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MacKenzie River Ice Road: Northwest Territories, Canada

MacKenzie River Ice Road: Northwest Territories, Canada

Hold the wheel gently but firmly and be prepared to deal with a skid where it’s slick as glass. Expect a bumpy ride where the road’s surface looks like frozen waves. They may actually be frozen waves, created by the undulating surface of the Beaufort Sea underneath the temporary ice road that connects Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, in the winter. The roughly 250 km-long (155-mile) ice road is a plowed road-width swath on the surface of frozen MacKenzie River that extends for a short stint on the Beaufort Sea. This public road, maintained by the Territorial Department of Transportation, is the wintertime earth-bound link between two towns north of the Arctic Circle. (During the summer, you’ll have to fly or take a boat from one town to the other.) To traverse it in winter is as exciting as it is dangerous.

Truckers who use this road in the winter to deliver supplies have described it as one of the most desolate, barren roads they’ve ever driven because you can drive for so many miles without seeing anything other than a frozen landscape. Their discussions about the experience and challenges of driving this road, and the images shown during the television series Ice Road Truckers attracted the attention of travelers who now want to drive this road, too. The road usually opens in late December or January, when the ice is deemed thick enough. But, because it’s a road built on water that is constantly moving underneath, especially along the portion that goes over the sea, the depth and state of the ice are constantly monitored. Pay attention to the speed limits. They are chosen for drivers’ safety, because holes can open in the road if cross current are created in the water under the ice by speeding traffic.

The town of Inuvik, built on permafrost, is two degrees above the Arctic Circle alongside the MacKenzie Delta, Canada’s largest freshwater delta close to the Arctic Ocean. Large town buildings are erected on piles driven into the ice and, because the climate can’t sustain outdoor vegetable or flower growth, a big communal greenhouse is housed in a Quonset-style hockey rink. The two main tourist sites in town are the Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, which looks like a huge igloo, and the Ingamo Friendship Centre, the largest log structure north of the Arctic Circle. If you’re seeking adventure in remote locales, start here then take the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk, a tiny Inuvialuit community. Adventurous tourists can go dog sledding, watch the Northern Lights, and go cross-country skiing around both towns. You could plan a drive to experience Inuvik’s annual Muskrat Jamboree winter festival, the first weekend in April.

Spectacular Northwest Territories ( 800-661-0778; www.spectacularnwt.com). Request a map of the province and The Explorers Guide, which lists lodging and outfitters. Inuvik ( 867/777-8600; www.inuvik.ca)
When to Go: Jan–Apr, ice permitting.
Inuvik.
$$ Arctic Chalet, 25 Carn St., Inuvik ( 800/685-9417 or 867/777-3535; www.arcticchalet.com). $$$ Mackenzie Hotel, 185 Mackenzie Rd., Inuvik ( 867/777-2861; www.mackenziedeltahotel.com).

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