Driving the ice road to Canada's diamond mines

Wed Mar 12, 2008 8:34am EDT
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By Cameron French

YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories (Reuters) - Deep cracking sounds accompany each loaded truck that passes along a road of ice across frozen lake water to supply Canada's diamond industry.

The ice road sags slightly then reforms, water filling and freezing in the new cracks.

"When it cracks, it's healing itself," says trucker Dan Damore, sitting at the Lockhart stop about 170 km (100 miles) along the 600 km (370 mile) road.

The three-year ice-road veteran bears heavily tattooed arms and says he doesn't use a seatbelt, a typical claim by ice-road drivers who appreciate the need for a quick exit.

With only 100 centimeters (39 inches) of ice at its weakest points one day in February, the trucks run at less than full capacity. Topping them up would raise the risk of plunging through the surface of one of the dozens of lakes the road traverses.

In reality, it's not that dangerous an enterprise, provided you play by the rules, says Chris Hanks a former road manager and occasional consultant for miner BHP Billiton.

"We've done 50,000 loads without putting a truck through the ice," he said on a recent drive up the road. "Our safety record's better than the public highways."

The danger increases in shallow water, where the waves beneath the ice can rebound upward off the lake bed. The safest lakes, says Hanks, are the long, deep ones, such as Gordon Lake, nicknamed "three-movie lake" for the number of DVDs a trucker can watch traveling its 70 kilometers (43 miles) at 15 kmh (9 mph).   Continued...

<p>A truck makes its way along the Tibbett-to-Contwoyto road, a 600 km (375 miles) path over lake ice that serves as the sole overland supply route to Canada's diamond industry, in the Northwest Territories February 14, 2008. REUTERS/Cameron French</p>