Ice Road Smart, Why not?
Ice Ice Baby: Take a tiny Smart car up the Ice Road? Why not?
No, it's not April Fool's Day. And you're probably wondering why you're reading about a Smart fortwo on a site dedicated to trucks. Although this story is about a sub-compact hatchback that could likely fit into the bed of a pickup, this tiny wheeler travels to the famous road as seen on the History Channel's Ice Road Truckers series.
This is not where I want to die. Climbers or hikers end up frozen to death on mountainsides. Not people driving a smart fortwo city car. And it isn't how I want to die either, blown off the planet by a vicious, frostbiting Arctic storm on a remote stretch of the Dempster Highway in the far north of Canada's Yukon Territory. But a cold, lonely death is a real possibility if we don't break through the blizzard now hammering us.
We're on Wright Pass, between Eagle Plains and Inuvik in far north Canada. Berms of snow are forming across the highway front and back. The smart fortwo has the ground clearance of a dachshund, and although the snow up here is powder dry, charging in what looks like a cross between a speed bump and the Pillsbury Doughboy is probably best avoided. But we have no option.
Walls of white explode across the front of the cars as we hit each snowdrift. It looks like a Laurel and Hardy flour stunt, and though it's a fine mess we've gotten ourselves into, no one's laughing. Not when we're 200 miles from the nearest hospital in conditions where no rescue chopper could dare fly.
One, two, three...eight, nine...the number of snowdrifts adds up, and the smart dismisses each with a shrug. However, a rock or a block of ice lodged in just one snowbank would spell disaster. And in zero visibility, the other risk is huge trucks coming the other way. We might be in the middle of a whiteout, but physically closing the road is the only thing that ever stops the trucks from using this permafrost highway to the Arctic.
The road turns and narrows around a cliff packed with avalanche potential. Looking up through the clear roof of the car, I can see hundreds of tons of snow teetering on the abyss. Enough snow to flatten a truck. We have no option but to go for it.
Then, something strange happens. As fast as the storm brewed, it stops. The roar of rushing wind abates. It's. Dead. Calm. Now the buzz of the smart's tiny engine is the only sound ringing in my ears. In fact, it's music to my ears. We are free...
I'm driving a smart fortwo on the Dempster Highway because I can. Because it's there. Because I was born too late to be Captain Cook or Livingstone. Because driving the little smart fortwo around Manhattan might seem a challenge, but isn't. Nor, really, is driving a Land Rover or Land Cruiser to the Arctic. Drive a smart to the Arctic and then out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean on the road immortalized in "Ice Road Truckers"? Now that's an adventure.
Mercedes Canada agreed to ship the two pint-size smarts north from Vancouver only after they'd seen our adventure bona fides, which include 14 Paris-Dakar Rallies, six Camel Trophy events, and our safety plan. That plan involved carrying a satellite phone, emergency locator beacon, survival bags (shovels, stoves, and a sleeping bag), spare tires and fuel cans (gas stations are up to 250 miles apart in the Canadian wilderness). Other than being stacked with survival gear and fitted with Continental winter tires, the two smart fortwos are just like the ones you'd drive out of Roger Penske's showroom.
Base camp is Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. Like a wagon master filling up for a Wild West adventure, I get provisions. Whitehorse is a man's town. No frou-frou labels here. Just shops selling kit that keeps you alive and food to keep you alive -- like beef jerky and chocolate. Not forgetting lots of water. Yukoners prepare for disaster every time they leave their houses. What we carry is no more nor less than most locals stash in their trunks to go visit friends.
The Great White North is appropriately named. For six months of the year, the Yukon is blanketed in snow, and in the Northwest Territories, north of the Arctic Circle, where this ice road journey will end, winter lasts even longer. The Arctic Ocean itself freezes from November to April. The Dempster Highway was built 31 years ago across the tundra to link the oil-boom town of Inuvik to the rest of Canada. The highway is the artery to the Arctic. If the Dempster closes, as it does each spring and fall when two river crossings are impassable, food has to be flown up to Inuvik, sending the price of a pint of milk to $4.
A brief stop at the preserved Klondike gold-rush town of Dawson City, where former brothels are now hotels -- the casinos are still casinos, even though the burlesque shows have become blush-sparingly tame -- gives us a last taste of civilization for 48 hours. Eagle Plains is the only settlement for 300 miles north. The isolation and lack of human interaction on the empty highway is eerie at first. But time inside your own head is a rare commodity, and driving on a road where oncoming traffic can be counted on one hand in one day is even more rare.
Everywhere since leaving Whitehorse, the smart elicits sniggers. The forecast of blizzards beyond Eagle Plains only adds to the jocularity. "You'll never make it through to Inuvik," warns Jim, a trucker. Trucks, big trucks, are all that count north of the Arctic Circle. "Forget it," he says emphatically.
The reality is that the smart turns out to be perfect for the Dempster. With spares adding weight to the rear driving wheels, it sticks like glue to the ice and snow. With the help of the rarely extinguished traction control, it grips the permafrost when Jeeps and other more fancied Arctic fare are spotted buried up to their door handles in snow.
Word spreads that the smarts are conquering the conditions. "It's cool," chokes one snowmobiler we come across. (It seems people are reluctant to give their full names up here. This was a hideout for conscientious objectors, among others.) "It's roomy and it seems to go well. Not my kind of car though..."
Despite the blizzard, we cross the Richardson Mountains, and the last leg of the Dempster opens before us. Look at a map and it's the last line of land before the North Pole. Inuvik is where terra firma ends and frozen sea begins. Inuvik was once on the front line in the Cold War, but is now a hub for the oil and gas exploration going on offshore. That's why an ice road as wide as I-5 wends up the McKenzie River, out into the Arctic Ocean, and up the coast to the village of Tuktoyaktuk (infamous for a Metallica concert played in the snow to promote an ice beer).
The Tuk ice road boasts a white carpet of six feet of floating ice. Six feet might not sound very much, but it can support 64-ton trucks, not to mention a flea-weight smart. To cruise along on a road where fish are swimming beneath you and ruts are caused by waves is slightly surreal. I get out of the car just where the road hits the open Arctic Ocean. Under the tire, over a foot of clear ice is visible before the ocean deep takes over.
Trucks, those that made this road famous in "Ice Road Truckers, Series 2," cannot stop due to the danger of going through the ice. "When they do, it's in seconds but luckily we haven't lost a driver yet," says Kurt Wainman, whose company, Northwind, made the road and who survived going into the waters so cold hypothermia will kill you in five minutes.
An all-season road between Inuvik and Tuk is under construction, and when it's finished, the ice road will be history. That is, if climate change doesn't bring an end to the road first. Either way, before the ice road closes forever, get up to Inuvik to try it out. There's only the Dempster Highway and a few blizzards stopping you.