In February, a class of 12 operators were enrolled in a 2-day course of Ice Rescue Training

Ice Road Safety

March 21, 2022 in News People
Explorer: Spring 2022

By Glen Strong

January 15, 2022 marks the 22nd anniversary of the passing of the Late George Fern of Fond du Lac (July 1959 – January 2000). Back in 2000, if you wanted an ice road built in the Athabasca Basin, you went to George Fern. But in January of that year, George went through the ice at Pine Channel with his new loader and did not survive.

The Occupational Health and Safety Manual at the time stated that you needed to check the ice thickness; other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot mentioned about one of the most dangerous occupations there is in the far North: ice road construction and maintenance. Lonona Contracting, which is owned by Athabasca Basin Development and managed by Points Athabasca, implemented numerous safety practices in their safety manual after the tragedy in 2000. Ice thickness is now checked with an ice auger, then followed by a GPR, a sonar device that is sledded across the ice. The ice thickness is recorded and documented, all operators of equipment on ice must wear floatation jackets. There is no working alone on the ice, constant communication is required, and taking a course in Ice Rescue is mandatory for ice road equipment operators.

In February, a class of 12 operators were enrolled in a 2-day course of Ice Rescue Training. “When we are out in the middle of Lake Athabasca in the dead of winter, we want to make sure everyone is safe and has the proper training,” says Dewayne Butterfield, Manager of Lonona. “The communities and projects in the Athabasca need to be resupplied and they depend on us, usually in the worst of conditions.”

Lonona uses local contractors to maintain 400 km of roads in the Athabasca Basin. Of the 400 km of roads, 140 km are ice roads. With years of experience, SAB Contracting, Hailey’s Contracting, P&M Contracting and Curtis Contracting are the local contracted Entrepreneurs that maintain the Roads from Points North to Uranium City. The entire consortium is overseen by Points Athabasca.

“This year we were asked to assist with the clearing and opening of the ice road on Wollaston Lake,” said Butterfield. “I have never been so proud of a group of workers. All local people. It was -50 degrees, and they were out there on the ice, repairing fuel lines, heating the units, all to keep the equipment running. Their dedication to the job and pride in their work is nothing short of admirable. This year the ice roads are about 3 weeks ahead of schedule on Lake Athabasca.”

“The roads are important to all of the communities in the Athabasca Region. They are the gateway to the rest of the world for a lot of people,” said Butterfield. “When Lonona met up with the clearing crew out on Wollaston Lake, who were working toward us, it was a celebration. It felt like we had just opened up a tunnel through a mountain and we were meeting in the middle.”

Ice roads can be dangerous. When travelling on an ice road, pay attention to the posted signage, rules, and speed limits. Wear flotation suits and jackets, carry a screwdriver in your coat pocket in case you go through. You can use the screwdriver to pull yourself out of the water and back onto the ice surface. Check road conditions. Let people know when you are travelling and your expected time of arrival. Stay safe.