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

NWT ice road

The North’s cool highways

With the arrival of winter, Northerners are revving up for polar road-trips.

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 transportion 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 other of the routes 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.

For visitors contemplating a spin on the NWT's winter roads, proceed with caution. 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.

But if you're geared up for an adventure, by all means: Go! Here's more on our ice road adventures

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 is best for an ice road beginner. Turn off School Draw Avenue and head out onto the big lake for Dettah, a Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of roughly 180 at the mouth of the bay. You'll see all manner of winter transportation around you: charter buses, snowmobiles, Bombardiers and Sno-cats. Since the road is extremely wide, you can safely pull onto the shoulder to snap photos and investigate bald patches of ice. Peer down at the cracks, which should give you an idea of how thick the ice below you is. Remember to go slowly and make sure to stick to the road: you don't want to be the person who gets stuck on the bay. Once you arrive in Dettah, stop at the Yellowknives Dene Artisan Shop in the Chief Drygeese Centre to purchase some 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

You'll want to make sure you have a reliable vehicle, you've done your research and are stocked up on supplies and warm clothing if you're planning to drive this road. 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 you arrive at Marian Lake. This epically long lake becomes the road and if it's overcast or snowing, the horizon disappears and you may feel as if you're out in the middle of the ocean. Once you reach the north end of the lake, a series of steep portages over small water bodies follows until you're back on solid land. The road is narrow, so make sure you're not blocking traffic if you plan to pullover and take a break. Keep an eye out for moose, great grey owls and caribou. Soon, you'll arrive 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. Continue north for Gamètı̀ and watch the trees get smaller. Once you arrive in the town of 280, drop your stuff off for a night at the Gamètı̀ Motel and explore a town that remains very close to the land.

Remember, this adventure should not be 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) drive for ice road enthusiasts. The Inuvik to Aklavik winter road across the Mackenzie Delta offers some stunning views, including the Richardson Mountains, along its 117-kilometre route, north of the Arctic Circle. You will want to make sure you maximize sunlight on this drive, since there isn't very much of it early in the winter. Once April hits though, and each days is eight minutes longer than the last, 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 you'll only find gas services in 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 you'll get to visit the Sahtu region and its tight-knit and picturesque communities by road. Start at Wrigley, a community of 150, and follow 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.) We advise you break up the road-trip, with stops in each community along the way. Again, this isn't for the dilettante. You'll want to be well-stocked, well-prepared and all-wheeled for this most epic of NWT ice road adventures.

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