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Francois Rossouw
Mark Rendell

So You've Driven Your Truck Through the Ice...

It's been a banner winter for vehicles plunging through ice. Here's what to do if it happens to you

So you’ve driven your truck through the ice. Congratulations! You’ve just joined a select club of Yellowknifers whose forays on local lakes ended with an all-too-real sinking feeling.

We know, we know, the ice was meant to be more than thick enough. It’s only mid-April or early May, right? But yet, here you are: standing next to a truck-shaped hole or a thoroughly ice-ensconced car making awkward phone calls to towing companies and dodging pesky journalists jonesing for the next big truck-through-the-ice hit (sunken truck stories, let’s be honest, are the news equivalent of crack for us Northern media folks. If a lynx or other adorable mammal happened to be at the wheel, we’d die billionaires).

So, what do you do next?

After a warmer winter than usual and several trucks having already taken the dip, EDGE decided to find out what do and what to expect as we head into prime truck-plunging season. One thing is for sure, brace yourself for some serious ribbing from your buddies.

Don’t go through

Let’s start with the best advice: don’t go on the ice super late or early in season. It’s pretty simple really. As the NWT’s most famous trucker Alex Debogorski told EDGE: “I’d rather deliver a baby on the side of the road than have my truck go through the ice.”

Oh wait, you’re already out there. And, with a crunching, slushy sound, your back wheels have just broken through the ice.

Don’t Panic

“When the truck goes through, it’s usually not like a rock sinking to the bottom. Most of the time it doesn’t go through or takes some time,” says Adam Woogh, the NWT and Nunavut regional manager of Arctic Response Canada.

The first thing you want to do is open your door or crack a window, Woogh advises. Otherwise, if the vehicle starts sinking quickly you could end up with a pressure seal that makes it tough to get out. After that, don’t go rummaging around in the backseat for your half-eaten bag of Doritos. Get out quick.

As Garth Wallbridge, who drove a truck through the ice on Pontoon Lake back in the late ‘90s, puts it: “Superheroes probably don’t move that fast, I was out of there like warp speed.”

Do like Garth.

If you must go out on late-season ice, Woogh recommends placing a bag with some extra cloths, a fire starter and your cell phone in an easily accessible place like the passenger’s seat.

Oh no! You’re in the water

It’s unlikely that you’ll get that wet; usually, you can scramble out onto relatively solid ice before the truck goes into submarine mode. But if you do end up in the water, don’t immediately try swimming any distance.

“What will happen, is you’ll go into cold shock and be hyperventilating for one to three minutes. But that will pass,” says Woogh. Get your breathing under control first, or you could end up swallowing water while trying to swim.

Once you’ve got to the edge of the ice, don’t try a vertical, swimming pool-like exit. Woogh recommends letting your body float horizontally to the surface and then inching onto the ice to disperse your weight.

When you’re out of the water, it’s essential to wring out your clothes, although whether you put them back on or not depends on the weather. If it’s sunny and relatively warm you may want to hang out in your birthday suit. Otherwise, you can put your wrung-out clothes back on and start moving. “Movement generates body heat, which can warm up the layer of water in your clothes,” says Woogh. Naked or clothed, don’t stop moving. And certainly don’t sit down in a huddle.

Who to call

You have the immediate survival stuff under control. Now you might want to place some markers around the hole so a passing snowmobiler doesn’t end up swimming. Then it’s time to make some calls.

Debogorski recommends against calling the government: “if you end up with the government looking at it and poking around, things will take forever.” But a quick call to the department of Environment and Natural Resources’ 24-hour Spill Report Line at 867-920-8130 is definitely the thing to do: “Collect calls will be accepted.” Giving the Department of Fisheries and Oceans a shout also wouldn’t go amiss.  

There are a number of companies in town with expertise in truck recovery; Longtime truck rescue wizard Garth Eggenberger recommended Age Automotives or DJ’s Towing. If you’ve sunk an 18-wheeler, you might want to call RTL or Nuna Logistics, who have heavy-lifting equipment.

How to get it out

We’ll leave that one up to the experts. Recoveries usually require very specific tools like floating bags, tilting-bed tow trucks and even scuba equipment. It’s probably a bad idea to call up your buddy with a snorkel and try to jury-rig some lifting contraption.

How much is it going to cost you?

When Eggenberger was in the truck rescue business five years ago, the operation could set you back $5000 to $10,000. It’s probably more now.

Sometimes the operation is covered by insurance, as was the case with Wallbridge. But as Rosa Thomson, an insurance broker at Calgary’s Dejong’s Insurance, told EDGE when a truck went into Pontoon Lake last May: “It depends on the coverage they have… I would think that the insurance company would cover it, possibly under collision. I may be wrong. Different companies have different ways of covering people and it depends on the circumstances.”

Expect some serious ribbing

So, you managed to get the truck out. Congratulations! But this is not the end of it. Cue a never-ending stream of jokes from your friends.

“I still hear about it a couple of times a year,” says Wallbridge, with a laugh. “That’s going on my tombstone.”

“I got a lot of ribbing,” he adds. “And as a proud Aboriginal person who spent lot of time on the land – I even travelled across Hudson Bay with a dog team – it was even funnier.”

At a Rotary Club meeting later that year he was presented with a fishbowl with a little Tonka truck sitting at the bottom: “The Garth Wallbridge Traditional Knowledge Award.”

All joking aside, Wallbridge did reiterate how dangerous and unpredictable the ice can be. He’d done a number of ice thickness tests on Pontoon Lake by his cabin, all of which seemed to show the ice was thick enough. Alas.

“I like one of the expressions I’ve heard the City use,” he says. “The only safe ice is in your Coca Cola.”