Driving a vehicle is a luxury I have enjoyed for many years. I learned how to drive on my dad’s old John Deere tractor when I was 13. It was great fun and once I learned how to operate a tractor, it was only a matter of time before I started asking to take out the family truck.
In a remote northern community, there are very few roads to travel on. In all, the road network for my home community, Attawapiskat, stretches about five kilometres, from the sewage lagoon site east of the community to the addictions treatment centre west of town.
Speed was never a big problem as the road network, made out of coarse gravel, slowed everyone down. My brothers and I thought that a speed of 50 kilometres an hour on our bumpy roads was very fast and exciting. Whenever we found an opportunity we went onto the airport runway to see how fast we could make that old truck go. At the time, it was exhilarating to be able to travel at 90 kilometres an hour for a few quick seconds.
When I started my official licensed driving several years ago, I found that I had to relearn how to drive again. Driving on paved highways and city roadways was much different than what I had been accustomed to at home. When I started using the highways, I was surprised to discover that travelling at 90 kilometres an hour was a normal, everyday event. The excitement of rocking the suspension at 90 over bumpy and uneven gravel was not the same as travelling over smooth and level asphalt, however. I found that I even missed the long trail of dust behind my vehicle that always made me feel like I was driving a hot rod at excessive speeds.
Winter driving up north was much the same except that we could expand our driving from the community and access the winter road. This allowed us the opportunity to visit other communities along the coast. We could also access the train system in Moosonee and even put the vehicle on a flat car and go further to Cochrane. From there, we were excited at the possibility of being able to reach the rest of the modern world.
When you are travelling from community to community on the winter road it is better to drive at night. The road surface freezes solid in colder night time temperatures and that makes for easier driving. It is also easier to spot large potholes or huge dips in the road, or even worse, a shifted block of ice that creates dangerous jagged edges on the river crossings. During the day, these dangers are a lot harder to spot due to the fact that the ambient light of the day tends to blend in all the curves and bumps on the white surface of the road. At night, the bright headlights of the vehicle create dark shadows whenever there is an uneven surface up ahead.
The only danger we had with winter driving was the freezing cold. At night, if your vehicle broke down, you were stuck in the middle of nowhere without any help. There is no cell phone service, no gas station or restaurant and very little traffic as there are not that many people along the coast.
At one time I considered the winter road to be a dangerous route for anyone and their vehicle due to the extreme cold. However, I soon discovered another form of dangerous and risky driving soon after I acquired my driver’s license and began scooting around on roads in the south. Summer driving on what I considered to be well-serviced roads had some danger. Even though roads were maintained, there was always the realization that I was travelling 100 kilometres an hour in one direction and traffic was moving in the opposite direction just a mere three feet away. The only thing that separated us from a collision was a painted yellow line on the asphalt.
In the winter time this situation is made even worse. In a bad snow storm, the little yellow line that separates opposing traffic from one another is blurred or disappears entirely. Drivers are left guessing where they should be on the road while at the same time dodging logging trucks, transports and other cars and trucks. Back home on the winter road, the only thing we had to worry about in a storm was getting our vehicle stuck in the accumulating snow.
In cold weather on a northern Ontario highway, the well-paved asphalt roads are covered over in a layer of ice. Drivers still move about at 90 or 100 kilometres an hour, but prolonged driving makes people very nervous and tired. It is terrible to realize that at any moment one’s life can be ended on an icy stretch of road. We take our chances on the fact that an opposing vehicle will stay in their own lane but sometimes that cannot be counted on.
At first I enjoyed driving in the south because of the freedom and excitement of heading off to new places. I still do but I also have the added experience of driving with full attention and the thought that it is never safe to drive on ice and snow at high speeds. I am sure there are many northern Ontarians who can relate some close calls, near misses or actual accidents they have been part of or have seen first hand. After all, winter driving is a normal part of our lives for half the year.
I have learned that the best defensive driving skill is to know when to not be on the road. If there is a bad storm or the roads are very icy you won’t find me out there. I will be sitting at home in a cozy spot reading a book and leaving that challenge to someone else.