What do you think the land north of the Arctic Circle looks like? What sort of weather would you expect to find there? What are the images you have in mind? Whatever the answers, unless you’ve been here before, or seen lots of pictures, it’s likely you’re as far off base as we were!
We pulled out of Dawson City in the truck at 8am, having left the trailer behind because of all we’d heard about this treacherous road, The Dempster Highway. Six kilometers after turning off the Alaska Highway, the paved road ends, and from there it’s 475 miles of gravel, one way. We’d been told to expect to see lots of wildlife, and to prepare for the road conditions by carrying at least one, preferably two spare tires, extra food and water, a shovel, blanket, flashlight, and possibly a spare gas can as fuel is only available at two places the entire length of the road.
The first segment of the trip winds through the Tombstone Mountains, which are craggy, snow-capped and vast, and separated by gorgeous heavily-treed valleys, with the morning light (or would that be the all-night-light??) casting beautiful colors over the entire panorama. From there, the mountains recede into the distance, and rivers wind through the terrain (Yukon, Red, Mackenzie and Peel Rivers). We crossed the Continental Divide three times, and thus found the river flows confusing, as “downstream” kept switching directions on us, depending whether it was flowing into the Beaufort Sea or the Bering Sea. Caribou are supposedly prolific, but it turns out that’s only true from September to April, and this time of year they’re already north at the Beaufort Sea, so we didn’t see any. Instead we saw rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits – and two grizzly bears (our first!) sleeping curled up together about 100 yards off the road on the tundra, one white-ish and one brown. That was it for the wildlife, much to our surprise.
There’s no traffic on the Dempster Highway. That’s not entirely a true statement: we did count (and tallied each) 44 vehicles for the day, which works out to one vehicle every 10 miles the full length of the road. Each time a vehicle approached, we slowed and pulled to the right side of the road to reduce the likelihood of a cracked windshield. As a result, we have one small rock chip and hope it won’t spread.
We did, in fact, meet one couple who were busy changing their second flat tire, and they were only halfway through the southbound leg of their journey. Their first flat was actually a blow-out, the second a simple flat. We met them at the Arctic Circle mark.
The “spaces” in this area are vast. It all looks big, as if it goes on forever. But there are many more trees and shrubs, though much sparser and smaller than we expected, both deciduous and evergreen, including black and white spruce, birch and larch. The permafrost and tundra don’t look as unusual as we expected – more like brown, lumpy, damp land, not ice. We didn’t walk on it today, but plan to do so tomorrow.
The 479 mile road has only two real “places” along the way: Eagle Plain and McPherson. The former is not a town, just a small collection of buildings that includes a gas station, small utilitarian-looking motel, mechanic’s shop, and a tiny restaurant. McPherson is a more substantial, but still very small town that we didn’t go into as we didn’t need gas.
The highway is built on top of permafrost, an engineering challenge that has been met quite successfully in our view. The roadway is built up about 10 feet above the surrounding land in order to provide insulation to the permafrost underneath it, because if the permafrost were to melt, as the surrounding land does to a certain depth in the summer, it would destroy the road every year. As a result, the gravel roadway is astonishingly well-graded, mostly pothole free, and smooth. A few short segments had us traveling only 35-40 mph, especially on curved segments, but most of the way we went 50-55 mph, and the last 100 miles was in such great shape we moved along at 60-65 mph.
The final characteristic of interest is that this roadway is entirely gravel this time of year, but is kept open through the winter as an Ice Highway – literally the road is ice, including the two stretches that cross the Peel River and the Mackenzie/Red River confluence. Drivers travel on the frozen river. For a brief period in the spring when the river ice is in the process of breaking up, and again in the fall when it is freezing over, the river is not passable, and the communities north are cut off except by air. During the summer months between freeze and thaw, a government-operated free ferry travels back and forth from shore to shore and transports vehicles. We took both these ferries today and found it interesting.
We arrived at the town of Inuvik 11 hours after leaving Dawson City, surprised to find it was SUNNY AND 72 DEGREES!!! We were tired and hungry, and noted Inuvik is a more substantial and modern town than we expected. We’re staying in a motel that looks like any Comfort Inn & Suites you’d find in the U.S., and it even has internet!
Tomorrow we tour the town of Inuvik, then head south.