Cover story: Alex Debogorski—Part 1

By: Vivienne Haldane, Photography by: Supplied


IMG 6192 Alex at the Richard Crane Memorial Truck Show in St Ignace, Michigan IMG 6192
IMG 1066 Children who come to see Alex at truck shows get special attention IMG 1066
IMG 1070 IMG 1070
IMG 1105 An outhouse at Alex’s mine claim in Wells in British Columbia gets a shove from the John Deere 350 IMG 1105
IMG 1122 Angel the dog keeps an eye on proceedings IMG 1122
IMG 1153 Alex is a popular speaker and draws in the crowds IMG 1153
IMG 1330 Alex and Angel in Likely, British Columbia IMG 1330
IMG 1351 Chatting to the EROAD marketing manager at the American Truck Historical Society event IMG 1351
IMG 1504 Alex Debogorski: friend of many, star storyteller IMG 1504
IMG 6190 Friends Linda and Terry Biddle who run the Big Rigs Truck Show in Wisconsin IMG 6190
IMG 6245 Mackinaw Island, Michigan is an historical location with no traffic but this old gun carriage appealed to Alex IMG 6245

Part one of Deals on Wheels' exclusive interview with Alex Debogorski from the famous Ice Road Trucker television series

Alex is the big, burly truck driver with the deep chuckle, who never seems to get too fussed and takes each challenge as it arrives. He’s not one for having a hissy fit or throwing his tools in the air and walking off in a huff. Alex comes across as a wise old owl. So, what is he like in real life?

I catch up with him by phone (he doesn’t do Skype or Zoom) just after he’s returned from a 1600-kilometre drive from Yellowknife to Edmonton in his Dodge Dually towing a 12-metre trailer. He went to pick up parts he needed for a building he’s restoring.

Over the next hour and a half, Alex talks about a wide range of topics, from growing up in Berwyn, Alberta, his Polish family in war-torn Europe, his views on the COVID-19 crisis, behind-the-scene snippets of the Ice Road Truckers (IRT) and IRT: Deadliest Roads, his family, and his 40-year old machinery collection.

Alt TEXT HERE
Alex with his manager Diane Gibson and George Tuccaro, commissioner for Northwest Territories, Canada

His manager Diane Gibson tells me, "Alex’s views on life are not your average; he’s quite the philosopher. He’ll happily answer questions about anything and is very broadminded. He still goes to events such as truck and tradeshows and does many interviews.

When we go to these events, he’s great with his fans and always makes sure he stays until he’s signed autographs and the last fan has a photo with him." As Alex says, "How many times do you get the chance to make someone’s day just by standing and having a photo taken?

I say, go ahead. I don’t mind; it doesn’t matter to me. I’m just waiting for the coffin to get built." The latter is a favourite saying of his, and after he’s said it, that big laugh fills the airwaves.

Life in Yellowknife

Alt TEXT HERE
Alex drove his 1972 Cadillac on a road trip through Canada

Alex lives in Yellowknife in Canada’s north-western territories. It’s a city located on Great Slave Lake, with a population of around 20,000. He’s been married to Louise for 47 years and has 11 children and 20 grandchildren. Tragically, their son Andrew died in a house fire in 2019.

Alex has worked on the ice roads for 30 years and continues to do so during the winter months of February and March when the lakes freeze over. It’s from Yellowknife that Alex heads out on the ice roads carrying all kinds of loads, from pipes, groceries, and steel to huge excavators and buildings.

A typical journey might be Yellowknife to Ekati Dominion Diamond Mine, which is about 400km away. The loaded trucks travel at a speed of 25km/h and going well, they’ll reach their destination in 16 hours.

The trucks also deliver to First Nation villages and communities that are cut off in the summer by the lakes. Alex ran for mayor of Yellowknife in 1994 and in trademark style, he had a unique campaign, using scrapped car doors and car bonnets for his campaign signs.

Early beginnings

Alt TEXT HERE
When he’s not driving, Alex is a keen gold prospector

Alex was 19 and studying at university when fate intervened. He had been dating his childhood sweetheart Louise since he was 16 and a little Debogorski (daughter Shielo) came along. Needing to earn a living, young Alex turned to truck driving. But that’s only one of his many jobs.

He’s been a bar bouncer, taxi driver, oil rigger, coal miner, machinery contractor, gold and diamond prospector, union organiser, a lay minister doing volunteer work in prisons, and has bought and sold mobile homes. He purchased his first truck in 1980.

"When I first got on the trucks, a man was killed every six months. It didn’t bother us; that’s the way it was. When we guys were young, we spent most of our time trying to kill ourselves. Health and safety in those days was nil.

"About three years ago, I ran into a guy, and he said, ‘I am the guy that hired you up on the mountain in 1972. We had a pot in the office, we used to put money in it, and every month we used to bet on who would die; the correct person would win the pot of money.

You cost me a lot of money. I always bet you would be the next guy to die and you never did.’ I had a broken leg and a bunch of other problems and went to the hospital, but I survived. So, he didn’t make his money," laughs Alex.

"One time, after I got laid off from the coalmine, I worked during the day and at night. I drove a CAT excavator in the daytime, a taxi, and was a bouncer in a bar. Patrons would come in and have a go at me. I had a couple of concussions; I broke both ankles and legs.

I’ve always worked long hours at many jobs, and as a result took lots of risks, so lots of things happened. I turned cars upside down, got hit by a freight train. I tried to push things to the limit. Most of the guys that did stuff that I did are dead now. I reckon I’ve got more than one guardian angel looking over me."

The reality television series

The Ice Road Truckers lasted for 11 years and finished in 2016 but reruns and original shows are still on in more than 200 countries. When the makers from Los Angeles came looking for characters for their proposed series, Alex’s name kept cropping up.

"I had my own contracting company in Yellowknife. The TV people approached them to make the Ice Road Trucker series, and they went looking for characters who would make for good television. Because I was stuck out on a barge for four days on in a massive storm on Slave Lake, I was the last person they interviewed. Then they decided to go with the show. I was with it for 11 years."

Camera crew

When asked if it was annoying to have a camera crew around and did they get in the way of doing his job, Alex says, "Only when they wanted to take a picture of me naked."
Really?

"Well, how do you think I bath? I roll around in the snow, and get rid of the fleas, smack myself on the buttocks, put my pants back on and get in the truck." I think he’s pulling my leg.

There were lots of footage the audience never saw on the series he says. "Such as when police chased us, or First Nation people kicked us off reserves, or political stuff happened. I don’t think we killed anybody, but we sure put a bunch of the film crew in hospital.

"One of the film crew tried to back into me and smashed his Suburban. We were on the Dempster Highway and snow was falling, and he tried to pass. I told him to go ahead and pass. He was on the same side as me, and the closer he got, the less he could see. He went into the back of me and wrecked his Suburban."

In his book, King of the Road, Alex says, "Having cameras in the truck and a camera crew following me turned out to be a lot of work. First, I lost my privacy. As a truck driver, I enjoy my own company immensely.

I am the funniest guy I know, and the discussions I have with myself are both entertaining and mentally challenging, plus I rarely argue. With cameras present, I often found myself wishing for some time alone."

Winter-proofing

Alex is currently driving a 387 Peterbilt on the winter road having replaced his Kenworth after it got burned in a garage fire. He’s not fussed about what truck brand he drives as long as it’s well built and has plenty of room.

"I’m 6’ 3" (1.9m), and when I am all bulked up in winter gear, you need room to move and be able to stand up. "I’ll drive an International or a Kenworth; it doesn’t matter to me. You need a good heater and headlights to see where you’re going in the dark and diff locks that work so you get some traction, and that’s it. At 20–40 below on the ice, you’ve got good traction.

Within 10 degrees of freezing, that’s when you get poor traction." The extreme weather means many precautions are made and are standard practice for the truck drivers of the region.

Alt TEXT HERE
Chaining up along the ice road

"You need chains for climbing hills or for trying to get out of the ditch. Sometimes you get a slippery load or you can’t move and you don’t want to call a ranger, so you put chains on just to get yourself moving.

"We put belly tarps on when driving in winter to keep the wind off the bonnet or machine. We tie it [underneath] from the front bumper to the end of the transmission to keep in the warmth of the engine. It also catches any oil leaks. We have a cover over the radiator, and if the engine starts overheating, we can open the flaps to let the heat out."

The fluids used in the Far North are compatible with the weather, too. "We use winter grease on our vehicle and a lot of synthetic oils because they’ll flow in the cold weather. Compared to New Zealand, we burn different fuels. Your diesel has more wax in it.

We burn a drier winter fuel. If we used what you use, at 40 below, it would clog the filter, and the truck would stop running. We start our engines at the beginning of February, and they run until the end of March. If you shut it off at 40 below, there’s a good chance it won’t start."

In Alex’s emergency kit, he has a propane torch for thawing things out, a big bar for prying things open, a sledgehammer, tyre chains, tow rope, plus a box of food and other items.
"I always make sure I have a couple of rolls of garlic sausage, water, lots of clothes, and a big heavy sleeping bag suitable for 40 below."

And it’s not just the truck that needs to be weather-proofed. Such extreme conditions demand warm clothes for the person behind the wheel, too. "There’s some good high-tech underwear out there now. Helly Hansen is one brand that makes good stuff. It’s like climbing a mountain like Mt Everest; you want light stuff that’s not too heavy," says Alex.

"I usually wear a balaclava, often two, at 50 below when the winds are blowing, plus good socks. A lot of people say they don’t like it in the north because of the cold, but then, they don’t dress properly.

It doesn’t matter if you dress properly and it’s 50 below, the air is crisp, and you can enjoy it. We have to dress well, because half the time, we’ll be lying in a snowbank somewhere, fixing the truck."

Accidents happen

Although Alex has never gone through the ice, he knows of those who have. "I fixed it up a Mack dump truck, and it went into the lake in 1978. The guy who was driving it couldn’t get out the window to escape because the ice was in the way. Fortunately, he was skinny enough to climb through the mirror bracket.

He took a breath of air, got his head out of the water, but the truck slipped further down into the water. So he had to crawl back through the bracket and stick his head up into the cabin into a pocket of air and go a second time. He got to the surface and survived."

Another accident Alex recalls is the death of the grandson of the Robinson Trucking family (one of the biggest companies in the north) after he went through the ice. "That was 14 years ago, and the family were so distraught, they sold up everything. Over 60 years, in the Northwest Territories, 60 men have died.

I haven’t heard of anyone in the last couple of years. There’s a lot more engineering now and a lot more focus on safety. In the old days, you didn’t worry about safety; you used to bet on who was going to stay alive and who was going to die.

You were the boss; you did the job, and if you lived, you got a pay cheque, and if you didn’t live, that’s too bad. You don’t worry about that stuff. There are so many regulations nowadays and so much paperwork. You’ve got two rolls of paper: one for paperwork and one to wipe your backside with!"

See part two in the next issue of Deals on Wheels, where Alex tells us the number one quality truck drivers need.

Find trucks for sale in NZ

Keep up to date in the industry by signing up to Deals on Wheels' free newsletter or liking us on Facebook