Throw snow tires on the car, add some weight to the back of the old pickup, stock up on food and emergency supplies, keep the gas can somewhere the fumes won’t bother the passengers - or, more importantly, the driver - and remember: take off the seatbelt before crossing any ice roads.
From the southernmost point of the 60th parallel to the top of the Northwest Territories, winter roads start to form in December, acting as temporary arteries to the outside world for fly-in communities. Then the days start to get longer, the air gets warmer and once again, communities are cut off from the outside world – a mixed blessing – usually starting in March.
Maintenance for these roads doesn’t come cheap. In the GNWT’s 2016-2015 capital budget, $108 million was dedicated to upkeeping and building winter roads and highways.
Once those winter roads are melted away, many communities will be limited to expensive flights and, in some cases, boats and barges in order to travel and ship goods, including gas, oil, groceries and mail.
The Northern chain of winter roads actually starts just south Fort Chipewyan, Alta., to the north of the oilsands and Fort McMurray. Already the ice bridges that connect lengths of road – created by packing down snow over muskeg – are cracking at the seams, lifting from the edges of the shore with the increasingly hot sun. On Mar. 6, the road was closed for the weekend when the Quatre Forches ice bridge dropped, leaving an overflow of river water pooling on the surface.
The route north of Fort Chip is maintained by Wood Buffalo National Park for about $2.5 to $2.8 million annually. If it weren’t for the environmental protection restrictions imposed by the federal park, the tight twists and turns of the road would make for one of the best rally car tracks in the world.
Unlike many fly-in communities, during the summertime Fort Chipewyan is accessible not only by plane but also by boat. A few hours’ trip down the Athabasca River and residents can reach Fort McMurray for all their personal needs.
After a drive northwest through Fort Smith, the next winter road is found in Hay River. The seasonal infrastructure leads to the K’atl’odeeche First Nation, creating an access route about 20 km shorter than the existing year-round round road.
Continue heading along Highway 1 from Hay River and drivers have the chance to turn north towards Fort Providence and Yellowknife or continue heading west towards the winter road turnoff for Trout Lake, otherwise known as Sambaa K’e. The small community houses about 90 people, and in the summer, is only accessible by charter plane.
Further west is Nahanni Butte, accessible by a winter road stationed off the Fort Liard highway. Busy with tourists on their way to adventures at Nahanni National Park in the summer, members of the small community are able to stock up for the busy season during the cooler months.
Should drivers elect to head towards the territory’s capital, winter roads lie ahead of them via a quick trip through Behchoko. The small combined community is the access point to ice roads leading north through the snow-covered barrenlands toward the Tlicho communities of Gameti and Whati.
A majority of these roads, it should be noted, can hold transport trucks weighing between 40,000 and 64,000 kg. Some can only start to carry these loads in January and February, when the ice has had enough time to freeze to a desirable thickness.
From Highway 1, road warriors can cross the Liard and Mackenzie River ice bridges and head into Wrigley. From there, winter roads direct travelers north towards Deline, Tulita, Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope. A sharp turn east, and they can go to Colville Lake, currently the end of the road.
For those travelling to Inuvik along the Dempster Highway, winter roads are interrupted by ice bridges that take over the work of summertime ferries. From Inuvik, winter roads sprawl out to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk, the northernmost settlement in the NWT located on the mainland.
Soon it will be possible to complete this journey throughout the year. An all-season, 140-km gravel road stretching from Inuvik to Tuk is in its second year of construction, with an estimated completion date of winter 2018. Eventually, this highway is expected to wind all the way to Wrigley, connecting a whole chain of isolated communities and cutting shipping costs and travel expenses for the people who live there.