Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From barefoot running to ice road truckin'!

OK, admittedly, this is a little different from blogging on barefoot running or sea kayaking but there is a snowfall warning in place today on Canada’s very own “Pacific island”. Our temperatures are plunging to 0 degrees Celcius – folks in Edmonton, currently enduring minus 46.1 degrees (-58.4 with wind chill!!!), may now roll their eyes! Nonetheless, it may get a little messy for running in the minimalist footgear of our last entry!

So, have you ever watched the TV program on the History Channel – Ice Road Truckers? Awe, then you probably don't like country music either! Anyway, it's pretty "cool" (sorry, couldn't resist). The characters are authentic, and they bring back vivid memories of a "journey" we took several years ago on that very same ice "road" - the frozen Mackenzie River from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk…and to a heart-warming surprise in a most unlikely location, on the shore of a very frozen ocean.

Our “road trip” began in January in Inuvik (heck, I can't imagine why folks go south or to Hawaii in the winter), in Canada’s Northwest Territories. At 10 in the morning, the familiar constellations were still shining in the dark, clear Arctic sky. We stuffed extra layers of clothing and some food behind the seat of our rented 4-wheel-drive pickup (not a self-propelled adventure this time!), fastened our seat belts, and turned the key in the ignition. Almost surprisingly, the engine started. Impressive! We shivered, as much with a sense of anticipation of the drive to come as with the minus 41 degree temperature outside the cab. We had estimated the roughly 150 kilometres would take us in the neighbourhood of about three hours each way. In the Norcan truck rental office the day before, we had met David, a young Inuvialuit man from Tuk. His only advice, “keep an eye on the odometer” and "watch out for some serious pressure ridges in the ice, about 95 kilometres north of Inuvik". He’d gone slightly “airborne” driving south - we wanted to avoid that.

Life’s rarely simple nor is it without it’s moments of "intensity". During the first hour of driving on the surface of the ice, the engine temperature gauge dropped to a just a hairbreadth above the “blue line”. Being a weekend, David had warned that we might not see any one else, so to be extra careful. Fact is, we didn’t see a "soul", either way. Clearly, a frozen river, several hundred kilometers above the Arctic Circle, was no place to break down, with no one around and no luxury of southern cell service! The cab heater, however, continued to pump out "mild" air that kept the chill off and we decided to relax and enjoy the “journey”. Even though the forecast had not indicated any change in the weather, we knew that the unpredictable Arctic wind could rise anytime and eliminate visibility. Ahh, a little tension always makes things more “exciting“. The pressure ridges, formed by the continuous motion of the ice, and forced by wind and water stresses, were within a kilometre of David’s estimated location. Easing our way over them, we could well imagine the possibility of a “launch” at higher speeds!

We stopped, on occasion, turned off the engine briefly, and marveled at the depth and strength of the ice. In places, we could even see the river bubbling beneath us.The absolute stillness, the deep cold, the aloneness gave us a sense of being in the most remote place in the world…and it was so very, very beautiful.

At about 50 kilometres south of Tuk, we experienced something of the phenomenon that must present an awesome challenge to northern pilots. The visibility suddenly seemed to deteriorate to nothing at all. It was impossible to tell if you could see 10 metres or 10 kilometres ahead. We had just left the tree line and there was no vegetation or topical relief in any direction - just a white “desert” of flat, barren tundra. Sky blended with snow and it was impossible to discern where, on the horizon, the two met. Only common sense told us we were neither going uphill nor downhill - we were, after all, still on the frozen Mackenzie River. Strangely, only the truck’s built-in compass could assure either one of us that we were still heading north.
Tuktoyaktuk is a hamlet located on a spit of land in Kugmallit Bay on the Beaufort Sea, east of the Mackenzie Delta. Driving the last few kilometres over the frozen ocean into town revealed an isolated, windblown, ice-encased, arctic "outpost". It was hard to imagine a more remote settlement. Parking the truck near the RCMP detachment, we headed out for a short walk - a wind had come up off the sea and even with face mask and parka well secured, the cold penetrated deeply. The sound of a snowmobile racing towards us broke the silence. It was David, from the Norcan office. “Glad you made it! Get back in your truck and follow me”, he called out, “I want you to meet my family.”

Winding through the massive snowdrifts that formed downwind of each habitation, we were led to where David’s grandfather had built a magnificent igloo next to his home atop a “pingo”, a conical, ice-cored mound in the permafrost. Entering the igloo on our hands and knees, we were struck by the warmth - the warmth of a traditional Arctic home but more than that. we experienced the warmth of a new friendship with a young father, his grandfather, and a beautiful little child wrapped in Arctic layers and holding her new puppy.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us. How often we forget that the bumps and “pressure ridges” in life’s journey, the uncertainties and the worries, the times of blurred vision and “whiteouts” - all these “rough spots” can, if permitted, build strength, endurance, confidence, and faith. Sometimes, all you have is a compass heading to follow, a partial vision to pursue, a distant hope to hang on to. Most of the time, with a little faith, it’s all you need. We’ll never forget David, who to us was a “shepherd”. In the midst of one of the coldest and most remote places on earth, we were guided to a place of warmth and hospitality.

May you find such places and spaces this special season,


Pics: Joan, in front of the Government of the Northwest Territiories building, on the "ice road", the marker designating most northern point of the Trans Canada Trail, a little child and her puppy in a traditional igloo - all in, or near, Inuvik, NWT (Latitude: 69.468 / Longitude: -133.21)


  1. I almost thought the top picture was from Gabriola today!!

  2. Yeah, well I can understand why you'd say that, Andy - the photographic image details an upscale architectural design as featured in
    contemporary "cabinology" journals. As an academic, you will likely have reviewed such designs as found in a diversity of cultural contexts throughout the world including the high Arctic and our more local Gulf Islands. Yup, easy mistake to make.

  3. Well I know where I have my compass set for so shall prepare for the bumps along the way and hope that I have enough faith to arrive!
    You wouldn't catch me driving down some frozen river...not a chance...that is just too freaky.

  4. ...and you know you can borrow our trusty hand-held gps - get ya anywhere. Yeah, ice was cool. We were lucky with weather,no problem in early January but I'm sure that when the weather warms up it's time to get back to terra firma!

  5. You sure did one on us today about your blog. I wonder how many would have come home and gone to their computers. I heard this story before and always think of you 2 brave outdoors people. You would never catch me doing such things. I am a real coward. Was that a hint that maybe in January after all this busy time you may take off on an adventure? I have to now play catch up while taking it easy and read the rest. J.

  6. Hi J,

    You'd be just fine - we'd make sure we packed up some of your famous nastily hot jam - that should keep us going at minus 50!