Kilometers driven: 9533
Animals sighted: Marmots, Golden Eagle, Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bears, Fox, Wolf, Rabbits and Ptarmigan
We wanted to drive one of the roads that go north of the Arctic Circle. It was either the Dempster Highway in northern Yukon or the Dalton Highway in Alaska. We chose the Dempster on recommendations from other travelers and on the fact that it takes you to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories – another part of Canada to check off our list. So how do you sum up 1500 km of gnarly dirt road in a short blog?
When we reached the turnoff for the Dempster along the Klondike Highway we fueled up ($1.40/liter, ouch) and sat there for a bit deciding whether or not to go. We knew that it was going to be a rough road – an understatement for sure – and every car coming out was caked in mud and sported cracked windshields. We said a prayer and off we drove.
The first section of road wasn’t too bad. Lots of potholes and big rocks but we could drive a stead 60kph. Our first stop was Tombstone Territorial Park which was absolutely jaw dropping. If you don’t want to drive the Dempster at least drive the first 100km to this park. It’s well worth it. We stopped at the visitor’s center where they fed us tea made from the local plants and backcountry bread known as bannoc (kind of like a pancake) covered in homemade jam made from the local berries. We spent the afternoon here hiking a trail up the side of a mountain and would have made it to the summit if the weather hadn’t closed in. We saw marmots along the way and a huge golden eagle buzzed Sue’s head. The fall colours were already starting to show on the tundra.
By the time we left Tombstone it was late afternoon. We continued north up the Dempster and found an amazing viewpoint that overlooks the Ogilvie Mountains to the south and the open tundra to the north. We decided to stay there for the night.
At Eagle Plains which marks the mid point of the Dempster (km 369) we fueled up – for some reason gas is cheaper here then at the start of the highway ($1.35/liter, still ouch). The lodge at Eagle Plains had free wifi so we checked our email before heading on. We also met a fellow traveler named Mike from Anchorage who was also heading north to Inuvik.
Just north of Eagle Plains is the Arctic Circle (66°33’ north). The point at which, on June 22, the sun never falls below the horizon. Even in August it stays light until well after midnight.
Between the Arctic Circle and the NWT border we saw caribou from the Porcupine herd and a grizzly bear with a couple of yearlings in tow eating what appeared to be a caribou carcass (probably shot by a hunter from the highway). We also met a Swedish guy with a degenerative muscle disorder who had biked solo from Las Vegas to northern Canada and was on his way to Inuvik as well.
At the NWT border we stopped to take the touristy photo before heading on. From this point north the road becomes very rough. Almost the entire Dempster is built on top of the permafrost which stays frozen year round because of the thick layer of moss covering the ground. To keep the permafrost from melting under the road they simply pile dirt and gravel on to of the vegetation rather then removing it first. In some spots the road is 10 feet above the surrounding land.
At Ft McPherson you have to take a ferry across the Peel River. It’s basically a floating platform with a ramp at either end that is pulled across the river by a cable. Getting off the ferry on the north side of the river we buried Buster’s nose into the dirt and got stuck. With an audience of about twenty locals cheering us on we managed to rock the bus back and forth and get unstuck. At this point the road becomes unbelievably rough and we decided it was too rough for Buster and decided to turn around. That was until we met the tourist info guy, an older native gentleman wearing a Toronto Blue Jay cap who, after learning we were turning around, convinced us otherwise. He told us that he made the trip all the way to Toronto – and had the Blue Jay ticket stub to prove it – and that we came this far we should at least go the last 185km to his home town of Inuvik. It was a pretty convincing argument so on we went.
The last stretch to Inuvik wasn’t too bad with only a few rough sections. There was one more ferry crossing before Inuvik. This one was to cross the Mackenzie River. Inuvik is in the Mackenzie Delta. This area is a sprawling low-relief landscape covered in black spruce and tamarack. We were surprised to see so many trees north of the Arctic Circle.
In Inuvik we stayed at Happy Valley campground in downtown Inuvik. The next day we woke up to pouring rain and decided to take a few photos and start heading south again. There isn’t much to see in Inuvik. It’s mostly a working town. We drove around for two hours looking for a sticker for Buster to prove we were there but couldn’t find one. Eventually we gave up and took off.
On our way back south we didn’t stop much. It was pouring rain and the road turned to pure mud, in some spots it was so slippery it was like driving on snow. We did make a stop just south of the NWT border where we saw a small herd of caribou and two grizzly yearlings wrestling on the tundra. It was caribou hunting season and every pickup truck we passed heading north had at least one caribou in the back.
We stopped at Eagle Plains for gas again and continued south to the camping spot we stayed at on the way up. This time the view was non-existent because of the thick fog. Maybe it was just our imagination but the road seemed rougher on the way out. We made it back to the start of the Dempster that evening and used the local car wash to attempt to clean the inch thick mud off of Buster. It took 15 cycles of power washing to get most of the crusted on mud off.
All in all a great side trip even if it wasn’t planned. But I guess that’s the beauty of having so much time to see everything.