Trucking service in the Yukon isn’t as expensive as you might think, but it can be the difference between life and death.
Jim Mickey learned this at an early age, driving truck into Ross River, Faro and Dawson in the 1970s and 80s.
“If there’d been a death in the community they’d have the guy on ice — literally — and we’d haul him back,” said Mickey.
“They’d send him down to get cremated then several weeks later we’d haul back a small box of remains.”
The truck that Mickey drove into these communities every other day was an important lifeline.
“You’d just back the truck in and unload four or five pallets of groceries then you go down the block and unload the beer for the pub,” he said.
“We had all the grocery product in the back — from soup to nuts. And all the lumber, all the steel…”.
In the absence of armored vehicles, the trucks would even transfer cash to the community banks for payday and bring back gold from Dawson.
“It was an interesting lifestyle and you really got to realize the importance of that supply chain,” he said.
“I’m sure it’s not as frequent in Faro and Ross River as it was before but I’m sure someone still does it today.
“I’d be very surprised if it’s not — there’s no other way to have it happen in these small towns.”
Mickey is now the general manager of a shipping company called Coastal Pacific Xpress based out of Vancouver.
During a brief visit home to Whitehorse, he spoke with the News about the current state of trucking in the territory and beyond.
“Of course, fuel today is the highest it’s ever been in the history of the planet,” he said.
“And as fast as the price oil went up last week, the price of freight goes up this week.
“You gotta know who’s paying that and it’s the consumer — we pay it and add it onto our consumer’s bill.”
The sheer distance from suppliers makes this freight cost worse for Whitehorse and the rest of the Yukon.
A single load of groceries might be worth around $100,000, said Mickey.
“So if it starts off in some place like Edmonton that $100,000 load could have another seven per cent added to the cost.”
Fuel-based freight costs have risen by half in the past 20 years.
So a load that used to be $5,000 now costs $7,000 because of the ballooning cost of fuel.
Heavy things like drywall are more affected by rising gas prices and subsequent freight costs.
In the price of a house, it can be measured in the hundreds of dollars.
But the fuel surcharge on something light, like a head of lettuce, is remarkably small — maybe a penny or two.
Even for many northern communities freight is still a relatively small component in the cost of most goods.
For a family buying a $100 load of groceries about $7 would go to shipping costs.
Mickey lived in the Yukon from the time he was eight until he was 28 years old.
“My family was in trucking in this area when I was a kid,” he said.
“I grew up in it and I was involved with trucks from the time I was a teenager.”
He remembers when prices throughout the territory used to be a lot higher than in the south.
“Whenever you asked the merchant, why is your stuff so expensive? They’d always say, the freight,” he said.
“And because I grew up in the freight business we used to laugh like hell because we knew it wasn’t the freight.”
“To some people it’s a believable excuse.”
Anything that is consumed by society has a very intimate link with a truck.
Strawberries bought in our stores in December probably come from Mexico and take four or five trucks before they reach the shelves, said Mickey.
Other goods might be shipped all the way from Australia.
The territory would have trouble lasting more than a week if all trucking was stopped, said Mickey.
“We take it all for granted.”
More than 45,000 trucks pass through the Whitehorse weigh scale each year, said systems manager Dan Nickason.
Another 790 trucks stop by on their way to Skagway.
Since it opened this year, 379 trucks have come from the Minto Mine.
There’s been very little fundamental change in trucking for the past 50 to 60 years, said Mickey.
“The equipment gets more modern, the process gets better but, at the end of the day, its all on the shoulders of the driver to get that product moved,” he said.
“The change is remarkably small.”
However, because of new strict regulations the “romantic part of the business” — superhuman stints of long hours behind the wheel — has been stopped.
“There’s this big green initiative now, everybody wants to reduce their carbon footprint,” said Mickey.
“If everybody realized the price they paid for some of these commodities to move these vast distances, then there would be heavy pressure to come up with a better plan than that.”
“People aren’t going to stop consuming because it’s costing an extra three bucks for a diesel surcharge,” he added.
Europe has had expensive diesel and gasoline for decades, he pointed out.
“People in Europe have existed quite nicely with the high price of fuel and we will too,” said Mickey.
“You going to stop eating?
“I don’t think so.”