The world's toughest SOBs to ever get behind the wheel of a big rig are back for their third season as Ice Road Truckers premieres Sunday at 9 PM ET on The History Channel. This season the truckers are headed to Alaska, where they'll run loads over a 400-plus mile stretch from Fairbanks to oil camps in Deadhorse. And you guessed it, the route is damn near impossible, with avalanches, whiteouts, ice roads (duh), 100-foot cliffs to fall off, -70F degree temperatures and even pissed off polar bears.
To celebrate a new season, we spoke with the gruff, furry-hatted face of the History Channel's No. 1 series—Hugh "Polar Bear" Rowland—to discuss frozen limbs, chicken-shit rookies, and where he tells the show's crew to shove their cameras.
Tell us how this season's Ice Road Truckers is different from last year?
Well, I'm in a different country (laughs). It's a different route that's a little longer and we've got a mountain pass. We've got a few hills that are steep and a couple miles long. Jeez, basically the same shit, just a different pile.
How many hours does it take to drive the route?
It's about the same (as last year's route.) It takes you about 12 hours to get up there. It's farther, but you go a little faster. It's the same amount of time going up, and the same amount of time coming back.
If it's a 12-hour trip, what do you do if you have to take a dump? You can't just hop out, right?
You've really got no place to stop. They've got camps about eight hours up. You just learn to deal with it. It seems to be about 7-8 hours to the first stop. You better go before you leave.
Do you get recognized much?
Yeah, quite a bit. Especially in the states there.... Everybody is recognizing me for something I did my whole life since I was a kid and I just thought nobody would ever be interested in it.
How old were you when you first started driving?
I was 18.
When and where did you get the "polar bear" nickname?
I actually drove a truck one time that had a polar bear on it, and my buddies said that would be a good name for me, so they started calling me that. And they kept it up. I'm sort of gruff and aggressive, I guess.
I love your big fur hat. Where can I get one?
(Laughs) I don't know, but I've got lots of them here. My whole family wears them when it gets cold up here. That's actually rabbit fur.
What's been your most terrifying moment? Something you thought, "This could be the end of the Polar Bear"?
I can't remember if it was the first season or second, but there was the time that a guy hit me. I thought I was dying that day. I've had trailers go through the ice, guys run into me. I've never had a wreck, except for someone smashing into me. If I went through the ice I wouldn't be here to tell you about it.
If the ice breaks, do you have any chance of walking away from that?
I'd like to think I'd get away with it, but jeez, nobody's ever gotten away with it.
Yeah, but they don't have that fur hat.
Yeah, that's right.
The temperatures are insane (-70F), do you have to deal with frostbite?
Oh, Christ, I've frozen just about every limb I've got. I've frozen my cheeks, my nose, my forehead, my ears, my fingers. It took three years for the end of my finger to grow back. It turned black, mushy, and pretty much fell off. It's flat, but it kind of grew back with the skin and all.
Do you just not notice it's happening, or are you in the zone while you're driving?
You don't notice your face and stuff. You definitely notice your fingers and hands, but sometimes you've got to sacrifice that or you're done up there.
How long does the season last?
I'm usually gone by the 15th of January, and I'm home by the 15th of April.
What do you do the rest of the season?
I have an excavating company down here in BC (British Columbia).
How much money can you make in those three months?
It differs. A driver can make a year's wages in a couple of months up there. The owners don't like to tell how much they make.
Are there are a lot of guys who show up for the first time and immediately quit?
Lots of them. I teach a lot of guys to go up the road the first time and they don't want any part of it. I've had guys when they get to the first camp there, just get out and say, "Fly me out of here. I'm not getting back into that damn truck. Get me the hell out of here." The cracking of the ice, a lot of them can't take it.
Is the cracking as loud as they make it out to be on the show?
No, that's pretty much how it sounds. That's what you hear when you're in the truck—the cracking of the ice.
With all the stress, how is it having a cameraman in the truck with you. Does that get old?
Yeah, it gets old pretty fast. I don't think they show any of those clips when I get pissed off. They say, "How's it going now?" and I say, "Well, I'd like to shove the camera up your ass." I don't know if they put that on TV.
This season there's a girl (Lisa) running loads. How's that perceived by the guys?
Oh, she's a cute little thing. She's about as big as a minute. So everybody wants to help her strap her load down. (Laughs)
I watched the trailer for this season, and it seems terrifying. They're talking about avalanches, frozen water roads, they mention polar bears. I'm waiting for them to tell me the abominable snowman is going to get you guys. Is it really as terrifying as they make it out to be?
I haven't seen the snowman yet, but for me it's not because I've been doing it my whole life. I forget, but then you start talking about it to some rookie drivers and they start shitting their pants and they're terrified.
Do you ever watch the show Deadliest Catch and think, "What a bunch of wussies?"
Well, they can always see what's coming at them. We don't get to see what's coming at us...
Are there any roads that you flat out wouldn't drive on?
Not a chance. I'd try anything once. I've driven all these roads now. They figure I'm about the only one left that's even alive that's driven all these roads. So that's pretty cool.
Do the show's producers ever talk to you beforehand and offer up suggestions, like, "Hey maybe you could have a sidekick this season like BJ & The Bear"?
No, they don't actually talk to me much. They throw a cameraman in there, like throwing him to the wolves, and away we go. They don't talk to me hardly at all. It's reality TV, so they want to keep it real.
Have you ever thought about driving in, say, sunny Florida?
I don't think I'd want to haul on the highway. It just wouldn't be adventurous for me.
CHECK OUT A PREVIEW OF SEASON THREE