Day 39. Friday, 7th June. Up The Dempster Highway.

The Dempster is supposed to be a contender for Canada”s most scenic and challenging drive. Yukon and the Northwest Territories are certainly absolutely vast and empty, but are a tame wilderness. There is no comparison to Siberia the Stans and Mongolia. The Dempster may be a gravel road, but it is constantly graded and maintained and relatively busy with camper vans, ute’s and trucks. Regular rest stops with toilets and camp grounds are frequent along the route too. It is lovely and no doubt on many people’s “Bucket List”, but simply because of this, has sadly lost its challenge.

I may be sounding a bit superior. To someone who has never driven on a gravel road this would be a real adventure. One can still imagine how it must have been not much more than 100 years ago when the first explorers arrived  Unbelievably difficult terrain for the first miners, trappers and fur traders to cross, which is why they used the rivers as much as possible.  Earlier in the morning we had read, on one of the information boards, about a patrol that in 1910 had set out from Fort McPherson for Dawson City, a distance of 765 km’s. A North West Mounted Police Inspector and three companions. They never arrived. The wildlife then must have been magnificent. We are also experiencing the drive in lovely weather. A blue sky and relatively mild. In winter it would be a completely different story.

The vistas are very wide valleys with meandering rivers. Sometimes very bare and almost desolate and at other times green and forested. A lot of the drive, so far, has taken us along ridges with vast expanses on either side. The lack of snow has been surprising. The peaks are virtually denuded. There are small pockets of snow in low lying areas and unmelted ice along some of the river banks. This morning a very orange, rusty looking river added colour to the muted browns and greens. Presumably caused by iron oxide in the rocks.

Mid morning we stopped at a scenic vantage point overlooking the the OgilviIe and Peel rivers. At a later stage we will have to cross the peel by ferry. We stopped to chat to a young East German girl. She had bought a car in Vancouver and wanted to come up north of the Arctic Circle, before finding herself a job for a few months. We also took advantage of this viewpoint as our lunch stop.

Soon after hitting the road we came across a stationary camper van and soon saw why it had pulled over. 3 black bears feasting on something by the roadside. A mother and 2 cubs. Another camper soon pulled in, but the bears weren’t too concerned.

Our next stop was at Eagle Plains, the half way point, according to the kilometre marker. This is between the start of the Dempster and Inuvik, before the road was extended to Tuktoyaktuk, though. Now there is another 144 k’s to travel.We filled up with diesel, but didn’t stop, as there wasn’t much in Eagle Plains to see.

In another 40 k’s or so we came to the Arctic Circle marker.  A jeep with Swiss registration and a camper pulled in at the same time. 2 Swiss couples who were traveling together. They asked if we would photograph them in front of the Arctic Circle marker and then they returned the compliment. Almost a year ago we were at the Arctic Circle Centre in Norway. This was a much grander affair, not just a marker board. It was far colder too when we were in Norway, with much more snow and felt considerable more arctic.

We are now in a lovely camp at Rock River. When we arrived it was just us, but since then the Swiss couples and 3 other camper vans have turned up. They are out of sight and hearing though as this is a spacious, wooded camp.

When we were setting up the tent a small squirrel was making a loud alarm call. It didn’t run away and was still there after we had put up the tent. I walked as close to it as I could. The boggy terrain wouldn’t let me get closer that about 2 metres away. It still didn’t budge. It was eating something and obviously didn’t want to put it down. Dennis said it looked like bear poo! It was difficult to see as it was surrounded by branches, but eventually I could see it was a fir cone. We have seen a few small animals today. A hare and several squirrels and a marmot. The marmot was right beside the Arctic Circle sign. At first we thought it was a joke. A stuffed one. It just stood there on its hind legs. When Dennis opened the Land Rover door it was down its burrow in the blink of an eye. Not so stuffed.

All North American camp grounds seem to come with a fire pit for each pitch. They have free fire wood here, so we have a nice blaze going. I think the tent might be a bit smoky though. It will add to the dust which the Land Rover has collected during the day. One thing it is not, is dust proof. This is the only problem with being on a gravel road all day with a lot of other traffic.

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