A star of the History Channel’s massively popular reality TV series Ice Road Truckers, which begins its fourth season this fall, the burly Yellowknifer is known to audiences worldwide as a gritty kind of philosopher—he actually enjoys listening to the sound of the ice cracking as he hauls 70,000 lb. because, he says, “it’s basically talking to you.” At 56, he has 11 children, 11 grandchildren and has plied the dangerous network of frozen roads in the Far North for 30 years, servicing diamond mines and oil and gas operations. His book, King of the Road: True Tales from a Legendary Ice Road Trucker, is due for release this fall, and a new show, Extreme Trucking, premieres this winter. Maclean’s spoke to him during his stay in Letchworth, north of London.
Q: So what are you doing in the U.K.?
A: I came for a truck show to sign autographs and meet fans. I was in London once before; I’ve an uncle living here. My father was actually a paratrooper in the Free Polish Brigade out of Britain in the last war—he jumped on Market Garden, at Arnhem and Nijmegen. My mother went to Cambridge—she studied math and music—and they met and married in London.
Q: How is it that they came to Alberta, where you grew up?
A: Well, the Debogorskis started out in Poland but were shipped to Siberia by Stalin—they were considered kulaks because they owned land. My uncle and aunt died of starvation and disease there. When Stalin joined the Allies in the Second World War, he donated roughly 100,000 of his political prisoners to the Allied war effort. Grandpa and dad walked 60 miles across the tundra to see the Russian general who was signing the documents. Grandpa went to the African campaign, dad went to Glasgow to train in the paratroopers. Meantime, my mother’s father was a major in the Polish infantry and was shot by firing squad in Auschwitz for moving Jews out of Poland. After the war, Grandpa Debogorski emigrated to the Peace River Country in north Alberta, and dad followed just before I was born. I was conceived in Britain, so that’s where I get my sense of humour from, maybe.
Q: How’d you become an ice road trucker?
A: I was going to be a doctor, lawyer, fighter pilot or Indian chief, and went to the University of Alberta. Then my girlfriend got herself pregnant and we got married at 18 and I went back up to northern Alberta to work. I was working at a tire shop for $2.50 an hour when a fellow came in looking for a truck driver for a coal mine in Grande Cache, Alta. I didn’t have a licence but I figured if I didn’t know how I’d learn pretty quick. One thing led to another. I headed north to Yellowknife in 1976, working for one of the bigger trucking companies. I was working three or four jobs for a while—bought and sold mobile homes, had a taxi for eight years, bounced, worked security, started my own business. Probably about 1980 I bought my first truck. When you live in the north of Canada, especially, the waterways turn to roads in winter.
Q: How’d you get on TV?
A: When the History Channel made a deal with Original Productions out of Burbank, Calif., they come up to Yellowknife to look for characters. People in town would say, if you want a real character you should go find Alex Debogorski. I guess I reached character status in the North many years ago for a variety of good and bad reasons. I have 11 children and I’ve spent all my life trying to prove everybody wrong. I ran for mayor and for MLA sometime after that. I wasn’t successful either way. I usually make my opinions known, in private and in public. I’m conservative. I’d be Republican—I’m too far right for Conservatives in Canada. My father said if you’re going to vote, vote for the farthest right party in the country. He said he had a bellyful of socialism from Stalin when he was in the gulag. And I’ve taken his advice.
Q: Ice Road Truckers does a good job highlighting the risks associated with your job, but just how dangerous is it?
A: If one is working early in the season, or working on a road that isn’t government, or monitored by a big company, all of a sudden the risk goes up. A person drives with the door open, with a pickup behind them a little ways with a radio, someone who can let you know if the back wheel’s going through the ice, some warning so a person at least can try and save yourself. Most of the time I work for the big companies, and the roads are very safe. I’ve gone in a snowbank, had to dig for three hours straight, just to get myself and the trailer out. You’ve got to be careful, as far as being rested, because when you’re driving on the ice road with all that white and just the slow speed is a killer, too, it gets boring and even if you had rest you can doze off.
Q: There are amazing scenes of you driving and the wind is blowing the snow over the ice and the northern lights are playing in the sky—it really does look otherworldly.
A: I can’t say enough about it. It touches the soul. You get this horizon on all sides except the shore maybe a mile away. It’s all pastel colours in the wintertime, like the desert. You know, the sun rises, the sun sets, the mountains, the hills, always different pastels. Indigos. Early in the springtime the eagles migrate back and you’ll see 30, 40, 50 eagles, short ones, tall ones, fat ones, long beak, short beak, different colorations, sitting on the ice, in the trees. The kinds of things nobody gets to see. The Arctic wolves that are almost every bit as big as caribou—just gigantic animals, with long legs. Or the caribou dancing. I’ve seen caribou running back and forth on their hind legs and thought the truck had scared them, and really all they were doing was just playing. As spring comes the ice starts to smooth out and the snow melts and the road just turns blue. It’s slippery—unbelievably slippery—it can take a quarter of a mile to slow down.
Q: You said it “touches the soul,” an interesting way to put it. You’ve volunteered as a lay prison minister, and I wonder what part that background plays in your coping with the risks of ice road trucking?
A: I was raised Roman Catholic and my dad used to make me go to the Armistice Day parade on Nov. 11 when I was a kid. I’d freeze my ass off sitting in the pickup in front of the legion hall while he and the boys had a few beers for a couple of hours. When I was young, I’d ask, “How many Germans did you kill, dad?” He’d say he didn’t kill any. He’d say, “When we started to fight, I put my head against the side of the foxhole and covered my head with a shovel and prayed to the blessed Virgin Mary. Once a German threw a hand grenade and it bounced off the shovel and blew my best friend’s head off.” One day he had a few extra ones in the legion and on the way home I asked him, “How many Germans did you kill, dad?” He said, “Thousands and thousands, I couldn’t count them.” That made the hairs stand on my neck. He always said what carried him through was his faith. I stopped going to church when I left home, except for the wedding. I told my wife I wanted my kids to learn how to pray, take them to church. Of course, Sunday was my hangover day. We’d have a battle every Sunday and she’d drag me to church and one thing led to another. Like I say, I’m not a great example of Christianity, but I’m a much improved version of what I once was.
Q: You’re a long-time ice road trucker in Yellowknife, a tight-knit community. How has being on TV changed your life?
A: Well, I don’t have a life anymore. I’ve lost my equilibrium. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not an actor, so I’m not really a movie star—a Hollywood guy. And four years hasn’t made me one. I have a business and a family at home and the business has basically ground to a halt. So I decided, maybe I can be a movie star—maybe I can be “The Britney Spears” and make money and some kind of constructive difference in the world from being “Debogorski, celebrity.” But I need to promote myself. So I started last year, I went to a truck show in Las Vegas and met some people, ended up going to more truck shows. The whole idea is to take advantage of the notoriety, so I’ve written a book.
Q: Are you happy with all this?
A: Oh, I’ll never be happy. I’ve never been one to be happy. The only time you’re happy is when you’re loaded. No. This is my new job. My life is upside down, I don’t have a lot of control. That’s what throws me off—I like to be in control and I’m not. I wait for the phone to ring so I can get on the plane, or do this or do that or don’t do that. I’m basically a monkey just waiting for an organ grinder.
Q: You must like the job enough to put up with it.
A: I have a different understanding of life than you do yet. We’re just putting in time until the coffin gets built. As a matter of fact, we should build our own coffin. And if I get the time, I need to build my own coffin, just to prove my point. You make your coffin and if you have a big house you make it into a coffee table. If you have a small apartment, you make it into a closet and you put it by the door and you hang your suit, coat, the stuff for the wedding or maybe for your funeral. And every day when you walk by, you give your coffin a pat. And you bring your day into perspective. And you’ll have better days because of that. The one thing about the ice roads, you spend a lot of time by yourself. If you don’t have the radio cranked up and your ear buds in or a TV turned on sucking one’s brains out, then one gets to think about a lot of these things. The shortness of life is amazing to me.