Ice Road Adventure Drive
Dateline: March 2013
Yukon & the Northwest Territories, Canada
This North American winter (2016) will be the last time you'll be able to drive across the Arctic Ocean on a public road - one of the infamous, 'ice roads'! We thought we'd recount our 2013 adventure here.
We were beginning to read the 'road' a little better as I gingerly headed the big Chevy Suburban towards the thin covering of white that offered just a little more traction than the deep blue that took up much of the cleared road ahead of me. Lightly feeding the throttle I let the speed climb slowly to 100kph while keeping a very wary eye on the wide road sweeping away to a far and distant glittering white horizon.
We were in Canada's far north, driving down the frozen Mackenzie River on one of the fabled 'Ice Roads' of the Arctic, but this is the only one in Canada (or Alaska) that is north of the Arctic Circle, takes in a 35km section of Arctic Ocean and, most importantly, is open to the public.
We had arrived in Canada just a week previously and when we told the questioning Customs official what we were doing for our holiday, he laughed and said, "You guys have been watching too much of the Discovery Channel!"
And it was probably true, as much of the allure of the Ice Roads has been fuelled by the documentary/reality TV show, Ice Road Truckers, which sees truckies hauling huge loads north over temperamental ice roads where every step or turn of the wheel is seemingly fraught with danger. Luckily for them ... and us ... the truth is not nearly as dangerous, but you never let truth get in the way of a good story ... or a TV show!
Still, the Arctic can be a bloody treacherous and threatening place and the Ice Roads are vastly different to driving a sandy track in Oz. For snow and ice neophytes like us, who generally stay away from the cold stuff as much as possible, we asked lots of questions and kept our mouth shut and our ears open.
One question we asked a couple of times related to snow chains on tyres and each time we WERE told, 'We don't use them ... just have a good set of mud and snow tyres and you'll be fine'. We opted to fit the three Chevy Suburbans in our group with Cooper ST Maxx tyres.
The theory of this lack of snow chains, goes something like this: The weather and the ice is so cold up in the far north the ice is 'dry' and even a little grippy; it doesn't generate the slip that wet ice does. It sounded good and we definitely saw more vehicles speared off the road from hitting ice down in the southern Yukon where Spring was warming the weather and producing a film of water to the ice that dotted the highways.
From Whitehorse, where we had picked up our vehicles and gear, we headed north on the main Klondike Highway that winds its way north through sensational mountain, lake and river country. Small hamlets, not much more than a roadhouse, such as Braeburn, Carmacks, Pelly Crossing and Stewart Crossing offer the winter traveller a chance to fuel up with petrol and hot coffee, while in places the road travels beside or crosses the mighty Yukon River or some of its major tributaries. These include the Pelly and the Stewart Rivers, but all at this time of the year are frozen into static white displays of ice more than 50-60cm thick.
We drove the 535km between Whitehorse and the northern frontier town of Dawson City easily, but with the temperature a cool –15°C, with just a touch of wind chill added to the mix, we ran from the cars to the hotel bar and rooms!
Next morning with the temperature hovering around the -20°C mark we joined the hardy locals and watched the start of the Percy de Wolfe dog sled race (see: www.thepercy.com). Run to commemorate the famous postie who delivered the mail for 40 years through the wilderness surrounding this town, there were 16 teams, including one Aussie (John King from Newcastle), in the 338km race which takes mushers and their faithful dogs from Dawson, down the Yukon River to the small Alaskan town of Eagle and back. The race time this year was an incredible, 22hrs and 6 minutes; the lead dogs averaging 15kph for the total distance! Later in the trip we got our own small taste of dog sledding as we mushed our way along the frozen Takhini River outside of Whitehorse – it's something we definitely want to do again, but next time, for much longer!
We waved goodbye to Dawson and turned onto the normally graveled Dempster Highway for the long drive north to the remote Eagle Plains roadhouse and then the small First Nation settlement of Inuvik, nearly 800km from Dawson.
This is the only road in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle and is kept open during winter by consistent work by a number of road crews who clear the blizzard dumped snow off the route and keep the ice under some sort of control. Occasionally the crews get overwhelmed, or the route becomes just too dangerous to drive because of gale force winds howling across the tundra, and the route is then closed, more normally north of Eagle Plains roadhouse, where everyone is then forced to stop. Two 'Ice bridges' across major rivers (the Peel and Mackenzie - which in summer see ferries running), are also maintained and kept open for one and all. These have a weight limit on them depending on the thickness of the ice, but as it is generally in the 30 tonne or more bracket; it's not an issue for recreational drivers such as ourselves.
Once on the Dempster the road follows the North Klondike River and then enters the spectacular Tombstone Territorial Park, climbing the ranges of the same name. Cresting the top at North Fork Pass the route is icy and often wind blown, but the view west across the snow filled headwaters of the North Klondike River to Mount Tombstone is picturesque and memorable.
Over 350 unforgettable and eye catching kilometres north of Dawson the road climbs the long hill to the crest of the Eagle Plains and a short distance later you come to the only facilities along the route and roadhouse of the same name.
That night the Aurora Borealis or 'Northern Lights' put on a grand display made even better by the limited amount of ambient light around the roadhouse. The trick, as I was to find, was the take a photograph of these dancing, pulsing ephemeral waves of coloured light with the temperature at -25°C.
Next morning, our route dropped down into the Eagle River valley and soon came to the Arctic Circle where every first time visitor has to stop. From here the route crosses some bare wind blow tundra, which the locals call 'Hurricane Alley', before climbing to another high crest where you cross the border into Canada's Northwest Territories.
Winding through the superlative surroundings of the Richardson Ranges for the next 50km the route then drops down to the Peel River crossing and the small community of Fort McPherson. The road continues, now in undulating country, to the Mackenzie River crossing and from here on, it is a visually unexciting run to the major community of Inuvik on the eastern edge of the Mackenzie River delta.
Inuvik is the main town in this part of the Northwest Territories and was established in 1953 and now has a population of 3500. A military base was established here in the 1960s, while oil exploration occurred from the 1970s. All that stopped in the 1990s and the town has struggled to find its way, although tourism provides a small and growing income for many.
Next day we took the road out off town and drove down onto the frozen Mackenzie River, stopped at the 'Yield' sign and turned north, this time, on the Ice Road proper. As simple as that! Our destination was the small community of Tuktoyaktuk (or more simply just 'Tuk'), 185km away on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
For most of the way the route sticks to the Eastern Channel of the river, its summer shipping lanes marked by navigation beacons that stand above the shallow marshes and mudflats that sprawl across the delta, which in winter is just one continuous expanse of snow and ice. We passed isolated log cabins, a deserted village where reindeer had first been introduced into Canada and then an old military 'early warning' base, its defensive benefits superseded by satellites and anti-missile systems.
We had started our drive tentatively enough but after a few days on ice and snow covered roads we were beginning to feel a lot more confident. The tyres were running white across their whole tread pattern indicating there was maximum contact with the snow or ice, while our driving technique was slow and steady with a minimum of braking.
The ice road itself was relatively easy to drive on - the speed limit is 70kph but we cruised a little faster on the good sections - meaning those covered with a little snow, which improves traction. The outside temperature was down around -17°C, which means the ice is pretty good - dry and not so slippery. When the weather begins to warm up to between -10 and -5°C the sun melts the top-most layer and it becomes very slippery. Still we tried to stay away from the bare 'glare ice' as our guide, Gerry called it - we'd call it 'blue ice', but you get the idea.
Occasionally when things got a little out of kilter the traction/stability control on the Chevy would kick in. It worked surprisingly well but what surprised me was the few times it was really necessary. With little traffic on the route - barring the odd local pick up, fuel or supply truck, and even a taxi, we cruised most of the way at 80-90kph, letting the back end float out on the corners only to have the fun and the vehicle corrected by the on-board electronics. We only found out later how to disable the electronic controls on these latest Chevy trucks, so we had more fun on the return journey!!
As we swung out onto the Arctic Ocean a line of huts denoted a summer whaling camp and then a sign indicating we were at the Arctic Ocean. We all had to take a pic at the sign, as well as play silly buggers, swimming in the Arctic!
As we pushed on to Tuk - Tuktoyaktuk - we travelled about 500-1000 metres offshore, the road twisting this way and that to keep on the thickest ice. It was strange to be in the middle of a shipping channel with the navigation leads on each major turn.
The ice was about 2-3 metres thick when we drove it, but when the road is first graded it is just 60cm or more thick and only capable of supporting a pick-up. They grade the whole road and especially the rough sections and flood sections which need a build up of ice, working it up so they can carry the required 32 tonne. It made us feel better, knowing our vehicles only weighed 4-5 tonne!
Tuk is a small Inuvialuit settlement of about 800-900 people on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Once called Fort Brabant, it became the first place in Canada to revert to its traditional native name in 1950. It has a store and fuel station where everything, as you'd expect, is pretty expensive. There is no accommodation for visitors, so most drive to and from Tuk in a day and use Inuvik as their base – which is what we did. Most people here still rely on hunting and fishing to supplement their food and when we were there the caribou migration was passing nearby and many locals were out hunting.
In all we visited a couple of isolated communities, their only access by Ice Road through the Mackenzie delta. It being Spring the locals were in a party and sporting mood and we caught the first of the festivals up there - the Mad Trappers Rendezvous at Aklavic, while also spending a night in what they call a 'Quincey'; which is something like an igloo but nowhere near as romantic. At -32°C we spent much of the night around the fire feeding the flames with a high pile of timber and while it's a night none of us will ever forget, I don't think any of us will volunteer to do it again.
All too soon we had to head south, the road and weather having deteriorated since our northward journey but the cars behaved faultlessly and it was an easy run back to Dawson and then to Whitehorse. Our High Arctic, Ice Road adventure was over but it'll be a long time before any of us forget it!
Whitehorse, the start of our trip, is the capital of the Yukon and is easily reached by air from Vancouver. See: http://www.yukoninfo.com/whitehorse-yukon/.
Best Time to Go
March and early April are by far the best times to go to drive the Ice Roads. For the best road info go to: www.dot.gov.nt.ca - and search for 'Road Conditions'.
Hiring Gear and Vehicles
Whitehorse is really the only place you can hire vehicles and cold weather survival gear for such a trip. There are a number of providers in the town and for our Chevy vehicles we used the very professional, Driving Force; see: www.drivingforce.ca.
There's a good choice of accommodation in Whitehorse but elsewhere it is limited or near non-existent during winter.
For Whitehorse visit: http://www.travelyukon.com/Plan/Accommodations
For Dawson visit: www.dawsoncity.ca
For Inuvik visit: http://inuvik.ca
A number of guiding operations can provide a range of adventure activities in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories. We used the small Inuvialuit owned and operated company, Tundra North Tours (http://tundranorthtours.com), based in Inuvik. Run by Kylik Kisoun Taylor, (with his uncle Gerry Kisoun being one of the guides), this tour operation has some excellent guides and have plenty of tour packages to offer.
The End of the Road!
The Ice Road we drove to Tuk is due to be replaced with an all-weather gravel road by September 2017. For more info see:
While there are other 'ice roads' in Canada and next door in Alaska, this is the only one north of the Arctic Circle; it is the only one that crosses a section of the Arctic Ocean ... and is open to the public. It is far and away the best road to experience; if you want to drive it, get in soon!
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon