Editor's Note: Our friend and long time automotive journalist/photographer, Paul Shippey, spent last week in the Arctic proving that a Smart car can be as at home on the Dempster Highway as on the streets of Paris. This is an excerpt of a story he's writing for Wired Magazine about his Smart Arctic adventure. Photos by Paul Shippey.
‘Trucker, trucker…’ yelled Jeremy on the two-way radio!
In the distance I saw the telltale sign of smoke billowing into the frigid arctic air from two huge exhausts that rose like giant snorkels from behind the cab of the truck. I had two seconds to prepare for the meeting. David meets Goliath in the middle of the Arctic tundra…
I’m at the wheel of the diminutive 1800-pound Smart car doing 70mph on a iced gravel road that’s only 15ft wide, and I’m about to meet an 18-wheeler carrying 20 tons of oil pipes in a place where one tiny mistake could send me to kingdom come. The snow banks on either side of the bend are 6ft high, so there’s nowhere to pull off. I’m about to meet the dreaded monster of the Dempster highway – an ice trucker on a mission to get to ice–bound Inuvik!
There’s no time for contemplation, just ease off the gas a bit and hug the right snow bank as tight as possible. Try not to go too far right which would cause the Smart to bog down or rotate in the slush. It’s an adrenaline pumping split second and then the snorting, snarling monster barrels past me in a cloud of ice powder. Instant relief… I just survived another encounter with a Dempster monster during the 500 miles I’m driving from Inuvik to Dawson!
The extreme road test of the Smart car has involved a team of five media guys on a crazy travel adventure. The aim was to drive the one-liter, 3-cylinder engined little Smart car from Whitehorse Canada – the capital of the Yukon province, to Inuvik and then on to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) - one of the last settlements above the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. Temperatures during the journey would range from a balmy minus 8 to minus 60F…
Drive the 1000 miles up and then drive back down in five days was the goal. The last stretch from Inuvik to the Inuit settlement at Tuk involved driving 120 miles on the frozen Mackenzie River and over some inlets of the Arctic Ocean. In Tuk we built an igloo around the Smart with the help of local knowledge before heading back down to the Dempster highway, which is the lifeline road into the Arctic. This vein supplied miners in the 1800s during the Klondike gold rush and still serves that purpose today as goods and supplies are ferried in and out of the northern towns all the way to the oil rigs near the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean). The reality TV series, ‘Ice Road Truckers’ earned this road some notoriety back in 2009.
We are on the summit of a pass right on the border of the NW territories and the border of Yukon province. The altitude is around 2500ft and the wind is blowing a steady 90 mph. The temp gauge shows -15F and with the wind chill it feels like minus 60F.We have been driving on backcountry ice roads for several hours and even met a crazy Italian cyclist riding solo across the tundra in this foul weather. The beauty of the landscape is breathtaking. Endless mountain ranges stretch into the distance under a mild, rust-colored sun. We have stopped for photos, but it’s a struggle to open the door against the wind. The little Smart is bobbing around in the gusts and snow blows horizontally over the car like a jet plume.
Our brake calipers are freezing up on the rotors. We step out of our warm cocoons into the arctic blast. My friend opens his door and his winter glove is sucked out and off the side of the mountain. The same happens to another fella. This is extreme stuff and not the place to stop for a picnic, maybe in the summer…
Then the front brake locks solid on my Smart and I have to drive with the locked right front wheel for a few minutes before it loosens off. After a few photos it’s time to get out of the wind tunnel before our little Smarts go the same way as the gloves.
This is the only time during the entire journey that the little Smarts are showing any sign of vulnerability. They have started without engine warmers in Tuk after overnighting in -40F, much to disbelief of locals, who have their trucks plugged in during the nights. The little 70hp engine does amazingly well to propel the 1800 pound rear-wheel drive car up and down the mountain passes we are traversing in this winter desert.
It’s a long stretch from Inuvik to Dawson on ice, so its pedal to the metal as much as possible, which translates to speeds between 60 and 75 mph in sections on the fairly smooth ice and snow. This is possible thanks to a great stability control program and traction control, which make for less work when the winter tires lose adhesion in the twisty bits. The handling is really impressive, even on slick ice!
The suggested cargo limit of a Smart car is 400 pounds. Each car is laden with 40 gal of spare gas, two spare tires, emergency supplies, survival kits and of course the driver and his luggage. So we are laden close to the limit and this is evident as the suspension bottoms out many times over the rougher terrain, as the 15-inch tires claw their way over snow-drifts, bumps and holes.
One has to keep in mind that this vehicle was designed for the streets of Paris, not the wintry deserts of the Arctic, so considering that, it has exceeded more than exceeded expectation. My 6ft 2” frame fits comfortably in the cozy cocoon of a cabin, which feels spacious, until you look over your shoulder and notice there isn’t much behind the seat. However we did manage to squeeze the essentials in.
Driving 1000 miles of ice highway in one of the remotest regions on earth makes for incredible sights. Not only is the rolling landscape interesting, but we were very fortunate to encounter a lynx on the roadside for a few seconds before it trotted off into the bushes – a very rare sighting. There were wolf tracks on the road in places and we had sightings of moose and elk too – fortunately not in our path!
The Canadian north is certainly the land of the wild things. Polar bears up north, grizzlies further south in the Yukon. Lots of things that will eat you in an instant if you are not prepared. The weather is lethal too and changes really rapidly. We saw temp swings of 35 degrees in a day, all well below freezing. At times my feet were cold - even in the car . I was wearing boots rated to -35F, with two pairs of wool socks and at times put foot warmers in them, which I didn’t feel at all.
Most dangerous of all is the man made stuff, i.e. the trucks! I can honestly say that the 13hrs of driving in one stretch in the Smart didn’t hurt. Sure, I was exhausted, but my body didn’t ache. The Smart offered a warm, cozy and comfy cabin all day. It was more the mind that felt depleted when we finally pulled into the former gold-rush mining town of Dawson, and it was from the focus of hard driving and the persistent fear of meeting a Dempster highway monster on the crest of a blind rise or tight bend!