the Dempster Highway
all the way to the Arctic Ocean
After resupplying in Dawson City we backtracked just a few km and hit the Dempster Highway. This road is infamous. I don’t even know why or when or how i first heard about it, but I’ve always know it existed, at least as long as we’ve been overloading (and since before we knew what that term meant).
I actually just learned that I didn’t actually know exactly where it went and mostly thought it was in arasaka…but I’ve alway heard of this horrible, run down, miserable road that you’d have to be insane to drive on and that it went really far north. Oh, and that most people call it the “dumpster highway”…possibly as a term of endearment…but most likely not.
The Dempster is one of only two roads in north america that cross into the arctic circle. Its also (as of only a few months ago) the ONLY road in north america that allows you to drive all the way to the arctic ocean. Years ago when we first started talking about this trip we just assumed we would drive north to proudhon bay in alaska. At the time it was the furthest north you could get (and also meant a long drive along a very not-great highway to get there)… but you did the drive knowing that while you got as far north as was possible in the americas, you actually did NOT get all the way to the arctic ocean. No dipping you toes, no swimming, you don’t even get to see it- the road simply ends at an oil feed and a chain link fence telling you that you’ve gone as far as you can go. How anticlimactic.
Earlier this year Canada completed a very expensive construction project to connect a 4season highway from Inuvik (the old end of the Dempster Highway) to Tuktoyaktuk, a village which lies directly on the arctic ocean. For us- that meant decision made. Rather than driving a horrible lonely highway to a chain link fence in northern alaska we would drive an even worse highway even further through the Yukon and NWT to the arctic ocean. I mean, we’re already this far north anyway, why not?
Also, we’ve heard the with the complete remoteness also comes spectacular wilderness, nature and wildlife- I mean, its like this road was made for us (except maybe the fact that its all horribly rutted dirt roads, no cell or wifi reception and other people have already heard of it, but really, very close)!
The Dempster is everything it’s talked about and maybe worse. The horror stories are true, but depending on who you talk to probably overblown or exaggerated. You can do it in any car. We saw a couple hatchbacks along the route, and just like our travels south of the border we also saw a handful of people doing it on bike. I just love reading or hearing how someone “offroaded” their rig all the way to some impossible to get to destination and then when we are on the same path we see people getting there on a bike, or a yugo, or a 30’ RV. =)
Seriously… the Dempster is harsh, and unpleasant and long…but it’s still just a dirt road. A long, lonely, forlorn, bumpy dirt road that will drive you crazy, but still just a dirt road in the end… if you have a desire to drive (or bike or run or walk) to the arctic, you’ll make it. But… maybe carry extra water and fuel and either make sure you have new tires or take a few spares, it’s probably a good idea. Monologue over.
The first chance at services is midway up the highway (Eagle Plains) and is seriously like going back in time. A rundown hotel and gas station/mechanic absolutely in the middle of nowhere. 2 or 3 employees that come in for a season and cant leave the entire tie (presumably because everyone knows they'll never come back), some absurdly large ravens that never shut up and simply wouldn't stop pestering karma the entire time we stopped and a restaurant that Im pretty sure was designed after my elementary school cafeteria (we passed).
We drove north faster than we probably should have, but we hate most routes we have to travel more than once and so logic just told us to hurry north and get the lay of the land and then slow down and stop at the best spots on the way south (because by then we’ll know what they are). We drove straight (other than turnouts for views, to stop and look for wildlife or when we found a great spot to stop for the night either along a river or overlooking a great view.
One day near the highest elevation point along the route we had several run ins with foxes. The first brought us to a halt crossing the road right in front of us. Slid to a stop mere feet from running him down, but instead of running of he scratched an itch, walked over to jens side of the van and looked up at her before laying down in the shade of the van. We watched him for a while before trying to pull away and her simply jogged along beside us in the shade. Poor guy was hot and apparently thrilled we came along.
A few miles further as the sun as getting lower (sunset literally lasts for like 6 hours here) we saw two young and adorable foxes playing and cuddling on the hillside. Unlike the last one they kept their distance but we watch with binoculars for a while and laughed at how much like puppies they seemed. As we pulled away we told them we'd be up the road at the arctic circle if they wanted to drop by later.
We ended up stopping just short of the Arctic Cirlcle sign and viewpoint because we found a great pulloff/overlook to camp at, and were obviously a bit surprised when a few hours later karma brought two foxes to our attention running down the road straight for us!
Same two foxes and clearly accepting our invitation to hang out for the night! Much to our dismay they continued on down the highway... Maybe the van was too small for them to notice? Maybe they already had other plans? Maybe they already invited other friends to meet us at the arctic circle? Who knows. We tried not to get our feelings hurt and enjoyed the rest of our evening...which went on for at least a few more hours.
Just as we climbed into the van for the night karma was alerted yet again by a huge beautiful fox lingering next to our campfire... clearly this guy got the memo about the party. Or... more than likely... I made the whole thing up, now completely delirious from lack of sleep. Ill check with Jen in the morning and see if she remembers any foxes. =]