Day 3 at Eagle Plains.
The road crew had to abandon their equipment last night due to the drifting snow and were going back this morning to try make a way through. We resign ourselves to another day at Eagle Plains and discussing our next meal. With the southern route back to Dawson now blocked, it means I've now no chance of catching my flight back to the UK. Wes isn't going to make it back in time for work and the Hungarian has now used up his last 'spare' day. The forecast is good for the rest of the week and the truckers are confident the road will open tomorrow. We decide we're going to sit it out and push on to the north no matter how long it takes. Besides we're just 15 miles short of the Arctic Circle so we can't turn back now!
The truck drivers explain that when the road opens, they'll let us go first. This worries us slightly since we've seen their driving! They explain that it doesn't make any sense for us to follow them since they'll be travelling a lot slower than us. The Super-B outfits towing two 50 feet trailers are grossing 65 tonnes and despite the tractor units with three drive axles and 600bhp, they tell us they'll be down to 10/15mph on some of the long climbs.
"What about the pile of traffic that's backed up at the other side of the Dempster?" we ask. They explain that because the road will only be wide enough for a single truck in some places they have a system where they let one side go first to clear the backlog before letting the opposite convoy of trucks move. It also lets them maintain momentum on the hills without worrying about traffic heading towards them. The last thing they need after several days of no traffic is a wreck that's going to block the road again since the Dempster is the only transport link with Inuvik.
One can't be stuck with a bunch of truckers on the Dempster Highway in a snow storm without asking the one obvious question we'd been avoiding. 'So what do you reckon to the 'Ice Road Truckers' TV show. These guys weren't fans... "Idiots who can't get a real job anywhere else" was the consensus. After the first series, one guy said his company had received 500 letters asking for a job within the space of a week. "Most of them from frickin' American's who've never even seen snow!"
The traffic regulations for the trucks in the far north are strictly enforced. There are even hidden radar patrols on the ice roads looking to catch out speeding trucks and the truckers we chatted with rubbished the TV programme's depiction of Ice road truckers as 'cowboys' with no regard for regulations or your truck. "You simply can't drive like they do on that show and hold down a job up here. That's why they move the show around every year to a different area."
I've had the Defender engine heater plugged into the mains power for the last two nights but I decide that I really ought to see if it will start since the temperature dropped last night. It struggles for five minutes but does eventually fire into life without the need for a tow. I'm debating whether to leave it running all night tonight so when the road opens tomorrow I'm not waiting for it to start. The heater is a simple heating element that goes into the bottom radiator hose and warms the water. I'm wondering whether the cold starting problem is down to the engine ECU sensing the water temperature and deciding it doesn't need the glow plugs to operate.
To kill time Wes introduces me to Shuffleboard. A miniature version of Curling typically played in bars around Canada. As we shoot a few curls (I have no idea whether this is the correct terminology!) word goes around Eagle Plains that they're going to open the road for an hour as soon as the plough makes it back to Eagle Plains. For the first time in three days the place buzzes with excitement. We load the trucks and fire them up. Not that this will have any effect on the Land Rovers heater. The big rigs don't start their engines since they've all been running theirs on a fast idle for days! At 5pm the flashing lights of the plough to appear and the driver stops to set aside the snow gate. We're off! A solitary truck goes ahead to blaze a trail through the drifts. Wes is behind the truck and I'm behind Wes. I don't envy Wes as the truck throws up an enormous cloud of white powder in its wake that envelopes his Jeep. It's late in the day and the snow is still falling in the fading grey light. Half an hour in and I'm thinking "who the hell thought this was a good idea...?!!"
The stretch after Eagle Plains crosses the Arctic Circle. We don't stop for pictures. The wind is howling through the Defenders door seals and powder snow blows across left to right across the screen. I occasionally get a glimpse of the truck up ahead with its exhaust stacks blowing a telltale twin cloud vapour trail of warm exhaust up into the freezing air. Wes's tail lights intermittently appear up ahead though the snow storm. The exposed stretch of the Dempster Highway after Eagle Plains is what the truckers refer to as Hurricane Alley. Now we knew why the truckers were questioning the decision to open the road with the forecasted wind speed for the evening. I occasionally catch sight of the lead truck up ahead but even though I can only be two or three minutes behind him there is not a single sign of his 18 wheel marks through the drifting snow that blow across the Dempster. The drifts are made of fine powder so the Land Rover powers straight through them but they kick up clouds of snow that momentarily blind you. For some sections I'm navigating by picking out the reflective marker poles in my headlights. It's a scary wild ride through Hurricane Alley. All the more scary since we know it's going to be dark soon and this is no place to be at night. Without a doubt it's the scariest drive of my life. The heater in the Land Rover on full speed barely keeps me warm and the driver's side window constantly freezes up on the inside thanks to me being right next to it!
After Hurricane Alley the lead truck peels off into a layby and lets the following traffic pass. The Dempster now descends to Fort McPherson where the tracks thankfully turn into long and straight stretches. We drive across our first real ice roads on on the frozen Peel and McKenzie rivers. The huge ferry boats stand on blocks on the river banks. On some of the tracks we can even see gravel. It's frozen gravel of course so we can finally make good progress. After the slow speed tension of Hurricane Alley it's a blessed relief to be speeding along in the dark.
We roll into Inuvik at 10:30 in the evening. The town's temperature sign is reading -35. The backlog of traffic waiting to go through the Dempster at Inuvik has ensured the only hotel that has rooms, of the three in town, is of course, the most expensive one. And they've stopped serving food.
Our evening meal is the Hungarian's homemade Grappa that weirdly, reduces the hotel rooms paper cups to a mushy consistency. We swap scary stories of the evening and figure the Ice Road to Tuk tomorrow can only be a piece of cake after what we've just been through.
Postscript: We found out the day after that a truck rolled off the road in the snow storm and much of the convoy had to sit it out in Hurricane Alley for most of the night. Rather them than me!