Most people would go out of their way to avoid slick ice roads, but we did just the opposite. With the guys from American Expedition Vehicles we headed to northern Canada to drive one of the few remaining roads made completely of ice. There is a small town in the tippy top of Canada known as Tuktoyaktuk (commonly called “Tuk” by locals), but there are only a few ways to get there: by plane, by boat in the summer, and by frozen river or ice road in the winter. We were told that 2017 will be the last year of the ice road, so what better time than now to go check it out? You may assume that the road will be there no matter what as long as the river freezes, but there is actually a lot of money and labor applied to making the road drivable; snow has to be cleared, the ice has to be chipped for traction, and it is not just a short jaunt. This road goes over more than a hundred miles of frozen river. It takes you from the larger (but still small) northern Canadian town of Inuvik up to Tuk, but only in the winter. And now a dirt road is being built that should open in 2017 or 2018, so the ice road only has one more year of use. If you want to go drive an ice road, you better do it soon.
The group of vehicles included three Cummins diesel Ram trucks. Two of them were outfitted with AEV’s Prospector package, and one of those was a tray-bed regular cab truck. The third was a Hemi V-8 powered Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. The group of eight guys and four 4x4s convened in Whitehorse, Canada, as the jumping-off point for the trip to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk). This meant that the AEV team had already driven 1,800 miles from Missoula, Montana, where the company is headquartered. Suffice it to say they were already testing the comfort of the AEV-stitched Ram and Jeep seats.
The bright red Ram 3500 uses AEV’s suspension and fender flares to clear 40-inch Toyo tires on AEV wheels. The AEV bumpers were on all the vehicles, and the back of the red truck was fitted with a snowmobile rack and a Ski-Doo partially to showcase the activities these big trucks could be used for and also as a safety precaution in case we needed some over-the-snow travel. As it turned out, we never needed more than the Rams and Jeep were capable of.
Dempster Highway north from White Horse got pretty barren pretty quick, but the big diesel trucks ate up the miles with ease. Before we knew it we saw a big furry Canadian resident on the side of the road. The trip would prove fruitful in wildlife viewing.
The hemi-powered Wrangler was outfitted with the top of the line in AEV luxury from custom seats to a powerful 6.4L engine to a suspension that cleared big BFGs. But if there was one complaint of the Jeep, it was how thirsty it was for gas compared to the Diesel Rams. The Jeep was peppy and fun to drive and outfitted with all the gear an overlanding Jeeper could ever desire save a rooftop tent.
Just driving to the ice road can be a challenge. Snowfall and snowdrifts can shut down roads and strand drivers at various truck stops along the way. We stayed in Eagle Plains and then headed north just in time as the road began it blow over behind us.
The morning sun as we hit whiteout conditions gave us a view unlike any you would imagine. The golden sunrise exploded but was muffled through billowing snow to give an other-worldly feel to the drive.
And just as we cleared the whiteout conditions, another local greeted us from the brush and cover. He watched us pass but then ran off uninterested in our big exploration vehicles.
The green prospector Ram was much like the red one but came with a bed rack and a rooftop tent. No one was up for a cold night outside, so the tent remained unused for the trip, but we would love to try it in warmer climates. The Rams felt so at home amongst the big wide-open country where having the security of the power and fuel economy from the diesel and beefy components spinning big tires was reassuring. We even found a Ram ancestor amongst the northern mining towns.
The country was so wide open that even the biggest trucks felt small at times.
After days of driving we arrived at Inuvik and got onto the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk. The thought of driving big heavy 1-ton trucks on a frozen river was unnerving at first, but when two massive articulated mining dump trucks passed us going the other way (both weighing more than the combined weight of our whole group) we could rest assured we were fine.
The ice was clear and blue but riddled with cracks that were obvious to driver and passenger. We later learned that the few warm days had melted just the top layer to give the ice a clear sheen rarely seen because the ice is chipped for traction by heavy equipment, so again luck was on our side.
We drove all day and eventually the road changed from river to the Arctic Ocean. We were driving on frozen saltwater, and with ice over 8 feet thick it was plenty safe for our convoy.
We arrived in Tuk and found the hospitality of the locals very inviting. They invited us into their homes, told us stories, and showed us their landmarks, but soon we had to head south again in a race against the closing of the ice road and snow-blown mountain passes.
We headed south to find that the road that had been closed behind us was now newly plowed open—our luck and timing was perfect on the trip. With time to spare we headed to Dawson, a cool mining town no far from the Alaska border.
Our timing was perfect again. We were in town when the ice on their local river broke, a sign of coming spring and a reason for celebration among the townsfolk.
The Wild West feel of Dawson, with raised wooden sidewalks and brightly painted buildings, was reminiscent of old cowboy movies.
We headed out of Dawson and found an old mining dredge. The dredge was as big as a building but could float its way up small streams by digging a hole to fill with water. It floats itself and then mines all the soil around itself for gold.
The regular-cab, tray-back truck was our favorite from the trip. It was lighter and nimbler than the bigger crew cabs, and the manual transmission meant it was more fun to drive. The slightly larger Irok tires would float over the snow, and the truck just felt at home exploring wherever we pointed it. If it looks familiar, it should. It was our cover truck of May 2015.
The trip to the Arctic Circle covered lots of miles and amazing terrain, but the big AEV trucks handled it with ease. American Expedition Vehicles are not for everyone. They are well designed with a near-factory fit and finish, and they demand a price that reflects that. But if you want a fun comfortable truck to explore far-off destinations, these are vehicles you need to consider. Although we never saw Santa on our visit to the great north, we’d be asking him for one of these prospectors under the Christmas tree this December.