Thursday, January 28, 2010

Winter Road 2010

Winter has been upon us for several months now. The air is cool, snow covers the ground and most, if not all, lakes in the northern half of the USA and almost all of Canada are well frozen over. Most people utilize this time for ice fishing and numerous other sports on the lakes. However, in other parts of the world and during this brief time of year, the ice highways are opening up to remote communities in Northern Canada.
The northern ice roads have been recently made famous by the show Ice Road Truckers and their hardships of driving in the NW Territories and the Yukon. Unfortunately, the show has skipped over the even more rugged roads of NW Ontario. These distant and less traveled ice highways extend north out of two towns in Northern Ontario. Red Lake and Pickle Lake are the two communities where the concrete roads end and the ice "highways" begin. I use the term highway loosely because they could be better compared to a logging road darting through the dense forest of NW Ontario.
Depending on the winter, the ice highways open up around the third week of January or first week of February. First to general traffic, mainly half ton trucks, and then to semi's. Once the semi's begin the long slow arduous journey the road tends to get chewed up in a hurry. The main function of these highways is to provide service or access to isolated native reserves that are otherwise cut of to the rest of the world. The only method of reaching these reserves any other time of year is with a float or wheeled airplane. The ice highways provide access to lower cost transportation to these communities and allow them to have numerous goods shipped (or driven in) versus flown in. As a rule of thumb, the cost of goods is cut in half when driven up the winter road as compared to delivered via airplane.
Most years the road is solid and navigable, however warm snaps have happened in the past and the ice highways were deemed closed. When an ice highway is closed prices skyrocket on the reserves. For example, gasoline will jump from $6/gallon to $10/gallon. Lumber for building new homes such as 2x4's and plywood become unaffordable because it now has to be flown in.
The reason I am writing about the winter road in NW Ontario is because dad and I begin our 2010 winter road journey on Feb 1st. Reports from Sandy Lake on the winter road are marginal thus far. The road is open however, according to a Sandy Lake pilot "is in rough shape and driving is slow." The majority of our building supplies for the 2010 Big Hook fishing season have been purchased. Sheets of plywood, pressure treated lumber and propane are just a few of the items we will be hauling along the 256 mile stretch that leads us from Red Lake to Sandy Lake.
Hopefully, there will be an average commute this year of around 8 hours. In the past, trips have been known to take up to 16 hrs due to poor road conditions or even semi's stuck across the entire width of the highway. One prepares for scenario's such as those previously mentioned as much as possible. Extra gas, blankets, food, tow straps, shovel and satellite phones are all necessities when traversing through the great northern boreal forest. Most of the time the biggest obstacle, is the bitter cold. Temperature's can hover as low as 50 below Celsius without windchill factored in. One particular night, I witnessed my spit freeze before it even reached the ground.
All in all, our journey takes two round trips. Most of the time driving is completed at night, this is when the bumps in the road are visible. I can't count how many time my truck steering wheel has given me a quick upper cut to the jaw, while driving during the day time.
I never thought I would say this but...I am really hoping for some cold temperatures over the next week. The colder the weather generally means the better the road. I'll make sure to bring my digital camera and video camera along to document this trips voyage.
Take care all,
Nathan Hartle
Big Hook Wilderness Camps

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