In the Yukon, everybody drives on Keith Byram’s roads.
His company, Pelly Construction Ltd., has worked on every highway in the territory, and Byram drops their names like members of an exclusive club.
The Dempster, the Mayo Road, the Haines Road, Shakwak — at one time or another, Pelly Construction has worked them all, most recently giving a facelift to the Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and Champagne.
“There isn’t a highway in the Yukon we haven’t had jobs on,” Byram said Wednesday, with a hint of amused pride in his matter-of-fact tone, as though surprising himself.
But the best road he ever built is in Antarctica.
In 1990 Pelly Construction won a contract with the British government to build an airstrip on a tiny peninsula of Adelaide Island, roughly 1,600 kilometres south of Cape Horn.
It was one of the few places where the Antarctic ice cap melts down to rock in the warmer months.
The British were looking for a crew, with its own equipment and cold weather expertise, to build a 900-metre stopover strip for reconnaissance planes.
Pelly Construction trucked its gear to Skagway and shipped everything to Vancouver, where Byram found a boat willing to transport the entire package “about as far south as you can get.”
“We had to be totally self-sufficient,” he recalled.
“We had to have all our own gear and enough food to last two years, two seasons, for two months at a time.”
As he told the story, Byram glanced out the window of his third-floor office on the edge of the industrial park in downtown Whitehorse — at the town he helped to build.
By providing jobs for locals, or merely the roads they ride on, Pelly Construction has been a staple of the Yukon economy for years, and one of only two Whitehorse-based heavy construction companies.
There are synergies within economies, Byram explained, citing the bad old days of the National Energy Plan in the early 1980s.
Trudeau’s scheme killed the confidence of bankers and capital investors in Western Canada, and the Yukon economy felt the ripples from the crash of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, he said.
Everything touches everything else. Byram was fortunate to have employment as an engineer that kept him mobile.
He fled to Alaska with his employer, General Enterprises Ltd., to weather the economic downturn.
Byram came back and morphed General Enterprises into Pelly Construction in 1987.
Over the past two decades, he’s seen the same feast and famine as Whitehorse.
In the lean times, like many Yukoners, Pelly Construction relied on government contracts and built roads to and from the Yukon capital, jockeying for jobs with Golden Hill Ventures Ltd.
But in boom times, Pelly Construction has buttered its bread with mining contracts.
That’s really what the company is about — removing the overburden from open-pit mines, building mining infrastructure, preparing pieces of coal and ore and transporting them part way to market.
In recent years, the money was made outside the territory.
Pelly Construction has two major contracts in British Columbia with Vancouver-based Western Canadian Coal Corp.
The premier project, called Dillon, is an open-pit coal mine about 45 kilometres from Chetwynd, BC, where Pelly Construction has been working since October 2004.
The company does everything at the mine, from mining, cleaning and crushing the coal to trucking it to the railroad, said Byram.
Every four days, year round, 110 rail cars full of coal depart for ports at Prince Rupert.
The coal is shipped to steel mills in Korea, said Byram.
The second project, potentially much bigger, is the Wolverine coal deposit near Tumbler Ridge, BC.
Pelly Construction has a long-term contract to mine the coal, and began site preparation in summer 2005, removing overburden and blasting rock to make way for a coal-washing plant.
The company spent more than $60 million on the two BC projects in the last year and a half, said Byram.
“Coal was totally dead there for a while, but now it’s booming,” he said.
The Wolverine deposit has the advantage of being right next to a railway line, he added.
The Alaska-Canada rail link scheme — a fancy of Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie — would help solve the Yukon’s problem of access to resources, if such a project were proven to be economical, he said.
But equally as pressing for business groups – and way cheaper — is the need to widen the Alaska Highway between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, said Byram.
There’s a stretch of road about 100 kilometres long around Muncho Lake that’s roughly seven metres wide — too narrow for some truckloads.
For instance, Pelly Construction was recently forced to cut some large metal boxes in half because they were too wide, said Byram.
The federal government has been promising to widen the roads for years, but nothing has happened lately, he added.
However, it’s not as though Pelly Construction is sitting on its hands, hoping for a sudden government initiative or a railway miracle.
“We’re so busy with mining jobs, we don’t have the resources for a highway job,” said Byram.
Actually, the company does have a highway contract or two in Alaska, through its subsidiary company Kluane Construction Inc.
But Yukon highways aren’t on Pelly Construction’s radar this year.
Yukon mines, on the other hand, are a different story.
The company has a major stake in the Yukon’s next best mining bet — Sherwood Copper’s Minto property near Pelly Crossing.
Pelly Construction and General Enterprises have a long history with the project, having blasted and leveled the hills nearby the copper deposit to make way for the mine’s camp and mill sites.
Byram plans to strip 10.5 million tonnes of overburden from the minesite this coming spring and summer.
An earth dam needs to be built as well.
Pelly Construction already has a couple of bulldozers at Minto, and five truckloads of equipment are en route.
They’ll drive across the Yukon River to the Minto property over the weekend, Byram said as he walked around the empty lot behind his office building.
Almost all Pelly Construction’s serviceable trucks and equipment were out, working on projects in BC, Alaska and Minto.
Strangely, Byram has encountered a tire shortage, since firms like Michelin and Bridgestone that build heavy construction tires are backlogged with orders.
It’s boom time, and Pelly Construction is at the cutting edge.
“All business, all economies, have ups and downs,” said Byram.
“Better a few ups than none at all.”