The highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is set to officially open November 15. When it does, it will be many things. It will be a proud piece of nation building, the realization of John Diefenbaker’s nearly 70-year-old dream to connect Canada by road from sea to sea to sea. It will be an impressive feat of engineering—a 138-kilometre stretch of highway over permafrost terrain. It will be a bridge to prosperity for a small Arctic town—an opportunity to fulfill its oil and gas ambitions and establish itself as a tourist destination.
It will also be the end of an era, rendering redundant the construction of an ice road over the Arctic Ocean. It will mean a change in lifestyles for not only the 850 residents of Tuktoyaktuk, but also for the people who used to live at the end of the road in Inuvik. As the new $300-million highway prepares to open up to traffic, current and former residents of the Beaufort Delta give us their account of the end of one road and the start of another.
Gerry Kisoun, Tundra North Tours operator, Inuvik: We’ve been using that ice road for many, many years. Close to 50 years. Something like that.
Frank Pokiak, elder, Tuktoyaktuk: In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the companies were working up here, they had an ice road. Late ‘60s, I think, that’s when I was working for Imperial Oil. They started building the road to haul stuff to their rigs. [Before that,] it was by air or by boat to Inuvik.
Kisoun: I don’t think it was decided upon to say, “We are going to make a road from Inuvik to Tuk on the ice.” It was oil and gas companies, actually. It was a working road that was heading off down by Bar-C [a base for Imperial Oil], 50 miles out of here. It headed down toward the coast in a more westerly direction and I think people from Tuk wanted to be connected to it. That’s what I’ve heard.
Kurt Wainman, owner of Northwind Industries, a primary contractor on the highway, Inuvik: I was born and raised up here and that’s all I ever lived on, was ice road. It was just a way of life and of getting to each community. Later on in life, it was a way to get out to job sites and for people in oil and gas.
Joanne Edwards-Steen, owner of Joanne’s Taxi, Tuktoyaktuk: The road usually opens about December 15 to 20. Before Christmas.
Wainman: We always looked forward to mid-December—around December 10—because we knew we’d get on the ice road. We were doing it so long. I’ve had the contract the last 20 years or so. We’d get stoked on it every year when we’d finish, getting more efficient. New guys—we’ve had to send a few home. They just didn’t understand the circumstances. They think it’s fun but it’s serious stuff. All in all, it has been good because it’s local guys who understand ice. We all grew up with the ice road.
Pokiak: Once the ice road opened, at least you could leave anytime you wanted if the weather was good. You have an option to go shopping where it’s cheaper. Visit family and friends. I didn’t have my own personal truck, so I went back and forth with friends. Just any chance you got, if you had a friend going up. You get away from home too, eh?
Edwards-Steen: [A cab fare] costs about $450 [one-way.] About $500 or $600-return.
Wainman: When I was 10 years old, I learned to drive a plow truck with my dad out there because my dad worked the ice roads.
Edwards-Steen: My husband John, he’d take me on the ice road. When I first started, I asked him if he could show me how to drive on it and get the feel for it. He showed me how to do donuts, so I would know what to do if I ever did one—so I would know how to control it.
Philippe Morin, News/North and CBC reporter, formerly in Inuvik: I was always trying to figure out how thick the ice was. After a while, I realized by the time you’re on the ocean it’s six- or eight-feet thick. I thought: my truck’s not going through if the 18-wheelers are on it.
Kisoun: Some tourists are very nervous. How do you go and ride on a piece of ice and watch an 18-wheeler come at you and the ice is not breaking? That’s the excitement they get out of experiencing the ice road.
Morin: I remember I went very slowly all the time. Some people were more confident pushing it, but I was always going 80 kilometres per hour or less on the ice road.
Edwards-Steen: One time it took me an hour and 15 minutes with my husband. It was about 5:30 p.m. We had to get to Inuvik. I was like, “I want to play bingo. It starts at 7.” We weren’t going to make it. So we got ready and took off. If we could drive faster I would have told him to drive faster. It takes 2.5 hours going the speed limit: 90 kilometres per hour.
Pokiak: We really depended on the ice road to go to Jamboree. I don’t know if you know—those are really popular here. It’s weekend after weekend. Fort McPherson, Tuk, Aklavik, Inuvik, and Arctic Red River. Five weekends of travelling to watch Ski-Doo races and all that. You kind of hope the weather holds out in the spring so you can go to all the Jamborees.
Kisoun: People have been stuck on that ice road. And they’ve had to wait it out. It happens on any kind of road, but on an ice road I don’t think you really want to get stuck too many darn times. It always seems to be that you’re hoping you’ll have enough fuel in your vehicle to keep you until the storm settles down enough to get you out of there. Or until someone can come and get you.
Morin: Everybody in town knew a story second-hand of someone who allegedly knew a trucker who had gone through the ice at some point. There was one truck from Northwind that had sunk through and frozen so they put Christmas lights on it for fun because it wasn’t going anywhere. There was the occasional flooding when they’re making the ice—it didn’t fall through, but there was some kind of overflow.
Wainman: We put a few trucks through the ice. Probably put in half a dozen trucks—sank a few semis right to the bottom. Freak of nature things happen, running late into the season.
Morin: The time I was there coincided with Ice Road Truckers becoming a huge phenomenon. E. Gruben’s Transport started getting faxes and applications from people all over the U.S. The show made it look exciting. People were interested.
Russell Newmark, CEO of E. Gruben’s Transport, a primary contractor on the highway, Tuktoyaktuk: I certainly remember the whole Ice Road Truckers thing because I negotiated the deal with them. If you look at a reality TV show like that—they want all the things that are bad for you, right? If you’re a company and you’re building an ice road, the last thing you want on TV for your clients, for your insurers, for all the people involved with you, is to think that they’re doing something that’s ultra-dangerous, that somebody might die, that a truck may sink. But without that, you have no reality TV. You don’t want to see a guy driving down the ice road for an hour—everything’s good, no problems. Most of the people involved with our company said, “You’re crazy to do this.” We decided the photography is great and it would highlight [the ice road] and we’re not going to have any accidents or sinkages. We won’t give them that.
That’s the way it went, but probably 80 percent of the people involved thought we were nuts to do it.
Morin: It has to be said the local people always rolled their eyes at the show because it made it seem so much more dangerous than it was. It wasn’t dangerous, but you’d still tell people when you were going and when to expect you to come back and all that. Once I was at an evening event in Tuk at Kitty Hall and when it was time to leave, the people convoying back to Inuvik formed a chain of trucks to go back together.
Pokiak: You know, it’s such a nice drive. It’s going to be missed, especially by people from Inuvik who have cabins along the ice road. They can still get there with Ski-Doos, but there’s quite a few cabins along the ice road. Driving back and forth, you’d see people at their cabins on the weekend.
Edwards-Steen: I’ll miss it. It’s nice scenery and easy access to Aklavik.
Morin: You didn’t really know where the ocean began and river ended. You wouldn’t really know it was an ice road because most of the way it was just driving on this big flat space, horizon all around and totally quiet.
Edwards-Steen: You knew you were getting closer to home when you got to the mouth of the river and the ocean there. You saw the lights as soon as you drove a little further up past the pingos.
Newmark: I sat on the hamlet council of Tuk for years. It was always, “Road to Tuk, road to Tuk.” For 25 or 30 years, we went to every convention—Liberal, Conservative, every political gathering. They always said to us, “Oh yeah, great project, great project.” But it would go away because they were not going to put the money in.
A few [local leaders] were able to get Stephen Harper’s ear during his trips up North and were able to convince him that this was a good thing for the country—to connect Canada from coast to coast to coast. And so he made that decision to essentially put $200 million of Canada’s money into this region, which nobody ever would have done and the federal government hadn’t done in a 100 years. It was a personal initiative of the prime minister, being convinced by the leaders in the region, and that’s what really paved the way for this to happen.
We’re not billion-dollar companies doing it. You’ve got local Inuvialuit companies building this and we had the know-how, but it strained our capacity a bit. It’s a big financial undertaking and also we’re just generally building a highway in terrain where there’s never been a highway built before. It was incredibly challenging—is incredibly challenging.
Wainman: During the building of the highway, I lost my father, uncle and grandfather over five years. Me and my brothers, we all worked together—working hard at finishing this road. My grandfather wanted to drive it and see the end of it. Dad wanted to retire. Unfortunately, they never got to see the end.
Newmark: On the one hand, it’s been incredibly rewarding and meaningful and you feel that you’re doing something that is going to have long-term, lasting benefits for the region, the North and the country. But on the other hand, it’s been pretty agonizing too. A constant 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day affair for four years, right? So yeah, it’s been a combination of exaltation and agony.
Wainman: One of Northwind’s legacies is we’re the ice road company. Now we’re looking at each other like, “What are we going to do this year at Christmas?” We’ll think of something.
Newmark: I think 10, 20, 30 years from now, it’s going to be seen as quite a momentous and ground-breaking thing. We’ve got a gas-well very close to Tuk and it’s very likely that gas-well could be brought on to provide energy at a significant savings. If you have infrastructure in place when projects and opportunities do come, they’re a lot easier to make happen. If you have no infrastructure, it adds an incredible amount of costs.
Joe Nasogaluak, stone carver and artist, Tuktoyaktuk: The most important thing for me is safety. If there’s an emergency in this community, we’re always waiting for planes, in a storm especially. My son had meningitis. The ice road was closed. We had no way of going. They couldn’t medevac him. [In Tuk] they said, “He’s got the flu.” But he had meningitis and finally the road opened and we went up. We went to Inuvik and he was medevaced to Edmonton. It’s stuff like that.
And I think it will free a lot of kids’ minds. We can be part of the rest of the world
Newmark: For 20 or 30 years, you’d land in Inuvik and particularly getting into September and October when the weather’s bad, you’re wondering whether you were going to get on the plane and then the plane gets cancelled. Now, I can just get in my vehicle and drive.
Morin: I think the ocean will become the attraction. People in Inuvik are a bit worried about becoming a drive-through town where people will say, “We’re in Inuvik—let’s grab a bite to eat and keep going because we’re almost there.”
Pokiak: I’m pretty sure that tourism is going to really pick up once the road opens. We’ll probably get even more tourists than we do now. I’m okay with it because I think Tuk is pretty popular for tourism.
And they make a lot of comments when they go back home about how friendly people are from Tuk.
Joe Nasogaluak wants the name of the highway to honour three boys who ran away from residential school in Inuvik in 1972. They followed roughly the same route as the new road to Tuktoyaktuk. Two of the three boys died. Bernard Andreason, then 11, was the only survivor. He was found just outside the community two weeks later.
Nasogaluak: It would be an honour to name the highway Freedom Road. The thing that happened, it was part of Inuvik and part of Tuk. Not just Tuk alone. The residential school people were saying they stole a pack of cigarettes so they ran away. They blamed these kids. These kids were not running away because of a pack of cigarettes. They were strong enough at that age to run away from the abuse—from the hellhole they were in. It shows some young people, you don’t have to be there and take it. You can leave.
The boys were on the same path as that road right there. They were following the telephone poles to Tuk. One of them was eight miles out of here when they picked him up. Bernard, he would tell me the whole story, right through. There was a 13-year-old, and two 11-year-olds. I was 13 at the time. You could hear the stories of people talking. You could hear the sadness. It kind of affected me at that time.
With this road, you would drive up and it would be an interesting thing. “Hey, why do they have that Freedom Road? What is this about?” And then they would realize it.
By driving this road, it would honour these kids.
(Interviews have been edited and condensed.)
(CORRECTION: A previous version of this story, and the print edition, listed the length of the current highway as 187 kilometres. In fact, it was the ice road that was 187 kilometres long.)