Careening down a steep, icy highway in a truck pulling a trailer loaded with pipe would be a harrowing, white-knuckle experience for most drivers.
For Darrell Ward of Deer Lodge, it was all in a day's work during recent filming on the Beartooth Pass near Red Lodge. He was recruited by his cousin, Jim Ward of Butte, the Montana art director for a
promotion of the "Ice Road Truckers" program on the History Channel.
Darrell, an independent trucker with his own business, has been a commercial driver since he was 16, hauling
14-foot-wide combines from Oklahoma to Montana while working for his grandparents who were custom harvesters. He hauls logs and also works as a wildland firefighter moving logs and water.
During the winter of
2008-09, as a driver for Alaska West Express, he hauled freight and supplies up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudoe Bay for the oil and gas pipelines and to island settlements.
He had just finished hauling for logger Lonnie Anderson of Deer Lodge when the
opportunity to be in the "Ice Road Truckers" promotion surfaced.
"I knew Darrell's driving skills so called him on
March 23 and said if he had nothing else going on to meet me in Red Lodge," Jim said.
Prior to filming, the crew requested and received
permission from the Montana Department of Transportation for a private contractor to plow part of the highway, which isn't usually plowed until May. Also, the crew needed the OK to race a truck up and down the road - trucks are normally forbidden on the highway.
"The state worked with us very well. I was impressed," Jim said.
They had planned to film on the lower section of the scenic highway, but friendly
snowmobilers from Billings took them for a ride to the top, where "we realized the best footage would be near Travelers' Rest," Jim said.
Giant front-end loaders plowed 3½ miles of the
highway to Travelers' Rest,
4½ miles from the top of the nearly 11,000-foot pass, through sections with 15-foot drifts. A grader leveled the snow to within six inches of the pavement, then it was packed until icy and slick. Guardrails were checked for stability and crash rating - if they failed the truck and driver would have plunged 500 feet over the edge.
"I was glad they were solid because I slapped them pretty hard a few times," Darrell said with a grin.
Upon arrival in Red Lodge, Darrell was shown the 1996 Kenworth 900L long-nose conventional truck with
sleeper and 45-foot flatbed trailer loaded with pipe -
16-inch in diameter Sonotube painted to look like aluminum.
The director wanted an actual Dalton Highway "Ice Road Trucker," and was
skeptical that a local driver could produce the necessary action.
"I knew he could drive, but didn't know he was better than all the stunt drivers in Hollywood," Jim said.
The truck was equipped with two sets of chains as Darrell fearlessly navigated down the steep grades. His eyes twinkled as he talked about setting the Jake brake hard so the trailer would slide sideways around corners,
slapping into the guardrails along the edge of the
"It was all for the camera and I had to make it look good," Darrell said. "It was 10 times worse than what Ice Road truckers experience."
Jim said a professional stunt driver arrived two days into the shoot. Darrell taught him how to drive the truck, but it was hard for him to compete with the footage already filmed, so he returned to Los Angeles.
Was Darrell frightened?
"No," he replied. "The only time I'm afraid is when I'm sliding off a mountain in my log truck and don't want to damage it. With this truck there was no problem if it got damaged."
Two different segments were filmed near Travelers' Rest during the four-day shoot. Jim said most men get tense, but the hairier it got and the more sideways the trailer slid, the more Darrell relaxed and laughed.
Darrell looks forward to being "the next Ice Road crash dummy," he said.
For now he is content to service his own truck, making minor repairs and upgrades, so he can go fishing in May.
The "Ice Road Truckers" ad has begun airing on History for the new season that starts in June.
Pat Hansen may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.