Recently orphaned teenager Marcel Pontbriand is just one of 12 siblings reeling from the loss of their parents. But he is determined to prove himself, and he knows just how to do it… Ice Road Trucking. But when the Canadian temperature plummets to fifty below and he runs into trouble, quick thinking will decide whether or not his first year on the road will be the end of his short life.
One February night fifteen year old Marcel Pontbriand was plunging down a snow covered hill in a decrepit truck, trying to gain speed for an upcoming mountain climb in the Canadian Wilderness. He knew his load of triples weighing in at 210,000 pounds would need a lot of speed to make it to the top.
Suddenly, as he made the stomach shaking plunge to the bottom, Marcel saw a herd of Caribou crossing below. He slammed on his brakes, bringing the 180 foot rig to a halt just in time.
After the panic of avoiding colliding with the Caribou, Marcel calmed down enough to process where he had landed. But even before Marcel stepped out of the rig, he knew he was caught. Trapped at the bottom of the ravine with no inertia to carry him up the towering climb he faced.
Though still a boy, Marcel was completely on his own: His parents had died the year before, within one month of each other.
One of twelve siblings, he knew he had to make it on his own. His father had pulled him out of school at the age of twelve to help with the family business– driving logging trucks; so his education and options were very limited.
He was determined to make it on his own, but he was a fourteen year old with only one skill: trucking.
Always an independent thinker, Marcel decided to steal his eighteen year old brother’s CDL and head out into the Canadian Wilderness. With his stolen CDL, Marcel faked his way into an Ice Road trucking company. He had been trucking for a year now with few problems.
The Ice Roads are a dangerous way to live, and it takes a special breed of man to steel themselves against the sound of the ice cracking beneath them and endure the rolling waves that roll out from the weight of his rig.
But Marcel was just a boy when they handed him a large screwdriver: They told him… If you hear the ice start to thunder or feel your rig is going under, then jump out. Stab the ice with the screwdriver. Use it as pickaxe to anchor you, so you don’t follow your truck down into the water.
It was 1973 when Marcel started trucking at fourteen. The rugged life, raising himself alone in the Canadian wilds made Marcel feel like a man born in the wrong era. He fell deeply in love with the American West, with cowboys and with the pioneer spirit. Other drivers called him the Cowboy of the Road.
Marcel loved the horses cowboys rode, and that they were free and brave. The notorious maker of cowboy legends– the Pony Express once advertised for riders:
“WANTED: YOUNG SKINNY, WIRY FELLOWS NOT OVER EIGHTEEN. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
The youngest a rider could be to work for them was fourteen. They rode hundreds of miles a day in a relay that stretched form St. Joseph Missouri to Santa Fe California. Riders were at constant risk of death– They reported facing down tornadoes, blizzards in the Rockies, brutal desert conditions, and more.
But the job was considered an honor and its was the beginning for many men that would go on to lead infamous lives: The famed cowboy Buffalo Bill Cody got his start riding for the Pony Express, and like Marcel he was also just fourteen years old.
Young Buffalo Bill said, “The first trip of the Pony Express was made in ten days – an average of two hundred miles a day. But we soon began stretching our riders and making better time.”
Now, a hundred years later young fourteen year old orphan Marcel would almost perfectly fit that Pony Express rider description. He too would risk death daily on his heroic Ice Road trucking missions, but instead of the Rockies, he would brave the Canadian Wilderness. Alone in the wilds, Marcel made his fortune and found a deep passion for trucking.
Things had gone well up until now. For the last year, Marcel had driven 20 hours a day. He lived with a constant fear of going under, and slept sitting up, with his head resting on his steering wheel. He hoped that if the ice gave out, he could make the jump before it was too late.
But that snowy day, teenage Marcel wasn’t going under the ice, but he also knew he wasn’t going up that mountain. Dark was falling, and he knew that he had to keep the diesel from freezing up or he would die.
Marcel fervently hoped the temperature drop would be his biggest issue. His company issued Ice Road truckers decrepit, aged trucks– the logic was that if it fell through the ice at least the company would take less of a financial hit. So, breakdowns in the wild and the ability to fix a truck by yourself on the fly was an expected part of the job.
Even as he got colder, Marcel knew he had to get out and make a fire to keep the lines from freezing. He took a metal grate he called a “pig” and lit a fire inside it. He placed it under the truck’s oil pan to combat the brutal temperature.
But each venture out into the snow to restock the fire risked Marcel’s life: Marcel’s upbringing in the Canadian wilderness made him fear the wolves that would surely be trailing the Caribou herd.
For ten hours, Marcel battled against letting the truck freeze. He lit candles and put them in tobacco cans along the windshield as a beacon for rescuers to find him.
Morbidly, Marcel fixated on what would happen as he froze to death. He pictured his organs shutting down, and the headlines about a young boy freezing to death. He even pictured himself joining the growing stats of drivers that had died that he had read about in the Ice Road truckers information packet.
It was a marrow freezing fifty below. But no one would be looking for Marcel until he had missed his next checkpoint by 24 hours.
He still shudders at the memories of surviving that night. That first near brush with death wouldn’t be Marcel’s last, but it would stay with him for the rest of his life. And he vividly remembers the double bulldozer team coming down the hill to rescue him.
It took another ten hours to get him out: He had survived wolves, wilderness, and weather. Marcel was shaken, but he was set in his path as an Ice Road Trucker.
Now, five years later Marcel was a man carved out of ice had he had conquered. He fell in love with the wilderness and trucking became more than a career; it was his passion. Marcel went on to found his own trucking company at 19 years old. He bought five rigs, and hired four other drivers. He dispatched the team himself from wherever he was on the road.
Today, Marcel continues to drive: he deeply loves trucking and the Old West. He has hand painted his trailers with scenes from the American West– celebrating horses and transportation. He intricately paints the inside and outside of his rigs with scenes with horses, railroads, and antique trucks that show the history of the transportation industry.
Like Marcel, the Pony Express rider Buffalo Bill Cody also lived a life of terrific courage, and spent his later years celebrating the history of the American West.
And in the true Pony Express spirit, Marcel says that horses were the original trucks. He wants to pay respect to the trucking industry, which has given him so much. He’s proud of drivers and wants them to be proud too.