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No, it won’t be the tremendously fearful ride Rick Yemm and Hugh Rowland promised, and the stakes won’t go up on foul language before the commercial breaks. Forget Ice Road Truckers: haulers will tell you it’s full of moose dung and other expletives.
Ice roads in Saskatchewan don’t star in a pumped-up show: they’re a reality for hundreds of people in the province. They’re the symbol of the modern northern mind, the intricate relationship between commodity and solitude. It’s man harnessing the environment for his own means, yet beholden to the beauty and peace of the country. It’s the sound of a semi-trailer truck on a frozen Precambrian lake.
The morning air here is crisp. Many would shudder at a thermometer close to -40°C, but it is characteristic of a bright March day. The skies are dressed in the palest blue and stripped of clouds and life. A touch of rose, crafted by the nascent sun, hangs low above the evergreens up on the far hills.
Thick forests, big hills, and pure lakes may not be the first images associated with Saskatchewan, but past Prince Albert, the iconic never-ending golden fields waving to and fro under the infinite prairie sky quickly disappear. The northern half of the province is rocky and solid Canadian Shield.
To many, an ice road sounds like a crazy and treacherous idea, but truckers think about it differently, including Dave Doucet. Approaching Brabant Lake at 10 km/h, he explains why he has returned to these roads for the past five years. “There’s nothing here. It’s a nice and relaxing day,” he says. The idea is appealing: no four-wheelers whooshing by, the slow pace on the ice, and the dollars accruing by the tick of the clock rather than by the mile. And the added perk of being home every other day, depending on your destination, as opposed to multiple-day hauls to Dallas, Los Angeles, or Toronto.
Although nobody has ever gone through the road to Seabee, it does happen and some lakes are known for being more prone to such malevolence.
Brad Caisse is one of those who can tell such a story firsthand. Ten years ago, the Saskatoon resident was hauling on ice roads for the first year for a company contracting on Lake Athabasca. One day, the rear wheels of his truck broke through, jackknifing the trailer and the truck vertically.
Panicked, he rolled his window down and tried to escape, but his leg was jammed behind the steering wheel. He paused for a moment and considered his predicament.
Despite the controversies, the mining industry remains central to northern Saskatchewan, not only in economic terms, but also socially, says Caisse, the bootless trucker. The Île-à-la-Crosse native is of mixed Aboriginal ancestry and describes himself as Cree. He has contended with a depressing state of affairs in the Precambrian back country.
He’s fighting a lifelong battle against drug and alcohol abuse. As a young man, he sought a better life in Saskatoon, which did not materialize, and his substance dependence led him to a stint in prison. It was the birth of his first child that helped him turn it all around—he wanted to be a good role model for his kids.
Today he says he’s proud of his achievements: four teenagers at home, all fluent in Cree and with aspirations to post-secondary education, and most importantly, clean from drugs and alcohol.
Caisse says the mines are the northerners’ chance to avoid the mistakes he has made. Mines provide work and good salaries, and with the one-week-in, one-week-out work arrangement, people can achieve a good work-life balance.
For the furthest and most isolated communities, these roads created more reliable links to the larger centres in the south, increasing access to certain services and opportunities, such as higher education.
The trucker's life of solitude is made easier through technology, and the most important instrument in their cab is arguably the CB radio. “They are life savers,” says Gerald Braeland, a veteran trucker who crisscrossed the province for 29 years, and who has hauled on ice roads for the past six winters.
Braeland, like most truckers, has the formidable capacity to differentiate countless voice registers and tones, even on speakers that are not very clear, which allows him to recognize colleagues and friends immediately and catch up on the latest news.