The ritual emerges early in the trip: Leap into the truck, slam the doors and spend the next few minutes killing all the mosquitoes which have followed you in.
We’re headed up the Dempster Highway, the most northerly highway in Canada and one of only two highways in the western hemisphere that cross the Arctic Circle. It winds 743 kilometers from its junction near Dawson City in Yukon Territory, crossing the continental divide three times before it reaches Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Except for a few kilometers of pavement at each end, the road is a gravel challenge; the Dempster is not for the ill-prepared or the faint of heart.
The first morning gets off to an ominous start. I’m traveling with Ben, my father-in-law, in a big one-ton 4×4 truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer. The mosquito killing begins and when I swat one (gently, I swear!) against the inside of the windshield, it cracks. Must have picked up a rock chip somewhere.
As we leave pavement just north of the junction, I’m acutely aware of our isolation. There is very little traffic on the road and it’s almost 370 kilometers before we’ll come to any services. We have a full tank of fuel, three spare tires for the trailer and one mounted spare for the truck, plus an extra tire. Mechanically, I’m hopeless if the truck breaks down (I could change a tire) but Ben is a farmer used to fixing his way out of problems like that.
But the anxiety gives way to awe as we climb up North Fork Pass where we traverse the magnificent Tombstone mountain range, part of the Ogilvie Mountains. The clouds hang low this morning as we stop at the viewpoint and we can’t actually see Tombstone Mountain itself.
Past the viewpoint a sort of eerie silence descends upon us. I’ve never seen landscape like this before. We travel up a wide valley with very little vegetation and soft, round gray mountains on each side. There’s a low cloud ceiling and it looks like it will rain. We move up the valley, but there are no vehicles and I start to feel perhaps we are leaving the planet Earth.
While the views make one feel very small and alone, my other eye is on the rain clouds. Before we left Dawson, we had heard stories of the weather up the Dempster. The service station at the junction had seen a steady flow of vehicles coming in with flat tires for repair. Someone had a friend at the Department of Highways and learned that it had been raining for the last three days and that the highway was quite a mess in some sections. The unspoken message was: Are you sure you’re ready for this?
It took 20 years to complete the Dempster. Construction started in 1959 but wasn’t finished until 1979. The challenges of building a road through permafrost are enormous and this accounts for some of the potential for mechanical problems. The road is constantly being maintained and in some sections the road bed is shale which can be very hard on tires.
Blackstone Uplands South
So now, as we move through the Blackstone Uplands, I’ve got one eye on the scenery and the other on the clouds, hoping the rain will stay in the mountains. We come to the northern edge of the uplands plateau and start to climb into the Taiga Range toward Windy Pass. Again, the scenery is like none I’ve seen.
Much of this area is in Beringia, one of the few sections of North America not glaciated during the last great ice age. The mountains are round, gray limestone lumps with virtually no vegetation. The only erosion they’ve ever seen was by wind, water and frost fracturing. We reach Windy Pass summit and the view today looks very much like it would have when the first people crossed the Bering Strait and arrived in North America.
We’re aiming for the campsite at Engineer Creek to stop for lunch, but somehow we miss the entrance. You’d think that with almost no side roads for hundreds of kilometers, you wouldn’t have much trouble recognizing one when you see it. But it’s difficult to turn this rig around so we carry on up the road a little ways until we find a small turn-out by the creek. Just as we’re getting lunch organized in the trailer, a highways water truck comes along and the driver tells us we need to move so that he can back down to the creek to pump water into his tank. He tells us we can pull into the maintenance yard just up ahead.
After lunch, we’re following the Ogilvie River up its valley, then up Seven Mile Hill along the edge of the Eagle Plain escarpment. The hill rises 300 meters and we cross the continental divide for the second of three times before we get to Inuvik.
The remoteness of the Dempster means that there is not much traffic, but we meet a group of motorcyclists headed back down south. This is a popular way to do the Dempster and we’ll see many more motorcycles before arrive back in Dawson.
Finally, we make it to Eagle Plains. This oasis of civilization in the middle of the wilderness consists of a gas/service station, a hotel and restaurant, an RV park, a highways maintenance yard and huge gravel parking lot in front of the whole works. It’s not exactly pretty but we need fuel and coffee. Eagle Plains was deliberately placed here at the half-way point as a service center. The site was chosen because it sits on bedrock and the buildings could be constructed without the need of driving pilings through permafrost as is the case with most northern communities.
With human and vehicle fuel tanks full, we push northward again. It’s not long before we arrive at the Arctic Circle monument. At this time of year (we’re crossing the Arctic Circle a few days before the summer solstice) the sun never sets below the horizon. In fact, it’s very disorienting. In the evening, your body is waiting for a visual cue that it’s time to go to bed, but the sun is still blazing in the sky. You look at your watch and discover that it’s 11:30 PM. No wonder you’re so tired.
Arctic Circle Monument
Arctic Circle Richardson Mountains
This evening we’re sharing the little campsite by the Rock River with a half-dozen other travelers and unimaginable swarms of mosquitoes. Because of its sheltered location at the bottom of a small valley, the Rock River boasts a forested area of fair-sized trees. But as we leave the campsite the next morning and climb out of the valley, the effect of altitude and latitude become apparent as the trees give way to tundra.
The other thing that changes as we climb toward Wright Pass through the Richardson Mountains is the weather. It was sunny when we left the river but within a few kilometers, the clouds start appearing low, dark and gray. But, for some reason, the apprehension I felt about rain yesterday isn’t there today. In fact, the low cloud seems to compress all the sound and fear out of the world. I don’t even really hear the truck as we climb up to the pass. Tundra spreads out all around and the mountains are low and not far away. Neither of us speak; we’re so awestruck by the view.
We reach the summit of Wright Pass which is also the territorial border between Yukon and the Northwest Territories. We stop to take our photograph at the border but the light is dim. The clouds are so low you can almost reach up and touch them. The wind is howling, but there is no rain. To the northeast, there is sun on the horizon.
Descending from Wright Pass
From the pass, we descend down toward the Peel River and the vast valley of the Mackenzie River. We’ve been on the road for over an hour without seeing another vehicle headed in either direction. We pass a highway construction crew working on a section of the highway and eventually come to the Peel River.
The Peel is the first of two ferry crossings. In the summer, you cross the river by ferry. In the winter, you cross an ice bridge built up on the frozen river. During freeze-up and break-up, you don’t cross at all.
Peel River Ferry
This morning, there is only our unit and a semi-trailer on the ferry. The crossing only takes five minutes and we’re on our way to Fort McPherson, the first real settlement on the highway. I want to make a stop here because I’ve become fascinated by the infamous story of the ‘Lost Patrol’ of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, the predecessor of today’s RCMP. In the winter of 1910-11, a patrol of four police officers led by Inspector Francis Fitzgerald, set out on dogsleds from Fort McPherson for Dawson City. Although this was an annual event, it was the first time that the patrol had traveled in this direction; normally they went from Dawson City to Fort McPherson.
The result was a disaster. Enduring winter conditions that saw the temperature drop to -65 Degrees F, the men lost their way in the Little Wind River, a tributary of the Peel. Running out of food (at one point they started to eat their dog teams), they eventually gave up and tried to make their way back to Fort McPherson but all four died on the Peel River only 25 miles from their starting point. Their bodies were eventually recovered by Inspector W.J.D. (Jack) Dempster, the man for whom the highway is named.
The Lost Patrol is buried in the cemetery of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Fort McPherson. The sun is shining as Ben and I wander through the graves and a local native elder comes up and introduces himself as Frank. He shows us the graves of his grandparents, buried next to the Lost Patrol. For over 50 years, his grandfather, John Firth, had been a clerk at the Hudson’s Bay Company post here. In fact (as I later learned) his grandfather’s dog team was used by Dempster to recover the bodies of the Lost Patrol. The poignancy of the story comes crashing through the years when you’re standing there in the sunshine so far removed from that frozen winter a hundred years ago.
Fort McPherson Lost Patrol Gravesite
Back on the road and it’s about half an hour to the second ferry, this time crossing the mighty Mackenzie River. I grew up on the west coast of Canada and thought I had seen big rivers: the Fraser, the Columbia. But I was unprepared for the scope of the Mackenzie. It drains one-fifth of the fresh water in North America. They say that when the ice comes out of the river in the spring, the water level can rise 80 feet in 15 minutes and the cliff on the south side of the river near the ferry landing displays the scars of ice flows.
Today, the water is moving fast and strong, carrying a steady flow of broken trees and branches. There is no dock because the river would simply take it away, so the MV Louis Cardinal pulls up and beaches itself on the gravel landing. It empties its load of vehicles heading south and then we board for the short crossing. The ferry has to work hard against the current, but eventually we land on the other shore.
Mackenzie River Ferry
From the other side, it’s only 126 km to Inuvik and the end of the road. Since we are now traveling pretty well at sea level in the heart of the Mackenzie Delta, the terrain is fairly flat. The delta itself is about 75 km wide and 200 km long, full of winding channels and ponds; but traveling up its east side you don’t see much of it until you get to Inuvik.
Pulling into the campground in Inuvik we congratulate ourselves on surviving the trip (remembering that we still have to drive back).
Inuvik Igloo Church at Midnight
Since this is a driving trip, the first planning will likely involve how to get a vehicle to the junction of the Dempster Highway. There are a couple of alternatives. The first is the self-contained option for those with a motor home or camper, however, this means getting yourself to Dawson City, probably via the Alaska Highway if you are coming from the south.
Another option is to fly to Whitehorse, YT and rent a vehicle, preferably a 4×4 truck or something equally heavy duty. This option adds about 536 km (one way) to the trip, but there are not many services in Dawson City. Air North offers regular passenger service to Whitehorse from Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB.
An indispensable travel planner is The Milepost, a guide to all the highways in Alaska, northern British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Updated annually, it provides detailed information about services and points of interest along every kilometre of these highways – don’t even think about making a driving trip in the north without getting a copy of this guide.
Dawson City is a funky and historic little town at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. In 1896, gold was discovered in Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike triggering one of the biggest gold rushes in North America. Gold is still mined in the area and there are many interesting artifacts from the past that will help you understand the industry. Plan to spend some time in Dawson at either the beginning or end of your trip.
Inuvik is on the east side of the Mackenzie delta and has about 3300 residents. There are four hotels and the Happy Valley Territorial Campground (open June 1 to Sept 1) is a good place near the center of town for motor homes and RVs.
Bruce Pollock got his first real camera in 1973 and has been learning about photography ever since. He works with 35mm and large format film cameras and is working hard on his Photoshop. He lives in Victoria, BC and thinks that travel and photography are a perfect marriage.