Crunching along the snow-strewn streets of Inuvik leading to the start of the Ice Road, we spot a sign that warns of swimming at your own risk. It’s a reminder that the town, with a population of just over 3000,is a vastly different place in the summer months, when the Mackenzie River delta swells with water from melting ice and the local airlines are kept busy ferrying adventure-seeking tourists here from the south. Not that it is an easy place to get to: our journey to Inuvik involved five flights in total.
The Ice Road demands your respect. It’s not a place to let your mind wander for too long. A lot of it is straight. And although there is an occasional curve, they’re all fairly gentle affairs requiring very little in the way of steering lock.
When you get out of shape, the best recovery action seems to be a handful of opposite lock and gentle application of power. The generous width of the ice, which in places is the equivalent of a six-lane highway, permits you loads of time to react. While the snow lining the road doesn’t look too threatening, it is often backed by thick slabs of unrelenting ice.
Our destination of Tuktoyaktuk, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, is one of the northernmost towns accessible by car anywhere on the planet. Once an important army base, it became a strategic centre for the oil and gas exploration of the Beaufort Sea following the oil embargo of the early 1970s. Petroleum giants such as Imperial Oil brought great prosperity and employment to the region, with the establishment of colossal drilling plants and associated infrastructure.
When we stop and get to examine the Ice Road up close, we notice some rather large fractures and ridges. But with a thickness of up to 1.5 metres in places, the frozen river surface is stable enough to support trucks up to 40 tonnes. And it doesn’t take long before an articulated lorry fires past in a cloud of dusty snow.
When they do, the ice sinks subtly into the water below as it reacts to the added weight in what the locals describe as an ice wave. The thought of the next section of ice cracking up and swallowing you and your car whole never really leaves your mind, despite the assurances of the locals.
To ensure the safety of those who use the Ice Road, the local authorities regularly monitor its thickness with sonar devices placed in trailers towed behind their standard-issue Chevrolet Blazers. The thickness of the ice sheet determines the vehicle weight permitted on any given day and the limit is posted on road signs. It is a bizarre feeling to be barrelling along on ice at close to three-digit-km/h speeds for hourson end. Early on, each overtaking manoeuvre is a buttock-clenching moment, knowing that, even with the brake pedal mashed into the firewall, it’ll still be 100 metres or so before we manage to pull up.