Canada & Alaska

Michele & Stephen's trip in 2013

The Dempster Highway

There are only two roads in North America that cross the Arctic Circle, the Dalton Highway in Alaska (USA) and the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories (Canada).

Both offer splendid isolation and spectacular views, but for us the Dempster highway also offered a chance to visit the 25th Great Northern Arts Festival at Inuvik.

The Dempster Highway is 734km (456 mile) of generally good gravel road from just outside Dawson City in the Yukon to Inuvik in Northwest Territories with very limited services in between. Although the highway can be driven in one very long day (so I'm told) we planned to take four days there and three days back. Unfortunately it rained.

We spent the first night on the Dempster Highway near Tombstone Mountain. Cloudy but no rain, yet.

On day two it started to rain gently.

Like many gravel roads in Alaska and Canada the Dempster Highway is treated with calcium chloride. This reduces dust and creates a firm surface.

However in the rain it does make the road very slippery.

By the evening of day two it was misty as well as wet and slippery. So we abandoned our plan to reach Eagle Plains Hotel...

... and parked at the Ogilvie Ridge viewpoint.

On day three we drove the 100km to the Eagle Plains Hotel where we met up with two other overland vehicle, a Unimog from Germany (left) and an Iveco from France (right).

Here we were immediately informed that the road was closed (true), that the road was washed away (true) and would not be reopened for 14 days (false). In addition we were told that one of the two ferries needed to get to Inuvik was out of operation (true) and that it had that it been washed down river and its cable was broken (false).

Having driven about half way up the Dempster Highway (~370km) everybody stuck at the Eagle Plains Hotel had to decide whether to wait there for the road to re-open or return to Dawson City. The Germans and the French decided to return quickly before the road south deteriorated more. We decided to wait.

The truckers had little choice but to wait it out (and sit in the hotel reception telling stories of how they had been held up for days/weeks/months encountered black bears/grizzly bears/moose etc. etc.)

The rest of us sat around chatting, eating the excellent food and comparing reasons for being there.

The Sisters from Washington State (in a very old Honda Civic with over 300,000 miles on the clock) were on a road-trip to the Arctic Circle (they actually made it to Inuvik!).

The Researchers were on their way to Fort McPherson to do something related to satellite imaging and geomorphology (without an electric bear fence).

The Carver was on his way to Inuvik to give a masterclass at the Great Northern Arts Festival. He was, he said, one of the few non-native artists to be selected to exhibit.

The Grand Parents with their grand daughter were on a great adventure in trailer (caravan).

The Fishers who were in a hurry solved the problem of getting to Inuvik by calling for a helicopter.

The four Brothers all in their seventies, were on a once-in-lifetime road-trip.

The Swiss Couple in a rented campervan who originally only planning to go to the Arctic Circle, were caught up in the drama and eventually went all the way to Inuvik.

We waited...

When we arrived at the hotel we were completely unaware that the surrounding scenery was spectacular. Over the next three days the rain and mist cleared and...

...the views were revealed. Each morning the road crews working on the washout left the hotel, to return in the evening to be cross-questioned about progress. Each morning the official road status was faxed to the hotel from somewhere miles south. Eventually we were told that the washout was now passable but that the first (Peel) ferry was still out of action.

Because we were just as happy to camp by the ferry as at the hotel, we set off north. Our first stop was at the Arctic Circle, which by chance crosses the road at a point with spectacular views across the the Arctic Tundra.

About 100km north of the hotel we passed the site of the road washout and could see the cause. Because the road crosses permafrost it is built on a raised dyke to prevent the thawing of the ground. As a result every time the road crosses a stream a culvert is needed. The rainstorm had washed debris into one of these culverts and blocked it. The resultant build of of water on one side of the dyke soon caused a washout a few metres from the blocked culvert.

Eventually the Dempster crosses from the Yukon into the even more sparsely populated Northwest Territories, and the road improves for a little.

We had been told that the Peel cable-ferry had been been washed down river and the cable lost. If this had been true then the ferry would have been out of action for weeks whilst a new cable was made. The truth was less dramatic. The ferry and cable were intact but the earth loading ramps on each side of the river had been washed away and needed to be re-built. (It is not possible to build permanent loading ramps as these would be destroyed each year by the melting ice. In winter an ice road is used in place of the ferry.)

After waiting a couple hours the ferry ramps were declared usable and we crossed the Peel river on the first trip. Unfortunately the sisters lost their rear bumper disembarking on the next trip!

It should have been a clear run from here to Inuvik but when we arrived at the McKenzie river, the ferry remained stubbornly on the other side, with no way to contact them. After three hours service was resumed (blamed on an hydraulic failure.)

We arrived just outside Inuvik in daylight around midnight. In time for the Great Northern Arts Festival of which more later.