April 11, 2005

Four if by Ice

In the grand scheme of things, I'm just about keeping up with my list: I knock off items as others are added, leaving the whole list about the same length. That statement can be applied equally to work and fun, I guess, but it's the fun stuff I'm talking about. Entry on the list: check out an ice road.

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I can't honestly say that I can cross ice roads off my list: not only did I not drive on it, I didn't get to see a transport truck lumber along it. It was still plenty cool (though rapidly warming, I gather - the road was closed for the season at noon today). How's this for potholes?

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Actually, I don't think that's so much a pothole as part of ice road technology. See, the ice roads are actually on thicker ice than the surrounding lake, because the roads are cleared of snow (yes, to make them easier to drive on, but primarily to remove the insulating effect that snow would have and allow for thicker ice). The cleared roads are repeatedly flooded, to ensure thick, strong ice. I of course pictured massive water trucks going out there to do the flooding, which I know is an awfully silly idea seeing as these things can stretch for over 500km (though this particular one, the Dettah Ice Road, is only just over 6km long). Not only would it be an awful lot of hauling to bring water to the ice roads, but, well, why? They're built on water, after all - so all you need to do is drill a hole every now and then and then drive a truck near the holes - the ice gets pushed down, water bubbles up through the hole, and freezes to the top of the road.

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The idea that ice is elastic is one of the most intriguing things about ice roads. Big loads can drive over ice, and it bows to their weight without breaking. The roads are rated for different load capacities for different locations and times, but the big supply roads often take as much as 63,000kg! On lakes, the big loads can't travel for more than 25km/h because they generate a wave under the ice, travelling along in front of them. If the wave is too big, as would be the case with high speeds, it can do serious damage to the road when it hits shore. If it gets too cold (well below -30), elasticity starts to go.

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Some of the roads are privately maintained, for service to diamond mines and the like. Others, like the Dettah Road, are public - and thus maintained by the appropriate territorial authority, with speed limits and enforced closures. The season is short: the Dettah ice road usually opens around the middle of December, and closes in the first half of April. Today, before it closed, it was very slushy where it met land in Yellowknife: I watched a few vehicles plow through the lake between good road and mainland. I would think that last stretch requires mental fortitude...

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(Update, December 2005: My access logs show that ice roads is a popular search term, and you probably don't get all that you're looking for on this page. So let me direct you to the Diesel Gypsy's Ice Roads Page. All you'd ever want to know, I think, including some spectacular pictures of what can go wrong...)
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I'm drawn out on the ice, for reasons I don't fully understand. Yesterday, I left my hotel and wandered down toward Yellowknife's Old Town. There is plenty to see in Old Town, but all I could think about was going on the ice. This was the first place I tried:

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It's the municipal boat launch, and even though I did not fail to notice that there is water between land and ice, I decided to chance that the crusty snow at the side would carry my weight. I was wrong. A soaker, and a hasty retreat. I tried again a few meters further on, where there was a pier. Success! I managed to get out onto Great Slave Lake, between the mainland and Joliffe Island.

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Obviously, people drive on the ice - plenty of snowmobile and enough vehicle tracks there. They also land planes on it! Where there is a float plane base in the summer, there is an ice runway in winter - and the planes have skis on them. Taxiing down the runway looks more like a big bird on skates for the first time - there was a fair bit of sliding as the planes turned.

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Walking was good on the runway and snowmobile tracks, but there were big puddles where bigger vehicles had driven. The crust on the snow kept breaking under me when I ventured off-snowmobile-trail, so, realizing that I would get very tired and my shins bruised, I followed one trail to the east for quite some time. Thing is, trudging along a narrow ribbon of path (and still sometimes breaking through) gets kind of boring. I longed for my snowshoes, and finally, I couldn't stand the prescribed route anymore and set out cross-ice. More cursing and some sweating, and I decided that following an orderly path was just fine, thankyouverymuch, and I followed the very next snowmobile track I came across back towards land.

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Only one problem, though: when I got to the point where I had to cross the runway, I stood on my safe snowbank and looked down at the ice. It just didn't look that sturdy! I reasoned with myself that it had to be perfectly fine, planes land on it. Still, I contemplated. Then, I very gingerly stepped off the snowback - and very quickly got very wet. See the holes in the ice? those were made by my legs! I scrambled back up lickety-split and debated my options - I knew it was just a slush layer with a thin crust of ice on top, and I probably wouldn't fall through and drown. But I'd get very wet! In the end, I followed my snow bank to the very end of the runway, accompanied by a random dog - and then crossed snow-covered ice back to the land side.

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Glad to be back on firm ground, I poked around Latham Island for a bit. The part closest to the causeway was full of fancy-pants homes. The part further away? Not so much. I looked at my map, and discovered I was in N'Dilo, which is (I think) a Yellowknives Dene community. I say "I think" because there are many aboriginal groups here - something like six aboriginal tongues plus English and French are the official languages of the Northwest Territories. Of course, the conversation I heard on the street was in German. I'm sure if I'd stuck around longer, I would have heard Japanese (there was lots of that on the plane on the way up).

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My jeans froze, and my wool socks kept my feet from doing the same yesterday. Dry again today, I was back to wanting to be on ice. After the ice road checking out noted above, I started wandering around town, and then realized that there is a lake in the middle of it: Frame Lake. And Frame Lake was covered in ice. And I wanted out on it. It took a good three minutes before I broke through the crust on my snowmobile track and got a soaker, but at that point I realized that the crust was actually strong enough to carry me today, and I merrily bopped about. The only disconcerting part was crossing all th cleared path - remembering my runway experience, I was nervous of breaking through again. As luck would have it, I didn't, and made it back with only one wet foot. And now, back in my hotel room, 3100 km from home. Tomorrow at this time, I'll be 600 km or so further north, back inside the Arctic Circle.

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Posted by Johanna at April 11, 2005 05:34 PM

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