Ice Rebel: Driving the Canadian Ice Road in a 2016 Ram Rebel Mopar Edition
Duct tape…✔, energy bars…✔, Baffin -94°F snow boots…✔, -40°F sleeping bag…✔, update life insurance…✔.
When a buddy rings in the middle of the night and says, “Hey, want to drive the Ice Road?” your mind spirals into a frigid vortex with thoughts of Sir John Franklin and Robert Falcon Scott, polar explorers who met their maker as human popsicles. Christian, a French Canadian working in Texas, said, “We can fly in and rent a car; we’ll be like the Ice Road Truckers.”
North of the 49th parallel, British Columbia, and the Klondike Gold Rush town of Whitehorse is a frozen expanse rivaled only by Siberia and Antarctica. It is a land of extremes, where life and death may depend on the clothes on your back or the vehicle you are driving. Caribou lazily promenade across frozen lakes, bison forage through deep drifts for grasses entombed by winter snows, and the opportunistic red fox scavenges carrion—casualties of the Arctic food chain. In early spring, temperatures hover around 20 degrees F below zero and routinely push the mercury down to a bone-numbing 50 below. Add a stiff breeze and you’d better have your affairs in order.
The thought of driving to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) on the Winter Road, a thin layer of translucent ice that would apparently protect me from a certain and chilly death, had not only intrigued but also scared the crap out of us—we must have a phobia of drowning and freezing at the same time. However, recent news reports suggesting that a soon-to-be-complete, all-weather route to Tuk would be the Ice Road’s death knell prompted us to cast our fears aside.
The wheels were in motion for a midlife-crisis adventure in the frozen north. However, a quick search of available rental vehicles revealed construction trucks, land-sled SUVs that resembled an UberBLACK ride, and generic econobox cars with the curb appeal of moldy Limburger cheese on rye. We needed a steed with an attitude, born and bred for badass adventures—one that was as at home dancing on ice as it was blasting down a Baja two-track. My thoughts drifted back to a Ram Rebel I drove through the Arizona high country a few years ago, and a new plan was hatched.
The snow began to fall as soon as we crossed the border into Canada. We’d shuffled the calendar to clear a three-week window, enough for an 8,000-mile road trip, and talked the guys at Ram Trucks out of a sweet ’16 Rebel Mopar Edition. Fitted with a 395hp, 5.7L HEMI, TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission, and Toyo Open Country all-terrains, the Rebel would be the perfect platform for a marathon blast to the Great White North. Most importantly, it had four-wheel drive and heated seats. As for Christian, we’d pick him up in Whitehorse and we’d head for the Arctic Ocean.
There are technically two routes to the Yukon and Northern Territory: the Alaska Highway and the Stewart-Cassiar. The latter won the bid, as it receives far less traffic and provides for optional side trips to noteworthy settlements of the Klondike Gold Rush. Passing the ski lifts and plush digs of Whistler Village, we threaded a path through the coastal range to Stewart, a settlement on the western reaches of the Portland Canal. Originally discovered by British Royal Navy Captain George Vancouver in 1793, the steep-walled inlet lay relatively untouched for another century. It wasn’t until 1902 that the Stewart brothers arrived, establishing a post office and setting the foundation for one of the region’s busiest mining ports. By World War I, the population swelled to more than 10,000, but as is the case with most boomtowns of the Klondike, numbers dissipated quickly, and the remaining residents turned to fishing and trapping. Stewart’s glory days are a distant memory, but it remains an idyllic locale for an end-of-the-road lunch stop or rustic B&B stay.
The emptiness of Northwestern Canada boggles the mind. It is rich in geological features, but people are few and services are as infrequent as rain in the Atacama. The highways, which were merely gravel veins through dense forest before being paved a few decades ago, are the arteries of commerce. The milepost is the common denominator of all conversations along the route, be it a gas station, herd of moose on the road, or accident. A turn at milepost 187 might lead to the Lemont homestead, 235 to a place to drop a line during the salmon run. Place names, such as Stewart, Watson Lake, or the Cassiar Mountains are almost always the surname of the first non-native to set foot on or settle the area.
We peeled off Highway 37 around milepost 300 and turned west along the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Since the last Ice Age, a river of the same name has slowly and persistently been cutting a deep swath through the granite, glacial-lined landscape, creating a dramatic aperture to the Pacific Ocean. At its terminus is the Tahltan First Nation enclave of Telegraph Creek. Prior to the gold rush, it was little more than a seasonal fishing village, but as prospectors flooded in and the town developed, it blossomed into a bustling hive of commerce. In 1866, it became the eastern terminus of the proposed American-Russian telegraph line across the Pacific Ocean—thus the moniker.
During the early 20th century, Klondikers didn’t have mileposts. Some made the initial journey by sea, while others followed an overland route through British Columbia. Each presented clear and present dangers, and they took their lives into their own hands when they struck off. There were few resources and limited infrastructure; nary enough for the thousands of would-be millionaires. Even today it remains a place where spans between fuel sources can leave one in a pickle. Fortunately, the Rebel’s 400-mile range kept our mind at ease as the odometer spun through the burbs of New Hazelton, Dease Lake, and Kitwanga, remote outposts along the Stewart-Cassiar. We met the Alaskan Highway at milepost 450, turned north, and shortly drew to a halt in a state of confusion.
An arrow on the signpost indicated Paris, 6,379 miles. Another read Mexico City, 2,153 miles in the other direction, and yet another implied Prudhoe Bay was just a 1,102-mile skip up the road. We’d arrived at Watson Lake and the Sign Post Forest. The forest is said to have been planted by a homesick soldier in 1942, and naturally propagated to its current state. Heavy snow fell as we wandered through the hundreds of timbers supporting more than 100,000 road signs, each directing us toward the hometown of a melancholy traveler. The saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” is a bona fide fallacy—at least in the Western Hemisphere. Our findings confirmed that every road from every town on the planet led to this very spot. It was like waking up in a Tom Petty video with Alice (from Wonderland) and a 6-foot pink rabbit.
The Frozen NorthChristian strapped in in Whitehorse, and now, being two middle-aged guys on the loose, we made an obligatory stop at the Yukon Brewing Company (for supplies) before dropping the accelerator pedal and heading up the Klondike Highway toward Dawson City. Founded in 1897 after the discovery of gold, Dawson retains the requisite DNA of a proper Wild West mining town. Once the Yukon territorial capital, wooden boardwalks line wide streets, boot-kicking patrons filter through musty saloons, and whispers of gold strikes drift from dimly lit back-corner conversations. Although thousands of tourists pass through these parts in the warm summer months, during the short, frigid days of spring, reports of shifting ice on the river or a moose on Main Street make the headlines. Upon our arrival, chatter over the boardwalk telegraph of the upcoming Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race dogsled competition was all the rage. Dawson was also the last fuel stop before heading up the infamous Dempster Highway, the desolate 460-mile trek to Inuvik.
During the winter, daily traffic on the Dempster might be as few as a dozen vehicles, mostly trucks ferrying supplies north to the handful of year-round settlements. Those who venture onto this stretch can expect subzero temperatures, flooded and frozen roads, and avalanches. One must be self-reliant; if an emergency should occur, help might be days away—during big storms, the highway authority simply closes the road. We arrived at such a time, and with a short window of opportunity, we stepped into the Jack London Grille and tipped a few rounds to the weather gods. I must admit there was a hidden agenda behind our motorized madness. A few years earlier, Christian had organized the Maya Rally, a half-baked overland dash from the U.S. to the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Our campaign was a scouting run for a similar event, the Ice Road Rally. As with the Maya madness, the Ice Road Rally would lack a starting line, defined route, or rules. Just find your way to Inuvik, where there’d be a checkered flag and a big party (on the ice).
It was oh-dark-thirty when we pulled out of town. Internet sites stated the Dempster was still shut down, but the previous night a local barkeep said, “Should be clearing…head to the bridge early and try your luck.” The news was good: the flashing road sign read Eagle Road Open. Crossing the one-lane Klondike Bridge, we entered a frozen no man’s land, passing the Tombstone Mountains, Two Moose Lake, and Engineer Creek. About 150 miles in, a sign read, “Beware of landing aircraft.” In these parts, where endless groves of dwarf alder trees blanket the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the road doubles as an airfield. Just shy of the Richardson Mountains, a brilliant white rise in the terrain that haloes the 66th parallel, we pulled out the Jetboil and celebrated reaching the Arctic Circle with a hot cup of joe and Baileys.
The Ice Road“Want an ice cream sandwich?” Christian said as we stood looking down through a layer of fissured ice into an abyss of frigid blackness. “It’s minus 25 degrees outside,” I responded. There are times in a man’s life when things don’t need to make sense, when logic, or the lack thereof, is perfectly logical. “Ice cream it is!”
Although we’d been on frozen roads and had the Rebel in four-wheel drive since Whistler, we didn’t hit the ice until we reached Inuvik. Some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and resting on the banks of the Mackenzie River, Inuvik is the most northern enclave accessible by road during the summer months. Considering this would be the last opportunity to drive the Ice Road, we thought we’d be joined by heaps of adventurers staged for a dash north. What we found, however, is that we were the only Yankees wackadoodle enough to venture into these parts when it’s cold enough to freeze a spitball before it hits the ground.
While the first Canadian ice roads were developed in the 1930s, the indigenous peoples of the north have utilized frozen creeks, rivers, and oceans for centuries; their smooth surfaces provide natural conduits of transportation. We edged the wheels onto the glistening blue surface of the Mackenzie, mashed the accelerator, and let the Rebel’s traction control transfer its 395 hp to the ice. The Rebel was the perfect platform for such a sojourn, with the stability control working so well we had to turn it off to get the truck to drift on high-speed corners. Just for giggles, we pushed the needle well past the posted speed limit, slammed on the brakes, and took my hands off the wheel. It was eerie how well the ABS brought us to a straight and narrow halt—far better than our human skills could have accomplished, crushing our fragile manly ego.
About 50 miles north, the Mackenzie spills into the Arctic Ocean and the road veered east toward Tuk. Formerly known as Port Brabant, Tuk rests on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Its origins span back centuries before Europeans arrived. Situated on a natural harbor, it was utilized by indigenous tribes to harvest caribou and beluga whales. During the Cold War, it became part of the Distant Early Warning Line to monitor any Soviet intrusion on North American soil.
With threats of Russian invasion a distant memory, Tuk has settled into a sleepy village of yesteryear. During the summer, its scant population of 854 souls is cut off from the world by miles of impassable tundra. As winter sets in, temperatures dip into the single-digit range, and the Mackenzie River begins to freeze. By November, the ice is 3 feet thick, enough to support a vehicle—even a semi. We wandered around town chatting with locals, walking the cemetery and museum, and exploring the decaying detritus of America’s Cold War occupation.
The Ice Road would officially and permanently close on April 29, 2017. It would be the end of an era, and we’d beaten the spring melt by just a few weeks. Turning the wheels south for the first time in 3,500 miles, halfway back to Inuvik we decided to explore a thin red line on our map that led to Aklavik, a water-locked outpost to the west. We stopped in the silence of an Arctic spring, gnawed at our brick-hard ice cream, and examined the crystalline white fissures of the ice underfoot. Christian raised an eyebrow and said, “Hmmm, another ice road?” I gave him a nod, “Bingo. We may have an Ice Road Rally after all.”