is a dispatcher working out of the ice road camps in the Northwest Territories. From the end of January until mid-April, Patmore trades in his job as a safety supervisor in Edmonton to dispatch trucks along the ice roads stretching from Yellowknife to diamond mines as far north as Lupin – 567 kilometres north.
Last year was a record year on the ice roads, with 500 trucks making more than 8,000 trips.
Patmore expects it to be even busier this year, with mines opening up new operations further and further off the beaten trail.
The increased traffic means it’s more important than ever for Patmore and other dispatchers to safely coordinate the trips and track the vehicles as they set off from the territorial capitol in convoys of two to four rigs.
“They’re given a time when they can leave and when they get to Lockhart, they’ve got to stop there and check-in,” explains Patmore. “If they haven’t arrived in 10 hours or so, we send security out looking for them in case they broke down or went through the ice.”
Amazingly, only one truck went through the ice last winter. And that was because the driver was driving his B-train well over the 25 km-h limit.
“Speed is the biggest problem they have up there,” says Patmore. “If they blow a lake when they’re coming off it and there’s no way around, the whole thing’s shut down.”
Driving too fast over a lake creates a wave under the ice that has nowhere to go but up, explains the ice road guru. That’s why it’s especially important for drivers to heed the speed limits, no matter how tempting it may be to stand on the throttle in the wide-open emptiness of the North.
“One of the biggest challenges the drivers have up there is boredom,” says Patmore. “They sit there at 25 km-h hour after hour after hour.”
Running empty on the way back down, drivers can increase their speeds to 35 km-h, but they face a slew of other challenges then.
“It’s worse coming south because they’re driving right into that sun all day long,” says Patmore. That makes them even more tired and he says the snow banks lining the ice roads tell the tales of drivers falling asleep at the wheel.
When working the ice roads, boredom doesn’t just plague the drivers, mind you. Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts for three weeks straight before getting a single week off.
“I’m moving every week, so I’m meeting new people and by the time I get settled in, I’m off again to another place,” says Patmore. “The three weeks for me go really fast where if you spend the three weeks in one place, you start to get tired.”
Most of the truckers, however, don’t leave at all during the two-and-a-half-month period, and Patmore says it can wear them down.
“When they first come up, everybody’s happy and they’re laughing and that, but by the end, especially when you’re in dispatch, you’ve got to really bite your tongue sometimes,” he says. CB radio waves can become a battleground for irritable drivers, and there are some who never return after their first northern experience.
For others, however, the opportunity to earn up to $25,000 in less than three months is too tempting to turn down.
“It’s not for everybody,” warns Patmore. “It’s a whole different world up there.”