As signs of spring 2017 gradually inch their way north of the arctic circle, residents of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories are preparing for a major transition. With the rising temperatures of each passing day, an important link between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk is poised to thaw and melt into the history books. The 187-kilometre ice road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk has just completed its final season of operation, and will soon be replaced by a $300 million all-weather road.
Winter ice roads play a key role in many remote communities across the country, allowing fuel, groceries, and other supplies to be brought in much more affordably than by barge or air during the remainder of the year. While Inuvik was formally connected to Yukon and the rest of Canada via the Dempster Highway in 1979, the tiny coastal hamlet of ‘Tuk’ has been much more isolated on the edge of the Beaufort Sea.
From early December to late April each year, the intermittent ice connection with Inuvik has brought its own accompanying rhythm of economic, social, and cultural life for Tuk’s 850 primarily Inuvialuit residents.
A few feet of ice don’t feel like much of a reassuring cushion between your vehicle and the seafloor below, particularly when blizzards and overflow of splashing Arctic Ocean water are known to shut down sections of the road. However, full-size transport trucks have regularly plied the road each year with surprisingly few accidents.
Alluring or alarming, the road’s fractured clear ice provides a gut-checking glimpse of the depths below as it winds through the eastern channel of the Mackenzie River delta toward our country’s other coast. Stop midway between the two communities and you are surrounded by a pristine, silent, and treeless arctic landscape. Like the permafrost that makes up much of the surrounding arctic tundra, the ice road is at once fragile and resilient. It can be an empty and lonely place, yet the sense of connection it provides for the region is vital.
Now that connection itself is changing. An unknown chapter is set to unfold when the all-season Inuvik Tuk Highway (ITH) officially opens in the fall of 2017. Besides allowing Canadians to drive from coast to coast to coast and dip a toe in the Arctic Ocean, there are hopes that the new road will also bring in additional infrastructure improvements, increased food security, and economic opportunity for locals. But the ice road, in all its segregation and danger, will not be forgotten.
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