Around about 1972, I was working for W.B.Trailer in Saskatoon hauling cattle, road construction equipment, and anything else that needed hauling. Asphalt Services was one of the companies that W.B. worked for when a bid came in from the government to send a truck to Cluff lake in the winter to see if a truck could make it. Cluff Lake is 850 km northwest of Saskatoon, and they were building a mine for a new uranium strike found there. The strike was just across Athabasca Lake to the south of Uranium City.
The two trucking companies put their heads together, and they decided that they would use an older tractor with a long wheelbase and try to convince a newer, eager, gullible, driver to go. I fit the job to a T. I was in my middle 20’s and looking for adventure.
The truck was a conventional Western Star day cab from the late ’60s. It had a 220 Cummins with a 10-speed road ranger transmission and rubber block suspension. They took the 5th wheel off and built a deck on the frame to carry the freight of nails, cement bags and windows to build the first shop for the mine site.
There was no road into the site, so they had a Caterpillar bulldoze a trail through the bush by following survey ribbons from Meadow Lake straight north for 300 miles.
Before I left, we put on the extra fuel tanks, and I added an axe, shovel, spare fan belt, extra clothes, tools and $150 worth of groceries. I was also given four bottles of whiskey for the surveyors that were camped there. We changed the engine fan to a two-blade and then installed a belly tarp that ran from the power divider to the front and then up over the radiator to keep the heat in. It was late February, and in northern Saskatchewan, it can drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Of course, there were no cell phones so the deal was for me to stop at 2 pm every day, get out and wave both hands at the twin-engine airplane that would fly over. That way, they would know I was okay, and it made me feel better knowing there would be some contact.
When I headed out, the truck was loaded down and pulling heavy, but there were no scales where I was going. I drove 17 or 18 hours a day, and the complete round trip took a week and a half. I had my GPS (Got Picture Sketches) drawn on a piece of paper. It went like this: Go to Meadow Lake, turn right to Turner Lake. Just before you get there, you will see a road bulldozed off to your left. There should be a survey ribbon on a stick. Turn left, “You can’t miss it.” (Every truck driver has heard that more than once.)
The trip to Meadow Lake was uneventful, cold and clear, but all was well. I found a bulldozed trail, but there was no ribbon. I got out, dug around, and finally found it under a foot of snow. I had a nervous sweat on for the first hour, wondering if it really was the right road. At 2 pm I was out waiting for the plane, and it came 10 minutes late. I would have kissed the ground, but I didn’t want to be found dead with my lips froze to a rock. I waved both hands, and he dipped his wings up and down in recognition as I watched him fly out of site.
There was no radio reception out there, but I did have an 8-track tape. The result being, if anyone is ever foolish enough to ask, I can do a pretty good rendition of Johnny Cash singing, “I walk the line.”
I drove along gently bouncing because there was no grading to the road, and did I mention the rubber block suspension? It was a one-lane winding road with bush piled up on one side. At night I would stop, put the truck in neutral, and set the idle to 900 rpm. Then I would place a piece of plywood over the two seats for a bed.
The GPS also read, “When you get to Douglas River, you will find a caterpillar parked there. Start it up and push trees and rocks into the river to damn it off. Then take the bulldozer back to the south side. You should have about a half-hour to take the Cat back and still get the truck across.” It also said that I would have a small lake to cross later. They said it would be better to cross the lake at night because it is easier to see the opening in the bush on the other side.
I saw plenty of wildlife that had very little fear of me. If I sat very still, they would come right up to me. I hand fed rabbits, chipmunks and some type of ground squirrel that hadn’t hibernated. There were also five Timberwolves that ran alongside the truck, just 10 or 15 feet off the trail, for about a day and a half.
When I got to Douglas River, I was happy to find the machine in the bush right where my primitive G.P.S. said it would be. That was the first time that I had seen a Komatsu bulldozer. It had a Cummins engine, and the controls were somewhat different than a caterpillar, but I managed.
I walked it down to the river, which was frozen but shallow, and only about 75 feet across. Once I pushed the crossing in, I put the “Cat” on the south side and hopped in the truck. As I was slowly making my way across, I could hear water starting to wash through the damn that I had just made.
My next obstacle was Wasekamio lake. I came down the bank, and it seemed solid, so I climbed out onto the ice. Looking out across the lake, I could see the opening in the trees where the trail continued, so I headed for it. I drove very slowly so that I didn’t create a wave under the ice. I have never been a big fan of the polar bear swim. When I got to the middle of the lake, there was a loud cracking sound of the ice shifting, but I was prepared for it because I had met a native Indian fellow who gave me a crash course on how to travel on ice. He told me to expect the crackling, and I was glad that I met him because I had only brought a minimal supply of underwear.
I made it across and up onto the “terra firma” again and carried on to the Cluff Lake camp. When I arrived, I saw three or four shack tents that consisted of 4x8 plywood walls with roofs made of canvas, and nothing else. The four surveyors that were there, laying out the boundaries for the mine and the town, were excited to see me. They were even more excited when I gave them their bottles of whiskey.
We unloaded the truck by hand, putting most of the load in one shack tent, then set the remainder outside in a pile. I stayed in the tent that night with the truck running, parked back behind the shop tent. It was the best sleep I had in a while, as I could finally stretch out.
Before I left the next day, we built sides on the deck and then completely loaded it with empty 100-pound propane tanks. We finally got it all packed in tight, and I was on my way back to Saskatoon by noon. All in all, I didn’t do too bad for a newer, eager and gullible, driver that was looking for a bit of adventure.
I made one more trip into the mine after that, but the next time I led a convoy of three other trucks, and that trip is a story for another day.