by Jaclyn Trop
The Inuits believe that the Aurora Borealis hails from gods in the sky playing soccer with a walrus head. Others say that the brighter the lights, the brighter the spirit. After two nights of trying, we finally saw it, a hazy cloud streaking across the night. It
bore no resemblance to a soccer match nor to any part of a walrus, but our delight in
the technicolor green lights, despite the double-digit sub-zero temps, spoke to the
steadfast Canadian spirit.
During a four-day expedition around Yellowknife, the capital of (and only city in) Canada’s Northwest Territories, we discovered how the landscape—from pristine skies to frozen lakes—informs the culture. Here, 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Canadians’ connection to the wintertime landscape runs deep, knitting a world of adventure, peril, and community. And each winter, Yellowknifers get intimate with the ice.
We arrived the week before Christmas with a trio of orange Volkswagen Tiguan SUVs and a plan to follow the Dettah Ice Road, a local route similar to the longer ones nearby popularized by Ice Road Truckers, the History Channel show where truck drivers brave the ice and occasionally fall through into the lake water below. Gathering in the lobby of the Explorer Hotel at dawn—that is, shortly before the winter sun rose at its leisurely 10 o’clock hour—we awaited instructions for our mission with a degree of disquiet. “What’s reassuring is that you apparently don’t just fall through the ice to the bottom of the lake,” said Jeremy Hart, our London-based expedition leader. “You bob in the water for a few minutes first.”
Fluctuating temperatures this season prevented the lake waters from freezing fully and pushed the opening of the ice road to January, a problem for remote territorial residents who depend upon the temporary transportation routes to deliver supplies before the summer months thaw the lakes and render the routes impassable. In the days prior to our arrival in Yellowknife, local weather reports brought accounts of at least one truck, a few snowmobiles and several people falling through the ice. A laconic third-generation ice fisherman we met on Great Slave Lake, where the Dettah road originates, didn’t quell any fears with his overriding piece of advice: “Fear keeps you safe.”
Since the ice road wasn’t ready, we piled into the fleet of Tiguans, their all-wheel drive systems tuned to snow mode, and headed to Fiddlers Lake, a small, local spot where Volkswagen made its own improvised road atop the ice layer. Tentatively, we drove onto the frozen lake, wary of the dark, ominous body of water below. The ice crackled beneath the tires, which we were told to take as a counterintuitively good sign: It meant the surface was flexible enough to withstand the weight of our SUV. As we coyly rolled forward, we tried to forget that a sheet of ice no thicker than 18 inches supported the almost two-ton Tiguan.
But one person among us did intend to break through the ice for a rogue marine expedition that day. No one envied Bill, a cold-water diver Volkswagen retained to shoot photos of the Tiguan from below the ice for a handful of television shows. Chainsaw in hand, Bill began cutting a triangle in the ice, and we gave him wide berth. “Ice is a living breathing thing that does not want to cooperate,” he said, struggling to sever the last ties with the triangular iceberg, “but we have persuasive tools.” He and his team grunted as they heaved the buoyant mass under the ice to clear space for Bill’s descent into the cold water. “Goodbye, ice!” he called. Bill lowered himself into the lake, staying submerged for more than an hour, until his camera trigger finger froze. “If we had sun today,” he said, climbing back onto land beneath the cloudy sky, “it would have been amazing.”
As we piled back into the Tiguans before the 3PM winter sunset—eager to get off the ice and make our first attempt to see the Northern Lights—Blair Weatherby, who owns Fiddlers Lake, joined us on the impromptu ice road and held forth about lake life in Yellowknife. He told us that the ice covering parts of the lake actually measured between 14 and 17 inches—thinner than we thought—but was presumed strong enough to support not just one but several Tiguans.
Images courtesy of Volkswagen