• Traffic along the ice road, Inuvik, NWT. (Photo: Richard Hartmier/Canadian Geographic)

When remote northern communities need supplies in the dead of winter, driving over a frozen river or lake is sometimes the only way to deliver the goods. Trucks can haul heavy cargo much cheaper than a plane, and for a few extremely cold months a year, ice roads can add thousands of extra kilometers to the Arctic’s limited network of all-weather highways.

But driving the giant low-temperature-optimized transport trucks across the frozen frontier is a dangerous and lonely job. Despite the lucrative pay–experienced ice road truckers can earn their entire year’s salary in a matter of weeks–the industry has a high turnover rate.

Ice Road Truckers, a popular show on the History Channel, follows a cast of real-life truckers as they ferry payloads and compete for contracts. Here’s a bit of what it’s like to be an ice road trucker.

Nerve-wracking

Unlike on a regular road, going slightly above the speed limit on an ice road can have dire consequences. If a heavy truck goes too fast or stops on the ice, it can cause the ice to crack and break. If the truck falls through (thankfully rare, since the ice roads’ extreme circumstances prompt extreme precautions) the driver would likely die almost instantly.

Lonely

The season may be short, but it’s intensive. For the few months that the ice roads are open, truckers work long, isolating hours to deliver as much cargo as possible. Although rigs will sometimes travel in convoys, drivers spend a lot of time with nothing but their own thoughts.

Cold

Inside the cab may be relatively cozy, but step outside to fix something and a driver can be exposed to -40 degree temperatures, which can freeze exposed skin in five to ten minutes. To deal with the blistering cold, trucks are equipped with everything from extra-resilient rubber tires to sealed brake drums.

Unpredictable

Speaking of weather, in the North it can be extremely changeable. A warming climate could throw a curveball and render an ice road impassable. Or should the wind pick up, a driver could suddenly find themselves in a whiteout.

Enjoyable?

Despite the challenges and the risks, these ice road truckers love their job. Whether it’s the feeling of freedom, or the rush of adrenaline, these hardy drivers are eager to hit the open ice road.

North America’s northernmost ice road, connecting Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, nearing the end of its days. Get the story and see the photo essay in Canadian Geographic’s January/February issue.