14th – 23rd August – We have had to make a decision between driving the Dempster Highway in Canada, or the Dalton Highway in Alaska and we have decided on the famous Dempster, a road less travelled, stretching 736 km through some of the most remote and beautiful wilderness scenery in the world we are told, plus a very good chance to see some wildlife, which is always a highlight for us.
So follow our journey with us up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik in the Western Arctic Region, as it winds over two mountain ranges, crosses the Continental Divide three times and passes through various natural regions or eco-zones on its way to the great Mackenzie Delta, which empties into the Arctic Ocean, the Mackenzie River, another of the world’s great rivers. Some of the mountains that it passes have amazingly, never seen a glacier and one of the world’s largest caribou herds, The Porcupine Caribou Herd, (named after the river that they have to cross), winter on the rolling, arctic tundra that it crosses.
In 1958 the Canadian Government made the decision to build a road from Dawson City in the Yukon, to Inuvik in Northwest Territories, this town being well under construction as oil and gas exploration was booming in the Mackenzie Delta. This unpaved highway was officially opened in 1979 and became Canada’s first and only public highway to cross the Arctic Circle.
The Dempster was named after Jack Dempster, who joined the Northwest Territory Mounted Police in 1897 and was chosen to lead the search for the ‘Lost Patrol’ in 1911.
It’s an overcast day as we leave Dawson City and return east for 25 miles for the start of the Dempster, having checked out the weather and latest road reports at the Northwest Territories Dempster Delta Visitor Centre located on Front Street in Dawson. Conditions along the Dempster we are told, can change quickly at any time of the year, but we have a full tank of fuel as services are few and far between along the highway and our tyres are in good condition, although many people have advised us that two spares are preferable to our one. We have heard so many different reports about the condition of the Dempster but will soon be finding out for ourselves!
0 km (mile 0) marks the start of the Dempster Highway and the long stretch of gravel and dirt ahead of us, dry at the moment, but rain is forecast in a couple of days. It is also worth stopping at the Dempster Gateway Interpretive Display board here, which provides some interesting information about the highway.
How lovely to be free of traffic on this long and lonely road lined with pine forests and which takes us into the Tombstone Territorial Park area at the 50 km marker.
Tombstone protects over 2,000 sq. km. of Yukon’s rugged peaks, sub-arctic tundra and ice-carved landforms. Caribou migrate through here and flora and fauna have had to devise ingenious methods to survive in this harsh and extreme climate, where summers are short, bright and intense and the winters long, cold and dark. Temperatures can stay below -40 for weeks at a time and fierce winds can pile snow waist high.
The 72 km marker brings us to the Tombstone Mountain Campground with large, private sites and free firewood. It’s hard to imagine those bitter winters as we take a hike through the park in warm, late afternoon sun, although the berries, changing leaves and fungi, are a sign that autumn is approaching fast.
We follow the river and have a fantastic view looking up the North Klondike River Valley, with the 2,140m peak of Tombstone Mountain clearly visible in the far distance some 40 km away, tucked between the Tombstone and Cloudy mountain ranges. It’s still broad daylight at 10 p.m
It’s an overcast day with rain just about holding off. We pass snow laying at the sides of the road as we clear North Fork Pass at km 82 the highest elevation on the Dempster at 1,289 m and the first crossing of the Continental Divide. A huge valley under heavy cloud with the grey, meandering Blackstone River then lay before us, strong contrasts of light and cloud providing us with spectacular scenery as we gradually leave the mountain ranges of Tombstone Park behind us.
We now meet our first vehicle and see our first, lone moose since beginning the Dempster. Having long legs but relatively short necks, moose find it difficult to reach the ground, it is easier for them to browse on low shrubs such as willow, as this one is doing in a marshy area.
Leaving the river valley, the Dempster once again begins to climb into the Continental Divide through the rolling Eagle Plains. This is dry, open and windswept country, offering few resources to travellers. The remote landscape and vast skies make us feel very small!
We reach the Ogilvie and Peel Rivers Viewpoint at km 259. Approximately another 100 km and we will reach the Eagle Plains Hotel and RV Campground for the night, but here seems an appropriate place to stop and make sandwiches for a late lunch and enjoy another fantastic view. The sky is beginning to look a little clearer in our northerly direction, whilst light filtering through the clouds illuminates the rich autumn colours of low growing shrubs and plants.
A camper pulls in coming from the north and we meet Ike and Bethany. They advise us not to fill up at the gas station further north at Fort McPherson as they have heard that the fuel there is not good. Many thanks guys for that important piece of advice!
At km 369 we reach roughly the half way point and our stopping place for the night. The Eagle Plains Hotel somehow manages to remain open all year and offers a licensed restaurant, bar and lounge with a very interesting collection of old photos around its walls from the era of The Mad Trapper of Rat River and The Lost Patrol. There is also a garage with propane, diesel, tyre sales and repair, a licensed mechanic and limited aircraft facilities! There are a number of camping sites, however only 6 have electricity hook-ups, but as there are only three of us here tonight, no one will be left in the cold. We are a little uncertain about our position however, as we heard earlier that one guy was not allowed to park in the campsite with a roof top tent and had to take a room because of bear activity. In fact just before we arrived we are told that a large black bear had wandered through the hotel grounds and we are surprised to see him again later through the restaurant window heading for the kitchen. The cook rushed out banging saucepans to scare him away but we reckon he knows where to find food! The owners however, are happy with our vehicle set up and for us to stay in the campsite, so we can enjoy a hot shower and use wifi in the lovely warm hotel and support them by enjoying one of their hearty meals. Bill fills up with fuel from some drums and we have a beautiful sunset before settling down for the night……and no more bear sightings!
From Eagle Plains it’s approx. another 36 km before we cross the Arctic Circle at latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes North. From this latitude northwards, the sun never sets at the summer solstice (June 21st) and never rises at the winter solstice (December 21st). The distance around the Earth when standing here at the Arctic Circle is 17,662 km compared to 40,075 km at the Equator……interesting facts from the information board!
So far the weather has been kind, scenery fantastic with autumn colours becoming richer the further north we go and the road well maintained but as forecast, the rain begins and the gravel has turned a slick grey with mud and sharp flints. We don’t feel however, that specialised vehicles are necessary to drive this highway except perhaps in winter when it must be a completely different story. However it is necessary to have a good set of tyres and be well prepared, just in case you have the misfortune to break down.
The highway traverses the tundra of the Eagle Plains where only low-growing shrubs, berries, mosses and lichens grow in an unforgiving terrain of permafrost covered by rock and shallow soil. These plants have only a short growing season but today we are lucky in seeing a female grizzly close to the edge of the road, teaching her two young cubs that they must make the most of precious food here. We watch them for quite some time, their coats are matted and wet and the smaller of the two cubs is finding it hard to keep awake as the others dig amongst the roots. We hope they all manage to survive the winter.
Devoid of trees, the highway continues through the Richardson Mountains and by the time we reach the Yukon / Northwest Territories border crossing at km 465, Moby has changed colour! It is here that the Dempster crosses the Continental Divide a third time and we have to set our watch ahead one hour from Pacific to Mountain Time. Over the Wright Pass Summit, the last high point on the highway and the sun slides out from between the clouds, creating a huge arching rainbow over the road as we descend towards the Peel River.
There will be a short ferry crossing over the Peel River and also one a bit further on, the Mackenzie River and Arctic Red River Ferry Crossing. These ferries run on a daily on-demand schedule and usually operate from early June to late October, depending on weather conditions. Access to Inuvik is possible for most of the year, except however, for periods during the spring when ice on the rivers begins to thaw and break up and in the fall, when the ice begins to freeze. River crossings from the end of November to the end of April will be by driving across the ice……scary thought!
Cleaning the windows whilst crossing the Peel River at km 539. We take a look at Fort McPherson at km 550 which does offer a good range of basic services but thanks to our extra fuel tank, we fortunately don’t need to fill up yet and certainly wouldn’t want to chance the fuel here following the warning at Eagle Plains.
The Mackenzie River, Canada’s longest river and we’re boarding the Mackenzie River and Arctic Red River Ferry at km 608. Inuvik beckons but is still approx. another 130 km. As we continue north on the Dempster, we enter the maze of waterways known as the Mackenzie River Delta, a home and a stopping place for centuries for people and wildlife. Covering an area of approx. 12,000 sq km. it provides the perfect environment for a huge variety of plant, fish, waterfowl and wildlife populations. We are lucky in seeing a red fox with an amazing bushy tail.
A welcome sign at last at km 736 as we arrive at Inuvik, which means ‘ Place of Man’ in Inuvialuktun. At 2 degrees above the Arctic Circle and built on permafrost, it is Canada’s northernmost town and traditional homeland to the Inuvialuit, Metis and Gwich’in peoples.
Our Lady of Victory Church is one of Inuvik’s best known, downtown landmarks but probably better known as the Igloo Church……..
……..and Inuvik’s Ingamo Hall Friendship Centre, built from 850 logs that were rafted down the Mackenzie River, is the largest log building north of the Arctic Circle, providing a popular meeting place for young and old.
Many people followed the journey of the Midnight Sun Mosque when it made its 4,000 km journey by road and river from Winnipeg in 2010. Known as ‘ The Little Mosque on the Tundra,’ it is one of the northernmost mosques in the world!
We had an interesting tour of Inuvik’s Community Greenhouse, converted from the former hockey rink. Presently containing 74 individual, indoor garden plots for growing bedding plants, fruit and vegetables, it enables the local people as well as restaurants, to benefit from fresher and less expensive food.
Inuvik’s excellent Happy Valley Territorial Campground is where we stay whilst in town. Situated by the banks of the river, it’s still light at 1 a.m. but we have beautiful skies when the sun does decide to set. The Western Arctic is well known for having some of the best Aurora Borealis displays in late fall and early winter. What a shame that we are just that bit too early to see them.
A journey by small plane from Inuvik can take you even further north if you wish, to outlying communities on the edge of the Arctic Ocean such as Aklavik, Herschel Island and Tuktoyaktuk, where scenery must be stunning. We are told that these planes are well suited to the North’s landscape and weather conditions and that they can be fitted with floats, skis and even Tundra Tyres – big, balloon-like tyres that can land virtually anywhere. It must take a certain type of pilot to fly under these conditions!
Here in Inuvik, we see the start of another road under construction, a continuation of the Dempster Highway which will eventually go all the way to the small community of Tuktoyaktuk, north of here. At the moment, Tuk (as it is known), is only accessible by plane and by the winter ice road. A truck driver tells us that that not all trucks have a lucky journey across this ice! This new road will mean, that in the not too distant future, Tuk will be accessible year round. How I admire these people living in such a harsh and unforgiving climate!
Not surprisingly, there are many amazing artists across the Northwest Territories, their work inspired by this dramatic landscape and often using natural materials that can only be found up here in the North.
Our return journey is approaching but Bill discovers we have a leak of coolant coming from the header tank and so an extra day is spent taking this off and then sealing any suggested cracks. Fingers crossed that this holds up on our long way back to Dawson City!
Fine weather has dried out the mud roads. A check on the coolant reveals the level has dropped and still leaking. Hopefully by topping it up with water at intervals on the journey we should be fine as long as it doesn’t get any worse.
At km 703 we make a stop at the Tithegeh Chii Vitaii Lookout where a short walk from the road takes us to the edge of cliffs that overlook Campbell Lake. These cliffs provide nesting places for Tundra Peregrine Falcons.
Beautiful cloud reflections in the Mackenzie River as we take the ferry once again…….
…….and distant last views of the Delta and Peel River valley at the Tetlit Gwinjik Territorial Viewing Point.
And so we leave Northwest Territories and enter the Yukon again where this time we can take an hour off our time now that we are heading south.
We are amazed to see the same mother grizzly with her two cubs in almost the same place as before and still digging away amongst the tundra plants. This time however, their coats are fluffy and dry and even the smaller cub looks fatter. Great to see them in their natural habitat and they don’t seem a bit bothered as we watch them and take a few more photos!
There’s rain falling in the distance……..
……..and we don’t quite manage to escape the rain ourselves, as spectacular, dark storm clouds are rolling in on the horizon as we near Eagle Plains, reminding us of just how quickly the weather can change here. The rain begins in ernest and by the time we reach the Eagle Plains Campground, everywhere is a sea of mud!
We saw Tombstone Park at its best on our way north, as low cloud is now hiding all the views and rain follows us back to the beginning of this highway. Moby appears once again to have been completely resprayed back to a mud colour.
The Yukon and Northwest Territories have provided us with a fantastic 1,500 km trip…….a real highlight! If you like a wild and remote wilderness, spectacular landscapes, a good chance to see wildlife and to travel on roads with hardly any traffic then the Dempster is definitely the highway to explore. The gravel and dirt roads were not as bad as we had either read about or been warned about and they are obviously maintained quite regularly. With long distances between services however it is good to be prepared. The scenery must be spectacular in the winter and there would be good chances of seeing caribou, but the roads and river crossings would then be another story!