Canada now has roads that link Coast to Coast to Coast, Sea to Sea to Sea.
Today is the opening of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean and I wish I was there.
I wish I was in the official motorcade, leaving the stunted spruce trees of the boreal forest around Inuvik, watching trees get shorter and smaller till there are no trees at all, passing the pingo pyramids, winding around the myriad lakes splashed on the tundra till we reach the sea and dip our toes in the Arctic Ocean, the goal of most tourists when they finally arrive in Tuktoyaktuk.
Since 1979 you have been able to drive the newly opened Dempster Highway as far north as Inuvik (in fact I was one of the first tourists to do so, a “Brat in a Subaru Brat to the Arctic,” my billboards proclaimed). And I have also been one of the few southerners to actually drive north of Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Ice Road, the only road possible till now.
I remember the Ice Road well. I drove it in a spring blizzard. It was a white world – the sky, the land, the road and me. I was white with fright. Lying in the snow beside me on the left were the wings of a Cessna that had flown too low, on my right the roof of a house trailer that had blown off the road. There was no road to see.
Oddly, I had once boated this wide white road of ice, along the East Channel of the Mackenzie River Delta, in summer an impossible maze of channels and islands and ponds, and even more confusing in the uniform white of winter.
Yet people have lived and survived here at the Top of the World for eons. As I left the Mackenzie River Delta and barrelled north toward Tuk, I skirted abandoned Reindeer Station where 80 herders and their families used to live during the 1930s and 40s; drove past the turnoff to the abandoned whaling station and trading post of Herschel Island, along the east arm of the Mackenzie into Kugmalit Bay; past the graves and driftwood remains of Kittigazuit where in the 1800s more than a thousand Inuvialuit lived and hunted the beluga whales and where one recent summer I had shared tea and bannock with a family who still went whaling off nearby Hendrickson Island.
And then though the division wasn’t clear, I left the sea ice and the road became a sliver through a fantasyland of whipped cream and meringue as the wind whipped the snow to a naked pavlova. I wanted to walk over this sculptured seascape. I wanted to reach the horizon. I clambered down from my truck, staggered then fell on my rump amid the frozen waves. Was I on the land or the sea?
Despite the cold, I knelt down on the narrow lane of glare ice running down the middle of the roadway and tried to brush away the snow and find the ice beneath.
I was amazed by the colours close at hand. Not white but all kinds of green – jade and olive and emerald; all kinds of blue – royal and sapphire and ultramarine; and many like turquoise in between.
And so many shapes. The slabs I was driving on were over six feet thick but broken by fault lines, overflow cracks and air bubbles, into streaks and blobs and spatters. The tiniest of the splotches twinkled like jewels. The ice was so shattered that I returned rather gingerly to the truck, worried I may break through.
I arrived safely in Tuk in time for the Beluga Jamboree.
My joy in travelling to the end of the world is visiting with the people who live there. Like Randy Pokiak who makes visitors part of his family, whether he is trapping in January, hunting polar bears in March, ice fishing in May, catching whales in July, or hunting caribou in September.
He is equally adept at explaining permafrost, oil drilling and land claims as he is at skinning pelts and driving dogteams. I had known him only five minutes when he picked up his wife Katey from a tea boiling contest on the ice and asked her to dry me some slices of caribou from the hind quarter sitting on his kitchen floor.
After lunch, he rounded up a babysitter for one son, Enook, put the other one, Lucky, behind him on the skidoo and invited me to visit the pingos by komatik. “You’ll be more comfortable in the sled,” he said solicitously. I zipped my parka close around my face but prepared to put up with frozen fingers in order to take pictures as we sped along.
We rolled through Tuk and past the Roman Catholic mission boat The Lady of Lourdes permanently anchored on a concrete pad in the middle of town. We left behind the houses with their polar bear skins flying like laundry in the wind and hurtled across frozen land and sea to the pingos, ice-cored hills and volcanoes of ice that are Tuk’s most prominent landmarks. The komatik bounced over the bumpy ice.
“Okay?” gestured Randy.” “Perfect,” I grimaced with a nod as I stashed my cameras and curled my hands in my groin for warmth.
Perfect I was not, but it was worth experiencing the life of northerners who live in this land and who are tough despite the tendency for skidoos not dogteams, for electric-powered houses not seal oil-lit igloos.
And now there is an all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean you should do just that.