In the Northwest Territories, remote towns depend on their frozen highways.

Even if you have never seen Ice Road Truckers, chances are you've at least heard of it: Along with Deadliest Catch, it helped to spearhead an army of reality television shows set in Alaska and the Canadian North. Ice Road Truckers follows a handful of hardened truckers as they transport their loads down remote highways, through heinous winter weather, and across the frozen surfaces of major rivers and lakes.

The men behind the wheel are the focus of the show. But what about the roads below their rigs? What goes into building those wild, frozen freeways? I have lived in ice road country for the past six years, and even I've never thought much about what goes into creating one. These roads matter, though: Many communities are dependent on them to receive crucial supplies, and—like so much else in the region—the ice roads are changing as the planet warms.

The Northwest Territories, the geographical middle child of Canada's three northern territories, is a sprawling jurisdiction anchored by the vastness of Great Slave Lake—it spans more than 10,000 square miles—and the massive, 1,000-mile-long Mackenzie River that drains it. And while its year-round highway system is much smaller than the Yukon's, next door, the NWT has an elaborate network of annual ice roads, winter roads, and ice bridges to help keep its more remote communities connected and supplied.

Suddenly, a village with no overland connection to the outside world has its own frozen highway.

Some terminology: An ice road is a roadway built entirely on water—across a lake, say, or along the length of a river. A winter road, by contrast, is a snow-packed wilderness road that runs overland, possibly with some frozen lake crossings mixed in. And an ice bridge, or ice crossing, connects two sections of paved (or gravel) highway divided by a river; typically, these crossings are serviced by ferries in summer and by an ice bridge in winter.

So, how do you build an ice road? Cautiously. "Safety is the first priority," says Michael Conway, a regional superintendent at the Department of Transportation in the government of the Northwest Territories. The first step is to determine the ice conditions at the start of the season, typically in November or early December, depending on any given road's location. To do that, the department sends workers out onto the new ice on very light, floating equipment—an Argo, for instance, which is a wheeled, amphibious all-terrain vehicle. Staff wear survival suits with built-in flotation to enable them to withstand a potential fall through the ice. They use simple equipment, like hand drills or ice augurs, to determine the depth of the ice. Then things get more sophisticated: "As time goes on and they're getting more and more ice," Conway says, "they'll start to use what they call an ice profiler, which is a subsurface interface radar—and that basically tells them the thickness of the ice that they're traveling over. And then they can align a route and determine where the best ice is."

Once the route is set, workers move from the lightweight Argos to a heavier snowcat or similar tracked vehicle, fitted with a plow or blade—"not as light as an Argo but not as heavy as a plow truck," Conway explains—to start to remove the snow cover from on top of the ice. Snow is an insulator, so removing it from the route is critical to allowing the ice to firm up. Eventually, the ice thickens enough to allow heavy machinery—your standard snowplows and trucks—to go to work. And then, after maybe a week or two (the timing varies), the road is opened to the public. And suddenly, a village with no overland connection to the outside world has its own frozen highway.


To a southern resident accustomed to a seemingly limitless supply of groceries and gas, the point of an ice road may not be immediately obvious. But ice roads are critical for those living in towns and villages that are cut off from the highway network, many of whom are dependent entirely on bush planes (or, if they're located on a navigable river or the ocean, barges in summer) to fly in with vital supplies.

"We use them a lot for re-supply," says Conway, trucking in everything from fuel to heat houses and power vehicles, to construction supplies, to some food products. "You could fly things in, but it would be much more expensive." (In the Yukon, when a winter road was opened to Old Crow last year for the first time in a decade, the village shipped in $5 million worth of long-delayed construction materials, earmarked for a new grocery store.)

"We've noticed that things have certainly gotten warmer in the last few years and it's certainly become a bit of a challenge."

Why not just build a proper, year-round highway to these marooned communities? Again, it comes down to economics. A given ice road or winter road might cost one million dollars to build, Conway says—but an all-weather road could cost 100 or 200 times that. (The still-under-construction road from Inuvik, in the Mackenzie River delta, up to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast, is slated to cost at least $300 million in initial construction costs, with at least $1.5 million in annual maintenance once it's complete.)

Of course, the ice-road season is shrinking as the planet warms. But Conway's not sweating it yet. "Has it changed? Yeah," he says. "We've noticed that things have certainly gotten warmer in the last few years and it's certainly become a bit of a challenge. But we have to work against that." The department has started using lighter equipment, he says, and experimenting with different tire and track set-ups, to allow them to get the roads open safely. "Whereas in the past they might take a bulldozer and just go across and everything would be fine because they had three or four feet of ice," Conway explains, "nowadays you don't have that."

The ice-road builders don't get the fame and glory of the ice-road truckers. But like the gritty TV caricatures that made their roads famous, they persevere—even as things heat up.


Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.

Lead Photo: The Dalton Highway, in Alaska. (Photo: Anita Ritenour/Flickr)