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DRIVE THE ICE ROADS TO THE NORTH

Author: Jane Usher

An inveterate traveller, Jane has worked, played and stayed in cities and countries around the world. A writer by inclination and profession, her curiosity compels her to explore new cultures and adventures, sharing her impressions with the world at large.

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It seems like every time you turn around there’s another roadway calling your name. But there’s one in particular that hollers out loud in the winter – and only in winter, as it doesn’t exist in the summer. Ice road to the north. Those few simple words could conjure up a screenplay.

So here’s the scene: in the summer, the northern reaches of Alberta are accessible only by plane. The ground is goopy muskeg and anything heavier than a wolf is going to sink up to its knees, wheels, you get the picture. In the winter, ice roads are built across the frozen tundra, becoming the only land routes connecting our remote northern communities for a few months of the year. Then supply trucks – and crazy explorers like yours truly – will traverse these roads until the spring thaw.

Ice Roads 101

As soon as it’s cold enough, trucks apply water over the muskeg until the surface ice is about six inches thick. The road is then staked to guide drivers on their way north. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know the difference between the road and the rest of winter out there.

From mid-December to mid-March, the ice roads wind through stately boreal forest, over frozen rivers and marshes and across the icy majesty of the Peace-Athabasca Delta. On ice fishing derby weekends, your road companions will mainly be dogsleds and ATVs. Expect to see a variety of wildlife along the way: moose, lynx, and bobcat are not uncommon.

Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan

If you’re looking for a far north Canadian winter escapade that goes way beyond bragging rights, consider driving the ice road to Alberta’s oldest established community – and gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park – Fort Chipewyan. If you start out early enough from Fort McMurray, the trip can easily be done in a day (560 km/348 mi, round trip). Last winter, my adventurous buddies and I did exactly that. We stopped in at the Fort McMurray Tourism centre, just off Hwy 63 to make sure we knew how to find the start of the ice road. We found it, we drove it, we loved it! Not to overstate, but it was literally a very cool trip. Watch for a section of the road near Fort McMurray nicknamed the Rollercoaster – you’ll know when you’ve found it.

Fort Chipewyan and Beyond

We spent some time strolling around Fort Chipewyan and discovered The Bicentennial Museum which is its own definition of cool – you get a detailed look back at original First Nations through to the arrival of the voyageur fur traders. After a bite to eat, we headed back – not a lot of daylight at this time of year.

This winter we’re going to do it again but this time we’ll continue on across the mighty Peace River to Fort Smith on the Northwest Territories border (an additional 228 km/142 mi) and spend a few days winter camping. Wood Buffalo National Park next door is the world’s largest dark sky preserve and the stargazing – not to mention the northern lights – will be out of this world. Have to expand those bragging rights.

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