Ice Roads of Canada

The Northern Territories & Provinces of Canada have a unique winter trucking program that is unparalleled in the world. In the harsh environment of -30 to -70 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, (not counting any wind chill factor) men build highways of ice into the Arctic Tundra.

I must mention here in this day and age of metric, -40 below Zero is the same in Fahrenheit or Celsius (Centigrade). No matter how you look at it, it is damn cold and you can freeze your butt off in a flash.

The reason for this seasonal highway is to supply the isolated mining camps, (Precious metals, and the new Northern Diamond fields). With no roads possible in the other 3 seasons, the only other way to transport equipment and supplies into these camps is by air, at a horrendous cost.

During a short period of a few months in the winter, when the muskeg and lakes are frozen over, it is possible to build a frozen roadway to transport a years supply of equipment, food and the necessities of life, at a more practical, reasonable cost. Anyone with stock shares in these mining ventures, owe the ice men of the north for the extra profits gained.

Get freight broker training.

As long as there have been people in the far Northern districts of Canada, supplies have had to be moved. The main transportation for this movement were the dog teams. They hauled food supplies, people and whatever tools it took to survive. The Inuit were specialists in this field. From the days of the Yukon gold rush, to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrols, the dogs were mans lifeline through the north country.

The next stage in transport was the Cat Train. A small bulldozer of the day, pulling multiple sleds of supplies across the great frozen lakes.

They had their ice problems to contend with also, including lost equipment and men.

Then John Denison came along in the 1950’s and revolutionized the Northern Ice trails, building them into roads of ice for motorized transport.

We all owe this phenomena to an ex-Mountie, (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) named JOHN DENISON, who is also known as the father of the Northern Ice Roads.


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 roadbuilders drive with one hand on the door, ready to jump. That’s the way it was in the beginning.

This was a book published about John Denison and his ice roads, written by EDITH IGLAUER, who was the first outsider ever to accompany the crew while they worked. Her story of a fascinating, hair raising and humorous journey through Canada’s far north is a favourite with readers of all ages who love adventure.

IN THE BEGINNING (the 1950’s)

These photos and descriptions by Edith Iglauer, from the early days of the ice roads will give one a reality view of how it was with these tough men of the north. Trucking at it’s most adventurous.

ICE ROAD photos, the early days.

John Denison in the cab of African Queen.
Getting fresh water and testing the thickness of the ice with an ice auger. Depth needed 18 inches; preferably, three feet.
Denison gassing up the camper from the gas and diesel oil storage trailer parked three-quarters of the way up the ice road.
Their camper and truck 43, a twenty-one year old workhorse affectionately called FUD (from F.W.D., for 4 wheel drive) at the gas cache.
Fud’s right wheel has disappeared under the ice! An early contributor to the epidemic of disasters on Hardisty Lake.
No. 36, the African Queen; complete with lowboy trailer, caboose, and custom-designed snowplow.
Roadbuilding. First, the scout, a Bombardier “bug”, then the plow truck, 36; followed by Truck 34, carrying the Cat, to roll the surface.
John Denison, returning from a talk with the driver of the tractor, who is about to open a portage between 2 lakes.
The left front end of Hughie’s Cat, under water, three feet below the icy surface of Hardisty Lake. It took an hour to winch it out.
Hughie’s Cat, making a portage at the north end of the ice road. The lake that Hughie has just left is behind him.
On a portage, they stopped behind a dog team that looked driverless, until an Indian hunter popped up in the carry-all and pulled over.
The cherry picker, a giraffe-like machine for lifting heavy objects; this time three vehicles that went through the ice at Rae Lake.
The Beaver; a clumsy amphibious room on wheels with a kitchen, bunks, and big floatation tires that pack down snow.
Truck 34, carrying the Cat on it’s lowboy, stopping for a lunch break at Hottah Lake Camp.
Trucks crossing one of the nineteen lakes the Ice Road traverses, carrying lumber and a pickup truck for the mine at Port Radium.
The spruce-bough lean-to Jimmy Watson built on a portage to keep warm, when 34 broke down and he waited a week for a new transmission.
Hughie Arden and Burns under a parachute, welding a broken link on Ardens Cat, in 60-below temperature, in a pothole near Hotta Lake.
Fort Byers: fuel storage tanks and bunk-cook house. At the turnoff, where the 520-kilometer (323 mile) ice road begins.
A truck rendezvous on the Ice Road. Lots of hard water beneath!
Trucks arriving at the mine with freight, over the newly opened Ice Road.
Echo Bay mine buildings, waiting while the trucks unload and get repaired.
Jim and June Magrum, who trapped in the barrens for years, taking their children with them. Jim was killed in a plane crash later.
The camper; Edith’s home, office, and the crew’s kitchen, where she presided as the reluctant cook while the Ice Road was being built.
Denison cooking breakfast. Periodically he decided that his unpaid cook was too slow getting the men out on the road, and took over.
One of the big snowplow trucks widening the Ice Road after it is in place. It’s an endless battle against wind to keep it open.
What all the struggle is for. A freight convoy on it’s way to the mine, after John Denison and his crew, opened the Ice Road for the season.

(Ice Road Photos & descriptions used with permission)

1998, John Denison was named to the Order of Canada for his work in helping to open up the Far North in the 1960s. After John retired, others began to replace him and carry on with the ice road project.

Qaluna Tava was another early trucker from the North West Territories working on the ice roads. This was when the equipment was not as sophisticated as today. The trucks were old and well used and expendable if serious problems happen to arise. Qaluna (known simply as “Q”) has described what happened in his first winter at road building.

Since John Denison’s time pioneering the opening of the north to trucking, it has made a dramatic progression. Today, technology has taken over and made the ice road building a modern science. We must remember that without men like John Denison, we would not be where we are today.

Today there are a few companies that carry on with the winter road program, using modern technology and advanced equipment. Even with all of this great advancement, the dangers of the Northern weather conditions can still dictate life or death situations. Such as these photos show…………

Driving on thin ice

Photos courtesy of Jeff Philipp

At approximately 7:00AM, on January 12, 2000 a Northbound Super-B-Train truck hauling diesel fuel crashed through the Mackenzie River ice crossing near Fort Providence. Both fuel tanks and the cab of the truck were left partially in the water and on the ice. The driver was treated for hypothermia at the nearby Fort Providence nursing station.

The ice crossing had been open to light traffic only, up to a maximum of 4,000kg, (8,800 lbs) when the 60,000kg (132,000 lbs) + truck went through the ice. The crossing was immediately closed. Spill-response crews pumped the fuel out of the stranded tanker within 48hours. The truck itself was removed on January 15. RTL Robinson’s Enterprises Ltd. of Yellowknife led recovery efforts that involved using small dynamite blasts to free the truck from the ice. RCMP and DOT officials were on hand for the recovery along with representatives from RWED and the federal departments of Indian and Northern Affairs and the Department of Fisheries. The ice road was reopened to light traffic on January 17 with a detour around the damaged area. Spray ice construction of the ice crossing continued to bring the road up to a standard for heavy traffic.

Northwest Territories Transpotation

The Department of Transportation Newsletter Issue #19 February /March 2000

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