Thursday, 1 October 2015

Yukon Tour, Dempster Highway Adventures

     Since I heard of the Dempster Highway many years ago, I wanted to drive it. I have now completed the 1475 kilometer round trip from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, North West Territory and back to Dawson. My first impression is “overload”. Overloaded on scenery, overloaded on vastness, distances to see and drive, overloaded on mud, snow, dust and potholes in areas, and unbelievably void of animals. There has to be wildlife, but we did not see anything on the two day drive north from Dawson City, Yukon. On our way back we did spot a Musk Ox and one berry-feeding black bear.
Lone Bull Musk Ox
     It is hunting season in this region so most of the wildlife has probably dispersed to safe hiding places, secure from meat and trophy hunters.
     The Dempster is named for Sgt. W.J.D. Dempster who was sent to find the famous  Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) lost patrol during the winter of 1910-11. Four members of the NWMP became lost and disoriented during their regular patrol about 30 or 40 miles from Aklavik during a bitterly cold winter and all perished. Sgt. Dempster used basically the same route as the highway as he patrolled this vast region of land between Dawson City and the Mackenzie Delta region. This is also the region of one of Canada's most interesting manhunts in 1930 for the Mad Trapper of Rat River.
     The highway construction began in the late 1950s and finished during the 1970s to provide access for oil exploration in this region of the North Country. The unbelievable scenery has since attracted tourists from around the world and it is not difficult to see why.
Dempster Highway
      My guests and I marvel at the silence of the land. There is not much traffic so we often had several miles of country to ourselves to relish and absorb the silence. With the peaceful sense of silence is the odours of purity and frozen cranberries and earthy moss. Taste the berries, tart and juicy cranberries and lignon berries before the bears and birds gather them.
Moss, Lichen and Lignon Berries
Bend down to touch and feel and fondle the earth covering mosses, lichens, bearberries and other widely varied ground cover, growing low to the ground for protection from harsh climate amongst flora neighbours and protective swales. Gnarly and wiry dwarf birch and willow grow just tall enough to gather sunlight but low enough to protect each other from winter’s ravages of wind and blowing ice. These shrubs also grow just tall enough to hide a full grown grizzly bear from view so constant vigilance is required. Do not fear, we make enough noise breaking trail that any bear would have to be deaf and senile not to know we are in the area.

     Feel the wind, chilly already in early autumn. You need a good windbreaker with fleece and wool under layers as well as a hat and gloves. Take a layer off as the sun appears from behind the clouds, warming the optimistic land and traveller. Lie back on the soft carpet and gaze up at the clouds and the peaks as the sun warms and rejuvenates your body.

     I wonder at the variety of land as we drive north through the Yukon Territory.    Boreal forest merges into the rugged Tombstone Mountains with broad valleys and rugged peaks. Vast distances of mixed coniferous forest blends with aspen/birch mixed with tamarack and black spruce. Then, there are the miles of strictly lowland meadows and taiga rolling onto forested shoulders of rough mountains, brilliantly coloured reds and yellows, orange, green and purple. I drive through several miles of pure black spruce forest, something I have never seen before. It is beautiful in its own distinctness. There are the miles of seemingly recent forest fire scars that turn out that is almost as old as I am.
Recovering Burn
Land recovers slowly, in human terms anyway, from life generating fire. There are miles with no tree in sight and we begin to think we have finally travelled beyond the treeline only to discover that we have been going uphill for many miles before dropping down into the next drainage system and back into forested valley bottoms with accompanying creeks and rivers.

     We pause at the Arctic Circle signpost for photo ops and scenery pictures. Later we receive a certificate at Inuvik visitor center as “Arctic Circle Chapter Order of Adventurers.”

     We cross the Peel River, a river threatened by mining interests and held off by native and environmental groups struggling to “Protect the Peel.” Ft. McPherson sits near the banks of this river after crossing northbound by ferry. 70 kilometers north we cross the Mackenzie River at Tsiigehtchic, formerly known as Arctic Red River. This is one of Canada’s longest rivers draining one fifth of the country. The river here is more than one half mile wide and runs deep, swiftly and grey with silt from recent rains.

     This highway is a gravel surfaced road. In places it is hard packed, almost like pavement. In some sections it is cratered with undercarriage punishing potholes, some filled by camouflaged, windshield- splattering muddy water. Dust trails billow behind for a few miles before slowing us down by soupy mud that turns our white rental vehicle into an indecipherable colour. At higher elevations of the mountain passes, we encounter fresh snow, cleared now from the road but the ditches and hillsides are still well blanketed.
Fresh Snow Fall
Soft shoulders, construction and, maintenance zones large trucks and campers slow our progress but for the most part we travel at about 70 to 80 kilometers per hour. Road and ferry reports go to A couple days ago, the two ferries were sidelined while new approaches were constructed after high water washed the old ones away.

     All around us is the wild beauty of this vast, empty land. Autumn colours dazzle our eyes in brilliant sunlight then are shrouded by valleys filled with fog. Mountains capped by fresh snow blind us before becoming muted by clouds of grey and white. Distant veils of rain, cooled to snow up top promise rainbows if timed just right by sun angles. We don’t need more colour to tease our senses but it is welcome enough to pause for photos. We all marvel at the clear air, especially after the rain and the sun bursts from its cloudy covering.

     Inuvik, itself, is at the end of the road, for now. Road construction will restart during the winter season on a 137 kilometer all-season gravel road that will connect Tuktoyaktuk to the rest of Canada. Currently there is only an ice road crossing this landscape during the winter season. This new road is expected to be completed sometime in 2018.

     Inuvik sits on the shoreline of the massive MacKenzie River delta, a vast region of cultural, wildlife and habitat diversity. This is a full service town with all amenities to provide for a comfortable northern lifestyle. We stayed at the reasonably priced and comfortable Arctic Chalet who also offered several tours including dogsledding and flightseeing cultural tours to Tuktoyaktuk and Herchel Island. The visitor center provided valuable advice for things to do in the area.

     The Dempster highway is a challenge due to the varied terrain and road conditions that can occur on any remote gravel road. We encountered dust, mud, pot holes, road construction and maintenance, long hills and curves as well as long distances between services. You need a reliable vehicle with good tires and full fuel tank. It is important to drive to the road conditions and slow down when meeting other vehicles. Give large transport trucks room and if they catch up to you, let them pass. If you see something you would like to stop to examine or photograph, pull well off the shoulder on a stretch of road where you can be seen. I fuelled up at Eagle Plains, the halfway point of the highway. We also stayed for the night at this hotel, lucky to have reservations for. We did not have reservations for the ride back so drove the full distance from Inuvik to Dawson City in about 12 hours. I would like to thank Driving Force Vehicle Rentals for supplying the right vehicle and equipping our Ford Expedition with the right tires for this road.

     This is a vast land and I have to admire the people who have lived with it for centuries. The native peoples hunted, fished, travelled and thrived all seasons here. They had to contend with weather, terrain, wildlife and of course mosquitoes and horseflies in summer. I also have to admire the first prospectors, trappers, explorers, police and preachers that ventured here. They encountered many challenges that caused severe injury and even death while trying to wrest the natural resources from the land. Today, our modern adventurers, the truck drivers, who deliver vital goods through all weathers, winter and summer, contend with difficult roads and weather conditions relying upon machinery and skill to get them safely to their destination.
Sunshine on Top of the World
     I am sure that all who have ever lived or traversed the landscape have often paused to admire its natural beauty.  In September, when we are travelling here, we are awed by the autumn colours. If we were to see a painting done up with all the colours the artist could splash on his canvas, we would wonder if it could be real or is there some abstract, artistic license taken here. We now know that no exaggeration is require beyond Mother Nature’s natural palette.
Playful Black Bear


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