LAST CALL FOR TUKTOYAKTUK
Driving the iconic ice road over the Arctic Ocean for the last time
“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.