What Makes 'Ice Road Truckers' Work?

Ice Road Truckers logo.

What makes Ice Road Truckers—now in its eleventh season on the History Channel—work?

The unforgiving setting in the Alaskan and Canadian backcountry is a big part of the charm. Hitch that to the unique challenges facing the big-rig drivers in this popular reality show and you’ve got a wide load of dramatic potential. And don’t forget those mighty trucks.

But it’s the people behind the wheel that keep bringing viewers back for more.

The onset of winter serves as the go signal for the professionals whose job entails making perilous journeys to deliver essential goods to isolated north continent communities.  When things warm up, those same roads turn to impassable slush.

The drivers on the show are masterful at getting themselves out of some serious FUBAR situations.  When a tie-rod falls off and drags in the ice 200 miles from the home base at Winnipeg, sometimes it’s a matter of duct tape and luck. When a misjudged turn sends a driver into the ditch, the wait for assistance may last hours. To run out of gas is to face a cab quickly descending into subzero temperatures.

How cold is it? Cold enough to freeze the surface of deep lakes solid enough for multi-ton trucks to drive over. One of the most perilous aspects of the job is the ice crossing. If the ice fails badly enough, the truck can sink down to the depths within seconds. The drivers are supplied with ice axes with which to gain purchase on the surrounding ice as they (hopefully) jump clear of the doomed rig.

The new season kicked off with a poignant note due to the offseason death of well-regarded driver Darrell Ward, killed in an airplane crash. Darrell was the archetypal mentor, out there racking up loads for his family back home. He would lay it on the line when things weren’t right, and would drive to the ends of the earth—literally—to help a fellow driver. He will be greatly missed.

Alongside Ward in the start-up trucking outfit meant to compete with big-dog Polar Industries was Lisa Kelly, until recently IRT’s only female driver. A one-woman show since Ward’s passing, Kelly must persevere in a distinctly male-dominated occupation. Bouncing madly over brutal depressions in roads that are starting to thaw, or risking everything on a midnight ice crossing, she establishes herself as a consummate professional who can be relied upon to deliver the goods.

A new female driver, Stephanie Custance, came aboard toward the end of last season and had some problems. An attractive single mother, the young driver seems sincere about wanting to succeed in this rugged game, but in Episode One of the current season she melted down trying to install a set of tire chains that weigh almost as much she does. From her website bio: “Will she be able to hack it on the toughest roads in North America?”