Northward Yo!

by Steve Macleod

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s not exactly new-age wisdom, but it’s the thought process that led three people from Canada’s North into the trucking business.

For too many years, late and damaged goods hindered Ross Weitzel’s construction business. Fed up, Weitzel decided it was time to get the materials he needed on his own.

With the help of two others, he launched Qilamik Industries in Inuvik, N.W.T., with one truck and one trailer, mainly to provide service for Weitzel Construction. Weitzel kept his focus on the construction business, while the day-to-day operations of the fledgling carrier were left to Adele Campbell and Mike Smith.

In four short years, Qilamik transformed from a carrier hauling construction supplies into a full-blown LTL outfit, offering daily service from Edmonton to Inuvik.

"It’s really just spawned itself," explains Mike Smith, co-owner and operations manager at Qilamik.

Inuvik isn’t exactly along a major trade route in Canada. Freight shipments have historically been inconsistent, expensive and sometimes the brand-new products arrive in second-hand condition.

Four years ago, the Qilamik tractor-trailer only traveled as far as Whitehorse, Yukon. Orders were placed to Edmonton companies, and interlining carriers from Alberta’s capital city brought goods as far as the Yukon for Qilamik to pick up.

Before long, pickup requests from people and businesses in Inuvik began pouring in. They began: "if you’re heading into the city do you think you could pick up…"

As the requests for freight delivery continued to grow, so did Qilamik. The carrier now has two class 8 trucks and four five-ton straight jobs. Nine owner-operators also are on hand to help haul Qilamik’s 13 trailers into Inuvik filled with LTL and TL loads.

The loads themselves are now coming straight from Edmonton.

"The more people who handle the goods, the more there’s a chance for damage and it lowers the costs if we have less people handling everything," explains Smith.

‘Qilamik’ is an Inuvialuktun word that means speedy in English. The name was picked to represent service, but it’s an equally good word to describe the carrier’s growth. Smith constantly pauses during the conversation to answer Qilamik’s phone at the front desk of the carrier’s office in northwest Edmonton.

Latitude is Attitude: Volatile weather and road conditions
mean heightened customer-carrier relations for Qilamik

Smith moved down to Edmonton from Inuvik to help open and establish the Edmonton office. It was only supposed to be temporary, but two years later he’s still an Edmontonian.

"We’ve taken off so fast," says Smith. "There was obviously a need for good service and routes into Inuvik. We were very surprised though with how fast we’ve grown; it was a bit overwhelming, but we’ve managed."

Of the three founding partners, none had experience in trucking. Weitzel owned a construction business and Campbell was the bookkeeper at Weitzel Construction, while Smith worked in telecommunications, which gave him management experience.

Starting a trucking company was a strange endeavor for all of them, but they figured it could be successful if they stuck to their main goal.

"We knew what we wanted to do, which was get freight up there on time and without damage; and it’s really starting to come together," explains Smith.

Smith believes the fleet’s success can be attributed to providing daily service from Edmonton to Inuvik, but it has been their customer service that has put them in the position to operate the timely route.

"Being from the North, I knew a lot of our customers on a personal level," explains Smith. "We weren’t really dealing with strangers and being able to provide a personal level of service probably helped us build a lot of trust in the beginning."

Like most carriers, fuel prices are a pressing issue for Qilamik, and maybe even more so, considering the farther into Canada’s North you drive, the more expensive fuel gets.

But fuel isn’t the only challenge in trucking to Northern Canada. While a personal touch has helped Qilamik, understanding and preparing for the varying weather elements is how they really earn their keep.

"Mother Nature is our biggest challenge going up there," adds Smith. "The highway gets shutdown sometimes from storms, avalanches and washed out from flooding. We also get shut down a couple times by the ice roads."

There are two ice road crossings along the route — the Peel River and the MacKenzie River — and  they shut down in spring when the snow is melting and at the beginning of winter before the crossing is packed down.

Even the traditional highways can be challenging. Edmonton to Inuvik is a 6,400-km (4,100-mile), seven-day round trip. Nearly 1,400 km (900 miles) during the roundtrip are spent driving along a gravel stretch known as the Dempster Highway.

With the terrain challenges to overcome, a good relationship with customers is even more important to keep things running smoothly.
"Our customers are very understanding of it," says Smith. "They’re Northerners themselves and we always make sure they’re aware of the situation. We place a lot of courtesy calls."

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