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.

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