White road. White horizon. White sky. A drive on the ice road of the frozen Mackenzie River from Inuvik to Tuk in Arctic Canada.
Our week in Inuvik primarily focused on mushing our own dog sled team but part of the destination attraction included a scenic drive on an ice road. Adventurous at heart, we could not pass this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we eagerly made plans to add this experience to our Arctic trip.
The Mackenzie River Ice Road
Traveling north of Inuvik in Winter offered the unique opportunity to drive on the frozen Mackenzie River, turning the river into the longest public ice road in North America. This represents the only section of the Dempster Highway that is not on actual land and that cannot be driven through the summer, compared to the rest of the road that connects the Klondike Highway in Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Come winter and its Arctic temperatures, the rivers and lakes extend a lifeline to remote communities in the Northwest Territories, with trucks hauling fuel and supplies to last over the rest of the year, when flying is the only option.
Driving To The End of the World
We started our day early that March morning as we headed toward Tuktoyaktuk. Locally known as Tuk, this small Inuvialuit town is located on the shores of the Beaufort Sea about 118 miles (190 kilometers) and one hour and a half drive north of Inuvik.
It was our first time driving on ice, and we were thrilled and concerned at the same time. We had seen a couple of episodes of the US reality show “Ice Road Truckers”, featuring dangerous moments of trucker life on the ice road. The Season 2 of the TV series had been filmed on this portion of the ice road and we were expecting treacherous conditions.
We quickly realized the show was more dramatic than the reality and were surprised how relatively easy and safe the drive felt. Granted, the road was groomed all the way with a fine layer of snow providing good traction. The road was rather large, and could have accommodated a regular 6-lane road, which gave an added sense of security – plenty place to skid! Moreover, the weather was relatively nice that day, though on the cloudy side. I would not picture driving in a blizzard as the visibility would be totally obliterated. Even the light wind we encountered that day sent enough snow around to slow us down as it reduced our visibility at time.
The scenery was eerie. No soul in sight. No car. No lane divider. No side protection. No speed sign. No red light. Just open road miles after miles.
The occasional eighteen-wheeler would appear and drive by at what seemed to be full speed compared to our cautious pace. But these were certainly driving slower that we imagined as too high a speed from these trucks could generate vibrations and in turn, create cracks in the ice. Due to the obvious challenges of these roads, the ice road truckers are specially trained for the icy roads and winter conditions. Moreover, the ice was so thick, roughly 3 feet (1 meter), we were told a Boeing could land safely on the road without issue!
Road Trip Down The Mackenzie River
The Ice Road runs for 70 miles (113 kilometers) along the frozen Mackenzie River and then 40 miles (65 kilometers) on the Arctic Ocean following the coast of the Beaufort Sea. Though it was hard to imagine we were indeed on water, we noted a change in the landscape as we drove. The Mackenzie River first snaked between gently rolling hills, passing by the Reindeer Station and the Richard Island, where the
The Mackenzie River first snaked between gently rolling hills, passing by the Reindeer Station and the Richard Island, where the migration of wild reindeer herd passes by yearly. The area is partly wooded and offers shelters for resident wildlife. We got very lucky to see an Arctic fox crossing the road and wandering on the side of the river banks.
The road split left to access Aklavik, another remote town, and the original settlement prior to the creation of Inuvik in 1961. Inhabitants of Aklavik had to relocate to the higher ground of Inuvik after several damaging flooding. Soon we reached the part of the road over the Arctic Ocean. The treeline disappeared, with only flat land on both sides of the road,
Soon we reached the part of the road over the Arctic Ocean. The treeline disappeared, with only flat land on both sides of the road, the open horizon of endless tundra. This area of the road was quite dramatic, where the white cloudy sky merged with the frozen road, removing any remaining landmark.
We drove around 30 to 50 miles/hour (50 to 70 km/h), though at a slower pace approaching curves. Anything faster would send the car skitting slightly, especially entering a corner. Even straight section came with their challenges as out of nowhere the back wheels would slide. The drive required full-time concentration, as the slightest inattention could have sent us sliding across the road and into the snow banks.
We stopped several times. First and foremost to walk on the ice and peek through the blue surface, admiring the blue shades of the ice and the white strikes of the crack. Hard to imagine we were standing on 3 feet (1 meter) of solid ice! The most impressive though was the quiet and solitude of the road. It could be an hour before we saw another car. We felt like pioneers, alone on the wide expanse of the Northwest Territories. But it felt also humbling, as we realized how small and fragile it would be to live in the harsh environment.
Tuk slowly emerged on the horizon, the tiny colored houses contrasting against the white tundra.
With the frozen Beaufort Sea in front of us, we had reached the end of the world.
Arctic Canada Ice Road Travel Tips:
- Make sure to fill up the tank, there is no gas station along the way, and the only option is in Tuk, 118 miles (190 kilometers).
- Take water, food and warm clothes in case you get stranded. There is no or limited cell coverage and you might need to wait for another car or truck driving by in case of emergency.
- The speed limit is 45 miles/hour (70-km/hour) but drive slowly, especially in the curves.
- Watch the weather forecast. You don’t want to be caught in a blizzard or in high winds.
- The sun, even with its dim winter warmth, still melts the snow and creates glare ice that can be slippery.
- Let someone know where you are going and when you should be back, so they alert the authorities should you fail to return.
When to Go:
The Mackenzie River Ice Road is open from late December to late April though the best time would in March when the ice is frozen solid, the weather more clement and the days are starting to be longer. Temperatures on that day were around -13 to -22° Fahrenheit.
An all-year and all-weather highway is being built between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The construction started in April 2013 but is very slow. It can only take place in winter months when the trucks can carry heavy load across the frozen roads and lakes, to prevent the driving and impact on the fragile permafrost.
In summer, traveling along the Mackenzie River is only possible by boat, unless you fly directly to Tuk by bush plane.
How to Get there:
We departed from Inuvik where we rented our car from Arctic Chalet, The outfitter could also arrange a full day tour for you if you don’t feel to drive yourselves. There are other car rental options in Inuvik.
Want to read more about the Arctic in winter? Check our posts about our first day guiding our own dogsled, leading our Husky dogs to snowcamp on the tundra, watching the Northern Lights, and learning about traditional Northern Arctic culture at the Muskrat Jamboree.