Feature: Land Rovers & Tuktoyaktuk

Feature: Land Rovers & Tuktoyaktuk

Story by Spencer Whitney, photos by Chris Walker, Natalie Weir, Ray Hyland

Depending on who you are, the term “old Land Rover” conjures up images of either total distress amid a puddle of oil, or complete freedom and ability in all kinds of globetrotting off-road settings. The discontinuation of the Defender model in 2016 (not sold in Canada since 1994) ended a nearly seventy-year-long legacy that cemented Land Rover as one of the most notorious all-terrain brands in the automotive world. Although some models of Range Rover and Land Rover today may seem soft around the edges, they are in fact every bit more capable than their bold looks might suggest.

But let’s keep talking about old Land Rovers, because they are a key part of this tale. The image of a reckless, adventuring couple charging through the desert in an open-topped Series II is popular, but might not be all that romantic were you to attempt it. Like any old four-by-four (sorry, Toyota and Jeep owners – all vehicles wear down eventually) there are ongoing challenges and tribulations in keeping a 20-plus-year-old Land Rover on the road, especially if you plan on taking yours to the edge of North America on a trip that’s never been done before.  Ray Hyland and Chris Walker & Natalie Weir saw an opportunity to be the first travelers to brave a brand new road deep into Canada’s Arctic Circle.

Until 2017, there was no year-round access to Canada’s Arctic Ocean coastline. Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories – population ~800 and known as Tuk for short – lies at the mouth of the Mackenzie River; the same river that only when frozen provides a dangerous, solitary road link to the rest of North America. (The Mackenzie section was also the setting for the TV series “Ice Road Truckers.”) Several decades ago, the federal government decided that a year-round link was needed, and so construction went ahead (in timely federal fashion) to convert the last 175 km of the winter ice-road in to a gravel-paved thoroughfare.

When word of a new road reached this group of explorers, they set out to be the first people to travel the vast distance from Canada’s southern border all the way to Tuk via paved roads and the existing Dempster Highway. With special permission from Northwest Territories officials, it became a reality. Thorough preparation was required, especially with regard to mechanics, personal safety and comfort. Hyland rebuilt the V8 motor on his newly-acquired 1988 Range Rover Classic, and Walker – driving instructor at Overlanding BC – had recently installed a venerable 300Tdi into his Defender 90. With fresh power plants in each vehicle, there was high confidence that mechanical breakdowns would not delay the trip.

As for the rest of the vehicle, each owner stayed comfortable in their own style. Hyland decided to use the spacious luxury SUV’s interior as a shelter, which proved more than comfortable for one person – even equipped with a second spare tire inside. (A necessity for rutted, remote roads covered with sharp rocks.) Chris and Natalie were the proud owners of a new roof-top tent from Treeline Outdoors in Alberta, and stored spares and weather-hardy gear on the 90’s roof rack. Despite the late-summer arctic climate (where the average high throughout the summer months is under 20 degrees) each setup was more than comfortable for its occupants.

Reaching the new section of road is an achievement in endurance in itself – over 4,000 km of paved and dirt roads through British Columbia, Yukon and Northwest Territories. As they traveled north, the team found that amenities became fewer and further between. “The road to Tuk from the start of the Dempster is 1,000 km of dirt in mountainous and highly remote terrain with no rescue services and only two stops along the way for fuel and only one for supplies and parts (Inuvik)” says Walker. This meant that one-too-many tire punctures or a more serious breakdown could result in days of being stranded – but despite the distance travelled, neither vehicle ended up stuck or disabled.

Travel through northern British Columbia and the Yukon offers plenty of untouched wildernesses to experience. A significant feature of off-road culture in Canada is the endless supply of free camping spots on Crown land, often with fresh creeks for water and excellent views of nearby mountain ranges. Other sections weren’t as exciting. For the long stretches of road, Hyland recounts how he stayed alert and entertained. “The greatest hazard on a trip like this is not the bears, or getting stuck, it’s losing your attention for a moment and having an accident. Put some effort into making sure you get a good rest, and stay awake during the day. Get a decent sound system in your truck and download a bunch of audio books or podcasts before you leave.”

Once they arrived in Tuktoyaktuk, Ray, Chris and Natalie were met with curious glares – the road wasn’t open to the public yet, so the sight of a couple of Land Rovers in late Summer was wholly unexpected. Once they figured out how they reached Tuk, the villagers were more than welcoming. “(Locals) we met were friendly and helpful. Everyone felt like they were all part of a group, regardless of what group you found yourself in each day” says Hyland. Some were excited at the prospect of more tourists; others were more apprehensive about the attention and vices the new road might bring. Most in Tuk support the road and the economy it will bring, considering that many resource projects – meant to be serviced by the road – have been abandoned.

Development of a year-round Dempster linking Inuvik to Tuk is the result of a changing landscape in Canada’s arctic. The idea was to provide reliable access to the rich resources of the territories – oil, gas, minerals and fishing. But in the intervening decades, the federal government introduced restrictions to curb that development, so as a result the road is primarily for tourism access, and will make life easier for the residents of Tuk, who often pay five times more for almost-expired groceries shipped in from points far away.

Another consideration is the ongoing change of temperatures and weather patterns in the arctic (and around the world). Many sections of permafrost aren’t so permanent anymore, which drastically affects accessibility on existing roads even in the summer. Special construction techniques were employed to protect the soft, now-waterlogged ground in these sections by “floating” the new highway on metres of gravel and soil.

Perhaps in a warmer future, the Dempster Highway will lead to new settlements in Canada’s arctic. For today, the road is open to anyone who seeks adventure at the edge of the world – and should surely be on the radar for avid Overlanders looking for a challenge and uncharted territory to conquer in 2018.

The new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway opens to the public in June 2018 – travel information is available at ith.dot.gov.nt.ca

 A detailed trip report – including a detour to Haida Gwaii and the Inside Passage on the way home that we didn’t have room to show you – can be read at overlandingbc.ca

Categories: Features, Off-Road Plus