Last Of The Bombardiers
Peter Kaludjak was driving his yellow steel box of a snowmobile overland. It was pitch black and the way ahead was lit only by his Bombardier B-12’s two ancient headlights. Inside the cab, a grime-washed steering wheel was caked in decades-old grease. The upholstery infused with fumes. The CB scarcely crackled. The motor droned. His partner, sitting shotgun, was deep asleep. To keep from nodding off himself, Peter began tracking two wolves. He soon saw them not far off.
“They were shootable from where I was sitting in the Bombardier,” he explains. So he let go of the wheel to grab the gun from his dozing partner, but hit a boulder in the process, launching the machine onto its side. “I got out the hatch, started walking around, thinking how the hell am I going to get this thing up now?” That’s when he heard a flummoxed cry from his poor, forgotten partner inside. “Our stuff was all over him. He couldn’t move,” remembers Peter, laughing. That story always cracks him up.
It’s one of many close calls Peter Sr. and his son, 14-year-old son Peter Jr., can now laugh about. I met the father-and-son duo in Churchill, Manitoba where they were stuck for three weeks awaiting replacement parts. The routine 240-kilometre trip from Arviat, which on a good day takes 12 hours, took five days because the bulkhead broke three times and their old Bombardier got stuck in slush more times than either of them bothered to count. It’s a hard life, a dangerous life, and one that’s extinct everywhere except here. But in the Kivalliq, it’s being kept alive by a few families who wouldn’t live any other way—even now in mid-May as water spills out over the sea ice. “You just have to not think about it and just do it,” says Peter Sr. He insists it’s not too late in the year. “Not to me. Maybe to some people. There’s troubles all the way but when I have to go, I go.”
The first thing there is to know about the Bombardier B-12 is how to pronounce them in the North: “bomb-ba-deer.” They are living relics from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s invented by French-Canadian namesake Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who patented the original snowmobile. But the B-12 is more of a tank than an average snowmobile. Its metal port-holed hull sits on thick rubber tires and tracks, heavy skis and, as its name suggests, seats 12. Or it used to, anyway. Today, a handful are kept running by a sparse number of hyper-dedicated, diehard owners such as the Kaludjaks who use them mainly to ‘bomb’ mining supplies, heavy equipment, hunting shacks, new vehicles, barrels of oil or propane—or occasionally one or two people—between tiny hamlets in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region.
The B-12 is a beloved sight on the land, but the aging machines are increasingly harder to maintain. On one hand they seem like problematic rust buckets fated to disappear off the face of the Arctic. The routes between communities are dotted with busted parts ditched along the way. On the other hand, their owners will stop at nothing to keep them running and these few sure-fire machines seem unlikely to ever give up the ghost.
It’s a generational occupation for the Kaludjaks. Peter Jr. already knows he will inherit the family businesses and lifestyle. It’s in the blood. When he was two-years-old, he stowed away in between toolboxes in the back of the
Bombardier on one of his dad’s trips. No one noticed until they were well away from home. Calling Peter Jr. qimmikusu—someone you love so much that you want to hit them—
Peter Sr. says he was so upset but touched at the same time that he let him come on future missions.
“Since I was three I started going on the Bombardier,” says Peter Jr, knowing full well it’s a risky business, especially nearing the end of winter when rivers begin to purl, spilling out deltas onto the surface of the sea ice. “Once in a while we go through broken ice,” he intones, answering my next question if they’ve ever been seriously stuck. “Of course. It’s scary,” he says calmly. Between slush, running rivers, spotty sea ice, jagged rocks, whiteouts, the odd wolf or polar bear and chronically crapping out equipment, Peter Sr. says you have to be prepared for anything. He reaches a permanently stained hand into his jacket pocket and fishes out a handful of bolts off his Bombadier transmission. "Nothing ever works out," says Peter Sr. "It’s always hard work. It’s not just get on the Bombardier and go."
Every Bombardier is equipped with a crucial tool: a CB radio. “If we’re not falling asleep there’s a lot of chatter,” says fellow Bombardier driver Brian Sigurdson—Sig for short. Trips are often comprised of long periods of monotony punctuated by close calls, so Sig and his crews check in often with their families.
In many ways, the ‘bombing’ biz is about the men who love them and the women who don’t. “The women who have no choice,” jokes Brian’s wife, Kathleen. She grew up with the machines as part of day-to-day life. “It was just any other way to get to a community, like a cheaper way other than flying.” She worries about the crew getting stuck most as the rivers start to run at the end of the season. “Just being a woman and a mom and a wife you always worry when your family takes big trips,” she says. “It’s always a really, really, really happy, fun time when they come in from one of their big trips. Everyone’s excited. All the kids are like, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’”
The only road into Nunavut isn’t a road at all. Where the train tracks end in Churchill is where the Bombardier tracks begin. They trace a seasonal artery along the smooth sea ice between the shoreline and open water of a half-frozen Hudson Bay to Arviat, Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, Chesterfield Inlet and inland to Baker Lake and nearby mines.
B-12s are still in wide use from Russia to Alaska to Quebec where they serve a range of utilitarian purposes—a lift service for a lodge, say, or maple syrup collection or hunting. There are bombers like Shawn Buckley in Hay River who have an all-purpose Bombardier to go ice-fishing, or Jimmy Main in Arviat who takes his out camping on the weekend. His fully restored B-12 wide gauge has a 318 Chrysler Industrial engine that runs like a horse. “It’s pretty bulletproof,” he says. Nanauq Tagalik in Arviat has two sitting that he plans to restore as collectors’ items. One is a 1959 Bombardier and the other is a “new style”—new as in 1972. (“Yeah, ‘new’ is relative with Bombardiers,” he says.)
Look around Arviat or Rankin Inlet and it begins to seem like everyone has one. You’ll spot them in other regions of Nunavut, but the Kivalliq is the only place where these iconic old machines are still so surprisingly relied upon as an economic lifeline. The Kaludjaks, Simon Kowmuk and Sig—who employs a crew of six—all run them in the winter as businesses. The flat, treeless Kivalliq lends itself well to having Bombardiers to transport goods. No other machine can pull the tonnes of weight they do such long distances, towing behind massive specially built qamutiik. It’s a major boon for the regional economy to be able to build, mine, refuel and import vehicles almost all year-round. (‘Almost’ since the trail along the sea ice gets narrower as the season goes on.) Considering the public fascination with gruff, dangerous, bizarre Arctic work—Ice Road Truckers, Ice Pilots NWT, Deadliest Catch, to name a few—it’s amazing the History Channel hasn’t already made a show about these insane guys.
For all the danger and physical exertion, the men in the bombing biz barely turn a profit. The cost of around $3,000 to make that trip between Churchill and Arviat, for example, is a lousy hazard pay once you factor in gas, food, a partner’s wage and lumber to fix and reinforce the sled. But it’s not the sort of business you get into for the money.
“I do it for fun,” says Peter Sr. “I don’t make money out of it. I just love doing it.”
Instead of worrying about the financial windfalls—analyzing the expenses, ensuring the margins remain healthy—the real reward is helping people, says Sig, echoing the passion of any other Bombardier. Their bombing missions are more for the love of it than anything. “It’s kind of like we end up a lot closer,” he says. “We always look forward to going.”