Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Winter driving

What was I saying about a boring mail run to Edmonton? The mail may or may not have been boring, UPS just pack the trailer full of boxes and seal it up for us, but the weather made for plenty of fun. I popped the radio on 'scan' as we began the trek north from Toronto to North Bay, to see if I could catch any weather forecasts, the internet search I had remembered to do before leaving was tracking a belt of freezing rain heading west across the Prairies fairly fast. It was entirely possible that it would pass by Western Ontario before we go far enough north to meet it, but no. Every radio station broadcast watches, warnings, school and business closures, bus cancellations and the like. Canadians are pretty hardy about driving through most winter stuff, but everything shuts down for freezing rain. Well, apart from trucking, obviously. Freezing rain is odd stuff, not ice or snow or hail or anything normal. It happens when the weather system high up is warm enough to produce real, wet rain and the ground surface is cold enough to freeze said wetness on impact. Everything gets covered in a layer of the slipperiest ice imaginable, trees, roadsigns, roads, trucks.

I set the demister to very hot, opened a window so I didn't suffocate, made sure the mirror heater was on and proceeded gingerly. Fortunately the roads had been well gritted and stayed relatively ice-free, but regular stops to chisel away the half-centimetre or so thick layer of ice which kept growing on all the lights slowed us up a bit. By the time Neil awoke to take over the next driving shift the entire truck was covered in a layer of ice, which spent the rest of the day falling off in fascinating shapes as the weather warmed up. At least the ice provided evidence that the freezing rain had happened, he is convinced I invent all manner of early-morning weather events to cover up for slowing down a bit when I get tired. But, honestly guv, it is always foggy around Winnipeg at five in the morning.

Wildlife livened up the journey next. I have met my first moose. Just as dawn was breaking, there he stood, stock still, on the grass verge. He appeared to be a cut-out silhouette, of the sort that warn one of moose ahead. I looked at this warning sign with interest, as mostly them are up on poles rather than planted on the ground and I am sort of fascinated by the way such notices vary from province to province (a promising area to ramble in another day). As I watched, it turned to look at me in a lazy sort of way, then kicked up its heels and skittered away into the trees, really quite nimbly for something the size of a moose. Now I've seen how still they stand I understand a little better how easy it would be to hit one if it happened to be in the road, night vision is about movement.

Somewhere between the end of Manitoba and the beginning of Saskatchewan it began to snow properly. We started to receive satellite messages of roads closed and truckstops too iced up to drive into. And it was my turn to sleep. I am getting better at dozing off in a moving truck and have quite taken to the cave-like qualities of the hidey-hole that is our bunk-with-safety-net, so I was drifting off nicely when a very apologetic voice called out my name. We were stuck on the ice in a truck stop and the shovel was under the bunk I was sleeping in. Up I got. We tried using the shovel to break up the ice, we used clever stuff like inter-axle differential locks to get more traction, but the truck was going nowhere. I recalled planning to pop a container of cat litter under the bunk for shovelling under the wheels at a time like this. I also recalled not getting around to bothering. The last thing either of us wanted to do was call for a tow, too embarrassing, so I toddled into the truck stop to do my pathetic-waif-in-the-night-who-shouldn't-be-driving-trucks routine and see if they had any grit or sand about. A charming chap took pity and headed out onto the ice with a wheelbarrow full of sand and a shovel. I went back to bed.

Somewhat later the same night I dreamt the very apologetic voice calling my name again. It went on a bit, and gradually became a real, very apologetic voice calling my name. We were stuck in deep ruts of snow at another truck stop. This one didn't have wheelbarrows of sand. A helpful driver ambled over to assist us with the vital task of standing about looking helpless and discussing how embarrassing it would be to have to call for a tow. "Have you tried chains?" he asked. No we hadn't. What a brilliant idea, we had chains for the drive wheels in case of snowy mountains, we could lay them out in front of the wheels and see if that gave us some traction. But helpful driver had a better idea than that; we would put them on the wheels and half-attach them and this would be better. Neil looked a bit doubtful and I felt a lot doubtful. I had, somewhere in the back of my sleep-befuddled brain, a bit of an issue with doing this but couldn't for the life of me remember what it was. But, it would be impolite to look a gift idea in the mouth, so we sort of helped out handing things to our hero until he declared the wheels chained-ish-enough to have a go at moving the truck.

Neil got in to attempt to get us moving, therefore I got a grandstand view of the moment that the wheels began to spin, and the chains wrapped themselves neatly around the axles between each set of dual wheels. And it was then that I remembered my issue; that bit of the chaining-up lecture. If you don't fit them exactly square on and tighten them the same each side, they have a tendency to fly off and tie themselves around your axle. Hero driver melted into the night.We called for a tow.

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