To The Barren Lands, The Land Of Ice

It was only minus 12 Celsius and daylight was gaining about 8 minutes a day on our long winter nights. The weather forecast was good, with clear skies, warmer than seasonal temps for March 21 and no big winds or storm fronts. We were heading for the barren lands and a “white out” could paralyze arctic travel.



The astronomy report was not so kind. While Jupiter was to be clearly visible off of Orion’s left shoulder for the next few days, the northern lights would not be as good as could be, according to sun storm forecasts; the barrenlands are known for incredible aurora, but maybe not this time.


We didn’t leave Yellowknife till afternoon but would have enough time to get to Mackay Lake Lodge, about 320 kilometers up the winter road, before dark. That is if the steady stream of supply trucks to the diamond mines would not slow us down. About 8,000 trucks, one every 15 minutes, was scheduled over the three-month hauling season. With only two weeks left to go this year, the trucks would be rolling round the clock. Our convoy of two small trucks would have to give way to the high boys, low boys, B-trains, vans and wide loads.


We had rented Ladd radios so we could communicate with the truck drivers and also do our part to comply with the safety protocol that has become part of the winter road travel. We passed the Nuna Logistics yard near the airport, where all big trucks must report before being dispatched to the north, country. We headed past the old Giant Mine site, across the Yellowknife River, bridge, and north up the Ingraham Trail to the land of ice.


With our radios on, we soon realized that we were in the middle of a group of “4 tandem axle tankers at kilometer 18 northbound”. Signposts were placed every kilometer, starting from Yellowknife. Seconds later, another trucker radioed, “6 trucks southbound at kilometer 22”. We were in the middle of the northbound convoy. We were going to meet the southbound convoy on this narrow winding all weather gravel road.


I called out on our radio that we were two small trucks northbound also at kilometer 18. To our surprise and in keeping with some protocol, the lead trucker, in charge of the radio reports, adopted us. His next call was “4 northbound, kilometer 20 with two 4 wheelers”. We figured out that his calling us “4 wheelers” differentiated us from 18-wheelers.


We met several more convoys of trucks as we passed Prelude Lake, crossed the Cameron River and arrived at Tippet Lake, the end of the Ingraham Trail and the beginning of the ice road. An ominous sign greeted us, “Travel at your own risk”. I was glad that we had requested permission to travel and we had rented the radios.


Other than the radio talks giving, location, number of trucks and direction, we had little conversation with our companions so far. We now stopped on the ice at Tippit Lake and introduced ourselves. Bertha and I were traveling with Margaret McLauchlan, from Ontario, Canada and Julie Simms from New Jersey, USA. They were clients of “Tundra Tom” Foess and both were experienced world travelers. Both were retired schoolteachers and had chosen this journey to the land of ice over some warm beach vacation. Tundra Tom had booked them on a winter adventure with our company, True North Safaris.


Our travel partners Peter and Carmen Allen & the Ross Lake Yellowknive’s Dene caribou observation checkpoint


Traveling with us in the second vehicle were Peter and Carmen Allen, our talented, friends from Yellowknife. Peter is a consultant who was helping me guide on this trip. Carmen is a schoolteacher and part-time photographer.


We stretched our limbs, had a snack, took some pictures after the intros and headed up the ice road. Everyone marveled that the ice road was, in fact, better than the winding 65 kilometers of gravel road they call the Ingraham Trail. The ice road was several lanes wide, providing a safety margin for meeting and passing and the width also helped prevent the accumulation of drifting snow, which now replaced the dust of the Ingraham Trail.


After two portages we arrived at what the truckers called “the Meadows”. It was nothing more than a flat stretch of land where truckers could stop and rest, check their loads and regroup. The big trucks are not allowed to stop on lakes to prevent any possibility of spills or problems with too much weight on the ice. Most portages and the Ingraham Trail are also too narrow to allow for stops other than emergencies. For the big trucks, the Meadows is a rest place after the first leg of the journey north or the last stop on the way south to Yellowknife.


As we left what seemed to be the last vestige of civilization, we stopped to take pictures of a red fox. The sun was beginning to set as we crossed a short portage onto Warburton ay, the beginning if 160 kilometer long Mackay Lake.


The number of the portages from Tippit Lake, rather than the kilometer distance from Yellowknife, was now called out to identify ones location. The portages are numbered. Peter had taken the lead in our convoy of two and he called out, “two 4 wheelers northbound on portage 3”; next call, “ two north on 4”. We were getting used to the abbreviated lingo of the truck drivers. A reply came, “6 south on 5”. Bertha counted as we met the first one, second one, and so on until all six were by and we could relax a little till we met the next convoy.


Our next stop was on Ross Lake where the Yellowknife Dene Band had set up a checkpoint to monitor hunting activity by locals on the ice road. We took advantage of the facilities and it was a consensus that a styro-foam seat in an outhouse provided unexpected warmth and relaxation.


On we went and encountered some caribou hunters on Pensive Lake, across the 42 kilometers of Gordon Lake, saw some ice fishing sets (tree branches stuck in the ice) on Brown Lake and then the beginning of the barren lands on Drybones Lake. Oddly the growth of black spruce, which was mixed with some jack pine, willows and birch, seemed to intensify and grow taller as we reached the tree line. Then it faded out to become scattered clumps of dwarf trees and then nothing but white and ice.


Lockhart Lake

The truck stop at Lockhart Lake stood out of place on a hillside in this forsaken wilderness. Dozens of trucks were here resting and regrouping. Large workshops, bunkhouses for the road crews, a dining room and washrooms accompanied the dispatch office. We had come about 1/3 of the length of the ice road. The Canadian flag was flying high.


As we left what seemed to be the last vestige of civilization, we stopped to take pictures of a red fox. The sun was beginning to set as we crossed a short portage onto Warburton ay, the beginning if 160 kilometer long Mackay Lake.


A red fox following us up the ice road


It was then that the impact of the barrens seemed to take hold of us. In this bleak expanse of treeless, abandoned wilderness, the snow, white dessert of ice, there was only the red glow of the dying sun and snow plowed shoulders of the ice road. We got out for photos. The temperature was falling with the sun; it was getting cold. We were an hour, still, from Mackay Lake Lodge. We were a 1000 feet higher in elevation than Yellowknife. Nothing could live in this forsaken frozen land of ice, we thought.



Then off in the distance there were the lights of a convoy of trucks returning from the diamond mines. They called the Canadian Diamonds, “Arctic Ice”. That sounded cold on this night.


I told our companions that Andy Dupras was waiting for us at the lodge and he would have the fire going when we arrived there.


Thank goodness!


Andy is one of those extraordinary people who is at home alone in the mountains or prospecting for gold or diamonds in the barren lands or trading stock on Granville Street in Vancouver. A Cree-French Metis, Andy speaks six languages. He had driven up alone two days earlier to get the camp ready for us. Along with the fire, he would warm us all with his good humor. It was his 68th birthday today and his wife Louisa had sent a cake with us.


We arrived after dark and could see the outline of buildings on the esker silhouetted against the sky. The stars were out and there were dunes of white drifted snow flowing down off the ridge onto the ice. The relentless winds of the barren lands swirled over and around the cabins leaving each its own companion snowdrift in passing.



Nuna Logistics, the builder and caretakers of the winter road, had plowed a landing off of the main winter road for us. Andy saw our lights as we pulled in and came to meet us with a snowmobile and toboggan. We were soon settled into what would be our home for the next two nights. It was a well-insulated cabin with oil and propane heat and some gas lamps. Andy had rigged a small generator for electric lights and for charging camera batteries. Our cabin was one of some twenty odd buildings that make up Mackay Lake Lodge.


After dinner we checked several times for northern lights, but as forecast, they would not show themselves to us this night. Bertha and I told our companions of times when the “spirit walkers” were so bold that they formed a giant teepee over us and danced and rippled in rainbow colors; but not tonight. The sky was clear and with the stars, Jupiter and a ¾ moon reflecting off the endless white snow it was an eerie, almost daylight outside.



The sun peaked over the horizon sometime after 6;00 AM and flooded the countryside with a red glow as the Inukshuks silhouetted against the morning sky. The world then turned white again as the March sun climbed higher and began to work its magic, warming the barren lands again from the night before.


We left after breakfast heading north to the land of ice.


Mackay Lake lodge is about half way down the length of the 160 kilometer long lake. The winter ice road is divided with a southbound lane for empty trucks and a northbound lane for loaded trucks. Speed limits for the loaded trucks had been increased from 25 Kilometers per hour to 35. The ice was now averaging about 6 feet thick and this helped justify the increase in speed.


Even with ice as deep as I am tall, the heavy trucks weigh it down causing a wave. If one stands on the ice as a convoy passes you can feel movement and hear cracking and groaning sounds of the ice. The wave moves in front of the trucks, but if they drive too fast, onto their wave, the ice cracks and breaks. It can blow out in front of a loaded truck if it is traveling faster than the water under the wave can dissipate as it approaches land.


It was strange to see speed limit signs in the middle of our lake. There were security trucks every now and then. “Secure Check” was the company responsible for enforcing speed limits along with other safety and security measures.


We left Mackay Lake, “ 2 four wheelers northbound on portage 46”, “2 north on 47”.

We topped a high hill and there, across a large valley off in the distance was the truck stop on the shores of Lac De Gras.


I had talked to Ron LeBrun on the satellite phone and we were going to stop to meet him. He is the Superintendent for the winter road and his headquarters are at Lac De Gras. I had only met him once before but he immediately struck me with his quiet, strong manner that must come from years in the barren lands. He commands a workforce of 100s of men who build and maintain the winter road.


This is the longest winter road in the world. The world famous “ Ice Road“ that started as a cat train trail in the 1940’s had evolved to this freeway on ice; the lifeline to the mines in the barren lands. In the old days, Gold was King in the north; long before Ladd radios or satellite phones and before diamonds were discovered in the barren lands.


Ron explained to me that the truck stops were running at capacity and there is no room for travelers. The truck stops at Lockhart Lake and Lac De Gras divide the winter road into thirds. At Lac De Gras we were about two-thirds the way up the ice road and about 450 kilometers north of Yellowknife.


The truck, stops are owned by the” Joint Management Group”; that is BHP, Diavik, and Lupin Gold mines. De Beers, another major diamond miner was paying a user fee at this time. Nuna Logistics is contracted to operate the stops and build and maintain the winter road. Ron is the superintendent.


We thanked Ron for his hospitality and headed north. We reflected on some of what Ron had told us. There are no facilities available to the traveling public along the ice road; that is for food, lodging or gas. Mackay Lake Lodge could offer these services.


Within half an hour we could see the Diavik Diamond Mine, one of the richest diamond mines in the world. The kimberlite pipes where diamonds are found were formed million(s) years ago, like a volcano erupting, they blasted through the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. These diamonds are called “arctic ice”, the Canadian diamonds identifiable by a laser etching in the image of a polar bear. We were in the land of ice.


The terrain here was like the moonscape of the barren lands; not a scrub tree, rolling hills littered with boulders and glacial debris. We had requested permission to enter the mine site but were denied for security reasons. Diamonds are a big deal! From a distance we could see the huge trucks hauling kimberlite from the open pit to the sorting plant; trucks bigger than the cabin we were staying in.
The dike that had been built to hold back the waters of Lac De Gras must rival the Bennett Damn; huge fuel tanks that were now being filled by some of the 8,000 trucks that were re-supplying the mines.


The ice road continues on to the BHP mine called Ekati and the Lupin Goldmine on Contwoyto Lake. We could have driven to the Nunavut Territory and the Arctic Circle, but decided to end our journey north. We had come to drive the longest winter road in the world and to see a diamond mine in the land of ice.



We headed back for Mackay Lake Lodge. There was a steady stream of truck convoys both north and south bound. “Two small trucks southbound on portage 48”.


Back at the cabin we had a few hours before sunset. Margaret and Peter and I went for snowmobile rides. We followed a fresh wolverine track but saw no other wildlife. Andy had seen two wolves the day before. We sat in the cabin as the sun dipped down looking out a window. Andy had a GPS and a watch. He had predicted the sunset calculating 3 minutes change from the day before. The sun fell below the horizon at exactly 6:43 PM. “ Right on”. Carmen and Peter had time to snow mobile to the Inukshuks to get some pictures with the sunset.


Beside the heater and after dinner we talked. Margaret had lived in the Canadian Arctic as a child. Her dad had been an RCMP back in the 1940’s. Bertha’s dad had been a special Constable with the RCMP back in those same old times and had guided dog team patrols into the Arctic. In this endless wilderness we discovered what a small world it can be.


The next morning, it was, “three 4 wheelers southbound on 37, 36, 35” and so on. Andy was traveling with us. Then we saw our first caribou. It was pawing the snow on an island looking for lichens. It was very near the winter road and in good spirits by all appearances. It was not afraid, almost taking comfort in the safety of our presence.



After a photo session, we began moving and saw a Secure Check truck nearby. On the radio I asked where the other caribou might be as it is uncommon to see one caribou by itself. Turned out the driver was an old friend and retired Mounty. He speculated that the wolves had taken its companions. This was part of the harsh reality of life where survival of the fittest takes on meaning.


We saw an arctic hare, 7 foxes, and countless ravens on the way. This desolate land was full of life.


One last stop on Ross Lake to report our wildlife sightings at the check stop, one last visit to the styrofoam seat. We crossed the Meadows, “ Three 4 wheelers southbound on portage 2, 1”; we were back on Tippet Lake and about an hour from Yellowknife.


The Caribou Carnival was on this weekend in Yellowknife along with the World Championship Dog Races.


I received an email from Margaret McLaughlin about a week later. She wrote,


“ I lived in the Canadian Arctic as a child. I have heard tales about the North my whole life. I wanted to see it as an adult. I wanted particularly to see the tundra and I wanted to see it in winter.


I have sailed across the wildest waters of the world to set foot on Antarctica. I’ve been to the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. I’ve trekked to Machu Picchu in Peru, climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest in Nepal, climbed, trekked or skied in 5 major mountain ranges, hiked the Alpine meadows in Switzerland, traveled extensively in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, India, Europe, US and Canada.


I have traveled by Russian icebreaker, boat, canoe, bicycle, bus, donkey, train and camel, but never had a snowmobile ride before. I cannot believe I was able to see the landscape of the barrenlands in winter. It leaves me breathless just to think of it.”