Dancing on ice: the old ‘road’ to Tuktoyaktuk in a Jeep Commander
A throwback to 2006, when TG drove a very special road that wasn't a road...
“You’re better off kicking a bear in the backside and running away, than seeing one of those things from a mile off,” says a man in a grubby trucker’s cap from two tables over. “Even the old trappers stay away from the wolverines. They’ll take the tyres off your car.”
“Uh, OK,” I reply, somewhat unsure of how to reply to this wildly exaggerated statement about a stuffed carcass that looks like an unhappy cross between a badger and a steroid addicted pine marten. “It doesn’t look that bad,” I say, trying to be polite without actually initiating a full conversation, “a bit, er, unhappy.”
Grubby Cap stares at me like I’ve just tried to get amorous with his dog. It wouldn’t be so bad, but as his left eye locks onto mine, the other is oscillating wildly trying to get a lock on something three feet over my left shoulder.
This feature was first published in Issue 153 of Top Gear magazine (2006)
Images: Barry Hayden
To take my mind off madmen’s mad eyes, I take a quick scan around the room. Taxidermy looks to be a popular hobby around these parts, and judging by the state of the various wall-mounted exhibits, it is practised mainly while drunk, with Grubby Cap getting a pre-emptive human embalming via the toxic medium of the local hooch. I feel like I’m a very long way from home.
Which, to be fair, I am. ‘These parts’ are Eagle Plains (population: a throbbing party-making 8), ‘kilometre 371’ on the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon. Flying several hours north of Vancouver in a tin sheet and pop-riveted aeroplane (or a couple of long days in a car) gets you here and, using this as a jump-off, you can motor fairly easily along to the Northwest Territories and past the Arctic Circle, eventually ending your journey – if you’re not really paying attention – with a plop which signifies the Arctic Ocean.
The reason there are so few souls to engage in wolverine-related conversation is that ‘remote’ is a good word to use about the places on the Dempster – especially in winter. Another one is cold. People don’t get up here much when the weather closes in at minus 25 ambient (minus 50 with wind chill factored in). It’s the kind of cold that claws into skin with little white rodent talons and won’t let go. Where the mucus in your nose freezes; where the first deep breath makes you cough, as your lungs attempt to shock away air that feels like it’s the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Suck minus 30 through your teeth and they tick, nearly crack with the extreme contraction. It seems a strange place to come for fun.
The reason we’re here isn’t just to drive the third most northerly public highway in the world, which the Dempster is, (though that’s pretty impressive in itself), but to drive a very special road that isn’t a road. Because it’s a river. And an ocean. And we’ve not come mounted in the GT version of some military Argocat - we’ve come in standard Jeep Commanders without winter tyres. So far I haven’t seen any secret underbody floats or a button marked ‘hover’, so I’m hoping my other information is on the money.
It works like this: drive north a few hundred miles from Eagle Plains, where Mr G. Cap carves out a living stuffing dead things, and you come to a place called Inuvik. Now Inuvik is more or less where the local Inuvaluit people (the correct version of ‘Inuit’) consider to be the southern border.
Truck on out of Inuvik in the summer and you’re likely to drown. To get to the next town of Tuktoyaktuk (‘Tuk’ for short) on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, you’ll need a boat, or an aeroplane with floats on. In the winter, however, you can drive to Tuk on a frozen river, and subsequently on an equally frigid bit of the Arctic Ocean.
Bizarrely, this isn’t some expedition-spec specialist undertaking. You can do it in a relatively normal car. And get this: because the road is inspected by the proper authorities (meeting the requisite 150ft width requirements and safety regs), it’s actually classified as a proper Canadian highway.
Your insurance is valid (unless you go from April to September, in which case you need to contact the maritime people and have an engine with ‘Mercury’ or ‘Evinrude’ printed on the side), your car is safe(-ish) and you can say that you’ve driven on water for hundreds of miles like some 21st-century automotive Jesus going for a ramble on B-roads carved out of the Sea of Galilee. Albeit water that’s frozen solid – six feet deep.
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OK, so four-wheel drive and some ground clearance is more than preferable, simply because the ice can get pretty lumpy and if you do slide off into a snow bank, you want to give yourself the best chance of not ending up as a novelty icicle. But in theory, you could do this in the very SUV you drive around town. The Commander is the perfect choice, simply because this is what Jeep people imagine themselves doing on their days off, even if they never do.
Unfortunately for Jeep – and much in the same vein as every other 4x4 maker out there – it has to guarantee that the Commander has all the bits to make sure that it can mountaineer, just so that the 0.1 per cent of people that do actually try going off-road don’t implode with self-righteous anger and company writs.
The new Commander, therefore, has all the right stripes and credentials rufty-tufty-wise. It even looks like it’s trying to be encouraging – all exposed hex-bolts on the arches and tough-looking, semi-military lines. “Hey!” it says, “I’m ready when you are! Bring on the wilderness! Let’s go have an adventure!”. It’s dying to show off its Quadra-Trac II electronic diffs and super-dooper 4x4. Having driven hundreds of miles on ice roads with all the electronics switched on and not even a hint of wobble, I laugh in the face of Jeep’s engineers and switch everything off the first proper chance I get. My skill rather than silicon guard dogs any day.
Within 30 seconds, I’m slithering gracelessly across the road, then off it, then into the three-foot deep snow on the edge of the ludicrously cambered road. ‘Stuck’ would be a very light-hearted way of putting it. Luckily, there are three Jeeps in our convoy capable of a snatch recovery, or I could have spent a very disturbing night sharing my body heat with Barry the photographer. Lesson learned, the button stays unpushed until there’s a whole lot more space to play in.
Still, onwards and upwards from Eagle Plains we go, through aluminium towns with houses that look like dwarf aircraft hangars with chimneys, to where the trees grow sparse, then give up totally. Around here, windscreens smash and chip with monotonous regularity thanks to logging trucks coming south, prompting a new game that involves marking the cracks every night and seeing where they migrate to the next morning. Nights are spent with random drunks in places invariably called ‘Cocktail Lounge’ whose only ‘cocktail’ is made with a rag in the neck and is prefixed with ‘Molotov’. I’m not saying it’s rough, but you’d have to be really, really into snowmobiling not to get murderously bored.
Finally, after an indeterminate time in some almost lethally pretty countryside, we arrive in Inuvik and are met by our Inuvaluit guide who’s going to take us to Tuk. He’s called Dennis.
Mooch out of town, down a small track, and you emerge onto one of the most breathtaking pieces of highway anywhere in the world. It’s a 150ft-wide horizontal piste of ice and snow carved into the frozen river. Six-foot-high riverbanks flank a gently curving arc of white three or four hundred feet away, the occasional tree or island lumping up through the ice. There isn’t really any need for a speed limit, the only advice being to keep to the greyish, bare ice in the middle of the ‘road’.
Apparently, running on ice actually warms up tyres for more grip; roll through the powder on the edges of the main roadway and tyres cool so much that you slide around more, though that’s a relative amount when you realise that ‘slide’ becomes a steady state option rather than something you visit from time to time. You learn to handle a bit looser in these conditions and not react to every small movement as you might on tarmac. You literally learn a whole new way of driving in about 20 minutes.
Initially, the Commander flickers all sorts of small traction-control lights until you get to a decent cruising speed, only tickling the ABS around corners taken at a scarcely credible 80mph. On ice. Corners are languorous and long, but switch off the electronic aids and you soon find out that drifting a truck is a strangely graceful experience. The only noise is that of the 5.7-litre Hemi engine grumbling sedately and the faint swoosh of powder snow on tyres.
If you’ve ever sliced through fresh powder on skis or snowboard, you’ll know what I mean. Except in a car it’s like meditation: picking out a white road against a background of slightly less white whiteness requires concentration, but the lack of background noise and other traffic allows your mind to empty of all unnecessary thought. Soon, idle chat dies in the cabin and you all just end up looking through the battle-scarred windscreen like it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen. In some ways, it is.
The cars kick up rooster tails of snow that fall to the ground in a different way to water, which has a deeper romance with gravity. Snow sparkles and floats, making the journey more than a little ethereal. At the halfway point, a small island called Mercy, Dennis tells us that we’ve crossed onto the Arctic and we are now, technically, an ocean-going Jeep. It doesn’t look much different – a few more bumps maybe, a few more potholes marked out by little orange cones, but essentially the same. Dennis tells us that he makes the same journey in summer in his boat – except that it takes three or four hours. We’ve done it in under two.
Those two hours bring us to the near-mythical Tuktoyaktuk, the most northerly point we can get to. We are introduced to the Inuvaluit way of life by James and Maureen, for whom life is a subsistence affair by choice. They hunt for food, rather than buying it. Maureen has cooked us up some whalemeat (fishy black pudding) and I try my hand at blubber (potted ham with jelly), while everyone else tries some dried fish. Fortified by the extra warmth of mukluk (that cured blubber), Maureen dresses me up in traditional Caribou clothing and polar bear mittens and sends me out to pet the dog team smelling, judging by the reaction, like a really sexy bitch.
Much general amusement (on the part of others) later, we visit the varied sights of this most upwards of places. There’s the 1,000 residents (250 of them children; long nights in the Arctic), and lots of outdoorsy activities going on like hunting, fishing and snowmobiling. Plus there’s lots of snow and more of the practical-but-nasty-looking shed-houses. Then Maureen takes us to her ‘community freezer’ – a 30-foot deep warren of tunnels dug straight into the permafrost in which the local families keep food. Behind each and every door is Disney’s charnel house: a variety of fish and geese lie flash-frozen with what looks like expressions of gentle panic, but they’ve got naff all on the trio of dead seals piled like enormous, flat sausages behind door number two, or the pile of caribou heads and legs in locker four, like a parts bin for big deer. Better warn Bambi that if he ever comes here without an armoured car and some bodyguards, he’s pretty much screwed. I start to look at Maureen in a different light.
On the hill just outside of town there’s a pair of those golf-ball satellite protection housings and a load of very military-looking bunkers. I’d like to say they loom, but they don’t do anything as impressive – they just sort of squat like geometric fungus. These, James explains, are what’s left off the American DEWS (Defence Early Warning System) set-up that was supposed to warn of incoming missiles from Russia. It doesn’t seem weird to James. They’re just here. This is a man who hunts for his food and makes his own clothes, and he doesn’t find the situation odd at all. These electronic eyes don’t ever blink; all automated, unmanned, ready to start screaming electronic blue-bloody-murder if anything with a rocket engine so much as farts its way over the tundra. And here we are in a few modern Jeeps thinking we’re going to be all cutting edge cyborg to the natives. At least James thinks they look nice in black. I thought I was gadget-heavy, but I haven’t got Skunkworks stealth listening equipment in my back garden. Or at least I don’t think I do.
After a bit we go and park the Commander on a little jetty that points out into the frozen ocean proper. It’s a sobering thought that this is as far as it gets north-wise. In front is 25km of frozen ice, a bit of very nearly frozen water and then, the polar ice cap. For a bit, I just stand and stare out at the grey and white horizon, marvelling at the honking great expanse of nothing stretched arms-wide in front of me. We’ve driven here without pause for serious thought, up a road made out of frozen mist to find the people here in a very strange situation, with a very strange outlook. Nobody seems to mind that the American military has an installation slap bang next to a family that still dries Caribou skins on their washing line. Where people get the right hump with Greenpeace who are telling them what they can and cannot eat. Those whales that you subsist on? Not fair game any more. Here, eat this canned junk.
It’s all driving home the point that this is a neverwhere place, only accessible if you really want to find it, where normal service is suspended for the time being. Where straight ’06 rules don’t really apply. You might be able to get here in a relatively normal vehicle, but this is a seriously magical place. Which is why it’s fitting that I’m driving home on a road that, come summer, will disappear.