When we first conceived of this trip we thought we were going to meet the Arctic Ocean in Deadhorse, Alaska. That trip would have entailed following the Dalton Highway up along the pipelines to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. We would have crossed the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountain range in the US and we would have shared the road with some seriously monster-sized trucks on a mission to get from here to there with little regard for the Tonka-tiny tourist rigs trying to stay on the road. Once we would have arrived in Deadhorse, we would have signed up for an expensive tour to the ocean as all of the land is private property. Well, that would have been an adventure for sure, but we opted to instead keep our journey north to the Arctic Ocean firmly on the Canadian side of the border. There is a small town on the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic called Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk). I believe this means “looks like a caribou” in the native Inuvialuit language. In years past the town of Tuk was only accessible by land in the winter when the Mackenzie River and its tributaries were frozen providing an ice road that connected the town to its nearest southern neighbor of Inuvik. During the summer one could charter a boat or plane from Inuvik to reach the Arctic Ocean in Canada. All of that changed in November of 2017. The “Summer Road” was finally opened, albeit not quite complete. The road to Tuk was first conceived as a way to facilitate resource extraction in Canada’s far north. Leadership changed in Canada and with it the nation’s vision for resource management. Millions of dollars had been invested in the road and the decision was made to complete it regardless of the change in purpose. Lucky for us the road was open in perfect time to hit our high point (latitudinally speaking). When we were in Whitehorse we heard that it had been closed again in the spring because the thaw was making it too slippery. I looked on the website for Northwest Territory Transportation and saw that it was open with only a weight restriction all the way to Tuk. Yay! We did hear of a number of people sliding off the road in rainy conditions and needing to be pulled out. We did not want that to be part of our story.
Anyhow, back to our trip. After we had finished basking in the glory of the Arctic Circle we headed further north to Inuvik. We splurged on paid campgrounds in Inuvik complete with flush toilets and showers that weren’t coin operated. It is amazing how fast 6 minutes go when it is cold outside! When we pulled into one of the last remaining campsites in the whole town of Inuvik, who should we be parked next to but Tom and Colene, our Road Friends from the Circle! We discussed the weather forecast and made the decision to head up the final 90 miles to Tuk the following day to avoid that slippery road situation. We didn’t plan to tour Tuk with Tom and Colene but we were very much in synch with them. When we arrived at the first lookout point to view pingos they were right there too! A note on pingos: A pingo is a land formation specific to permafrost. They are formed when subterranean water freezes and expands. Each year water flows into the area below the pingo and freezes pushing the land further upwards. Eventually, the hydrology changes for one reason or another and the pingo will become dormant melting back into the earth leaving an almost perfectly round shallow lake in its place. I have become a huge pingo fan as of late. Anyhow, we motored on to the Welcome to Tuk sign and took the requisite photos and then headed further north to the end of the road.
We pulled in the turn-around spot at the furthest north drivable point in Canada. We were just in time to see an Aussie execute his polar bear swim! I have had a dunking in the Arctic Ocean on my Pan Am bucket list from the beginning. Scott has been less dedicated to the idea and was wavering towards abstaining as the day turned out to be blustery and overcast. My enthusiasm, coupled with the Aussie’s apparent survival swayed Scott into giving it a go. Tom and Colene were kind enough to film the event. We had our flip-flops with us to protect our feet from any sharp rocks. In hindsight, we should have taken the time to dig out our river shoes. Our big tropical colored beach towels awaited us on the shore. Wanting to minimize the time spent exposed to the cold wind we were pretty quick to strip down to our swimming suits (and flip-flops!) and head toward the water. There was still ice on the water about ten feet out from the shore. We found that there was also still ice coating the sea-floor! I opted to dunk by falling backward and landed my rump on smooth solid ice. Scott chose to go head-first. This tactic may have contributed to his loss of one flip-flop. I was back on shore wrapped in my warm dry towel and Scott was still fishing his shoe from the icy sea. We saw this same unfortunate circumstance afflict the Aussie as well. I felt incredibly invigorated from dipping into the Arctic Ocean, Scott felt more personally assaulted. An interesting side note: the water was not very salty at all! We figured it is because most of the water we were in was recently-melted ice and sea ice is fresh water. It was a pleasant surprise, I was thinking I would have to spend the rest of the day salty. We now have a new bar with which to measure all cold things in our lives. Hopefully, nothing will compare!
After our dunking, we headed over to the local market and got a hot cup of coffee. The market was a large gray building with grated stairs to get to the front door. It had a little bit of everything except a bathroom (that was two doors down in a city hall type building). It had produce, pasta, toiletries, souvenirs, housewares, etc. It was pretty close to one-stop shopping. We heard rumor of a cappuccino machine somewhere but couldn’t pin it down. The coffee we found was from a Keurig machine and they kept the cups behind the counter like they were cigarettes! Coffee in hand we found a nice picnic table on a beach littered with white feathers and gull wings (and a view of the pingos!) to have lunch. Colene even brought a tablecloth; we felt quite civilized. After lunch, we toured around Tuk trying to imagine what it would be like to live there through the darkness of winter. Snow machines were under tarps, dogs were tethered to their houses, and sleds were stacked up all waiting for the snow to return. The buildings were built upon pilings (sometimes a bit precariously) because you cannot build directly on permafrost without causing melting and subsequent shifting. Most of the homes were painted with vibrant colors like purple, blue and red. Piles of firewood were being protected by caribou? pelts and antlers were piled atop many roofs. Every house had a matching garbage box out front that was painted hot pink! We talked to a guy who offered to sell us a moose head, or a caribou head, our choice. We saw someone had taken him up on the offer. We bought the “I made it to Tuk” sticker instead. It fit better in the truck.