Cover story: Alex Debogorski — Part 2

By: Vivienne Haldane, Photography by: Supplied

In the conclusion of our exclusive two-part interview with Alex Debogorski, we speak to the world-famous trucker about his life on and off the road

In part 1 (#DOW 328), we spoke to Alex about his life in Yellowknife, Canada, his journey into the trucking world, and, of course, the reality television series that made him a celebrity.

In part 2, we delve deeper into his story.

Top quality for truckies

The number-one quality truck drivers need to possess is patience, says Alex.

"Whether it’s your family or other drivers, you’re always waiting on somebody. We see 800 trucks up here working for two months, so that’s a lot of people working together. You have young inexperienced guys, and you get one guy having a heart attack, another running into another. There are so many variables. Or they’ll be fighting because of this or that.

"Sometimes, there’s someone out there with alcohol or drugs. Then the wife calls and she’s going to live with her brother or buddy or wants a divorce, so the guy’s upset, and he wants to go home. All sorts of stuff goes down. You’ve got a lot of people living the human weakness out there."

King of the Load Alex Debogorski: Part 2
Alex Debogorski: keep those big wheels rolling

The other Ice Road Truckers

Alex says he doesn’t keep in touch with his fellow IRTs overly much. Not even Hugh (The Polar Bear) Rowland who he seemed to have a fiercely competitive relationship with.
In his book, Alex said, ‘On the one hand Hugh and I get along, on the other, he rubs me like sandpaper and turpentine.’

He adds, "Lisa, Kelly, and I do a little bit of stuff on Facebook, and I’ll call her once in a while. I always liked her. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in an elevator with her, but otherwise, I like her.

"Lisa was never mean to anybody and was always helpful, whereas Hugh and the other guys were kind of mean. They’d do things to make you look stupid or laugh at people but Lisa, she just did her thing.

"I recall a time in Alaska, she came over and asked all guys if they’d like a hand getting their chains on. Hugh was there, and all the guys got mad at her for coming to help. So, she came to me and asked, and I said, ‘yep, if you want to put my chains on, sure, go ahead’."

Sitting in his 1981 Western Star—Alex’s mayoral campaign photo
Sitting in his 1981 Western Star—Alex’s mayoral campaign photo

IRT: Deadliest Roads

In 2010, History Channel created a spin-off series, IRT: Deadliest Roads, which saw members of the IRT team travel to India to drive on treacherous mountain roads in the Himalayas. However, things didn’t work out as planned for Alex. 

"I was only in one episode in Delhi, and I was truck jacked. A guy ran into me on purpose, and we had problems with the truck, and that was it. They played it in a certain way that looked like I didn’t want to be there, but that was not true. The movie guys had allowed me to leave to go to England to attend the Peterborough Truck Fest.

"I came back, but the Indian Government wouldn’t let me back into the country because of the type of visa we had. I wasn’t even able to talk to anyone before they put me back on the plane. I had to borrow some Indian guy’s cell phone, so I could phone the producer who was sitting there waiting for me."

The following year, they were filming IRT: Deadliest Roads in South America, but Alex wouldn’t go because they didn’t want to pay him enough.

"I figured ‘to heck with them’. If I am going to go and do a job like that and I kill myself, I’m not going. I would suggest that IRT: Deadliest Roads didn’t last (they produced just two series) because they didn’t have me there.

"When I was on the show, I kind of grounded it. A lot of people get carried away, making these shows. I’ve got loads of experience with life that others don’t have. I was raised around all sorts, whether its native people or Mexican or my Polish family’s history in Europe and Africa. I’ve had to deal with a lot of stressful things.

"So, if I’m doing a reality show, I bring all my experience of life to it. They don’t necessarily show very much of who you are. They film me, and they cut the film to show who they want you to be. When it finally comes out, you never know if you’re going to be a zero or a hero.

"Some of those on IRT I liked, yet they made fools out of them. The story came across different to how it happened, you know. This thing is not about information; it’s about entertainment. If you’re watching a reality show, the whole thing is entertainment."

Alex’s latest truck is a 2001 Peterbilt 387
Alex’s latest truck is a 2001 Peterbilt 387

The other side

There are many sides to Alex’s personality. He comes across as a tough guy but scratch the surface, and there’s a sensitive thinker beneath. A man who loves reading, ironically, hates television and won’t have one in the house, and is a bit of a health food nut.
He is open about his Christian faith and being Roman Catholic.

"We were raised from a young age to believe in God. My mother was in the Polish and the French underground. My father (also Polish) and his family had been sent to concentration camps in Siberia before being released as political prisoners, ending up in Tanzania, Africa. After that, he joined the British military and commanded a tank in Palestine.

"My Polish family spent most of their life on the verge of starvation and dying or being murdered and raped. When people live in a time of stress like that, you have nowhere else to go than your faith. The more money people have and the better off they are, they start thinking they can depend on themselves.

"When you have years and years of having horrible stuff happen, the only thing to depend on to keep you alive is a belief in God because common sense couldn’t keep you alive.

"They passed the faith onto me, and I always pray. I’ve become a practising Christian. I go to church. I’ve lived the human weakness more than others, but that’s ok. Many people have this foolish idea that because they haven’t always gone to church or haven’t prayed, they figure they are not good enough to go."

Dad’s famous!

How did his family handle him becoming a celebrity?

Alex says, "I’ve got a different kind of family; they never noticed. We have 11 kids and 20 grandkids, so it’s a big shemozzle. There’s always a lot of stuff going on. They’d hardly notice if I weren’t here. When I came home, they’d jump on my knee and want a hug and a kiss then they’d take off. All they want to know is that dad’s still around. That’s it. They know I am alive.

Dad's famous!
Alex, with his wife Louise and their children and grandchildren at a family wedding in 2006

"I always tell my wife, my wallet is in my pocket, and if something happens, the police will find me, and they’ll send you the body. When I was 18 or 19, I used to disappear for days at a time. She’d call the police and call the hospital. I’d say don’t bother people; they are all busy. Don’t worry. If they find me, they’ll call you.

"I was always going on a walkaround. I’d phone her on a Friday afternoon and say, get me a ticket for the aeroplane and have my suitcase packed. I’ll be home, give me a ride to the airport, by the time I get on the plane, I’ll know where I’m going. I like to travel, usually on my own."

Wacky sense of humour

Alex is renowned for his wacky sense of humour and taking the mickey whenever he can, even his own family.

"When my kids were born, and we put a birth announcement in the paper, I made up middle names for my kids. One is called Amelia Computer Chip Debogorski. People got so annoyed. ‘Oh, what a terrible name’, they said. And 25 years later, it’s still stuck in their mind. ‘How’s Computer Chip doing?’ they ask.

"Another time when my daughter Shielo was getting married, she asked if I’d pay for an advertisement in the paper announcing her engagement. So, I went down to the Yellowknife newspaper and said, ‘Do you have a photo of a man with a gun?’ It appeared as ‘Mr & Mrs Debogorski are proud to announce…’ with a photo of a grumpy old guy in a rocking chair, holding a shotgun across his knees. The in-laws were not impressed and were thinking of not inviting me to the wedding. I told Shielo, ‘You told me I had to pay. If I’m paying, I get to put whatever I want in the paper’."

Machinery collection

Alex has a vast machinery collection on a three-acre property in Yellowknife. Collected over a 30-year period, it has become his go-to place when he’s not on the ice roads.

"I collect just about anything. I have 150 cars, old draglines, heavy equipment—tractors, excavators, and trucks. I have a 1984 215 CAT excavator that I’m fixing up so I can take it gold mining, a 644C John Deere with a big runner tyre loader, and an 892B excavator."

It seems Alex is very attached to everything he collects and most of them have stories attached as well.

The junkyard, as he calls it, has been a haven for Alex during the COVID -19 threat.
"Given the stuff I like to do, it doesn’t matter whether it’s COVID-19 or not. I’m lucky: I could stay in the yard for a whole lifetime. I’ve got so much to do. I’m not too particular about being with people. I don’t have to go drinking or dancing. If I want to go gold mining, I can."

In regard to the pandemic, Alex admits he "doesn’t know what the hell is going on. There’s a lot of bull**** out there. It’s like they’re making a pie and have a little bit of truth mixed in. The doctors keep changing what they are saying. In my opinion, if you don’t want to catch COVID, you’ll have to lock yourself in your house until you die! So, go out and do your thing and don’t worry about it. They are not going to get rid of it because they don’t have a vaccine yet. The only thing they are worried about is flattening the curve, so the funeral homes don’t get too busy."

The natural world

On the ice roads, Alex gets to see some incredible sights, the northern lights for example, when the Artic sky puts on its neon-coloured light show.

"We’re in places where you’d have to pay a lot money to get there as a tourist; not many people get to go there. The northern lights are phenomenal; the whole sky is lit up. I find the cold is exhilarating.

A DOT (Department of Transportation) Cop doing a mock up charge at a Western Star Dealership
A DOT (Department of Transportation) Cop doing a mock up charge at a Western Star Dealership

"Sometimes, we’ll see a herd of 1000 caribou, wolves that are probably the size of a small cow. We’re in the tundra where there isn’t a tree. Even in a blizzard, it’s exhilarating. These places are very remote. The people who live there sometimes can’t get there unless by plane or boat."

The ice roads

There can’t be many drivers who have more miles under their belt on the ice roads than Alex. Canada is a major producer of diamonds and running the mines involves transporting massive amounts of material. That’s how he first got involved driving on the ice roads 30 years ago.

When mining companies partnered up to build temporary ice roads, they needed skilled truck drivers who were capable of handling big rigs through some of the most challenging weather conditions on the planet. Alex was just such a driver.

Nuna Logistics is a construction company that builds the ice roads in the north, with construction beginning early November. When the ice is 35 inches (88cm) thick, the road is ready for five and six-axle loads; when it’s 40 inches (101cm), thick it’s strong enough for eight-axle Super B articulated trucks. By then it’s all go for around 60 days—that being the window of opportunity to supply the mines with all the gear they need for the next 10 months.

The rule of thumb for driving on the ice is not too fast (water will hit the shore and cause a blowout), not too slow (a truck’s stationery weight can damage the ice), and trucks being spaced a minimum of a third of a mile apart.

The trucks rely on engineers who have calculated exactly what thickness of ice will support, the amount of weight, the best routes and have sonar monitoring devices to let them know the thickness of ice on each section of the road.

However, there’s still an element of risk. In his book, Alex says, ‘When you’ve been up and down this road as many times as I have, you can never really relax. I’m always watching, waiting for something bad to happen. If the truck goes through the ice, you’ve got a couple of minutes to jump clear.’

Alex says he sometimes keeps his window open to listen to the ice cracking, just in case he needs to bail out.

"Even though those cracking sounds are supposed to be good, it’s still eerie; loud cracks are like artillery, sometimes like thunder and you think, ‘Oh boy this is it’."
One of the things Alex enjoys most about the driving lifestyle is getting out on the open road, being his own boss, and getting the job done.

"When I was younger, I used to say, ‘I hope I die with my wheels spinning’. Now I say, ‘I hope I die for a good cause and that I have made a difference in people’s lives and life in general’."

When the borders reopen between Canada and New Zealand, Alex and his manager Diane would love to visit our country. He has many fans here who’d be keen to have a yarn with him. He’s also keen to visit some gold and jade (pounamu or greenstone.) prospecting sites. Let’s hope we get to meet him soon.

Additional Source: King of the Road—True tales from a Legendary Ice Road Trucker by Alex Debogorski.

Big thanks to Alex’s manager, Diane Gibson for helping make this story possible.

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