Since its completion in 1979, the 417-mile-long Dempster Highway has provided Inuvik, the largest town north of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories, with year-round road access to the rest of the country. Built from gravel and crushed stone piled high on top of permanently frozen ground, the Dempster makes for treacherous driving, especially during the winter months. Once you get past Inuvik, however, the situation gets even tougher.
Sometimes called the Amazon of the north, the Mackenzie River begins at the Great Slave Lake and flows north into the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea. During most of the year, towns in the Mackenzie River Delta region, such as Aklavik, located west of Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk, located 100 miles north on the coast of the Beaufort Sea, are accessible only by air or boat. When the weather gets cold enough to freeze the river (often in December but sometimes not until January or February) drivers heading north from Inuvik take their chances on the Mackenzie River Ice Road, opened for the first time in February 1981. Though the ice road is reportedly well-marked and plowed frequently to remove insulating layers of snow, extreme caution is necessary to navigate through often severe weather conditions and potholes caused by fissures in the ice. At kilometer 34, the road breaks into two branches, one heading west towards Aklavik while the other shoots up toward Tuk. The rough driving conditions only get worse further north, as the road reaches the mouth of the Mackenzie near Tuk and heads onto the frozen surface of the Beaufort Sea itself.
Prior to 1981, dogsled was the only way to make the journey north to Tuk and other river delta communities; since then, trucks have been able to take the place of boats on the river highway during the winter months. They play the crucial role of supplying the river delta communities such as Tuk with much-needed medical and other supplies, as well as fueling the economy of the Northwest Territories by ferrying machinery, tools and fuel to work sites like that of MGM Energy Corporation, a Canadian oil and gas exploration and development company, and the Mallik Gas Hydrate Research Project, which studies the potential of extracting carbon energy from the natural gas hydrates that exist in the permafrost soil north of the Arctic Circle.
The Mackenzie River Ice Road is only one of many similar Canadian ice roads; the longest one in the country (and the world) is the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, which extends 370 miles from north of Yellowknife into the neighboring territory of Nunavut and allows trucks to service several diamond mines along the way. Ice roads are also in use in Finland, Norway, Alaska and Russia. In one particularly famous instance, the so-called Doroga Zhizni, or “Road of Life, stretching across the frozen Lake Ladoga, was used to evacuate refugees from Leningrad when the city was under siege by the Germans for 900 days—from September 1941 to January 1944—during World War II. During the winter months of the siege, trucks did the work of boats, ferrying thousands of people across the frozen lake to freedom.