Driving the Dempster Highway

As I discussed in previous blog posts, there is more than one way to drive to the Arctic Ocean in North America. There are two. Unless you want to split hairs or go off-roading, then the options are limitless. We chose to take the Dempster Highway. Scott Bryson defines a highway as a road that has higher allowable speed limits than residential areas and lacks the onramps and offramps indicative of freeways. As he is the resident knower of all things automotive I am going to take his definition as the gold standard. You should too. The Dempster Highway was named after a Yukon Mountie named William Dempster. He had the unfortunate fortune to discover the tragically famous Lost Patrol. The tale of the lost patrol is a sad one that I won’t detail here but just know that the Yukon in the winter is not a place you want to be lost.

I would like to say that I chose our route north to the starting point of the Dempster Highway with much intention and an eye on creating unique experiences. Sadly, Google played a stronger part than I. When I plotted our course, I was pleasantly surprised to find us cruising up the Cassiar Highway. Even more so when it proved to be the wildlife viewing mecca of British Columbia. I am taking a little bit of credit though. I live a charmed life (inherited from my mother) and Google is bending to the forces of nature that guide my charmed life when it sends us in directions that are both charismatic and efficient. I feel as though I may be heading off on a tangent. I need to stay the course and the course is the Dempster Highway.

We couldn’t decide which sign to pose beside… so we did both.
Scott expressing his enthusiasm for the Dempster Highway.

The Dempster Highway. Be very afraid. This highway will pop your tires, exhaust your fuel reserves and laminate your rig in a thick coat of calcium phosphate. Also, there will be dust. The dust will infiltrate every nook and cranny of your rig. Dust will find its way into the far reaches of the shoes you packed away for a special occasion. Dust will find its way onto every surface of your yoga mat. Dust will coat the enamel of your teeth. There will be dust. Also, there will be mud. The aforementioned calcium phosphate mixes with water to form mud like I have never worn before. It is ridiculously slimy. Thanks to a combination of rain and water trucks The Joan Wilder wore a costume of slimy mud for most of the drive. The mud sheeted off the sides of our truck in campsites. We awoke to a boundary marking of our parking spot each morning made by the mud sliding off the sides of our truck. That was the mud that didn’t adhere itself to our clothes while we set up our house (tent). I think I’m digressing again. Ugh, mud.

The Joan Wilder covered in Dempster mud.

The Dempster Highway. This is one of the most beautiful stretches of road I have ever traveled. It starts off all thorns and prickles with warning signs about how you are on your own and no one can save you once things go awry on the Dempster. I think your first-born child will only get you one hundred miles of towing – make that one hundred kilometers. I’m pretty sure that only Chuck Norris can save you once you’ve gone off track on the Dempster. This is a 900ish mile round trip on a gravel road. It is surrounded by pristine wildlands inaccessible to the forces that would try to tame it. Skies so wide and so varied that you can see a rainbow on one side of the road and a sunset on the other. Everywhere we looked a new facet of the beauty was shown to us.

We have been warned.

The first gift of the Dempster was Tombstone Territorial Park. This piece of protected land flanked the highway and extended out into the Ogilvie mountains. The park contained five different ecotypes. We were always debating what type of vegetation we were currently in and as neither of us could remember the differentiating factors of each the debate was both endless and pointless. On our way north, we had a schedule to keep so we stayed for only one night. That night we hiked a kilometer or three along the Klondike River. We were armed with bear spray should an errant ursine cross our path. We hiked along discussing the different tactics to thwart an attack from a black bear versus a brown bear. We quizzed each other on what to do when a moose wants your head under its hoof. We wished for more trees for cover. We reveled in the knowledge that there were no mountain lions in Tombstone. Feeling like we were on the same page in the Wildlife Assault Protection Manual we moved over that trail with confidence. A sudden flash of fur on the trail ahead of us found us in our combat readiness stances (Scott with his fists-of-fury balled and I, in a perfect Karate Kid crane position). A snowshoe hare in his summer go-go dancer attire (brown coat, white booties) loped along the trail ahead of us. We glanced at each other and wordlessly decided to let that bunny live to hop another day. We live in harmony with the wildlife that doesn’t scare the poop out of us. The Klondike trail eventually lead us to a section of the river that had not yet come to terms with summer. Ice about five feet thick hung over the river and clung to the willow trees on the banks. This was our first encounter with the harshness of the season that came before. We finally felt like we were really headed into the Arctic. It was beautiful! Eventually, we turned around, motivated by thoughts of dinner and our soft bed, vowing to each other that we will return on our way south. Oh yes, we will be back.

Home sweet home.
The Klondike River is still a little chilly.
Ice hanging on into summer.
The Ogilvie Mountains and the Klondike River.

The rest of the drive up was characterized by black and white spruce forests of disputed ecotype. Vast tracts of land were recovering from one forest fire or another. Fire is what keeps these forests vibrant, fresh and alive. Last summer’s burns were coated in wildflowers this summer. A flower called cotton grass (not a grass!) made distant hillsides appear covered in snow. It was too early for fireweed but a pea of some sort flanked the roads in matching strips of magenta. We blazed along, mostly stopping for fuel and breaks of a more personal nature. Crossing into the Northwest Territory was a windy affair. The border was at the continental divide in the Richardson Mountains. Arresting vistas pulled us off the road. We had to stop and take a moment to feel the countryside. People with stronger constitutions than I have devoted lifetimes to living in and developing this wild inhospitable countryside. It was important for us to stop and breathe. This place was so much bigger than we could possibly know. It is good to know what you can’t know.

Cotton grass is neither cotton nor a grass. It is a sedge and it is super cute in a Dr. Seuss-ish sort of way.
There’s iron in them there hills!
Beautiful Arctic landscapes along the Dempster Highway.
Crossing into the Northwest Territory.

Our arrival at the Arctic Circle and subsequent visit to the Arctic Ocean have been described in previous blog posts (click the links if you have not read them yet). What has not been covered is Scott’s participation in the Midnight Sun Fun Run half marathon in Inuvik. We had planned on running in this event together if the stars would have aligned. Unfortunately (fortunately for me) I had hurt my back doing floppy burpees (overlander exercise regimen) in camp prior to heading up to plunge in the Arctic Ocean. I opted instead to be Scott’s support team. Basically, I cheered him at the start line and waited at the finish line for his heroic crossing. I call this lucky for me because it was soooooooooooooooo cold that day. There was no way to keep warm. I was bundled in everything I had and still had numb thumbs. My thumbs are my proverbial canaries in the coal mine. When they go numb there is nothing short of a long hot shower or a soak in a hot tub to restore my core body temperature to its tropical equilibrium. Anyhow, Scott can’t let an Arctic half marathon go by without throwing his hat in the ring. He has never run wearing so many clothes! Long underwear, plus track pants, plus a long-sleeved shirt plus rain gear (for the wind) plus a fleece lined beanie. And gloves! This guy could have outfitted at least three people in warmer climes with his race day garb! It was that cold. I had intentions of cheering him on and hanging around to watch the other shorter-distance races and then being there for his finish. Nope! I walked back to the truck once he was out of sight and cranked on the engine burning precious fossil fuels to keep my thumbs warm! I set an alarm so that I would not miss Scott’s midnight finish. We hung out for the minimum amount of time to chat with the other race contestants and pick up Scott’s SWAG-bag. It was so cold! I think he spent an hour in the shower getting rewarmed after that event. I was fast asleep before he made it back from the showers, as by then it was around 2 am.

Scott and I, frozen solid after he ran a midnight half-marathon.

That was our last hoo-rah in Inuvik. The next day we packed up…slowly. Scott was pretty sore after sitting on his ass for two weeks driving like a madman from Chico to the top of the Americas and then jumping straight into a half marathon.  I did my best to be sympathetic. It is easy to forget the pains of others. It felt good to be on the road again. We trundled out of town making one final pit stop at a giant ship that had run aground on the Mackenzie River right where the ice road meets the land. It was a trip, there were piles of supplies, crates of tape, old school printer paper with the perforated hole-punched edges, fully outfitted bunks for sailors, and all kinds of instruments. If that ship were in California it would have been an empty shell. It was weird how much stuff was just laying around. Rust had made more than a few of the decks incipient deathtraps. We crawled around marveling at the scale of the ship and the degree of decay. I don’t know how long it had been rotting there but it was fun to explore.

This ship ran aground right where the winter ice road begins.

Our next stop was not until Eagle Plains. We had not made time to eat that day and were hoping to catch the restaurant before they closed. No such luck. The bar was open so we had brewskies instead. Good choices! They had the coolest cribbage board. It was giant with bear claws for pegs! So very Arctic! After closing down that joint we headed off to sleep in the most charismatic gravel pit of the whole adventure! There were moose tracks so it couldn’t be all bad!  We have been using the presence of moose tracks as a sort of vetting system for campsites. The moose seem to know a good spot! Every campsite has had moose tracks and moose poop. So far it has not steered us wrong, we see moose sign and we know we are on the right track… or moose are ubiquitous.

Coolest cribbage board EVER!
Even the gravel pits on the Dempster had charm.

Our southbound Dempster adventure was not stingy with the wildlife. We were graced with some very charismatic moose sightings and cranes. Karate cranes! Still no bear, maybe that is a good thing… There was a ton of bear scat. Does a bear sh!t in the woods? No! A bear sh!ts on the side of the road on the Dempster Highway!  Seriously, I sh!t you not. So. Much. Bear. Sh!t. All on the side of the road. Moving on…

We had a two moose moment. One on the road and one in the water.
Moose are a little goofy looking.
Karate Crane!
Cranes. I love cranes!

As I eluded to earlier in this post we had vowed to return to Tombstone Territorial Park. With good reason, have I mentioned that place is awesome?!? We had set our sights on hiking to Grizzly Lake via the Grizzly Creek trail. We pulled in to the campground in the evening, made a fire with the free firewood, cooked up a glorious dinner and escaped to our aerie when the evening rains started. In the morning while Scott reconciled with the fact that it was time to get up (still a bit sore from the half marathon) I popped into the visitor’s center. My walk there had a two-fold purpose. One was to check the forecast and see about the trail. The other was to find a particular pile of scat that intrigued me on our first visit and photograph it. If you have ever seen ptarmigan poop you would understand. Apparently, it is quite a delicacy in Greenland. It is easy to collect because ptarmigans sit in one place for a very long time and deposit great piles before moving on. The Greenlanders combine the poop with rancid seal fat to really round out the flavors. I am fresh out of seal fat, rancid or otherwise, so I stayed true to my leave-no-trace ethics and took only photographs.

Mmmmm, ptarmigan poop!

Anyhow, the nice ranger dude told me the trail was snowed out about halfway to the lake but we could probably make a lookout point around 6km into the trail. That sounded good to me. It was a high probability of rain but the amount was negligible. We signed ourselves up for a gray day on the trail and headed out feeling super stoked. We were again armed with bear spray to ward off any errant ursine attackers. We again quizzed each other on the best way to fend off the various predators on the trail. Play dead for the brown ones, fight the black ones, lunge at the squirrelly ones. We are a force to reckon with! It turned out to be a good thing we practiced our squirrel deterrent lunges as they were prolific on the trail! It was all we could do to keep them from pilfering the last crumbs of Mom’s granola from our bag as I lolled about on the ground catching action photos of lichens! When we peeked over the highest point on the trail we surmised that we had reached the turnaround point recommended by the nice ranger dude. There was no snow to be seen and an energetic mountaineer who passed us told us that the snow was not an obstacle anywhere on the trail. Wind was whipping across the rocky landscape stealing our voices as we tried to discuss our plans. We contemplated continuing on to Grizzly Lake (5km in the distance). The skies were gray and the wind was howling around the peaks. We were provisioned with one apple each and whatever crumbs of Mom’s homemade granola we were able to hide from the squirrels. My thumbs were beginning to lose feeling. Despite all indicators telling us to forge ahead, we decided that we should stick to our original plan of heading back to the comforts of The Joan Wilder. The rain started to poke at our backs as we headed down the trail seeking the shelter of the forest. At one point I caught my foot under a rock and fell ass-over-tea-kettle off the side of the trail. Luckily, I was able to break my fall with the wrist I cracked last year in a freak roller skating accident. I may never learn what appendage (my butt!) to sacrifice in a fall. Scott leaped to my aid without even one giggle escaping his mouth, lending a hand as I writhed on the ground like a dizzy beetle trying to right myself. I would still be there, with my carapace wedged between some boulders, kicking my feet in the air if it weren’t for Scott. That man has my back!

Charismatic lichen.
More charismatic lichen…
Scott atop a ridge in the Ogilvie Mountains.
The apex of our hike towards Grizzly Lake afforded a tiny bit of shelter.
Time to turn back to the shelter of the forest.
Uh-oh! No more granola????

That hike was our last hoo-rah on the Dempster. We cruised the final kilometers marked only by dust and bear poop headed toward the tarmac of more civilized routes through the Canadian north country. Again, we passed the warning signs weeding the faint-of-heart out of the herd of would-be Dempster travelers. We passed smiling overlanders with clean vehicles posing in front of the welcome signs to the Dempster Highway. We stopped at the unmanned gas station at the junction of the Dempster and the Klondike Highway only to put the air back in our tires and pour the extra gas we brought but did not need into our thirsty tank. You see, I live a charmed life. I did not need to barter my genetics nor invoke the power of Chuck Norris to cross this highway. It was pretty chill for us.

12 Replies to “Driving the Dempster Highway”

  1. This is such a blast “being” on the trip with you. I am sure it is a humbling experience being in so much empty space and having such grand vistas as you drive across the tundra. Your commentary brings the excellent photos to life and makes me feel like I am in the back seat. Thanks for sharing, stay safe, thinking of you, Cathryn

  2. Enjoy the cool weather, I would be happy to exchange some the 100 plus that we have been having lately. Glad to see you guys enjoying the trip. I’m having fun seeing it through your eyes. Stay safe and keep fun !

  3. Thanks so very much for sharing this incredible adventure with us, and I thought I had seen a lot of MUD in my life. Rachel I loved the charismatic lichens! Is your wrist springing back? The cribbage board, love your details. Keep on trucking with love, msrgie

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