IRT: Q&A With An Ice Road Trucking Company

IRT: Q&A With An Ice Road Trucking Company
Photo Credit: VP Express

CDLLife recently had the opportunity to do a Q&A with Vlad Pleskot, the owner of VP Express, a trucking company featured on the History Channel Show Ice Road Truckers.

VP Express is located in Winnipeg, Canada.  The company was established in 2007 by Vlad Pleskot, a long-time driver.

VP Express hauls freight to northern suppliers, construction companies and mining operations in both Northern Manitoba and Northern Ontario.

WHAT ARE THE ICE ROADS?

The ice roads are not actually roads at all. They are passages through swamp and over frozen lakes and rivers that lead to isolated Northern Manitoba communities..

HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH HISTORY AND THE SHOW?

Original Productions is the company that produces the Ice Road Truckers show for the History Channel. They were looking for a trucking company that drove the roads. I had the trucks, drivers, and company. We made the deal and “History” was made.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN INVOLVED WITH IRT?

I have been driving the ice roads since 2005; this was my 9th year driving them. I have been the owner of VP Express since I started it in 2007; this is my 6th year in business.

WHAT TYPE OF TRUCK DO YOU DRIVE?

I have a 2012 Freightliner Coronado that is used in our oilfield operations, but come January it is stripped of its pump/hose system, overhauled and outfitted for the winter roads.

WHAT EXPERIENCE DO YOU NEED TO BE AN ICE ROAD TRUCKER?

Ice Road Truckers are highly experienced mechanically inclined people who possess the ability to think fast and react even faster. First Aid training is a must. You must be able to work independently but think beyond yourself and your situation. Not everyone is cut out for the isolation, long hours and frigid temperatures.

ARE ICE ROAD TRUCKS DIFFERENT FROM HIGHWAY TRUCKS?

Yes. It takes about $10,000.00 to outfit a winter road truck properly for the ice road season. Our ice road trucks are equipped with Webasto engine heaters and cab heaters. They are outfitted with more tools and parts than our regular highway trucks. Emergency First Aid equipment is standard on all the trucks but additional cold weather provisions are added to the ice road fleet. Each truck is outfitted with 2 sets of single and sets of triples, spare alternator, lots of hoses, fittings, oil filters, air filters, starting fluid and tons of tools and emergency equipment. Satellite phones are carried in the most remote areas. Fuel additives are used to prevent the fuel from gelling in the extreme cold as well as synthetic oil is used to reduce the thickening of engine lubricant. Drivers carry additional water and high energy food provisions, which are restocked after every trip.

WHEN DOES THE WINTER ROADS START – END?

IRT: Q&A With An Ice Road Trucking Company
Photo Credit: VP Express

The winter road season is contingent on the weather. Generally it begins mid-January to the end of March. We have seen the season last as short as 6 weeks and less in certain areas.

HOW MANY TRUCKS DO YOU HAVE ON THE WINTER ROADS?

Generally we have 15-20 trucks in our winter road fleet.

WHAT TYPE OF FREIGHT DOES YOUR COMPANY HAUL?

Our freight varies from load to load depending on the needs of those communities we are shipping to. It can be anything from household appliances and furniture, to building materials and actual buildings.

WHAT IS THE LARGEST FREIGHT YOU HAVE HAULED UP THE ICE ROADS?

A modular unit used as an airport. 75 feet long x 16 feet wide x 16 feet high.

IRT Q&A
PHOTO CREDIT: VP Express

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A GOOD ICE ROAD DRIVER?

Someone with good mechanical ability, driving skill, independent thinking great work ethic and of course a “get it done” attitude. There is no room out there for speed demons and cowboys. A driver needs to take care of himself, his truck and his load. Responsibility falls on each driver.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR DRIVERS WHO WANT TO GET INTO ICE ROAD TRUCKING?

It’s not for everyone. If you’re in it for the “dash for the cash” you’ll fail. The hours are long, the roads are incredibly rough and the wear and tear on your vehicle can put you out of business before you can complete one trip. You need to be an experienced driver, someone who can diagnose and fix your truck quickly with limited resources and dedicated to getting the job done. Being able to think for yourself and make split second decisions will increase your chances of being a successful Ice Road Trucker. Anything less makes you a liability to not only yourself and the company you work for but also the other drivers on the winter roads.

DO YOU HIRE THE DRIVERS FOR THE SHOW?

No. Original Productions is hired by the History Channel to produce the show. The drivers are hired by OP. We actually don’t know who will be coming to drive our trucks until about a week before they arrive. We receive all the driver credentials then. It is still mandatory that they possess all necessary licensing and follow our company’s strict safety policies.

DOES IRT GET INVOLVED IN LOAD PLANNING OR DOES YOUR DISPATCH SET UP THE LOADS?

Production requires us to have a set number of loads secured for them to film. We are still a trucking company which means that loads have to be delivered on time, so our dispatcher sets up the loads, but production has the option to film that load and use its driver for that delivery. Obviously it makes for better viewing if the crew can film different roads, ice crossings and communities. We try to accommodate them as much as possible yet still maintain our delivery schedule and standards.

WHAT DO YOUR OTHER DRIVERS/EMPLOYEES THINK OF THE SHOW?

I think that would be something you would have to ask them. I do see how it frustrates some of our regular winter road drivers. These guys drive these roads year after year, then in come these show drivers, without any knowledge or experience, and our drivers feel …..Why are they filming them and not the “real” drivers who do this every year? It can also be an inconvenience at times especially when you have to repeat something you’ve done or said so that the cameraman can film it. We are all just regular people, doing our regular jobs. We’re lucky; we had a good film crew this season that makes things a lot easier.

HOW COLD DOES IT GET UP THERE?

Temperatures can reach -50 degrees Celsius. Add the wind-chill and temperatures plummet to -70 degrees Celsius.

WHAT DOES A REGULAR DAY OF ICE ROAD TRUCKING LOOK LIKE?

The day starts as any other day of a professional driver. You get your load assignment usually the day before. You come to work and check your truck, trailer, and load – perform an extended pre-trip inspection where you check and double check and triple check every bolt, every connection, and every liquid on your unit. After that, you get your paperwork from the dispatcher with very precise trip and delivery information and maps. We deliver to over 100 different destinations and every trip is unique. Because we run under HOS regulations as any trucking company with a few exceptions in the length of daily driving hours, you need to know exactly where your stops will be(there are no truck stops, only wider road sections to pull over), where you will take on fuel before you get into the bush (there are no fuel stations up north), who are you running with, when is the delivery appointment scheduled for, who will you meet on the other end and what to do when things go south. Differences mostly consist of keeping an eagle eye on your equipment and focusing on what you are doing every single second you are sitting behind the wheel. If something brakes or you make a mistake and spin out or put the truck in a ditch, you need to have knowledge, tools and ability to solve the problem on your own. No tow truck, no mobile mechanic will go there. If the truck brakes beyond the immediate repair it means you are sleeping in -50 degree weather with no heat or walking home with just the wolves to keep you company. Our company is run with the highest of standards, work ethic, service and knowledge and we expect nothing less from our drivers. And for that they can expect higher paychecks going into their bank accounts.

HOW MANY LOADS DO YOU DELIVER EACH SEASON?

300-500 loads and up. Depending on the needs of the Northern Communities.

WHERE DO YOU TRAVEL TO?

Last year we delivered many of our loads to the Wasagamack First Nations, Garden Hill First Nations and our farthest deliveries took our teams to Tudoule Lake.

IS THERE CELL PHONE SERVICE/GPS UP THERE?

There is no cell service in the northern communities. Satellite phones are used by our drivers in the remotest communities. You are extremely isolated. Contact is lost when on the roads. Our drivers check in when they can and we judge by that when they should arrive at their destination. They can check in again when they arrive, by landline when possible. We make ourselves available 24/7 to our drivers during the winter road season. Safety is a top priority, it has to be.

DOES THE ICE REALLY CRACK…CAN YOU HEAR IT?

Yes. The ice really does crack. You can see it moving and you can hear it. First time I went on the ice I was really scared. I felt my heart rate escalate…go sky high. I lost sense of time and place. It felt like I was crawling over that lake for hours even though in reality it was just minutes. Every driver feels the same for the first time. It’s just not natural to drive a heavy steel truck over the lake. When you see the cottages on the shore and you are in the middle of the lake you know…I shouldn’t be here!

DO PEOPLE REALLY FALL THROUGH THE ICE…OR IS THAT JUST FOR TV DRAMA?

IRT Q&A
Photo Credit: VP Express

The winter roads can be deadly, that is reality. Tragic accidents happen every year.  If the ice doesn’t get you then the extreme temperatures will.

HAVE YOU HAD ANY CLOSE CALLS ON THE ICE ROADS?

Yes. Every ice road trucker will have stories of close calls. It’s the nature of the beast. I remember one season I got a phone call from a company that needed 15 units to deliver material for a water treatment plant. It was the end of the season, roads were closing by the hour but without that material, those communities would be without a treatment plant for an entire year. There was little frost left in the bush, ice on the lakes and rivers was getting too thin to safely support the weight of a truck. There was the very real possibility that we would not make it back out once we started. I got loaded and headed out. The surreal part is that I had to be transported by barge across a thawing lake to reach the winter road. To cut to the chase…after two days of traveling I delivered my load and without stopping to sleep I turned my rig around and headed back. I knew I only had a few hours left to get out of the bush before the road became impassable and the river ice crossings melted away. I was the only one left on the road. The other units were already too late to get their vehicles out. No truck, No income. Even if you are able to retrieve your truck the following winter season, many find there isn’t much left to salvage or it is buried in the “swamp graveyard.” It became impossible to steer, I knew I had a flat steer tire but if I didn’t keep moving my truck would get stuck in the soft greasy deep mud. It was +10 degrees Celsius and the river crossings were melting fast. I was alone; I had no way to jack up the truck in the sinking mud. I couldn’t continue to keep the truck moving straight on the now vanishing road. I had to stop. I started packing up my possessions, cell phone (which is now useless), wallet, computer, some clothing, food and water. I would be in the bush for at least a week. But I just couldn’t leave my truck, my lively hood, my life. I was desperate. And desperation calls for desperate measures. I got a wooden branch and slammed it into the hole in the tire. I pumped up the tire to 80psi and it held. I got back in the truck and got it moving. I had to stop every 30 minutes to fill my tire but after 13 hours I made it to pavement. I still had 800 miles to go before I made it home but at least now I could jack up the truck and change the tire. Out of 15 units only 5 made it back.

 HOW MUCH CAN A DRIVER MAKE DURING THE SEASON?

The drivers are generally paid depending on the load, the remoteness of the community and the terrain they will have to travel to deliver that load. The weather is also another huge factor in the paycheck. Winter Roads don’t all open on a specific time or day. It depends on Mother Nature how soon they open and how long they remain passable. In a really good season, when all the planets align, a driver can make a year’s salary in a winter road season.

WHAT ARE YOUR COMPANY’S SPECIFIC HIRING QUALIFICATIONS?


We prefer drivers with a minimum of 5 years trucking experience with clean drivers abstracts. That experience must include hauling all types of freight (vans, decks, reefers, over sized and Hazmat). Experience in harsh environments with good problem solving skills, more than basic mechanical abilities and an absolute essential skill is strong common sense! We cannot emphasize that enough. We tend to lean towards hiring those with military backgrounds since they have been specifically trained in self preservation and tend to have advanced levels of determination to complete the tasks given to them.

HAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH IRT BEEN A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE?

It has been both a bitter and a sweet experience to be involved in the show. It has opened many doors for VP Express. It has helped us obtain new contracts and has put the company “on the map” promotions wise. But it’s not all peaches and cream. It can be frustrating at times and detrimental to the company image when production edits events to attract the viewers. What you see on the show happens, but not in the way it’s edited. You may see a truck break down all the time when in reality it was one incident, cut and edited to make it seem like the truck is a “lemon” or the driver is incompetent. Simple situations that happen to every winter road driver are edited to become larger than life. This can be tough to swallow for a company such as VP Express who prides itself on its high standards for safety and maintenance.

ARE YOU (THE COMPANY) PAID BY IRT, WHO PAYS THE DRIVERS?

The production company pays us a location fee to use our facilities and trucks. All the show drivers are paid by production.

ARE SITUATIONS “SCRIPTED”?

The show drivers work for the show and are encouraged to play out the “story line” production has set for the season. Editing is a large part of the show. Film clips are edited to maintain the theme of that season. A show driver forgets to put in anti-gel in his fuel and his truck loses power. He shuts it down and it won’t restart. This simple driver issue will likely be edited to form multiple scenes. You, the viewer will never know the cause of the issue….you’ll be led to believe it was a faulty alternator, or wiring, or another issue related to the company’s maintenance….which puts the driver in a perilous situation, in a frigid, isolated environment…so scripted, to an extent. Do issues really happen?  Yes….just not the way they are edited and viewed by the fans.

WHAT DO YOU DO DURING THE SUMMER?

Our units are leased out with a driver to the oil fields in Saskatchewan and Alberta. We also have a fully accredited mechanical shop which keeps us busy through all four seasons.

WHY DO YOU DO IT?

Once you do it you’re drawn to it year after year. You feel the energy of it start to build when the temperature starts to drop in the fall. There is a lot of anxiety right before the season starts, waiting for the “go” that the roads are open. But once you begin hauling you see the need these communities have for the goods you are carrying and it drives you to transport as many loads as you possibly can. It’s part of you, it’s in your blood, it’s who you are…you are an Ice Road Trucker.

Questions By:  Kimberley Wilkie, VP Express Office Manager and all-around do-it-all lady, and Sadie Clement of CDLLife

Check back with CDLLife for the next part of our IRT series: “Ice Road Trucker” Ruined My Life: A Former IRT Driver’s Story 

Special thanks to Kimberley Wilkie for her help!