Thirty years ago this week, near the end of my first winter in the Northwest Territories, I completed a bike ride I’d been planning for months: north along the Mackenzie River ice highway from Inuvik to the coast, and then across the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk.
The journey seemed like the sort of thing one might want to blog about – except that “blog” wasn’t yet a word and the World Wide Web had not been invented.
In the hope that 30 years late is better than never, here’s that blog post now.
(Note: this ice highway closed for the season for the last time in April, 2017, and has since been replaced by the four-season, gravel surface Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.)
Wednesday April 5, 1989 – near Reindeer Station
How do you bicycle from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk? You ride north down the Mackenzie River, about 160 kilometers. At the mouth of the river you hang a right onto the Beaufort Sea, and after about 30 more kilometers, just past the pingos, you roll ashore into downtown Tuktoyaktuk.
Obviously you don’t want to try that in the summer, because the carefully maintained ice highways of Canada’s western arctic region wash out to sea by the end of May. And it’s tough to do in winter – the sun shines not at all or only a few hours, and the temperature stays at –40° for days on end.
I had slept outside in temperatures of –40, but only when I was a short walk away from Inuvik where I could go inside and warm up for the day. And I wasn’t particularly keen to be out in the mid-winter deep freeze for days on end.
So I planned my ice-road excursion for the Arctic spring, when the sun shines past 10 at night, the mercury might rise to above zero during the day, and a cyclist can get a deep northern suntan all the way from chin to forehead.
Being a cautious sort, I still wanted to be prepared in case a spring blizzard blew in, dropping temperatures to the –30°C range. This meant I needed big boots, down pants, down parka, sheepskin face mask, and my biggest mittens – all articles of clothing I couldn’t wear while riding because they were too warm, but things I would need if I had to sit out a storm. Adding all that to two down sleeping bags and a ThermaRest mattress made for a big load, and I spent many hours figuring out how to pack it all so that everything was convenient to get at but still balanced on the bike.
And then there was the question of food. Even on a two- or three-day ride to Tuktoyaktuk I would burn a lot of energy, but what if I were stranded by a blizzard? I decided to take enough food for a week. A big bag of caribou meat, which I had sliced thin and dried earlier in the winter, would be my main protein source. Since the meat was lean and wouldn’t provide nearly enough calories, I also carried a bag of rolled oats, another of toasted buckwheat, and several sticks of butter. (Winter camping is so convenient! You don’t have to worry about your butter getting soft and messing up your bags.) With clean snow to melt I didn’t need to carry water, but the gear and food still added up to an extra 50 kilos on my bike.
The weather was warm as I left Inuvik – about –10°C – but snow soon started to fall and a north wind blew it into my face. I settled into a comfortable pace, at which I would produce just enough body heat to keep myself warm but not so much that I would work up a sweat. The road was generally smooth with a thin layer of hard-packed snow along the edges to give me traction. Here and there I would encounter 50 meters or so of glare ice, and on one such patch I took a tumble. I was unable to get enough footing to lift my loaded bicycle upright, and I had to drag it back to road’s edge before I could stand it up. Thereafter I got off and shuffled across any unavoidable patches of glare ice.
I was told I could see Reindeer Station – for several decades headquarters of the Canadian government’s experiment in arctic ranching – from the river bank at km 55. I found cabins, locked, and dog teams, barking, but no humans to inquire of. I walked my bike up a snowmobile trail into the woods and made my camp about 6 pm. By then the sun had emerged and in the shelter it was cozy. The forest provided escape from the wind, and black spruce branches and dry willow twigs made for a roaring campfire – a luxury I didn’t count on finding after another day’s ride north.
When I put on my sheepskin face mask that night to settle into sleep, I was surprised to find my cheeks and nose uncomfortably hot. In spite of the cloudy sky, and in spite of the fact that I had faced north almost all day, enough sunlight had reflected off the snow to give me a sunburn, which I hadn’t noticed as long as cool air acted as a local anæsthetic.
Thursday April 6, 1989
Where am I tonight? Something like 75 km north of Reindeer Station, overlooking a wide channel of the Mackenzie River, relaxing in my sleeping bag in a trench in a snow bank.
I had intended to spend this morning hiking to the abandoned buildings of Reindeer Station. But by the time I’d eaten my porridge there was a strong south wind and I decided to take advantage of it right away. I pedaled north and watched the trees flanking the Caribou Hills to the east dwindle and then disappear. Every half-hour or so a pick-up truck or semi-trailer passed me, usually bringing curious stares, friendly honks of the horn, and occasionally an offer of hot tea from a thermos. At midday I saw a curious apparition slowly approaching on the northern horizon. A massive tractor was creeping down the road toward me, pulling twenty trailers on skis. The oil companies were concluding their winter drilling activities, pulling equipment away from drilling platforms out on the sea ice.
By late afternoon I was beyond the tree line. The scenery was big, hills rolling away gently forever; the scenery was small, ripples in the snow, little wind sculptures mirroring the topography of the hills themselves, and when I looked down while walking I felt like a ten-thousand-meter giant gazing at distant mountains from on high. At the top of the world I had found heaven, and I wanted to bask in the sunshine savoring this season of light.
I knew the Beaufort coast was only a few hours ahead, and then another hour or two would bring the end of a trip I’d anticipated all winter. I didn’t want the journey to finish for another day so I stopped riding at five p.m. From the snow-plowed road along the ice I searched the landscape for shelter. At a curve in the river, it appeared, the wind would blow directly over the five-meter bank, leaving in its lee a calm space in which I could make my bed. I hoisted the loaded bike over the windrows that marked the highway and set off for my place in the sun. The wind-blown snow was not quite hard enough to pedal across but firm enough that if I got off and walked, the bike rolled along smoothly beside me. After ten minutes I was home for the night.
The first item to come out of my packs was a snow knife. The winter’s winds had piled more than three meters of snow here, packed in a 45° slope. After a half-hour’s work I had cut out enough blocks of snow to make a nice flat trench to sleep in, with the bigger blocks stacked around the head end to further shelter me from eddies in the breeze and to reflect the sun shining directly at me from the far side of the river. Out from the packs came the mattress and sleeping bags, the down parka and down pants, the heavy mitts and felt-lined boots – no sense catching a chill while basking in the sun.
After a short rest I took a half-hour hike up over the river bank and into the brisk breeze on the hills. There I was able to gather a big armload of branches from willow shrubs. Back at my sheltered camp, the twigs burned as fast as I could throw them onto the fire, but with constant tending of the blaze I managed to create hot water from heaps of snow.
Supper’s opening course was hot tea and cold kwok – thin slices of raw frozen caribou meat. Then came the house special – boiled caribou and buckwheat stew. Around 10:30, as the sun-dogs were slipping below the horizon, I pulled off boots, heavy socks, down pants and wool tights, sweaters and mittens, pulled on a sheepskin face mask and down hood, and crawled into bed. Some hours later when I got up and took a short walk to cool off, I was surprised to see light not only in the sky but also on the surface of the river a few hundred yards out. The illusion of light shimmering on flowing water was a shock – until I realized I was seeing the aurora borealis reflected off smooth ice in the middle of the highway.
Friday April 7, 1989 – Tuktoyaktuk
When I got up this morning to celebrate the last day of the journey I thought I might have some tough going. At this latitude the Mackenzie River had widened considerably, and the closer I got to the coast the rougher the road became. On the wide expanse of ice there were pressure cracks big enough to swallow my front wheel and pitch me overboard. I had to watch the road carefully, swerving back and forth to cross the cracks at a sharp angle. But the wind had picked up in my favour as I passed Whitefish Station, a fishing camp which in winter consisted only of a collection of tent frames.
At midday I met the arctic coast and turned east to ride along the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk. Soon two pingos appeared on the coast – volcano-shaped formations formed in very wet soil as a core of ice gradually rises up out of the permafrost over thousands of years. A little later I could make out the golf-ball dome and screens of the DEW line* radar station, and then the smaller houses came into view.
Fifty-five klicks today, and I was surprised to see Tuk on the horizon so soon. I’m hungry and wind-burnt and tired, but this ride was almost too easy and, after months of anticipation, the end of the ride came far too soon.
*The Distant Early Warning Line was a string of radar stations built across the Canadian arctic in the late 1950s to give advance warning of a possible Soviet nuclear attack launched from across the Arctic Ocean. Most of the stations were deactivated in 1988.