You could watch all the episodes of Ice Road Truckers on the History Channel, yet never take with you the feeling as conveyed in the crisp description of author Edith Iglauer, who wrote the story of John Denison, famous builder of the first ice road in the Northwest Territories in the 1950s-1970s:
“John Denison and his crew waited for the coldest, darkest days of winter every year to set out to build a 520-kilometre road made of ice and snow, from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to a silver mine on Great Bear Lake, above the Arctic Circle. In savage blizzards, blinding whiteouts and 60-below zero temperatures, steel axles snap like twigs; brakes and steering wheels seize up; bare hands freeze when they touch metal. The lake ice cracks and sometimes gives way, so the road builders drive with one hand on the door, ready to jump. That’s the way it was in the beginning.”
That account from Iglauer’s Denison’s Ice Road says it all about conditions in the Northwest Territories at the infancy of ice road construction. In today’s environment, technology has played a bigger part in ensuring safety along what is called “the winter road,” where truckers hauling equipment and supplies to mining operations still face blizzards and unforgiving temperatures, but where GPS record trouble spots and map areas of thin ice, and Swedish military vehicles called Haaglunds traverse the ice to strip off snow, exposing the ice to the cold air, and helping it to thicken.
Here in the 21st century, perhaps the most daunting aspect of traveling the road is the inability for truckers to move beyond 15 miles per hour, potentially for up to 30 hours, over frozen lakes, which has given the route the tag line of “world’s longest school zone” by the road’s operators. Still, the winter road and its maintenance is a testament to what can be done when necessity forces invention.
THE LONG AND ICY ROAD
What Denison began more than 50 years ago has evolved into the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road (TCWR), first constructed to move freight and supplies to Echo Bay Mine Ltd.’s newly commissioned Lupin Gold Mine on Contwoyto Lake, located in the Nunavut Territory. The first year of operation was 1982, and Echo Bay Mines operated the road until 1998 when its mine finally closed.
In the early 1990s, diamonds were discovered in the Northwest Territories, almost directly along the winter road route. As the Lupin Mine matured and prepared for closure, the BHP Billiton Ekati diamond mine was constructed and brought into operation in 1998. As a result, the license for the winter road was transferred from Echo Bay Mines Ltd. to the “Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road Joint Venture” in 1999 and the TCWRJV continues to hold the license and operate the TCWR today.
The TCWRJV was broadened to include the next diamond mine, the Diavik Diamond Mine, which began production in 2003 (managed by Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. on behalf of the joint venture owners Rio Tinto and Harry Winston Diamond Corporation).
A third diamond mine, the smaller Tahera mine, began production in 2006, just a few miles north of the old Lupin Mine, and in late 2007 a fourth diamond mine, the Snap Lake Mine, began production under owner De Beers Canada Mining Inc.
Explains Tom Hoefer, winter road spokesperson and Diavik manager of communications, “Virtually all of the freight on the ice road goes to these four diamond mines. Other exploration companies also ship smaller quantities of materials on the road, as do some of the tourist outfitters to their hunting/fishing camps.”
The road’s length is about 600km (360 miles) with about 500km (87 percent) over frozen lakes and less than 100km (13 percent) over land. It is a region served by no other highways and for 10 months of the year accessible only by air. The land portions are called portages, and there are 64
of these separating the lake portions. There are three road camps along the route at Dome Lake, Lockhart Lake and Lac de Gras. The latter two camps supply truckers with meals and showers, and house the crews who are responsible for maintaining the road. Truckers do not sleep at camps, rather they sleep in “sleepers” on their trucks. Says Hoefer, “For safety reasons, trucks are not allowed to travel the road unless they have sleeper units attached to them. Should drivers ever be caught on the road in a blizzard, they have their heated homes with them.”
Each year Nuna Logistics Ltd., a majority Inuit owned company, begins construction of the road in December, and with favorably cold weather, is able to open the road to light loads by late January or early February.
ON THIN ICE
“Ice profiling starts usually in the second week of December each year when, by the use of helicopter, experienced ice road personnel fly out and ‘hover’ over the snow/ice. They jump out and auger holes in the ice and check ice measurements at historically GPS’d locations to compare ice thicknesses from historical years,” explains Erik Madsen, Director, Winter Road Operations Joint Venture Management Committee. “This could mean 70 to 100 holes being drilled in one day.” From this first survey, experienced ice road supervisors develop the “game plan” for the upcoming road season. Then just before Christmas each year a “ground patrol” of profiling is conducted using Hagglunds, which are Swedish army amphibious track vehicles that float if they
break through the ice – “something of course that we plan to not happen,” Madsen stresses. Two Hagglunds working in tandem (with usually one to two operators in each unit) will pull a SIR 3000 profile unit that measures the thickness of ice. During this time there is also air support via helicopter. At the same time the second Hagglund in the convoy also has EMT personnel as a safety component.
As these Hagglund track vehicles require only 11-12 inches of ice, they are normally the vehicles that pioneer the first cut or route each year across the ice. Through years of experience it has been determined that these light vehicles can give an early start on the road by either “tramping” or flattening the snow in the early part of the season or plowing it off the ice to reduce the snow’s “insulation factor,” Madsen says. Without this, the snow cover forms an insulating blanket that slows down ice formation by keeping the winter air away from the ice.
Once the ice gets up to 16 inches the heavier and more powerful Snowcats can be used to more efficiently and quickly clear snow from the ice. At this thickness, pickup trucks can now be used to profile the road. The JV (joint venture) also hires an engineering company to conduct QA/QC profiling and they double check the readings taken by ice road construction personnel. The JV won’t open the road until it records ice thickness of at least 28 inches.
The average annual number of operational days per year is 67. The road is shut down in April because, as Hoefer notes, “The heat of the sun shining on southern facing portages is warm enough to soften and melt the snow.” On a perfect day, the JV dispatches 12 highway transport trucks per hour – that could add up to 288 vehicles per day.
Speeds are low on the road – generally lower than posted school zone speeds – to protect the ice from destructive wave action created under the ice by higher speeds. “When a truck sits on ice it bends the ice and as you drive you move that depression with you,” Hoefer explains. “Because the ice flexes, as you move forward the ice rises behind you; in front the ice keeps getting pressed down. Water needs to get pushed by that depression, so there’s a wave of water moving ahead of you. If the wave approaches shallow spots in a lake, or as you approach shore, the wave’s energy pushes up on the ice. If you are going too fast, the wave will be strong enough to force its way up, blowing a hole through the ice. If that happens on the road in front of a truck, it could be disastrous. So, for safety’s sake, we make the wave’s energy harmless by slowing the trucks down. In some places we put a curve in the road just before shore; the truck slows and turns away from shore, and the wave continues, but not under the road.” Ice is not like asphalt or concrete, and thousands of transport trucks can beat it up. Maintenance is constant, and the common cement to patch, fix and groom is water, sprayed and pumped on the road. “Maintenance includes flooding or blocking out sections of the road – we might have people driving on the right half if the left gets beat up, and flood on the left to keep the ice strong,” Hoefer says.
At such slow speeds, accidents are rare along the route. Of the record nearly 11,000 truckloads hauled in 2007, there were only nine accidents and only one minor injury. “With today’s truck body components largely made of fiberglass which is brittle in the cold, an accident often looks worse than you might expect. These kinds of accidents generally occur on the portages or land portions, where the road is much narrower and winding and there is less visibility than on the ice, where the road is 160 feet wide,” Hoefer says. To improve on safety, all trucks must be equipped with two way radios, and drivers must report as they approach the numbered portages to alert each other of their presence on the same portage.
Over the years, growth in mine production has forced improvements. When created in 1982 to service the gold mine the total annual haul was about 450 truckloads. Now, with the growth of North America’s first diamond mines along the road, the requirement has increased to 11,000 loads last year. “We had to grow the road’s ability to haul loads, and one of the things we did was conduct ice engineering studies to determine what weights the ice can handle in terms of truck axle configurations,” says Hoefer.
The JV uses ground penetrating radar to measure ice thickness on a continual basis and GPS can record trouble spots, while also mapping where the thin ice is. Hoefer notes: “We’ve also put more people on the road flooding and we’ve learned to plow the snow off to a 160-foot-width initially to help prevent snow drifting. If required during the road season, portions of the 160-foot-wide road can be flagged off to be diverted for safety reasons.”
And as far as thin ice, the Canadian Northwest has not been immune to the effects of climate change. Hoefer says the region experienced a “record warm” winter in 2006, and climate studies indicate that there is a warming trend that could affect future roads. “We need to find solutions to
ensure we can move bulk freight to our mine sites in the future. Options we have already taken include adding an alternate route (which we built for the first time in 2007), and adding more crews and equipment to allow earlier access to the road to plow and flood.”
Whatever Mother Nature sends her way to the “Great White North,” it’s a sure bet ingenuity will be there to meet it. The innovation that gave rise to Denison’s ice road of the 1950s hasn’t frozen solid but shifted with the challenges of a new century.
For information visit www.jvtcwinterroad.ca