A remote town in the Arctic Circle known for caribou,
northern lights and frigid winters feels like Canada’s last
frontier. A highway being built there could change all that.
In the Arctic, roads are magical. They appear in the fall and melt in the spring. Others, buckled by permafrost, undulate in the snow. Many are invisible to the naked eye — caribou migration routes that exist only by instinct. During the sunless, frigid winter, the Arctic Ocean becomes one vast road for polar bears and snowmobiles.
Amid these roads, a new one is being built, an 85-mile sliver topped with gravel in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It will link the town of Inuvik to the smaller village of Tuktoyaktuk, known locally as Tuk. Anywhere else, its creation would be minor, a rounding error for departments. But this road is different, because Tuk sits on the Arctic Ocean. It would be the only public highway to its shores and would fulfill a decades-old dream to link all three Canadian coasts — Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic.
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When finished in late 2017, the road to Tuk will be accessible from the Dempster Highway, which begins in the Yukon Territory near Alaska and heads northeast across the Arctic Circle. Driving to Tuk from the United States will be an epic road trip. Starting where I live in Chicago, Tuk will be just over 3,700 miles away.
Because of the complexity of building in the Arctic, the road is expected to cost 299 million Canadian dollars (about $216 million) to build. It will weave through the Mackenzie River delta, second largest in North America. Starting in boreal forest, passing through Arctic tundra and ending on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the road will be elevated above the permafrost, separated by a layer of quarried rock and protective fabric. Eight bridges and 359 culverts must be built, and 177 million cubic feet of material will be moved. Construction can take place only during the winter months, when trucks haul 40-ton loads across frozen lakes.
Henrik Seva, left, and Lawerence Amos take a tea break after driving the Canadian Reindeer company’s herd across the tundra. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
The difficulty does not end with completion of the road. Because of climate change in the Arctic, maintenance costs are harder to predict. If the permafrost melts in places, the concern would be “the road slumping and becoming a roller coaster,” said Kevin McLeod, director of the Highways and Marine Services Division with the Northwest Territories’ Department of Transportation.
The road is situated at the northern tip of the Northwest Territories, a vast expanse almost three times the size of California, with a population of just over 43,000 people. This juxtaposition of land and population is crucial to its extraordinary beauty. True wilderness is five minutes out of town. The landscape — forest, tundra, countless rivers and lakes, mountains, a vast tapestry of sky — feels like North America’s last frontier.
I first visited the area several times as United States consul general for central west Canada from 2012 to 2015. I was there during polar day, a period of 24-hour sunlight that lasts from late May into July. At 2 a.m., I remember the town of Inuvik shimmering like high noon. During an 18-year career as an American diplomat in places like France, Israel and Haiti, this Arctic expanse in neighboring Canada was the most exotic place I had been. Because of its high latitude and extreme weather variations, sometimes it seemed like another planet.
After leaving Canada, I kept thinking about Inuvik and Tuk and the road being built near the top of the world.
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A crescent moon above reindeer from the Canadian Reindeer company’s open-range herd.
Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
I landed in Inuvik in the early afternoon last December, five days after the sun disappeared below the horizon. Polar night. The sun would not return until Jan. 7. In December, the average high temperature is minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky looked lighter than I had imagined, a monotone canvas of gray clouds. As I stepped off the plane, the cold hit my face and curled under my parka. Perfectly white snow covered the land, draping the skinny trees of the surrounding forest.
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With a population of 3,265, Inuvik is the largest town in the Mackenzie delta. It sits on permafrost about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This limits digging into the ground, so water and sewage pipes zigzag through town in elevated metal corridors called utilidors. It gives this utilitarian town an unfinished appearance.
I walked around Inuvik that evening, surrounded by snow and ice. It grew on my face mask, filled my field of vision, swirled above me and formed the ground that I walked on. My breath billowed like smoke, hung motionless for a few seconds and then began to rise.
In the sky above, I saw a dark green fluorescent arc of light: the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. They were so near they could have been a welcome banner strung between two lampposts. They seemed slightly agitated, moving in tiny bursts. Later in the trip, several people recounted their parents’ warning about the aurora: “If you whistle at them, they’ll come down and cut off your head.” Outside the Mackenzie Hotel where I stayed, it was minus 13 degrees.
Inuvik is the most northerly settlement in Canada accessible year-round by a road, at least until Tuk assumes this title. However, Inuvik’s dominant position in the north is unlikely to change, as it is also the area’s administrative and government center.
Aurora College, the only postsecondary institution in the delta, has a campus here. I visited the next morning to talk about the road to Tuk and, more generally, to get a sense of the delta. One of the students I met was Jaclyn Andre, 27, who goes by Jayda. She is tall, with a calming voice that seems tailor-made for her goal of being a nurse. Jayda was born and raised in Fort McPherson, a small Gwich’in community on the Dempster Highway 115 miles southwest of Inuvik.
Jayda spoke of her deep connection to the land, and described a wilderness paradise of caribou, berries and pristine water filled with fish. Throughout my trip I spoke to others who described the region in the same way. It was a stark contrast to my childhood conception of the Arctic as a desert of snow and ice.
Jayda said she was “kind of excited” about the road to Tuk because it would bring new attention and new people to discover her region. She said the Dempster Highway not only provided access for her community, it also served as entertainment. Elders in her community sometimes sit on the riverbank with binoculars and watch ferry traffic cross the Peel River, near Fort McPherson. They call this pastime “spyglass.”
The Our Lady of Lourdes schooner sits by the Catholic church lluminated by street lights on Beaufort Road. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Over all, though, Jayda had mixed feelings about the road. She wondered whether more traffic would lead to more substance abuse in her community. And she worried that the limited medical capabilities in the region would be diverted away from the communities and focused on the road.
Although small communities like Jayda’s are likely to be affected if there are more visitors to the region, Tuk will be affected the most. The village will gain year-round access to the outside world. Currently there is an ice road connection to Inuvik, but that is open only four months out of the year. The rest of the time, Tuk residents depend on expensive air connections to leave.
From Inuvik I was hoping to travel to Tuk by ice road, but everyone said it wasn’t open just yet. For generations, the ice road has been Tuk’s winter lifeline, allowing its residents to drive to get cheaper gas, cheaper milk and to use Inuvik’s larger recreation facilities. It winds through the mouth of the Mackenzie River and skirts across the Arctic Ocean on the way to Tuk, opening sometime in mid-December and usually closing by the end of April.
Luck was on my side. The ice road officially opened the day that I planned to travel on it. I had first taken it last April, during a trip to Tuk’s spring festival called the Beluga Jamboree. It is a strange feeling to be on a road that will disappear with the steady application of heat. The groomed ice is slate blue interspersed with ribbons of black. Hairline cracks appear everywhere, and it does no good to keep looking at them. Especially since I made the mistake of learning the average depth of this section of the Arctic Ocean: about 3,300 feet.
Trees dot the landscape 10 miles from Inuvik.
Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
To people living in Tuk and Inuvik, the ice road isn’t nerve-racking at all. It’s wide and solid and part of their normal routine. Everyone told me it was safe, though sprinkled among these assurances are unsettling anecdotes, like the one where a truck driver pulled over to take a break, heard a grumbling sound, and leapt out of the cab in just enough time to watch his truck plunge into the ocean.
My own trip on the ice road was uneventful. It was late in the evening when I finally arrived in wintertime Tuk (population 965), a string of prefabricated houses separated by sporadic streetlights and mounds of snow. Though small in population, the Inuvialuit village of Tuk has a disproportionally high profile, perhaps because of its location and history. It sits near caribou and polar bear migration routes, and the waters are filled with abundant beluga whales, seals and fish. Pingos, hills of dirt-covered ice several hundred feet tall, dot the treeless landscape. During the Cold War, a Distant Early Warning (DEW) line radar station tracked Soviet planes from a promontory next to the ocean. The station is still active, although it is now controlled remotely.
Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1970 for the centennial of the Northwest Territories. In 1995, it was Metallica’s turn. They headlined the Molson Ice Polar Beach Party, also known as the Party on the Permafrost. People in Tuk remember the concert as being very loud. “Before you went into the tent, they were handing out earplugs,” said a resident and former mayor, Mervin Gruben. Jenny Jacobson, another resident who attended the concert, said the music could be heard at summer fish camps a half-hour away by boat.
During my time there, however, Tuk was small-town quiet. I stayed with Emmanuel Adam, pastor of the Glad Tidings church, and an accomplished hunter with a striking lineup of fox pelts in his living room. Mr. Adam is 63, born and raised in Tuk. Of medium height, with sturdy glasses and a precisely trimmed mustache, he speaks in a deliberate, thoughtful cadence that feels like a decades-long echo of my Presbyterian minister grandfather.
Mr. Adam lives above his church. His living room and kitchen divide the same rectangular space. Caribou jerky dries on a tray suspended from the kitchen ceiling, and a wood-burning stove makes the living room cozy. The Arctic Ocean is just steps away, a white-covered plain that stretches to the horizon. Dogs howl in the evening, their voices melding with the noise of the wind. My world — the world of regular day and night, where below freezing is considered cold — felt impossibly distant.
I stayed with Mr. Adam because Tuk has no hotel or restaurant. Amenities are limited to a gas station and two grocery stores. This lack of tourist infrastructure worries him and others in town. They are in favor of the road to Tuk because it gives their village year-round access to the world, but also because they hope tourists will flock here to dip their toes in the Arctic and experience the unique culture of this place. The road brings hope that Tuk — and the region — will experience more economic prosperity. This is a sentiment shared by many in the community, like Jackie Jacobson, the former territorial representative for this region, and husband of Jenny.
I met Mr. Jacobson three years ago, when he was speaker of the Northwest Territories’ legislature, and I was the newly arrived consul general visiting the capital of Yellowknife. He is 43, with the kind of youthful face that makes it easy to imagine what he looked like in his teenage years. Only weeks before my December visit to Tuk, Mr. Jacobson lost by four votes in his bid for a third term as the territorial representative.
The loss was clearly weighing on Mr. Jacobson the weekend I was in Tuk. He suggested going “on the land,” to an area known locally as Husky Lakes. “On the land” is a phrase laden with meaning here. It means reconnecting with Inuvialuit traditions, hunting to feed family, getting away from modern troubles. Mr. Adam, who is a friend of Mr. Jacobson, has a cabin on Husky Lakes, and he goes there every chance he can get. It’s about three hours away by snowmobile, and near the future road to Tuk.
Lawrence Amos used a snow machine to herd a portion of a reindeer herd.
Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Adam and I headed out in the afternoon, traveling on the ocean ice past the DEW line complex, and then cutting across the hilly shoreline into Husky Lakes. It was only my second time driving a snowmobile. My first time was the day before in Inuvik, and midway through I felt a burning sensation on my right cheekbone. Later I discovered it was frostbite. Throughout my visit, I kept getting questions about it. Up in the Mackenzie delta, it seems like everyone can identify frostbite from across the room.
When he saw my frostbite before setting out, Mr. Jacobson shook his head sorrowfully and lent me a heavier parka. The hood formed a foot-long tunnel of fur in front of my eyes, which severely limited my visibility, but at least I was intact when we arrived at Mr. Adam’s cabin hours later.
Husky Lakes is an Arctic Ocean estuary consisting of several saltwater lakes. Beluga whales often enter in search of food. The estuary straddles the tree line — the border between Arctic tundra and boreal forest. As I stood in front of the cabin, I could see clumps of spruce trees in the distance. They were thin and small and huddled together.
I stood outside and watched a light blinking in the distance. Mr. Jacobson had pointed it out earlier; it was a truck moving slowly, working on the road to Tuk. Although I knew the road was being built nearby, it was still shocking to see it.
As I stepped outside the next morning, the sky was a kaleidoscope of darkness, a blue expanse and thin white clouds radiating from the horizon. I thought polar night would be dreary and dark, but I was wrong. Without the deadline of sunset and sunrise, dusk and dawn linger in the sky for hour after breathtaking hour.
When I lowered my eyes to the land, I saw the silent blinking of construction trucks on the road to Tuk. Though I understood why some welcome the road, I felt a pang of sadness at something man-made and permanent cutting through this wilderness.
Sometimes, a road is a mirror held up to reflect our own lives. My reaction came from living in a place where wilderness is an ancient memory, described in old books and museum exhibits. But Mr. Adam and Mr. Jacobson are surrounded by the vast Mackenzie delta, and they believe a modest road will make living there more sustainable.
Late that afternoon, on the way back to Tuk, my inexperience with snowmobiles showed and I tipped over. Floundering in the deep snow, I tried to lift the snowmobile, but it was too heavy. I stood there quietly, looking around at the enveloping darkness. It was an intense moment: separated from other humans in an environment that can shift from beautiful to cruel in seconds. But then Mr. Adam quickly returned and together we righted the snowmobile. A half-hour later we were in his living room drinking tea and listening to Christmas music.
I left Tuk the next morning. Mr. Jacobson picked me up, and I asked him to take me to the end of the road, a snow-swept cul-de-sac that juts into the Arctic. I imagined all the people who will arrive here once the road to Tuk is completed. They will dip a toe or even swim in the Arctic. They will breathe the crystalline air and listen to the silence. They will dodge mosquitoes. Some will do what I did that morning — take pictures of their children’s Flat Stanleys propped next to the Arctic Ocean.
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Afterward, Mr. Jacobson drove through Tuk and nosed his truck onto the Arctic Ocean, bound for Inuvik. This was likely to be the second-to-last season for the ice road. When the road to Tuk is finished, the ice road will be no more. “End of an era,” he said.
This far north, roads are magic. As one melts into the water, another rises across the permafrost to take its place.