Winch Tractor

Hythe, Alta. - Trout Lake, B. C.

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I was driving winch tractor for Swanberg Bros. out of their branch in Hythe, Alt.

Swanberg Bros. main work is moving oil derricks, often, mistakenly, called oil wells.

A winch tractor is a tractor with a winch behind the cab. You pull the cable off the winch, run it the length of the trailer, you hook it to a sling around whatever you want to put on the trailer and pull the load up onto the trailer. The back end of the trailer has a curved end or a roller to facilitate this.

When I had left for this trip I had told myself that it would be a good time to quit smoking, there would be no stores to buy any, and no one around when I got owly.

I don't recall where I loaded my truck, it would be a well site out in the middle of nowhere.

I took the load up to head office in Ft. St. John.

I asked payroll for an advance so I could buy something to eat.

They told me there was nowhere along the way to buy anything to eat, I should just get some sandwiches from the cook before I left and the cook shack would be set up by the time I got to my destination.

Probably sounds logical but if you look in the above picture, that's the cook shack, on the back of my rig.

That night we stayed at a motel in Enterprise, a little community at the junction of the MacKenzie highway and that road that goes North to Hay River, NWT.

The next morning, after an early breakfast, I loaded up with chocolate bars and, resisting the urge to buy cigarettes, headed out ahead of the other trucks.

At the intersection, where the MacKenzie highway goes North to Yellowknife I continued West. Many miles later I turned South onto a rig road.

A rig road is worse than a winter road. A winter road only exists in the winter, when the ground is frozen and usually has some form of maintenance. A rig road is a temporary trail that is only to supply a rig.

Usually a bulldozer will drop a blade and push a straight line through trees and snow. They may push the snow back into any holes or they may go back and forth a few times so the weight of their tracks forces the frost further into the ground.

This road had been opened with a huge, rubber tired, tractor with a blade on the front. As it bounced over the rough surface its blade would lift and leave a pile of snow. It never went over it a second time to remove these speed bumps.

There was one straight stretch that I actually got up to sixteen miles an hour. The rest of the trip my speedometer wobbled between five and ten.

Late that night I crossed a river. There was at least a foot of water, on top of the ice, and no moon. I had no idea where the hole(s) were that was allowing the water to come on top of the ice. I had no idea how thick the ice was beneath me.

In my headlights I could see a steep bank ahead of me. I had two choices; drive real fast so that I wouldn't spin out going up the hill, or drive real slow so that I didn't cause a wave in the ice which would break when it hit the shore and leave a hole for me to fall into.

I was not about to get out in a foot of water and put on chains, so I tried for a happy medium between the two speeds and made it over the bank without breaking the ice or spinning out, barely. Once up the other side, the road made a sharp turn and followed the edge of the river. I didn't dare stop because the water in my wheels would freeze and I would never move again.

I continued along at the same slow pace but I rested my foot on the brake. The dash gauge said that both the tractor and the trailer were getting five pounds of application pressure . I knew that this vehicle had the brakes set up and ten pounds of application pressure would bring me to a stop at high speed. At this slow speed five pounds would stop me if I let off the throttle.

I maintained speed and brake pressure to heat up the brakes and keep them from freezing.

After another mile the road turned away from the creek and climbed a long hill. In the dark I had no warning and there wasn't time to speed up and take a run at it and it was too late to back around the corner and take another try at it.

I was halfway up the hill when I spun out. Luckily I had warmed up my brakes and there was no ice in them to prevent them from working Plus they wouldn't freeze on, when I applied them.

Putting on my warm clothes I climbed out of the cab and put a set of chains on each set of tires. That's eight tires and four double chains.

About the time I finished installing the jewellery a truck spun out on the hill behind me. Since I was already chained up we ran a cable between the two trucks and I pulled him over the hill.

At the top we disconnected. He stayed behind to help the truck behind him and I carried on.

About an hour later I reached a cat camp. This was simply a skid shack with sleeping and eating facilities and some supplies for the cat, or bulldozer, operators.

These men were not too happy to see me. The ice bridge they had been building, by piling snow on the river and packing it down, was only just completed and hadn't had time to freeze yet. They had no food to share as the supply plane hadn't come in that day.

The nearest habitation was a few miles away but it was a private lodge where people flew in for fishing. The local natives commercially fish Trout Lake. It is not uncommon to see lake trout that reach fifty pounds.

I told them that the rig push had told me the cook shack would be set up by the time I arrived. They said they hadn't seen the cook shack and that I was the first one to arrive. I told them to look out the window, they would see the cook shack. It was on my trailer.

They told me the rig site was another four miles on the other side of the river but I could unload where I was and they would drag the cook shack back in the next day.

I looked at the spot where they told me to unload and said I didn't think that would hold us. They asked who `us' was. I told them there were two more trucks within a few minutes of me and another forty or so strung out behind.

They suited up and took their bulldozer onto the ice bridge where they waited for me to get stuck in their freshly packed snow and then dragged me, the rest of the way, across the river.

After they released me I made it about two miles before I got stuck in, of all things, mud. About three 0' clock in th morning I gave up waiting for the bulldozers to show up and walked back to the river, past several more trucks that were stuck in the mud, to find that the cat operators had gone to bed for the night.

Climbing onto one of the cats I headed back to my truck. On the way I pushed a couple of other trucks out of the mud. I put a cable on my truck and pulled it through to the unloading site. Tying the cook shack to the bulldozer and removing the chains that held it to my trailer I drove out from under it.

Hooking the cat back to the front of my truck I pulled myself back to the river. Along the way I came up to one of the others trucks that was now empty and, putting the blade against his trailer, I pushed him, while I pulled myself.

While the other trucks opted to stay and sleep I continued on my way. Back across the second river I saw a truck coming and I stopped in the middle of the road so he couldn't get by. Climbing up onto his running board I told him that it was worth his life to tell me he didn't have a cigarette. I hadn't had a puff in over forty-eight hours. Reluctantly the driver gave me one of his few remaining fags.

Getting back in my truck I took the cigarette out of my mouth and put it behind my ear. Two months later I smoked a half of a cigarette while drinking in a bar. The taste nearly made me throw up and I have never touched a cigarette since.

Years later, I actually turned down a good part in a movie because I would have been required to smoke.

From smoking a pack and a half a day I have been a non smoker for over twenty years. The secret is not to remember when you quit and don't count the days. I believe that, if you are counting the days since you quit, you are counting the days until you start again. Another important thing is not to take up another habit in its place, such as; sunflower seeds, toothpicks, etc. And, especially hard is not to allow yourself to eat more than you did before.

Back at the junction of the MacKenzie highway I stopped at a restaurant. Other than for the few chocolate bars I had had it was the first food I had eaten in thirty-six hours.

Later that night the road turned to black ice, a thin sheet of ice that is so clear you can see the pavement beneath it and not realize the ice is there.

Ahead of me I could see police vehicles and trucks stopped on the road. When I got out of the truck I could barely stand up. Two 'B' trains of wood chips were in the ditch. They had been coming down the hill and had slid into the ditch, unable to control their steering on the black ice. I have always said that trains should stay off the road and on the tracks.

There was a tow truck trying to get the truck back on the road but he finally gave up. Even with chains on he couldn't get enough traction to hold himself never mind pull a loaded trailer. They had to wait for bigger equipment.

While the trucks ahead of me were chaining up to try their luck on the hill I moved out around them, slowly gathering speed. Never pushing the throttle enough to break traction I shifted gears as quickly as I could and had my truck going as fast as possible by the time I went past the police cars.

As I climbed the hill I slowly reduced my speed, lowering my gears, until I was moving very slowly near the top of the hill. I made it over with only spinning my tires a couple of times. Each time letting off the throttle as soon as I felt the tires break traction. Of course having an empty trailer helped and the fact that I had Bandag V Grip tires helped a lot too. I have put on a lot of miles in the North country and I have very seldom ever had to put on chains.

Back in town, Dawson Creek, B. C., home was a room in a bunkhouse at the trucking company in Hythe, I rented a motel room, phoned my girlfriend, threw the cigarette in the garbage, climbed into the tub and fell asleep. I had been without sleep for seventy-two hours

When I had been hired the company had given me the oldest truck in the fleet and told me to baby it. The other trucks that had been behind me had stopped to sleep and put down more hours than I did on my time sheet.

Because I hadn't stopped to sleep, and had put down the correct number of working hours, the company said I was speeding and not looking after the truck as I had been told so they fired me. I didn't bother to argue the point.

I have learned long ago that if a company is so single minded that they have made a decision without even asking my side of the story, then I didn't want to work for them in the first place.



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