Road versus Nature on Canada’s ITH, the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway
Located north of the Arctic Circle the newly completed 138-kilometre Inuvik Tuk Highway (ITH) is rapidly becoming a must-drive for adventure seekers. With a budget slightly less than $300 million its one of Canada’s most expensive roads on a per kilometre basis. But what does it feel like to drive? I vowed to be one of the first to find out.
Canada is a northern nation with harsh climates and vast landscapes that make it more expensive to explore the Northwest Territories than it is to book a trip from Toronto to Bangkok. But it also has road engineers bringing their best game to a highway built across shifting permafrost. When I got the chance to venture north to see their work I took it.
Canada’s first (and only) public highway across the Arctic Circle – the Dempster – opened in 1978 and Northwest Territories engineers took lessons from this road when designing the ITH. “We located the permafrost region and high risk areas very early in the project,” Greg Hanna, Communications Coordinator, Department of Infrastructure, Government of the Northwest Territories told me later. They also consulted with global experts. “There is a network of permafrost and cold region engineering experts that meet on a regular basis regarding the ITH. The engineers in the NWT are seen as leaders in this area,” suggested Hanna.
Knowing these engineering marvels were on the job kept me calm when shortly after the road opened for summer traffic it closed again, mud making it impassible. Frontier roads mean unexpected delays.
By mid June the road reopened and I headed north for the ultimate Canadian road trip. There’s no service on the serpentine path across the Mackenzie Delta and pingo-dotted landscape so I packed extra food, a satellite phone and my nerve, and started up the road in a rented Suburban with sturdy tires.
The sign signaling the start of the new highway seemed almost an afterthought. And perhaps it is. There are only two roads out of Inuvik so it’s hard to get lost. A simple, handcrafted sign announced current weight limits and the road’s name.
As I rolled down the tidy road the gravel surface seemed to rise out of the tundra in a half dome with long, sloping banks leading to undisturbed vegetation along the edges. The rounded profile is defense against permafrost – ground that remains frozen for years – and one of the trickiest surfaces to build on. Frozen it’s a stable base. Thawed its a quagmire that can swallow buildings and roads.
To keep the road intact engineers swaddled the permafrost with 1.2 to 1.6 meters of gravel, a rocky blanket that would shield the ice from the sun and heat generated by the road. It took four years to build this road and ongoing maintenance is needed to keep it in good shape. “The impact of climate change (on road maintenance) could be significant,” predicted Hanna. “More rain, snow and freezing rain in the winter and warmer temperatures are all factors we are monitoring very closely.”
Approaching a trio of road packers working on the road I saw no flagmen. I squinted through the windshield looking for directions from the crew. As big as my SUV was, they were bigger. A wave from the first driver suggested I pass on the left – not easy on a narrow road with no shoulders and large equipment straddling the middle.
Carrying on through straggly spruce forests dotting the roadside I chuckled at the ‘Passing’ and ‘No Passing’ signs. Someone was planning for the future as I saw no vehicles other than construction traffic for the first hour. But with no way to mark road lines they are a good idea.
I saw signs for pullouts but there were no picnic tables or washrooms making me glad I wasn’t drinking coffee. After a couple of hours driving I spotted my first pingo – a hill with an ice core found only in permafrost conditions – and stopped next to a culvert for a picture.
Black plastic was strung along the ditch to keep construction materials from washing into the water. The road has eight bridges and 68 places were it passes over water and it appeared they were being treated with care. According to Hanna, “Water and permafrost do not mix well, (We) managed all the water as much as possible, giving special attention to bridges and culverts.” In spring special care is given to managing run-off and keeping debris out of culverts so water flows away from the road.
A few minutes later I reached the last part of the road to be completed and a busy road crew. These 13 kilometres were waiting for a final layer of gravel (completion expected by October, 2018) and in wet weather this section is as slippery as roads after an ice storm, and a lot bumpier. I eyed the mist on my windshield with trepidation.
Graders worked to level the road but on this day Mother Nature was winning. Adventure motorcycles struggled against mud clogging their tires. I gunned my motorized chariot up the first hill, fishtailing as the tires hit clay gumbo. I reigned in my vehicle as we crested the hill and slid down the other side, trying, as my mother used to say, to “keep it between the ditches.”
It was a process I repeated several times as I crept towards Tuk.
Spotting the square, low profile buildings of Tuk hugging the Beaufort Sea I pulled over to snap photographic proof I’d made it. It was delightful to have driven a new road to somewhere and I felt pride and gratitude for the engineers that pulled off one of Canada’s ultimate road feats!
If you go:
Start your trip in Whitehorse or Dawson City and drive the Dempster – Canada’s first road across the Arctic Circle – before tackling the new road.
Linger in Dawson City and feel like an extra on a gold rush movie set.
Carry extra food, water and clothing, a first-aid kit and bear spray. Be prepared to wait for help if you break down or get stuck.
Check out this map of Carol’s adventure to Tuktoyaktuk …