Winter is nearly over and Northern Resource Trucking enjoyed another good season of Ice Road Trucking.
This time of year at NRT is always busy. Steady runs into the uranium mines keep the regular fleet running steady. When the mills are in operation, the mines tend to be busy with all their usual bulk and freight orders. Propane trucks are going full tilt to keep up with cold-weather demands, too.
On top of this, icy weather means icy roads—the ice road for SSR Mining Inc.’s Seabee Gold Operation in particular. Because of Seabee’s remote location, supplies must be flown in during spring, summer, and fall months, which is very expensive. So the mine tries to get in as much of its non-perishable supplies during the winter ice road season to save costs. That means NRT’s ice road dispatchers and drivers are working full tilt to get those loads organized and delivered on time!
The ice road is such a staple of the season with NRT that it is easy to take for granted. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to make each season safe and successful.
“First, SSR Mining sends someone out on a Skidoo to plot the road’s course,” NRT President Dave McIlmoyl explains. “When the ice is thick enough to support the weight of their Snow Cats they blade the snow off the ice to make the road one hundred feet wide.”
Removing the snow actually helps the ice build faster and stronger. Thick snow creates a blanket of insulation that slows the freezing process and can result in softer ice. Once the ice is exposed, the cold is better able to penetrate and the road hardens up. When the ice is thick enough, plow trucks and graders maintain the road. This traffic actually helps to build the ice, too.
NRT measures the ice thickness and determines when it is safe to put their trucks on the road. Although the road into Seabee is a private road, SSR Mining and NRT follow the same system as provincial and territorial governments of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories to determine the thickness of the ice. Thirty inches of clear, blue ice is required to haul a maximum of 80,000 lbs of gross vehicle weight.
In past years, NRT sent a half-ton truck, two men, and a chainsaw out to do plunge cut testing in the middle and outer edges of the road. These cuts were made every 500 meters. This would be done multiple times so that every 100 meters of the road was tested by the end of the season.
This year, NRT has invested in a new ground penetrating radar system. The radar system is housed inside a plastic toboggan that can be pulled behind a Skidoo or pick-up truck. It sends a beam straight down which bounces back when it hits the water. This information is sent via Bluetooth to an industrial strength tablet computer designed to operate in extreme conditions. If the radar system detects any variations in the ice thickness, a manual plunge test is conducted with the chainsaw in order to verify the results.
These radar systems—built and designed by Sensors & Software Inc. in Mississauga, Ontario—are used around the world including ice roads in northern Europe and Russia as well as in northern Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
The 2020 ice road season began on February 7th, starting with loads of 60,000 lbs (gross vehicle weights) on 28 inches of ice. After one week of lighter loads, the ice has thickened enough to allow for fully loaded trucks to start crossing. Some years the ice has been ready in early January, but this doesn’t translate into a longer season.
“Our experience has been that the earlier you start, the earlier the road goes out,” McIlmoyl says. “The later you start, the later the road goes out. For some reason, the ice only seems to last six to eight weeks.”
Safety is of paramount importance to both NRT and SSR Mining, so every measure is taken to ensure that drivers, equipment, and cargo make it through the season in one piece. Ice marshals patrol the ice all season and trucks convoy in and out of the mine, communicating via radio.
Loaded trucks are only able to travel at 15 km/hr and unloaded trucks at 25 km/hr on the ice. Outgoing trucks must wait on site or on the portages until incoming trucks are off the ice to avoid having trucks meet in the middle of the lake.
Typically, ice road work is finished by the end of March. Closer to spring, the road becomes much more difficult to maintain, though. Muskegs and springs start to flow which can cause overflow onto the ice, or the ice recedes from the shore. Portages can also become too soft and rutted in the strong spring sunshine.
“On an ice road, you don’t get any prizes for pushing the limits,” McIlmoyl says. NRT’s ice road policies are designed with that in mind.