YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T.-He’s been a bouncer and a cabby and he’ll soon add ‘author’ to his list of careers, but if it all ended tomorrow he says he’d be okay with it.
Not that he wants it to end, mind you; he seems to be enjoying life too much for that.
Alex Debogorski, a 56-year-old driver and entrepreneur based out of Yellowknife, NWT, has also spent the past few years carving out a niche as one of the lead characters in the History Channel series Ice Road Truckers. And a character is what he remains, proudly.
Season Four had just wrapped up when Debogorski slowed down long enough to be interviewed, an experience punctuated by hearty laughter. He remembers clearly when the History Channel sent a crew up there one summer, looking for characters.
“Every time they interviewed someone,” he says, “the people would suggest that if they wanted a real character they should get a hold of me.”
He says the producers eventually did come around to his place and “I teased the pants off the lady in charge and they decided they liked it, I guess.”
So began yet another new career, one that has taken him from the Northwest Territories to Alaska and elsewhere as a TV personality and ambassador, not only of the show itself but, as he puts it, “The trucking industry in North America.”
Life for Debogorski began in Berwyn, Alta., between Peace River and Fairview, and included time in the bush trapping beaver and muskrat.
“We had 1,200 acres,” he recalls, “and lived in a log house where we didn’t have power or water.”
He spent a year taking General Studies at the University of Edmonton, planning a career in law, but marriage and family sent him looking for work instead and he ended up at a coal mine in Grande Cache for about four years.
“I did everything including shop steward for the steelworkers for a couple of years,” says the self-described rebel.
“I ran coal trucks coming down the mountain and ended up in a wreck, broke a leg and ended up in the hospital.”
Upon healing and returning to the mine for a while longer, he decided to go looking for gold around Barkerville, in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.
The Klondike it wasn’t.
“I lost my pants,” he says. When he returned from his personal gold rush, his family was “very happy to see me for about a week and then they decided I should go and get a real job.”
And that’s how he ended up in Yellowknife, working four jobs for the first couple of years until he got “burned right out.”
It was during this period when he spent time as a bouncer and cabbie, as well as starting Eagle North Contracting, which he’s run since then.
“I dig dirt and I’ve got dump trucks,” Debogorski says. “I had a number of men for a while but went back to working by myself most of the time.”
He has also hauled on the ice for different operators, mostly small ones, “Blasting rock and trying to get gold out of it,” he says. Then he starting hauling to the mines and, as they say, the rest is history.
One of the reasons Debogorski took the show, he says, is because he figured if it worked out it would make a nice time capsule for him, a record his grandchildren could watch after he’s dead. He claims the desire stems from the fact he has no record of what one of his grandfathers, who he says was shot by a firing squad in Auschwitz, looked like: “So my kids will get the other extreme; they can just watch me on TV.”
As Ice Road Truckers has evolved, it has moved from its origins in the NWT to Alaska and, though he moved with the show, he thinks it was a mistake for Canada to have lost out on the production.
The reasons for the move are the stuff of rumour, and Debogorski says he isn’t supposed to talk about such things, but he is willing to say “The mines up here don’t like the show.”
And that’s a shame, he says, because the show (which according to his publicists is the History Channel’s most watched series and is syndicated in over 20 countries) is an excellent introduction to Canada’s north and would benefit not only the NWT, but the routes through Alberta people take getting there.
“We have people coming to Yellowknife, Inuvik and Fairbanks,” he says.
“And they don’t want to shoot animals, they don’t want to smell the flowers -they just want to meet an ice road trucker or be where the ice road truckers are. What better thing could you have for tourism than something like that, where someone’s just going to spend money and not do any damage?”
He says it would have been to everyone’s advantage to have the show stay in the NWT because “it has put Canada on the map. It has put Yellowknife on the map.”
Debogorski does see some longer term benefits from the show anyway, thanks to reruns. “I travel all around the States and all of a sudden everybody knows where Yellowknife is, they get to see the north of Canada -it really did make a difference in what people think of the country.”
Moving the show to Alaska also meant parachuting Debogorski into a new venue, one in which he could have been seen as taking business away from truckers who’ve been there for years.
And it did cause some angst, he says, at least in the short term.
“When you show up with three or four truck drivers and movie cameras and say ‘We’re going to show everybody how to drive,’ what do you think they’re going to say?” he asks, rhetorically.
On the upside, however, “you gotta remember we came in there last year at the beginning of the economic crisis so the idea that we’re (interlopers) is kind of silly because we bring with us half a dozen to 20 jobs and the show’s got maybe a couple of hundred people employed.”
Factor in all the rental cars and hotel rooms, he says, and it adds up.
Each character also has a chase truck now, and they’re all driven by local people. In all, Debogorski says only two local driving jobs were lost: his and fellow driver Hugh Rowlands.
“We were there two-and-a-half months,” he says, “and by the end of the season there were fewer and fewer people who were upset.”
Debogorski also attributes the declining animosity from the locals to the fact that he and Rowlands can, indeed, do the job.
“You’re going up and down the road meeting the guys, you’re doing the job, you didn’t kill anybody, you’re getting the load there, you’re driving through the storms,” he says.
“As long as you have over 50% of the people supporting you, all it makes for is a good argument between themselves at the coffee table over whether we’re bums or not.”
Debogorski has a reality check for the folk who say the show is more Hollywood than reality. “Driving a truck back and forth is usually not very exciting and if you just show the truck going back and forth then who’s going to watch 13 hours of just seeing that?”
That’s the reality of trucking, though, he says, and if that’s what you showed, “They’d say you told the truth, but nobody’d watch the show.”
And while he admits that some 60 people have gone through the ice over the years in the Territories, “The guy doing the talking never went through the ice and probably wasn’t in a situation where that would happen because these roads are prepared so there’s no possibility of anyone going through unless you break the rules and do something really stupid.”
As for the special effects shots showing a truck going through the ice, Debogorski points skeptics to the History Channel Web site, where they explain how they did the shots.
“It’s not like they claimed it was real,” he says.
Recording the show only takes up part of Debogorski’s year, leaving him plenty of time for other activities.
“I spent four months last year in the lower 48 out of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, about a half-hour south of Green Bay,” he says.
From his base there, he appeared at county fairs and conventions in such places as Las Vegas and California -including one at a native casino out of Albuquerque.
With Season Four a wrap, Debogorski says
he’s negotiating some things, but he isn’t at liberty to talk about them.
He will say he’s contracted for a couple of truck shows on this continent, and one at Peterborough, England. “After that I’m not sure,” he says.
Much of his time at trade shows is spent being a goodwill ambassador.
“Last year we had a big lineup of people and I signed autographs and had my picture taken with people,” he says with a laugh, “Shaking babies and kissing hands, trying to portray a positive image of truckers and the industry.”
When asked what was the most exciting thing that has happened to him in his varied careers, he points to a time when he had to perform first aid on a driver north of Yellowknife.
“Two tankers collided, one was stopped and an empty one behind it hit it,” he says.
“It broke off the fifth wheel, the door came off the truck and the driver’s shoulder went down the side of the tank until his truck came to a halt. I had to get him out of the truck.”
He puts it down to another day at work.
“That’s always a concern because if you drive, you’re going to come along those situations.” But, he says, “If a guy’s going to die, I want him to die in front of a doctor, not in front of me.”
As larger than life as he seems, one might think that TV stardom has gone to Debogorski’s head.
“I always thought I was famous,” he says with yet another big laugh, “and now everybody else has found out.”
He considers giving back to be among his responsibilities.
“I’ve been quite touched that I’ve touched people in a constructive way,” he says, “and that I made an impact on some of them.”
These include groups of students he spoke to at a high school in Manitowoc, as well as people who are “sick or lonely.”
He also runs a ministry in Yellowknife.
“I’m Roman Catholic,” he says, “and for years I’ve gone to the jail on Sunday or when asked to and pray with the inmates.”
Debogorski’s abundance of opinions, undoubtedly coupled with his rebellious streak, also shows up in the printed word.
He writes an occasional column for a Yellowknife newspaper and says that, at one time, he had the whole city “Standing on their head because I called them a bunch of Communists.”
In the grand scheme of things, fame can be fleeting -and even Gunsmoke didn’t last forever. Yet the thought of being a “former TV personality” doesn’t seem to bother Debogorski a whit.
“I’ve lived life fully,” he says. “We have a big family and while we’ve had some disasters and different things, we’ve lived through it all and I’ve been blessed that I can touch other people sometimes in a constructive fashion.”
As for what he’ll do after Ice Road Truckers heads down memory lane, he professes to not be concerned.
“When you’re born,” he says, “the government gives you 27,000 days to live, so over time I’ve given less and less concern over planning. I want to pay my bills, I’d like to help my family be more constructive because then they’ll have a bigger impact on this country and this world. Otherwise, I’m sure that the good Lord or whatever’s out there is going to put lots of stuff in front of me.”
Then there’s the book he has coming out, possibly in November. “We haven’t come up with a name but I expect it’ll be lots of personal stories. I don’t know how much trucking will be in it, but I have lots of interesting stories.”
Whatever the stories may be, it appears that this father of 11 and grandfather of nine (with the tenth on the way), will definitely not be shy about telling them.
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