DRYBONES LAKE, Canada — Northern lights painted the Arctic sky as Bob Raymond bounced his tanker truck across a chain of frozen lakes. Under his wheels--and his 61 tons of truck and diesel fuel--were about four feet of bumpy ice and several hundred feet of cold water.
"You kind of forget you're driving on ice," Raymond told his passenger as the truck rolled across MacKay Lake with the aurora borealis flashing in the night sky. "It just looks like a farmer's field. Then you snap yourself back to reality and realize there's a couple of hundred feet of water beneath you."
"You notice it seems like you're always going uphill on the ice?" he said. "You kind of wonder what's happening, like you're going off the end of the Earth."
The journey leads not to the end of the Earth, but close enough.
After 340 miles and four days on one of the world's most remarkable trucking routes, Raymond delivered his cargo of 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel to a gold mine in the desolate tundra, where each year's fuel, chemicals and other supplies are brought over land and water during the deep winter freeze.
Raymond, 37, was one of about 60 truck drivers plying the route recently between Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, and the Lupin mine, 56 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 90 miles north of the nearest tree.
About four-fifths of the winter road is laid out over frozen lakes, which are easier to travel than the muskeg and tundra crossed by 28 numbered portages between lakes. It takes about two weeks each January for specially designed heavy snowplows, guided by helicopters, to scrape a path along the ice, throwing up snowbanks on each side.
This winter, the Lupin mine was trucking in 3.5 million gallons of diesel fuel, 1.4 million pounds of explosives, more than 1 million pounds of salt, more than 1 million pounds of lime, 3 million pounds of steel rods and balls and 500,000 pounds of sodium cyanide, said Hugh Tamblyn, vice president for transportation of Echo Bay Mines Ltd., Lupin's owner based in Edmonton, Alberta.
Savings Are Plenty
Despite the cost of building the road each year, keeping it clear and maintaining two camps along the way for food and shelter, Echo Bay figures that the savings from trucking, as opposed to flying in supplies, slices almost $15 an ounce from its cost of production at Lupin, which yielded more than six tons of gold last year.
Normally, a truck driver can make a round trip in three days or less, despite a speed limit of 25 m.p.h. that is imposed by Echo Bay to try to limit damage to the ice from heavy loads. On the portages or where the ice is rough, the road is so bumpy the drivers can scarcely go 10 m.p.h. They get paid by the trip.
"It's not too bad a job if you can keep moving," Raymond said.
But that proved impossible on this trip, when the worst storm since the road to Lupin was first opened four years ago blew through, closing the road for three days.
Fishing Camp in Summer
Raymond and some fellow truckers sat out the storm at Camp Drybones, a collection of trailers on the edge of Lake Drybones that serves as a truck stop in winter and a fishing camp in summer.
"It's a different world up here," said another stranded driver, Gary Carter, 39. "For example, everybody takes an extra sandwich to feed the red fox at Portage Nine."
The fox waits for the trucks to come and eats from truckers' hands.
"A lot of people don't like running on the ice," Carter continued. "They're scared of it. When you have to go along a 100-mile lake, it's the thought of it more than anything else. When you see cracks and water lying on the ice, it scares them."