On a Sunday morning in late March, cars begin arriving at a section of the Tuktoyaktuk Winter Road about two hours from Inuvik.
By lunchtime, dozens of cars are parked on either side of the road and about 200 people are lining the tops of the snow banks.
Their eyes are scanning the horizon. Suddenly, a murmur runs through the crowd. “They’re coming! They’re coming!” people say, pointing.
A massive herd of about 3,000 semi-domesticated reindeer appear over the crest of a hill and begin moving like a choreographed ballet.
Behind them, a Saami herder dressed in his traditional gakti and straddling a snowmobile keeps them moving.
“Go! Go!” he urges them on until they cross the ice road and disappear from view.
Every spring, the herd crosses the road as they move from their winter grounds to their summer grazing area on nearby Richards Island. But Canada’s only herd of semi-domesticated reindeer aren’t the only ones to use this ice road.
For residents of Tuktoyaktuk (“Tuk” as the locals call it), it’s the one time of year when they can drive from their isolated hamlet of nearly 900 people to the town of Inuvik about 190 kilometres away.
Ice road – Tuktoyaktuk Winter Road
During the summer, Tuk is only accessible by boat and plane, but every winter, as soon as the weather is cold enough, crews start building the ice road.
The Tuktoyaktuk Winter Road travels across the frozen channels of the Mackenzie River delta and the Arctic Ocean from Inuvik to Tuk.
From January to April each year, people can drive from Tuk to visit family and friends in Inuvik and Whitehorse and go shopping.
Once an all-weather highway is completed in 2018, it will be 137 kilometres long and provide year-round access.
After watching the reindeer crossing, I stand on the ice road and look at the patterns that cracks in the blue ice create beneath my feet.
This road was featured in the reality television series Ice Road Truckers in 2008. The road is surprisingly smooth, although I walk gingerly back to the car to avoid tumbling on the slippery surface. A visit to Tuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, beckons.
About five kilometres west of the community, ice-covered hills rise above the Arctic tundra landscape. Pingos are created from the permafrost heaving upwards like giant muffins, thanks to the ground’s annual cycle of freezing and thawing.
The Pingo Canadian Landmark is home to eight of the area’s 1350 pingos. This includes Ibyuk, the world’s second tallest pingo. At 160 feet, it’s the height of a 16-storey office tower.
The local Inuvialuit people have long used these hills as navigational landmarks as well as a place from which to scout the area for wild game and whales. In fact, the term “pingo” is derived from the word “pingu” – which means hill in the Inuvialuktun language.
In town, local resident Joanne Steen takes a group on a tour to see some of the village’s buildings. They include the historic Lady of Lourdes schooner, which travelled the Beaufort Sea in the 1930s and 1940s delivering supplies to Catholic missions from Cambridge Bay to Tuk.
The Arctic Ocean
If you’re feeling especially brave (or perhaps a bit foolish), you can dip your toe into the freezing Arctic Ocean. This is a task better undertaken in July when the water is warmer.
Wondering what’s with the big golf ball on the landscape? During the Cold War of the 1950s, it was one of a series of radar domes that were installed as part of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) to keep an eye on air traffic and possible Soviet incursions.
One of the hamlet’s most prominent attractions is Tuktoyaktuk’s underground Community Ice House. Steen lifts the wooden door at the top of the freezer and visitors peer into the darkness before climbing down the icy rungs of a 30-foot wooden ladder.
Just when you wonder if you’re heading down a rabbit hole, your feet hit the ground. Turn on your headlamp and start exploring the numbered rooms that line three hallways.
The icehouse was dug into the permafrost as a place where local residents could store food. The Inuvialuit people have been harvesting caribou and beluga whale here for generations.
Tuk means “looks like a caribou” in Inuvialuktun, the language of the local Inuvialuit people (the Western Arctic’s Inuit).
These days, residents ice fish in April, hunt geese in May and June, and then whales in August.
But with the introduction of modern freezers, the rooms that once housed the community’s food are mostly empty now.
Layered ice formations on the walls look like pieces of art. After wandering around, return to the base of the ladder and trek back up to the surface.
Mouths water as Steen describes the traditional foods she fed Inuk hockey star Jordin Tootoo when he came to her house for lunch during a tour of the community in 2012.
“I went all out for him,” she says with pride. She served him fried fish, goose soup, muktuk and bannock.
When someone in the group comments about Tuk being where the winter road ends, Steen corrects them. “Where it starts,” she says.
In Tuk, being connected to the rest of the Northwest Territories year-round will open up a whole new world of possibilities.