I took a short drive through town the other day to pick up a few groceries. I went to put the brakes on but to my surprise, my truck did not respond. Being a northerner, I quickly realized I was slowly gliding along on a sheet of ice. My mind raced back to my earlier training from a northern friend who taught me how to slow down and stop while on ice. I pumped the brakes repeatedly and carefully. The truck slowed down and then stopped.
On my ride back from the store, I slowed my speed and carefully drove along the town streets with the knowledge that every turn and corner was covered in slippery ice. Half my worry was on my own driving and my other concern rested on how well the other drivers on the road were coping with the ice.
As a northerner, I consider it normal this time of year to be driving on roads of ice and snow. Even at slow speed in town a collision can cause serious damage and injury while at highway speeds, an accident can be deadly. The first month of winter is usually the most dangerous. This is a period of the year when ice develops on the highway but there is not much snow coverage.
That means that if you happen to run off the road you will end up on hard ground, rocks or in water. Once there is enough snow coverage and the snow banks on along the road are builtup things become less dangerous. Snow will slow down a vehicle that has gone out of controland many times it will act as a cushion. However, if you lose control on the icy highway and hit an oncoming car or truck then the result is horrible.
I first witnessed winter driving in the south when I was going to high school in Timmins and North Bay. I dreaded going into vehicles of any size because I saw many cars, trucks and buses of all shapes and sizes sliding, slipping and losing control on the roads and highways. I was familiar only with traffic in my home community of Attawapiskat. There were few roads in town and none that led out of the community. Most people got around on snow machines. To drive in the populated south I basically had to relearn how to drive a vehicle from someone who had been doing it for many years.
Up north on the James Bay coast, driving is basically a slow activity compared to the speedy traffic in southern cities and towns. Short gravel roads pitted with pot holes, oversized rocks, loose gravel and fine dust never allows anyone to go very fast on remote First Nations.
The only thing on James Bay that comes close to driving in the south is the winter road. There are places where you can drive close to 100 kilometres an hour on the winter road but it is not recommended. There are no posted curves or bump signs and if you see an upcoming corner, it can either mean a long slow banking stretch of road or an abrupt turn. It is also possible to run into an ice pothole the size of a truck tire and that can throw a speeding vehicle right off the road. There are also many unposted dips, bumps and river crossings with broken ice, gaps and rises along this route. There are people who risk the high speeds but most tend to keep their speed down because of the understanding that if you are stuck in an accident in the middle of nowhere, there is no tow truck service, CAA service or nearby gas station or restaurant to call for help. You are very alone in the middle of the wilderness and usually it is extremely cold.
The most important thing I learned about driving on southern highways in the winter was tosimply keep my speed down. I did this with some reluctance as these long stretches of highway beckoned my heavy foot. Now I realize that one of the fastest and safest ways to get to where I am going on icy roads in Northern Ontario is to slow down.
The second most important thing I learned was not to head out in the first place if the weather is really bad. I mean really is it worth your life to drive down the road in a blizzard? Now I am not saying I am a perfect driver. I have so much to learn. Still, these two tips have certainly been good for me over the years. I am more than happy to remind others that easy does it and think, think, think will get you to where you are going.