It was -15 degrees Celsius, and a snowstorm caused cars to slide into ditches, while major accidents forced the closures of highways.
It wouldn’t seem like a good day to travel on a road made of ice, but last Friday, it was business as usual on the Hudson-Oka Ice Bridge – a two-kilometre crossing over the frozen Lake of Two Mountains.
“We almost never close because of weather,” said Louis Léger, 49, who runs the Ice Bridge with his older brother Jean-Claude, 50. “We’ve never had a collision between two cars here.”
Situated at the pier for spring, summer and autumn ferry crossings between the two towns, the ice bridge is a four-minute shortcut to avoid an 80-kilometre detour, and roughly an hour of driving.
You won’t find the bridge on Google Maps, or your GPS system. And it’s absent from all official maps of the region. That’s because it’s a private road run by the brothers, usually between January and mid-March. The bridge opened on Feb. 3, when the ice got to at least one foot thick, a measure that is deemed safe to cross. The brothers must hope that thickness holds for at least six weeks for the operation to break even and recoup the investment of renting the land and hiring employees.
The Léger brothers meticulously measure the ice, every 100 metres along the route. By Friday, the cold temperatures for the week had brought the thickness up to 18 inches.
“People give us their Christmas trees that they can’t sell, and we place them every 100 feet,” Louis said while sitting in his pickup truck on a break from plowing. “It helps people find their way in bad visibility, but that’s also the spot we measure the thickness of the ice.”
“Last year we didn’t open it at all,” Jean-Claude said while sitting in the passenger seat. “It got to 12 inches, but the ice was soft because it was always mild. We usually start at 12 inches thinking that it’s going to gain in thickness. Then, we usually get up to as much as 20 inches.”
The brothers follow guidelines set up by the Quebec’s workplace safety board, the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail. There is no approval or oversight by the Ministry of Transport, but the brothers say they ensure the road is in good shape to protect their interests.
On Friday, Louis operated a plow, while Jean-Claude was operating a truck with a snow blower, going out to clear snow every few hours to avoid having a major buildup of snow.
“Today’s a good day,” Louis explained. “It’s snowing, but it’s really cold, so the snow is really light. It’s easy to move. It’s like flour.”
While some people would shutter at the thought of driving over ice, the bridge gets a pretty decent amount of traffic – about 200 to 250 cars daily pay $6 per crossing between 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Any car or pickup truck can make the crossing. The weight limit is 3,200 kilograms, which precludes cube vans or anything heavier.
“We use the Ice Bridge every time we need to go to Vaudreuil,” said Normand Bourassa, who works Les Puits Deux Montagnes, based in Mirabel. “It’s much faster. We also use the ferry in summertime. I’m never worried because I’m an ice fisherman, so I know the ice is safe. No problem.”
Louis said there are a few cars that disrespect the 30 km/h speed limit and skid out of the cleared path, ending up in a snow drift.
“We had two drivers over the years that rolled over and totalled their cars,” Louis said. “They were going, like, 100 kilometres an hour. Once the car starts sliding, you’re on sheer ice. Even if you hit the brakes and turn the wheel, you’re out of control.”
“Those are not called accidents,” Jean-Claude said with a laugh. “They’re deliberate manoeuvres.”
There are other ice bridges in the region. Just up the lake in Rigaud, a crossing links St-André d’Argenteuil with Pointe-Fortune, as a shortcut between Highway 40 (or 417 in Ontario) with Highway 50 near the town of Lachute.
Perhaps none have as much history as the Hudson-Oka bridge. People have been crossing this section of ice for more than a century. Back in the early 1900s, Mohawks from Kanesatake would travel on horse and sleigh to work at the Wilson Ice Factory in Hudson. They carved blocks of ice out of the lake and sold them to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which used them for refrigeration.
The Léger family are a part of the crossing’s history. Their father, Claude, operated the frozen crossing for a few years in the ’60s and early ’70s.
“He didn’t have a snow blower,” Jean-Claude said. “Just a truck with a V-plow and a straight blade, in those winters in the ’60s and ’70s. That was tough.”
Claude Léger also owned the land for the ferry crossing and ran that business until he sold it in 1999, turning it over to a company with deep enough pockets to upgrade the service. The brothers work as employees on the ferry in the summer, and rent the land in the winter to run the frozen crossing. Jean-Claude and Louis have been operating the ice bridge since 1988. However, it didn’t dawn on them that they hit a major milestone of 25 years running the bridge until a reporter mentioned it.
“Oh yeah?” Jean-Claude said. “Let’s celebrate. Let’s go to the bar. Willows. And buy ice.”