It’s an overcast morning in Stewart, British Columbia. Clouds lie heavily over the tops of the mountains that surround the newly built port, located at the far end of a deep inlet near the border with Alaska. Large bulk carriers come here from around the world, with heavy loads to be transported hundreds of kilometres inland.
On the loading dock, where rain has made the ground muddy, truck driver Rod Stanley and his colleagues battle to load a 66 tonne process unit onto a trailer. Their first attempt fails when the load becomes too heavy on the rear axles, and after thinking for a while, they decide to turn the process unit in the opposite direction and let the truck - a Volvo VNX with 600 hp and I-Shift gearbox - take a larger share of the weight.
This time it works better. “Now we just need to examine the weight distribution on each axle, and if it’s right then we’re ready to drive” says Rod.
However, he and his colleagues must first wait until the evening. The roads between Stewart in British Columbia and the border with the neighbouring province of Alberta are narrow and winding. This first part of the 1,500 km long distance that Rod’s load will travel also involves negotiating several bridges that are not built for heavy transport.
I’d hate to think about what would happen if we got a flat tire out here in the dark.
Driving here has required both investigative engineering and special permission from the provincial authorities. In order not to jeopardise the safety of other motorists, the driving permit through British Columbia is only valid at night and on roads that are blocked off from other traffic. As a result, it has already become pitch black and rather desolate outside when Rod and his colleagues drive out of Stewart.
“Travelling at night has some drawbacks. Everything you do in the daylight is so much easier when you are able to see what you are doing - not fixing things in the night with a flashlight. I’d hate to think about what would happen if we got a flat tire out here in the dark,” he says.
Another challenge of driving at night in this part of Canada is that the forests that line both sides of the road are full of bears and other wild animals. Although Rod has escort vehicles both in front and behind him, he must be extremely attentive and always ready to slow down sharply, or to maneuver around an obstacle.
“I’ve been driving in the North Country for most of my life and I really love it. Yet it has always been a concern with the wildlife, since it would only take a heartbeat for something to run in front of you. I had one jumping out in front of me last winter, when driving by myself to get my load. It died, so a guy is always concerned. But so far I’ve been lucky here in Stewart.”
Rod has worked as a truck driver for forty years, the last eighteen as an employee of Mammoet, a global heavy lift and transport company specialising in heavy loads. Over the years, he has been driving many loads that weighed over 500 tonnes, so the weight of the process unit he is carrying perhaps doesn’t seem such a big deal. However, Rod believes that the road conditions in British Columbia make the load size, weight and width a challenge for all involved.
“No two jobs are the same. That’s something I’ve learned, and it still keeps my interest alive after all these years. I also like the teamwork and all the logistics and planning that has to go into it,” he says and adds:
“I’ve done the lonely part of trucking during my first years as a driver - days and days without seeing anybody I knew. I like this kind of work more because there are so many people involved as a team, and we’ve all become very good friends with one another. I’ve gotten used to it and would find it hard to go back to being on my own again.”
I’ve done the lonely part of trucking during my first years as a driver - days and days without seeing anybody I knew..
This particular trip is extra special for Rod and his colleagues because it is the first time that he is test-driving a Volvo truck. Mammoet, the company that he and his colleagues are working for, has safety as one of its core values – just like Volvo Trucks - and having become accustomed to the new truck, Rod is pleasantly surprised.
“It’s a really nice truck. It has enough torque and horsepower and it’s smooth, comfortable and roomy - everything that a driver wants. The comfort, especially, is beyond what I usually drive. I’ve also noticed that all the switches are within arm’s reach, so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. When you get used to the truck it’s very safe to drive, which is our main priority out here,” he says.
During the first two nights, Rod and his colleagues drive between 10 pm and 6 am the next morning. The third shift starts later, at midnight, because when the transport has crossed the border to Alberta, the permit is only valid for driving during the day. Rod explains that one of the biggest challenges of this mission is the transition between driving at night and during daytime. The body becomes confused and it is therefore difficult to get enough sleep between shifts, even though there is plenty of time for rest.
To stay awake during the night shifts, he often enjoys the fresh air, drinks soda pop and water, and listens to classic rock like Led Zeppelin on the radio. He also thinks about his two children and his granddaughters, and about the things they will do together once he gets back home. After leaving the load in Redwater, he will have a week’s vacation, heading straight back to his home in Edmonton to take his family out camping for a week.
“Spending time with my family when I’m off work is pretty much what I live for. I love my children to death and my grandchildren are just as close to my heart. I’m looking forward to seeing them grow when I retire in a few years, since I missed a lot of that part when my own children grew up, being out on the road for so long.
Back then, we didn’t have mobile phones or a phone service of any kind out here, so you didn’t talk to your family for a week or so while working. With the technology we have nowadays, it’s much easier to be a trucker.”
When I’m driving through here I’m thinking about how lucky I am to be able to get paid to travel on such roads, while other people have to take time off their work to come and see it. It’s definitely one of the best privileges of being a truck driver.
Near the border of British Columbia and Alberta, Rod and his truck are driving through heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The light of the dawn makes him feel refreshed despite fatigue from the night driving, and as always he is excited about driving through Jasper National Park. This is one of the most beautiful places in all of Canada.
“It is a sight to see the trees changing colour, all the crystal clear, green water and the reflections in it when the sun is coming up through the clouds. It is always a spectacular view, with all the wildlife that goes with it – elks, bears, goats, sheep. When I’m driving through here I’m thinking about how lucky I am to be able to get paid to travel on such roads, while other people have to take time off their work to come and see it. It’s definitely one of the best privileges of being a truck driver.”
Mammoet is a specialised heavy lift and transport provider, operating globally with 5,000 employees. The company’s services focus on the petrochemical and mining industries, civil engineering, power generation and offshore projects.
During a seven month project, Mammoet operates four transport units in tight rotation between Stewart and their customer in Redwater. Additional trucks are brought in as required to support port operations and schedules.
The truck and trailer
Truck: Heavy Haul.
Model: Volvo VNX 630.
Engine: Volvo D16 600hp, Torque 2,050 lbs-ft.
Transmission: Volvo I-Shift.
Tractor: 8X6 (tri drive).
Weight: 119,300kg (gross combination weight).
Length: 41.7m (overall combination).
Fuel: Up to 1,135 litres capacity.
Features: 35K kg differentials. Low-bed ramps and wet kit to handle multiple trailer combinations. Headache rack for back of sleeper protection and chains and boomers. Pilot trucks for over-sized load.
Trailer: 9 Axle Scheuerle ‘Canadian Highway’.
Special trailer features: Extendable deck (18.55m-30.55m); hydraulic suspension; kingpin or remote steerable axles.
Pilot trucks: 7 escort vehicles for night travel.
The transport route between Stewart and Redwater is approximately 1,500 kilometers one way across the two westernmost provinces of Canada, British Columbia and Alberta. The route passes through dense forests, waterfalls, snow covered mountains and glacial lakes on its way to the Alberta prairie.