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Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk road finally connects Canada from sea to sea to sea

A new year-round highway linking the two communities brings new opportunities to the Arctic.

A stretch of the new highway south of the treeline.

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Merven Gruben / SUPPLIED

A stretch of the new highway south of the treeline.

When Eddie Gruben got into the transportation business in the 1950s in the Northwest Territories, his means of locomotion for hauling supplies between Arctic communities was dogsled.

The corporate logo for E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd. is still a man with a pack on his back and a dog team. But the company — now grown into a successful contracting and project management firm with offices in Inuvik and Edmonton and headquarters in Tuktoyaktuk — has changed dramatically.

This week, so did the region, with the official opening on Wednesday of the Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, a road Eddie’s grandson helped build.

“It’s a lot of years coming,” said Merven Gruben, a former mayor of the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk and current vice-president of the firm his late grandfather founded. “It’s something that we’ve been dreaming about for so many years.”

The 138-kilometre, $300-million gravel highway with a 70-km/h speed limit now gives Canadians year-round driving access to the Arctic Ocean and links Tuktoyaktuk to the rest of the country.

“This opens a whole new door of opportunities for everybody,” Gruben said.

By accommodating year-round delivery of goods to Tuk, the highway is expected to reduce the cost of living for residents there by about $1.5 million — or more than $1,500 each — every year. It’s a town where last year the price of a pint of grape tomatoes hit $10 before the ice road opened for the season. The highway will also enhance inter-community relations and provide better access to health and education.

“It’s the opportunity for the young ones especially to go beyond our schools in Tuk and go to college in Inuvik,” Gruben said.

The ice road that linked the two communities seasonally over the last 40 years closed for the last time in April. That road passed over the Mackenzie River delta, to the west of the new road.

As a young man, Merven Gruben worked on the ice road. More recently he’s been able to drive the new highway as the finishing touches of barriers and signage were put in place.

There are no buildings along the highway, he said. “Absolutely nothing from Tuk to Inuvik. There’s not even a rest stop or anything.”

And that’s part of the appeal.

Driving it, “you see moose, you see some caribou, lots of foxes,” Gruben said. “More times than not you’re going to see a lot of ptarmigan. And there’s always foxes. In springtime you see all the flying migrating geese. It’s beautiful.”

Approaching Tuktoyaktuk, “you see the Husky Lakes, eh, and it’s beautiful, and you get to Tuk and you see the pingos (glacial mounds of earth-covered ice), of course, and then the ocean,” he said.

“Coming back, you see the Mackenzie River, then you go a little further and you see the Richardson Mountains off in the distance as you get to Inuvik.

“It’s a beautiful highway.”

The Richardson Mountains in the distance.

Merven Gruben

The Richardson Mountains in the distance.

Due to its unique location, a road had to be designed that was at once tough enough to stand the harshest conditions while at the same time minimizing environmental harm and respecting culturally sensitive sites along the route.

Gruben, a member of Tuk council for 17 years and mayor for six, said the entire highway was built on permafrost.

“It’s never been done up here before, this length of a road all on permafrost. It’s a totally different terrain than anybody’s worked on.”

Construction began in January 2014 from both ends, meeting in April 2016 to fully connect the road. Through that period, crews worked 24 hours a day, mostly during the extreme cold and wind of Arctic winters.

Geotextile fabrics were installed between the ground and construction material. And thermistors installed prior to construction will be monitored for data on ground temperature and to ensure continuously frozen permafrost under pilings at bridge locations.

Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak also said it was important the highway not disturb an Inuvialuit gathering place at Husky Lakes, outside Tuk, at which human bones dating to the 14th and 15th centuries have been found.

It’s a traditional fishing, hunting and camping area for the people in the springtime, Nasogaluak said.

“It’s such a highly valued area. I take a month off every year in May and take my family up there. We spend two or three weeks up in the Husky Lakes area. It’s like rejuvenation. People here are protective of that.”

It was during the Arctic oil-and-gas boom in the 1970s and ’80s that the push for a permanent road link began. But there were reservations at the time in Tuk about the social and cultural impacts that might arrive with a year-round link.

Nasogaluak told the Star it was a case of a hamlet of about 900 people concerned about rapid and overwhelming change.

“It was a different time. Industry had just come here . . . There was a big influx of outsiders coming into the community and I think leadership was OK with it, but there were a lot of elders who felt invaded.”

There were also practical pocketbook concerns.

“We’re a traditional community,” he said. “A lot of the elders were concerned that a lot of anglers would come north to take advantage of our fishery here.”

In that respect, the project’s long genesis and construction period provided a benefit.

“We had lots of time to prepare,” the mayor said, to hold community meetings, to develop things like fish-management plans and explain environmental mitigation initiatives to people who live off the land.

“Now, I would say more than 90 per cent of the community is very in favour of having this road.”

Among other things, it will let young people who attend college in Inuvik travel home on weekend visits and let families visit their young students, he said.

“A lot of our youth are in Inuvik and flying is expensive up here.”

As a coastal community, there are some Tuk elders who have rarely if ever been inland during the summer, he said, and by travelling the highway will be able to see some landscapes in that season for the first time.

“Once the snow melted we always stayed at the coast,” said Nasogaluak. “It’s difficult to walk on the tundra, it’s very harsh conditions. It’s amazing they could construct the road. That’s why it took four years.”

In preparation for the highway’s opening, Tuk undertook a beautification project.

“We removed and spruced up some of the older buildings,” the mayor said. And with the help of a paint recycling company in Niagara Falls, Ont., “we got over 2,000 gallons to paint up the town in a rainbow of colours.”

The mayor said Tuk has received lots of media inquiries and calls from tourists asking “when can we go up and what can we expect when we get there.”

At the hamlet on Kugmallit Bay, they can expect a traditional Inuit community with a youthful population in which one-third of residents are under 15. They will find a collection of about 300 buildings dressed up in jelly-bean colours, remants of the Cold War-era DEW Line installation, the landmark pingos.

“So we’re expecting a busy first year,” Nasogaluak said. “I’ve got an uncle in Toronto who keeps calling me and asking, ‘When is it going to be done’? He’ll be up this spring.”

Gruben said that as renewed demands for the highway grew over the last 30 years, “we lobbied anybody who would listen.”

The federal government contributed $200 million to the project, with the territorial government covering the rest of the cost.

Inuvik Mayor Jim McDonald said he expects any change from the highway’s opening to be felt more keenly in Tuktoyaktuk.

“I don’t think Inuvik will see as many changes as probably Tuk will. Inuvik is connected to the Yukon (Territory) with the Dempster Highway.

“But we’re expecting we will see a lot more traffic from the Dempster in the first couple of years with people wanting to drive to the Arctic Ocean.

“From anywhere in Canada now, you can do that.”

And Ken Lindholm, manager of the End of the Road Inn in Tuk, said that “when you hit the ocean here, there’s a marker that says ‘End of the Trans-Canada Highway.’ ”

For some Canadians, posing for a photo in front of it might just be on their bucket list, he figures.

This summer, as the opening neared, Tuk residents “were going crazy painting houses and fixing up the docks and putting signs on some of the little trails,” Lindholm told the Star.

For its part, the inn currently serves takeout food, but plans to open a sit-down restaurant in the next month or so, the first such amenity in Tuk in more than a decade.

“I get asked every day when we’re opening,” Lindholm said.

For now, Canadians looking for the drive of a lifetime should know “we’ve got some nice rooms and a cozy little place.”

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