By MARK RICHARDSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, September 28, 2018
INUVIK, NWT -- The only road to Canada's Arctic Ocean is not always smooth, although it's wide and well-maintained. It's almost six million cubic metres of gravel and aggregate placed on a layer of insulating fabric over the fragile tundra and it reaches 137 kilometres north from Inuvik to the small port of Tuktoyaktuk.
I drove here in a new Chevrolet Silverado pick-up truck. Chevy's marketing slogan is "Find New Roads" and this is one of Canada's newest. It opened late last year after four years and $300-million of winter-only construction. From May to December, the ground was too soft to support heavy machinery, so the crews worked routinely in temperatures of -40 C and colder, and almost always in darkness.
The air, and the ocean water, was just about freezing when I came through in the Silverado, although the sky was blue and the weather very pleasant, indeed. It was cool enough to turn on the heated seats and steering wheel - pickup drivers like their luxuries, too, especially now that trucks such as the Silverado, Ram and Ford F-150 are mainstream vehicles for many.
Almost every vehicle on this sparsely-driven road was a pickup truck. Average traffic is maybe 30 or 40 vehicles a day, but the tourists are mostly gone now in midSeptember. Perhaps 5,000 people have visited the 900 residents of Tuk since the road opened, driving north in campers and on motorcycles, looking to dip their toes in the cold ocean. Until last year, the farthest point north on the Canadian mainland was Inuvik, almost 800 kilometres up the unpaved Dempster Highway that crosses the Arctic Circle from Dawson City, but this new road pushes even farther from there and reaches the ocean for the very first time.
The trees stop just north of Inuvik, along with the cell phone service and then the road becomes a gently curving ribbon of gravel on the low rolling delta wetland of the tundra. There's nothing along the way and no services - just some short bridges and a few wider areas where traffic can pass more safely. There are small, bald lakes to each side that are rich with freshwater fish and in the distance, flat-topped pingos - mounds of sod-covered ice pushed up hundreds of feet by the earth's pressure, like frozen volcanoes.
The land seems empty, although plenty of eyes were watching from behind stubby bushes or from high in the sky. It's almost hypnotic to drive on an undulating road such as this, with no driveways or sideroads and few road signs. Far in the distance, a dust cloud would appear maybe every 15 minutes as another vehicle approached, and when we'd pass, the driver would wave, every time: an acknowledgment of being on the road together far from anything else and a thank you for slowing down. I was raising a dust cloud of my own, with flying rocks ready to strike at a windshield.
For many years, there was a winter road on the frozen Mackenzie River, although its season of safety seemed to grow a few days shorter every winter. Residents otherwise would fly or take the summer river ferry, but the new road now attaches them to Canada all year round.
This was supposed to be a supply road for oil and gas exploration, developed during Stephen Harper's time as prime minister.
Justin Trudeau's moratorium on exploration put an end to that, so now it's just a road for commerce and connection. And it's popular for people such as me, because there's no other road in North America that lets you drive to the Arctic Ocean; in Alaska, the Dalton Highway reaches the shoreline at Prudhoe Bay, but it's a company town and tourists are turned back at the neighbouring supply community of Deadhorse, a drab collection of trailers and prefabs so close, yet so far, from the water.
Tuktoyaktuk, however, is a genuine, ancient Indigenous community. There's an original sod house to be visited, built from driftwood carried north by the Mackenzie River and a marker for the end of the off-road Trans-Canada Trail. There are also plenty of wooden homes and a garbage dump that used to be on the edge of town but is now at the entrance beside the road; it's being moved, slowly, to a new location. Loop Paint Co., of Niagara Falls, Ont., donated more than 2,000 gallons of recycled paint to spruce up the town and Loop's CEO came up personally last summer to help with a paintbrush.
There's not really anywhere to stay except for some hastily convened B&Bs. In the general store, where a can of Coke is $2 and a pineapple costs $9, there's not much interest in visitors. Most tourists turn back to Inuvik, where there are hotels and longestablished campgrounds, but those who do stay over in their campers and RVs are directed to the Point, a small, thin spit where you can walk into the ocean on the smooth stones.
That's where I went - it's officially the end of the road. The new Silverado had no problem on the highway's gravel to get there, although the surface was frequently soft and sometimes a washboard that bounced the truck around. I was driving the expensive High Country edition with 22-inch wheels not well suited to the ruts, but keeping it slow and steady at the 70 kilometres an hour speed limit won the day.
I dunked my feet in the frigid water, met some residents and watched a ceremonial dance at the Arctic Ocean sign. Not everyone welcomes the new road.
There's concern for poaching of the nearby reindeer herd, which was imported from Northern Europe in 1935 to replace the diminishing caribou, and which now numbers more than 3,000. The community pays for monitors to keep watch along the way, checking on parked vehicles that could transport berry-pickers or hunters.
There's also concern for drugs being brought more easily into town, "but we'll always have that problem," said Eddie Dillion, chairman of the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation. "Having the road won't change that."
Instead, the community is just starting to see the benefits of visitors who want souvenirs. Polar bear licence plates are on sale for $40 and "I made it to Tuk" stickers for $5 each. "Tell people to come visit us," Erwin Elias, the hamlet's deputy mayor, said.
"We're always open now, and there's no other place like Tuk."
I drove back to Inuvik in the Silverado's off-road LT Trail Boss edition. The smaller, 18-inch wheels and monotube shock absorbers were much better on the road south, but the gravel was more chewed up this time and again, the washboard surface would throw the truck to one side if I drove too fast. Going off the road would be a serious mishap: there's usually a steep drop and a heavy truck would do terrible damage to the soft and sensitive ground. Tire tracks on the tundra don't fade for decades.
Fortunately, there was never a risk of the sure-footed truck leaving the road and I made it back to Inuvik in a couple of hours. The pickup was dusty, but undamaged from the northern rocks.
In Tuk, almost everyone asked if I wanted to trade my new Silverado tester for whatever pickup they were driving. It was a pleasant joke, of course, but my shiny truck did stand out on the treeless plain. Even the road's chief engineer offered to swap his battered GMC Sierra for the Trail Boss I'd been driving.
If I do return again, I'll be happy to drive back up. I just hope Tuk will still be the authentic community I visited and not overrun with campers and hotels.
After all, there really is no place like it.
The writer was a guest of Chevrolet.
Content was not subject to approval.
Mark Richardson took a 2019 Chevrolet Silverado on a 137-kilometre drive from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. PHOTOS BY LUCAS SCARFONE FOR GENERAL MOTORS
Tuesday, October 02, 2018