The reality behind the ice road

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It’s a road with a lot of challenges and it takes only two seconds of inattention to get into serious trouble. But we have drivers here that spent decades traversing it with no accidents; so it can be done.” –Harry McDonald, Carlile Transportation

This weekend, season number four of the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers series kicks off; a television show dedicated to chronicling the working days and nights of a select group of truck drivers making a hard-earned living running all manner of freight from Alaska all the way above the Arctic Circle.

Now, the series is built upon the daunting threats these drivers face as they navigate their rigs north and south: steep, winding mountain roads; breakdowns that leave them vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia; and of course, the ice road itself. Drive outside the lines on the ice and an 80,000 pound rig might plunge through the frozen surface of the lake. You want last long enough to even try to swim to the surface, wither, for the frigid temperature of the water will stop your heart cold in 18 seconds.

Makes for some dramatic television, eight? It surely does … but in reality, those things you see on the small screen aren’t always what they seem for those who ply the ice road for a living.

I caught up with Harry McDonald, founder and president of Carlile Transportation out of Anchorage, Alaska to get a different picture of the ice road, outside the aegis of cable television. McDonald is a veteran ice road trucker himself, who started driving on the ice way back in 1974 for the most basic of reasons: more money.

A huge oil field had been discovered up in Prudhoe Bay, and with that discovery came the construction of the Trans Alaskan pipeline to bring that oil to the continental U.S. As with any human endeavor, supplies of all kinds were needed, and what better way to transport them than by truck?

“I grew up in Alaska, moving here when I was five,” McDonald told me. “I started out driving logging trucks, but when the ice road opened to serve the humungous needs pipeline construction, I switched jobs. The lure was money: I could make almost double the amount hauling supplies over the ice road as compared to hauling logs.”

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Thousands of trucks ran up and down the ice and land-based portions of the "ice road" between 1974 and 1977 – the peak years of pipeline construction. But the trips back then were easier, as the public wasn’t allowed to travel on the routes the trucks took. Today, it’s very different – the public is allowed on the land-based portions of the road (the ice is still off limits, as far as I can tell) and now many different types of commodities are shipped north to support the communities working to extract oil from the Arctic Circle.

McDonald worked as an owner-operator until 1980 or so, when he hung up the keys and founded Carlile to serve the needs of the ice road communities. Today, his company boasts 275 tractors, running tankers, flatbeds, dry vans, and all other manner of trailers not just in Alaska but down into the "lower 48" states as well. Depending on demand, he’ll have about 75 of those trucks running on the ice road.

From McDonald’s perspective, though, driving the ice road today is no different than in the past. In fact, it’s pretty much a routine operation – albeit one with an incredibly miniscule margin for error.

“They probably don’t want me to say this, but breaking through the ice is almost impossible – it’s almost a zero possibility because we manage the route so closely,” he explained. “The real risks up here are bad weather and the mountain roads. It takes only two seconds of inattention for a tire to come off the road and for the truck to roll, either down a mountain side or into a ditch. Just a moment’s inattention causes accidents up here – you need to be extremely careful and watchful all the time.”

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Fleets serving the ice road only have three months to shuttle critical supplies to the oil camps of Alaska’s North Slope, navigating a 400-plus mile stretch of steep mountain ice from Fairbanks to the remote outpost of Deadhorse up in the Arctic. Add to it 100 foot cliffs, hairpin curves, whiteouts, avalanches, temperatures that can plummet to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit and you have a recipe for all sorts of potentially bad situations.

As a result, drivers are the single most critical element in McDonald’s fleet – them and their driver managers. “They need to make good decisions on their speed, when to chain up, and not taking any chances,” he stressed. “A 33,000 pound load handles very differently than a 60,000 pound load on these roads. That’s why we’re very picky about our drivers. It’s when you are overconfident that you get into big trouble.”

Carlile takes great pains to “Alaskanize” the trucks it buys in order to handle the rigors of the ice road and other tough terrain in and around the Arctic Circle. McDonald tends to spec 600-hp Cummins engines, with speeds limited to 50 mph, an 18-speed transmission, and 46,000 pound front axles.

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“We make sure there’s no exposed wiring of any kind and that all hoses are insulated,” McDonald told me (seen sitting at right). “We’re testing APUs [auxiliary power units] on about 40 of our trucks because, due to the cold, we idle our vehicles almost 50 hours a week.”

Speed and the cold are the real killers up here, McDonald stressed. “We’ve never had anyone seriously injured or killed because we drive at a very slow fleet speed, respecting the terrain," he noted. "We also try to put two trucks together if the weather turns really bad so if one develops a problem they have help near at hand. The safety of our drivers is a top priority up here.”

McDonald freely admits how he runs his fleet doesn’t appeal to every driver, so he spends a lot of time making sure those he brings on “buy into” his approach. “We also make sure there’s a good balance between the drivers and their managers,” he added. “No matter what sport or occupation, you need a coach – someone who is going to develop the strategy and make adjustments to it so you, the driver or player, can win. That’s the approach we take up here.”

While his “approach” to the ice road might not result in dramatic television, McDonald noted, it keeps his drivers safe, his trucks rolling, and gets the freight delivered on time and in one piece. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day, isn’t it?

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