Dempster HighwayThe Road to the Arctic Circle
The road is fringed with fireweed, its ubiquitous magenta blooms providing a stunning contrast with the subtle dun, green, grey and gold of the surrounding terrain.
Grizzly bears, caribou, a vast landscape of jagged peaks and rolling tundra – even its name, Yukon, conjures images of endless, untrammelled wilderness, and bearded mountain men panning for gold. I’m here to drive the famed Dempster Highway, the only public highway in North America that crosses into the Arctic Circle. It has taken me four flights, and nearly 24 hours to reach Dawson City, about 100 km from the Alaskan border, and the starting point for my adventure. By the time my tiny propeller plane touches down mid morning, the arctic sun has been up for hours.
We set off in our behemoth of an SUV, seemingly equipped for anything Yukon can throw at it. Settled into the back seat, I doze off with my cheek against the passenger window. I wake suddenly to the sound of gravel screeching beneath the tyres as the back end of our ride slides around a tight corner. “Nearly missed the turn-off!” the driver chirps. Suddenly awake, I notice a sign marking the southern end of the Dempster. ‘Notice,’ it reads, ‘There are no emergency medical services on the Yukon section of the Dempster Highway. Drive with care.’ I check the map; the Yukon section of the Dempster represents over 350 km of unpaved highway. That’s a full day of driving to reach our destination at Eagle Plains Hotel, a tiny, isolated outpost perched high on the Arctic tundra.
For those accustomed to urban life, Yukon feels like a fairytale. It’s a place where nature decisively trumps civilisation, the true wild west of North America, a place of wide open skies, fast flowing rivers, and tree studded mountains stretching to the horizon. Every aspect of this landscape dwarfs the human scale. The weather here is notoriously intense, not only in its dramatic seasonal fluctuation of daylight (in the summer, the sun hardly sets before it rises, while in the dead of winter there’s almost no daylight at all), but also its hour to hour changeability, as warm sunshine gives way to gusts of bitterly cold wind. To be properly awake to the glories of this landscape is to be at once thrilled, and simultaneously frightened by its power.
A journey along the Dempster Highway is not to be taken lightly, and modern travellers are wise to remember those who came before them. In December of 1910, nearly 50 years before construction began on the Dempster, a patrol team of four Royal Mounted Police set out from Fort McPherson, a tiny hamlet located in Canada’s Northwest Territories. They were headed for Dawson City, more than 750 km away. After 53 days, a search party lead by Sergeant W J D Dempster found the remains of the patrol only 40 km from their starting point. They had died of starvation and exposure.
Although the road is entirely unpaved, it is built on a raised gravel berm to prevent it from sinking into the ground during the summer thaw. A four wheel drive is highly recommended, though some hardy types tackle the Dempster by motorcycle or even bicycle. Whatever your mode of transportation, come prepared for ample dust, heat and cold, rain and sun, and some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see.
Heading north, it’s not long before we enter Tombstone Territorial Park, a region of over 2,000 km2 of permafrost rising into the jagged peaks that give the park its name. The driving here is slow going, since every corner reveals a new vista worthy of a stop. In summer, the roads are fringed with fireweed, its ubiquitous magenta blooms providing a stunning contrast with the subtle dun, green, grey, and gold of the surrounding terrain. High above us, the clouds scud by swiftly, transforming the land around us from a sun dappled valley one minute, to a dim, clouded basin the next.
This is grizzly country, and visitors are advised to take all necessary precautions, yet bears aren’t the only wild animals to keep watch for. The land alongside the Dempster is also home to Alaska-Yukon moose, Dall sheep, marmots, Arctic terns, and even the endangered peregrine falcon. Resisting the temptations of the wildlife, we press on northward until the magnificent ridges of Tombstone give way to the softer, more rounded, scoured looking hills that lie between Tombstone Park and the Ogilvie Range. For a time, the highway runs alongside Engineer Creek to Ogilvie River, and as the land shifts to moss and lichen atop permafrost, the Arctic Spruce grow shorter and spindlier, tilting at precarious angles.
This landscape has changed little for 100,000 years and the first humans might have seen a similar sight as they migrated east from Asia across the Bering land bridge. The further north we go, an insistent, yet not entirely unpleasant loneliness descends on me. Here, thousands of miles from home and many days’ drive from the nearest modern city, I find myself further than ever before from civilisation. Hour by hour as we rumble on, further and further from the ties that bind us to everything we know. It’s a sensation at once immensely liberating and fundamentally unsettling. I have long since given up marvelling aloud at the absence of manmade structures and the seemingly endless expanse of trees stretching to the horizon in every direction. I settle back and fall into a meditative trance, gazing out at this land before time.
It’s evening by the time we arrive at Eagle Plains, and after so many hours of nothing but wilderness, it appears like a mirage. Barrels of petunias ring a hilltop complex complete with hotel, restaurant, gas station, general store, and offices. It sits halfway between Dawson City to the south, and Inuvik to the north, and is the only place on the 780 km stretch of road between them to either fill up the tank or get a hot meal. My generous portion of salmon, steamed vegetables, and a cold Yukon Gold beer seem nothing short of a miracle. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of a good meal, or the relief of having made it to our destination, but I’m suddenly exhausted. Despite the lingering light, I stagger down the hall to bed, pull on my sleep mask (an essential part of any Yukon traveller’s kit, at least in summer), and fall into a deep sleep.
It’s past 8 a.m. when I pull back the curtains to a blinding sun, already high in the sky. Due to strict warnings that Grizzlies are active in the area, I limit myself to a stroll around the complex, gulping at air so fresh it seems to scrub my lungs clean with every breath. At a lookout point, I gaze north toward the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line just 30 km from where I stand demarcating the point at which the sun never sets at the summer solstice. Beyond it, I can see to the Northwest Territories, where the trees disappear completely and the landscape becomes almost lunar. It’s time to head back south, but I linger a few more minutes, savouring the sensation of being so far north, in a spot more remote than most humans will ever see. I finally turn away with a mixture of reluctance and relief and make my way back to the car to begin the journey home.