Dempster Highway / Tombstone, Yukon

The Dempster Highway has a formidable reputation. With the 2017 road extension from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, it’s Canada’s only road to the Arctic Ocean. Chewer of tires and chipper of windshields, the road is mud and gravel the whole way, generally the domain of speeding long-haul trucks launching dust and rocks at your tiny inferior metal box. You’re in the middle of nowhere most of the time, just you and the tundra as far as the eye can see, and assistance isn’t readily available should you run into some trouble.

To Yukoners, that’s basically another road. To the ignorant city-dwelling southerner that I am, I picture vast, barren expanses of snow and ice, bears chasing you from any direction you’re out in the open, and endless calls with car insurance for the 15 dings on my rental vehicle despite driving nervously at 30 km/h for hundreds of kilometres. An adventure — one which won’t lead to the Arctic Ocean this year due to covid closing the NWT border to non-resident travel, but a beautiful adventure nonetheless.

So imagine my surprise when it turns out everything is the exact opposite of what I picture. Except for the beautiful part. That part wasn’t a surprise.

The sheer amount of different landscapes made us feel like we were driving around half the world in a day. From the jagged peaks of Tombstone Territorial Park (the so-called “Patagonia of the North”), past the tree line then back behind it again, on top of the small domed pingos (hills with cores of ice), along and across rivers that flow to either Bering or Beaufort Sea, up and down valleys and across the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges, and indeed vast but not barren expanses — all the way to the end, it was a non-stop onslaught of geology and bright fall colour. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this many photos so quickly.

No matter where we went, with few to no trees, we could see for kilometres. (And yet somehow, no animals other than ground squirrels and a scared moose on the side of the road! Not a single bear or caribou visible on either direction of our 500km drive.) And there’s the novelty — yes, we stopped in Tombstone to do an established trail hike, but we also just kept stopping on the side of the road, anywhere we saw a safe place to pull over. You can walk wherever your eyes take you, in any direction, and chances are you’re the first person to ever set foot where you walked.  This is the place you’d go if you don’t want to be found — precisely what the Mad Trapper did evading a police manhunt some 90 years ago.

It’s also a bizarre feeling to walk on spongy permafrost or lichen or any of the flora — an ingrained habit to avoid doing when following “please stay on the trail” signs elsewhere in the world. Yeah, you’re probably killing whatever you’re stepping on, but when it’s endless and there’s no route, it doesn’t matter, and it was even suggested by park staff.

There’s generally little traffic on the Dempster, but even that number may have been reduced this year by the pandemic. The road was unworn and comfortable to drive on (Devin did all the driving and kept a solid 90 km/h pretty much the whole way), thankfully not muddy at all, and we could count the vehicles we saw on the road each day on one or two hands. (And in the tradition of this place attracting the unlikeliest of people, we even saw one woman walking.) But that begs the question — why build this road in the middle of nowhere?

How you know for sure a car has been on the Dempster

The First Nations of that land might beg to differ on that characterisation. The highway runs right through Gwich’in land, and they continue to use it for traditional practices, most visibly (yet still barely so, from the road) for hunting. But their closest community is Old Crow, far to the north and unconnected by road. The Dempster, on the other hand, was built on the old sled dog route connecting Dawson City to Fort McPherson, NWT and the Mackenzie Delta.

On that stretch of the Dempster, from the junction and 550 km onwards, there is virtually nothing: no gas stations, no services, no communities… except for one: Eagle Plains, population 9. Located almost exactly halfway between the junction and Inuvik, and so located because of oil and gas in the area, it’s a strange mix of helipad, nearby airstrip (using the highway itself), government buildings (ministries of transport and indigenous affairs), roadworks, dump, gas station, campground, and largest of all, the Eagle Plains Hotel, where we stayed for two nights, complete with restaurant and tourist info.  All in the span of half a city block.  I imagine a thoroughly interesting crowd during regular years.

After a freezing night of northern lights, a wild show faded by the constant brightness at 2:30 am despite a 9:45 pm sunset, we set out the next day to our goal: the Arctic Circle, north of which the sun does not set for at least 24 hours in the summer, and does not rise for at least 24 hours in the winter. I can now finally say that I’ve been further north than I have south. But I never expected just how spectacular it would look. The weather changes every few minutes, as does the light, and we spent a good amount of time taking in the moving landscape.

It’s strange to imagine the Arctic without its trademark elements — no snow, no ice, full of trees and rolling hills. Devin even went swimming in a river not far from the NWT border, smack in the middle of the Richardsons, where we had to turn back despite how tantalising it looked beyond the mountain pass, more surprises surely ahead.

This season — where the summer swarms of insects are few, the snow gone until mid-fall, the days are still long, and the colours pop — is short, maybe a few weeks at most, but one which typically brings the most outsiders of the few that get to this place.  For us, this was a truly special chance to visit, during a quiet year with great road conditions, and a 500 km drive the same way back to Dawson was merely yet another chance to soak everything in in awe. Yet I have to laugh when I think about what a resident at the Eagle Plains Hotel said in conversation:

“We were gonna go to Inuvik for our anniversary this year, but covid means we can’t. So we just took the dogs out for a run around the Arctic Circle. It was okay, I guess.”

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