Ice road

The paved highway ends at Inuvik in the Arctic. So how do you drive farther north? Wait on winter and the river.

Up here at the top of the world, in Inuvik in Canada's Northwest Territories, things don't really get moving until winter catches the mighty Mackenzie River in its grasp and brings it to a halt.

Then you can drive on the ice roads.

In the summer, an ice road is better known as a "river." But in winter, the river freezes. The ice is at least a yard thick, and often much thicker. That's strong enough to make a good road even for heavy trucks.

Ice roads are maintained by the highway department, just like regular paved roads farther south. (There's a notable difference: The Mounties - Canada's police - do not have any speed traps on ice roads.)

It's a funny feeling to be driving past frozen boats and onto the ice road near Inuvik. All that was between us and a very cold bath was four feet of ice. But four feet of ice was probably enough. We took our big red four-wheel-drive Durango SUV onto the ice and soon felt comfortable buzzing along at a pretty good clip.

Inuvik is the end of the road, literally. This is as far north as you can drive on a year-round road in North America. But many little communities huddle even farther north, accessible year-round only by air. The ice roads make it a lot easier for people to go places. Food and other goods can then be brought in by truck, so they don't cost as much.

The ice-road season usually runs from December to the end of April. "In the spring and the fall, the price of fresh produce just about doubles," says Moe Hansen. He runs a firm called Lakes and Rivers Consulting in Inuvik. "I know ice and water pretty well," he says.

There are two "major communities" linked to Inuvik by 170 miles of public ice roads: Aklavik (pop. 1,000) and Tuktoyaktuk (pop. 1,200). Up here, it doesn't take that many people to be a "major community."

Tuktoyaktuk is just "Tuk" for short, but once you get the hang of saying "TUK-toy-YAK-tuk," it's hard to keep from showing off.

Winter freezes the river, but it gets some human help, too. Crews use big augers - four or five feet long - like giant corkscrews to make holes through the ice. Then they drive pickup trucks across the ice. The weight of the trucks forces water up through the holes and onto the ice, where it freezes. This can add three inches a day to the thickness of the ice.

But basically, ice-road building is simple: "You plow it, clean it up, 30 meters wide [100 ft.], you test it, and you open it up," says Gurdev Jagpal. He's a government highway department manager here.

If the snow isn't cleared off the frozen river, it insulates the ice and slows the formation of new ice. It was not a good winter for ice roads. "Too much snow, not cold enough," says Mr. Hansen. "March was the coldest month, 40 below [F.] for a week." But it was "too little, too late."

The best ice-road ice looks blue. "Clear blue ice - that's nice, strong ice," Hansen says. Blue ice looks funny. "Did someone spill something out here?" we wondered when we saw it. Stay away from slushy, snowy ice - what Hansen calls "that white cloudy stuff."

And don't worry about cracks in the road. Cracks are a good sign on a well-established road. Water spurts up through the cracks and freezes, Hansen says, making strong new ice.

But even veteran ice-road experts like him admit there can be unsettling moments in the early phases of building an ice road. Sometimes when you drive a pickup onto ice that's "only" 12 or 14 inches thick, you can hear it cracking all around you. But Hansen has had enough experience to know it will be OK. "When that happens, you just roll your windows up and keep going."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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