After many years of working on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, director of the winter road Ron Near and superintendent Kirk Keller are calling it quits.
“I've retired a few a couple times before and that didn't work out, but as far as I know this will be my last retirement,” Near said.
Near says he's planning to move to Alberta with his wife to be with his kids and grandkids after his official retirement on June 30.
“Over 35 years in the North, it will be quite a change of pace,” he said.
Near originally came to Yellowknife to work with the RCMP. He spent 25 years in uniform.
“I also owned the original company that provides security for the diamond industry and for the winter road,” Near said. “After that I worked for a company which built the winter road for four years then I was the director for eight years.”
Understanding of ice road construction has evolved over the years, Near said.
“The biggest change is always being able to improve how we build the road and in the technology we use,” Near said. “We now have a full-time ice engineering team working on the project. We understand ice a lot better than we did 20 years ago, so that's the exciting part.”
In addition to learning, there were many fun times.
“Some of the stories I could say publicly and some I couldn't,” Near said, laughing. “But it's the best project I've worked on in my life.
“It's special because you build 700 km of winter road in a month and in two months ship eight to nine thousand loads, then get to watch it melt,” Near said. “It's been pretty phenomenal.”
Bill Braden, author and photographer who wrote On Good Ice: Winter Roads, said Near is, in some ways, similar to winter road founder John Zigarlick.
“Zigarlick was a man who was always striving to improve the road and its safety, and Ron Near picked up where he left off,” Braden said. “Near was always looking to improve the safety and organization of the road and he brought in a lot of scientific and technological innovation.”
Braden said directing a $22-million project that sees thousands of trucks running north and back is extremely stressful.
“But Ron always had a great sense of humour while doing it. He's done a hell of a job,” said Braden.
Another winter road heavyweight set to retire after this season is Kirk Keller, a man whom Braden describes as having near equal footing as Ron Near. Keller worked with Near for many years, in near constant communication.
“Ron brought a whole different way of looking at things coming from a different background,” Keller said. “He's done a lot for the road, especially in terms of safety – wouldn't be the same road without him.”
Keller began hauling equipment on the road in 1982 but left after a few years. He returned in 2000 as a superintendent, a position he'll leave when he retires at the end of this year's ice road season.
Keller said he's already moved to Mexico, where the weather is “a little nicer.”
Like Near, Keller has witnessed many changes over decades.
“Back when I started hauling, they didn't even have an auger and only ran around 600 loads in a day,” he said. “Now it's such a huge undertaking with radar technology checking the ice, safety crews, new equipment and the amount of money that is invested into this thing.”
Keller said he's proud of the work he did on the project, although it was demanding.
“You don't sleep as much while the work is on. It's a lot of responsibility to make sure people don't fall through the ice,” he said. “But you're always excited to start the project and always excited to see it finished.”