For a half century and more, an all-weather Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway has been imagined, proposed, talked about in the Northwest Territories. Call it Jack Kerouac on the tundra, the chance to get on the road year-round and drive across a part of Canada glorious in its harsh beauty and still the last frontier. The project, which began in 2014 and has put hundreds of surveyors, equipment operators and labourers to work, is expected to be completed in 2017-18. A series of photographs from the New York Times shows the land and people of a place apart, soon to be linked to the rest of the country.
Inuvik, with a population of about 3,500, is in the Mackenzie Delta above the Arctic Circle and is the current northern terminus of the Dempster Highway, connecting the Inuvik region to the Yukon highway system. Tuktoyaktuk, known as Tuk, is a hamlet of about 1,000 on the shore of the Arctic Ocean northeast of Inuvik. Its location has been used for centuries by the Inuvialuit people as a camp for harvesting caribou and hunting whales.
The 138-kilometre ITH is expected to cost about $300 million, two-thirds covered by the federal government, the rest by provinces and territories involved in the project. Maintenance costs — estimated at from $2,000 to $8,000 per kilometre a year — fall to the territory. The benefit of the highway’s top-of-the-world location on the treeless open tundra is reduced snowplowing cost, as snow tends to blow off the roadway.
Construction is expected to create more than 2,000 jobs in various parts of the country. When completed, local residents will benefit from a cheaper cost of living as goods can be shipped year-round, not just when an ice highway is operational between mid-December and the end of April. There will also be greater access to health care and educational opportunities, as well as enhanced social and recreational opportunities in the region. Locals look for a tourism increase as the more intrepid of their southern compatriots come to visit.
The ITH will be a two-lane gravel roadway with eight short-span bridges over streams and more than 300 culverts. Whereas the Dempster Highway, built in stages between 1959 and the 1970s, blasted through the permafrost to build the road, the ITH is being built on top of the permafrost using geotextiles and huge amounts of gravel.
Work is confined to winter months, when trucks can haul material across frozen lakes. Crews work in shifts, round the clock and seven days a week, from both ends of the highway. From the Inuvik side, there is more difficult terrain to conquer. From Tuk, locals says it’s like building across Saskatchewan, flat and smooth. As with construction of the “Chunnel” linking England and France beneath the English Channel, the two crews will meet in the middle.
Southern practices are always suitable to the Arctic. Already, piping and infrastructure run above ground. To protect the permafrost during construction, geotextile fabric is placed between the existing ground and the construction materials along the entire highway. At some culverts, plastic is used instead of metal to reduce the amount of heat getting into the roadbed. In places, the textiles are laced with sensors to determine how much the surrounding soil moves.
An environmental review panel determined that potential impact on wildlife such as caribou and grizzly bear can be managed and mitigated. Concerns remain about the impact of climate change on the highway. The N.W.T. is warming faster than most places on Earth and, at the rate permafrost is melting, infrastructure is under added stress.
About 71 kms of the ITH will be on Inuvialuit Settlement Region land and maintained by the local administration. The ancestral homeland of the Inuvialuit people — numbering about 3,000 and speaking several dialects of one of the 11 official languages of N.W.T. — stretches along the coast from the Alaskan border and inland as far as Inuvik.
The remainder of the highway is on Crown lands, maintained by relevant federal departments.
In launching the project, Ottawa said the new road would enhance Canada’s Arctic presence as well as improve potential oil and gas development. Since the 1960s, Tuk has served as a resupply depot and base for oil-and-gas exploration in the Mackenze Delta-Beaufort Sea. Symbolically, by extending the Dempster Highway to the Arctic shore, the new highway will complete Canada’s road network, from coast to coast to coast.