It's a positively balmy -17 when we leave the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City at 6:30am. Thankfully the Defender fires straight up this time without the help of a tow. Today's destination is Inuvik. Inuvik is a remote oil town that lies within the Arctic Circle and is the starting point of the infamous Ice Road to our ultimate destination in Tuktoyaktuk or 'Tuk' as is better known. The only way to Inuvik is via the Dempster Highway. The Dempster is one of the world’s remotest roads and one of only two roads in North America that travels into the Arctic Circle. It's a 500-mile long stretch of dirt track with just one service station at its halfway point at the remote settlement of Eagle Plains (Population 9).
We brim the fuel tanks at the bottom of the Dempster at the spot the truckers refer to as 'the corner'. A flashing sign warns of 'high winds', 'frost heaves' and 'ice on the road'. We don't see any sign of the dirt track underneath the February layer of snow and ice. This is real Ice Road Trucker territory. Within a few hundred yards of setting off, our headlights pick out the shape of a wolf running across the trail in front of us. It stops momentarily to stare at us before darting off into the forest.
Mile after mile roll by. The scenery changes from mountains and forests to vast empty valleys. At one point the Dempster follows the line of the Continental Divide on an exposed high level ridge. It's a spectacular drive with the conditions changing from dull grey to blue skies and blowing snow. We don't see any other vehicles apart from three snow ploughs. Mile markers at the side of the trail indicate the total distance covered from 'the corner'. They're a constant reminder of how far you still have to travel. I try not to look at them. As we approach Eagle Plains the snow starts to fall harder. I've been following Wes, stopping occasionally to take photographs. Even though I can only be 5-10 minutes behind him, I've noticed his tyre tracks have now disappeared. This doesn't bode well for the next 250 miles of the Dempster. Sure enough, at Eagle Plains, there's a barrier across the road and a flashing 'road closed' sign. We hadn't banked on this...
The snow is falling but not particularly heavily. In the restaurant the chef tells us the road has already been closed for a day... After Eagle Plains there's an exposed stretch of the Dempster called Hurricane Alley. We're told there are nine feet drifts along Hurricane Alley that are filling in as fast as the ploughs can clear the snow. That would explain the lack of traffic travelling in the opposite direction. Looks like we're here for a while...
Bored truckers sit around in bulky layers of quilted clothing on the well-worn vinyl couches. One will occasionally move to go look out of the window at the weather outside. It's still snowing. They look a tough bunch. Indeed you'd have to be. You only have to look outside at the trucks to appreciate it takes a special breed of trucker to want to work up here. The simple process of uncoupling a trailer involves literally digging your way in! They're used to the snow blocking the Dempster at this time of year and don't appear stressed by it. It's what happens up here. One trucker who's worked the Dempster for 25 years tells us the longest he's been snowed in at Eagle Plains is seven days. He tells us this is the worst storm this year. Just our luck!
In the bar that night we meet a Hungarian/American who's attempting to get to Tuk, the same as us. He's called Attilla and he's driving a well loaded Nissan XTerra. Last year he'd attempted to tackle the Dalton Highway in Alaska. The Dalton is the 'other road' that goes up into the Arctic. Last year he ran into a storm on the Dalton and had been forced to turn around. This year he thought he'd try the Dempster to Tuk and had come unstuck again! He'd seen our vehicles parked up the night before in Dawson and had noticed we'd left town before him. When he could see no sign of our tyre marks on the Dempster he'd started to get worried. Eagle Plains couldn't come soon enough for him.
Word goes round at Eagle Plains that the road won't reopen anytime today. The truckers don't seem bothered. It's all part of the job. We book a room, the Hungarian prepares his bed in his XTerra! We plug our cars into the plug-in outside the motel, the Hungarian plans on leaving his engine running all night.
There's no cell phone reception at Eagle Plains. The nine people who man the gas station, restaurant and motel live on site and rely upon a line of sight radio mast for a telephone. The internet uses a dial up connection and is weather dependent. They have WiFi for guests but the password costs us $5 and we have to hand over our devices for a member of staff to enter the secret code. The downside is, the more people who are stranded, the slower the WiFi speed.
The bar closes at ten on our first night at Eagle Plains. We get an early night. Long days of hard driving have taken their toll and we sleep in until 9am. We open the curtains in the room to find it's still snowing. A lot.
At breakfast, one of the plough crew comes into the restaurant to announce that he's already been towed out twice this morning and that it's unlikely the road will reopen today. Nobody complains. We get another coffee and start to think seriously about whether we now have enough time in our schedule to even make it to Tuk. I have a flight to catch in Vancouver and Wes has to drive all the way back to work on the opposite side of Canada. Attilla had built three days contingency into his schedule for any potential delays, two days’ worth of his contingency had just disappeared.
As I type this, we can't go north and the truckers have advised us not to try going back south until the weather conditions improve. We figure they know what they're talking about and are not going to argue with them. The group of Japanese stuck at Eagle Plains with us however, had different ideas. They've been here four days and are sick of the food. They're going to try head up to the Arctic Circle 15-miles away to grab a picture and then head back down the Dempster to Dawson. One tells us "the plough went north an hour ago so it should be OK". Have they looked outside we wonder? As they pack themselves into their hire car and head off north passing the road closed sign one of the truckers points out that he'd already dragged them out of a ditch on their way north 'and the weather wasn't even bad then!' Five minutes later the Japanese party returns defeated. They can't see the road! Undaunted, they're still going to try head back to Dawson. They disappear again. Another trucker suggests to the guy who towed them out a few days ago that he'll be going to their rescue again very shortly. 'No I f***in' won't! I'll sell them each a shovel for a hundred bucks though!"