When a Canada 150 project resulted in a road linking Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, the shores of the Arctic Ocean were newly accessible. So too, then, were my plans to drive the length of the Dempster Highway.
My wife and I made plans to drive to Tuk and put our hands in the Arctic Ocean. We were tenderfeet, like those inexperienced souls who came to strike it rich in the gold fields. We wanted to mine the maximum of experiences, see the maximum amount of countryside, camping along the way. Unfortunately, we are not campers by any stretch of the imagination. My wife’s idea of roughing it is not having a place in the bathroom to plug in the hair dryer. I have camped, but many, many years ago, and mostly around hunting trips. The friendly and helpful folks at Fraser Way R.V. were happy to set us up in a palatial truck and camper to assist us in our quest. Complete with cooking utensils, dishes and axe. We were set.
The Dempster is a gravel highway that passes through some beautiful country. First stop was the Interpretive Centre, 75 kilometres from the start. At a lookout just north of the Interpretive Centre there are great views of the Tombstone Mountains.
The gravel road is meant to be taken slowly. If you are going too fast, the road will tell you. If you are going too fast on washboard, the collection of wine glasses and coffee cups in the cupboard might not make it to the next stop in one piece.
The Arctic Circle is that imaginary line that demarcates the land of the midnight sun. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set in the summer, nor does it rise in the winter. For those of us who do not live in that situation, this was a novel experience. Surprisingly, there was no black dotted line on the ground, marking the Arctic Circle.
When I think of the Arctic, I think of tundra, flat expanses without trees. The Arctic Circle, at least the part that intersects the Dempster Highway, was not like that at all. Yes, there was a distinct shortage of trees, but there were mountains rising up in the distance. It was not what I expected at all. Challenge your perceptions and go see for yourself.
There are many things to see along the Dempster Highway. The Dempster Highway Travelogue, produced by the Yukon government, was an invaluable resource. There are things to look at, rock formations that march across the tops of mountains that look like elephants, or the remnants of a gold mine from years gone by. There was breathtaking beauty around each corner.
Along the way, we learned the tragic history of the Lost Patrol and the North-West Mounted Police officer who solved the riddle of the missing men and their fate as they tried to travel from Fort MacPherson to Dawson City in December, and had the highway named after him.
Inuvik was an interesting place. We stopped at the North Mart (think of Walmart, but in the North). You could buy anything from a snowmobile, or parka to groceries and hardware. The North Mart was across the street from the Igloo Church, which was closed, but we peered through the windows to try and get a glimpse inside.
The new road to Tuktoyaktuk, which means “Place of the Caribou,” snaked between ponds or small lakes of the Mackenzie Delta. Shrubs grew only knee-high. Some of these were berry bushes. Trees were scarce.
At last we reached the end of the road and found the Arctic Ocean. It was a cold day in August, the sky as grey as the water, and the wind pierced our fleece jackets. We made our way down to a sheltered place and put our hands in the water, which seemed warmer than the air temperature. Traditionally, people dip their toes in the water. We are not going back to do it the right way. There are other roads to explore.