Like so many little girls, Ice Road Trucker Lisa Kelly loved horses, and loved to collect every model horse she could get her hands on. Breyers™, My Little Pony™, any horses Lisa found, she had to have.
Lisa started riding in Sterling, Alaska, where her mother kept a few horses. Pepper, the stubbornest, meanest pony there, was her first mount. Displaying the strong will to learn and overcome obstacles that serves her in good stead driving trucks on the world’s most dangerous roads, Lisa wouldn’t give up. “We were both stubborn, so it worked out. I was more stubborn, so I won.” Lisa had to learn to ride Pepper before she was allowed to get a horse of her own.
Once she learned to outwit the willful Pepper, she was rewarded with her first horse, Poncho, a Palomino that she had for nearly 20 years. The Arab/Quarter Horse cross was “the best horse I ever had. I had so much fun with him! As a teenager I could just get out of the house and disappear into the woods.” Lisa rode Western, and loved exploring Alaska’s endless trails. But when Poncho reached his 30’s, Lisa knew he wouldn’t be around too much longer. It was time to get another horse.
Wanting a spotted horse, she began scouring ads in the local newspaper. Lisa came across a Tennessee Walker filly, advertised as spotted. When she made arrangements to go see the horse, she found the color disappointing. Skye, a weanling black Tennessee Walker, had splashes of white, but not as much color as Lisa had hoped.
Lisa may have been disappointed in her color, but Skye knew immediately that she would be going home with Lisa. Following her around like a puppy, practically in Lisa’s pocket, Skye instantly won her heart.
“She was such a sweetheart. I would have been stupid not to buy her; she was just so sweet,” Lisa recalls. It would be years before she could ride Skye, but that didn’t matter. Lisa was smitten. Skye came home to live with Poncho at Lisa’s mom’s house. For a while, although Lisa owned two horses, she couldn’t ride either one of them. Poncho was too old; Skye too young.
Keeping horses in Alaska is an entirely different matter than keeping them in the lower 48. It’s extremely pricey, as hay can be hard to come by and prohibitively expensive. Horses are allowed to grow heavy coats to protect them from the acute cold. Although they do have barns, the horses live out for the most part because going in and out all the time would be harder on them with the variance in temperature.
As Skye began to grow, Lisa didn’t get to spend too much time with her. Pursuing her new career in trucking, Lisa had moved four hours away from where Skye lived. Between learning her new job, working a lot of hours, and moving to where the work was, Lisa was separated from Skye for long periods of time.
Lisa’s job is not for the faint of heart. Lisa drives the James W. Dalton Highway, better known as “the haul road,” a 414 mile route running from north of Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The road was built to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and parallels it.
It didn’t achieve its standing as one of the world’s most dangerous roads for nothing. Trucks are literally driving on ice. Seventy miles north of Fairbanks the pavement ends, and a 2” layer of ice becomes the new road surface. Big rigs require a smooth surface, and no other material can stand up under these extreme weather conditions. The trade-off is that often drivers find themselves hauling immense loads on a surface as slick as a skating rink.
Drivers face grades as steep as 12 percent on this slippery road bed, and must run a gauntlet of challenges which include “the taps” (a series of steep hills and sharp curves), the high, narrow and glassy Yukon River Bridge, “the roller coaster” which features nearly vertical drops, Atigun Pass (the highest point on the route at a height of 4700’, and subject to avalanches), and the Shelf. The route’s steep grades, sharp corners, and icy roadbed are not the only challenges. A truck that breaks down can mean death for the driver in temperatures that can drop to 60 below. (The lowest recorded temperature in Prudhoe Bay, one of the coldest places on earth, was an astounding -82 degrees). Zero visibility due to “a blow,” or whiteout, can cause drivers to drive right off the road or into an oncoming truck.
George Spears, a war veteran who drove the haul road for 30 years, calls it “the closest thing to combat I could find.” In fact, the drivers are paid so well for traversing this route that they earn the equivalent of combat pay. Driving on ice roads is clearly a job for those who like to live life on the edge.
Lisa began her career on the ice road as one of only three women out of 200 drivers.Lisa doesn’t drive the road because she has to. She became a truck driver “because I wanted to.” She drives the haul road “because I want to.”
Her first experience on the Dalton was in the summer, and it seemed like “just another road.” After Lisa started driving it in winter she realized “the more you see of what can happen, the more you understand just how dangerous it is.”
Although she recognizes those dangers, she says, “It’s just something you kind of learn and get accustomed to.”
Lisa has grown up driving on ice, so her usual driving style worked perfectly for her job. “I drive slowly and carefully, no sudden accelerations, no sudden stops. I pretend there’s an egg under my pedal and try not to break it: it’s all controlled and careful and easy. I approach stop signs so slowly I’m basically stopped by the time I get there.”
In addition to her driving style, gears are crucially important to driving the ice roads. The right gear makes all the difference between success or failure on the steep hills. Drivers also utilize a jake brake, an engine braking mechanism which slows the truck without burning out the brakes on trucks and trailers, especially on steep downhill runs.
Lisa enjoys doing “heavy hauls”: driving the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy loads. In order to stay on, and negotiate the road with those loads, she says, “You have to trust the guy in front of you. You follow him, stay hooked up with him, and trust him.”
Lisa is known for her drive, and desire to continually challenge herself. She says, “It’s important to know yourself, and it takes a long time to learn it. My love of challenges has just been developing all along.”
One of the challenges Lisa took on recently was driving the “death” roads of Bolivia and Peru. Although she’d checked them out on YouTube before agreeing to drive them, the actual in-person view was far more frightening. And it wasn’t only the roads. The trucks were in terrible shape, with problems involving brake failure and loss of steering.
Lisa thought over the commitment that she had made, and considered whether it was worth it. Under the circumstances, it would have been “just stupid to continue. I thought about giving up and going home. But I decided I would do it, if I could do it under my terms.” Lisa would only drive if the truck was fixed to her specifications. The truck was fixed, and Lisa went on to safely, and successfully, complete her assignment.
She’s not sure where she gets her drive from, but her father likely played a role in it. “He just picked himself up and moved to Alaska, and learned to fly an airplane.” Sounds a lot like the Lisa we know and love.
As Lisa spent more and more time on the road, perfecting her driving skills and taking on more, and more challenging, loads, her relationship with Skye remained strong. Every time Lisa came home, Skye ran to greet her, welcoming her joyfully.
That all changed one day when Lisa was filming in Prudhoe Bay. She heard shocking news. Through a series of circumstances, Skye was no longer at her mother’s farm. “Where was she? Was she all right? Was she being cared for?” Devastated and worried sick, Lisa determined that she would track her down and find her.
It didn’t prove to be easy. For nearly a year, Lisa attempted to locate her horse, “chasing her around the country.” She knew that she and Skye shared a special bond, and Lisa’s stubbornness served her well. She would not give up until she located her horse.
She did, at least, have Rocky, a miniature horse (and yes, Rocky has spots). Living in a rented home, Lisa couldn’t keep a full size horse with her. In order to have a horse in her life, she got a miniature. The miniature, however, often seems to think he’s a big dog.
When Lisa returns from life on the road, Rocky invites himself into the house, gives her hugs, and shares snacks like peanut butter with her. He and Lisa’s Sphynx cat, Tanzi, enjoy hanging out together, and Rocky enjoys watching movies with Lisa and her husband Travis.
Rocky rides in the back of the pickup truck, sometimes sticking his head into the front seat as though wondering why he isn’t in front like the other passengers. He and Lisa hike together, with Rocky carrying his own backpack. Lisa hoped Rocky might prove to be a good jogging partner, but that dream ended when Lisa discovered Rocky’s plans didn’t mesh with hers. Dragging a stubborn pony behind her while she jogged was more work than Lisa intended.
Rocky enjoys accompanying Lisa and Travis to motocross events. (Driving trucks on ice roads is not Lisa’s only extreme occupation: she was state motocross champion, and skydives frequently with Travis.)
Lisa acquired Rocky through a fan who breeds minis. Although the man gave her Rocky, initially Lisa couldn’t figure out how to get the horse up to Alaska. Ground transportation proved exorbitantly expensive. Luckily, when Lisa looked into flights, she discovered they were quite affordable, so Rocky took a plane to his new home in Alaska.
A baby when he arrived, Rocky only reached Lisa’s knee. He since has learned many tricks, including bowing, fetching, shaking hands, and pulling a cart.However adorable he is, he’s also “a little pain in the butt; he bites and kicks.”
Rocky loves being in the limelight: in fact he steals it most of the time. He’s been on CNN, has his own “Rocky’s Nation” on Lisa’s website, and has his own fan page.
Great with kids, Rocky happily puts up with them crawling all over him. When one of Lisa’s friend’s kids was in the hospital, Lisa took Rocky to visit the child to cheer him up. Although they couldn’t bring Rocky into the hospital, they could bring the child out to Rocky. He lay down in the grass, and Rocky lay down in the grass right next to him. Rocky has proven himself so good at understanding the needs of children that Lisa is having him certified as a therapy horse.
Rocky has no idea he’s a miniature: he sees himself as a big horse. He’s also “a total camera hog, he sticks his nose right in the camera. You can’t take a photo without him in it!” Rocky has play dates with other miniatures in the area, and has dressed up as an angel, and a unicorn, among other costumes for holidays.
Although Lisa loves Rocky, he can’t replace a full-size horse in her life. Lisa was determined to find Skye. “If you want something, don’t sit there and wait for it. Go get it!” She kept up her search. In time a rumor reached Lisa that a fellow motocross racer was dating the woman who had Skye. At a motocross track in Anchorage, Lisa ran into them.
“I heard a rumor that you have my horse,” Lisa said to the woman.
“I do have your horse.”
Lisa instantly lost control of her emotions. “Oh my gosh, I bawled like a baby!” she recalls.She told the woman, “I have to come see her! I’ll be down this weekend.” Lisa’s emotions were mixed: from the joy of finding her horse at last, to the sadness over their separation and the anger at what had caused it.
That weekend she raced to the woman’s home to see her horse. Hearing Lisa’s voice, Skye came tearing right over to her. She had been missing Lisa as much as Lisa missed her.
Unfortunately it was only a temporary reunion, for despite all of Lisa’s work to track her down, getting Skye back wouldn’t be easy. She was going to get her back; she would find a way. She just had to figure out how.
Lisa wasn’t sure where she would keep Skye. She didn’t think she would be allowed to keep Skye at home as there were no facilities on the land for keeping her there.Still, there was space.
Lisa talked to her landlord. Could they build a place to keep Skye? To her amazement he agreed. Skye could come and live there.
“Really? I can bring my horse!” Lisa exclaimed joyfully. All the pain and frustration was disappearing. Lisa knew Skye would come home to live with her. Now all she needed to do was earn the money to put in the fencing and barn, plus lay in a good supply of hay, not a cheap commodity in Alaska.
Meanwhile, Skye was sold back to Roberta, the woman who had bred her, with Roberta promising to keep her for Lisa. It was all right; Lisa now knew where Skye was, and that she was safe and in a good home.
Lisa knew she would have to drive as many loads as she could on the demanding ice roads to bring Skye home.
One day while she was in Fairbanks, Lisa discovered a Schleich™ horse model she didn’t have, a black horse. She purchased it to add to her collection. Once she returned to her truck, she showed it to her cameraman. He inquired if Lisa had bought it as a prompt, to encourage her to take extra loads to earn Skye back. Although it hadn’t been Lisa’s intention, it worked. Whenever Lisa needed to focus on her goal, she picked up the black horse and was reminded of Skye waiting for her. “It gave me something to focus on. You want to take more loads. You add up all the expenses and it motivates you to keep going. I had the money to buy her, but not feed her and keep her.”
Skye, meanwhile, had been bred, and was now a mother herself. Even when the preparations for her living quarters were finished, Lisa had to put off their reunion until Skye’s baby was old enough to be weaned.
Eventually, all the time, all the extra loads, paid off. Skye came home.“The day I bought her was such a good feeling. She’s mine, and she’s never going anywhere again.”
After weeks on the ice road, Lisa can’t wait to come home to see Skye and Rocky. She rides Skye right out of her backyard on to the trails, with Rocky accompanying them. (Rocky comes in handy, when Lisa couldn’t find any way to get up on Skye bareback, Rocky was right there, so…she used him as a mounting block.)
If Lisa can’t decide whether to ride, or do errands, no worries. She jumps on Skye and heads into town where she first stops at the local coffee shop, riding up to the take- out window to get her coffee to go. When she rode up to the window she found they were unprepared. Although they kept treats for dogs that went through the drive-in window, there were none for horses. Lisa plans to correct this omission by donating some horse treats so that Skye, and her friends’ horses, can get their own rewards when going through. Now she’s ready to do her chores on horseback. It may take her “eight hours, but it’s so much fun!”
The horses are not Lisa’s only pets. She has two cats, a Ragdoll named Kitty who was rescued from the pound and was their first animal, and Tanzi.(Lisa had always wanted a Sphynx.) Lisa keeps it to two cats because she doesn’t want people “to see me as a crazy cat lady!” She also has a dog acquired on her latest shoot in the Andes of Peru. The dog she rescued in Most Dangerous Roads in the Himalayas was adopted by the film’s producer. (You can read his story, available on Lisa’s website, www.thelisakelly.com).
Skye has been back with Lisa for a few years now, and their bond continues to grow. Lisa rides with an Australian stock saddle (ever since she was really little, says Lisa, “I wanted all the Australian gear, now I’ve got it!”), or an endurance saddle when she’s not riding bareback. She’s also been known to snowboard behind a horse. Trying to increase her knowledge about horses, Lisa took Skye to a Parelli clinic, where Skye “did everything I asked, she was awesome!”
Lisa is ecstatic to have Skye back in her life. “She’s a blast; I’ve had so much fun on her and she’s turned out to be the nicest little riding horse ever. She’s so easy to teach! I take her jogging with me. There’s so much we can learn together, do together, we have so much fun together! We spend hours with each other. I’ll never sell her in my entire life. I’m living my dreams with her: either on top of her, or next to her.”