November 15, 2017 marks the official opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, a $299 million 140-kilometre all-weather gravel road leading to the Arctic Ocean. This highway represents the final link of a transportation network spanning across Canada, connecting its people from coast to coast to coast.
Located at the top of the world in the Northwest Territories, along the shore of the Beaufort Sea, the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk (otherwise known as “Tuk”) and its 900 residents are being connected to the town of Inuvik (population 3400) and the rest of Canada by a year-round all-weather road for the first time.
Prior to the opening of the highway, Tuk was accessible only by plane, barge or ice road. The 187-kilometre ice road was a lifeline to the residents of Tuk, built for over 40 years, stretching over the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean.
The Significance of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is so much more than a gravel road. While still very remote, the highway marks the end of isolation for Tuk and the beginning of a new era for the north. It represents a new and improved year-round lifeline to the residents of Tuk, giving them the freedom to come and go when they want.
The highway will reduce the overall cost of living and increase the selection of goods available; create jobs and new economic opportunities, particularly for cultural and adventure tourism; increase social interaction with families and friends; improve access to health care and educational opportunities; and it will further Canada’s sovereignty interests by providing all-season access to the arctic coast. But most prominently, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway has been viewed as a major artery for offshore oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea.
Prime Ministers, Premiers, Priorities and Politics
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway also represents the final segment of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Northern Vision of a “Road to Resources,” which largely materialized with the opening of the Dempster Highway in 1979, stretching from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories.
In early 2014, the Harper government gave the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway project the green light and a strategic partnership was formed between the Governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories, each contributing $200 million and $99 million respectively, with a $229 million construction contract awarded to the joint venture EGT-Northwind Limited. At that time, the main drivers behind the construction of the highway were nation building and the promotion of Canadian sovereignty, followed by economic development in the Arctic, including oil and gas, mining and the building of transportation corridors.
Fast-forward three years later. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares some of the same priorities as Harper, in December 2016, Trudeau announced a moratorium on all new offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic, renewable for a five-year period. Different Prime Ministers, different visions, different priorities.
On the local political front, the Premiers of both Governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are very concerned and disappointed with Prime Minister Trudeau for having made this unilateral decision without prior consultation with the Indigenous and political leadership of the territories. This is because the economies of both territories are heavily dependent upon resource development and the territorial governments and Indigenous leaders should necessarily play a decisive role in determining what their futures will look like. The Prime Minister didn’t think so. (See news articles at the end.)
In the absence of any immediate new oil and gas development, tourism will surely become one of the significant new drivers of the local economy, with Tuk becoming the newest bucket list destination for adventure travelers from around the world. A road trip to the top of the world, where you can dip your toes in the Arctic Ocean, dance beneath the aurora borealis, go out on the land with local guides, and experience the arctic landscape and lifestyle.
Both Inuvik and Tuk have much to offer, with breathtaking landscapes, wide-open spaces with unlimited fresh arctic air, interactions with local Indigenous cultures, beautiful handicrafts, and a range of year-round events and festivals that are unique to the region.
While Inuvik is already well equipped, Tuk has limited infrastructure in place to cater to an influx of visitors. At the time of writing this post, accommodation options in Tuk include the End of the Road Inn with its 7 rooms (which will soon be opening up Tuk’s only restaurant), and a handful of Bed and Breakfasts. Immediate investments in building local capacity and new infrastructure will enable Tuk to accommodate the visitors and realize the great potential that tourism has to offer the community and region. New businesses, new jobs, new investments, new opportunities.
Construction of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway
The all-weather highway was built above the fragile tundra and permafrost, using a total of 5,000,000 cubic metres of gravel, enough to fill 2000 Olympic-sized swimming pools! The permafrost was covered with a special protective geotextile fabric and up to five metres of gravel in some areas.
Given the location and complexity of this project, there were many challenges involved with the construction of the highway, ranging from equipment procurement and ongoing maintenance, regulatory requirements, time delays, shortage of skilled workers, engineering and environmental challenges and many more.
The majority of the construction necessarily had to take place during the winter season, when the ground was frozen (so as to not disturb the permafrost). This meant working in what many people would consider to be brutally harsh arctic conditions, 24-hours a day in 12-hour shifts, temperatures of -30 to -40 degrees Celsius accompanied with a skin-peeling wind chill, and nearly 24-hour darkness. The construction crews were hardcore and this was their reality for four years.
Breaking New Ground
The construction of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway broke new ground in Canada, both literally and figuratively. There was little existing research to work with or similar infrastructure projects to learn from in other arctic regions of the world. The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is the new kid on the block and researchers from around the world will be monitoring it, studying the impact of global warming, the melting of permafrost, and the engineering that was involved in order to withstand these environmental challenges.
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway was and is an enormous feat of engineering, research, construction, and collaboration among numerous stakeholders. It started off over a half century ago with Diefenbaker’s dream of a “Road to Resources,” and in November 2017, after years of research, planning and construction, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway came to fruition.
Congratulations to All
Congratulations to everyone who has played a part in the construction of the highway over the past four years, namely the project management team: Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Infrastructure and contractor EGT-Northwind Ltd, supported by their respective engineering teams.
The Government of Canada; equipment operators, safety officers, wildlife monitors, cooks, mechanics, medical crew, janitorial and camp crew; the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation; researchers and scientists; regulatory bodies; and so many others.
Each of you have directly contributed to a pivotal piece of Canadian infrastructure of monumental and historical significance. The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway was the missing link that now connects Canada from coast to coast to coast.
The Road Less Travelled
While there is excitement and hope in the air, there is also fear and concern for what may come. The reality is that Tuk will never again be the same. Change is inevitable, but managed change can mean the world of a difference, especially for a community like Tuk.
Are you ready to drive up the the road less travelled and experience an arctic adventure of a lifetime? Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway awaits you… (Feel free to leave a comment below).
Copyright © 2012-2017 Tawna Brown. For image licensing inquiries, please visit here.
Additional Information and Resources
- Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway Project main website, visit here.
- CBC article: “N.W.T. premier issues ‘red alert’ on ‘colonial’ attack on territory’s oil and gas future,” visit here.
- NWT Tourism (Western Arctic Region), visit here.
- Town of Inuvik, visit here.
- Great Northern Arts Festival: 10-day long summer arts festival in Inuvik, visit here.
- Muskrat Jamboree (Inuvik): Spring Festival (April), visit here.
- Beluga Jamboree (Tuktoyaktuk): Spring Festival (April) on the Arctic Coast. Local events and contests: races, log sawing, harpoon throwing, drum dancing, igloo building, and square dancing.
Can’t wait to drive this road. November 21 will be my first time. Great photo’s by the way! And I like the dig at the Trudeau government. The south has got to get there act together in regards to the rights of the peoples of the north…
Thank you David. Make sure you get a picture of you on the road! And drive safe. When you get closer to Tuk, you should try and look for the “Tuk forest” (as shown in the 2nd last “Four Seasons of the Canadian Arctic.” Driving northwards, it will be on your righthand side.
Great article! I missed the Tuk forest when I was there. Maybe I can go back one day.
Now you know someone who’s driven Yellowknife to Tuk… ME!
The most amazing road trip of my life so far. Over 8000 miles in 2 and a half months.
Orlando-Denver-Dakotas-Yellowknife-Tuktoyuktuk-Fairbanks-Anchorage and back.
An amazing journey. A life altering experience, A spiritual awakening
Thank you for stopping by to read my story!!! What an incredible journey you went on!! I think this would be great content for a book, or at least a feature length magazine article!!! I hope you took lots of pics. Congratulations! A trip of a lifetime for sure!!
Great artical and photos! How long is the road from Yellowknife to Tuk? Probably won’t drive it in the winter 🙂 Tourisum will help the area, but it isn’t going to bring in the money they will need to grow. Too bad Trudeau’s Gov. doesn’t see the potential for all of Canada.
Thanks Chris! Our road network up north is NOTHING like the south. So to go from Yellowknife to Tuk, it would be about 3400km (half of which will be on gravel highways). This would involve driving from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories to northern British Columbia, then up through the Yukon Territory, and then onto the Dempster Highway that connects through to Inuvik, Northwest Territories and then on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway! Or a $1400-$2000 flight from Yellowknife to Inuvik and a 1.5-2 hour drive to Tuk! I don’t know anyone who has ever drove from YK to Inuvik, but I’m sure someone has done it. Adventure road tripping, that’s for sure! (ps. here is a handy tool: http://canada.distancesonline.com/Yellowknife/inuvik)
Such a wonderful and informative read! So many emotions as I read through this. Your photos show vibrance and truly intices your readers to pick up and go! What an experience that would be to drive that highway. Truly loved your photo of the four seasons. Your eye and heart are both able to catch the true beauty of what the North has to offer. Thanks for sharing. 🥇❤️
I’m so glad to know that it was an enjoyable (and even emotional!) read. It was quite a challenge to figure out the “angle”, given that it has so many aspects to it, so I tried to touch upon several angles in one story, which is tricky. Thanks for noticing the Four Seasons! The is my newest “exciting piece” that I have not shared elsewhere yet. As you know, Tuk is above the tree line, so there aren’t many trees at all… but there is this little clump outside of the community along the ITH, Tuk’s little “forest”….and I am so grateful to have been there during the four seasons so I could create this piece. It is going to be my newest canvas print!
What an informative and inviting document! I would so enjoy a”stroll” down that lane
Thank you Eydie! That would be quite the stroll, that’s for sure!
What an informative and succinct article Tawna. The photos really gives the reader the visual of what you are explaining and perfectly follow the two in unison. Having been raised in my formative years in Tuk I totally agree about Tuk residents given the freedom, finally to venture from a year round perspective. Thanks for such a great article, Tawna. I look forward to more articles from you in the future.
Bill, thank you so much for your kind words and I am so happy that you feel this way. I know there are all kinds of feelings about this highway, particularly for the people of Tuk, and I am glad to know that you feel this is a positive development, “paving” the road for a better tomorrow. I bet you are excited to go back home and make that road trip for the very first time in your life!
I can’t wait to drive up there in our Motorhome,it looks very interesting.wonderful scenery etc.
You’ll have so much to take in! I just went up the road for about 40 mins from Inuvik towards Tuk, and there were so many “photo opps”! I also saw a red and a multicoloured fox, a lynx and a flock of ptarmigans! And I love the little mini forests here and there (little clumps of trees that are in random places)…
Great blog, Tawna! It was a pleasure meeting you and hearing your stories over the past few days in Inuvik and Tuk. The pictures are great and look forward to the update after you have sorted through all of the pictures you took as part of the ITH opening ceremonies.
Hi Trent! Thank you for your kinds words and it was a pleasure to meet you and Rick as well. I don’t think I’ll be doing an update on the actual blog post (revisions), but instead might do a standalone mini-part 2 blog post with a small collection of the photos from the opening (sans the ribbon cutting:( I’ve enjoyed every minute of photo documenting the creation of the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway…and now I look forward to enticing people from far and wide to come and visit!
How exciting! Such an informative read of the development of this new dream highway! It will definitely change the lives of those people in Tuk. for their every day needs and hopefully spur tourism. What an honour this has been for you to photograph the stages of development and to now see the finale of the construction become a reality! And to be there to take part in the celebrations too! So proud of your accomplishments! Thank you for all the endless hours putting the story and photos together to share with all of us. Your photos are incredible! You’ve definitely sparked an interest….maybe your Pops and I should continue up this highway when you drive up to Yellowknife next summer! Another adventure for us, wouldn’t you say?? Looking forward to hearing about and seeing photos of the celebrations! Thank you for sharing!
Yes, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to see this project through its 4-year construction phases, all the way “to the end of the road!” I do hope that you and Pops will take an adventure trip up north from Yellowknife one day… Aeroplan points work to Inuvik with Canadian North, and maybe you could rent a truck and then drive the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway! Think about it! Maybe I’ll come with! Thank you for your kind words and glad you enjoyed the read and the photos.
Great blog, wonderful pictures. Wondering if anyone has walked the entire length of the highway.
Thank you Leigh! I’m pretty certain no one has walked the ITH yet, as it is around -40 to -50 degrees celsius in the winter… and in the summer, there will be a lot of bugs since it’s out in the middle of the arctic tundra. However, that being said, there are people who have walked and biked the ice road, and that was of a similar distance. I’m sure someone will walk the ITH soon, and it sure will be an adventure!
Incredible article! This is different to what you have written about so far. It’s in depth and the pictures bring the story alive. It’s amazing how those people kept on working in those brutal temperatures. Since I’m reading this after the fact, and the article was written last year, I’m sure this highway has been used many more times by now. Thank you for sharing this story! I’m learning more about that part of the world through you.
Incredible article! This is different to what you have written in the past. It’s in depth and the photos bring the story alive. It’s amazing how those people kept on working in those brutal temperatures. Since I’m reading this story after the fact and it was written six months ago, I’m sure many more people have traveled this highway. Thank you for sharing this story! I’m learning more about that part of the world through you.
I am new to computer searching but my husband George worked on the DEW Line in 1956-57. He was site supervisor at Tuktoyaktuk and had a dream to someday go back there. Last year we contacted a travel agent through AAA but they said we couldn’t get there. I think they were only interested in promoting their travel agendas via rail or cruise. Then last month I saw a Facebook post from a Canadian couple that we had met in Florida. They had traveled the Dempster Highway and showed a picture of the Tuktoyaktuk sign. Now I would like to know if it is possible for us to travel there. We live in northern Wisconsin. If so, how could we go about contacting someone to help with planning.
We really enjoyed all the information and photos. Thank You for making this information available for us to at least read here.
Hi Eleanore! What a special message to receive from you! It sounds like driving the ITH (or at least flying there) must be a bucketlist item for you and your husband! You certainly can get there (always have been able to, either by ice road up until April 2017, and then now the highway since November 2017), that’s a shame that AAA told you that you couldn’t get there. (Was it AAA or CAA?) If you still have contact information for this agency, if you’d like, send that to me on my email address and I will get in touch with them. The road had been temporarily closed this spring due to bad road conditions, but that was about it.
There are all kinds of visitors that are going up to visit the region and drive, motorbike, cycle, or even run the ITH! There are also flight tours where you can take a plane from Inuvik to Tuk and visit the community for the day. All kinds of options. I’d suggest now would be a beautiful time to go, June to no later than early November, as it will start to get too dark during the afternoon.
Here are some websites to look at that will provide you with more information, contacts, etc. http://tundranorthtours.com https://www.arcticchalet.com/adventure-tours.html AND https://www.trulyarctic.ca. If you do end up going, I’d love to hear how the trip went! Thank you so much for leaving your comment. Best of luck with your travel planning.