2018 July 6 – Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and back, NT

The new road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is 148 km (92 miles).  It took four years to build and opened in November of 2017.  The road had been a ‘priority’ since the 1960s.  It is the first all-weather road to Tuk.  Previously the only road was an ice road in the winter.  You had to take a plane to get there in the summer.  We were told that the contractors had rushed the completion of the road at the Tuktoyaktuk end in order to have it finished for the announced opening day last November.  Consequently it is not as good as the rest of the road.  The road bed is compacted gravel built 1.8 meters (6′) above the permafrost.  The terrain between Inuvik and Tuk is nothing but ponds and small lakes so the road literally weaves among them.  There are eight bridges along the route, and a total of 68 areas where the highway has been engineered to pass over waterways. In a straight line the road would be about 25 km shorter.  The map below is not detailed enough to show you all the turns and curves but it gives you an idea of the conditions they had to deal with. The weatherman had predicted 76% chance of rain today and he was 100% correct first thing this morning.  It was lightly raining when we got up but as we waited for the Visitor’s Center to open at 9 to check on the road conditions it began to really come down.  I was very skeptical about going even though I really wanted to make it all the way to the Arctic Ocean.   Inuvik has a Cessna 150 weathervane and there was a geocache hidden at the base of it.  So, these intrepid cachers hiked off into the rain to find it. As we were leaving town we spied this rabbit/hare beside the road. When it took off the underside of it’s hindquarters and tail were white.The views along our drive today were not really exciting; it was a lot of low ground and bodies of water.  Under the cloudy skies it wasn’t terribly inspiring, although the huge expanse of the tundra was, as always, impressive.The gal at the Visitor’s Center told us that there was a rough section of the road for about 30 km out of Inuvik and then the road was good until the last 20 km into Tuktoyaktuk; where it was quite rough and muddy.  But, she assured us, if we took it slow we would make it through.  Music to John’s ears!  He really wanted to give it a go.

The lady was correct.  There was a rough section – a vast understatement – for the next 30 km, that we came to about 10 km out of town. I don’t think we had one place along the road all day that there was not water on one, or both sides of the road.

She was also correct that the road would be good later.  And we drove the majority of the way on nice compacted gravel. The last 25 or so kilometers to Tuktoyaktuk were a muddy, slippery, sliding nightmare!  I kept my head down and prayed a lot.  Thankfully John is an experienced driver on rough roads and knew how to compensate for the slipping rear-end and mud grabbing road.  Also thankfully there were very few oncoming vehicles because moving out of the ruts was difficult and you risked getting mired in the soft muck on the sides.

There was a couple and an older woman from Victoria on the tour with us of the gold dredge in Dawson City the other day.  They were in the Visitor’s Center at the same time as us this morning, also inquiring about the road to Tuk.  The woman said they had gone out yesterday, but turned back at the last 20 km.  They were trying it again today and we passed them on the good stretch.  We also passed a trio of cars with Asian visitors who had also been in the Visitor’s Center.  We never saw either party while we were in Tuk.  I strongly suspect they turned back.  Unless you are an experienced off-road and 4×4 driver with really good nerves you would not make it.  John did an awesome job.  I would have been over the side at the first turn.  What a mess.  I took a couple of videos – shaking and bouncing all over the place – and John is going to post at least one of them on his Facebook page if he can.  To put it mildly it was an EXPERIENCE!  One I would be very happy to not repeat. I was not looking forward to the drive back to Inuvik! We think the driver of the little motorhome, just parked it atop this hill and left it until the road dries out.  The truck may have stopped to offer assistance or something but its right rear tire is almost off the road so it was left as well.  Both vehicles were in the same spot when we returned. We had also passed a motorcyclist heading south – well stopped in the muck facing southward.  He, too was still in the same spot when we drove back.  He told us he was fine and would be making his way out soon. It was a terrible road to drive in a four-wheel drive truck.  I can’t imagine how it would be on a motorcycle. As the fellow we met in Whitehorse had told us after he had been down the road in the rain, “This was the road from hell.” The worst he had ever ridden and he had been all over the world on his bike.The final 3 kilometers into Tuk was a good road again. Boy was I happy to see it too! The road into the town passes right past the local dump.  Of course, there had never been a road from that direction before, so the dump was at the back of town away from the airstrip and the water.  Now the road takes you right past it. Workers accomodations.  I don’t know if they are used right now or not.  We saw other camp buildings that were boarded up. In the 1980s Tuktoyaktuk was booming with oil workers, but after the crash they left and have never returned in such numbers.  The town is primarily home to Inuvialuit.  The population of the community is about 900.

There is one geocache in Tuk and before we drove into the town proper we stopped near the airport to find it.  John had to do some make-shift bridge building to reach it. (He moved it to a nearer section of fencing away from the water.) At the end of a spit of land there is a rustic camping area. There was a couple of car and trailers, several small single-man tents and these cute pop-up units.As we were walking toward the shore we saw this group of four people preparing to dunk in the frigid waters of the Arctic. I don’t know whether that is brave or crazy? On our travels I have stood in the Atlantic, the Pacific, all five of the Great Lakes, and Lake Winnipeg.  I wanted to stand in the Arctic as well. Did anyone mention it is cold?We walked back to the truck, had our pb&j sandwich lunch and started back to Inuvik.

We passed several of the Pingos for which the area is known.  A Pingo is unfrozen ground water (from a drained lake or pond) that gets put under pressure by the surrounding freezing front and the thin layer of permafrost is forced upwards.  It continues to grow until it is frozen solid – the unfrozen ground becomes permafrost and the pingo has a core of almost pure ice.                                          Tundra swans nesting.

In the hour and a half that we had been in Tuk the sun had done a surprising amount of mud drying.  The mud bog that we drove through on the way into town now had two dry ruts down the middle.  As long as you were able to stay in them you made good time.  It took us only 20 minutes to navigate the worst section of the road, which was about a third of the time it took us to go through on the way in.   Back on the good road we stopped to take photos of a couple of the sleds that have been stored along the roadside. We also got a few photos of this heron or crane family. We arrived back in Inuvik at 5 o’clock, and went an early dinner before returning to the hotel.

Because the community is sitting on permafrost all the water and sewer systems are above-ground pipes and all the house are built on stilts so as to prevent the heat from the house melting the ground underneath it. The space allows the cold air to move under the buildings and keep the permafrost solid.

We didn’t have time to take one of the tours of the Igloo Church but we satisfied ourselves with a view of the outside.Tomorrow we start back to Dawson City with a half-way stop again at Eagle Plains.  I think the weatherman says there will be sunshine so the drive we saw under cloudy skies the other day we will get to see in better light tomorrow.  Here’s hoping anyway.

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