Having completed the coast-to-coast off-road Trans-America-Trail in 2016, we're hitting the road again with another ambitious adventure and another first for a UK registered Defender.
This time we're driving the MUD Defender into the Canadian Arctic Circle along one of the world’s most remote and challenging roads. The Dempster Highway is a 450-mile route through the Yukon travelling northwards from the old Klondike Gold Rush town of Dawson City to Inuvik in the Northern Territories. Average temperatures will be -30ᵒC and the roads will be snowbound for almost all the 5000 journey through the Canadian wilderness.
From Inuvik, the adventure will continue northwards, following the route of the frozen Mackenzie River on the infamous Ice Road that travels a further 120 miles to the remote town of Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. As construction of the brand new permanent road linking Inuvik with Tuk’ nears completion, the winter of 2017 is set to be the last ever opportunity for some real ‘Ice Road trucking’.
The adventure begins in Denver, Colorado at Brian Williams' British 4x4 workshop. Brian's an independent Land Rover specialist based in Aurora who was generous enough to let me store the Defender at his shop over winter after completing the TAT last year. Prior to my arrival Brian had installed a heater in the bottom hose on the Defender with a mains 110v plug-in to take advantage of the parking lot power points commonly found in Canada. It was going to get cold - very cold - so I figured the engine could do with all the help it could get. A day was spent on the Defender prior to departure just checking/replacing/fixing 'stuff' and fitting the Exmoor Trim radiator muff and Warn winch rope guard. Both were fitted to help cope with the battering the front of the vehicle would take from passing big rigs in the frozen north which is akin to being hit with a hail of machine gun fire from ice and gravel. Ironically it was the sound of real gunfire that woke me from my jet lagged slumber on the morning of departure. That and the stench of weed from the motel neighbours enjoying a toke at 06:30 in the morning. Colorado has legalised cannabis which all sounds very progressive and in keeping with the uber cool Colorado lifestyle. The reality is the smell of dope is now an ever present and so is putting up with listening to stoned dope heads talking shit in their pyjamas on motel balconies. Time to leave...
I'm bound for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to rendezvous with my Arctic travelling partner Wes Branson and his Jeep Wrangler. I first met Canadian Wes in a motel parking lot in Clinton, Arkansas 10 days into my TAT adventure. He too was doing the TAT and we ended up hitting it off and completing the route together. Over a beer one night I told him my plan to drive up to Tuk and it turned out it too was something he'd always wanted to do. Suddenly my solo trip became our joint venture.
Between Denver and Saskatoon lay over a 1000 miles of driving. I took the chance to get off the interstate and travel cross country. It feels good to get away from the traffic and it's a great way to see small-town America. An America that does feel like its disappearing as deserted main streets and boarded up shops and stores are a feature of almost every small town I pass through. Heading up through the farming lands of Wyoming, Dakota and Montana, the towns are no-nonsense and purposeful. Dirt roads run off the main streets meaning every pick-up truck has a thick layer of orange mud on it. The mud inevitably finds its way onto the main streets leaving an orange layer of sludge. I guess nobody bothers with road sweepers out here. The big-rigs don't sparkle like the west-coast 18-wheelers tramping the interstates. The trucks in this part of the world haul logs, huge rounds bales and cattle. They're all filthy. I stop for fuel in Newcastle, Wyoming. It's a town where I notice everything seems to be coated in a layer of dust thanks to the ever-present wind blowing across the prairie.
My route northwards passes near Mount Rushmore. I decide to call in. It's 4pm on a Sunday and the vast car park is empty. It's eerily quiet. I dread to think how busy the place gets in summer. Instead it's me and less than a 100 people, who, if they're anything like me, a probably a little underwhelmed by the spectacle. Sorry America.
The second day on the road is a day of arrow straight roads, grasslands and big skies on permanent repeat. I stop for lunch and fuel in the small town of Hulett near to Devils Tower made famous in the Close Encounters movie. I'm the only person in the cafe and kill time waiting for my order by picking up a local news letter. What appears to be a paper on local beef prices, listings of cattle auction sales and feed prices turns out to do a very nice editorial line in anti-Semitism and general racial hatred. The author suggests the only 'logical solution' is to invade London and kill all the Jews. And 'obliterate Israel'. How he'll find the time for all of that AND keep tabs on heifer prices is beyond me...
I reach the end of the second day in Williston, North Dakota. It's the 24th US state the Defender has travelled through and the last one before we hit the Canadian border tomorrow. It's already getting noticeably colder but once we're into Canada is when it'll feel like the MUD Arctic adventure has really begun.
Total Mileage 840
Defender Count: 0