Ice Road Trucking with NRT

NRT Ice Roads

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.

NRT Diversifies into Manitoba

The slow down of the uranium mining industry in northern Saskatchewan has been difficult for the businesses that depend upon mining companies as major clients. Northern Resource Trucking is one of many companies that were forced to give their revenue streams a good hard look when Cameco closed their Rabbit Lake, Key Lake, and McArthur River operations. While a full recovery is expected, the timeline remains fuzzy. In the meantime, NRT needed to diversify in order to protect itself from the ebbs and flows of a single industry.

Around the same time as Cameco’s closures, the New Gold mine near Emo, Ontario was under construction. NRT formed a limited partnership with the Big Grassy River First Nation from Morson, Ontario called Big Grassy Logistics Limited Partnership. BGL landed a contract hauling lime from Faulkner, Manitoba to the New Gold mine. Later, they added van loads, other chemicals, explosive emulsions, and propane to that list.

“It became evident that there was business in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario,” NRT President Dave McIlmoyl says. “And that it was going to be difficult to service that business from Saskatoon. We approached Trimac and rented office and yard space at one of their Winnipeg terminals in order to expand our operation in the east.”

NRT was also approached by a company called First Nations Mining Economic Development Corporation, which is owned by nine First Nations in northern Manitoba, about another partnership. Piwapisk Hauling Limited Partnership was formed by NRT and FNMEDC. Now all three companies share the Winnipeg terminal and Operations Manager, Dave Gravatt.

Through these new partnerships, NRT has expanded its operations and found business hauling chemicals from various producers in Winnipeg to a number of destinations in western Canada. The New Gold mine business has grown and NRT has been successful in getting work using the Winnipeg location. Currently, there are six NRT trucks and ten trailers stationed at the Manitoba terminal.

“Glen Ertell (VP of Operations) and I make regular trips to Winnipeg to find more work,” McIlmoyl says. “Our goal is to have ten trucks stationed in Winnipeg by the end of 2020.”

When the uranium industry picks back up and Cameco puts all its mines back online, NRT will be more than ready to take on their previous workload. However, now that the company has branched outside of the province, they have no plans to go back to being just a Saskatchewan operation.

“When you do really specialized work in a particular industry it’s easy to pigeon hole yourself,” McIlmoyl says. “We have learned that our specialized skills are easily adaptable to other provinces and other industries. We hope to continue to branch out and grow these skills as opportunities arise.”

NRT Training Program Far Exceeds Provincial Standards

Saskatchewan’s new minimum training requirements for Class 1a drivers has had the media and transportation industry buzzing.

As of March 15, 2019, drivers are required to complete a minimum 121.5 hours of training before taking their road test. This mandatory entry-level training (MELT) consists of at least 47 hours classroom instruction, 17.5 hours yard instruction, and 57 hours behind the wheel. During their training course, students must pass 11 separate modules before they are able to take the practical examination.

These are welcome changes to the province’s woefully inadequate past requirements, although some say they still leave a lot to be desired.

Northern Resource Trucking is one company that won’t hire a driver who just has their MELT requirements. The company demands much stricter training for its own employees, as it has done for over thirty years. Safety is the backbone of NRT’s relationship with northern communities. Its trucks share the road with northerners and the mining companies that it services. As such, NRT requires drivers to have a minimum of two years or 150,000 km of safe driving experience before they apply. A safe driving record means they must not have more than two driving infractions in one year, and no more than three in three years, including in their personal vehicles, and have no criminal record. This goes for drivers that NRT’s owner-operators put behind the wheel, too.

In 2006, when NRT celebrated its 20th anniversary, the company achieved another major milestone. NRT launched its own SGI-accredited driver training program in order to address the need they saw for access to adequate driver training in the north. While the NRT Training Centre provides basic driver training for a Class 5 endorsement, what truly sets it apart from other training programs in the province is its Class 1a certification. Drivers who graduate from NRT’s program have over 450 hours of experience in the classroom, yard, and behind the wheel! While students spend much of their time in the classroom, the focus of the training program is hands-on experience. Students practice on both loaded and empty 5-axel and 8-axel trailers, they get experience with load securement, roadside truck and trailer maintenance, and they drive on both paved and gravel roads. Where other training programs offer one, two, and three week courses, NRT’s training program is twelve weeks long! This depth and breadth of training is unique not only in Saskatchewan, but across Canada.

“We take about six students per group and do four sessions a year,” Randy Mihilewicz, Manager of NRT’s Training Division, says. This ensures students get a lot of one-on-one time with their instructors. Mihiliwicz started working for the company as a driver instructor when the school first opened before being promoted to Manager in 2008.

“We’ve had hundreds of successful students, and have a hire-rate of over 85% for graduates,” he boasts. “Frankly, that number could be a lot higher if drivers were willing to move farther from their home communities.”

Graduates have gone on to do local work for their bands or at the mines, delivery work in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, oil field work in Alberta, and even highway work across country or through the States into Mexico. What started as a way for NRT to train its own drivers has become a successful business attracting applicants from all over the country.

NRT’s focus on safety has paid off. In the transportation industry, the standard for comparison of company safety records are calculated as the number of incidents per 1,000,000 miles. The general target is to achieve less than 2 per million miles. NRT’s frequency last year was 0.55; often it is even lower.