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Canada’s remote northern communities rely on a network of challenging winter and ice roads. Transport firms have stepped up with logistics and experience to get goods to isolated residents.

By Kelly Gray

Canada has some very unforgiving northern territory when it comes to moving freight. The weather is brutal and the infrastructure is a constant challenge with thawing permafrost, heaving roadbeds and winter ice roads open fewer weeks than ever. Indeed, just getting cartons of milk to remote First Nations communities can be a daunting task. Consider the challenges of getting multi-ton construction piles, turbine blades or heavy equipment to sites that are accessible only during winter months along a network of ice and winter roads that add to the complexity of construction projects.

To get the job done, Canada has created one of most extensive winter road systems in the world. Ontario alone has some 3,100 kilometres of winter roads that are operated by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the Town of Moosonee as well as a host of First Nations communities. Last year, the province allocated $5 million to build and operate the network.

“The 2016 Ontario budget will invest $5.5 million into the 2016-17 winter road network,” said Michael Gravelle, Ontario Minister of Northern Development and Mines. “This investment, matched by Indigenous and Northern A airs Canada, links 31 remote First Nation communities to the provincial highway system. Each winter in Ontario, more than 3,000 kilometres of winter roads are constructed, making it Canada’s largest winter road network.”

The same thinking occurs in Manitoba, where the province oversees a network of some 2,000 kilometres of winter roads. The province reports that since 1999, spending on the seasonal road system has tripled, with the aim of using more overland routes, improving safety, allowing the roads to stay open longer each season, reducing construction difficulties and addressing environmental concerns. To achieve these objectives, the province has identified a number of strategies, including the relocation of existing winter roads, the construction of new roads as well as upgrading existing winter and forestry roads, and exploring enhanced rail and ferry services.

Despite all the funding, planning and good intentions from the provinces, the winter road system remains both a boon and a curse to remote communities. The facts are that regardless of the technology society has at its disposal, the rigours of northern supply routes are such that success in freight hauling comes down to human characteristics like determination and experience.

Thriving on northern challenges
One company that has made a name for themselves as leaders amid the difficult and challenging northern transportation sector is Winnipeg-based Polar Industries. According to company president Mark Kohaykewych, he saw an opportunity to service remote northern communities by developing a transport company with the right fleet and smart drivers who understand the difficulties of sub zero trucking on surfaces that can crack and roll or quickly thaw.

Kohaykewych reports that he got started seven years ago with one truck. 

“During university, I worked in construction,” he said. “This led to project management. I soon found myself working on a project in the north and bought a truck to undertake some of the transportation of goods. I quickly discovered there was a need for logistical support in the moving of goods in this region. I had developed a passion for the north and saw this as a good jumping off point for a business.”

Today, Polar Industries operates 30 trucks in Northern Manitoba, Ontario and the Northwest Territories with a team of four mechanics and five office support personnel. The trucks are older model, heavy spec 24x5 units that can take the beating these roads deliver.

“We are a transport company that goes o  the beaten path, well away from the Trans-Canada Highway,” said Kohaykewych, reporting that standard points of call for his company are locations such as Lynn Lake, Wuskwatim and Gillam, as well as Fox Lake and Norway House in Manitoba. During the frozen winter, his crews become a welcome sight for First Nations communities that are accessible only by the winter roads. They also work on sealift transport solutions in communities such as Baker Lake and Arviat.

“For us, the biggest challenge is always road conditions. Next, we look at the weather. Regardless, everything starts with proper planning and logistics. We test the ice ourselves and will flood or form ice as necessary,” he said, adding that often it’s hard to know what drivers will find along the way.

“Experience is key to getting the job done in these conditions, which can change quickly.”

For example, he points to Highway 280, a 290-kilometre stretch of roadway that starts north of Thompson, Man. and finishes in Gillam, Man. The surface is gravel and dirt with a winding route that follows rivers and lakes through shield and boreal forest.

“The highway itself is in rough shape to begin with,” said Kohaykewych. “If it

rains, we sometimes have to wait until conditions improve. Driving a heavy load on this surface creates ruts and makes the road impassible. In the winter, any warming or light rain makes ice crossings very time consuming. We have to bring all the tools, like a heavy loader, to pull and free stuck truck tires. At -50 degrees Celsius, we can see challenges like broken leaf springs and other mechanical problems occur. Our drivers have to be jacks-of-all-trades to work with the unexpected.”

Recently, Polar Industries moved a considerable amount of pipe to the Manitoba Hydro generating site in Gillam. Kohaykewych says that they were able to ship the pipe to Gillam via rail and offload to waiting trucks for the run to the site.

“This method saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over trucking the pipe from the tide water shipping terminal in Vancouver. We were able to use just four trucks over a one-month period to transport 80 rail cars of pipe to Keewatinohk,” he said, adding that the pipe was 60 feet long and required a skilled and seasoned operator to get them off the cars and onto the truck beds in just the right configurations for the challenging ride to the site – about 100 km northeast of Gillam.

On another job, Polar moved a 125,000-pound crane over the ice road to Pikangikum, a remote First Nations community near the Manitoba/Ontario border north of Red Lake. He says they had to close the road to others while they used it to ensure load levels over the ice.

“There is always a huge amount of prep work that has to take place – whether it’s hauling over ice or on a frozen winter road over bogs and muskeg,” said Kohaykewych. “For example, we might have to send a grader ahead of the truck to improve the surface or use other pieces of equipment to pull the trucks free if they get stuck. We like to move at night when its coldest.” Despite the preparations, drivers still have to deal with pressure ridges and cracks on the ice surface as well as huge ice waves that can build up as trucks move to towards the shore.

A couple of years ago, Polar Industries was featured on an episode of Ice Road Truckers, a weekly cable television show on the History Channel that tells the story of tricky northern transportation. Kohaykewych says that the show followed his crews as they drove 7.5 days round-trip to Peawanuck on the shore of Hudson Bay.

“This is the longest ice road in the world,” he said. “Recently, we took a convoy of five units from Thompson to Gillam and then from Gillam we carried to Shamattawa, and then to Fort Severn and then all the way to Peawanuck along the coast of Hudson Bay.”

Changes coming?
According to Kohaykewych, he is seeing governments paying more attention to northern access and transport challenges. 

“Yes, government could move faster on projects, but we all have to consider the constraints of working in this territory and the fact that the regions covered by winter roads are so remote,” he said.

For the time being, it’s up to companies like Polar Industries to make these roads work for communities.

“Viewers of shows like Ice Road Truckers might look at this kind of heavy hauling as a novelty in the face of an industry where sparkling transport trucks run on well serviced inter- state and national highways,” said Kohaykewych. “We look at the challenge as just being all in a day’s work. It’s like offroading for trucking professionals. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.