The temperature in Inuvik had warmed up overnight. As we climbed into the cars, it was a mere -25 outside. The Dempster had closed again overnight. I’d left the Land Rover running outside the hotel all night (10 hours) and had the coolant heater plugged in but the temperature gauge on the dashboard remained resolutely nailed to the bottom of the gauge. I turned on the heater blower to warm up the cab. First speed. Nothing. Second Speed. Nothing. Third speed was enough to coax the heater motor to slowly spin into life. Similarly Wes turned on his windshield wipers to clear the dusting of overnight snow off his screen to find the wipers barely able to crawl their way across the glass until the electric motor had shaken off the effects of the morning cold. Oil in the gearboxes of the cars had seemingly been replaced with porridge overnight and both Wes and Attilla had noticed the brake pedals on their respective vehicles had a distinctly spongy feel to them. I had acquired a huge iceberg that had attached itself to the mudflap nearest the exhaust tailpipe from the moisture in the exhaust and my GPS refused to power up. It was cold.
None of this was going to stop us reaching our destination today. Today was the real reason we’d driven all this way. In my case 3,600 miles from where I’d started out in Denver. We were driving the ice road to the remote settlement of Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk). In the summer, the town of Inuvik marks the end of the 460 mile Dempster Highway. In winter, however, it is possible to extend your journey northwards on the frozen Mackenzie River to Tuk for a further 120 miles making it one of the most northerly points in the world you can drive to. A primary reason for all of us making the drive to Tuk was that completion of a brand new gravel road linking Inuvik with Tuk meant the winter of 2016/17 was set to be the very last season the ice road to Tuk would open. It was now or never.
We gassed up at one of the two gas stations in town. Cost of fuel had been getting progressively more expensive the further north we travelled but at what was literally the end of the road, fuel was now approximately 75% more expensive than the US/Canada border. At the gas station we bumped into Glen and his family who’d been snowbound with us at the Eagle Plains truck stop. Glen had noticed the tyres on his Wrangler’s tyres looked decidedly soft. Another example of the effect that extreme cold has on your vehicle.
We passed the signs for no bathing and various nautical themed warnings and suddenly at the foot of a wide slipway we hit the ice. You couldn’t even see the join. Forget what you’ve seen on Ice Road Truckers. There is no creaking and cracking of the ice and driving looking anxiously out of the window. All of that is pure fictional drama and sound effects created for TV. Indeed, one Ice road trucker told us in the nine years he’d been driving the ice roads, he could only ever recall one truck going through the ice and whenever it did happen it was usually somebody foolishly ignoring signs at the very end of the ice season. This particular trucker told us he wasn’t ever worried about the risk of going through the ice since his fuel tanker would float anyway!
A short distance from Inuvik we passed the surreal sight of a row of barges and ships hauled up out of the river for the winter. Our convoy speed was now up to 60 mph. We pass the occasional grader/plough scraping the surface of the ice and removing the occasional snow drift but there’s very little traffic on the road. Not even a real life ice road trucker.
It’s only on long sweeping bends of the river that the ice tries to catch you out as the cars start to slowly drift in controlled balletic unison. It’s never scary and after awhile, the ice road is just a road like all other roads. Just a bit shinier... And then you stop to take pictures and the moment you step out of the car, your legs flail wildly beneath you like a new born foal.
When we arrive in Tuk the wind is blowing and the temperature -45. The town is a ramshackle collection of steaming timber homes all built on stilts above the level of the permafrost. The 800 people who live here have their fresh water trucked in and waste trucked out. The community freezer is a hole in the ground with ante chambers leading off it full of dead seal, caribou and sea birds. Vegetarianism isn’t a big scene in Tuk. As we drive into town to find the gas station, a local man hacks at a large block of ice on his front porch. Within the block of ice is a fish...
Arriving at the town’s gas station that doubles as the local supermarket two teenage girls climb aboard the snow mobile that’s been left running outside. The passenger clutches a 40in TV to her chest and they head off across town taking the short cut across the frozen shores of the Arctic Ocean.
As we fill with fuel, a lady at the fuel pump opposite Wes, tells him he ought to cover his face as he’s getting frost bite. He looks in the mirror and notices one side of his nose has gone a cadaverous shade of white...
In the time it takes for me to fill with fuel the temperature gauge in the Defender has gone from normal running temperature to stone cold. And that’s with the engine running. And the radiator completely covered. We decide to skip the slush puppy drinks and ice cream offerings in the gas station.
The town’s cops show up as we finish fuelling up. They tell us there’s not a lot of crime in town with ‘Liquor bootlegging’ the most common crime they have to deal with since alcohol is strictly controlled with the indigenous Inuvialuit population. We’re told the going rate for a small bottle of vodka is $50/60 CDN. Wisely, Attilla keeps quiet about the homemade Grappa he’s carrying. The cops warn us of a storm that’s blowing in later that afternoon and that we ought to be thinking about heading back down the ice road before they close it. Besides, the best photo op in town they can offer is an igloo and the gate marking the start of the new road. ‘You can’t drive on it though’. We’d reached our goal and all we had to show for it was full tank of (expensive) fuel and picture of an igloo before we were heading back south.
True to the cop’s word, a storm blows in and in contrast to the sun and blue skies we’d enjoyed on the journey north, heading back down the ice road for the most part was accompanied by darkening skies and enveloped in a swirling cloud of fine powder snow. Inevitably, it was on the ice road where we had our one and only ‘off’ when Attilla stuffed his Nissan XTerra into a snowbank. On a straight stretch of the road... A few yanks with a strap attached to the Defender and he was free with no damage done. Even to the bottle of Grappa. The temperature drop is noticeable when I’m aware the heater is struggling to keep me warm. A spare fleece spread across my legs made a decent make-shift blanket! It could’ve been worse. Wes had to contend with the ever present internal snow storm creeping through his Jeep’s soft top.
Back in Inuvik we toast the success of our adventure with a beer in the hotel bar. We’d driven to the top of the world on a frozen river. What’s more the MUD Defender had now driven across the entire breadth of USA and travelled from New Mexico to the top of Canada. As the waitress pulls three bottles of beer from the fridge she asks us ‘Do you want those in frosted glasses?’ Outside it’s -30. Of course we do!