The Dempster Highway starts 40km south of Dawson City, and goes up past the Arctic Circle to Inuvik, North West Territories. It is 671 km long, and entirely gravel and shale, the latter which is known to shred tires.
Travelling the Dempster is like a rite of passage, something every Canadian really should experience. The scenery is epic, and remote. You can look around and see for what feels like hundreds of kilometres, and know there is no one out there.
We checked with the North West Territories visitors centre in Dawson before we headed for the Dempster. They said it was in fair condition, but then said they always report fair. The agent at Canadream said we had an 80% chance of a flat tire, but the lady in the visitor’s centre who grew up in the area said that estimate was highly inflated (get it – inflated? 🙂 )
There was an electronic sign at the start of the Dempster warning of fire activity 270 km up the road, with the potential for delays. We decided to go anyway 🙂
Our first impression of the Dempster wasn’t good! There used to be 5 kms of pavement (well chip and seal stuff) but they were plowing it up when we started out. It was awful slow going for the first few minutes!
Right away the scenery was spectacular.
The road is built really high, so the permafrost isn’t thawed by the heat of the road.
Suddenly, by the time we got to this valley, the breeze got really cold! We switched our shorts for sweatpants!
This river bed was still full of frozen ice!
This pull off felt a little eerie. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until I noticed bits of white fur everywhere.
There, across the stream, was a dead animal, likely a dall sheep. It was moving though! After we got the camera and binoculars out, we saw that an snowshoe hare (bunny) was under it, making it move!
Jeff got a temporary fishing permit for the Yukon so he could try his luck for grayling.
Jeff fished while I peed and took pictures of the beautiful flowers.
That’s when I looked up and noticed white spots moving on the hillside. The elusive dall sheep!!
They are really shy and after they spotted us, they ran for a long, long way, up the hillside and then up on the rocky hill over gravel.
As we drove further north, towards the Arctic Circle, the trees got smaller (they can’t root well in permafrost) and in some places it was just open tundra with plants and shrubs and no trees.
Check out the elephant on the ridge!! It is really just a naturally occurring rock structure, but was really neat. If you ever drive the Dempster, be sure to get the guide book that tells you when and where to look for neat things all the way up to Inuvik.
We passed the area with fire activity. The fire was out. Likely started by lightning I would guess.
Uh oh! The truck is getting dirty! To maintain the road, they pour water on it, and then sprinkle a white power (likely calcium of some sort) for dust suppression, then grade it. It really is a well maintained road.
Halfway up the Dempster is Eagle Plains. Not a community really, just one site with a dusty old motel, a parking lot for RVs, a restaurant, lounge, gas station, helicopter pad, and tire shop. It feels like an odd place, on top of a hill, in the middle of literally nowhere, but a great place to fill up your gas tanks, repair your flat tires, and stay for the night.
The entrance to the motel, restaurant, and lounge. This place was built in the 70’s and I don’t think a single thing has been changed since. It is very very dusty from the road and everything feels dry.
Dogs just lie inside the lobby of the motel like they know not to go into the restaurant. One of them was Veronica’s dog who was staying there for the summer with a friend who was working there!
We got a site up to the right in this photo where there were a few sites with power and a few tent sites. It was a crazy windy night.
The gas station was closed early so we were told we wouldn’t be able to fill up until after 8am the next morning.
Water service truck – not sure if it was for drinking water, or to water the roads for maintenance.
I liked this old Dodge. No salt on the road up here – I bet it lasts for years! The climate is very dry.
The next morning we filled up with gas and headed north for Inuvik.
Freshly graded road (and some dead bugs on the windshield)
Emergency airstrip. There are a few of these along the Dempster. You may be expecting to see an airstrip near the road, but no, the airstrip IS the road, its just a bit wider for planes to land. These were built when the road was, so bring in supplies, and are still maintained for emergencies.
This cliff was marked in our guide book as full of fossils. Jeff stopped to take a look while I took photos 🙂
We did it! We made it to the Arctic Circle!
Here’s one of the areas without many trees, just low grasses and shrubs and lichen.
Whoa! Hello Grizzly!
Not a care in the world. He was so close I was thinking I should close the window but it really didn’t care we were there.
The Dempster crosses the caribou migration route. They had already moved through here by this time. That would have been something to see!
We made it to the Northwest Territories!
And since there was a sign going each way, we decided to take a selfie in front of the Yukon sign too in case the weather wasn’t so nice on the way back!
Uh oh! Looks like this caribou didn’t make the full migration.
Look at this grizzly! So relaxed! We saw 3 grizzlies on the way up to Inuvik.
Once you get north enough to cross into the Northwest Territories, there are actually 2 communities before you get to Inuvik. Both have a ferry (or winter ice road) to cross a river. Here we are approaching Fort McPherson.
The ferries are free, and just go back and forth most of the day.
This is a traditional fishing area on the Peel River.
Fort McPherson was a nice little town. People were playing baseball on the community field when we drove into town.
This sign says “Drug dealers & bootleggers Not welcome in our community”
Soon after, we got to the ferry at Tsiigehtchic. This one is a 3 point ferry. There was Bell cell phone coverage at both of these ferries which was nice.
Community of Tsiigehtchic
The road after Tsiigehtchic is shockingly straight and much faster all the way to Inuvik, although the locals drive really fast! We got glass insurance coverage for the van and still winced every time we met a vehicle that threw stones.
We made it to Inuvik, Northwest Territories! Just 90km away from the Arctic Ocean!
Inuvik is as far as the Dempster Highway goes… in summer anyway. There is a winter road up to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. A year round road is currently being built. We hoped to catch a flight up to Tuktoyaktuk to dip our feet in the Arctic Ocean!
Inuvik is a unique northern town. They have utilidors between their buildings. These are big round conduits filled with insulation and their water and sewer pipes are tucked away inside the insulation.
Inuvik’s most recognized building is probably this round Catholic Church known as the Igloo!
We had an option to tour the church, or the community greenhouse. We picked the greenhouse. What an idea! They converted the old arena into a community garden!
For just $50 and approx. 15 hours of volunteer time, you can have a plot in the greenhouse. If you are a good community garden citizen, you may be considered for a second plot in the following year.
You can go as high on your plot as you wish!
Some of Inuvik’s citizens live elsewhere some of the time. Our tour guide was putting in her volunteer hours to show us around. She worked in the medical field, so she flew in to work there for a week or so at a time. When someone is away, they put up a sign asking for other people to help water their plants.
The tour companies were closed for the day when we arrived, so we got a campsite in town and stayed for the night. It was a chilly night, and very bright!
The next morning we booked a trip to Tuktoyaktuk for 6pm. That meant we had all day in Inuvik. There isn’t much to do in Inuvik. It is a northern, remote town. We found the public library and used their internet for a bit to check in with the world and update Facebook with some photos.
There were a shocking number of taxi’s in Inuvik, but I suppose there really isn’t a need to own a vehicle.
The grocery store and department store are attached in the middle of town. There is also a Pizza Hut Express and KFC Express shared counter in the store. This was the only chain restaurants we saw on our entire trip, outside of Whitehorse. For kicks we got two KFC big crunch combo for lunch. The price was over $10 each, and didn’t include a drink, but the taste was exactly the same as any other KFC restaurant!
The prices in the grocery store were startling!
$34.49 for a box of Tide!
$25.99 for a case of water! Reduced from the regular $31.99 price. There are 35 bottles in the case though…
Photo of the utilidors that hold the water and sewage pipes above ground.
Here is a smaller, round utilidor.
These ones are called Smart Box houses!
Really sad looking fox.
The cloud bank didn’t lift all day. We were losing hope that we’d be able to get to Tuktoyaktuk, and the weather for the next couple of days didn’t look good either.
We killed more time waiting to see if our flight to Tuktoyaktuk would be going by parking at the busy harbour in Inuvik.
The morning tour flight was cancelled due to the low clouds. We had to weigh just how badly we wanted/needed to get to Tuktoyaktuk. We’ve wanted to go there for years, but if we waited another day, and still couldn’t go, then we ran the risk of having to drive back down the Dempster in the rain, which makes the road really slick. That didn’t sound good.
We drove to the tour company’s house to check in.
Huge stack of antlers on their porch. Out back were their kennels for their sled dogs.
The 6pm flight was cancelled too, so we made the tough decision to drive back down the Dempster and spend the extra day back in Dawson City again, because we loved it so much there and had more to see and do!
Stay tuned, the next post will cover our trip back down the Dempster and another couple of days in Dawson City!