One of the unique features of travel in the far north is the intricate system of winter roads, ice roads and ice bridges. The territorial government provides free ferry crossings at major rivers for road travelers in the summer months, which are transformed in winter into ice bridges. When frozen over, the river can be built up by using auger holes to flood and thicken the crossing; these seasonal bridges last anywhere from a few weeks to several months before they become impassable. Ice bridges are maintained for the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence, the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers at Tsiigehtchic, the Liard River at Fort Simpson and the Peel River at Fort McPherson. There are also crossings at Deline, Tulita, Nahanni Butte and N'Dulee near Fort Simpson.
Northerners travel by car, truck, snowmobile and dogsled on winter roads, which are often constructed in areas where year-round roads are rendered impractical by boggy muskeg land. The Mackenzie Valley winter road system connects the communities of Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake. There are also winter access roads to Gameti, Wha Ti, Trout Lake, Nahanni Butte and Tsiigehtchic, providing a link to remote, off-highway settlements for a few weeks each winter. The roads play a crucial role in the transportation of bulky or heavy goods such as fuel, construction materials and heavy equipment to areas without permanent road access, where air transportation is used most of the year.
In terms of engineering, the ice roads are even more of a marvel than the land-based winter roads, passing predominantly over water. Where permafrost conditions and terrain make the building of a standard road prohibitively expensive, a solid roadbed capable of supporting heavy load haul trucks can be constructed by clearing a route across the frozen ground and lakes. Near the Arctic Ocean, the communities of Aklavik, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk are connected by ice roads. Dettah is an Aboriginal village across the bay from Yellowknife that is easily accessed by an ice road, which can provide visitors with an authentic taste of winter travel in the NWT. Outfitters are available for guided winter road tours, or visitors can plan their own trip on the public-use winter roads. There are commercial-use routes such as the Tibbitt to Contwoyto ice road that is monitored by a private security firm its entire length, which the public is strongly encouraged NOT to use, due to heavy volume of traffic. Ice roads add about 1,400 kilometres (more than 800 miles) to the Northwest Territories all-weather highway system.
Former RCMP officer John Denison originally developed the concept of constructing ice roads suitable for the use of heavy trucks in the 1950s. Revolutionizing winter transport, he was awarded the Order of Canada in 1998 for his ingenuity and efforts. Working in the dead of winter with Byers Transport, a company that helped pioneer the building of ice roads, Denison punched a 520-km (310-mile) ice road NNW through the bush from Yellowknife to a silver mine on Great Bear Lake. Primarily following Native trade routes, Denison and his crew also opened a second ice road, running east from Yellowknife to service gold mines up around Mackay Lake. He even attempted to push the ice road as far north as Coppermine (now Kugluktuk) in Nunavut on the Arctic Coast. Where possible, ice roads are built across lakes, which provide a flat surface that is easier to clear a path across than bare land. Denison’s roads from Yellowknife were almost entirely plowed across frozen lakes, with short overland portages between them. In the 1970s, Denison was the subject of a CBC television documentary and the book Denison's Ice Road, by New Yorker magazine writer Edith Iglauer. After John retired, others stepped in to carry on with ice road construction.
Ice road technology has improved dramatically since the early days, employing planes, helicopters and electronic sensing devices. Motorized augers relieve the necessity of twisting pilot holes down to the water by hand. But when it’s 50 below zero, tools still shatter, axles snap, brakes and steering wheels seize up and bare skin freezes to metal – and the lake ice still cracks and sometimes gives way.
As heavy trucks move over the ice it bends, creating an underwater wave that can blow out the ice at weak spots. This is particularly dangerous at portage approaches, when the wave moving ahead of the truck reaches the shore and the hydraulic effect can rupture the ice; coming on shore at a pronounced angle redirects the wave down the shoreline, safely dispersing the pressure. Large lakes also develop pressure ridges, breaks in the ice created by sudden temperature changes. Navigating the ice roads has been likened to driving on floating pavement.
Where the ice is thin or broken, a hole is drilled and water pumped up onto the surface to freeze, sealing cracks and adding thickness. The ice can be reinforced with branches, steel cable or mesh, and engineers can lay portable steel bridges over gaps. Due to direct contact with subfreezing air temperatures, ice build-up on the plowed roads becomes heavier than surrounding ice and is last to thaw, blocking sunlight from lake plants; lingering traces of the roads can be seen from the air as bare strips on the lake floor.
The Tibbitt to Contwoyto road is one of the world's longest and most expensive heavy haul ice roads, first built in 1982 to service the Lupin gold mine. It begins at Tibbitt Lake at the end of Highway 4 about 65 kilometres (39 miles) east of Yellowknife and winds 568 km (341 miles) north, linking four Barren Lands diamond mines: Diavik, Ekati and Snap Lake in the NWT and finally the Jericho diamond mine at the north end of Contwoyto Lake, in Nunavut Territory.
The route is critical to remote mine resupply and exploration sites, which depend heavily on the road for transportation of construction equipment and materials, generators, fuel and essential operations goods; trucks can haul in a year’s worth of supplies for one-quarter to one-eighth the price of air cargo. Constructed in January, the road typically opens at the beginning of February for about two months. Making use of an extensive chain of lakes, only 13% of the route crosses land, at 64 portages. In order to protect people, the environment and the road, speed limits are strictly enforced by security personnel with radar. The highest allowable speed for fully loaded trucks on the ice is 25 km/h (15 mph), although ‘express lanes’ allow returning, empty trucks to travel at higher speeds. The road is designed wide at 50 metres (164 feet) with extra space for oncoming trucks to pass, and traffic can be re-routed to new lanes to avoid damaged sections of ice, which averages about four feet in thickness.
Truck drivers are not allowed to travel the winter road alone; generally three or four trucks are dispatched from Yellowknife on an average of every 20 minutes. With a record breaking 11,000 truckloads hauled in 2007 by over 700 registered drivers, there were only nine accidents and one minor injury. Currently, Nuna Logistics Ltd. is responsible for the construction, maintenance, dispatching and catering services on the main Tibbitt to Contwoyto road, while RTL Robinson Enterprises Ltd. handles the annual construction and maintenance of the secondary route.
Since 1973, there have been only three deaths associated with the construction of ice roads in the Northwest Territories: a grader operator, a plow truck driver and a snow cat operator, who subsequently died of heart failure after being rescued. Tragic accidents though they were, all three fatalities happened during the construction phase, before the roads were opened to heavy truck traffic; there have not been any truck driver deaths directly attributable to hauling freight on the roads. One of the last breakthroughs on any ice roads or crossings occurred in January of 2000, when a Super-B-Train truck hauling diesel fuel broke through the Mackenzie River ice crossing near Fort Providence; the driver was treated for hypothermia and charged by the RCMP. The crossing had been open to light traffic only, up to a maximum of 4,000 kg, (8,800 lbs) when the 60,000 kg (132,000 lbs) truck went through the ice.
Before traveling on any winter roads, it’s critical to be well prepared with cold-weather gear and emergency supplies. For up-to-date information about highway conditions, winter and ice roads and ice bridge crossings, be sure to check with the NWT Department of Transportation at 1-800-661-0750 or www.dot.gov.nt.ca.
Stories from the Early Days
In the 1970s and ‘80s, I scouted, built, maintained, policed and drove the ice roads on and off for ten years, before the diamond mines existed – gold and silver were king in my day.
Today's ice road is a cruise compared to the conditions we worked in and the finished road we drove. Our road was seldom wider than two widths of a snowplough, often covered with a foot of snow, and included several hills that could be difficult to traverse and sent guys spinning backwards out of control. Traffic was light, at 300 to 700 loads per season compared to the 10,000 today. We sank a few trucks and loads though the ice, but never lost a man.
We ate on the go and drove fast. The portages between the lakes were narrow and very rough. Broken trailer springs were common. Frozen/clogged fuel filters/line were a constant worry. Although not the norm, days of -40 to -50 degree temps occurred throughout the winter. We had no security or safety patrol and only occasional primitive radio contact with our base; we had CB radios which generally only worked if you could see the guy you were talking to. If we got stuck or broke down we either fixed the problem ourselves or waited, sometimes a couple of days for someone else to come along.
We operated two ice roads – one NW from Yellowknife to Great Bear Lake, and starting in the 1980s, another that traveled NE to the north end of Contwoyto Lake. Each year in January right after New Years, Dick Robinson assembled a small handpicked group of about half a dozen guys as his ice road construction crew. We were a multi-talented bunch; all of us were capable of operating any of the equipment. We would begin construction from the south end and depending on ice and weather conditions and equipment failures, it could take a month or longer to push the road through to the end.
Our first winter was the worst – due to warm weather and very poor ice conditions, it took us over two weeks to build the first 60 miles. It was Robinson's first attempt at building the ice road to Great Bear, so consequently everything was trial and error. None of our equipment was new and all of it had seen better days. The first thing that went wrong, which plagued us the whole trip was the Bombardier overheating. It blew the head gasket and warped the heads, filling the cab with a stinking mist of sticky and irritating antifreeze mixed with diesel fumes. Our road scout and foreman Dave and our mechanic Gerry lived in the Bombardier until Gerry got pneumonia from the fumes and had to be airlifted to hospital. Dave continued to use the Bombardier as his sleeping quarters for the rest of the trip.
We had no power auger that first year, so Dave drilled every hole to check ice thickness – up to 4 feet, sometimes only a hundred feet apart for well over three hundred miles – by hand! Everybody except the 'Cat Skinners' slept on the seats of whatever unit they were driving.
We sank and recovered our grader and I dropped one track of my D-4 Cat in a lake. A crewmember fell through the ice on his D-6 Cat while crossing Marion Lake. The blade hung up on the ice in front of him, but his seat was under water before he could even stand up. Then he had to crawl out of the water and walk a hundred yards soaking wet in –35 degrees because the guy following him was too scared to drive any closer. It took an hour to thaw before he could peel his soaked and frozen snowsuit off.
Another time, he broke down and was stranded for four days at the north end of Hottah Lake. He sat there re-reading the same newspaper, running out of food, then came so close to running out of fuel that his truck quit as soon as its wheels hit the front of the drop-down hi-boy that had been sent back to rescue him. That was the last trip of the season, and his was the last truck on the ice that year. Nobody missed him for three days, then finally RTL took the plane out looking for him.
Then there was the time he had a new driving axel installed under the front of his 6x6 plow truck. Unfortunately, the guys who installed it put it on upside down, so the front wheels turned one way (in reverse) while the back drivers spun the other (forward). He didn’t discover this amusing concept til he drove as far as he could into a snow bank, and engaging the front axel to test it, got well and truly stuck as his wheels spun in opposite directions.
About this same time, another lucky crewmember was traveling by himself when his fuel froze up, clogging the filters and killing his engine. He sat there for a long time waiting for someone else to come along. By the time they finally did, he’d gotten so cold he was burning diesel fuel in an open can inside the cab to try and stay warm. His face was black, his hands were black, everything on him was black and the inside of the truck cab looked like a soot bomb had gone off in it.
We were a tight bunch of guys and I have lifelong friends I'm still in contact with from those days.
It was a very cold night, in the minus forty range. All of a sudden, this 'squawk' came over the radio. Picking up my mike I asked, “What was that, did someone say something?”
“Squawk squawk!” came the reply. One of the guys behind me said, “I think it was our other driver and he just broke through the ice.” I flipped on my back-up lights and stopped, looking in my mirrors for head lights, but in a panic to get out of his truck, the driver had turned his headlights and radio off.
I must have been pretty brave, because I turned my rig around and started heading back towards the big white cloud of steam now reflecting in my headlights. I didn't get far before he came into view in his jeans, sneakers and t-shirt, and an ever-spreading puddle of water, hot-footing it towards me. He looked pretty cold and quite upset. All his winter gear including boots and parka were still inside his truck cab. He'd been in such a hurry to get out, he'd left everything behind and wasn't about to go back in for any of it.
Stopping my truck, opening my driver’s door, pushing my survival gear up against the passenger's side door and bending myself around the shifters, I slid a cheek onto the passenger's seat and told him to get in the driver's side. Wrong thing to say I guess. "No effing way I'm getting in that truck!" he said.
"Why not?" said I.
"No effing way I'm driving that effing truck!" he yelled again. He was so freaked out he was vibrating and could hardly speak.
"I don't want you to drive it, I'm just offering you a warm place to sit til we get on the radio to Yellowknife and figure out what to do."
Silly bugger. He stared at me blankly for a few seconds until he finally came to his senses and got in the driver's side. I don't think he ever made another trip that winter. Can't say I blame him.
Stories courtesy of Nick Jones (icemannwt) Copyright 2008