Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Driving the Dempster


Fasten your seatbelts - here we go! Maybe get a cup of tea or a glass of water, because this is a long, long post. 

The Dempster Highway (aka Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8) had a start and stop construction history, beginning in 1959, but not opening until 1979. The road begins 40 kilometres from Dawson City, Yukon, and ends at Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Further construction, completed in 2017 carries on to Tuktoyatuk on the Arctic Ocean. I'll save that portion for another day. 

We departed Dawson City around 7:30 am on a sunny August morning. We left behind our travel trailer, not wanting to subject it to 747+ kilometers of gravel road complete with innumerable potholes.

Our first stop was Tombstone National Park, about 70 km along the road. Many people drive just this far and turn around, because the road here is the worst of the entire trip. We jounced and rattled along, with Tim crossing back and forth across the road trying to avoid the worst holes.

The mountain above is the view from the visitor's centre. In the clear northern light it looked amazing. I would never tire of that view. 

We carried on, stopping now and again to just absorb the immensity of the space. William Ogilvie, a land surveyor who explored and surveyed much of the Yukon and the NWT, including establishing the border between the Yukon and Alaska, in 1893 wrote, 

"...the scenery is sublime...vastness such as I have never before conceived, while in every direction as far as the eye could reach appeared to brood the spirit of profound solitude, silence and desolation."

We certainly felt that vastness, solitude and silence. It is unlike any landscape I've ever seen. I felt like I was on top of the world. The colours were amazing, with fireweed adding pink, and oddly, burned sections of forest looking dusky purple. The road wound on and on, up and down, and was visible far in the distance. 

Although the drive could be done in one long day, we chose to break it up and stayed the first night at Eagle Plains. What's in Eagle Plains? Very little. A gas station and mechanic shop, and a motel. It was constructed in the 1970s and remains a crucial support point for industrial trucks (and tourists) along the highway. The decor reminded me of visiting a great aunt's home where the welcome is warm, but nothing has been updated for quite some time. 

About 9 people live here year round. We spoke with the manager of the motel/restaurant, who is from Mexico and will be spending his first winter here this year. Another employee, from the Czech Republic, said she spent the previous winter, and it was hard because of the isolation and lack of light. Vitamins and melatonin helped her and this year she plans to get a lamp that replicates sunlight. 

We enjoyed a most delicious dinner in the restaurant both coming and going on the highway, as we stayed on the way back, too. I awoke in the night and peeked behind the blackout blinds to see a glowing red sky streaked with clouds around 1 am. Now I wish I had dressed and taken my camera outside. 

The next morning we got up early and ate breakfast in the Tahoe. I had made muffins before leaving Dawson City, and we had fruit with us. 

Not far from Eagle Plains is the rest stop marking the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees 33 minutes latitude. We were early and the sun fierce behind us, so the photos are not the greatest, but we had fun posing in various stances while I ran back and forth to the camera. 

We stopped to walk on the tundra and taiga several times, and to listen to the utter absence of man-made sound. Distances are deceptive - at one point I suggested we walk to the top of a hill on the road just for exercise. It took far longer than I'd thought. The tundra is soft with vegetation and we sank down almost to our knees in places. We watched a cow moose with her calf on a distant hill for some time. 

There are clear and calm lakes, where we saw Trumpeter Swans swimming in the distance, and geese and mallards floated in abundance. The feeling of utter freedom made me want to run in exhilaration with my arms open wide like Maria in The Sound of Music. The air is an elixir of energy.

Foxtail Barley ripples in the wind, adding motion and colour to the landscape. It's native to Yukon, but can be harmful to animals. 

The highway passes through the Ogilvie Mountains and then the Richardson Mountains. Descending from the latter we came to the Peel River, and then the McKenzie River, both crossed by small ferries. You can see that the ferry "terminal" is not quite the same as we are used to. 

The Dempster Highway closes during fall freeze-up and spring break-up. In the fall, the rivers must freeze solid before traffic can drive across the ice, and in the spring, the ferries can't run until the ice has departed, nor can vehicles drive across. This is about 6-8 weeks in both fall and spring. Supplies must be stored for these weeks as the only access is by air, and that is minimal. The woman who gave us the greenhouse tour in my previous post said she kept a very deep pantry, and was stocking up for freeze-up. 

Fort McPherson is a hamlet inhabited mostly by about 640 First Nations peoples. It is the site of a former Hudson Bay fur trading post, and the starting point of The Lost Patrol, where four RCMP officers died after getting lost in the winter. They were enroute from Fort McPherson to Dawson City via dog sled and missed a turn. Their bodies were found and brought to Fort McPherson for burial. 

On our way back we saw a huge mother grizzly with her also very large cub. Grizzly bear cubs stay with their mothers up to three years, and Tim estimated this one to be 2-3 years old. The mother disappeared over the ridge just before I took the photo. A noise startled this cub and it took off running across the grasses, its glossy fur rippling in the light. A magnificent sight. 

If you've read this far, you're to be commended! One last photo of the scenery, this one taken in Tombstone Park on the way back. Rain in the distance made for a moody photo as we stood, realizing that we would soon leave this place and possibly never return. It was truly the experience of a lifetime. 


  1. What an exciting time you had - Grzzly Bears, great views and the colourful tundra. Love the Foxtail Barley, I would have picked some, dried it, and carried it back home.
    In many ways your trip reminds me of the time when we travelled up to the Artic Circle in northern Norway and witnessed the midnight sun.

  2. I'll have to look Yukon Lady up. Sounds like my kind of book. I have a Facebook friend (Louise Dumayne) who lives most of the year in a remote Yukon cabin with her husband. She's from England originally. You might enjoy her Facebook page if you do Facebook.

    We haven't driven the Dempster but when we had our airplane we flew to Dawson, Inuvik, and even Tuktoyatuk. They had a small city campground right on the Arctic Ocean. People from town came out on quads to offer crafts and sightseeing tours. I bought a walrus soapstone carving and a handmade doll in traditional dress. The personal tour was a tin boat ride up the river formerly known as the Coppermine to a relatives hunting/fishing shack. Those were exciting days. -- Margy

  3. I bet if you had gone outside at 1 your nightgown to make pictures noone would have seen you!! Wouldn't those pictures have been something to see!

  4. Glorious landscapes. It sounds and looks like an amazing experience. The silence must be strange yet wonderful! Great post!

  5. I believe you and you and Tim are certainly the ones to take it. I enjoyed the photos and descriptions from the comfort of my home. 😏


  6. Breathtaking vistas!

    What an amazing experience!

    I'd love to go there. It would be the farthest place on earth for me!

    Next life, maybe??!!

  7. Such amazing views. You can imagine William Ogilvies amazement and awe as he saw those views for the first time.
    You really have had a wonderful adventure , to be remembered over and over.

  8. I admire your adventurous spirit. You two make a good team. Not many can say they've seen in person what you've seen. Congratulations on completing this trek, there and back!

  9. What an adventure! I can only imagine how amazing it was.

  10. An adventure to read about as well! Great photo of y'all at the Artic Circle.
    Beautiful photos. The winter's there are difficult to imagine. Waiting 6-8 weeks to travel is mind boggling.

  11. Hi Lorrie~ What an amazing trip!! I have really enjoyed seeing all of your beautiful photos and hearing about your adventures. Leaving must have been bitter-sweet for you, knowing that you may never return, but what a great experience! Thank you for sharing!! Barb

  12. Had no idea what the Dumpster was! -smile-

    🍁🍁🍁 🍁🍁🍁 🍁🍁🍁

  13. I feel I have missed so much because I haven't visited here for some time. I will read the other posts about this fascinating trip as well. I first looked on google maps where the Dempster Highway is. This would be something we would enjoy as well. The lanscape reminds me of Alaska. Great wildlife sightings - and I just love fireweed.

  14. I like to read your posts in the evening but need to get back over here and comment. It's so enjoyable to follow your trip. You were very brave to do something this adventurous! LOVE the photo of the two of you at the Arctic Circle sign. That must have been so amazing! Thanks for sharing your photos!

  15. Lovely to read your post and see your photographs.
    It looks and sounds an amazing trip.

    All the best Jan

  16. What a fantastic post. I have read it very carefully, following Google maps. The lakes are so gorgeous, and how exciting to see the bear and cub. The scenery is beautiful, and I find it amazing that you can drive so far north in this region. The people who live there must be stoic indeed, but what an adventure it was for you!

  17. Such an incredibly rugged and beautiful part of our country. The splendour of it all takes my breath away.

  18. It's too late for a cup of tea as I read this but I didn't need it -- loved the whole narrative and pictures and it brought back so many memories. We still feel the call of that beautiful St ate (and in particular this part of it, which is so unlike any place else we've ever visited) ); I wish we could go back someday, but .... (so many places, so little time)!


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