Canada’s 137km Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is a vital new lifeline across unremittingly spartan tundra, but also a window on an almost-forgotten way of indigenous life.

One million antlers were set against the northern sky. Or so it looked from the vantage point of the revving snowmobile as it lurched across the tundra basin. Around 3,000 wild reindeer had bunched together on the horizon, their branched horns seamlessly melding with an endless swathe of skeletal willow and black spruce. We were 60km south of the Arctic Ocean in the remote northern reaches of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and left to Mother Nature it was a spectacle unaffected by man for millennia.

Two bushy foxes bounded across the permafrost, scattering the herd downhill past shoreline lichen onto a frozen lake ahead. The hush of the Arctic winter broken, the herd became a flurry of tawny hides and hooves.

That’s the sound of the tundra

“Listen,” said Inuvialuit (Western Canadian Inuit) guide Noel Cockney softly, as he stopped his Ski-Doo and gestured across the ice. It was -25C and his voice barely pierced his thick protective face mask. “When the reindeer run, it sounds like rain on snow. That’s the sound of the tundra.” 

Hidden deep at the top of the country’s largely unexplored Arctic perimeter, Canada’s largest reindeer herd have long lived in solitude. Every spring, the scruffy animals migrate west to their calving grounds on nearby Richards Island to rear their young, but these days they have more to contend with than just wily foxes and wolf packs.

They now have to deal with the arrival of man.

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For the last two millennia, the only people who have been able to understand and adapt to this land are the Inuvialuit, the custodians of the north who live in settlements across the Mackenzie Delta, where Canada’s longest river system empties into the Arctic Ocean. Numbering around 5,700, the Inuvialuit have maintained a lifestyle as traditional as it gets in the Americas. In step with the seasons, they are bound to the land, trapping Arctic hare, fox and lynx for meat and fur in the colder months; in summer they harvest beluga whales during sanctioned hunts along the Tuktoyaktuk coast to provide the sustenance they need to get through the long winter.

The opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway in November 2017 has changed everything for this frozen wilderness. Built at a cost of CAD$300 million and nicknamed the Arctic Ice Road, the 137km-long, two-lane gravel highway is the first all-weather road to Canada’s Arctic Coast, cleaving this isolated tract of tundra in two.

The highway could also be described as the world’s toughest. Taking four years to build – three to create a thick-enough layer of hard-packed gravel to withstand the harsh winters, and one to refine the surface – it’s been designed to tolerate temperatures that can tip below -40C as well as hit 20C on summer nights when the sun never sets.

And yet even though this is a lifeline for the remote indigenous Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk (population: 850), the last Arctic village on the edge of mainland Canada’s frozen wilderness, the road is proving divisive. Conceived as a path to oil and gas exploration by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s administration, some see it as a road to resources (despite a temporary moratorium on offshore licences from Justin Trudeau’s government). Others call it a vanity project, bringing this fragile community one step closer to cultural erosion.

But for its ardent supporters, including Tuktoyaktuk local Noel Cockney who spent two years working on the road, the highway marks a rebirth for this ultra-remote community. Opening the outpost year round to visitors for the first time ever, it is an opportunity for progress and possibility. In summer, drivers can now reach otherwise inaccessible lakes and rivers, many of which have never been explored. In winter, there is the visceral thrill of witnessing the reindeer herd and driving to out-of-touch Tuktoyaktuk, whose name means ‘looks like a caribou’ in the local language. And for locals, the new route is a potential honeypot for attracting investment and jobs.

Prior to the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, the community’s winter connection to the outside world was a rudimentary and ephemeral ice track that melted every spring.

“Getting to ‘Tuk’ used to be incredibly difficult,” said Cockney, parking his snowmobile at a viewpoint overlooking the new highway. “In winter, our way out vanished into thin air, and in summer it was a choice of two: fly or take a boat along the river.” Now, since the road’s arrival, local carrier Aklak Air has suspended its daily service.

The value of keeping these cultural traditions alive can’t be underestimated

Another individual embracing the road’s opportunity is Kylik Kisoun Taylor, a second-generation Inuvialuit who represents the vanguard of the next generation of northerners. A board member of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and owner of Tundra North Tours, an Inuit company based in the village of Inuvik at the southernmost point of the road, Taylor grew up in southern Ontario but felt the call of the north from the moment he returned at age 16.

“Indigenous culture is a resource here and tourism has the power to harness it,” he told me, clad in seal fur, as we pulled out of Inuvik while driving the new road north. “Whether it’s trapping a duck or killing a caribou with a spear – the value of keeping these cultural traditions alive can’t be underestimated. Indigenous communities are forgetting how to use these Arctic skills, but they can be compatible with tourism and the modern world. And I want to educate visitors about this.”

For all that the highway divides local opinion, to drive it is mesmerising. Far from an arrow-straight highway, it loops and bends, hugging the north’s frozen ponds, the so-called Eskimo Lakes, a system of brackish estuarine basins. At the roadside, the Richardson Mountains and boreal forest fade until they disappear completely, leaving the windshield crowded with nothing but a panorama of bald ice. And there are so many shades of white, the sky takes on a pale-coloured glow.

“You haven’t seen the Arctic unless you come in winter,” said Taylor as we passed a huge plateau of ice. Up close, wind-blown snow rushed the road, moving gravel like an illusion. “We’re at the edge of the tree line here – this is the limit of where it’s comfortable to live.”

Past a series of pingos, periglacial landforms made of earth-covered ice that are Canadian national landmarks, Tuktoyaktuk began to make its presence felt. As if divorced from its own country, the village sits segregated on a spit of land jutting out into the Arctic Ocean. There are no sugar maple or spruce, or any trees for that matter – only endless ocean, the cold grey waves frozen and paused.

Two and a half hours after setting off, we finally parked near a pier entombed in ice. Tuktoyaktuk’s streets were empty from the cold. The husky huts, where sled dog teams bedded down, were shut for the night. No-one was around except at the Tuktu B&B, where I met owner Maureen Pokiak, who discussed the road’s impact with me over dinner. Her husband, James, she apologised, was out on an overnight musk ox hunt.

The road may make life a lot easier for folk in the longer term, but we’ll remain connected to the land

“This community is in our blood, so I don’t anticipate too many changes,” she said, while sharpening a traditional ulu knife to prepare a customary indigenous meal – raw beluga whale, or muktuk. “There’s a hardcore element who love the extremes of this environment, and they live and breathe tradition. The road may make life a lot easier for folk in the longer term, but we’ll remain connected to the land – that’s the way it’ll always be.”

Only when our truck headed back south to Inuvik in the darkness, the street lights diffusing a glow across the snow, did I start to understand what she meant. As the road crossed a series of humpback hills, the Arctic sun rose to reveal the ever-shifting beauty of the tundra, the epic drama of the landscape lit in an all-encompassing brilliant silver on white. Out in the pre-dawn light, the reindeer herd were moving on, the sound of ‘rain’ on snow a signal that life in the tundra will go on. Just as it has always done.

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