Driv­ing the iconic ice road over the Arc­tic Ocean for the last time

4WDrive - - Con­tents - Words and pho­tos by Budd Stan­ley

“What am I do­ing here?” These are words I’ve ut­tered sev­eral times be­fore, and while the sit­u­a­tions I was in when mut­ter­ing them were ex­treme, the con­clu­sion to each sce­nario would prove to be the ad­ven­ture of a life­time and only in­spire even more ex­treme ad­ven­tures.

In this par­tic­u­lar in­stance, I was shiv­er­ing away in -35°C in a roof top tent perched above a 2017 Nis­san Titan XD in the mid­dle of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. My breath was push­ing past my bal­a­clava and cre­at­ing ice crys­tals on the roof of the tent and all around the small fa­cial open­ing in my -30°C sleep­ing bag. Rolling over to cover my face would shake the ice off the ceil­ing, fall­ing as snow. How­ever, cov­er­ing up would melt the ice al­ready on my face, get­ting wa­ter into my eyes, which would then freeze as soon as I rolled back over. It was a rather an­noy­ing Catch 22 that kept sleep to a min­i­mum on the Demp­ster high­way.

The Titan Arc­tic Chal­lenge was an over­land ex­pe­di­tion from Van­cou­ver, BC to the Arc­tic sea­side ham­let of

Tuktoyaktuk, NT. By “over­land ex­pe­di­tion” I am re­fer­ring to the fastest grow­ing genre of the off-road­ing life­style, that of self­sus­tained, long-dis­tance ad­ven­tures to ex­plore new cul­tures and en­vi­ron­ments, fore­go­ing the lux­u­ries of ho­tels, restau­rants and paved high­ways – as much as pos­si­ble.

The ice road to Tuktoyaktuk is in its fi­nal year of op­er­a­tion as an all-sea­son road will be com­pleted this fall. This would be the last chance any­one would have to drive over the Arc­tic Ocean on the Tuk ice road; some­thing I had al­ways dreamed of do­ing, so it was a now or never decision.

Nis­san pro­vided my team with two Titan XDs – a Cum­mins 5.0L turbo diesel and an “En­durance” 5.6L gaso­line V-8. In PRO-4X trim these trucks were al­ready suited for the task at hand, how­ever, such an ad­ven­ture calls for some spe­cific mod­i­fi­ca­tions. We grabbed a stan­dard trades­man lad­der rack and pro­ceeded to hack, cut and weld it into the shape we needed to fit the Titan XD and mount the re­quired ex­pe­di­tion equip­ment.

On top, we mounted Cana­dian sourced Tree­line Out­doors Ta­ma­rack roof top tents, well-built and ready to give shel­ter in the ex­treme en­vi­ron­ments we would find in the Arc­tic. Rigid In­dus­tries SR2 light­bars would pro­vide syn­thetic day­light in front of the trucks, while the com­pany’s Scene LED lights would flood the camp with light dur­ing the cold dark nights. Be­ing self-suf­fi­cient means be­ing able to ex­tract your­self from a sticky sit­u­a­tion, as such we fit­ted a set of TRED trac­tion mats, car­ried Gem­stone off-road ki­netic tow ropes and had a Warn Zeon 10-s winch at the ready should we re­ally find our­selves in trou­ble. A good tool kit, shov­els, ra­dios, camp­ing kit, first aid kit and Arc­tic weather cloth­ing were also im­por­tant pack­ing.

For food, we pre­cooked sev­eral stews, cur­ries and hardy soups and pre-froze them in bag­gies for easy cooking on the trail.

After the usual last minute run­ning around, Mark Jen­nings-Bates, Steph Jeav­ons and I found our­selves on the Van­cou­ver wa­ter­front, dip­ping our tires into the Pa­cific Ocean to be­gin the 17day jour­ney north to the Arc­tic. It was an oddly warm and sunny day in Van­cou­ver, but just over the moun­tains, dark clouds gave warn­ing of harsh con­di­tions to come.

The clouds didn’t lie. Only a few hours out of Van­cou­ver we ran straight into a snow storm. The roads quickly dis­ap­peared un­der a blan­ket of white, fall­ing snow hyp­no­tiz­ing us in the LED lights as we drove through the night to Prince Ge­orge. Day after day, the snow kept fall­ing. Low cloud ob­scured our view of the mag­nif­i­cent peaks through­out the BC leg, and gave a ghostly feel to the en­vi­ron­ment as the scenery slowly came into view in front, then faded to a dull grey in the rear-view mir­ror.

In White­horse, we picked up our fourth mem­ber, Bryan Irons, then made a full day push for Daw­son City.

Daw­son City is one of my favourite places, its small town charm blend­ing with the in­fa­mous soul of the wild days of the gold rush. It was here that I de­cided it was time to ini­ti­ate my team­mates; a Sour­toe cock­tail was in order for that night. For those who do not know, a Sour­toe cock­tail is a shot of whisky that is taken with a hu­man toe. Per­formed at the Down­town Ho­tel by Cap­tain River Rat, the toe it­self is usu­ally a frost-bit­ten am­pu­ta­tion do­nated by a trap­per to keep the tra­di­tion alive. The Cap­tain wasn’t on hand for my com­rade’s ex­pe­ri­ence, but they still got the same de­cree, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe.”

With all four of our team now card­car­ry­ing mem­bers of the Sour­toe cock­tail club, we set out on the iconic Demp­ster high­way the next morn­ing. We were now get­ting into real wilder­ness, rugged ter­rain and frigid tem­per­a­tures.

Find­ing a camp­site was sur­pris­ingly easy as there are sev­eral plowed pull­outs and aban­doned gravel pits - the key is

to find shel­ter from the wind. Our first night on the road saw tem­per­a­tures fall to -35°C, not ex­treme cold in the Cana­dian sense, but to camp in these con­di­tions… we were push­ing the lim­its of our gear and our own stamina. One thing you learn when camp­ing in these tem­per­a­tures is that you don’t want to sleep alone. That is, you want to have your de­odor­ant, tooth­paste, cell phone and a can­is­ter of propane in your sleep­ing bag with you to keep them from freez­ing, so your morn­ing is a lit­tle eas­ier. It’s al­ready bad enough chang­ing un­der­wear and slip­ping your feet into boots that have sat in -35°C all night long.

A true sign of a good diesel is if it can start in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. The Cum­mins-equipped Titan XD did just that in -32°C, with a slightly longer start­ing whir fol­lowed by com­pres­sion ig­ni­tion. Warmup was sur­pris­ingly fast and the heated seats and steer­ing wheel were a wel­come re­lief from the bit­terly cold morn­ings.

After an­other frigid night in the tents, we packed up camp and treated our­selves to a trucker's break­fast at Ea­gle Plains, only to find that the road had closed due to mas­sive winds and snow drifts. As a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to New Zealand, the visu­als of a wiz­ard's staff be­ing slammed into the ground while the phrase, “You shall not pass!” is shouted, echoed in my mind, as the weather gods were ob­vi­ously up­set we chal­lenged them by camp­ing in such ex­tremes.

Our wait would not be long, only a few hours and a chance to warm our ex­trem­i­ties in­doors with the aid of hot cof­fee, along with sev­eral other car and truck loads of trav­ellers. Within half an hour we came across our first real mile­stone of the ex­pe­di­tion, the Arc­tic Cir­cle. From here on in, we would truly be in the Arc­tic, and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing weather to suit.

After cross­ing the in­vis­i­ble line de­mar­cat­ing the Arc­tic Cir­cle, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. The tim­ing was per­fect as we were en­ter­ing the Richardson Moun­tains of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, a dis­play of some of the most spec­tac­u­lar scenery that I've ever laid eyes on. This mag­nif­i­cent area is like be­ing on an­other world with wide open tun­dra bathed in white that rolls into mys­te­ri­ous moun­tain­tops, no tree in sight.

From Inu­vik, we took our first timid steps out onto the Macken­zie River, the bit­ter cold bil­low­ing clouds of steam from the ex­haust pipes as the tires threw up ever greater clouds of dry snow.

For any­one that hasn’t driven on a lake or ice road, it is a very sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. High winds in the area have formed wave shapes in the snow next to the road, and cou­pled with driv­ing past all the nau­ti­cal mark­ers on the shore, it feels like you are pi­lot­ing a boat down a white river. The ice is mostly cov­ered with snow, but ev­ery so of­ten a bright green hue of ice will show through. The road me­an­ders with the rivers trib­u­taries, slowly work­ing its way out to sea.

As soon as the bank on the left side dis­ap­pears, you are out on the Arc­tic Ocean and the ice be­comes much clearer. Clear enough you can even see the bot­tom in some shal­low sec­tions. The ice is thick, great cas­cad­ing cracks sink down nearly 3-me­tres giv­ing away the ice’s thick­ness. This is a very spe­cial place, the coast of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries to the right, an end­less ex­panse of windswept snow to the left.

Our ex­pe­di­tion pulled back onto shore in the ham­let of Tuktoyaktuk, a sleepy and friendly Inuit town. Driv­ing out onto a point that stretches out into the sea, we ar­rived at lands’ end, the fur­thest north you can drive in Canada and our ex­pe­di­tion's “mis­sion ac­com­plished” point.

Titan Arc­tic Chal­lenge reaches the Arc­tic Cir­cle - 66° 33 North. Yes… that is a real hu­man toe in that Sour­toe Cock­tail.

The off-road por­tion of the trip was im­pass­able due to heavy snow fall, but we still found some round-about routes that called for 4Low. While cold, some of our best sleeps were in the Tree­line Out­doors Ta­ma­rack tents.

Ex­pe­di­tion start in Van­cou­ver.

The long road north. It was a 3,800-km trip from Van­cou­ver to Tuktoyaktuk.


Driv­ing over the Arc­tic Ocean is a very sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. Greeted by lo­cals as we en­ter Tuktoyaktuk.

Pushed off the road by a trucker on the Demp­ster. The Titan XD was to­tally un­dam­aged and was ex­tracted eas­ily with the help of Gem­stone Off-Road ki­netic tow ropes.

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