Are you responsible for sending your people into danger? In a new Procurious blog series, The World’s Deadliest Supply Chains, we investigate the most high-risk supply chains out there…
The intrepid truckers on the temporary ice roads spanning hundreds of kilometres of frozen lakes in Canada and Alaska keep their hands on the door handle for good reason: should the ice crack, they have a split second to leap from the vehicle before it falls into the icy, watery abyss.
For a decade, viewers of the History Channel were given a first-hand view of what motivates these drivers and the perils they face, which include not just a frigid sinkhole but avalanches, whiteouts and hypothermia, even earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Set in Canada’s Northern Territories and Alaska, Ice Road Truckers lasted 11 series between 2007 and 2017.
The truckers’ mission was to supply remote gold and diamond mines and entire small towns with goods in the winter months, when road access is only possible because the lakes have frozen over.
Items included anything from fresh food to mining equipment that would be tricky to transport even on well-laid bitumen.
Featuring nicknames such as “Chains”, “Bear Swensen”, “Polar Bear” and “Hammer Down”, the rough-hewn drivers were often depicted in mishaps such as when they ran off the road or got bogged.
In one episode, viewer favourite Lisa Kelly – one of three female drivers – leaps from her truck amid ominous cracking sounds and a disconcerting build-up of water under her rig’s 18 wheels.
As is the norm for ‘reality’ programs, the series was criticised for overdramatising and promoting reckless behaviour among the truckers – one of them, for example, exclaims “yee-haw!” after driving too fast over a rough patch of road.
The opening sequence showing a truck sinking through the ice was staged at a Hollywood studio in sunny California, using sugar and shaved ice. However, the set-up was based on a real accident at Mackenzie Crossing in Alberta, with the driver apparently not recognising a warning sign that the road was suitable for light loads only.
Some viewers were less than impressed with the skills of the Ice Road Truckers cast. “Who the heck tries to pull out another truck using a chain that has slack in it and then drops the gas [accelerates] and takes off?” asked one heavy-haul driver.
Ventures West Transportation president Glenn Bauer reckons the televised truckers come across as a “bunch of cowboys” (the Alberta-based company hauls fuel to some of the Canadian diamond mines featured early in the series).
He says the only incident he knows about involved road-building equipment falling though the ice. “In reality, it’s very, very controlled,” he told truckingnews.com.
Despite the series’ bent towards entertainment, there’s little doubt that navigating a 70 tonne load over hundreds of kilometres of icy wilderness is inherently dangerous and there have been some fatalities over the years.
Fatalities are rare, though. As a guide, the 27 truckers in the Ice Road Truckers series all lived to tell their war stories, save for Montanan Darrell Ward who died in 2002 aged 52 – in a light plane accident. He was, ironically, on his way to film the pilot for a documentary-style show involving the recovery of plane wrecks.)
One reason for the low fatality rate is that, as with inherently risky aviation, operators are required to follow strict safety protocols.
For instance, trucks travel in convoy (although not too close together) with the most experienced drivers leading, and trucks are limited to speeds as low as 10 kmh. In parts where slush is forming, drivers are advised not to stop altogether lest they get stuck.
The ice roads are not random trails, but can be engineering wonders. One example is the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, which spans 595 kilometres from north of Yellowknife into the neighbouring territory of Nanavut.
The width of an eight-lane highway, the road takes 140 workers to build each year and can support 70 tonne, eight-axle articulated trucks.
The famed Dalton Highway in Alaska – spanning 414 miles from Fairbanks to the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay – was the subject of an innovative repair job that itself presented a huge logistics feat.
The massive task involved underlaying 80 kilometres of a vulnerable section of the highway with 1.2 million metres of polystyrene foam strips, to keep the permafrost frosty and to raise the road above flood level.
Apart from a crazy streak, the only formal prerequisites to become an ice-road trucker are completing high school and possessing a heavy commercial truck licence. The truck companies provide the training – not that there is any real substitute for experience.
With no pit stops along the way, the truckers need to be proficient drivers as well as proficient mechanics.
The lure of the lucre is a key motivation, although pay levels vary markedly. Typical remuneration for a season varies between $US20,000 and $US80,000, but harder working truckers can earn up to $US250,000.
The pay levels depend on the distances driven, the type of cargo and the hazard levels.
Despite high competition for relatively few jobs, driver turnover reportedly is very high, with many not returning after their first trip after realising how dangerous the game can be.
A paradox of the ice-trucking game is that while the frigid conditions make for treacherous conditions, warmer-than-expected weather is even worse because the highways are more prone to crack and develop slushy parts.
In the next few years, climate change, rather than ice blizzards and crevasses, may defeat the hardened people of the ice roads.
If you’d like to read additional related content or get involved with thought provoking discussions check out the Supply Chain Pros group – a one stop shop for all your supply chain need