Gadzooks, it’s cold! A “distorted polar vortex” with frigid air has pushed its way well into the United States, chilling us to the soul and bringing a lot of activity to a halt.

But wherever you are, it’s probably colder in North Dakota, where a brave photographer snapped this picture: A writer at the Los Angeles Times probably shivered as he looked at it, then posted it on the newspaper’s website.

The scene is typical for the Great Plains and Midwest this time of year, with a frozen, snow-covered landscape punctuated by a cluster of grain elevators and bins. In the lower center of the photo is a lone semitrailer, a van, parked perhaps with a load of processed feed, waiting to be offloaded.

The caption says it was 22 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus 50 when the picture was taken. That got me wondering how stubborn that trailer will be when a driver backs his tractor onto it. Will the trailer’s wheels even roll?

I sent the photo to Dick Johnsen, president of Johnsen Trailer Sales in Bismarck, and asked him what he thought. “Two things,” he answered. “If it just came in off the highway and it was parked there, yes, the brakes might be froze to the drums.

“The other thing is to get the park-brake valve to release. Once it gets to 75, 80 pounds, it will release and send air through,” assuming air in the lines and tanks are dry. “But if the brakes stick, you have to get out with a hammer and beat on the drums to crack the ice” that’s holding the linings against them.

Cold weather does send vehicles to Johnsen’s service department. “A lot is nuisance work -- brakes don’t release or they can’t get the lights to work,” he says. Coating electrical connections with dielectric grease makes a big difference. “Do this whenever service work is done, like when you replace a light.”

Praying for an early spring might or might not help, but would be much appreciated, Johnsen says, because the last spring came late, and it was a wet one. That kept farmers from getting into their fields to plant and crops were therefore late.

“They’re harvesting corn right now,” he says. “Most of it goes to making ethanol," which boosts corn prices.

Then there’s the Bakken oil boom, which has further heated the economy in the midst of this cold. The Bakken boom has pushed prosperity throughout the state. Johnsen is selling about 400 semitrailers a year, out of the main location in Bismarck and a branch over in Fargo. Together the two locations employ 33 people.

The boom has also sent business to his shop. “It’s service work and equipment repair, some wreck rebuilding, though some of the equipment isn’t worth the effort we put into it, I think.”

Trucks and trailers slide off icy roads and some are badly damaged, and repairing them is quicker than waiting for badly needed replacement equipment, evidently.

“Sometimes a trailer’s in for 10 days for a wreck rebuild, but the average turn is 65 to 70% daily,” he says. The shop has nine work bays and they’re all usually full.

“We’re outside the (Bakken) range area, but the city of Bismarck is getting a big effect from it,” he says. “A lot of big oil companies have offices in Bismarck. Unemployment is at 2.5%,” compared to national joblessness of 7% or so.

“It looks like this level of (oil) production will continue for at least another 10 years.”


Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Former Senior Contributing Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978.

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