I am wearing longjohns, tracksuit trousers, jeans, and ski overalls, two pair of socks, winter boots, a thermal vest, a T-shirt, a turtleneck sweater, a fleece zip-up, another fleece jacket, a ski jacket, scarf, furlined hat, and two pair of gloves. I am cold to my core. My head hurts, every joint aches, every inch of exposed skin feels raw and battered.
"Yup," says Big Gerry as we head toward the Jeep, "Only twenty seven below and the sun's shining. Nice and warm out here." He buttons up his anorak over his faded orange T-shirt, hitches up his jeans, and pulls on his cap.
I know some wit said there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, but he'd obviously never been to Tuktoyaktuk in the winter. Here, the cold is like a relentless physical assault-the moment you step out into it, the pain begins. It hammers and hurts you, attacking and sapping your energy. Unless you're Big Gerry, that is.
Located well within the Arctic Circle, Tuktoyaktuk is Canada's most northerly settlement. It sits on the edge of the Mackenzie River, and for seven months of the year this isolated collection of hardy buildings and their frontier inhabitants is accessible only by water. But during the winter, the river freezes-solid and wide enough to become a permanent highway from mid-December to mid-April. That's the short window when an army of 50-ton articulated trucks runs around the clock between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk before the outpost becomes an island in the spring.
The ice road even gets a name-once declared open, the 120-mile-long stretch formally becomes a section of the Dempster Highway that runs 580 miles southwest to the Yukon gold-rush settlement of Dawson City.
We flew in to Inuvik yesterday morning to tackle this ultimate leg of the Dempster Highway and drive to Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk as the locals call it. Our transport is a Jeep Rubicon Unlimited. It's an icon in Canada and North America. It's lasted this long because it's bloody good at what it does. While most domestic off-roaders will be fine for much of the time-most people in Tuk and Inuvik chug around in vast double-cab Dodge Ram, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ford Super Duty SUVs-I know the Rubicon will dig me out of pretty much anything the Arctic will throw at us. Fitted with a Rock-Trac low-ratio all-wheel-drive system with on-the-fly shifting, Tru-Lok electronic locking front and rear diffs, and grippy 17-inch off-road rubber, the Rubicon is the hardest and toughest Jeep you can buy.