Edith Iglauer and the Ice Roads
Ice Road Truckers spent 11 years as one of the highest-rated “reality” shows on the History Channel, bringing viewers into a dangerous world of heavy labour, distinct characters and inhospitable climates.
Millions know about the North’s ice roads because of Ice Road Truckers. But we know about the ice road truckers themselves largely because of Edith Iglauer. The magazine writer and celebrated author spent her esteemed career documenting the obscure, remote and fascinating lives working along society’s fringes.
Iglauer died on February 13 in a hospital near Vancouver. She was 101.
Her 1974 book, Denison’s Ice Road, began as a New Yorker article. It was subsequently spun-off decades later into a TV special from the History Channel. Six years later, the series rocketed to cable success. But Iglauer’s life and work go far beyond inspiring a carefully edited docudrama. Her biography overflows with story.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Iglauer was already covering First Lady and political activist Eleanor Roosevelt two years out of Wellesley College with just a bachelor's degree in political science. She went on to study journalism at Columbia, and in 1942 married her first husband, New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger. When Hamburger was sent to the Mediterranean to cover World War II, Iglauer followed, filing her own dispatches from Italy and Yugoslavia. After the war and back at home, she would wake every morning at 4 a.m. to write before her two sons got up for school.
“Tiring of city life, she escaped from New York by means of dog sled, which she used in 1961 to ride into the Arctic Circle on assignment for the New Yorker,” reads an astonishing obituary from the Chicago Tribune. “Her subject, the first ‘Eskimo cooperative society’ (designed to help native peoples transition into modernity), formed the basis of her first book, The New People (1966), updated and republished as Inuit Journey" (1979).”
Iglauer “was quite outspoken” at the time in pointing out that the New Yorker, “and the journalism world in general, was a very entrenched old boys' club,” recalls a former editor. “And she was given assignments to Canada, or found that she could get assignments to Canada, just because nobody else at the New Yorker was terribly interested.”
Having created a beat for herself in Canadian stories, Iglauer ended up writing a lengthy profile in 1968 of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Soon after, the Prime Minister’s secretary called to say Trudeau would be visiting New York and was looking for theatre recommendations. Iglauer, on the advice of her son, suggested a basement production in the Village by Polish dramatist Jerzy Grotowski.
“I had a slight apprehensive chill,” she wrote for Geist years later, recalling the event. “A basement in the Village? No scenery, no costumes? Was this really Trudeau’s style? I hoped so!”
On a whim, she also invited Trudeau to dinner. To her surprise, the Prime Minister accepted and asked if he could bring a date.
“I rushed out to the hall and when I opened the door, I felt slightly dizzy at the sight of Barbra Streisand standing quietly in front of my apartment,” Iglauer wrote. Streisand, she recalls, was wearing an exotic, flowered green suit with fur collar and cuffs and a blouse cut down to her navel. Though “at the height of her fame,” the movie star “was composed and gracious” as she was introduced. “My guests appeared to be as stunned as I was when Streisand walked in and, like me, scarcely had time to recover themselves before it was time for her and the Prime Minister to depart for the theatre.”
(Trudeau and Babs apparently weren’t fans of Grotowski’s production. They left during intermission.)
In 1988, Iglauer published perhaps her most famous work, Fishing With John. The best-selling memoir chronicles how the sophisticated New York author met, fell in love with and married John Daly, a hermit salmon fisher and amateur philosopher from British Columbia. Iglauer lived on Daly’s 41-foot salmon boat until his sudden death, four years later.
“Daly, Iglauer recalled, had called her late one night soon after they met, when she was back home in New York. ‘I've just bought a wooden toilet seat that I think will fit very well on top of that pail on the boat,’ he said. ‘It's sky blue, and I paid $8.50 for it.’
“‘Lovely,’ Iglauer replied. ‘But it's two o'clock in the morning. What about it?’
“‘‘What about it?!’ he said. ‘Marriage! That's what.’”
The best-selling love story of a big city reporter falling for an eccentric outdoorsman was adapted into a TV movie in 2000 starring Jaclyn Smith and Tim Matheson.
In the North, though, it’s John Denison and his ice roads for which Iglauer will best be remembered. Every winter for decades, Denison would oversee the construction of 520 kilometres of treacherous transport during the coldest, darkest days of the year. The toils of his crew connected Yellowknife and other Northern communities to the silver mine at Great Bear Lake and up to the Arctic Circle.
“What am I watching?” she writes in Denison’s Ice Road. “A man’s struggle to carve out a road in the dead of winter, over land and water that resist every effort to be tamed. Always further north. The ancient Greeks knew Denison before he knew himself. He is Sisyphus, rolling uphill a rock that forever rolls back on him.”
Denison received the Order of Canada in 1998 for his ingenuity in constructing the roads. He passed away in Kelowna a few years later, but his legacy remains built in the ice and transcribed in Iglauer’s words. It’s the medium through which her own story will likewise live on.
“The woods are beautiful at night, the trees, the bushes; shadowy forms who gracefully bow as we sweep along; bend their branches, nodding, with their heavy burdens of snow. Snow everywhere, snowladen branches, snowcovered ground. On the lakes, snowy drifts, banked high, gleam in the headlights, form a continuous border to channel the gliding turning humming tires. White earth, black heaven twinkling with stars. The gods of the North shake our bones, scream windy anger at our tiny invasion of—our dot of moving life on—their snowy earth kingdom.”
Our tiny invasion—our dot of moving life—on the gods' kingdom. Iglauer will be missed.