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.
Gerry Kisoun meets us at Inuvik airport. He's our guide for the next few days, and over an excellent burger, he outlines his plan. I call him Big Gerry because he's big in size and in personality. Everyone knows Gerry. He nods his head, waves, and says hello to pretty much everyone we meet during our time together.
He was an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 25 years, and for the last 14 has worked for Parks Canada, the country's national parks program, as a community liaison officer. "I love my land, being part of my people, and sharing my experiences and culture with others. It's what it's all about," says Big Gerry. "This is one of the few places in the world that is truly untouched. It's beautiful."
We're lucky with the weather. Sure, it's brain-hurtingly cold out there-that NEVER changes-but the sun is shining, there's not a breath of wind, and the vast sky is a hard sapphire blue. We load up the Jeep and Big Gerry's Dodge Ram, which act as a mobile rescue camp, with sat phones, safety tents, a massive snowmobile, a powerful heater unit, and plenty of other safety gear.
Meandering our way through Inuvik's half-dozen side roads, we take a sharp right on to a broad arrow-straight road. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flotilla of boats and barges sitting high and dry on the hard shoulder. I'm on the ice road. Just like that. No big neon flashing sign, no cheesy shops. Just a yield sign and we're away.
The ice road is incredibly wide, almost 100 feet from shoulder to shoulder, and thick. At three feet, probably closer to four feet, the ice is easily capable of supporting the heaviest of articulated trucks. The surface of the road is not what I expect. Instead of it being glasslike and slippery, it's rough, dry and grippy-like emery paper. It certainly poses no problems for the Jeep, which simply gets on and does what needs to be done without any fuss or problem.
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.
We stick to an easy 50 mph, but after a few hours of driving something starts to niggle. This is not THAT hard, I think to myself. It's bright and clear, the Jeep's traction-control light hasn't glimmered once-hell, I've even picked up a radio station playing Florence and the Machine. What's all the fuss about? Big Gerry seems to read my mind. 'Man, I can't remember the last time it was this calm and clear. Almost easy, heh! Try and imagine driving a big truck in a whiteout snowstorm, with a howling northeasterly straight from the Arctic, a cell-phone signal black hole, and 95 miles between you and your camp. Now that's HARD."
As night closes in, Tuktoyaktuk-Inuvialuit for "it looks like a caribou"-appears on the rapidly fading horizon line. Half a dozen dim lights slowly reveal themselves as a jumbled assortment of single-story homes, trailers, and bunkers, all sitting on squat stilts. Some caribou.
We dine at John Steen's house. He and his wife, Joanne, run Inuvik's car and truck rental as well as a taxi service. Relaxed and affable, Steen has a smile permanently etched on his face. No surprise, really. His wife is acknowledged as one of the best cooks around, his eldest daughter is the local racing snowmobile champion, and he loves everything about living in Inuvik. "I feel so at home here, you know," he says. "It feels right for me here-my work, my family, everything is just the way I want it."
Meeting expectations, Joanne has prepared a table laden with local specialities and it gives me the chance to practice my few words of Inuvialuit I picked up from Big Gerry: QUYANAINNI is Inuvialuit for thank you, LI means yes, NAAGGAI means no, MAMOQ means good, and TOQ means much or very. We start with rich and dark arctic goose soup (MAMOQ) move onto succulent panfried fillets of trout (MAMOQ TOQ) and then onto MUQTUQ, the skin of beluga whale (rubbery, fishy, and not MAMOQ TOQ at all). Dessert is lemon meringue pie-no, not a local delicacy, but still pretty MAMOQ.
We sleep that night at what Big Gerry describes as the trucker's camp. Hmmm. My visions of cozying up to a bunch of smelly, bilious, hairy truckers in an icy bivouac are dispelled when we pull up outside a blocky two-story building. Originally built by Gulf Oil in the early 1970s, the hotel looks like an oversized trailer home, its stilts giving it a dash of North Sea oil rig. Like a school dormitory, it has a long list of rules by which all truckers must abide or run the risk of being fired: No alcohol, no drugs, no smoking, and an 11 p.m. curfew top the list. It's warm, characterless, and functional, with mouse-fur thin carpets, prefab walls, communal ablutions, and sandpaper towels belying its eye-watering $400 a night tariff.
The next morning, I meet Percy Chabun. He's been an ice-road trucker for 40 years. Craggy and softly spoken, the Canadian driver is now part of the team contracted to build and maintain the road during the winter. "My team and I go out in December and start checking the ice thickness and its integrity. We use V-ploughs to create the road. We grade it, we scour it, we rake it to make it as smooth as possible," he explains. "As a trucker, I've broken through the ice six times myself. Dangerous? Hell, yeah. Gotta respect the ice." And keep an eye on the pay-packet too. "Good, safe trucker can earn six, maybe seven grand a month, take-home. Big money," says Chabun. So did he give up trucking because he felt his time was up? Because of the fatalities? "We don't talk about fatalities, understand?" he says with a steely stare. "Changed because I got tired of driving the road. Now I make it. There's no downside to trucking, it's all good and these people are like family." We leave the truckers tucking into their huge breakfasts-they talk slow and eat fast-and head for town.
The sound of Tuktoyaktuk is the sound of idling engines. No one turns off his motor here. Once the heater stops, a car's cabin will be freezing within a few seconds and-since the diesel fuel is heated by the engine as well-everyone leaves his engines running. And no one worries about theft either. Steal a car, and you've got the North Pole one way and one road leading to Dawson City, some 600 miles the other way. All the vehicles here have some form of plug-in engine heater so the oils and fluid don't freeze. Cranking an engine filled with solid oil and glutinous fuel is a quick way to test the response time of the local garage. So after a night at around -31 degrees Fahrenheit, the plugged-in Jeep starts the first time. More than I can say for more myself. Damn jetlag...
Everything in Tuk is built on 50-foot wooden stilts to keep the buildings off the permafrost. If the warm buildings melt this solid layer, the ground turns swampy and rumpled. Not good. Which means the Tuk gravedigger uses a small back-hoe, rather than a shovel.
Despite its diminutive size, there are four churches in Tuk, although with the five-foot high snowdrifts around them, it looks like no one's been praying for a month of Sundays. On the outskirts on the hamlet sits a Distant Early Warning outpost. A throwback from the Cold War, these manned American and Canadian DEW stations formed a radar line within the Arctic Circle to monitor Russian bombers before intercontinental ballistic missiles came into force. They're remotely operated now and, interestingly, the DEW station in Inuvik is now a rather oddball set of offices.
Before we leave, I spot another Rubicon, one that really validates the Jeep's ice-tackling capabilities. This version is fitted with a portable sonar radar and is driven up and down the ice road between Inuvik and Tuk throughout the winter to check the depth and integrity of the ice.
Although the sky is still clear and blue, there's the slightest of winds and it cuts right through my clothing and drops the temperature to around -22 degrees F. I cannot feel my feet, nose, ears, or lips. The snow is more like talcum powder than ice crystals, and the cold is bone dry. Much like Tuk. There are no restaurants, no diners, no bars, nothing. There's no alcohol on sale, so if you want a beer you have to head south to Inuvik, and the Mad Trapper Bar and Pool Room-the only establishment vaguely resembling a public house in these parts.
So, it's crushingly cold in the winter, there are four churches and no bars. Summer must be worth the wait. Nope. During the summer, the mosquitoes make life intolerable. "They'll cover you until your back, chest, and legs are a black mass. And they'll bite clean through any layer of clothing you have-even those bug jackets. Man, I hate those bugs," says Gerry with feeling. You have to really love Tuk to live here.
On our way back to Inuvik, we spear right off the ice road for half an hour to hook up with Isaac Lennie. The 20-year-old is a trapper in training, and he's just returned from a hunt where he caught the biggest wolf I have ever seen- at least eight feet from toe to tail. "It was a hell of a trip. I was out for four days hunting it. Because the land is ours, we can go out and hunt anything and everything, being aboriginal and all that. Just like my ancestors used to do. But we take only what we need. We have respect for nature."
Lennie could probably break even just hunting-that wolf skin hanging on his wall would be worth around $770 alone - but as one of the top snowmobile drivers in the region, he prefers to make his money racing. Talk about new and old cultures colliding. I mention John Steen's daughter. "Oh, yeah, she's really good. And she's my girlfriend." I'm envious of Lennie's life style. He exudes an unshakable sense of placement: He KNOWS he belongs here and, like Steen and Big Gerry, he's hugely proud of his ancestors' traditions.
As we arrive back in Inuvik, the sun has disappeared behind a blanket of milky gray clouds and within minutes the horizon blurs, the sky and land meet, and everywhere I look is a uniform dull pewter color. It's unnerving-there are no reference points, no way to judge distances.
"Worst thing that can happen in a whiteout is to spin," says Big Gerry. "Because once you're finally back on the road, unless you have a compass you'll have no idea which direction you need to drive to continue your journey. That's if you can get back on the road..."
Later that night it starts to snow heavily, the temperature drops to -36 degrees F and a northeasterly wind knifes through the town.
As we drive to Inuvik airport early the next morning, the weather worsens. I think back to my jaunty this-is-not-difficult attitude the day before and feel more than a little foolish. Those truckers deserve the seven thousand bucks they earn each month. Every damn dollar.
Where we went
We flew from London to Edmonton and then on to Yellow Knife, Norman Wells, and finally in to Inuvik. Our trip was arranged by Up North Tours (www.upnorthtours.ca), the area's leading guide company. So, if you fancy seeing some of the world's last untouched wilderness, saying NAAGGAI to MUKTUK getting frozen to death or eaten alive by mosquitoes, you just need to pick up the phone. Big Gerry's waiting.
Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik-why are they there?
Taglu, Parsons Lake, and Niglintgak- three fields in the Mackenzie Delta-hold an estimated 71 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas reserves. Accessing this resource would mean building the proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline, a 760-mile pipeline from the Delta to northern Alberta, where it would flow into the existing natural gas transportation grid. The pipeline would have a capacity of 1.2 billion cubic feet per day, and a parallel pipeline would be built to carry natural gas liquids. The proposed pipeline itself will cost $18 billion-just to get the gas out of the ground and to where it can be processed. Which gives you an idea of the value of the fuel beneath the surface- and the amount of revenue that would flow into the Tuktoyaktuk. A natural gas liquids facility, which would separate the butane, propane, and pentane from the natural gas-is planned for construction in Inuvik. Which explains why Inuvik's industrial zone is bigger than the town itself. Everyone is gearing up for the construction of the pipeline, which is expected to start in 2014, but only if all the various aboriginal and commercial parties can agree on the contract. KA-CHING.