Driving to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (located on Kugmallit Bay of the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean), is no big deal. Canadians have been doing it for many years on the annual winter ice roads that used to run down the Mackenzie Delta, from Inuvik, to the frozen open ocean. Indeed, my three grandchildren, aged six, eight and 10 at the time, enjoyed the Last Ice Road in March, 2018, in -30s temps to beat the crowds when the Inuvik–Tuk “Highway” opened to the public with the spring thaw of 2018. The official opening in November 2017 was just a legal formality and photo op.
Here is how that March trip went, with nightly campsites:
3-18 – Minto Airport
3-19 – Blackstone River
3-20 – Rock River, YT
3-21 – Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
3-22 – Inuvik Hotel, NWT
3-23 – Rock River
3-24 – Tombstone, YT
3-25 – Same
3-26 – Whitehorse, 6–7 p.m.
When I asked the kids to relate the most memorable highlight of their unique journey on the historical last ice road, they replied with great enthusiasm: “We got a hotel room in Inuvik and one bed was just for jumping on like a trampoline. It was awesome.”And I did write them a little poem for good luck on their first trip as High Arctic explorers:
An Arctic Shamrock
Aye, tis at last St. Paddy’s morning
And time fer Grandpa’s final warning:
If ye dig beneath the snows of Tuk
Yer sure to find the green good luck
Of a shamrock on the Beaufort shore
Where a shiny black raven quoths:
“Bingo! We’re on a Pingo!”
Everybody who lives north of the provinces has their favourite place in the Yukon and mine has always been the Dempster, since getting so intimate with it as a young man during construction back in the mid ’70s. There is something about building a road which is very similar to raising a child. You feel like part of the creation of it and know it on a level much deeper than simply driving on it as an off-duty or aging tourist. You also know where all the warts are, which sections were tough or easy to build and the subsequent construction stories/memories of things never seen before or since. For example, the constant presence of the aurora borealis on every 10-hour shift, day or night, since there is little or no competing sunlight in winter. The extraordinary became a daily routine.
Once, while driving back to Dawson for days off (three weeks on, one off), we got caught in the middle of the migrating Porcupine caribou herd and it took four hours to go four miles while gently nudging does out of the way with the bumper. We were right in the center of the herd with the does and calves. The bucks travel on the outside in a circular formation as protection against predators, mostly wolf packs that follow behind and take the injured, ill and aged.There is no room to do it here, but I could name every section of the road from the bridge over the upper Klondike River, 25 miles outside of Dawson, to Inuvik, which is still the northern terminus of the Dempster. The In-Tuk is a separate 137-kilometre highway ending with a little peninsula where you can get a photo of your rig with the Arctic Ocean on three sides, and maybe a couple of pingos in the background. Tuk is to pingos what the Klondike is to gold nuggets or “Home, Sweet Home.”
Pingo is an Inuvialuktun word meaning “small hill.” The scientific term is hydrolaccolith, which defines as “a mound of earth-covered ice found in the Arctic and subarctic that can reach up to 70 metres (230 ft) in height and up to 600 m (2,000 ft) in diameter,” according to the NWT government, which advertises Tuk’s best day trip to be a hike to “the top of nearby 49-metre-high Ibyuk Pingo, the second-tallest pingo in the world, which grows two centimetres per year.”Tuktoyaktuk has the highest concentration of pingos in Canada, with some 1,350 examples. Pingo National Landmark protects eight of them, including Ibyuk. Alaska is home to the Kadleroshilik Pingo, the highest known pingo in the world. Other places with pingos include Nunavut and the Yukon, Greenland, Siberia and the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Recent estimates indicate that more than 11,000 pingos exist on Earth, with more than 6,000 alone in northern Asia.
They are artesian vents common to Arctic permafrost, which work just like a volcano, except the cone is formed by freezing water rather than cooling magma. When they thaw and melt, for whatever reasons, they leave a hole and a pot-lake (also called a pingo) and can be found anywhere that was glaciated in the various ice ages. They were and are popular with Inuvialuit hunters for spotting caribou on land and beluga whales on the ocean.Until 1950, Tuktoyaktuk was known as Port Brabant, since its founding as a Hudson Bay post in 1928, which attracted hunters and turned it into a community. Then it became the first Indigenous location in Canada to drop its colonial name for the traditional, which translates, in this case, as “looks like a caribou,” which is exactly what you would expect to hear from a hunter on the top of a pingo on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
The Dempster was the first road in North America to cross the Arctic Circle. It has to be the premier adventure travel road in Canada, especially now and in the future, since you can finally drive to the Arctic Ocean on an all-weather, year-round land route. You still get to cross the Peel and Mackenzie rivers on summer ferries and winter ice roads, but that’s it for delays and obstacles now that the delta ice road is bypassed and obsolete.Believe it or not, now that it is possible, the big thing visitors are doing on their first visit to the Arctic Ocean is dipping their big toes into it, which has become Tuk’s answer to Dawson City’s Sourtoe Cocktail; but the more adventurous are going for a quick swim, while some of the younger and dumber are skinny-dipping—a photo op for short-sighted elders, if ever there was one.
Purchasing a double-meaning T-shirt also seems to be mandatory, such as “TUK U”. I wanted to find one saying: “I got Tukked on a Pingo” but was not successful.They also have two music festivals: the Beluga Jamboree (mid-April) and the Pingo Music Festival (mid-August). And it is inevitable that a Winter Solstice “Whoopup” will develop some time in the future for those who find Christmas cute, quaint and outdated.We’ll leave that one to the next generation. This one was happy to finally dip a big toe in Canada’s third ocean. Now we just have to kiss a sleeping grizzly bear and get lucky in a tippy canoe to be truly worthy of being called Canadian.Whitehorse–Tuk: 1,370 kilometres, one way.