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 become an adventure of a lifetime and only prove to 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 was in its final year of operation, as an all-season road has now been completed. 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 XD’s – 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, radio’s, 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 17-day 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 road quickly disappeared under a blanket of white; falling snow in the LED lights hypnotizing us 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, 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 card carrying members of the Sourtoe cocktail club, we set out on the iconic Dempster highway the next morning. We were now getting into real wilderness, unexplored 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 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. Warm-up was surprisingly fast and the heated seats and steering wheel were a welcome relief from the frigid mornings.
After another frigid night in the tents, we packed up camp and treated ourselves to a truckers 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 wizards 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, and what great timing. We were just entering the Richardson mountains and the Northwest Territories, one of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on. This magnificent area makes a person feel like they are on another world, with the wide open tundra bathed in white that rolls into
mysterious mountaintops, without a 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.
Driving on the ice road was a very surreal experience. High winds had shaped the snow into waves next to our trucks. As we passed these 'waves', we also passed nautical markers placed on the shore, making us feel as though we were piloting our vehicles 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 that you can 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 expeditions “mission accomplished” point.
Budd fabricating the expedition rack to fit the equipment needed.
Expedition start in Vancouver.
Mark mounting the Wavian Jerry Can holders.
An oddly sunny and warm day in Vancouver. While cold, some of our best sleeps were in the Treeline Outdoors Tamarack tents.
The long road north. It was a 3,800-km trip from Vancouver to Tuktoyaktuk.
The sun broke just for a moment to show the Cassiar mountains. Our off-road portion of the trip was impassable due to heavy snow fall, but we still found some roundabout routes that called for 4Low.
Getting up in -30°C is not an easy thing to do.
Greeted by locals as we enter Tuktoyaktuk.
Titan Arctic Challenge reaches the Arctic Circle - 66° 33 North.
Yes… that is a real human toe in that Sourtoe Cocktail.
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.
The Robertson Mountain range provides some of the most spectacular scenery along the 3,800-km route.
Nissan Titan XD’s at lands’ end.
Driving over the Arctic Ocean is a very surreal experience.
Nissan Titan XD Cummins on the Tuktoyaktuk ice road.