In November 2017, the 148-kilometre Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) opened, Canada’s first all-weather road to the Arctic Coast. In June 2019, Spice and I drove what’s also officially known in the Northwest Territories as Highway 10.
After our 79-day overland-camping trip in the Western USA in the summer of 2017, we were keen to find another road trip with spectacular scenery, a bit challenging and away from the beaten path. After reading a three-part posting (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3) by three global adventurers driving a Defender 90 and an ancient Range Rover Classic—the first members of the public to drive the ITH—we were hooked–ITH joined our bucket list.
At the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) was established in the 1930s as a small village around the Hudson Bay Trading Post. It has grown to a population of ~900, isolated from the closest settlement of Inuvik and, until the all-weather ITH opened, Tuk was accessible only by plane, barge or a 187-kilometre ice road that had to be rebuilt each winter.
The ITH was the last leg of John G. Diefenbaker’s 1958 “Northern Vision” and “Road to Resources” campaign to extend Canadian nationhood to the Arctic and develop its natural resources for the benefit of all Canadians. In some ways, the Northern Vision was a political platform, an economic platform and an ideological platform. The first leg, the Dempster gravel highway from Dawson City to Inuvik, was completed in 1979.
A congenial staff member at the NWT Tourist Information Centre in Inuvik explained to Spice and me that in addition to logical reasons for building the road, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in the 2011 campaign, promised to complete the Road to Resources, “if elected.” He fulfilled his promise at the ITH ground-breaking ceremony in January 2014.
With completion of the $300-million road ($0.33 million per resident!), residents of Tuk have had their cost-of-living reduced because goods can be transported in year round, and their access to health care and educational and economic opportunities has improved. The ITH has also provided them with better opportunities for family, social, recreational and sporting interactions with friends and relatives in Inuvik.
In addition to individual benefits for the citizens of Tuk, a priority for the region was economic development in the Arctic, including oil and gas, mining and the building of transportation corridors. But in December 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a moratorium on all new offshore oil and gas activity in the Arctic, renewable for a five-year period. The Premier of the NWT expressed his disappointment that Trudeau made this unilateral decision without prior consultation with the Indigenous and political leadership of the territories.
And then, a month after the ITH opened, Imperial Oil announced its much-delayed $16.1-billion project to build the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline from the coast of the Beaufort Sea to northern Alberta would not proceed and the pipeline partnership, including the Aboriginal Pipeline Group, was dissolved. This, despite the industry having discovered __ trillion cubic feet of gas in the Mackenzie River Delta. Imperial said the project “could not make money in the current North American natural gas market, now well-served with gas from American and Canadian shale gas plays.”
For a gravel road, it was a joy to drive. It is very well maintained; every day we saw half a dozen or so graders smoothing the road. Few other vehicles were on the highway.
We were part of an expected boost to tourism that the ITH would provide: an estimated $2.7 million per year, along with 22 full-time jobs. Will it? We’ll explore that a bit more in subsequent posts as part of this series but here’s an example of why we think those estimates are grossly overstated.
I’d hoped to fish but was told at the band office in Inuvik that they didn’t know when the person who could sell the fishing licences would be back, that sport fishing was catch-and-release only and that I should get a gun because if I caught anything, the bears would expect to get their share. Plus, from April 10 to June 1, and from August 15 to October 15, you cannot sport fish within 10 kilometres of the centreline of the ITH Highway.
Driving the ITH fulfilled a bucket-list dream. But it also left us with a lot of unresolved questions that I’ll address in subsequent segments.
- Tuk, It’s Complicated—Climate Change: When will Tuk melt into the ocean?
- Tuk, It’s Complicated—Tourism: When will a Plan be Developed?
- Tuk, It’s Complicated —Sitting on 2.1 TCF of Stranded Natural Gas: So why are electrical and heating costs so high?