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Across the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway

I am The Road Trip Guy. I love driving, the more isolated the conditions the better. There is nothing more relaxing and satisfying to me than driving for hours upon hours on an empty road and never seeing another vehicle. The freedom of the road; a journey of discovery; leaving it all behind – traffic, noise, rushing, heat, telephones, your peace of mind depends on it. So it was only natural that the 747 kilometre Dempster Highway from near Dawson City to Inuvik plus a new 148 kilometre extension Tuktoyaktuk Highway to the Arctic Ocean would attract me – unquestionably one of the best road trips in Canada if not the world.

Dempster Highway, Canada We arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon via Air Canada about 9pm after a combined eight hours flying and five hours waiting. We were a little tired but happy to be there. That feeling of euphoria was quickly diminished as we discovered none of our luggage had arrived with us. Apparently that was common in Whitehorse. When we checked in with no bags the clerk commented, “Oh, you were on Air Canada!” One bag arrived the next day but the other, containing our winter and wet weather clothing, was missing for almost four weeks.

We didn’t know for sure whether the two ferries crossing the Peel and Mackenzie rivers respectively were running again or not but we headed north to Dawson City. The last few days had brought more rain than the river banks could handle and service had been cancelled indefinitely. Our entire reason for coming to the Yukon was to experience the Dempster so we were going to do that come hell or high water. Funny, the high water was the problem; only a matter of time before hell settles in.

Dempster Highway, Canada

Despite horrendous road conditions at times, somewhat deplorable weather as well and against the advice of almost everyone in the city we left Dawson, bound for the Dempster and Eagle Plains about 410 kilometres away. The highway wasn’t closed but if either of the ferries wasn’t operating it may as well be. I’d rather take my chances that they will come up with a solution even if it means waiting a few days, and if that be the case waiting in Eagle Plains would allow us to experience at least part of the Dempster.

Overall, the joy of the Dempster is the epic scenery. Wildlife encounter is also a lure but, though ever possible, we managed the entire trip without seeing a mammal larger than a squirrel. We did select the right season though, early autumn showcases the Dempster at its finest when the trees and brush turn in a blaze of colour.


The highway is dirt and gravel the entire distance so it plays havoc with your nerves and concentration. Weather can be a huge factor as well and we managed to experience just about everything you could possibly expect. Oddly, in such a wilderness environment, I was never worried about breakdowns or flat tires. Even though both are real occurrences I suppose I think I will always be able to rely on the kindness of strangers as sparse as they may be. It’s a full day’s drive from one town to another so be prepared.  It can be a challenge but for me it was the thrill of a lifetime.

Dempster Highway, Canada

Completed in 1979, the Dempster Highway is the only highway in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle revealing vast expanses of Arctic tundra and striking mountain ranges. Car ferries at the Peel and Mackenzie rivers take you across free of charge. Facilities are few and far between and may not live up to many people’s expectations of accommodation but they are clean and comfortable and many come with friendly dogs throughout.


Services are limited to non-existent on the highway. Gas, repairs, food and accommodation are only available at Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson and Inuvik – wow, maybe I should be concerned. Let’s file it in the back of my mind along with how to speak French and calculus. I have to say when I saw the rather elaborate Dempster Highway sign it gave me a thrill and a sense of purpose. Let’s roll!

Our first photo stop (I don’t think I made it quite a whole kilometre) left me in awe. This reminded me so much of Labrador but it was different; wilderness, isolation, peace and quiet, all that but there was something really exciting in the air. This was going to be a delightful journey no matter what happened.

The temperature was 5 degrees C so that suited me just fine. It was chilly though each time we got out of the car – we had no jackets remember. Both the weather and the road conditions fluctuated all day. One moment the sun would poke its welcome head out and three minutes later it would be overcast then raining.

There was a direct correlation between the weather and the road conditions. Naturally the rain made the potholed, rutted dirt track worse changing the hard-packed earth to sand and mud. It was hard motoring through but incredibly slippery too. On more than one occasion I found myself fish tailing wildly and drifting toward the shoulder of the road on curves. Surely this is where the term Ragged Ass Road originated.

Dempster Highway, Canada

In contrast, at times the road surface was very good. The dirt was so hard-packed and so ground in that it looked and felt like pavement. A few potholes but I rated it a 7 on the gravel/dirt road scale. Needless to say, that rating changed as the journey continued.

The North Fork Pass Summit lies just past the Tombstone Mountain lookout. At 1,300 metres (4,265 feet), it is the highest point on the Dempster and made me fully appreciate why we had chosen to take this trip.

As pretty as the clouds hanging on the mountain tops were we did have to be aware that they may roll in at any time and engulf us leaving us basically blind on a perilous mountain road. That only added more excitement and intrigue for me. The Ogilvie Mountains added to the grandeur as we passed Ogilvie Ridge, about 100 kilometres from Eagle Plains. No way! I think we’re going to make it; Eagle Plains – the halfway point on the Dempster Highway.

We had driven up into the clouds to what appeared to be the top of the mountain more than once today. At times the road was much better than I ever dreamed it would be. However, at the top it was a sloppy, mushy mess and was very slippery. Even though the speed limit was 90kph you couldn’t really go more than about 70. I didn’t want to go too fast because in spots the road just dropped off the side of the mountain and you’d be gone for good. Besides, we were doing far better than I anticipated so there was no need to rush.

Dempster Highway, Canada

The road seemed to get worse as we approached Eagle Plains. When we first got on the highway I said the road was about a 7 as dirt roads go because it really wasn’t bad, even feeling like a paved road at times. However, now the potholes were more frequent and deeper and the surface of the road was very spongy. In spots it was a 1, generally speaking about a 3. At about 30 kilometres from town the road had continually deteriorated, moving from a 2 or a 1 to just a regular piece of crap – I wondered if it could get worse.

canadaWith a population of 9 according to the welcome sign, Eagle Plains was a relief for us. The Eagle Plains Hotel, built in 1978, is pretty well in its original condition. It also seemed to be overrun with dogs, perhaps pets of the many truckers frequenting the hotel. Jumping on the couch and running through the lobby; even in the dining room, the dogs seemed to be everywhere. In addition it didn’t help any that the entire parking lot, gas station and surrounding area was a monstrous mud hole. Yet I still felt guilty tracking it into our room.

There was still no word on whether the ferries were running or not. We were still rolling the dice on that front and wouldn’t know until tomorrow if we could go any farther. I suppose that news would be our morning surprise.

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