If you ever have the pleasure of sitting down with Mark Kohaykewych, president and CEO of Polar Industries Ltd., you can sense how much respect and admiration he has for the remote regions of our country. Manitoba born and bred, Mark built Polar Industries out of this infatuation for the North.
“I’ve always had a passion for it. A buddy of mine from university and I would travel the ice roads on day-trips to go ice-fishing. Some of the best ice-fishing this province has to offer is off those roads. Each year we’d push a little farther and stay out a little longer. We travelled any road we could on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. I saw freight trucks passing all the time and always wondered if there was any money in it. It was always an interest, but I never did anything about it,” recalls Mark.
Mark went on to finish university then got into the construction industry becoming part-owner of one of Winnipeg’s construction companies.
“I guess it (Polar) started when we got a project up north with St. Theresa Point First Nation. I decided to buy my own truck, hired a driver and away we went. We hauled our own freight up and then subcontractors started asking if we could take their loads up as well. That first year we took 21 loads up on the ice roads,” Mark says. And that is basically how Polar Industries got started.
How they got to be one of the hottest shows on History Channel and listed as one of Canada Small Business Magazine’s PROFIT 500 top growing companies over the last five years is another story.
Last year was Polar’s sixth year of hauling freight on the ice roads. The number of loads they carry has increased from a humble 21 to 712 in the past year alone. This means a lot for the First Nation communities that are only accessible by ice roads in the winter months, especially when a lot of what Polar is bringing is too heavy or large to be transported by plane.
“Our main transport items are still construction supplies; this was just a natural transition because of my background. We do transport household goods, some heated and refrigerated items but the bulk of our freight, at least 75 per cent, is specialized,” says Mark.
Typically each load Polar hauls is 35 to 45 thousand tons, or 39.5 metric Tonnes (39,500 kilograms) to maximize each trip. Last season they moved their largest item yet, an oversized crane weighing 130,000 pounds (59 kilograms). It was a pretty cool episode to watch. They had to pour extra water over the ice and contact the community with the pilot vehicle to let them know the ice road over the lake was closed at both ends until this monster load got across.
“Ice is just so unpredictable. It was cracking something fierce as they were driving across. It was like being in the loudest thunderstorm. Todd, the driver, was hanging out the door the whole time and was not comfortable with a cameraman being in the truck. He made it and it was fine, but it was one of the more stressful moves we’ve done,” Mark says of the endeavour.
This is typical Mark and typical for Polar. Pushing the envelope, doing whatever they can to assist the First Nation communities and their loyal clients, is all in a day’s work. And, while Mark is pleased with the incredible growth his company has been blessed with, he will continue pushing and growing his business, showcasing the First Nation communities that make his work so satisfying on an international stage.
What it takes
Drivers need to be mentally strong. The ability to handle the isolation is what really makes an ice road trucker stand out from his peers. They also have to be able to think clearly and strategically under pressure because they don’t have the luxury of calling for help. You have to be able to help yourself whether that’s getting yourself unstuck, fixing something that has broken or deciding if the road is safe to continue on. There is no shortage of danger on the ice roads.
“Safety is always number one with us, and we take a lot of precautions. Most of the roads are over the muskeg (grassy bog); if it melts, it will swallow a truck whole. Ice gets weak but it’s safer than the muskeg. Three years ago, east of Lake Winnipeg, 12 trucks were abandoned over the muskeg due to an unexpected and rapid thaw,” Mark says.
Ice road trucking is definitely not boring. It provides a crucial service that many northern communities can count on. With no road access during the rest of the year and limited runways, these communities rely on the truckers willing to travel the winter ice roads to bring not only supplies but the items that just can’t reach them any other way.
“Some things just can’t be shipped by air. Machinery such as dozers, excavators, packers and cranes physically can’t be flown in. Other construction needs like orders for 700 to 900 bags of concrete, that weigh 5,000 pounds each, are just cost prohibitive to bring by plane. We’ve hauled a lot of machinery for Calm Air to their terminals and even the supplies for their hangar in Garden Hill. We work together,” explains Mark.
How Polar got on the show
In 2010, Manitoba’s unpredictable weather wreaked havoc on the roads. Polar had two trucks in a convoy of 19 returning from St. Theresa Point that became stranded as the roads melted below them. The return trip usually takes 30 hours but this time it took nine days to get the drivers out. The semis were stuck in mud and stranded on the south side of Wrong Lake. The RCMP was dropping food rations. One driver, who had been separated from the convoy and was stuck on his own, had to be airlifted to safety due to a medical condition.
Ice Road Truckers was shooting in Alaska at that time. International headlines about the stranded St. Theresa Point truckers caught the attention of the production company in Los Angeles. The filming crew showed up at the annual winter roads meeting in Selkirk.
“They were planning on following another company, and when I saw them there I went and introduced myself. I showed them photos from the front line in St. Theresa Point. Some of us had gone out in pickups to bring food and fuel to the guys stranded.
“Brandon Killion, the Ice Road Truckers series producer, was intrigued as it was so different from the show they were doing in Alaska. He decided he wanted to do a couple runs with us that year. Then, a few weeks before filming started, he contacted us and said we’re going to go exclusively with you this year for Manitoba. We were in our second year of business, so it was a little intimidating. We definitely felt the pressure,” says Mark.
That season Polar moved the airport building, a three-part modular structure, up to St. Theresa Point. It was quite the story-line for the show. Vlad, former Polar employee, clipped a power line which took out the power in the whole community. For those who watch the show, Vlad later began rival company VP Express, which is now defunct.
“Every year we try to do something bigger and better. We have a business to run, but we want to provide entertainment as well, and we want to keep it interesting. We push the limits. There is a lot of freight that has to go up north and a lot of it is interesting freight. If we can help to showcase that and show people what is going on up there on the ice roads, it’s like bragging rights. This is what goes on in our back yard every single year,” Mark says.
It’s not only a boon for Polar Industries Ltd, but a boon for Manitoba to be featured on History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers. You could say it has been unreal. Mark is always surprised by how many people watch the show. It is aired in 38 countries around the world, and he receives calls and emails from people who love the show all the time.
“We have a big following in the United Kingdom, South America and Germany. I’ve had people stop in our shop that came from Germany, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, and the list goes on, that were in Winnipeg and just had to come and see us. We get orders to ship our Polar sweaters and other fan merchandise all over the world,” he says in amazement.
“One of the funniest things that has happened since the show started occurred when my wife and I were on a holiday in Mexico. I was in the shower and she’s screaming my name from the other room. I figure it’s a bug or gecko or something and go running out, but when I get in the next room she’s pointing at the TV. There I am on the television, with my voice dubbed over in Spanish on Rutas Mortales, (Ice Road Truckers in Mexico). It was the funniest thing ever,” he laughs.
“One of the really neat things we did this year on Ice Road Truckers was a joint run with Todd and Lisa, from Churchill to Seal River, halfway to Arviat across Hudson Bay. At the end of the season we flew everyone to Churchill and they drove a cat train pulling 200,000 pounds, including an excavator, in four sleds across the bay. It was really cool. This year we’d like to see if we can push all the way to Arviat with a cat train, or get some partners to build a road on Hudson Bay. That’s my goal. I’m ambitious and a bit of a dreamer but I think it would be really cool to build an ice road on Hudson Bay. It’s the History Channel and we’d be making history. That is our long term goal,” claims Mark.
Tune in or catch up on the series on the HISTORY go App or at HISTORY.ca.