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A change of pace Down Under for ice road truckie

It hasn’t always been an easy ride for former ice road truckie Randy Bye, who made the move from Canada to Australia in 2013 – but he’s glad he did.

The third-generation trucking veteran had spent over 25 years behind the wheel, before giving up truck driving five years ago. 

Randy Bye with his wife Joanne.

“It’s been quite a journey alright; one I don’t regret. I love it here in Australia,” said 47-year-old Bye, who now calls Strath Creek in Central Victoria home.

His grandfather Donald Bye was a truckie, as was Bye’s grandmother, though she passed away before he was born. His father Ronnie was a truck driver too. 

Donald was originally from North Dakota in the US. In 1948, he moved to British Columbia, Canada, when Ronnie was two years old. 

With him, he brought a 1946 International, which he’d purchased from the company he was working for at the time. It had a fleet of 26 of these trucks. After his passing, the truck was sold to one of Ronnie’s mates and restored.

“Dad drove trucks and ran equipment all his life. I was with him all the time on summer break. My first time behind the wheel was when I was eight, sitting on his lap. I was 13 when he taught me how to shift gears. He was my idol.”

Sadly, Ronnie passed away from cancer almost 10 years ago, at the age of 62. And that was the catalyst for Bye’s move to Australia. “After he died, I packed up and left. I moved to Wagga Wagga for a girl but that didn’t work out,” he said.

Bye began his truck career quite early. “The rules are a little different in Canada. You can get your rigid licence at 16, so that’s when I started carting water in a rigid. Then you can get your Class 3 (the equivalent of an MC) when you’re 18, so I got that pretty early.”

This is his father’s old truck, which he learned to drive in from the age of eight.

First it was hauling gravel and then by 19, he was doing off-highway log hauling. “In Canada, the logs are too big to go on the highway. In British Columbia there are 660,000 kilometres of bush road, which is what we use to get to the mills.”

He did that until the age of 27, when he moved to Fort St John in north-eastern British Columbia and got a job with a pipeline company hauling equipment for 10 years, then moved on to moving oil rigs – which he did for the next five years.

Bye says the oil rigs are like a LEGO structure – every piece has to go back on in the same way it came down. Generally, it would take between 30-50 trucks to move all the pieces for one oil rig. 

“The trucks have 50 tonne winches behind the sleeper, and that’s how we pick up pieces of the oil rigs. We don’t get loaded by someone else, we do it ourselves. You string the winch line back to the end of the trailer and sling the pieces on. It’s all carefully orchestrated to put it back together from bottom to top as these are tight areas for so many trucks.”

For six months of the year, roads are covered in ice and snow.

Bye got his first taste of ice road trucking when moving to Fort Saint John, “The first time I went out on the ice roads I was so scared that I kept my door open in case I needed to jump out. I was about 29 and I had someone ahead of me,” he said.

“Even though the river is frozen, it still moves underneath. It’s quite scary on the river because the ice moves. When you get 10-20 metres from the road, there are holes dug out of the ice, so the water can come up out of the hole for stress relief, because of the weight. You can’t go more than 5-10km/h. You can hear that cracking sound and it’s blood curdling. You can hear it over the noise of the engine and the heater blaring. No matter how many times I went over the river crossings, it didn’t become less frightening.”

Interestingly, Bye says not all ice roads are naturally formed – they’re mostly manmade. He explained, “A lot of the bush roads in Fort St John are swampy. So they come along with trucks with low ground pressure, almost like skidder tyres, and tanks of water and they’ll pour water on the road for days. They’ll do this as winter hits, in late October. They want the ground to freeze before it snows too much otherwise snow acts as a blanket and takes much longer to freeze. If we get a cold snap of -15 to -20°C, it will freeze. They’ll get it to a point where they can get a machine on it and start pouring water down. At 27 inches thick, it will hold over 75,000kg. Once it’s safe enough to put trucks on, a D6 Cat will come in and plough the road. That guy in the Cat has the most dangerous job out there, he’s the tester! They make sure the top hatch is functional to get out in case they sink, and they do that every year. There is much more to it, but that’s just in a nutshell. That’s how they build ice roads in the bush.”

While ice road trucking and outback trucking are at two very different ends of the extreme, there are some things they have in common. “In the outback it’s full-on heat and in Canada and the Yukon it’s as cold as -50°C to -70°C. But either way, if you break down, it’s you that has to get yourself out of it and you alone,” Bye said. 

The trucks were equipped with propane gas bottles with torches, in case you break down and need to defrost something.

“When you’re doing the ice roads, you need to carry everything. All of the trucks have propane gas bottles with torches, in case you break down and need to defrost something. We don’t carry spare tyres, we just chain the axle up and away you go. They won’t send you out there unless they’re confident that you know your stuff.”

And if travelling through in winter sounds tough; spring and autumn are no better. “During autumn you drive through mud during the day and then it freezes at night. It’s brutal. We use wooden mats to drive on which keeps your truck up and out of the mud. The transition from winter to spring is very muddy, and full-on mud from May to June, then we have a month off as we have road bans in the bush because of the soft roads.”

When Bye first arrived in Australia, he recalls getting on the plane while it was -24°C and then stepping off in Sydney where it was a sunny 27°C. “I couldn’t believe it snowed here. I expected deserts and crocodiles – I was a bit ignorant when I first arrived.” 

He quickly found work doing general freight into supermarkets, then carried gravel and excavators for another company. 

It was while in Wagga Wagga that he met his future wife Joanne. She was from the Victorian town of Nagambie and was there to do a nursing course. “I would drive for three hours to Nagambie each Friday night to see her,” said Bye, who had to jump through many hoops to get a permanent visa to stay here.

“I was getting close to the end of my visitor visa when they finally approved it. It was a hell of a ride – but it’s been worth it. Joanne and I have been married for seven years now and I get my citizenship this year.”

Bye originally came here with the intention of continuing as a truck driver, however, he said, “I gave up driving because I didn’t want to be away from home anymore basically. I wanted to be back home every night with my wife and two step-daughters, so that’s why I gave it up in the end.”

Nowadays, Bye runs his own polishing business called Custom Care Metal Polishing based in Seymour, Victoria.

“It’s a way better lifestyle here in Australia. It’s family first and then work. Over there it’s work first or else you don’t have a job. There were times I was in the middle of a lake fishing and then they’d call you to work, and you’d have to go. It’s nice to have a family lifestyle, and this business has been good to me too.”

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