Ice road biking
Updated: Apr 3, 2022
120 km of biking along the ice road, inside the Arctic Circle
Living 200 km north of the Arctic Circle can make for some very interesting experiences. When I first moved here, I didn't bring my bike. My partner & I only planned to be here for a year and I really thought I could tough it out & leave the bike behind. Bad idea.
Our cold weather and snow sticks around for 8 months, which basically means riding outside is very difficult, if not impossible. But if there was some way to get out there & there was some way you could ride on top of the snow, the land would basically unfold before you. Lakes & rivers freeze, so you could point your bike in any direction and just go. Alas, the snow is sometimes a few meters deep in places & it's never hard enough to ride on, so you would end up pushing your bike the entire way. When the opportunity came about for me to fly south & bring my bike back up, I did. It has definitely made my time here that much more enjoyable.
Cycling in -40 degree Celsius weather is hard on the body & the bike. Cycling in -55 Celsius weather (add on wind chill to take it down to -65 Celsius) & it's stupid to go outside, but we still did. Tires would deflate within minutes & every form of 'inflation' to pump your tires back up just won't work in that climate.
On April 18th, 2021, we held the first 120 km ice road ride in memory of our late friend Matthew Hamilton. I only met Matthew once on a group ride on one of our coldest days. He was a very kind, funny guy, one I wished I could have known better. A few days after meeting him, he lost his life. I'm not going to get into specifics, but if you wanted to read a little backstory on Matthew, there is this article by CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/bike-ride-matt-hamilton-inuvik-1.5991533
From left to right: Lindsay McPherson, Chris Bruckner, Bart Atlak, Janna Wolki, Elizabeth Holloway, Faye d'Eon Eggertson, Mike Lee, Andrew Cienski, Mike Bodnar, Sam Dyck, Matthew Hamilton (photoshopped in for the group photo)
For years, Matthew had wanted to ride this route along the ice road but it just never worked out. The route is a ride along the ice road from Inuvik, NWT to Aklavik, NWT. The small township of Aklavik is only 30 km away as the crow flies, but if you follow the river and all its little tributaries, you can reach the town in about 2 hours by car along the 120 km stretch of ice road.
Winter ice roads up here are essential. Many communities are fly-in only, so when the ice road opens, it allows you to easily head to the larger town of Inuvik to get supplies. Fortunately, the surrounding communities plow the section of ice road, so cycling it would be much easier than if it were covered in snow.
What is it like riding on an ice road?
It can be pretty breathtaking at times. Other times, you wouldn't know you were riding on a frozen river, as there is a layer of hard packed snow on top, so you feel as though you are just riding along a paved road. Depending on where you are on the ice, if the sun is shining, it refracts throughout the depth of the river, causing the ice to glow this radiant blue hue. It is something that needs to be experienced to believe. So long as the sun wasn't shining directly into our eyes or reflecting directly off the surface, the ice did look this impossible blue colour. It was surreal.
When the ice is polished & shiny, it becomes a little unnerving to venture out onto the blue stuff. It's polished like glass because of the constant wind. The river channel itself becomes a funnel for the wind, so the surface is polished all the way across the plowed section. Those of us without studs would stick to the far shoulders (sometimes only an inch wide) where there was a sliver of snow for traction.
I was the filmmaker who was documenting the ride, as well as riding as a participant. This meant I was carrying about 30lbs of extra camera gear in my panniers, with my camera slung on my shoulder.
At times I'd swap the rigs around and have a full stabilized gimbal hanging off my chest (exactly the same setup I've used in Italy for the Eroica - the last photo above), which allowed for some incredible footage. The extra weight on my bike made it difficult to maneuver on the ice & even with studs, if I tipped my balance a bit too far in one direction or turned too sharply, I'd have gone down very easily. Looking back, I had quite a few scary moments (all the more scary when you have all your camera gear with you on the bike).
The ride itself was beyond breathtaking at times. The wind was behind us for the first hour or so, making for some great speed to start the day. The wind actually made it harder for me, as I was always riding ahead to set up camera shots, only to be passed and then have to catch back up. When the wind is pushing everyone along at a nice clip, there's not much advantage for me to catch up from the back. Over the entire day, there was a lot of back and forth catching up.
At about the 50 km mark, that's when the wind shifted & suddenly we were all riding directly into a 30 kph to 40 kph headwind. For myself & extra gear, sometimes I swear I could have walked faster than I was biking. It was like going directly uphill, but on a completely flat surface. That wind didn't let up for the remainder of the day, which made for a very long slog.
Aside from the beauty of the ice road itself, I'd say the only other benefit to riding on the ice road for 120 km, is that it is all flat. No up or down, nothing, just flat endless road. That's what I was thinking when we headed out that day, when the temperature was still cold enough to keep the ice frozen. As we got further into the day, the sun changed all of that. On that day, we weren't yet at 24 hours of sun, but we were getting close. The sun is way up in the sky for about 16.5 hours. That constant sunlight melted the topsheet of ice, making for slushy conditions for the last 40 km. My bike just sank under the weight. As my luck would have it, I hit a melted pothole & punctured my rear tire. I was maybe 90 km in by then & was seriously debating just jumping in the support car & driving along to take more photos & film, but I quickly changed the tube & headed back out there.
With no other mechanical issues, 8 of the 10 riders made it to Aklavik. The wind was still strong & everyone was soaked from riding through the slush. For the last 5 km of ice road, there were a lot of open sections of water. They may not have been open down to the flowing river, but these puddles or holes were large enough to swallow a car & were sometimes surrounded by orange pylon cones, but some were just there, immediately in front of your tire making you swerve or go for a swim.
We had enough support cars for everyone to load up their bikes & get a drive back to Inuvik. Driving the return distance in a vehicle was entirely different. We could see how much more the ice road had melted. There were huge gaping fissures opening up in the road, with these giant holes everywhere. I want to say it looked like someone came along with a giant axe and started tearing the road apart. Those marks & those holes were not there just hours before.