By Hugh Rowland
By Michael Lent
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To the brave people of the Northwest Territories who have given their blood, sweat, and tears to carve a home out of the ice and snow. May their stories of courage and self-reliance never be forgotten.
THE GARY ROBINSON FUND
Established in memory of Gary Robinson, who lost his life on the ice roads, the Gary Robinson Memorial Fund provides financial support to those individuals or charitable organizations involved in search and rescue/recovery or emergency response activities. To find out more about the fund or to make a donation, visit the Yellowknife Community Foundation at www.yellowknifecommunityfoundation.ca.
Forty-five below zero in a whiteout snowstorm with the ice cracking and making a nerve-jangling sound like God dropping plate-glass windows from the sky—that was my first taste of Hugh Rowland’s world. Two weeks before I arrived in Yellowknife, a security guard had plunged through the ice and died within fifteen minutes. While I was there, another man froze to death. He was found completely naked. It was the lead story in the local newspaper. If you’re in a blizzard, the most important thing to remember is this: Never get out of your truck. The raging storm and cold temperatures can quickly overwhelm your senses and you may become disoriented. Like the Yellowknife security guard, people caught in a blizzard are often found buck naked and frozen. Apparently there’s something called paradoxical undressing, which occurs when a person is freezing and his muscles are failing. If frostbite hasn’t induced him to find shelter, it’s as if the brain decides to put the body out of its misery. People in the paradoxical undressing state describe having a feeling that they can’t breathe anymore. Other times, they will hallucinate and imagine tropical locations or extreme warmth. In both cases, people will start tearing off their clothes. It doesn’t happen every time, but it seems to be a long-dormant, last-ditch primal defense mechanism that is suddenly awakened in some people when they are in the process of freezing to death. A few have been found in time to survive their birthday-suit big freeze but it’s a tough way to earn your “I survived hypothermia” T-shirt.
It was against this backdrop that I started to work with Hugh Rowland.
Hugh and I began this project in December 2008. The day before our first trek on the ice road, a fully loaded big rig slammed into a fuel truck out on a portage. The mangled wreckage was strewn on the side of a snowbank beneath a stand of evergreens. It was close enough to touch as we navigated past. At first, we worked by phone and e-mail. It was safer that way. Warmer, too. The following February, Hugh was waiting for the third season of Ice Road Truckers to begin and his departure to the Yukon was imminent. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Hugh invited me to stay in his home for eight days to get to know him; his wife, Dianne; and his family and friends like Grant, Rick, John, Jim, Cary the tattoo artist, Chickie, Diana, Rick, and Perry. They call him Hoodoo or Huge, and it is clearly a point of pride to have worked with or for Hugh Rowland. Hugh’s friends and family described to me a bighearted man of hard-earned principles, who was very different from his “cocky tough guy” portrayal on television. The real Hugh Rowland is hardworking and no-nonsense, but also both a kid and a mentor at heart. His easy grace and a confidence in his own abilities draw others to him. He is shrewd in business but also give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back generous. In fact, Hugh did give me his coat when I was unable to find clothing in Southern California that could handle the rigors of the Arctic.
Hugh Rowland’s prodigious appetite for challenging work and adventure is the stuff of record and legend. Over the past quarter-century, he has made more runs, carried more tonnage, and survived more close calls than any other ice road driver. Having mastered one of the world’s most difficult jobs, he has lived to tell the tale.
Four weeks after the February trip, I joined Hugh on an excursion on the famed ice roads out of Yellowknife. I saw firsthand many of the things that he describes in this book. There was the bone-chilling temperature, the Arctic storms, the beauty and brutality of the landscape, crashes, both human frailty and human indomitability. The winter roads of the Arctic are a feat of modern engineering and Old World guts. Sadly, Hugh foresees an end to the ice roads within the next decade. That would make him the last of his kind. I hope he’s wrong. Whatever happens, Hugh Rowland’s place in the history of the Arctic winter roads is carved in ice with a jackhammer.
There is a road made of snow and ice that exists only in winter, in a marvelous part of Canada so strange, so far north that hardly anybody lives there. The road forges an overland link in the Northwest Territories between two of the world’s largest inland seas: Great Slave Lake, near the southern border above Alberta province, and Great Bear Lake, on the Arctic Circle. The length of the road changes each winter with all of the troubles encountered during construction, but usually runs about 325 miles, some of them a little rugged.
SNOW, WATER, AND ICE
Snow is 90 percent air.
If you’re caught out in the bush, you’ll need buckets of melted snow to get enough water to keep you alive. An entire pot of snow boiled down might only get you a few sips—that’s a problem when it’s 60 below zero and you’re a hundred miles from the nearest person. You need a lot of energy to maintain a core body temperature and if you don’t get water into you fast enough (the colder it is, the bigger the chance of severe dehydration), you’ll be cashing it in and meeting your maker. Knowing the science of water, snow, ice, and freezing is critical to anybody who needs to work and survive in the Arctic—like me. I’ve been driving trucks on the ice roads of the Northwest Territories of Canada for more than twenty-six years, and I’ve been stuck out in the bush lots of times, especially in the early days, before cell phones and everything else we have now. And I’m still here.
At the end of November, when the lakes and rivers of the Arctic Circle are blanketed by deep snow, it’s time to build the ice roads. These roads—you’ll find them in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Scandinavia—bear the trucks that haul machinery, concrete, steel, fuel, explosives, and basic life essentials. They’re a lifeline to remote places that don’t have any road access the rest of the year. Building the ice roads was perilous back in the 1950s, when John Denison invented the process. It still is. Over the years, forty men have gone through the ice roads and perished. I’ve known most of them.
The roads are built on top of the ice that forms naturally over lakes, rivers, and oceans. Join up one frozen body of water with another, build connector roads called portages over any land in between, and you have a road made of ice. The ice isn’t strong enough to support heavy loads by itself, though; it has to be thickened by smashing down the snow and knocking the air out of it. That’s the first step. But snow is full of air and is a world-class insulator for anything that’s underneath, so after you beat it down, you have to plow it away to expose the ice below it to the wind and chilling Arctic air. The ice will freeze from the bottom up and thicken until it’s strong enough to hold up a truck loaded down with supplies. At least you hope it is.
From the time you take the first 6,000-pound vehicle out onto the ice to clear away all the snow in early November to the time when the big rigs loaded with 180,000 pounds rumble across in March, the ice is a risk that you have to manage at all times. Dick Robinson knew that. He started his company back in 1968 and it’s the biggest trucking and construction outfit in the Northwest Territories. His son Marvin runs it now.
On the morning of Wednesday, December 29, 2004, the ice-building season was in full swing. As many as 150 builders and workers had fanned out across the ice and tundra in Cats, graders, plows, and water trucks. Snow had been cleared or compacted from dozens of bodies of water and layers of ice were added to what Mother Nature already supplied. Helicopters whizzed back and forth in the nosebleed-dry frozen air, strafing the ice below with ground-penetrating radar in search of weak spots that could form with little warning.
It was 50 degrees below zero and Marvin’s son Gary was driving a single-axle truck with a snowplow across Prosperous Lake. Running machinery on a lake that is still in the early stages of ice road preparation is dangerous, but Gary was already a fairly experienced driver, having grown up around the ice roads. Still, at twenty-three he wasn’t much more than a kid. I was pretty cocksure at his age, I can tell you. Full of piss and vinegar. I know I took a lot of chances.
When a truck drives over a road made of ice, the ice bends to form a bowl around the vehicle and everything underneath gets displaced. As the vehicle moves across the ice, the bowl moves with it. All water that’s displaced creates energy waves. The faster you go, the bigger the wave. We call that “pushing your wave.” If you’re going 30 miles an hour, your wave is going that fast too, but the truck’s weight and speed will feed the wave and make it more powerful. If there’s a weak spot in the ice, a big wave traveling 30 miles an hour will bust it wide open with tremendous force, like a volcanic eruption. That’s why watching your speed is critical. If you have a northbound and a southbound truck coming at each other, both will be pushing waves from opposite directions. Their waves will collide before the trucks pass and you’re in big trouble.
Ice that’s bending the way it should and handling the weight of the truck and the water it’s displacing will crack and pop. That’s healthy. I drive with my window open not only to stay alert on a long haul but also to hear the ice cracking out in front of me. If Gary had his window open, he might have heard a deep rumble coming from just in front of his truck. He might have also heard a thunder crack. Those would have been his only warnings.
When Gary approached the oncoming truck, their waves smashed into each other. The ice beneath Gary’s truck shot up like a geyser, and down he went. Everything that happened next came at lightning speed. Within seconds, Gary’s vehicle—a single-axle truck with a snowplow on the side—was heading for the bottom of the lake. The plow pulled it right down despite pockets of air around the tires and inside the cab. Arctic water, which feels like fire pouring over your body, raced in from the doors and engine compartment. Gary wouldn’t have had time to brace himself. The shock to his system would have been too massive. Swallowing water would have felt like swallowing hell’s fire. His lungs would have collapsed. The pain would have been unimaginable.
If the truck was dropping at roughly one foot per second, that would be nearly 44 miles an hour. That would have given Gary just thirty seconds to escape the vehicle if it was headed to a bottom any deeper than 30 feet. At those temperatures, swimming that distance would be close to impossible, especially if Gary was injured.
A body reacts to plunging into frigid water by going into cold shock. Cardiac arrest is a serious danger. Gary would have been hyperventilating as soon as the water touched his skin. His blood pressure and pulse would have redlined even as his veins constricted. Back in 2001, Guy Armstrong broke through the ice on Dome Lake and went underwater as his vehicle sank 46 feet to the bottom. He managed to resurface quickly and was rescued from the icy water within thirty seconds, but the shock stopped his heart. All attempts to revive Armstrong failed. He was thirty-seven.
Gary Robinson was young and fit, so his chances would have been a little better. It’s easy to panic in this kind of predicament, but Gary had experience, and experience means time. Unless the truck was upside down, there would be a pocket of air at the highest point in the cabin up by the roof. Gary might have tilted his head back and focused first on keeping his airways clear of water. He might have tried to control his breathing. The surrounding water pressure would have made it impossible to open the door, so he would have had to open the window. Electronic windows and power door locks don’t function once they’re exposed to water, so Gary would have had to smash the window with anything he had handy, like a wrench, or kick it out with his boot. He wouldn’t have had to fumble around to get out of his seat, though; by law, ice drivers aren’t allowed to wear seat belts—just in case their rig crashes through the ice and they have to jump clear. Of course, without a belt, the force of impact would have slammed him into his windshield.
If the water outside the truck was shallow, Gary would have had about three minutes to escape from his truck, make his way to the surface, then find a solid edge of ice to hoist his body out of the water. But he would have been disoriented when he exited the truck. With precious seconds ticking away, he would have had to remember to follow his air bubbles to the top. Every square inch of his body would have been surrounded by frigid water, but panicking would have used up what little oxygen he had in his lungs. Even if by some miracle he found an air pocket inside the cab big enough to sustain him for several minutes, he still would have had to locate the hole where he went in when he finally made his way up. That would have been tricky on a gray day with low visibility in the water. Worse, at 50 below zero, breached ice starts re-forming immediately, so if Gary was trapped under the new sheet now covering the hole, he’d be in more trouble. Even ice that’s only one inch thick can be tough to break through without leverage.
Freezing is dangerous. So is thawing someone out, because you have to be careful not to warm them up too fast. Body core temperature drops to as low as 70 degrees. Blood thickens to the consistency of motor oil. Body organs that were the last to freeze and are the most syrupy will thaw out first, so that the heart can start pumping blood before the extremities thaw. Basically, you have to thaw from the inside out so that the most vital parts suffer the least amount of oxygen deprivation. In the struggle to survive, fingers, toes, ears, and nose are all expendable.
Prosperous Lake is nearly 300 feet deep at the spot where Gary fell in. With his truck plummeting like a dropped anchor, there would be little hope of escaping the vehicle to the top. Gary’s skin would have begun to freeze as soon as he had contact with the water. Water inside his body would have transformed into ice crystals that would rip and tear into the surrounding tissue, causing excruciating pain. That pain would pass once his extremities—fingers, toes, ears, and nose—lost sensation. Within a matter of a precious few minutes, hypothermia would have set in. Gary would have felt numb, confused, and very, very sleepy. If he hadn’t drowned by then, he would have struggled less and less. He might have noticed that his muscles weren’t working right. He would have turned pale, waxy, and blue, especially around the lips. His core body temperature would have crashed and a kind of dementia would have set in. Then he would have slipped into a coma. After five minutes, just about all hope would be gone. Within about twenty minutes, Gary would be well on his way to being frozen solid. That’s a terrible way to die, especially when you’re only twenty-three.
When I first started working on the ice roads, the other drivers told me that if the ice broke and I had enough advance warning, I should try to jump clear; however, if the truck went down and I was still inside, I should stay inside. “When you go into the water, it’s over,” they said. “At least if you stay inside, there’s a much better chance that the truck company will find your body to send back to your family for burial.” In Gary’s case, Yellowknife Fire Department divers had trouble finding either the wreck or the driver, so salvage divers with special equipment had to be called in. They brought in a Deepwater ROV system (basically a robotic camera that can operate by remote control even in the harshest conditions) to find the body. The ROV operator said it took him “two weeks of soul-searching and serious drinking to recover.”
Gary Robinson had lived around snow, ice, and trucks his whole life. I remember seeing him playing in the RTL shop when he was just a little tyke. He was a good kid. Gary loved camping, fishing, and hunting. He was an avid snowboarder, too. Like many who were born in the Arctic, Gary prided himself on his self-sufficiency. He always carried emergency rescue equipment and was known to have come to the aid of others in need. Losing him in this way, well, that was hard to take. Something like this really shakes up everybody who works out on the ice roads. News of the accident blows right through the radios even before the help gets there. We mourned Gary, but we had loads to carry. It was time to go back to work. Barricades with eerie flashing lights were put down around the hole in the ice where the truck went through. There was no better warning than that for the other truckers to keep their speed down and drive carefully.
On an eighteen-hour run, you have a lot of time to think about a tragedy like this—how it happened, how it might have been prevented. You think about Gary’s father, Marvin, and how he once said, “For anybody who’s actually working in this business and traveling on the ice, there really isn’t a question of if you’re going to fall in but when.” But by the end of your first week, after you’ve logged a hundred hours behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget about the risks.
Human nature, I guess.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
The Arctic Circle sits like a crown on top of the world, floating with the earth’s axial tilt and the pull of the moon. On clear nights, the Big and Little Bear constellations can always be seen overhead. That’s where the Arctic name comes from, Arktos, the Greek word for “bear.” The Arctic is half the size of the United States, but home to only forty thousand hardy souls. That’s less than one person for every 10 square miles. In the summer, during the solstice, the sun creeps above the horizon and stays there for twenty-four hours, the period known as “the midnight sun.” In the dead of winter, there’s twenty-four hours of darkness.
You’ve never experienced winter until you’ve lived through one in the far north. It starts in October and doesn’t let up until mid-April. With only a few hours of sunlight each day, the nights and the cold can be relentless. With so many hours spent indoors, it can be hard to stay busy and keep your mind active. There are only so many hobbies you can take up or games of hockey or soccer in the snow you can play. Overeating and weight gain, binge drinking and alcoholism, irritability, depression, and other signs of cabin fever are common. The temperatures drop to -70, with winds blowing 60 miles an hour. At that temperature, you throw a pot of boiling water or coffee into the air and it will instantly vaporize and turn into snow. It’s cold as hell, but it’s also full of riches: silver, gold, uranium, diamonds, and oil, worth tens of billions of dollars. Locating these treasures in the frozen tundra is the easy part. Getting them out of the ground and bringing them from the frozen wasteland to civilization is a lot tougher. That’s my job.
For only two months of the year, lakes, ponds, and even parts of the Arctic Ocean itself freeze just enough to create the floating roads that bob and flex over the icy water. During that tiny window of opportunity, ice road truckers brave the earth’s fiercest environment in order to haul vital supplies to diamond mines that burrow into the guts of ancient volcanoes, or deliver heavy machinery to oil and natural gas fields in the most remote regions on the planet. Battle-tested Arctic veterans mix it up with the latest crop of wet-behind-the-ears rookies to become the region’s lifeline. We put up with the constant thrash of the elements for a chance to earn as much as $70,000 in just over two months.
When December comes, I start getting anxious to get up to the ice roads. Part of it is seeing these people I’ve known for so long. I figure I can make a go of it just about anyplace on earth, but my heart is in the North and always will be. If I had my way, we would live there, but my wife, Dianne, can’t tolerate the extreme cold.
When I’m not on the ice roads, I’m home in Winfield, just outside of Kelowna in British Columbia, 250 miles northeast of Vancouver. Kelowna gets its name from the Indian word for “grizzly bear,” which is something I hunt when I get the chance. I built the home we live in, which sits up on a mountain above Okanagan Lake. The lake is as deep as 2,000 feet in places and some people believe that it’s the home of Ogopogo, Canada’s version of the Loch Ness Monster. I don’t know about that. But Kelowna sure is some beautiful country. All around we’ve got orchards, vineyards, bald eagles, and cougars. I have my own excavation business, and that’s the work I do when I’m not on the ice roads. I’d rather be in Yellowknife, but I figure any place that’s good enough for Ogopogo is just fine with me.
Whenever I go to Yellowknife, right away I’m back in my element. But before I head north, all my trucks get checked and rechecked. I clean them up inside and out. Sometimes they get a coat of paint to look like new. They all must pass ice road certifications to prove their roadworthiness and extreme climate readiness. Steering, brakes, tires, fuel, and oil lines all must be in tip-top shape. After that, my wife, Dianne, and I go see the kids for Christmas and get away to someplace warm. When I get back, my trucks get one final check. After that, it’s time to pack, say good-bye, throttle up, and hit the road. I drive the 1,900 miles from my home in Kelowna, up to Yellowknife. Sounds like a big adventure to some people, but to me it’s just the way I earn my living. To me, it’s just business.
Yellowknife is the gateway to the Arctic. Poised at the top of the Northwest Territories, this frontier town serves as a staging area to the longest and most developed ice roads in the world. I first arrived here in the ’70s. Right away, the place made a big impression on me. Located on the “Rock” on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, the town was a place of hard living with more than its share of booms and busts—that is, until they discovered gold there in the 1940s. Pretty quick, there were those who came to mine the gold, and then right along after, those who came to mine the miners. Namely, gamblers and prostitutes. Yellowknife was a rough old place back then. Prospectors, Eskimos, and Indians were all living together, and not always peacefully. A bit of that higgledy-piggledy spirit hangs around even today. One of the main streets was named “Ragged Ass Road,” the same road Tom Cochrane made famous in his album of the same name. Once known as “Privy Road” because rows of outhouses were the predominant feature, Ragged Ass Road acquired its new name from prospectors who toiled for a year without profit and became “ragged ass poor.” The City of Yellowknife later officially adopted the name, which should tell you a thing or two about the local philosophy. Ragged Ass Road is still there down in the Old Town. These days the street sign is welded to its pole to discourage all the people who want to hang it in their homes.
When the ice roads officially open at the end of January, everyone in the truck yard whoops and hollers and blows their air horns. I’m amped to grab that first load and get at her. But rushing is dangerous. Some drivers cheat the speed limit, which is really playing with fire. Others are in such a hurry to get started that they don’t tie down their loads properly. That will bite you in the ass down the road, when things start bouncing around. I take my time and do it right. No sense in having to stop on the side of the road to secure a wobbly load.
- On Sale
- Jun 8, 2010
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books