Northbound, a very long drive to the end of the Mackenzie Valley winter only road.

WxMan

Adventurer
Until this past summer I spent the last 12 years living in Edmonton, Alberta working as a meteorologist forecasting the weather primarily for the Canadian Arctic. The north has always held a fascination for me and while I've been privileged enough to get to see a few parts of it over the years, I've always had a desire to see more. Several years ago I hatched a plan with another meteorologist friend of mine to drive to end of the Mackenzie Valley winter only road.

For those unfamiliar with the Northwest Territories of Canada, many communities are not connected by all season roads. For a few months each year temporary, winter only, roads are built to allow vehicle access to these communities. Ferries are replaced by ice bridges and frozen tundra becomes a road bed. Typically these winter access roads are open January through March or early April. See this map for more details: http://www.dot.gov.nt.ca/_live/documents/content/Highway Distances.pdf

Each of the last four years something has come up preventing us from making this trip and this year we decided we had to make it happen. A few months ago we had lined up five people and two trucks for this adventure but when push came to shove, only two of us in a single truck made the trip. As fortune would have it, this past summer I moved from Edmonton to Victoria, BC so this adventure became a much longer drive that originally planned. The return trip for me was almost 7500km in twelve days. I would love to say it went smoothly but that was not the case.

My friend and I kept up a blog for the majority of the trip. Feel free to have a look, there are some great photos: http://nwticeroad.blogspot.ca/ The posts are listed most recent first. I recommend finding the beginning and starting from there. There is no mention of the real drama in the blog, however.

On our return south between Norman Wells and Wrigley a light dusting of snow on an otherwise flat and straight section of road obscured a severely ice rutted section. By the time I could see the ruts it was too late and the front set of tires chose on set to ride in and the rears went to another. We weren't going very fast at the time but the truck started to slide, the front clipped a snow bank and we rolled over completely coming to rest on our wheels, nose in a snowbank on the opposite side of the road. No one was hurt but there was some moments of tension while we assessed the damage and held our breath checking to see if the truck was still drivable. At this point we were 90km from the closest settlement. We were not unprepared, having rented a satellite phone and brought along a SPOT should the worst happen but the thoughts of having to get the truck recovered and towed to civilization had me feeling queezy. To my amazement and relief the truck body was damaged but mechanically it was fine. The main impact during the roll was along the driver's side edge of the roof. The driver's door window frame was also buckled slightly but miraculously the window did not break. The windshield certainly did though, as did the rear tail light, tail gate, side mirror, etc., etc.

We made a conscious decision not to mention the incident on the blog. Our families would only worry more that they were already and that would have served no useful purpose. I also needed to buy myself some time to figure out how best to break it to my wife that I rolled her truck. Yes, 'my' adventure vehicle is my wife's daily driver.


Sunrise over the Mackenzie River near Fort Simpson, NWT.


Crossing the Mackenzie River on the Tulita Ice Bridge.


Yup, definitely driving on a river.




A local.


Spectacular NWT.


Snow and Dust.


Silly doggy.


Early Morning.


Sunrise Northeast of Fort Good Hope.


I'm wondering if that is as low as this gauge will read...




Staring at a frozen lake.


The end of the road.


We've arrived... okay, it's cold. Let's go back.


Another early morning. Another sunrise.


Ice ruts are bad.


Where the accident happened.


Still looking pretty good... from a distance.


Another shot of the ice ruts and the truck.
 
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mtnbike28

Expedition Leader
I had the chance last week to drive a couple of ice roads around Yellowknife, is there a slow speed limit on all the roads?
 

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WxMan

Adventurer
The winter roads have a 50km/hr speed limit in general with lower limits in places. 20km/hr on the approach to bridges, ice and otherwise. Road conditions are highly variable though so posted limits aren't always advisable. Ask me how I know!

Yes, if I had been pulling my trailer at the time it could have been real ugly.

My wife was pretty understanding. Fortunately she works from home and doesn't rely on the truck everyday anymore. I get to ride my bike now. She get's my car. At least until the truck gets fixed.

Russ.
 

WxMan

Adventurer
Thanks Stolenheron. The truck looked a lot better at the beginning of the trip than it did at the end. The pictures really don't show the damage well.

The bird is actually a ptarmigan.

I don't know how that dog got up there. We were just walking down the road and my friend happened to look up and see it. There must have been some sort of access from the other side of the home.
 

klahanie

daydream believer
So Russ, did you buy Lotto 649 as soon as you got into town !?!

Seriously, glad that you guys are OK. Having a Guardian Angel really is wonderful. :)

That road looks pretty desolate. Just looking at it makes me feel a bit sick to the stomach. Still, I'll bet it was an adventure you don't regret. Thanks for sharing it. And I hope you'll continue to have many more great adventures (with less excitement)

If you don't mind me asking, do you have any "lessons learned" that you care to share. Or equipment/precautions that you will now always take for yourself or others you may meet (asked of course, with the understanding that there will be no more "next time it happens" )
 
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WxMan

Adventurer
David,

I certainly don't regret the journey despite the unfortunate event and will dominate my memory of it. I guess the biggest lesson learned would be that even when you don't believe you are taking a significant risk conditions can change quickly. The road was relatively straight and flat and we were doing about 60-65km/h which seemed appropriate at the time. Had the ice ruts ahead been more visible I would obviously have slowed down on the approach to them. That said, had I only been able to slow down to 50km/h before reaching them the truck may have still rolled but not ended up going all the way over, which would have been a more difficult situation to deal with. Given that ice rutted sections of road were almost exclusively in areas descending down to and then up from river crossings, or in slower off camber sections of road the threat from them wasn't at the top of my list at that particular time. It must be said too that we had been on the road for many days up to this point and it is easy to get complacent and not remain as focussed as you should be at all times.

As for equipment and/or precautions, we were well aware of the potential risks traveling in a remote area with a hostile climate. We were equipped with a SPOT and satellite phone and appropriate clothing, gear, and food should we become stranded for any reason. We also had a full complement of recovery gear, first aid supplies, extra fuel, etc. in the truck. There were a lot of things running through my head just after the accident when we knew we were okay but weren't sure about the truck. At least "how are we going to survive and how are we going to get help?" weren't included.

Russ.
 

WxMan

Adventurer
Well, after five months in the shop my wife finally has her truck back. I never dreamed it would take that long. In fairness to the body shop they had 95% of the work done after a month but fixing the Line-X on the front bumper turned into an ordeal for them. It seems in this part of the world no Line-X franchises spray white Line-X. I originally had it done in Edmonton, AB before I moved out west. When they did find one on the mainland they freighted the bumper over to them. That place took their time then did a horrible job and tried to charge the body shop $1600 for it. It was so bad apparently that the body shop manager wouldn't even let me see it. There is plenty more to the story, but I digress... In the end of the day I give a lot of credit to my body shop guy. At many points along the way he could have thrown his hands up and said that they weren't able to get the bumper issue resolved and force me to deal with the insurance company over compensation. Instead he saw it through and made things right.
 
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