Drive me a river in -21 deg C
We’re driving along a river. At least, during the summer months this is a river in northern Canada. Right now it’s an ice road, and the temperature is -21 deg C. But that’s outside – inside our GLE 43 we’re toasty warm, ensconced on heated leather seats with wafts of warm air keeping us a perfect temperature. We don’t want to crash, break down, or have an altercation with one of the more famous Ice Road Truckers who barrel along this winter highway.
In these temperatures you don’t just hop in, fire up and drive off. You fire up and let everything idle for ages so it all gets to a working temperature. That way the wipers won’t be seized on the windscreen and the calipers won’t be seized on the discs, to name but two minor issues.
Then you are ready to drive on the ice. At this time of year the Mackenzie River is about 1.5m thick, but the 40-ton trucks set up ice waves and you’re never entirely free of the thought of the ice breaking up ahead and you going in. Since you can drive at well over 100kph and since you can just do this for hours, it’s salutary to remember just how long the braking distances would be, should you see something unfolding ahead of you.
There’s more traffic than you’d imagine on these roads, as this is the route in for oil or diamond mining companies. We’re overtaking vehicles and at first that causes you to catch your breath but you soon get used to it. Any waywardness in the four-wheel drive system and you just steer gently into it and equally gently apply a little throttle and it all comes back into line.
But some of the towns are showing signs of the exploration companies moving on. One town called Tuktoyaktuk used to have 10,000 workers during the oil boom but they’re all gone now. So too have most of the attendant shops and businesses that relied on feeding their various needs and desires.
During the summer, with the ice road once again a fast-running river, this is a destination for adventure seekers in kayaks, boats and any other form of propulsion. That brings work and income for the locals, but it’s during the winter when locals can get moving again, using their vast pick-ups to navigate the Ice Road to see relatives and to get out and about again.
This isn’t a place for the faint-hearted. We met one man who’d been driving at night in his Chevy Impala and a frozen oil line meant his commute home from the oil plant turned into a silent freezing wait for help to arrive – mobile phones don’t work well so everyone relies on radios. He was rescued but not before he got frotstbite.
We’re happy and fortunate that nothing like that happens to our powerful, sophisticated and reliable Mercedes-AMG GLE 43, but we’re unhappy to learn that an all-season road has been created which in theory will make this Ice Road no longer needed in the future. Locals reckon it’ll always have a purpose, but for us its purpose was to show us the frozen magic of the Arctic wilderness, the toughness of the people and animals that live here – and how easy it all seems in the very latest vehicle from Mercedes-AMG.