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The Icemen

YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. - The winter trucking season in the Northwest Territories is the busiest of the year. In this remote region of Canada, where road access is limited, freezing lakes and rivers creat...


YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. – The winter trucking season in the Northwest Territories is the busiest of the year. In this remote region of Canada, where road access is limited, freezing lakes and rivers create an opportunity to haul equipment, fuel and other materials that cannot be shipped via air.

Based out of the capital city of Yellowknife, RTL Robinson Enterprises Limited is the leading company, not only in winter road hauling, but also in the selection, construction and maintenance of these unique truck routes. For the past 35 years it has provided an essential service to mines and remote areas that do not have conventional road access during the rest of the year.

“Two trucks head out every half hour, 24-hours a day. It’s unbelievable the amount of freight that needs to go up in a three month period,” said Jeromy Ball, who handles customer and public relations for RTL.

For RTL customers, those shipments are more than just a winter luxury. They are a necessity; crucial to their operations. Companies budget supplies so they are running out when trucks are rolling in.

“This is when fuel re-supply for the entire season happens,” said Ball.

Planning for winter road construction begins in the summer and is an intensive process that combines the use of air and ground crews.

Float planes and helicopters equipped with ground penetrating radar are used to survey potential truck routes and, as the ice forms, to measure its thickness, informing construction crews when it is safe to proceed.

During the second phase of construction, light-track vehicles venture out to re-evaluate ice and determine whether ploughs with balloon tires or regular graders and Cats will be sent out to clear the road in an effort to speed up ice development.

Out on the tundra, road crews and drivers are virtually cut off from civilization and work in the most extreme conditions on Earth. Temperatures are commonly below -40 to -50 degrees Celsius and blizzard whiteouts are not uncommon.

That is why safety is RTL’s paramount concern.

Trucks and crews communicate using VHF and HF radios and RTL’s satellite communications system ensures that contact can be maintained 24-hours a day, regardless of location.

Fully equipped, self-contained camp units also support each crew. These units come complete with portable workshops, generators, welders and fuel supplies. Each unit can support a crew for 30 days. Aircraft are also on 24-hour emergency standby from the time the first crew begins road construction until the last truck drives away.

Travel on winter roads is much different than on conventional roads: special equipment and procedures are used to ensure safety. Ten years ago RTL was the frontrunner in development and testing of eight-wheel drive trucks, which have now become standard in winter road hauling. They also use customized graders.

“Up here, because of the conditions, we have to come up with our own kinds of configurations,” said Ball.

In 1987 RTL devised a comprehensive ice-testing program designed to gauge water movement and ice deflection when moving loads over winter roads. The test determines how fast vehicles can travel and what distance they must remain apart on each leg of their journey. In some cases trucks will be moving as slowly as 10 km/h remaining a full kilometre apart.

“We don’t want the trucks breaking through the ice and sinking,” said Mike Suchlandt, safety manager with RTL.

To ensure safety, all of RTL’s winter drivers go through an intensive training program, which includes everything from basic first aid to outdoor survival and a demonstration of how water reacts beneath the ice as vehicles pass over the winter road. Vibrations cause wave movement and if drivers don’t follow the speed and distance designations those waves can be powerful enough to shatter the road with disastrous consequences.

“We do everything from soup to nuts to make sure these guys are prepared,” said Suchlandt.

Drivers that come on just for winter driving are informed before they head North to come prepared for the weather, but Suchlandt said he is always amazed at how little people truly understand about how extreme the conditions are.

“We have guys come up in their cowboy boots and a jacket that might be good for 20 below and we have to take them out and do some shopping,” he said. “If you are not prepared, you will die.”

Out in the barrens temperatures can drop to 50 and 60 below zero and stay there for weeks.

“You also have to remember you are above the tree-line so it’s wide open. There is no wind block, that amplifies the cold incredibly,” said Suchlandt.

Trips can be devastatingly long on winter roads due to the slow rate of speed. The longest route, if drivers were to go straight through, is a 20-hour drive one way. Camps, similar to truck stops, are set up dividing the truck route into thirds, giving drivers opportunity to rest and grab something to eat.

If safety procedures are followed, the roads are safe and can accommodate some unbelievable weight. The heaviest load carried by RTL on an ice road was back in 1978 when it hauled a 190,000-pound generator over Great Bear Lake to Port Radium.

Due to the fact that road conditions are dependent on the weather and literally melt away with the spring, the most is made of the winter trucking season.

Although travel is at times interrupted by storms and regulated to prevent road deterioration, whenever possible operations continue 24-hours a day.

Keeping trucks on the road means maintenance issues must be handled quickly. Not having the right parts means waiting for shipments from the south and that can mean vehicles are out of commission for days.

Ball said although you can’t always plan for every contingency, RTL keeps a supply stock of replacement parts that is more extensive than the industry norm.

RTL’s usual fleet of 170 trucks and 400 trailers is augmented in the winter with an average of 300 contract units in order to maximize the short hauling season.

Although it may seem extraordinary, winter road travel is commonplace in the Northwest Territories. RTL’s success can be attributed to an intimate understanding of the needs of the North.

“Unlike most companies we started up here and moved down south to expand. Staying up North we understand how the North works and how trucking in the North works,” said Ball.

RTL began as a family business and continues to be owned and operated by family. President Marvin Robinson works together with his brothers Donny, vice-president, and Ricky, who heads up the company’s Edmonton branch.

Ball said the company strives to maintain that family feel and that is one of the reason they have been around so long.

“Our trucks stop at the side of the road to give people a hand,” he said.


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