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Lisa Kelly - An Ice Road Hero

by Jake Tully - Published: 12/19/2017
3.7 8 votes

There are plenty of infamous truckers who have made runs throughout North America, and for better or for worse, some of these drivers have relatively wild claims to fame for their infamy.

Many of us have heard the gruesome and dark tales surrounding trucking such as the Truck Stop Murderer, as well as the more lighthearted yet still tragic stories of heroes of the small screen such like Darrell Ward.

Much like Ward, the driver’s companions in the ice road trucking game are incredibly interesting individuals as well, often boasting incredible feats and pushing the parameters of their trucking job to the limits – often jeopardizing their lives in doing so. 

One individual who has often embodied the paradigm of amazing commercial driving stories is the Michigan-born driver Lisa Kelly. As one who has spent a great deal of their professional career trucking through the wilderness of Alaska, Kelly also serves as an important figure for the growing forces of women in trucking, as well as an overall example of a professional who is always confident in her work.

Lisa Kelly with her trusty Kenworth

Becoming The Famous Lisa Kelly

Prior to becoming one of the most well-known trucking figures on the continent, Lisa Kelly was not always a professional driver dealing with some of the most dangerous territory in the country, but she did have some background in commercial driving and operating vehicles that were somewhat unconventional.

Before joining the show, Kelly held a position as a professional school bus driver as well as a self-proclaimed motocross enthusiast. Kelly notes that through these avenues, she developed a greater understanding and care for world surrounding large-scale trucks and potential careers in these trucks.

Eventually joining the fleet at Carlile Transportation in Alaska, Kelly’s transition in the transportation was no easy one. In searching for a truck driving job, Kelly has reported to some sources that she felt companies she applied to disqualified her simply because she was a woman, while others let her know how difficult a position at the company would be due to her sex.

Carlile Transportation proved to be an excellent workplace for Kelly, helping her in beginning a trucking career and acting as a carrier that did not discriminate her because she is a woman. Carlile helped propel Kelly onto the professional and well-known team in the Alaskan trucking circle, an arena that soon found their next skilled and expert driver in the form of Kelly.

Networking in the an area outside of the lower 48 can be incredibly difficult and present many more challenges than networking in a trucking-rich area like Texas. In this sense, Kelly is not only lucky to have run into the right folks, but undoubtedly her skills in the truck helped propel her to stardom.

Carlile Transportation is where Lisa Kelly calls home

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The Path To Ice Road Trucking

After gaining some footing within the Alaskan trucking circle, Kelly was soon approached by Darrel Ward as well as other key figures of the Ice Road Truckers and the History Channel crew in order to expand the scope of the program to include a wider array of truckers and types of drivers.

Reportedly on furlough from Carlile, Kelly worked for Darrel Ward’s company, Polar Industries, hauling various loads over the ice while getting a feel for how filming the show in addition to being on the job might feel. It was clear to many that Kelly got the hang of the filming/work balance quickly, and soon became a prime candidate for the History Channel show. Though Kelly had experience in making hauls through weather and territories that were less than friendly towards drivers, taking on the routes that ice road truckers traditionally deal with was somewhat new territory for her, though she nonetheless persevered and found her footing on the ice, as it were.

At the start of season 3, Kelly became the first female driver to join the show, and the only female driver on the cast until season 5. Though facing some initial trepidation from the fans, Kelly soon became a fan favorite and paralleled only Ward in terms of popularity after becoming a staple of the series.

A Typical Week For the Ice Road Trucker

To say that a job in trucking is typical is largely false in many cases, as many will tell you that it can be one of the most unpredictable careers in the country. For ice road truckers, this unpredictability is doubled, if not tripled, with a great deal of factors to contend with in addition to potentially difficult loads one might haul.

In watching the crew of drivers on the History Channel, it may come as no surprise that Kelly and company saw their fair share of difficulties on the road. In particular, Kelly’s problems often stemmed from the fragile nature of ice (falling through the ice or potentially becoming “de-railed” from the path) or truck problems such as fluid levels that many vehicles in cold weather might face.

Despite facing the inevitable, Kelly was a driver that always preached the virtues of preventative maintenance versus maintenance after the fact. No matter where one might be driving – whether it’s sunny southern Florida or The Last Frontier – regular checkups of your rig are key, especially when operating in a sparsely populated area north of the lower 48.

Kelly, among her fellow drivers also had to meet the demands of real-life clients who often had immediate and necessary needs for their businesses, homes, or projects. Transporting supplies and fuel to a client who is severely in need of them is one thing – transporting these items while putting one’s life on the line is another ordeal entirely. There is no “easy” job in the realm of ice road trucking, simply jobs that are less treacherous than others.


Lisa Kelly – Breaking The Mold

In a challenge unique to Kelly, it was imperative that Kelly never fall behind from the pack, so to speak, or display any weaknesses that might lend criticism to Polar Trucking employing a female driver. While this standard is certainly not one that is fair, it is one that that was unfortunately imposed on Lisa Kelly at the time, and one that she contended with brilliantly. Kelly may have seen an additional difficulty in attempting to establish a presence in a fairly remote location. (One wonders if Kelly had began her career in California, for example if she might have seen a larger and more supportive local circle of truckers.)

In facing horrendous weather, potential truck breakdowns and meeting the often unwieldy expectations of a male-dominated industry, some might argue that Kelly has accomplished the most over her years on television, and in many ways has helped flip the script for the general public’s perception of the trucking world and those who inhabit it.

In interviews over the years, Kelly has spoken to the criticism she received at the beginning of her involvement in the show, and mentioned that she took it in stride. Over the course of nearly a decade since she joined the cast, the face of trucking has changed in many ways, with more diversity in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity as far as filling trucks on the road. In our current social climate as well as our current state of lack for drivers, one may be hard-pressed to find those who still oppose the idea of women working behind the wheel

Nevertheless, it is important for high-profile figures like Kelly and high-profile programs like Ice Road Truckers to continue to promote a varied class of truckers. Making moves such as hiring fellow female drivers Maya Sieber and Steph Custance in later seasons, Ice Road Truckers continues to move forward with a pro-trucker agenda.

Lisa Kelly is a true ice road trucking hero


Lisa Kelly’s Role In Trucking

Aside from a story that shows Kelly’s positioning from an average trucker to one of the most famous drivers in the world, one can look at this story and see a tale lying beneath it that speaks to the average trucker. 

Drivers do not always have to be in the know or have friends in high places in order to be a success. Rather, they can be high achievers through perseverance and a dedication to their field. Kelly was, for all intents and purposes, an average American driver whose trucker job took her to stardom. However, it was not without her proven commitment to trucking that she eventually caught the attention of an excellent fleet as well as an outstanding driving opportunity.

Not every driver will have the chance to become a star, nor does every driver wish to be in the spotlight. Some truckers are simply looking for a position that pays well and a career opportunity that will provide for a nice life. No matter what one’s professional goals are, one can follow the Lisa Kelly model – hard work, diligence and a winning attitude will take one very far.


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