As a crusading newspaper columnist with steely blue eyes, I have spent a large part of my career sitting on things that are potentially lethal.
I once sat on a 2,000-pound bull named "Free Ride" when the Professional Bull Riders circuit came to town. Then, for the rodeo in Morris, I parked my nether regions on an Arabian horse whose name I don't recall for a brief but terrifying turn at barrel racing.
To say nothing of being a human guinea pig for the newest thrill rides at the Red River Ex every year, because the editors at this paper think it is the height of hilarity when an innocent writer's gastrointestinal system goes into reverse-thruster mode in a public place.
But none of these experiences prepared me for the adrenalin rush of scampering on-board one of the three Amphibex icebreaking boats that have been smashing the frozen Red River around the clock about 30 kilometres north of Selkirk since mid-Februrary.
I became mildly alarmed Wednesday morning when, along with videographer Melissa Tait, I had to sit through an hour-long safety orientation, then sign a waiver before we were allowed anywhere near the icebreakers.
The real sweating began when we had to stuff ourselves into special flotation suits and learn how to use ice picks just in case we somehow ended up in the freezing water. "You stick them into the ice like a mountain climber and pull yourself out," is what Darrell Kupchik, executive director of operations for North Red Waterway Maintenance, which operates the icebreaking fleet, explained.
Decked out like a lunar explorer, you then hop into an Argo all-terrain vehicle and get ferried across the ice to the Amphibex machines as they thrash their way through ice ranging in thickness from 50 centimetres to roughly one metre in a violent slow-motion ballet designed to prevent the formation of ice jams, which can result in disastrous flooding along the waterway.
This is when you learn the most terrifying aspect of the voyage involves grabbing a knotted rope, stepping off solid ice, and pulling yourself ever so carefully up the sloping front of a 20-tonne, 11-metre-long, 3 1/2-metre-wide, $1.2-million machine that looks frighteningly like a giant lime-green steel spider from outer space.
Jutting out the sides of the boat -- essentially a swamp dredger specially reinforced to survive the brutal job of smashing ice in a Manitoba winter -- are massive pontoon-like floats, or stabilizers, that prevent the craft from tipping over as it bobs between ice and water.
Thrusting out from the bow is a huge hydraulic arm that, like an earth excavator, has a giant steel bucket at its tip. The arm doesn't smash the ice; instead, the bucket bites into it, hoists the hulking Amphibex onto a sheet like a spider, and then drops its massive belly on the ice, which is crushed under the weight of the boat.
"You're going to be rocking and rolling and pitching back and forth, so I hope you brought some Gravol with you," is what a beaming Kupchik advised us during the orientation session. "It's like a combination of sitting in a large tractor and a bucking bronco on a boat on ice. To put them together really doesn't make sense."
On-board, as the captain, Brian Sparks, used the claw-arm to hoist us up, then belly-flop down on a slab of ice, the first thing I noticed was the ride was a lot smoother than Kupchik had led me to believe.
"It's not much of a drag-racing machine," Sparks, who spends most of the year as the commander of a search and rescue crew for the Canadian Coast Guard out of Gimli, roared, laughing. "It's not much of a spectator sport. We do half a kilometre an hour at top speed.
"Our goal is to be smooth as possible. Resting it on the ice is what causes the ice to fail. It can get pretty bouncy. Sending out waves can help put cracks in the ice."
Inside the wheelhouse, kind of like the cockpit of a spaceship, the ride is what you'd expect if you climbed inside a clothes dryer, set it on tumble, then plopped the appliance into ice-filled water. It's not unlike revving your car back and forth when it's trapped in deep snow, knowing if you stepped outside you'd be a goner.
Outside the vessel, the view resembles a bizarre lunar landscape.
The thrill isn't so much the bumpy, grinding ride; the real thrill -- and trust me, it is a thrill -- is knowing you are operating a one-of-a-kind machine with so much (bad word) weight and power it can pulverize gigantic slabs of river ice into bite-sized chunks you could conceivably pop into a tasty beverage.
"Some of the guys say it's like playing with a big Tonka toy," Sparks, now in his ninth season smashing ice, declared as the bow was hoisted above a slab and the rear of the craft dipped below the churning water, encasing its bulky hindquarters in an ever-thickening coat of ice.
"We're an excavator and a boat. It's a weird situation. It's the challenge of doing something that's very unique. Once you've done it, it's just the enjoyment of seeing you've broken up the ice on the river, which used to be left to Mother Nature -- until we took over."
The three Amphibex AE 400s travel up the river for a kilometre, turn around and come back a kilometre, before turning yet again and crawling back up, smashing the ice to create a channel about 100 metres wide.
They do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost two months, with two-person crews hopping on and off at the end of 12-hour shifts. "Once we turn them on at the start of the season, we don't turn them off until we're completed," Kupchik noted. "Even while they're refuelling they remain on. By the time we're done, we should have about 30 kilometres of broken ice."
When we were done, we hopped off with the same care you would use hopping off the back of a shark. No one wants to find themselves wedged between the ice and the hull of a 20-tonne boat.
Which is when the boys inside the crew's nearby warming hut treated us to a recipe of their own devising -- slabs of cinnamon bread toasted over a potbelly stove, then slathered with garlic butter and topped with raspberry jam.
That's when things really got scary!