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cool highways: 4 awesome ice-roads in the Northwest Territories

NWT ice road

The North’s cool highways

When the winter arrives, new roads appear on the water.

That’s right: For thousands of territorial residents, winter is the only time their isolated communities become road-accessible, as nearly 2,000 kilometers of icy highways are plowed through terrain that’s impassable (or isn't terrain at all) in the summertime.

In the Northwest Territories, winter roads link 12 towns, giving them temporary access to the outside world. Built and maintained by the territory’s transportation department, some of the routes are short. The winter road to Nahanni Butte, for instance, is just a few kilometres, crossing the Liard River to Highway 7.

But others are epic. The Mackenzie Valley winter road begins at Wrigley and connects to five communities, the furthest of which, Colville Lake, is 651 kilometres away.

The winter road season is fleeting, running late December to early April. In some years though, the road from Inuvik to Aklavik has operated for five months.

But these roads aren't like our typical highways. Winter routes are often narrow, rutted, and can seldom be taken at speeds over 50 kilometres per hour. Days are dark and bitterly cold, services are few, and non-essential travel is discouraged.

Yellowknife to Dettah ice road in the NWT.

Yellowknife-Dettah Ice Road

Yellowknife-Dettah Ice Road
Distance:  6 kilometres
Average Opening:  December 18
Average Closing:  April 19
Avg. Vehicles Per Day:  479

This short, scenic drive across Yellowknife Bay starts with a turn off of School Draw Avenue and onto the big lake. Dettah, a Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of roughly 180, sits at the mouth of the bay. All manner of winter transportation uses this road: charter buses, snowmobiles, Bombardiers and Sno-cats. Since the road is extremely wide, pulling onto the shoulder to snap photos and investigate bald patches of ice is easy. Peering down at the cracks gives an idea of how thick the ice is below. Drivers are always cautioned to go slowly and to stick to the road. In Dettah, six kilometres later, the Yellowknives Dene Artisan Shop in the Chief Drygeese Centre, sell locally made arts, crafts and clothing.

The Behchokǫ̀-Gameti Winter Road in the NWT

Behchokǫ̀-Gamètı̀ Winter Road

Behchokǫ̀-Gamètı̀ Winter Road
Distance:  194 kilometres
Average Opening:  February 20
Average Closing:  April 19
Avg. Vehicles Per Day:  49

When residents head out on this winter road, they make sure they do so in a reliable vehicle and that they've stocked up on supplies and warm clothing. The Tlicho winter road connects the communities of Wekweètı̀, Whatı̀ and Gamètı̀ in the winter with Behchokǫ̀. The road begins just outside Behchokǫ̀ on Highway 3 and weaves through forest until reaching Marian Lake. This extremely long lake becomes the road and if it's overcast or snowing, the horizon disappears. At the north end of the lake, the road rolls along a series of steep portages over small water bodies until getting back onto solid land. The road is narrow, so drivers have to be aware not to block traffic if they plan to pull over and take a break. Along the way, it is not uncommon to spy moose, great grey owls and caribou. Soon, the road forks at a turn off to the east for the community of Wekweètı̀, followed shortly by a turn off to the west for the community of Whatı̀. The road keeps north for Gamètı̀, as the trees get smaller and smaller.

This adventure is not taken lightly, as the drive can take anywhere from three to five hours one-way and cell phone coverage ranges from spotty to non-existent.

The Inuvik to Aklavik ice road in the NWT.

Inuvik-Aklavik Ice Road

Inuvik-Aklavik Ice Road
Length:  117 kilometres
Average Opening:  December 24
Average Closing:  April 29
Avg. Vehicles Per Day:  54

Although construction of the the winter road to Tuktoyaktuk ended with the opening of the all-weather road in 2017, the Western Arctic still offers a pretty (and pretty legendary) ice road. The Inuvik to Aklavik winter road across the Mackenzie Delta offers stunning views, including the Richardson Mountains, along its 117-kilometre route, north of the Arctic Circle. Residents make sure to maximize sunlight on this drive, since there isn't very much of it early in the winter. Once April hits though, and each day is eight minutes longer than the one before, the road is buzzing with traffic as residents from across the region head to Aklavik for the annual Aklavik Jamboree, a fun-filled weekend of races, events and activities.

Driving the Sahtu winter road, from Wrigley to Tulita to Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope, NWT.

Wrigley-Fort Good Hope Winter Road

Wrigley-Fort Good Hope Winter Road
Distance:  482 kilometres
Average Opening:  December 31
Average Closing:  March 24
Avg. Vehicles Per Day:  85

This is another winter road that drivers need to make sure they are prepared for. There are long stretches without cell phone coverage and and there is only gas services in a few of the communities. Plus, with the short winter days, this most certainly isn't a there-and-back kind of day-trip. But this is the only way residents in the Sahtu region can get in to their tight-knit and picturesque communities by road. Starting at Wrigley, a community of 150, this road follows the path of the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River) north to Tulita, and then Norman Wells, and finally Fort Good Hope. (The road also branches off to the communities of Délįne and Colville Lake.) This isn't for the dilettante. Residents who drive the Mackenzie Valley winter road are well-stocked, well-prepared and all-wheeled for this most epic of NWT ice road adventures.

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