Paul Shippey drove a Smart ForTwo across Canada's Dempster Highway, one of the roads featured in Ice Road Truckers and the only all-weather road into the Arctic Circle. This is his crazy story, which originally appeared on Wired.com. —Ed.
I'm at the wheel of the diminutive 1,800-pound Smart ForTwo and I'm doing 70 on an iced gravel road 15 feet wide. It would be harrowing under the best of circumstances, but I'm coming up on an 18-wheeler carrying 20 tons of oil pipes. Snowbanks on either side of me stand 6 feet high, so there's nowhere to go but straight ahead.
I'm about to meet the most dreaded monster on the Dempster Highway - an ice trucker hell-bent on making it to Inuvik. There's no time for contemplation. I ease off the gas and hug the snowbank. It's a delicate balancing act. Go too far and the the tiny Smart's tiny wheels will bog down in the slush. It's an adrenaline-pumping split second and then the monster barrels past me in a cloud of icy powder.
I just survived another encounter with a Dempster monster during a wild drive from Inuvik, Northewest Territories to Dawson City, Yukon.
This extreme road test of two Smart ForTwo Passions involves five journalists on a crazy travel adventure. There's no way to get five guys in two Smarts; we had a chase vehicle along for the fun. Mercedes-Benz of Canada loaned us the cars to see how they'd handle the extreme conditions.
The plan was to drive the microcars, with their itty-bitty 1-liter three-cylinder engines, from Whitehorse, Canada (the capital of Yukon province) to Inuvik and then on to Tuktoyaktuk. Tuk is 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 60 Fahrenheit.
Everything is bigger way up north. Except a Smart ForTwo. That's one of them following the semi.
Our goal was to drive the 1,000 miles up and back in five days. The last stretch from Inuvik to the Inuit settlement at Tuk involved driving 120 miles on the frozen Mackenzie River and over some ocean inlets. We got to Tuk and built an igloo around the Smart with some help from the locals before heading back down to the Dempster highway.
The Dempster is the lifeline road into the Arctic. It is Canada's only all-weather road into the Arctic Circle. This vein supplied miners during the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s and still serves that purpose today. Goods and supplies are ferried in and out of the northern towns all the way to the oil rigs near the Beaufort Sea, aka the Arctic Ocean. The reality TV series Ice Road Truckers brought the road some notoriety.
At one point we were at the summit of a pass on the border between Northwest Territories and Yukon provinces. We were about 2,500 feet up and the wind was blowing a steady 90 mph. The temp gauge read minus 15 Fahrenheit. With the wind chill, it felt like 60 below. We'd been driving on backcountry ice roads for several hours and met a crazy Italian cyclist riding solo across the tundra.
The beauty of the landscape up here is breathtaking. Mountain ranges stretch into the distance under a rust-colored sun. We stopped for photos, but it was a struggle to open the door against that howling wind. My little Smart is bobbing around in the gusts as snow blows horizontally over the car like a jet plume.
The brake calipers were freezing up on the rotors, at one point locking the front wheels of my Smart. We stepped out of our warm cocoons into the arctic blast. My friend opened his door and his winter glove was sucked out. It vanished, blown off the mountain. It happened to another fella too. It's extreme up here, and it isn't the kind of place to stop for a picnic. After a few photos, we decided it was time to get out of the wind tunnel before our Smarts went the same way as the gloves. That was the only time during the entire journey that the cars showed any signs of of vulnerability.
The Lilliputian machines started without engine warmers, even after temperatures in Tuk hit 40 below zero. It stunned the locals, who faithfully plug in their engine warmers each night. The engine, all 70 horsepower of it, did amazingly well propelling the 1,800-pound cars over the passes of the Richardson Mountains.
It's a long stretch from Inuvik to Dawson City, so we put the pedal to the metal as much as possible. All things are relative in a Smart, so that means we were doing between 60 and 75 mph on the fairly smooth ice and snow. That's not as crazy as it sounds - the Smart has a great stability-control program and traction control. The handling is impressive, even on slick ice.
The suggested cargo limit of a Smart ForTwo is 400 pounds. Each car is laden with 40 gallons of spare gas, two spare tires, emergency supplies, survival kits and, of course, the driver and his luggage. We were carrying every ounce of the suggested cargo weight, and it was evident whenever the suspension bottomed out in rough terrain and the 15-inch tires clawed their way over drifts, bumps and holes.
One must bear in mind that this vehicle was designed for the streets of, say, Paris, not the wintry deserts of the Arctic. Considering that, the little ForTwo has more than exceeded expectation. My 6-foot-2 frame fits comfortably in the cozy cabin, which feels spacious until you look over your shoulder and notice there isn't much room behind the seat. Still, we managed to squeeze the essentials in.
Driving 1,000 miles in one of the most remote places on earth is an incredible experience. The scenery is stunning, and we were lucky enough to spot a lynx on the roadside before it trotted off into the bushes. It's very rare to see a lynx. We saw a lot of wolf tracks and spotted some moose and elk too, but fortunately not in our path. We were in the land of the wild things, with polar bears to the north and grizzly bears to the south. There are a lot of things up here than can kill you. It keeps you humble.
The weather can be equally lethal, and it changes very quickly. We saw temperature swings of 35 degrees in a single day - and all of them well below freezing. My feet were often cold as ice, even in the car. I wore boots rated to 35 below with two pairs of wool socks. I occasionally slid foot warmers into my boots. I didn't feel them at all.
But the most dangerous things you find up here are man-made and ride on 18 wheels.
I can honestly say that spending as long as 13 hours a day in the Smart didn't hurt. Sure, I was exhausted, but my body didn't ache. My little Smart was comfy and cozy and surprisingly sure-footed in even the worst conditions. But it was exhausting. My mind felt depleted when we finally pulled into the former gold-rush mining town of Dawson City after driving the Dempster Highway in just about the last car you'd expect to see up there.
Paul Shippey is a photojournalist, automotive writer and adventurer who is, if you ask us, just a little bit crazy in a good way. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Photos: Paul Shippey
Video: Jeremy Hart / INC World