Ice Road Truckers: The Complete Season One

Jake Meaney

With hopes of raking in a year’s worth of pay in two months, perhaps these drivers are ridiculously brave, perhaps just foolhardy and stupid, probably a combination of both.

Ice Road Truckers

Distributor: A&E
Subtitle: The Complete Season One
Network: History Channel
First date: 2000
US Release Date: 2007-11-20

So, just in case you were entertaining thoughts of making some quick cash this winter driving a tractor trailer weighed down with 50 tons of oversized mining equipment across 350 miles of ice deep in the Northwest Territories, here’s a helpful warning from the good folks at the History Channel:

For viewers of this show, who are now motivated to become an ice road trucker, the rules for working in Canada require a work visa and a job offer from a Canadian company. We have also been informed that driver slots with the northern Canadian trucking companies are filled for the upcoming 2008 ice road season, and there are no jobs available for this coming season for drivers from outside of Canada. Please do not contact any of the ice road trucking companies in Yellowknife looking for work.

Good enough, but I think just watching one episode of this History Channel reality series would be sufficient to ward off 99 percent of potentially interested parties among the show’s viewing audience. And anyone who would contemplate taking this positively bat-shit crazy job probably already knows all about it, and is probably gearing up to make another run across the ice, anyway – or actually is bat-shit crazy, and thus should at least have his car keys taken away. But I’m glad someone is looking out for us.

In the tradition of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs or The Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers focuses on the harrowing daily grind and daredevil risks of a ridiculously hazardous occupation that most of us have probably never heard of, and would never want even if we had. Every winter for the past 30 plus years, a small cadre of elite and/or foolhardy truckers converges on Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the central hub of its diamond mining industry. Remote and cut off from regular supply routes for 10 months of the year by a massive network of lakes, these mines are only able to get the necessary supplies and equipment they need to maintain business during a brief eight- to-ten week window in the depths of winter, when the lakes freeze to a sufficient thickness to allow heavy traffic to run back and forth across it, 'round the clock.

Now, I don’t know about you, but growing up in New England, I was warned repeatedly, each and every winter, never ever to venture out onto frozen ponds, lakes, rivers, etc., for fear of plummeting through the ice. It wasn’t really a matter of if, but when – it was a certainty, a mortal lock you would go through, down to an icy grave. So we came to fear the ice, and steer clear of it.

Not so the hearty truckers who brave the ice roads. They respect the ice, to be sure, but they do not fear it. Perhaps they are ridiculously brave, perhaps just foolhardy and stupid, probably a combination of both. How else would you get up the nerve to drive a big rig and trailer out onto a totally unstable “road” that is continuously creaking , splitting, buckling, and cracking; where the road can vanish instantly in a blinding snowstorm, sending you and your truck careening off course to a certain doom; where just the slightest acceleration over the stated speed limit can lead to “ice quakes” that can send whole convoys of trucks plunging through the ice; or where even just stopping and idling for a few minutes can lead to catastrophe. It’s a madman’s errand.

But of course, these truckers aren’t flying blind into the white. Behind them, supporting the smooth dispatch of the loads, and literally supporting the trucks with continuous maintenance of the ice road, is a remarkably efficient (and not at all foolhardy) logistics outfit in charge of coordinating all the complex operations over the 350 miles of road. Indeed, the road, the creation and sustaining of which more often resembles a military operation than anything, is a marvel of sophisticated engineering, and I wish this aspect of the series had gotten the attention it deserves.

But behind the scenes isn’t where the glory lies. So, Ice Road Truckers focuses on six drivers on the frontlines, who set out with great expectations at the beginning of the season, with hopes of raking in a year’s worth of pay in two months (which the show artificially tries to pump up into some sort of glorious competition called the “Dash for the Cash”). A mix of weathered veterans and naïve rookies, the show consists mostly of their various travails and triumphs, as they haul their loads up to the diamond mines.

Favorites emerge as the season goes on. I found myself particularly rooting for Jay, a 25-year-old prodigy who’s been running the ice road since he was 18, and seems to always maintain a zen-like serenity on the roads, regardless of the elements or the unwieldiness of his load. So, too, does a worthy villain (the gruff and ruthless Hugh, who’s only care is to be number one, damn the torpedoes). But the truckers never really emerge as three-dimensional characters -- they always seem to exist as extensions of their trucks and the road. Reality shows are generally only as good as their cast, and Ice Road Truckers gang doesn’t exactly stand out or compel.

The other problem with Ice Road Truckers is that once you’ve seen one episode, you’ve pretty much seen them all. There’s a sameness to the series which grows stale three episodes in, and from which it never really recovers. An episode goes like this: danger and risk reiterated by narrator; image of truck plunging through ice (which fortunately never happens to any of our drivers); truckers load up; truckers haul up the Ingram Trail (the rollercoaster-esque prelude to the ice road, which the show just fetishizes beyond belief); truckers drive onto ice; creak, creak, groan, crack; trucker delivers load and returns to base; wash, rinse, repeat.

There are a few variations: a truck breaks down, either in the yard or out on the trail; a few interpersonal squabbles blow up and maybe lead to a driver quitting; a tanker truck (the scourge of the ice road, to hear truckers tell) jackknifes, leading to gridlock back down the ice. But that’s about it.

This isn’t to say that the show can’t be interesting, or entertaining. The initial thrill as each truck rolls on to the ice always sends a invigorating thrill up your spine each time. And I rather like watching the huge cranes load and unload some of the ridiculously oversized mining equipment onto the trailers; and following the hapless string of bad luck by one of Hugh’s drivers is a painful comedy of errors. And every so often you learn something cool: like how the trucks passing over the ice creates waves beneath, down in the water, and that drivers must maintain a half mile between each other and not exceed a certain speed, otherwise the waves will catch up to another driver’s wave and blow up the ice. Or that the ice thaws from the bottom up, so that late in the season, it may look safe to drive, when really you are only driving on like two feet of ice or less (rather than three feet, which is the lower limit of safety). But really, they could’ve probably covered all this in a standalone episode.

Which standalone episode actually exists, and is included on the DVD set as the “pilot” for the show, which is sort of a misnomer, since it’s really an episode of the History Channel series Dangerous Missions. This particular program actually focuses more on the history of the ice road and its creation back in the '40s and '50s, as a route that had Yellowknife as its terminus, rather than its launching pad.

Here, the pioneering trailblazing of John Denison, a Mountie who found a second calling as a trucker, is given a hero’s treatment, and perhaps rightly so, at least within the context of forging paths where no sane man would go. Only a third of this program concerns the current day crop of truckers (a different group than on the series) and the myriad hazards of driving on the ice, but it is quick and to the point and covers all the major bases that the series belabors over and over again.

The only other extras are a collection of five featuerttes, clocking in at 45-minutes total, which are mostly scenes from the show rounded up into brief biographies of the drivers; deleted scenes; and some behind the scenes footage. It’s tough giving a grade here – I want to like this show, I like the idea of the show very much and its Wages of Fear vibe, but the execution is just generally lacking, and I don’t know what they can do to change it, really, aside from sabotaging trucks and the road itself to ratchet up the danger and drama. I guess the simple fact of courting danger isn’t enough anymore – it must be consummated, as well.

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