The North West Territories - Ice Roads


Travel in the NWT is somewhat limited in the summer months, but for three months a year (January to March, give or take a few weeks depending on the season) rivers and lakes are utlilized and roads are carved into the winter landscape.  The ice roads of the NWT can make for a great overlanding expedition, albeit one that should not be taken lightly as the road conditions and the weather can be quite treacherous.  


All pictures below, unless otherwise noted, are provided by Russell Higginson from his expedition up the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road which begins in the town of Wrigley and ends in the town of Colville Lake.


Map showing the roads in the NWT



Alexandra Falls



Mackenzie River Ice Crossing




Ice Bridge at Norman Wells





Wind can quickly cause heavy drifting and whiteout conditions.  An expedition to these roads should be well prepared to spend a night out in the cold and should be equipped with satellite phones and emergency beacons.


The edge of the Mackenzie River in Fort Good Hope


An exerpt from Russell's expedition, related photos below


Long story, short I came upon a section of road with significant grooves in the ice from the semi traffic.  The front tires pulled into one set of grooves, the rear tires into another and that caused the truck to start sliding.  The front then clipped a snow bank and the truck rolled over.  I wasn't going very fast but evidently it was fast enough.  In the blink of an eye the truck lost control and went over.  At this point I was 90km north of Wrigley and hadn't seen any other traffic for hours.  We ended up back on our tires, nose in a snowbank.  Miraculously neither I, nor my friend were hurt and the truck was still able to drive.    We had a SPOT and a rented Satellite phone but thankfully didn't have to use them.  The whole thing could have been a thousand times worse.  As you can imagine though, it wasn't a good feeling having an accident 3000km from home.






Anyone planning a trip up the Mackenzie River should be well prepared.  Shortened daylight hours, extreme temperatures, whiteouts, heavy snow and extreme remoteness should all be factored into the planning of an expedition into this part of Canada.  The reward is seeing sights most have never seen, beautiful scenery is an understatement.


Fuel, consideration should be given to fuel as the distances between "gas stations" can be quite far and or unreliable.  There is a pump with a note on it in Wrigley.  It provides an address where you might someone who can unlock the pump for you.  There is a call out fee if your desperate.  It may worth planning on not using this as a source for your fuel and to have extra with you.  Fort Simpson has at least one reliable gas station.  If you get there before 5'ish you might be able to get a pizza.  There is also two other "restaurants" in town that might be open.  One is a sketchy Chinesse place.  Norman Wells has reliable fuel.  Fort Good Hope has a gas station.  Please keep in mind these gas stations often close for lunch and often close before dinner time.  Being forced to stay a night while you try to locate fuel and or someone to open a gas station is a reality.  Fuel prices are much higher than you would find in lower latitudes.  $1.75+ a liter is not uncommon.

Accomodation's are also something that needs to be planned out.  Fort Simpson has a nice B&B.  Norman Wells has a couple of choices but please understand that even a reservation (highly recommended) doesn't mean much as you may show up and not be able to find anyone to let you in.  Rooms can easily cost $220+ per night and are not luxurious by any means.  In Fort Good Hope there is a bed and breakfast.  Its more of a shared accomodation's for oil workers and other other folks.  Keep in mind this place has no sign and the streets have no names.  Asking local's is simply a aprt of the game.  It is pretty much a mandatory thing to be prepared to sleep in your vechicle or to camp outdoors.  Being prepared with cold weather camping gear is a must and a likely scenario to matter how much preparation has gone into securing a roof to sleep under.


The weather and road conditions can be unpredictable and estimated driving speeds are a gamble.  Whiteouts can and do happen.  Deep snow and high winds can all but stop progress.  Being prepared is essential, the short daylight hours and extreme temperatures can make a bad situation very deadly, very quickly if your not expecting and prepared for it.  The groves that form in the iceroads are no joke, as is oncoming trucks.  When planning your expedition give yourself enough time to wait out bad weather.