Dempster Driving

Several times since coming here, I’ve overheard the phrase “up the Dempster” in local conversations. I thought it might be a euphemism at first, but now, one-month veteran of the Klondike that I am, have come to know its real meaning. And yesterday, I was fortunate enough to be invited along on a road trip to go up the Dempster, albeit only partially.

The Dempster is in fact a highway, which starts just outside of Dawson City, and runs 736 km north to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. This time of year, with the addition of an ice road extension, the highway technically runs another 194 km to Tuktoyaktuk (the Harper Government has made noises about making that into a year-round road). The Dempster Highway has the distinction of being the northernmost highway in the land, since it is Canada’s only all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle. It is named after legendary Mountie William Dempster, who routinely ran the dogsled trail from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, NWT a hundred years ago.

Our expedition consisted of a small herd of local visiting artists, songwriters, and filmmakers, two of whom were scheduled to fly back to Whitehorse that afternoon. There had been live music at The Pit the night before, followed by parties that ran well into the morning, so it was a sedate, but enthusiastic bunch that bundled into the van early on Sunday. Everyone was commenting on what a comparatively mild day it was when we set out (around -28ºC after a solid week of -40ºC weather) but it was also gray and overcast.

In the handful of hours at our disposal, we couldn’t go very far, so it was really a tourist sightseeing daytrip — more of A Taste of the Dempster. Most of the highway is an unpaved and unforgiving gravel road, which in summertime has the reputation of chewing up the tires of those that make prolonged runs along it. In January, however, the road was icy and tricky, but not treacherous. Besides, we had an excellent and experienced driver and guide in Eldo Enns (a current Yukon College instructor and KIAC (Klondike Institute of Arts & Culture) associate, and former city manager, who seems to do or have done just about everything in his time).

Dawson City Artists-in-Residence Ed Pien and Johannes Zits take in the Ogilvie Mts. along the Dempster Highwa

Visiting Artists-in-Residence Ed Pien and Johannes Zits take in the Ogilvie Mountain range as they tour up the Dempster Highway

We went far enough that we transcended the tree line, where the great northern boreal forest ends, and the arctic tundra begins. We got a little past Tombstone Territorial Park in the Ogilvie Mountains before having to turn back, but the sight was awe inspiring, with jagged, ghostlike white mountains standing guard over barren expanses of snow covered valleys.

Calgary artist Sarah Smalik, who is currently exhibiting at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City,YT, laughs off the frost sculpting her eyelashes as she takes in the Dempster Highway.

Whatever “this ain’t cold” bravado we might have felt at the start of the trip was soon lost, though, as the wind came blowing in over the tundra and fingers began freezing on camera triggers. Parka hoods quickly went up as we explored outside, and there were always exclamations of relief when people jumped back into the warmth of the van. As short-lived as it might have been, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this unique and beautiful piece of Canada.

In summertime and fall, the parks and wilderness areas along the highway are a mecca for hikers and other visitors, and I strongly urge anyone interested in an unforgettable adventure to drive up the Alaska Highway from B.C. to Whitehorse, YT, then take the Klondike Highway to Dawson City (do plan to spend some time here) and finally, after picking up a spare tire or two, go on up the Dempster to where it ends near the Beaufort Sea. It is a haj I think all Canadians should do in their lifetime, and one I hope to more fully undertake in the future.