There's an odd distortion to the horizon line here. There's nothing to break the flat and unending line between land and sky, and the result is that the sky seems twice as big as normal. It's an impression enhanced by the sheer scale of this low, flat land. It stretches, endless and pristine white in all directions, every view a constant reminder of just how vast and virginal this country is.
We stop to absorb the size and silence of this monochrome land. Even the occasional outbreaks of trees are low and gray. Stunted by the cold and the lack of nourishment, few top the seven-foot mark. Dig six to eight inches into the nutrient-poor soil, and you hit permafrost, year-'round frozen ground that's harder than precast concrete. Their shallow root system means the trees are hugely susceptible to wind, resulting in drunken-looking forests of firs growing in all sorts of directions.
Rather alarmingly, the silence is broken by the ice snapping and popping. "Truck's coming!" hollers Big Gerry, explaining the road's soundtrack. A good five minutes later, a truck rumbles into view, chugging its way back from Tuk to Inuvik down the middle of the ice road. I sense more than feel the ice beneath me move and adjust to the passing weight. It's a peculiar sensation.
The truckers are under enormous pressure to get as much material up to Tuk during the winter. While the huge barges that ply the Mackenzie when it's flowing can deliver tens of thousands of tons at a time, a vast fleet of semis are needed to run around the clock to deliver the same amount by road.
We continue north to Tuk. It becomes mesmerizing watching the endless smear of ice and snow flow beneath the Jeep's bluff hood. The view through the windsshield is exactly the same as that in the mirrors. The Jeep's lazy 3.8-liter straight-six is ancient-the pushrod powerplant made its debut in 1990-but it's smooth and torquey enough to hustle the 4350-pound Jeep along at a pace that borders on the enthusiastic.
There's a 45-mph speed limit on the road, and although the traffic police rarely speed trap on the ice road, those truckers that do get nabbed face a hefty $770 fine-and instant dismissal from their jobs.