It’s a long and dirty road leading to the Arctic, through the middle of tundra, mountains and limitless wilderness. Why wouldn’t you want to drive it?
The Dempster Highway may not be traditionally picturesque, but it is Canada’s only highway crossing the Arctic Circle. The 735km-long Dempster was built in 1979 and roughly follows the traditional First Nation transportation route between the Yukon and Peel river systems. It has a reputation for being rough and a real-tire eater, but we were actually pleasantly surprised (even with it claiming one of our own all-terrain tires).
Freedom of the road
Driving this road is a one-of-a-kind experience. The start of the highway is about an hour from Dawson City, itself an interesting gold rush outpost. From here, the road travels through Tombstone Territorial Park (hike and camp anywhere on or in sight of ridiculously rugged mountains!) and then there is nothing for the next 300km. Well, nothing in terms of human life aside from a random RV or car maybe every couple of hours. There is however so much else; the unexpectedly vibrant flowers, stunted trees, variety of animals (from a grizzly to a black fox). The wilderness is all-encompassing. It is rich, barren, lush and desolate all at the same time. This is the Arctic that you never imagined.
Under the Midnight Sun
About an hour before we reached the Arctic Circle, our GPS started to go a little crazy. Apparently sunrise would now be at 6pm and sunset at 10am. Arriving at the official line of latitude (405km in) a little while later, it just gave up. We would later toast our drinks at midnight to celebrate my 25th birthday, also the summer solstice. For the next 50 or so days there would be 24 hours of daylight.
24 hours of daylight was exciting, novel and amazing all at once but it was hard to sleep. The town of Inuvik is found at the current end of the highway (it is being extended to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean), and while we enjoyed our time there, it was also 33 degrees Celsius for the entirety of our stay, 24 hours a day. It was a bit intense. For other purposes, 24 hour daylight is awesome. We fished, drove and hiked late at ‘night,’ getting back on the road at whatever time we pleased. The fishing on the Dempster, by the way, is awesome.
A journey of discovery
One of the most unexpected parts of the trip was how much we learned about local First Nation culture. The road travels through the traditional home of the Han, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people. These lands have fed and sheltered generations of First Nation people and hunting, fishing and trapping still remains part of the life of many people living in the area. We met such generous and kind folks over the two weeks we travelled the Dempster and gained a much better appreciation and respect for the area and its people. We learned how to make Labrador tea, bannock and jam. JR made sure to eat plenty of the traditionally smoked whitefish too.
Another surprising part of the trip was finding fossilised coral next to Engineer Creek!
Some unwelcome companions
Being so far north not only offered us the experience of 24 hour daylight but also that of hoards of mosquitoes and blackflies trying to drink our blood. And by hoards I mean millions and millions of the things. Being outside of our vehicle was a huge challenge at times. Even being inside the vehicle could be difficult – we do love our Astro Van, but a huge number of mosquitoes found their way in through the old vents and tormented us in our sleep, despite using a net. I still have flashbacks of the buzzing.
Needless to say, bringing bug repellent is a necessity. I also wouldn’t recommend camping in valleys – the Rock River camp ground (445km) was like a breeding ground. The windy days were by far our favourite days on the Dempster.
The Dempster is a long road and rough in certain areas (north end of Tombstone was bad when we were there). While it is reasonably well maintained, your vehicle should be in decent enough shape to drive a couple thousand kilometres in the dirt. A good spare tire is essential as is a puncture repair kit, air compressor and jack. We lost a tire just before reaching the Arctic Circle and purchased a new one in Inuvik for the same price as it would have been in Vancouver!
If you drive an older vehicle (like us), I’d also suggest bringing spare oil. Some kind of strong tape is also really helpful for covering the vehicle seals between doors to keep the dirt out.
While we did buy a 25L gas can for the journey, we didn’t actually need it. OK, gas is very expensive in Inuvik ($1.89/l at the time) but you can also fill up in Eagle Plains (369km) and Fort McPherson (551km). I think bringing gas may come into play if you plan to drive the Dempster in a short amount of time (two to three days), and therefore the gas stations in Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson may be closed.
There are lots of great wild camping spots along the highway, alongside a handful of maintained rustic camp grounds (pit toilets, picnic benches etc.) These camp grounds have the bonus of covered shelters with screens on the windows, which are very useful for avoiding rain and bugs.
If you need a shower, there are FREE showers at the half way point, at Eagle Plains! We did not stay at the campground here but asked if we could use the showers and just told to go ahead!
Driving-wise, my main tip is that if the road is wet DRIVE SLOWLY. The road becomes exceptionally slippery when wet and being that most of the road is elevated due to the permafrost underneath if you slip off, you’re going into a big ditch. Either get off the road or drive really carefully. This is another reason not to do this trip in just a few days – I would suggest four days as a minimum.
We linked up with ‘A Brit and A Southener’ this week!