The Canadian Arctic extends its endless tundra until it reaches the sea, a jumble of snow and ice in winter and permafrost in summer, punctuated by the occasional Inuvialuit settlement dedicated to hunting or fishing, with a smattering of government officials or oil workers. The most far-flung are so distant they are forgotten for months at a time, when the ice roads melt and become impassable, or when weather prevents the occasional flight from landing.
Perched on the edge of the Beaufort Sea of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Tuktoyaktuk – you can call it Tuk – is a hamlet so small you’d probably consider two passing cars a traffic jam. It is also one of the most isolated.
Tuk is used to living with the seasons. In summer, it is only accessible by an expensive flight in a light plane. In winter, the road solidifies to ice and allows transport to get through. You may even have seen it on Ice Road Truckers, or through photographs of giant 12-wheelers slowly sinking during an early melt.
Fast forward to November 2017, and that seasonal pace is over. Tuk’s 965 inhabitants are on the cusp of major transformation and life in this quiet Arctic hamlet may never be the same.
The predicted invasion of Tuktoyaktuk
During that month, on 15 November to be precise, Canada inaugurated a new gravel road that allows drivers to reach Tuk all year round. This ‘road to resources’ took decades to plan. It was supposed to energize oil activity but the Trudeau government banned on offshore oil development.
The new road will make it easier to get supplies all year round, like food, and will likely push down prices since transport will no longer be limited to the five months between mid-December and mid-April.
And the road will also open up the region to tourism.
Tuk is expecting up to 40,000 visitors during the summer of 2018. They will come from all corners of the globe, hoping for an adventure, the explorer spirit rekindled, wanting to be among the first to reach the town at the top of the world. They will undulate across the gravel in their 4WDs, RVs, motorcycles and bicycles. Some are even planning to walk.
They will bring in money to the community – they have to eat and sleep and all the other things we travelers do. The people of Tuk are waiting with welcoming arms.
But wait – Eat where? Sleep where?
“We encourage people to visit Tuktoyaktuk, but we’re concerned about facilities,” said Annie Steen, Economic Development Officer for Tuk. “We are doing some aggressive planning but we don’t yet have hotels, campgrounds or traditional restaurants. Whatever waste is brought in will have to be taken out, because we have nowhere to put it.”
And until now, there was nothing to buy to commemorate a visit.
Tuktoyaktuk: a personal take
And this is where this story becomes personal.
First, my family – despite its Mediterranean origins – has had a long love affair with the Arctic. My father built airports there, my brother was stationed there with the Canadian Air Force, and I earned school tuition by working in Labrador, slightly below the Arctic but close enough to feel like the Arctic some months of the year. (The water hole melted for a few weeks in August and young people thought it fun to push people in to see, you know, if they kept breathing.)
The second reason this is personal is because said brother – a designer and filmmaker turned adventure motorcyclist and ham radio operator – also wants to be one of the first to ride his motorcycle there. But being the activist that he is, he didn’t want to turn up empty-handed.
A thread on a motorcycle forum was asking, “What can we do for Tuk?” Many believed visitors should arrive with respect and realistic expectations. Some suggested helping build a hotel, another suggested toys for the children.
Cemil jumped on the phone and talked to Tuk.
“There was art to sell to tourists but little else, so I offered to design, print and deliver several thousand stickers and embroidered patches. The money from sales could then go into infrastructure and into making tourism to Tuk sustainable,” Cemil told me. “Money for the community, and something visitors could buy that meant something. Win-win.”
(Click here to see the Thanks, Tuk! sticker crowdfunding page and please donate, even a little – it’ll help preserve this Arctic village while giving us an amazing environment to visit.) UPDATE 26 May: Not all the money has been raised but Cemil has hit the road – the Dempster – and is on his way, along with our very own Anne Sterck, my partner and WOTR photographer. She’s in the car, he’s on the motorcycle. And the crowdfunding campaign is still on!
Like Tuk itself, it’s a small idea with huge potential. the money will be invested into sustainable tourism that will give visitors a great experience while ensuring Tuk isn’t overwhelmed in the process.
On the road to the top of the world
Until the new road was built, the gravel stopped at Inuvik, 138km (86mi) to the south. That road, known as the Dempster Highway, already drew adventurers and dreamers to its challenging twists and turns.
This final extension, known as the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, makes Tuk the only Arctic community to be connected to the rest of Canada by road. The country is now truly connected from sea to sea – to sea!
As the daughter of a civil engineer, I appreciate the feat. The builders had to make sure they didn’t disturb the tundra as they carved through the land, so they used a special fabric to protect the permafrost, piling rocks and gravel on top. Of course they had to bring up all the heavy machinery, and working this far from… well, from anything… was a challenge.
The road cost CDN$ 300m (that’s around US$ 235m) and took four years, and while it will bring tourists, some worry it might also bring crime or drugs or environmental damage – the latter being the riskiest scenario. Officials say worries about crime and drugs are unfounded, since the problem hasn’t manifested itself in winter, when the road is open for business. Why should that change in summer?
A bit of history
For centuries, people have been making a living here harvesting caribou and beluga whales. Oil and gas exploration expanded and dragged the hamlet into the 20th century, and it was on the front lines of the Cold War for a while, an important part of the supply route on the Distant Early Warning, or DEW Line, which monitored air traffic and potential Soviet movements during the Cold War.
Things changed with oil, but since that is now at a standstill, tourism may be the next major transformation the hamlet undergoes. There is already tourism to Tuk’s eight Arctic dome hills, or pingos but the road will of course take that to another level.
Formerly known as Port Brabant, it was the first community in Canada to revert to its traditional name, officially Tuktuyaaqtuuq, which means “it looks like a caribou.”
Don’t worry though, no one will mind if you just call it Tuk.
Don’t forget to visit the GoFundMe page for Thanks, Tuk! You’ll help make Arctic tourism sustainable.