Seated on a bar stool inside a windowless dive on the heels of the Arctic, I nurse a beer under a string of Christmas lights – in the middle of April. Newspaper clippings of the Mad Trapper Pub’s namesake, Depression-era fugitive Albert Johnson, adorn the walls. The only other customer is someone around the corner and out of sight who’s just fired up a game of Pac-Man. Clock hands must move differently in Inuvik, or at least that’s my conclusion after yet another extended disappearance by my bartender. I tip back the dregs of a Yukon Gold lager, slide a stack of toonies across the bar and leave, wincing at the sudden blast of light reflected off the snowy town.
The midnight sun is yet another factor that makes Far North timepieces feel frozen, but a dramatic shift is coming in less than a year. It’s an anticipated change that will be a relief for many, yet a development so basic for most Canadians that it just underscores the divide between Southerners and Northerners: a permanent road connecting the region’s 2,500 Inuvialuit (or Western Canadian Inuit people) across a speckle of islet towns. Until now, they’ve relied on ice – as have I, here to be among the last to drive the Tuktoyaktuk Winter Road before it turns to slush, to water, then is gone forever.
Beyond the rainbow-coloured townhouses that pop like paint blotches on a fresh canvas, and Inuvik’s two striking white domes (one an igloo-shaped church, the other a satellite transmitter broadcasting cable TV), the ice road dips into the Mackenzie River and stretches 187 kilometres into the tip of the Arctic Ocean. Made famous by the reality show Ice Road Truckers, it has been grated and ploughed regularly since the 1950s. That is, until 2013, when construction began on a much narrower but more reliable gravel road atop the permafrost, with highly scientific geotextiles limiting further damage to the precious frozen soil. Thawing permafrost is one concern, immobility is another. For many in islet towns – “Tuk,” Aklavik and Paulatuk – this past summer could be the last time they have to spend $400 on a half-hour flight to Inuvik’s dentists, or $10 for a jug of milk.
Since Prime Minister John Diefenbaker conjured the Dempster Highway 60 years ago, it’s connected 730 kilometres of Western Arctic communities with many false starts whenever mining in the Klondike region boomed and busted. This, the final stretch, is being compared to the “last spike” of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
My travel mates are British and German automotive journalists, ready to push our fleet of Mercedes-Benz GLE 400 4MATIC SUVs to their limits. We meet over breakfast to hash out the plan: trace the Dempster from end to end, from the Arctic Circle through the heavenly Richardson Mountains, and finally arrive in Dawson City.
Dawson is where the Gold Rush had its start, but today it’s better known for the sour-toe cocktail. “Sour toe?” asks one of the Germans. I dare him to Google it. When he winces, I know he’s discovered the story of a blackened, shrivelled digit in a whisky glass. “It has to touch your lip to count,” I explain. He passes his phone around the table, each European wincing in horror until it reaches Danny Kok, a semi-retired Formula 1 racer from Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, who simply nods to affirm its existence.
Survival gear in the G-Class includes safety flares, rescue blankets and race-car jacks for rapid tire changes.
Kok and three others from Driving Unlimited are our instructors on this trip – and rescue party, should it come to that. “You can drive six hours on the Dempster and not see another vehicle,” he says, recalling a time he covered it in -50°C temperatures and 80 km/h winds. “Just going out to change a tire… people can die in that extreme weather.” Hence the survival gear in his G-Class: safety flares, rescue blankets, satellite communications, race-car jacks for rapid tire changes and recovery equipment should a vehicle go off-road. “Our number-one priority is making sure everyone comes back in one piece.”
Priority number two? A bucket-list-worthy adventure, of course.
Full speed ahead
“I’ve driven on every continent but Antarctica, but this comes pretty close,” Kyle Fortune, a Scottish writer and World Car of the Year juror, says reassuringly as he steers the heated wheel, pointing the car onto the river. The sign says Area unsupervised: Swim at your own risk, but the COMAND navigation assures me there’s a winter road beneath the tires. With snow-dust blows from bank to bank, a scarred but sturdy glass appears under us, reflecting a clear blue sky. Spruce forests thin out as the latitude on the screen rises from 68° to 69° and the temperature drops from -14°C to -20.5°C. The windows quickly frost. I could be fooled into thinking we were roving the moon at high speed, save for remnants of oil barges frozen in place.
Every 10 minutes or so, someone passes our four-vehicle fleet – heavy-duty trucks, a converted school bus, a $200 taxi ride from Tuk and, most photogenic, a caravan of huskies pulling tourists who are surely grinning under their balaclavas. As Fortune takes wide turns on the river, he keeps his foot off the brake, simply steering and letting the electronic stability program correct the slightest skids. “You can feel just the slightest adjustments,” he says, adding, “I tend to drive cars hard.”
Soon, with Kok’s crew up ahead communicating a clear path via radio, Fortune shuts off the ESP, accelerates well past the limit and jerks the wheel. Powder whips around us and we spin wildly in sport mode, surely rearranging the contents of our stomachs. The seatbelt gives a reassuring hug as we drift, then releases with a soft sigh as Fortune takes back control. My envy growing, we swap seats halfway to Tuk, just past an embroidered shirt on a stick that signals a turn to Aklavik.
At 90 km/h, aggressive winds whistle past my window and try to sway the light-truck-rated tires, but the aggressive tread clings to the ice. The wheels make constant micro-movements to maintain traction, even as unavoidable pressure ridges become more frequent closer to land, forcing my hands to gesture like I’m sharpening chopsticks. Our convoy stops again to take turns posing in front of the Arctic Ocean sign – the only thing to do when you’re on top of the world.
After a three-hour drive through barren tundra, Tuk looks like a mini Manhattan.
After our three-hour drive through barren tundra, the beige trailers and stilted houses on the horizon make Tuk look like a mini Manhattan. But, really, it is as traditional as an Indigenous community can be in 2017, where hunting and fishing are both sacred and essential for a town with high unemployment and astronomical grocery costs.
We spend a few hours photographing the unique landscape, stop at the RCMP station for a bathroom break (where else would we go?), then head back to Inuvik to rest before the full-day drive to Dawson City. But we soon learn that a blizzard and 100 km/h winds have forced the closure of the Dempster. Ploughers can’t even work it, and over lunch the next day, Kok explains that we’ll have to be flown out. It is just a taste of what locals experience most of the year, and evidence of why “the road,” as they’ve come to call it, is so vital.
In Tuk, hunting and fishing are both sacred and essential.
“Who’s donating their toe tonight?” asks Fortune.
After a long pause, I chime in. “We’ll just have to draw straws then.”
With an extra day – a beautiful and sunny day – in Inuvik, I head to local Mavis Jacobson’s in search of an authentic souvenir, beyond photos and memories. There I find the aroma of moose hide and cabinets displaying seal hats, ornate moccasins and stone carvings, which she sells on behalf of makers across the territories. The Inuvialuit woman grew up in Tuk, where her father was a hired bear monitor – protecting oil workers from Earth’s largest land carnivore with a shotgun – but moved to Inuvik when she was 12.
Jacobson recalls her childhood in Tuk, where a favourite pastime was looking for artifacts. “I found a couple of spearheads, a coin could have been left behind from the explorers,” she says, “and I took an arrow to the research centre. They said it was 600 years old.” She still makes regular trips to see her siblings and many relatives in Tuk, though they find themselves visiting Inuvik more out of necessity, and at great cost.
I purchase a beaded brooch and pin it to my expedition coat, then set out to explore a town that’s become surprisingly multicultural since the Dempster opened to it in 1979. I eat at one of the most popular restaurants, the Roost, a Palestinian-owned Chinese takeout place with a Filipina hostess, Sudanese deliveryman and indigenous cook, and visit the western hemisphere’s northernmost mosque. Diversity is a strong indicator of economic opportunities, but also urbanity. As I return to the car and pull icicles off the Mercedes-Benz star emblem, I recall Jacobson’s words when asked if she’s worried about the road. Whether its virtues could also pave over the Inuvialuit traditions protected by isolation.
“No,” she told me. “Tuk will always be traditional. Their sense of culture is too strong. It’s going to be awesome for them. And for us, to visit more.”