Driving the ice road to Canada's diamond mines

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.

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

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.”

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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).

The safety record has been free of major blemishes since a trailer went through the ice five years ago. The only death of the past decade was a plow driver who had a heart attack after breaking through the ice in 2000.

Starting in Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, the road winds north and east, passing De Beers Canada’s Snap Lake mine, the Diavik mine owned by Rio Tinto and Harry Winston, BHP’s Ekati mine, and Tahera Diamond’s Jericho mine, currently halted due to money problems. BHP and Rio jointly operate the road.

Tahera has blamed some of its problems on a disastrous 2006 season, when warm weather shut the road several weeks early, leaving mines without key construction equipment and making them turn to costly flights for fuel and supplies.

With mining companies increasingly exploring the mineral-rich Arctic, Hanks sees traffic increasing by about 50 percent over the next seven years to as much as 15,000 loads.

The road’s increased profile was underscored last year by History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers”, which tracked several drivers on the route.

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Today, however, Hanks is more concerned with convoys that don’t seem to be calling out their arrivals at portages, the land strips that separate the lakes. The portage roads are narrow, with twists and hills. Truckers need to know if another is coming around the bend.

At the north end of portage 34, his worries suddenly are proven valid as two trucks brush each other rounding a bend just off the shore of a lake.

One truck sustains minor damage, while the northbound truck, loaded with cement, loses its steering and continues down onto the ice cover, crunching to a stop in a snowbank.

Neither driver is hurt, but Hanks knows there’s a problem in a loaded truck stranded on the ice surface. Left too long, the truck’s weight will cause cracks to spider outwards, leading to an eventual collapse.

Hanks talks to both drivers, and road security does its own investigation before the southbound truck continues, and a rescue vehicle is called to pull out the stranded truck.

Reporting by Cameron French