Arctic Ice Road

  • 1,615 kilometres travelled
  • 130 Husky sled dogs and puppies
  • 01 human toe in a Sourtoe Cocktail

We decided to celebrate the snow season by journeying to the heart of Winter Central, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. We packed parkas and boots for a week-long road trip to experience all things snowy and icy. Driving across the frozen Arctic Ocean on an ice road and watching the sky swirl with Northern Lights topped our wish list which steadily grew as we added learning to mush our own Huskies and snowshoeing on the tundra. Oh yeah, and visiting a genuine gold rush town complete with honky-tonk saloons and can-can girls. 

Day 1
Rushing for gold
While the SS Klondike paddle wheeler looked like a more romantic way to travel the 550 kilometres to Dawson City, our van would be speedier. Heading out of Whitehorse past a log church and "skyscraper", we took our first leg-stretching break at Braeburn Lodge where we demolished giant cinnamon buns the size of my head! Stuffed, we snoozed the rest of the journey, though Sarah was glued to her Jack London classic. By afternoon we were prowling the wooden boardwalks of Dawson City on a saloon-crawl in a historic gold rush town complete with a brothel-turned-boutique-hotel and can-can girls galore. I found local Yukon brews to sample on the far side of batwing doors and they helped us work up the courage to take part in the ritual of becoming real Northerners by downing a Sourtoe Cocktail complete with a real, pickled human toe!
Day 2
Tundra tripping
We woke up to everyone in town – including a Mountie in full red regalia! - cheering on dogsled teams taking off down the snowy streets for a 210 mile (338 km) race to Alaska. We headed in the opposite direction, turning left up the legendary Dempster Highway. As we bumped over the due-north gravel road watching tundra and the zig-zag Tombstone Ranges pass by, it finally sank in that we were really driving straight into the Arctic. Sarah amazingly spotted an entire white ptarmigan family against the snow. By the time we pulled into the Eagle Plains Hotel, the only pit stop en route, we had seen more critters than cars, but that’s what you come to this part of the world for, isn’t it? In the bar, we were listening to the local Mad Trapper tale when someone shouted “Lights!” and pointed outside. We grabbed our jackets and ran out into a dazzling display of Aurora Borealis. We lay on our backs in the snow staring at the shimmering curtains of Northern Lights, heading inside to warm up when we started shivering. We hardly used our beds that night.
Day 3
Crossing the circle
Bleary-eyed and with the taste of a coffee overdose lingering in our mouths after a fruitless effort to wake up, we were nonetheless game to sip a champagne toast well before noon to celebrate our first-ever crossing of the Arctic Circle at Kilometre 403. We could snooze later, we reasoned, so we strapped on snowshoes we’d brought and Sarah immediately turned our planned stomp into a race by nailing me with snowballs. I exacted revenge and we jointly built our own inuksuk as a peace offering. Then it was “Goodbye Yukon, Hello Northwest Territories” and time for a nap. We knew we were seriously north when we reached the end of the Dempster after 735 kilometres (457 mi) and passed Inuvik’s igloo-shaped church. Following up on that far Northern theme, we splurged that night on an Arctic surf-and-turf feast of caribou and char.
Day 4
Driving across the ocean
Next stop – the Arctic Ocean! Except the ocean was frozen and suddenly we were driving right across it like ice road truckers or, as Sarah joked, “ice road van-ners”. It was so surreal, the ploughed and signposted Arctic Ocean stretching like an endless curling rink, that we had to get out at regular intervals and peer through – and taste! – the clear two-metre thick ocean ice under our wheels. When we reached the very end of the road after 195 kilometres, we were in the middle of Tuktoyaktuk, an isolated Inuit hamlet which, like every other Arctic outpost we’d passed through, had a main street hoop for basketball-crazy Arctic kids to take shots. We met “Tuk’s” unofficial mayor, then toured the town, which included scrambling down a ladder into an ice crystal cave that was an underground communal cooler where everyone’s sled dog food was stashed out of raiding range. Afterwards, Sarah made a beeline to the hamlet’s tiny single gift shop for beaded purses made by local ladies.
Day 5
Tuk and pingos
Puffy, colourful down jackets be gone! Instead we’re handed the day’s uniforms by our Inuit guide, traditional hunting garb including cosy anoraks with real fur ruffs around the hoods. We hopped on a sled and were pulled by snowmobile through the town towards distant white cones sprouting out of a dead-flat landscape. I’d never heard of pingos before, but these tall hills of ice and tundra were irresistible to someone who can’t resist sliding down any kind of snowy slope. Tumbling head over heels might be a better description, but with a view of forever and laughing uncontrollably we stayed warm. Then it was time to circle back down the ice road to Inuvik and catch a prop plane flight to Whitehorse. From there it was a short drive into the wilderness to Muktuk Guest Ranch, home to Frank Turner - Yukon Quest dogsled race champion and Northern icon – and his 130 energetic Alaskan Husky sled dogs and lovable puppies looking for a cuddle.
Day 6
Dancing with dogs
Our mission was to be rookies for the day, taking on insider doggie jobs. We fed them, joined in training runs and witnessing how strict Husky hierarchy keeps everyone in line with the top dogs sleeping closest to the house. Best of all was harnessing them up and learning to mush our own team. The dogs clearly loved their job of pulling us - Sarah, bundled in a blanket on the sled and me behind her - across virgin snow and through trees on a sunny winter day. It felt like such a Christmassy thing to do. And we couldn’t believe the energy we burned! We were ravenous by the time we wolfed down our homemade dinner of local bison and elk with veggies and herbs from the Turner’s organic greenhouse. It was our last night and we had fingers crossed for one more Aurora aura display so we stoked a campfire, popped out the marshmallows, lounged back in chairs and waited.
Day 7
Southward Ho!
On our last morning before flying south to Vancouver we decided on a Northern urban shopping spree - Whitehorse has several galleries and art shops. Sarah wanted to expand her souvenir and gift stash and I had an eye out for Inuit carvings. She settled on a handmade First Nation’s birch bark box whose flowers were embroidered with porcupine quills coloured with traditional fruit and leaf dyes. Me? I fell for a local artist’s series of small watercolour paintings of snowy Northern landscapes that would always remind me of our epic winter journey to the top of the world.