It’s 9:15 am on a frosty March morning in Tuktoyaktuk. The sun pokes up in the east, silhouetting skeins of thin smoke rising from almost every building in town. Bundled up kids kibbitz with stray dogs in the gloaming streets, headed for another day at Ilisarvik Mangilaluk School. A few of them do a double take at the sight of a Nevada-plated Dodge pickup truck with a dusty marshmallow of a white popup camper on the back parked outside the school. Itinerants are common in the summer but this time of year campers are scarce. Like the houses, though, the rig has its own little diesel heater that breathes steam into the crystalline morning air. Through a curtained window at the back you can see lights on and shadows moving inside. Below the window, the camper reads, “Freedom to Roam.”
Inside, South Africans Graeme and Luisa Bell, are gathering their things for a day of presentations in the school. The story they will tell is about a decision they took in 2010 to sell their successful immigration/recruiting business in South Africa and begin what has by now stretched into 12 years on the road with their two children, a journey that has taken them through Europe, around Africa and South America, bits of the United States, and now to the northern terminus of the roads in the Americas.
I met Graeme through the Explorers Club mentorship program in 2019 and I offered to help with the planning of their first Canadian journey, particularly the northern stops. Through a couple of years of Zooms and email correspondence, I learned that this jaunt into Canada and up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik and on to Tuk was the result of pandemic hiccups on a planned journey from Cape Town to Vladivostok. So to North America they came, austensibly to have some easy driving and long breaks on the road so that they could visit with others in Overlandering Tribe (yes, that’s a thing), keep their social media channels hopping, and finish a how-to book called Travel the Planet Overland. For this run, however, instead of travelling in their beloved Land Rover Defender (stored in South Africa), they are in a borrowed three-quarter ton Dodge truck (their home) with a state-of-the-art winterized camper in the back.
Photo by: James Raffan
Jon Turner, the owner of the rig, designer of the camper, and co-owner of Nimbl, the company in the US that manufactures them, thought he might like to join the Bells on their northern adventure using his own vehicle. So when an extra seat in his van was offered, I was able to move from advisor to participant. This plan involved me meeting up with them in Inuvik, travelling north to Tuk and then back south to Whitehorse. Frustratingly for all, Jon had rolled his van south of Pelly Crossing on the way north (happily no injuries, except to the van) and there were now four of us in the Dodge with Chewie, the Bell’s energetic Yorkshire Terrier, and MCat, a very polite yellow Labrador retriever, Jon’s service dog, to help counter combat PTSD from the Gulf War.
The Bell’s two children, Keelan, 22, and Jessica, 18, for whom road life has been a fact of life, both happened to be at pivotal points in their distance education arcs, so they’re in an apartment in Mexico—Jessica studying for final exams and Keelan looking for work—and not vying for space in the vehicle as well, although I would have loved to hear what it was like to grow up in a Land Rover travelling around the world.
Heading in to Mangilaluk School from the parking lot, with Chewy and MCat safely bedded down in the toasty confines of the camper, Graeme turned to me and said, “In the beginning we were chasing the sun but that got hot, especially crossing the equator in Africa and South America. It’s good for us to learn to camp in the snow, to learn to love the cold.”
Although I’d been teasing the Bells about how these temperatures we were encountering were a sure sign of Spring, as we were taking our boots off in the school, a voice came on the PA saying: “Just an announcement. It will be indoor recess, phys ed and wellness breaks today because it’s -46 degrees.” Graeme winked at me in the foyer and said, “So it really is cold.” All I could do was just smile and say, “Naaah.”
Photo by: James Raffan
Watching 6’4” Graeme settle into the tiny chairs in primary classrooms was just funny, like one of the bears from the Moscow Circus trying to ride a unicycle. But with Luisa and Jon piping in with colour commentary, from his low perch the gentle South African giant captivated the students with stories and images of their travels. He showed them lions, tigers, elephants and zebras. He introduced them to jungle paths and mountain tracks, swamps and alligators, a caravan of camels in Morocco, and got them to sound out place names like Senegal, Serengetti, Amazon River, Bolivia, Darien Gap and Mozambique.
When it was Jon’s turn, he showed them pictures of his rolled van and talked about how boring life would be “if we had everything figured out,” adding, “it’s not so much what happens as what you do with what happens that matters.” Luisa talked about food and permits, visas, life on the road, knowing how to read a map and how important it is to consult the locals for intelligence about what’s really going on.
From Grade 1 to high school, five presentations throughout the day, the students loved these stories, particularly Graeme’s tales of how resourceful you have to be, how to “make do” and how to fix things on the fly, “much like you have to in a remote northern community,” he speculated. There were lots of questions about that. He talked about the importance of saving money and spending it wisely when there is not a lot to go around in the first place. He talked about how privileged they felt to be visiting Tuk and talking to young people who live at the end of the road in the Americas. And he left them with the message that no matter where they’ve been in the world, “there are wonderful people there to greet you and help out.”
For Graeme and Luisa, who have seen more of the world in twelve years of overlanding than most of us will experience in a lifetime, getting over the Arctic Circle and to the shores of the Arctic Ocean by road was the goal, to see if they and their rig could withstand the rigours of a Canadian winter. For them, the visit to Mangilaluk School was an eye-opener. The same with an evening with Charlie “Chuck” Gruben on the projects of the Tuk Hunters and Trappers Association; a chilly snowmachine picnic on the pingos with James Tedjuk; and the same—lots of laughs and learning—with Roger and Winnie Gruben, who welcomed us into their home (and its hot shower!) when all other accommodations in Tuk were full of winter contractors.
Photo by: James Raffan
After I arrived in Inuvik, we had a two-day wait for drifts on the all-weather Inuvik/Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) to be cleared. For part of that time Lloyd Binder kept us entertained with stories of his days with the reindeer herd, in exchange for the tubes of Kalles Original fish roe we’d brought north from Ikea … his favourite! We also swallowed up gallons of coffee with the odd side order of Shawarma Poutine at The Roost, which the Bells had heard was a must when in Canada. Finally, we started meeting people who’d come south from Tuk and, although the road was still technically closed, we started to move gingerly north and eventually made it to Tuk, to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, at a cool -50ºC.
If there is one thing the Bells have learned in all those years of overlanding, it is patience. Pushing road conditions, or schedules, or weather, or conflict is often what leads to damage to their vehicles or other preventable strife to people or things. Sometimes you just carry on, because you’ve prepared for this. Or, as we did during three days in Tuk, you just go with the flow.
But when you roll, you roll, as we did when the ITH opened again for southward travel. Having achieved their main objective—walking on the ice of the Beaufort Sea—the journey south had a different feel, more like sight-seeing. And I have to say there’s nothing more exciting and visually intoxicating than these roads in their winter dress, especially if you’re not in a hurry. Back through Inuvik and south. Except for the 10-metre drifts, which we saw only after road crews had cut though them and heaved the snow to the side, the road surfaces were pothole free and smoother than they ever are in summer, especially after a deluge.
And as much fun as the Peel and Mackenzie ferry crossings are in summer, the ice bridges at Tsiigehtchic and Teetł’it zheh are wide, clean and inviting. And crossing other creeks that draw the eye away from the road, it’s easy to imagine Gwitch’in hunters with dogs or even the days of the Northwest Mounted Police Patrols. Crossing the NWT/Yukon at Wright Pass in the Richardsons looks and feels like the windswept almost painfully austere frozen northscape you might find in a scary fairy tale.
We see no wildlife but are entranced by James Creek, as we wait, yet again, for the road to open, the tracks of ptarmigan scurrying from thicket to thicket, that comically stitch the hillside snow like a visually-impaired seamstress in an awful rush.
A good day south of Fort McPherson, sated with sun and scenery through frosty windows, everybody needs a stretch and the dogs need to pee but I’m watching the kilometres tick by in anticipation of a bit of a celebratory fuss for my travelling companions at the Arctic Circle. For the occasion, I’ve brought with me three ceinture fléchée and a flask of Jamieson’s Irish whisky to mark the crossing of this fabled meridian.
There is now a lovely set of signs and amenities to mark this place along the road. As the wooden posts and signs hove into view, I passed out the sashes and instruct my companions to meet me by the Arctic Circle sign for a little ceremony.
Invoking the voyageur’s ceremony, normally conducted on the crossing into the Arctic watershed on a canoe journey halfway across Grand Portage, near Lake Superior, I grabbed a thin willow switch from the roadside and then, one at a time, as they recited after me, “Je suis une homme (femme) du Nord” I sprinkled whisky about their heads and tapped them on both shoulders with the willow switch to honour their pluck for tackling fabled Dempster Highway in winter.
Minutes later, we trundle across the Eagle River bridge and grind up the long hill to Eagle Plains. Jon and I opt to take a room, where we can all have showers but, instead of bellying up in the Millen Lounge for burgers and beers, Luisa has her shower and invites us all to yet another lovely dinner sweet and sour sausage with rice in the Nimbl. This is, after all, her home. And after supper, she makes it clear that this evening is going to be quiet time, for her to chat with the kids in Mexico and to get the rig’s onboard Starlink internet going to puzzle through logistics and accommodations for us as we head to Dawson, Whitehorse and farther south.
There’s also the matter of getting their beloved Land Rover Defender containerized and shipped by sea to North America—a decision they seem to have taken chatting through the miles on this Canadian journey, knowing that sooner or later Jon is going to want his truck and camper back. It’s during this discussion that I realize just how different the Bell are from homebodies like me. For them, the road is home. They earn income from writing books, making appearances at international overlander expos, keeping a robust social media following and whatever else they can do to get the word out. They know how to stretch a buck and how to connect to the kindness of strangers. This is their life.
Photo by: James Raffan
The following day, the weather still holding, we fuel up the rig, load up and continue south. Ogilvy Ridge takes our collective breath away, if that was even possible after what we’ve experienced farther north. We tick down to kilometre zero, turn right at Klondike Junction and putter up Yukon Highway 2 to Dawson City, just in time for their annual spring fling, called Thaw-di-Gras.
I want to enter Chewie in the dog show that is part of a cornucopia of crazy events put on by the good burghers of Dawson. There’s fur show, chili tasting, human curling, kicksled poker run, slow bike races, glow skate and a box hockey tournament, but no dog show. Chewie’s glad about that. We opt instead to enter Graeme in the Keg Toss, which he wins by a hair. Sour toe cocktails all round. Gertie’s for a dance to musical stylings of Jimmy and the Hammerstones. And then it’s bedtime.
Graeme and Luisa climb up into the camper and, walking toward the hotel room Jon and I have taken across the street, I turn and see the skein of exhaust from their diesel heater and their shadows moving across the back window of the camper, silhouetted against the warm glow of the 12-volt lights inside. Down south here in Dawson City, though, they’re not the only crazies sleeping in RVs of one kind or another, in March! However, this is no passing fancy, no weekend away, for the Bells.
In 12 years of travelling Graeme and Luisa have visited something like 70 countries, raised two healthy, inquisitive kids, written five books and countless blogs and articles, inspired thousands of other overlanders and driven farther on more edgy beach and jungle tracks and mountain cartways than anybody I know, savouring each mile and taking life as it is revealed by forward motion. And now they have been to the end of the road in the Americas. For them, it’s unfettered freedom, freedom to roam, as Nimbl says.
For me, as much as I love to venture, there’s always the tether back to place, to family, to the familiar. And yet the Bells have all of that—a continent away from their children and a half a world away from the place where they were born. There is no doubt that the light of their lamps are lit by movement. There’s no doubt that they are as happy as anybody I know in mid-life and perhaps more content in their rambling ways than many who cling to the comforts of a stationary mark on the map. As I turn the key in our hotel room, I find that Jon’s asleep and MCat has beaten me to my pillows. Probably a great time to settle into a hot bath and call home.