The Dempster Highway: Past, Present & Future

There are two ways to Inuvik: either fly Air North, or drive the scenic route – the 735.5 km of the Dempster Highway.

East of Dawson, branching off of the Klondike Highway, the Dempster begins. It follows the Klondike River valley, heads through the Ogilvie Mountains and crosses the Blackstone, Ogilvie and Eagle Rivers.

Then it weaves east through the Mackenzie Mountains, past Fort McPherson, past  Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, and continues via boat or ice road all the way to Tuktoyaktuk, the official end of the Trans Canada Trail.

Today, the Dempster is Canada’s only all-weather road across the Arctic Circle. But it was no easy feat. It began in 1959, called “Yukon Territorial Road No. 11.” As it was extended, the road continuously earned new names, corresponding to its new destination. When it reached Eagle Plains, it had the creative name of “Eagle Plains Road.”

When it reached Aklavik, it was named “Aklavik Road,” and so on and so forth. But even when the Dempster was officially opened on August 18, 1979, it would still be unrecognizable to the modern driver. It was a two-lane, gravel surfaced, all-weather road spanning only 671 km from the Klondike Highway near Dawson city to Fort McPherson.

The proposal to name the highway “Dempster” came from The Yukon Order of Pioneers, which is an all-male fraternity founded in 1894. They mainly regulated land claims before any law organizations existed in the North. They suggested Dempster in honour of W.J.D. Dempster, a North-West Mounted Police officer, due to his heroic efforts in one freezing winter.

The Dempster Highway roughly follows the route that the North-West Mounted Police patrolled by dog sled between Dawson City and Fort McPherson.

On February 20, 1911 North-West Mounted Police members F.J. Fitzgerald, G.F. Kinney, Taylor and Sam Carter left Fort McPherson on the return journey of their annual patrol.

But when they didn’t reach Dawson according to schedule, the Inspector sent out a search party team on February 28th.

This team was composed of Charles Stewart, a First Nations guide, and North-West Mounted Police members J.F. Fyfe, F. Turner and W.J.D. Dempster. A raging storm cost them valuable time and the bodies of their lost North-West Mounted Police colleagues were found in March on a snow-covered trail on the Little Wind River.

Sadly, the original return patrol team likely perished due to starvation and exhaustion. But Dempster and his team earned a great amount of respect for their journey.

Their legacy still lives on in the continuously evolving Dempster Highway. The road must have certain architectural aspects in order to be able to withstand northern environmental conditions. Because of its location the road has some unique architectural aspects. For starters, the highway sits on a gravel level surface between 1.2 m to 2.4 m thick to insulate the layer of permafrost underneath. Without it, the permafrost would thaw and the road would sink into the round.

The Dempster also crosses rivers and oceans by boats in the summer, and by ice road in the winter. But that is changing.

Soon, a new, all-weather road along the 124 km stretch between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk will be breaking the cycle of travelling by boat in the summer (on boats that can’t accommodate cars) and travelling on the ice road during the winter.

The project has been a long time in the making. The Harper government pledged $150 million to the project in the 2012 federal budget. This was increased to $200 million in March of 2013.

The Inuvialuit government completed an environmental review and gave their approval in January of 2013. Then, in March of 2013, the Northwest Territories legislature approved $65 million towards the construction of the extension. The road plans to open in the fall of 2017, with eight bridges and 359 open-drains.

It begs the question “Why?”

Why do we care so much about the Dempster Highway? Why do we commit millions to it? Why do thousands of people drive the Dempster each year? This is infinitely more than the folks making their grocery store commute.

Rather than a straightforward answer, we can guess. At the top of the world, the Dempster provides magic and mystic.

The Dempster Highway is layered with history, packed with tradition and sprinkled with fireweed. It’s peace and quiet. It’s beauty. And it’s a place to feel small and insignificant in the vastness of nature. And that is why the Dempster will continue to be one of the hallmarks of the north.

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