Motoring along a specially created winter ‘road’ in Northwest Territories can be a liberating and adrenaline-fuelled experience.
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I had only driven a few metres when I heard an alarming cracking sound. Then another. I quickly jumped out, afraid that my little red Honda Accord would plunge through the frozen lake with me still in it.
It was my first winter living in Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, but I needn’t have worried. Driving on ice sounds dangerous, but up here ice roads are just another part of the transportation system.
Every winter, the territorial government and the mining industry build roads across frozen lakes, over rivers and through snow-covered forest and tundra.
Many of the 1,400 km (870 mi) of winter roads and ice roads are built for truckers hauling loads to diamond mines out in the Barrenlands, far from civilization. If you’ve watched the popular television show “Ice Road Truckers,” you’ll have seen 18-wheelers loaded with mining equipment or supplies creeping across the ice at minus 40°C, often in blizzard conditions.
For truckers, driving on ice roads for hours on end is anything but exciting. The rules of the road are strictly enforced. Almost a metre of ice is required before trucking roads open and even then, loaded trucks travel at no more than 10 to 35 km (six to 21 mi) per hour. Any faster and they could create a dangerous wave under the ice that might break through the road. Falling asleep from boredom is a bigger danger for truckers than falling through the ice.
However, for you and me driving on ice is liberating and fun. Imagine a frozen lake on a cold, sunny day with a wide-open “road” that’s cleared of snow. Smooth and glassy, it’s like one long skating rink for cars.
Driving on solid ice is not a lot different to driving on an icy road in southern Canada. You need to be cautious. I learned that the scary way, too. One day, I was riding in a car on the winter road from Fort Smith, NWT, to Fort Chipewyan, AB. After driving through a beautiful snow-covered forest, we emerged onto a frozen lake. Picking up speed, we were soon flying across the ice with no other cars in sight. It was exhilarating, until we began careening across the road, out of control.
Brakes are useless on ice; the driver did her best to steer us away from the snow bank that was now hurtling toward us. A road marker looked like it would come straight through the windshield when we hit the snow bank, flipped and started rolling, ending up on our side. Thankfully, we weren’t hurt and a couple snowmobilers stopped and gave us a ride.
That experience didn’t put me off ice roads. In fact, I have one more on my to-do list: the ice road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, way above the Arctic Circle. It’s a gorgeous blue ribbon of ice that runs for 185 km (115 mi) on top of the frozen Mackenzie River and across the Beaufort Sea.
But if driving on an unfamiliar road made of ice in the depth of an Arctic winter is too scary, Arctic Adventure Tours will be happy to take you for a ride.
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