Arctic Circle sign on Dempster Highway

The road trip begins: Tuktoyaktuk on The Dempster Highway

I hate driving. Like, hate it. It’s stressful and, especially in Canada, there’s snow, ice and animals. You guys are also strange and drive on the incorrect side of the road! My Canadian husband, Ryan, mocks me because it took him two days to drive here from B.C. when he moved to the Yukon, while it took me three weeks. Still, when the Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) highway officially opened Nov. 15, 2017, I wanted to drive it (The Dempster Highway) to the Arctic Ocean. My fear got the better of me though. It wasn’t until I met my husband in 2019 that the dream of making the 2,700 kilometre round-trip to dip into the Arctic Ocean became a reality.

First was the trip planning and preparation. We prepped everything for camping in the back of the truck. This included food, water, extra gas and items to make sure that if we got stuck somewhere we could get out. Our trip plan needed to include potential for delays and road closures while also ensuring we visited all the highlights on the way up without driving for too long.

Day 1: Whitehorse to Tombstone

Our first day and the truck was ready for the long haul to Tombstone in a seven-hour stretch after work on a Friday! The beautiful drive starts on the North Klondike Highway, following the Yukon River. 

We get gas at the Dempster cutoff, as it’s a long journey to the next gas station in Eagle Plains. Once we get on the Dempster Highway, the conditions change dramatically. The darkness allows the sparkling stars to highlight the mountain peak silhouettes. The road changes from asphalt to dirt highway, shifting between dry patches with low visibility and muddy bog sections that make me thankful we’re in a truck. It’s 10:30 p.m. when we pull into the Tombstone Territorial Park campground. We drive around and every camping spot is full, except the overfill area. Once parked, we get dinner and bed ready.

Ryan sets up the truck and pulls out all the camping items. He sets up the “kitchen” while I set up the bed. Our bed is a 4-inch foam mattress and two sleeping bags. I brought some battery-operated fairy lights to add the ambience. Did I mention it was -10 degrees C? No? I was glad we had invested from our previous truck camping experience in a Mr. Buddy heater. It heated up our sleeping area while we enjoyed glasses of wine and some warm food.

Day 2: Tombstone to Inuvik

We wake up to beautiful, clear, sunny skies and it’s absolutely freezing. We make a quick breakfast and pack up the truck to go and enjoy the long drive north.

Outside the campground is the pullout to view Tombstone Mountain. We have a perfect view down the North Klondike Valley.The roads seem endless in the distance, winding through the valleys. The yellow trees and red mountains are incredibly beautiful. The wide open valleys disappear as the weather changes and the fog makes it challenging to drive.

With no views and poor visibility, it’s easy to get disoriented. I’m thankful Ryan is driving and not me. We eventually make it to Eagle Plains, the last stop in the Yukon before the Northwest Territories. It’s not quite what I expected, but I guess the first time I visit a new place in the Yukon, it’s always unexpected. That’s what makes this place always interesting. The town looks almost like a large highway camp with long lorry trucks, a few houses, a gas station and hotel/restaurant. The sharp peaks and mountains of Tombstone appear far away, making the landscape flatter and more barren.

Visiting the Eagle Plains hotel for beer is the first tourist stop on our epic road trip adventure. The slogan of the Eagle Plains lodge is “Where the north begins.” Looking at the intricate details inside, it feels like we’re at the end of the world. The map shows we are close to the Arctic Circle and it dawns on me that this is the furthest north I’ve ever been. I suddenly feel very far away.

We order a beer and are told that we cannot simply order alcohol without food, so we get a poutine snack to accompany it. We enjoy while admiring the art and photos of times past.  Once we have our snack, beer and more gas, it’s time to head north. The roads immediately after Eagle Plains are horrid. The mud bogs would be impassable in my car. Once again, I’m thankful I’m not driving. We make it through the tricky sections and note that the alpine and trees are slowly dissipating. As we drive on, we approach the Arctic Circle monument. The winds are brutal and the open expanse of the tundra is spectacular. Once we take a photo opportunity, we start to approach the Northwest Territories border and it’s snowing. Yes, it’s September and snowing. 

We get to the first sign that indicates our destination officially—Tuktoyaktuk. Of course I need to have a photo. Once I get out of the truck, the gale force winds and pelting snow make it difficult to get to the highway sign. Once there, I turn around and note that Ryan hasn’t gotten out of the truck. Eventually he makes it out of the warm truck to take a proper photo in the ice blizzard.

We jump back in the truck and officially cross the Northwest Territory border. As we descend, the snow and fog lifts. We see the drastic difference between the Yukon and the Arctic landscapes. The first town is Fort McPherson, followed by our first ferry ride at Tsiigehtchic. Our initial idea was to stop and camp somewhere before arriving in Inuvik, but Ryan wants to make it all the way. Eleven hours later, on our last stretch to Inuvik, I’m ready to camp anywhere. After Tsiigehtchic, the roads are straight, with endless trees and no mountains. The dusty roads obscure any views as NWT vehicles hurtle past. Unlike the Yukon, there are no pull-outs or campgrounds. It’s just a long stretch of never ending, very boring road. However, we make it to the Gwich’in Territorial Park campground, about 35 kilometres outside of Inuvik. I demand that we stop. My whole body hurts from rattling around in the uncomfortable truck and I reached my driving limit several hours before. Ryan agrees and we set up in the campground. The campground is wide open, with minimal trees. It’s strange, there are fewer trees than in the Yukon and they’re all even smaller. There are no mountains, just vague attempts at hills. The campground does give us a beautiful view over the river. We sit in the back of the truck to drink a glass of wine while we watch the sun set. It’s strange how much warmer it is than along the Dempster, with the refreshing sun and lack of winds. It’s a beautiful spot and we fall asleep in the Arctic North, ready for our drive to Tuk tomorrow to dip in the Arctic Ocean!

Watch for Part 2 of this special three-part feature by Kylie Campbell-Clarke in the next issue of What’s Up Yukon…

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