Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yellowknife Arctic Highway

How different our lives would have been had I accepted the job in Glenallen, Alaska in 1980. My children were ten and eleven years of age. Phil Armstrong, a well known Christian missions executive with Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (later called SEND), stayed in our home to talk to me about taking a job that would have offered me a pastoral position, a teaching role in a Bible School and an on air voice in a radio station. It sounded like a compelling opportunity. Christine and I prayed and considered it and turned it down. We were drawn to Phil, an endearing, good man and were shocked to hear in 1981 that he was one of five people who died in a plan crash in Alaska. That tiny anecdote is why this story of the ruggedness of the north and its people struck a cord with me.

With 87% of the road lying over frozen lakes, the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road in Canada's Northwest Territories is one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Driven by long haul drivers who risk their lives with each trip, eighteen wheelers transport supplies to remote mining facilities only 500 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. Because of the long hours behind the wheel and the danger factor, drivers can earn a year’s salary in eight weeks. They make $2000 per trip of approximately 600 kilometres. A one-way trip to Lupin mine takes about 20 hours and truckers driving this road often forgo seatbelts because they want to use the available seconds to jump clear if the surface gives way. Through stiff winds, occasional blizzards and almost constant darkness they move their heavy rigs across frozen lakes on a highway constructed completely of ice during two months of the year when the ice is strong enough to support loads that weigh 20 tons. At an estimated cost of $10 million, the road is constructed annually in January and becomes operational in early February. The road is a joint venture of Echo Bay Mines Ltd., BHP Billiton, and Diavik Diamond Mines Inc.and DeBeers Canada Mining Inc. These mines are working the rich deposits of diamond-bearing kimberlite which has made Canada the world's third largest producer by value (after Botswana and Russia).The 10,000 loads of supplies and equipment collectively hauled by all trucks makes the construction cost easily worthwhile. Annually 300,000 tons of fuel, explosives, steel and concrete is hauled over the ice to operate the mines. During the 67 days of operation, four trucks drive onto the road every 20 minutes due to the delicacy of the ice. This equals a maximum of 288 trucks in one day, as the trucks run 24 hours a day for efficiency. In recent winters global warming has affected the road making the ice thinner. Two years ago Canada experienced its warmest winter on record, and the Northwest Territories felt the biggest temperature anomaly in the country, with winter 7.4 C above average. Trucking didn’t begin until March, stranding scores of trucks loaded and idle in Yellowknife.

Where would my children be? What would they have become? How long would we have stayed in the north? Could we ever have seen it as home? Crikey! Sarah Palin would be my governor?

The last two photos above of the Diavik mine reveal it connected to land by ice in the winter, and then as the island it is once again in the summer.

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