Just after Whitehorse, we left the Alaska Highway and turned right onto the Klondike Highway. The road that eventually leads to the place we had been looking forward to for so long, Dawson City. We spread the 520 kilometer route over two days, after a nice overnight stay at Wrong Lake we arrived in Dawson City the following afternoon.
Dawson City originated after gold was found here in the late 19th century, which attracted thousands of prospectors. Dawson is still today one-to-one connected to the gold rush of days gone by. The streets in the gold rush metropolis are still unpaved and the facades of most of the historic buildings are still reminiscent of times when the nickname “Paris of the North” was more fitting. Walking the streets, it feels more like a living museum. You quickly forget that Dawson today is a normal town where people live and work.
For us, the city was primarily the springboard for the Dempster Highway. The only “highway” on Canadian territory that crosses the Arctic Circle; and that allows one to visit the northern coast of Canada. The first 116 kilometers were built in 1950, and after the large gas and oil field north of Alaska was found in late 1970, Inuvik was connected to Canadian infrastructure. The last 149 kilometers of road to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean were not built until 2017.
It is a route that requires some preparation for several reasons. Along this route in the far north there are only a few settlements where you can refuel, for example. There are 400 kilometers between Dawson and the halfway post Eagle Plains. Officially, the Dempster is 736 kilometers long and ends in Inuvik. If you include the final stretch to “Tuk,” that means you drive 1800 kilometers there and back – on gravel road! The nickname of the Dempster is ‘puncture road’. So a spare tire is no luxury! In Dawson we visited the info center and got the latest info and weather reports. Nothing stood in our way anymore to fulfill a long-awaited dream. On to the midnight sun!
A little bit nervous we were. What if we got a flat tire? What if the car breaks down? What…don’t think about it, just enjoy!
And we were enjoying the scenery, indeed! After about 80 kilometers, the mountains of the Tombstone Territorial Park came into view. Mountains that begin as green overgrown hills only to grow into real mountains. It was cloudy with occasional rain showers where the sun then sometimes came through. An enchanting landscape. We still had plenty of kilometers ahead of us so for variety we thought it would be good to take a walk along the North Klondike River and quietly take in the scenery by foot. Soon we then reached the highest point of the Dempster by car. The North Fork Pass of nearly 1,300 meters separates the water. The water on the left flows to the Pacific Ocean, the water on the right to the Arctic Ocean or through Hudson Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.
After the pass, the landscape changed slowly. The vegetation clearly became a little less and the tundra emerged. The mountains remained. It became a long ride. The average speed was about 40- 50 k/ph, making it a day’s task to drive 300 kilometers. It is light for a long time though, only around midnight does it start to dim a bit, so you can make good use of that. Around 22:30 we finally arrived at our overnight spot. Tired from a first day of gravel road, we drank another hot chocolate and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, Eagle Plains was quickly reached. Halfway there! At the hotel, we had a coffee and invited ourselves for a little tour of the nostalgic dining room. The outside of the building is more reminiscent of a very large simple but decorated construction shack for construction workers. The inside, on the other hand, exudes its history. Lots of stuffed animals, an old wooden bar that has already been through a few things, old pictures of hunters, prospectors and Inuit. Even the wooden furniture still seemed to be in its original state. Truly a beautiful picture of history in a special place.
Soon after Eagle Plains, we passed the Arctic Circle. The point, where on some days of the year the sun no longer sets or, on the contrary, no longer appears on the horizon. Not much later, then, we passed the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Our 10th province/territory on our trip across Canada. The clock goes forward another hour at this border so we ‘lost’ an hour. By now we were ‘enjoying’ 22 hours of daylight so that hour didn’t really matter much. We crossed a river twice by ferry. The first across the Peel River went quickly and smoothly. The second ferry across the big Mackenzie River departed just in front of us and we had an hour waiting time as a result. After this ferry it’s 3 more turns and one is in Inuvik. Or in other words, still 126 kilometers of driving. By now we could only vaguely see the mountains in our rearview mirror, so it was now only straightforward to Inuvik.
Inuvik is the economic center of the Far North, but for tourists it has little to offer. Since the opening of the road to Tuktoyaktuk in 2017, it is mainly used by tourists as a stop over on their way to the Arctic Ocean. We too continued on our way the next morning and were once again amazed by the beauty of this area. We were literally driving through the Mackenzie Delta and the perfectly passable road winds its way through the many lakes. The sky is so clear here that the colors come at you unreal like a high definition photograph. We made many stops to take pictures and especially to enjoy the tranquility that the landscape exudes. After 140 kilometers, the skyline of “Tuk” appeared on the horizon. A skyline consisting mainly of a number of high probably oil storage tanks and Pingos. Pingos are small icebergs overgrown with earth and grass. In the mostly flat tundra landscape, they are an oddity.
Without any doubt we could say that we had arrived at the northernmost point of our trip. At the large sign reading “Arctic Ocean,” the road curves around and heads back south. At nearly 70 degrees north latitude with the sea in the background, the sign is a favorite photo object of travelers who have made it this far. The North Pole, by the way, is another 2,200 kilometers away.
During our trip so far we have already immersed ourselves in cold water several times, so of course the Arctic Ocean could not be missing from this list. Since we were on traditional Inuit land and we respect it, we informed ourselves where we could best do this. There was even a “Tuk by the Sea” only unfortunately there were large blocks of stone on the beach and under the water surface so we kept it to a bit of splashing.
Under the motto “since we are here anyway” we drove around Tuk for a short time, but had seen enough soon enough. The people here were only really connected with the rest of Canada since 5 years and since then quite a few tourists come here and it is clear to see that the inhabitants still have to find their way around. In the end there is quite a lot of poverty, everything seems messy and reminded us a bit of traveling in third world countries. So we got ready again for the 900 kilometers back to Dawson City!
The advantage of having to drive the same road back again is that we knew approximately which stretches we could drive 70 kph and where the speedometer didn’t go beyond 20 kph. Four wheel drive cars sometimes raced past us hard on stretches where we preferred to let off the gas pedal. We preferred to keep our cups and pans in one piece anyway so we took it easy. As a result, we saw our first grizzly, unfortunately, he was also gone as quickly as he had come. But nevertheless we were thrilled. We could also observe Dall sheep and a herd of mountain goats on the mountain slopes along the road.
With one more overnight along the way, we were back at the Tombstone Visitor Center after 5 days and it already felt a bit like we had made it to the end. Dark clouds were approaching us and the occasional splash of rain was already falling. The weather didn’t stop us from hiking some more along the Grizzly Lake trail. Although we kept it dry, the presence of the clouds meant we had little view from the viewpoint.
We were left with 58 kilometers of gravel road until kilometer 0 where the Dempster meets the Klondike Highway. We were super happy that we had made the Dempster, but were also looking forward to the end and closing this chapter without any flat tires or other problems with the car. Because of the last rain, those last 58 kilometers became quite a chore to cover. At times there were more holes than road, but after we passed the bridge that announces the beginning, or end, of the road, we clasped each other’s arms and were happy and proud at the same time and celebrated in the evening with dinner at the local saloon in Dawson!
The next day we treated ourselves with a day of rest. Nothing more than breakfast, drinking coffee, and most importantly, no driving. We signed up at the Visitor Center for a guided walk through the town. This gave us some fun and interesting information. We learned that because of the melting of the permafrost soil the houses are sometimes crooked, that it looks like those same houses are built of stone but they are actually wooden houses with pressed and colored tin as decoration. Also what the permanent residents are doing in the winter months when it is cold and dark. Before going to bed we washed most of the dust off the car so it would look somewhat presentable again for the border crossing the next day to Alaska/USA!