ICE HIGHWAYS

 

There is a very popular TV show featuring many horrific accidents that a well equipped towing service must deal with daily in the wilds of our vast north country. It is called “Ice Road Truckers”.  I never drove a truck for a living but I did have an occasion when I had a 5 ton truck at my disposal. There is a real sense of power when you sit way up overlooking the traffic below. That power can quickly be transferred to destruction if it is not controlled. I know because I was the victim of a large out of control Tanker truck slamming into my car at 120 miles per hour. That was over 50 years ago and I never go a day without the thought of my misfortune through pain in different parts of my body. I arrived at the 120 MPH as I was travelling from the opposite direction at 60 MPH.

While watching this show, I am reminded of my travels in Northern Ontario.  The late 1950’s were ushering in a whole new way of life, one much different in many ways; Hotel bars were set up with a men’s entrance and a woman’s entrance. Black and white TV, stylish colorful cars, more paved highways, the VW Bug and fewer British cars and more from Japan. Who would believe that a salesman travelling in the north in 1959 could have a decent hotel or motel room with a TV and a breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast, coffee and juice for the grand total of $2.75.

I treated myself one cold snowy night in January when I arrived tired and frustrated at a very large brick hotel owned by a pulp and paper company.  The lobby was like the grand downtown Toronto or Montreal hotels but only one person in sight. A desk clerk. I was hesitant at first but it was obvious when I stormed in out of the bitter cold that I was there for a reason. Cold tired and ravenous for a meal after a seven hour battle with the elements, I approached the desk and asked if they had a room available. That to start things off was a dopy thing to say, God knows they had a room. Which one out of the dozens of vacant rooms do you want dummy? The answer was a pleasant, yes. 

Always, I was obliged to ask the price, I paid all my own expenses and had to be very frugal. Cash was the only currency, no credit cards and a cheque was never discussed. The response was very disheartening; “We have a lovely large comfortable room for you sir for $6.50 per night.”  I must have looked pretty downcast, the last thing I wanted to do was go back out into that storm and look for another place to lay my head. The clerk not to be sending his only guest away without a full sales pitch came back before I could refuse to advise me that this was an all inclusive price including a full prime rib beef dinner and a full breakfast in their main dining room.   I slept like a king in a room that would hold 6 of the rooms I usually had. The bathroom was the size of a garage.  I would have liked to stay for a month.

I have my suspicions that I occupied the same room as our illustrious Queen Elizabeth when she did a tour of Northern Ontario:  The Kapuskasing Inn was host to the Queen when she toured the north on one of her many trips to Canada, and I did occupy the best room in the house on that cold and blustery night in Jan.

My routine to cover my territory from Sturgeon Falls west to the Ontario border with Manitoba and north to the Pole, if I felt there was any business to be had, was a schedule taking 5 weeks winter and summer. The winter was the difficult time as the distances were so vast and the availability to access some accounts was sometimes impossible. Wawa, a large town north of Sault Ste. Marie was only accessible to the outside world when the ancient Algoma central RR could get through the snow to the closest point, a small village called Hawk Junction, and then the Taxi ride 25 miles or so through the bush was never certain. That call was best made in the nicer weather with a bush pilot.

To get from my home in the nickel mining city of Sudbury to Fort William and Port Arthur, two cities on the western shores of Lake Superior, now known as The Lakehead, oh, sorry changed again to be known now as we write this piece as “Thunderbay”, No matter what route you chose to travel from Sudbury to Thunderbay, it was a trip from Hell. Because there was no highway from Sault Ste Marie to the west except through the USA. The Soo was the end of the line except to travel by ship across Lake Superior but this could only be done in the summer months. I have driven to North Bay and taken the Trans Canada highway, far to the north and then west to Thunderbay. That trip always seemed like an eternity. One other choice was my least liked option; the CPR would whisk me away at midnight on a Sunday and land me at my destination the following day about mid afternoon except for delays that did happen on occasion. This was my least favoured trip as it meant that I would have to walk carrying all my samples and my heavy bag of catalogues from account to account in the two adjoining cities. The Bus service at best was terrible and expensive. Shoe leather was cheaper. The trip was easy, the  cost was not..Many an order was given me out of pity more than for my sales ability.

As in life, I sort of got off the subject, that being my experiences on the icy highways of Northern Ontario and the USA.

Most of my driving in the period 1959- 63 was in a Volkswagen Bug and a cherry red 1960 Plymouth, you will know the one, with enormous Fins! The Plymouth was big and cumbersome and the VW was tight and maneuverable. I felt safer in the VW only because it was like a piece of clothing that reacted almost instinctively to the touch. Friends would comment that I drove my many Bugs as if I was wearing them. I really felt that I was.

The worst part of driving in the north was the hours of nothing: Boredom, a ribbon of black asphalt stretching into a blur ahead. Long stretches of open highway with little or no traffic caused the truckers and then the general public to leave the head lights on during daylight driving. This made traffic coming toward you more visible especially in the bright sunlight of the north. In Canada and in some states this is built into new cars from the factory. Some of my trips would be over 16 hours steady driving from door to door. For the most part the crews in charge of keeping the roads open were excellent. The radio normally would be a great buddy for those long stretches, not where I was! There was no radio reception for hours. Time was suspended. The occasional truck would whoosh by, but rarely would there be a car. The USA route was a more populated drive with a few mining and pulp and paper towns, Duluth Min. and Superior Wisconsin were the highlight of the trip. I haven’t been there for more than 50 years but I can’t imagine the trip in the winter is any more pleasant now.

In 1959, the first leg of the Circle route was about to open from the Soo to Wawa “loosely translated from native language “First nations“ as “Wild Goose” in 1959. I have written a short story about my being the first car to complete that leg of the trip. The highway was officially opened the following year in September 1960. Only a VW bug could have taken me over 60,000 miles of trouble free driving a year with no major accidents. This is not to say that I was not a witness to many accidents involving trucks.

On my first trip across the new Hwy 17 Lake Superior route from the Soo to the Lakehead passing through only a half dozen communities White River and Wawa were the largest, I noticed truck tracks leaving the road and leading to what I found to be a steep cliff and at the bottom in a wooded valley was an 18 wheeler in a most terrible condition. How long had it been there I was never to find out. If there was a driver still in the wreckage he surely would have perished. For me to investigate further would have been foolish as I was not dressed for cliff climbing.

Another trip just outside Sudbury heading south on Hwy 69, a flat bed carrying steel rods from Algoma Steel in the Soo, pulled off the road onto a soft shoulder and came to an abrupt stop in mud. Unfortunately the steel rods did not and shifted forward impaling the driver in his cab. The poor man remained alive during the extraction proceedings but died later. All trucks to-day have a protective shield.

I saw the car where 6 miners from the Uranium mines in Elliot Lake were killed when a Logging truck lost his load directly on top of this unfortunate group.

On a beautiful sunny afternoon in early spring about mid way between Sudbury and the Soo, I came over a ridge to see ahead of me, a Bread van turned over on its side in the middle of the road. When I approached the van I was warned by a single guy that I would not like what I was about to see. I didn’t, the driver was still in the van but slumped over and without his head. This was probably the most gruesome site I have ever witnessed.

The naivety of youth. All those thousands of miles, of temperatures as low as 50 degree below zero, I never carried spare gas, a candle, a blanket or a weapon.

I believe that Cell phones are grossly abused to-day, however, there were times that a cell phone would have come in handy, although I doubt I would have had reception, on my trips on the “Ice Highways of the North”.

 

Paul D. Scott

 

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