2,600 km across the Arctic Circle in a smart: Not such an ordeal after all

Smart or no smart, it’s a crazy plan. Making it to Inuvik is a feat even for the big pick-ups and 4x4s of this world. Now imagine it in a smart... Moreover, everyone we tell about our  intention to drive the little cars on the only Canadian highway that crosses the Arctic Circle laughs in our faces. Then, when they see that we’re serious, they call us crazy! Now, doesn’t that sound promising...

The smart Winter Expedition organized by Mercedes Canada is made up of three stages: from Kelowna, B.C. to Whitehorse, Yukon, then an insane drive to Inuvik at the 68th parallel, before returning to Vancouver just in time for the beginning of the Olympic Games. Lucky me, I inherited the second and most intense of the stages, the one that will lead us to north of the Arctic Circle. Yippee!

Our convoy of seven smarts, a dozen journalists and a safety/rescue squad will first travel 530 kilometres on the Klondike Highway to Dawson near the Alaska border. The little city of barely 1,500 inhabitants was, at the end of the 1890s, the scene of a very futile Gold Rush. Here at the end of January 2010, it sure does seem quiet...

The second day, and only if Mother Nature wills it, we’ll hit the Dempster Highway and head to Inuvik, some 775 km north in the Northwest Territories, where we’ll be less than a hundred kilometres from the Arctic Ocean.

The following two days, we’ll take the same highway in the opposite direction, for a grand total of four days spent without a cellular phone signal, satellite radio and without any other connectivity except that of our four tires on the snow and ice roads.

One word about the Dempster: In summertime, this northernmost Canadian highway welcomes tourists looking to experience the wildest nature in North America. Wild is the right word – while Quebec has 4.8 inhabitants per square kilometre (and Ontario, 11), the Canadian northern territories have...0.06. As for the smart, I’d have thought a few modifications here and there would have been in order to adapt it to the extreme conditions that we’re sure to encounter. But no: the car remains as is, although they gave it -49 degree wiper fluid and a great set of Continental winter tires. I can’t wait to see how the little city car will handle itself in the enormous white landscape near the North Pole. One thing’s for sure, we won’t be cold: our versions feature heated seats.

DAY 1: At 120km/hr on the ice, it’s all good!

The watchword on this first day of the trek to the Arctic Circle is “Don't hit the brakes, Jack!” (On this subject, read the review of the first stage by my colleague Sylvain Raymond). This beautiful Klondike Highway that we’re driving today is, as traffic reporters would say, “partly ice-covered.” If I’d been told that I’d be driving a smart at 120 km/hr on a sheet of ice, I may have thought twice before accepting the invitation...

Before leaving our hotel in Whitehorse early this morning, we performed our first miracle of the trip: we put all our junk – suitcases, big bags and computer bags – behind our seats. Sure, it barely closes, but it closes and that’s all that matters.

We travel the 530 kilometres to the little city of Dawson at the Alaskan border at a pretty fast pace, up to 120 km/hr on the icy pavement. After a few uncertain turns of the wheels, we quickly got used to it and took off down this huge, sometimes snowy, sometimes icy, strip of road with the steering wheel firmly in hand and our eyes scanning the road on the lookout for caribou who might decide they want to cross in front. At most we ease up on the accelerator as several trucks transporting timber pass and leave blinding white powder in their wake.

The smart loves the North... so far

Surprisingly for a city car, the smart stays the course. It must be said that with the weight of our baggage, the little car is solid on its rear-wheel drive. And pardon the cliché, but it’s true: the steering is very precise and it leads you right where you point it. As for the brakes...Who knows! Out here, touching the brake pedal is a sure-fire ticket off the road and into the field. Instead, we use the manual speed controls (optional) on the steering wheel to slow down. They’re also very useful for revving the engine higher to squeeze a little more power out of the three cylinders and 70 horses. The best part is that our little wheels (fitted with Continental winter tires) are less sensitive to the grooves in the road than the larger tires on the safety vehicles.

So far, the smart loves the far north – and, as a result, so do we.

It’s about 3:30 pm when our convoy arrives in Dawson. The few streets lined with buildings reminiscent of the Wild West are completely deserted, to the point where we cross the street without even looking both ways. "That’s how tourists get killed here,” we’re told... The high point was without a doubt the few seconds that we drove over the Yukon River. An avenue was built there, like an ice bridge, and we delight in skidding joyfully across it.

Tomorrow, we’ll try to take the legendary Dempster Highway, which has been closed to traffic for the last few days due to a blizzard to the north, but the storm has finally let up and the authorities should let us pass. We have 780 kilometres to travel, and we’re preparing for 12 hours on the road. We’re beginning to understand why, here too, people call us crazy. At the Dawson City Museum, the girl at the reception even made it a point to remind us, with the help of large maps, that Inuvik was a long way away...

DAY 2: Our smarts cross the Arctic Circle!

Our smarts, with us on board of course, end up crossing the Arctic Circle. Mother Nature was accommodating enough to let us take the Dempster Highway all the way to the end. And after 11 long hours and a few accidents, we arrived in Inuvik through the back door – on the ice road built on the MacKenzie Delta.

It’s not every day that you can boast about driving on a river. But the Arctic being as it is, today we have a lot of chances to cross ice bridges. You should have seen this convoy of seven smarts driving on the large frozen strip of river nestled between the large white, barren mountains. Simply unreal.

But this trek to the edge of the Arctic Ocean is unreal in and of itself. For example, at around 9:15 this morning, we saw the most beautiful spectacle that nature has to offer: while the full moon was rising over the snowy peaks to the west, the sun was doing the same over the mountains to the east. Our photos will never do justice to what our eyes witnessed there. And if I didn’t see the moon right before my eyes, the landscape was so far from anything you could imagine that frankly I’d have thought that we were actually on it.
The Dempster, which was completed in 1979 and has connected Inuvik to the rest of the network of Canadian roads ever since, isn’t a road for blowhards. What’s more, our organizers had predicted it: this stretch of the trip is the most demanding. What is basically a very large road built on old dog sledding trails, the highway runs 747 kilometres to Inuvik and crosses taiga, windy mountain passes and several rivers. Its gravel surface is worked by giant graders that insert grooves to make it easier for tires to hold the road.

A few scary 360s

One of the biggest challenges for us as drivers is not to drive on the sides of the road too much. The packed, traitorous snow there tends to grab hold of the wheels, sending the car into a series of uncontrollable 360s. Several smarts learned the hard way. To sum up these accidents without bruising too many male egos, let’s just say that the survivors’ faces were pretty white and their knees pretty shaky...

Visibility was the other big challenge: it’s always poor, but when the wind picks up it suddenly becomes non-existent. Never again will I hear a traffic reporter mention “reduced visibility” without thinking back to that distance travelled north of the Arctic Circle when we were trying to maintain an average speed of 100 km/hr. It’s no easy task when the wind picks up the snow from the drifts alongside the road and gets us lost in the white fog left by the smart up ahead. You can’t see a thing when that happens – not the road, not the sky, which happens to be just as white, and the impression of being alone in the world is as striking as it is, well, completely true.

Indeed, it goes without saying that the traffic is moving freely on the Dempster. Here’s a riddle for you: how many vehicles do you think we passed in 200 km? We passed just one vehicle in more than two hours on the road! Seeing our smarts flying down the icy highway like that makes one think that these little cars can easily take on the Canadian winter, although they don’t like thick snow too much and they quickly get stuck in it. Nor do their suspensions like the frozen jolts but, surprisingly, and despite the long distance travelled, the little passenger compartment accommodates us comfortably.

Against all odds, we cross the 66th parallel

The high point of the day remains the stop at kilometre 403 of the Dempster, which marks the beginning of the Arctic Circle. It’s surprising in its simplicity: a wooden sign, a picnic table and a deserted parking lot, which is suddenly invaded by seven smarts and their safety vehicles. There’s no physical boundary line on the ground, just mountains and trees. And snow. And wind. As far as the eye can see. Beautiful.

In crossing the 66th parallel, we enter the most northern zone on the planet where on an annual basis there’s at least one full day without light (30 days each winter in Inuvik, mostly in December) and another full day when the sun never sets (56 days without night every summer in Inuvik).

Strangely, the cold in the Arctic Circle isn’t as bitter as I thought it would be. At worst, our smart recorded a minimum of -23 degrees Celsius. And a dry -23 degrees is a lot more comfortable than a humid -10 degrees. Sure, that makes it hard for the doors, which are finding it harder and harder to close, but that’s the only problem that our cars are having, besides a few windshields cracked by gravel. Even the smarts that had the misfortune of visiting the snow banks up close and personal managed to come away unscathed, save for one banged-up bumper. That says a lot about their sturdiness.

Finally, the Dempster leads us to Inuvik. Our odometer indicates exactly 1,300 kilometres from our departure point in Whitehorse to this town of 3,500 inhabitants on the 68th parallel. Inuvik is surprisingly large. There’s a big school being built, a hospital, several hotels, a "North Mart" (in place of a Walmart) and, of course, the famous little all white igloo-shaped church (1958).

The sky isn’t clear so we can’t take in the aurora borealis that everyone says is so majestic here. In reality, we don’t see much of Inuvik. We have but a short night to spend in this village just a stone’s throw from the Arctic Ocean. With more time (and energy!) we would have been able to continue to Tuktoyaktuk, reachable only in winter using an ice road created from the frozen MacKenzie.

But the MacKenzie Hotel’s buffet and the pillows were even more alluring – especially since we have to hit the road again at 7 tomorrow morning so we can get to Dawson before midnight. Another long drive awaits us in the Arctic Circle!
To be continued…

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