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North into the Arctic from the Dempster to the Tuktoyaktuk Highway

Word was the ferries were both running – hopefully we’d make it to Inuvik today. Therefore, we wanted to get an early start but even I was surprised we were on the road by 7:30am. The road was definitely narrower with more curves, more potholes and generally bumpier than yesterday. It only got worse – more potholes, a pronounced washboard surface and it was wet; so wet that as we bounced along I was continually struggling to avoid sliding off the road. The good news was there was no traffic at all in either direction. There may be a message there. Bad road conditions aside, it was undeniably beautiful.

Dempster Highway, Canada


We crossed the Arctic Circle and that was kinda cool – actually on top of a mountain with an outdoor temperature of about 5 degrees C and a cutting wind it was freezing cold! The nightmarish road continued as we forged our way north but the autumn splendour made it worth every kilometre.

At 9:15am we crossed from the Yukon to the Northwest Territories. The border marked a crossing of the Continental Divide and a time zone change. We entered the Mountain Time zone. Although the time changed by one hour, the SUV decided to change it by seven hours for some reason.

Immediately the condition of the road improved logarithmically. I was able to go 90 without fear. Either the Northwest Territories had a better budget for road maintenance or they were exceptionally well focused spending the funds they were allotted. The increase in traffic signalled our approach to the first ferry crossing at the Peel River. This was the one that had the problems with collapsing banks. Access was very steep and muddy. We finally understood how the delay problem came about. It was a precarious balance; anything worse than this would make access totally non-existent.

Peel River Ferry, Canada's northwest territory

The Mackenzie River crossing was a longer wait but that was a good thing because it gave us an opportunity to talk to some of our fellow adventurers. Always take advantage when these things happen. It gives you a perspective of the world and the region in which you’re travelling through the eyes of people who are really not that much different from yourself.

We arrived in Inuvik at 3:30pm making it about a seven hour trip for the day. The ten kilometres before town is paved! But, alas – construction. Imagine you can drive 800 kilometres on a dirt road and not see any sign of construction but as soon as you hit a 10 kilometre stretch of pavement the world falls apart.

Inuvik has a population around 3,500 and felt like a big city after a couple of long days on the Dempster. My first impression was very bad. It was one of those towns you can drive around in endless circles and never find anything. We couldn’t find a gas station, stores, restaurants or anything of any use. As it turned out they’re all there you just have to become a citizen of Inuvik to find them. None of these things were critical but all were desirable.

We drove to the Chalets where we were staying and were quickly shown to the Twilight Cabin, our home for the next two nights. It was nice and cozy indeed but not quite the incredible offering the owner made it out to be. Flies! Have you seen the Amityville Horror? Our cabin was full of them – every window in every room, both dead and alive. The owner suggested we open the windows and just shoo them away. Yeah right! Hey lady we tried it but the dead ones didn’t leave. Very poorly veiled as a complaint we suggested she get her cleaning staff (a young woman we met on our way in) in to vacuum up all the little buggers.

As I stepped out onto the porch the next morning I was greeted by a scene not normally seen by us at the end of August. There was a fresh blanket of snow on the vehicles and the air was surprisingly crisp. Crisp! Zero degrees C!

At 8:45am we left Inuvik in the rain for the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. A new road opened in November 2017 it promised adventure in our journey to the Arctic Ocean. If this rain kept up we’d be in for a wet and wild trip north.

There’s an Inuvik bypass (really?) that promises a stunning view of the Richardson Mountains and a bird’s eye view of the town. We followed it yesterday and it led nowhere so we’d try again today. Was it Einstein who said the definition of a moron was someone who tried the same thing again and again expecting different results? This looked like lost to me – in Inuvik!? I figured as long as I headed north I was bound to end up on the right road and that’s exactly what happened.

Considering the road was opened a mere 9 months ago it was an absolute mess. It definitely challenged northern Yukon on the Dempster for potholes and the fact that it was raining didn’t help matters any. The cloud cover was heavy and it sure looked like this lousy weather was going to be with us all day.

The road got worse with each passing kilometre. It was just dirt and the grader filled in the potholes with about six inches of sand and wet sand becomes mud in a hurry. We were skidding all over the place and could only go about 50kph. So far we had seen a grader about every 5 kilometres so it seemed to me it would be constantly the case but that was part of the adventure – that’s why we were there.

The new Tuktoyaktuk Highway

About 3 kilometres out of Inuvik we left the northern most reaches of the boreal forests, soon crossed the eastern channel of the Mackenzie River then crossed the treeline into the wide-open tundra of the Barrenlands. It was more than a little eerie seeing the last tree.

The road was very challenging; a lot of sand and gravel surfing so staying on the road was a monumental task. The potholes were huge and the roadbed was built up really high with the shoulders on about a 45 degree angle so if you did skid off the road you’d end up a long way down.

There were lots of signs as we entered numerous First Nation territories and also lots of signs warning of various wildlife, which I found hilarious because we still hadn’t seen any. I had a handout about the highway, kilometre by kilometre and there was one area where we would pass through the grazing range of the North’s only herd of domestic reindeer, tended and harvested in the region since the 1930’s. It didn’t matter how long they’d been there we didn’t see any. There were three caribou herds in an upcoming area but I knew we weren’t going to see them either.

It wasn’t easy but WE MADE IT! With a population of 935, Tuktoyaktuk is an Inuvialuit culture hub. It is the Northwest Territories’ prime seaport and the only place in Canada where you can drive to the Arctic Ocean.

In the 1950s radar domes were installed at the harbour as part of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) system to monitor air traffic and detect possible Soviet intrusions during the Cold War. That made Tuk important in resupplying civilian contractors and Air Force personnel along the DEW Line. The community eventually became a base for oil and natural gas exploration of the Beaufort Sea. Large industrial buildings remain from those 1970s era days.

Pretty much by chance we found the Arctic Ocean, although missing an entire ocean would be difficult even for me. It was two degrees, the wind was howling and the waves were crashing violently on the rocks. It was obvious we would not be able to get anywhere near the water even if we could have survived the cold so the opportunity to wade into the Arctic Ocean disappeared. Too bad because that is probably the number one reason people have for visiting Tuk.

The gas station was a revelation for me. A huge tank out front of a trailer seemed unusual at first then I realized that tank is normally underground. To say we looked forward to the return three hour trip to Inuvik would be a lie but I did relish the challenge. When it comes to driving, especially if no one else is around, I usually enjoy just about anything; lucky thing because it was one horrendous sloppy mess now.

The road had been awful on the way in but it was out of this world on the return. I don’t know how we made it through without four wheel drive. Every time we drove through a pothole, and I defy anyone to travel this road and not drive through potholes, the muddy water splashed up dousing the windshield, side windows, roof and the back of the vehicle. Fortunately there were no other cars on the road because I couldn’t see anything forward, backward or to either side through the windows or in the mirrors. Make sure your windshield wipers work and your washer reservoir is full for this trip or you’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

We passed a sign in oh so typically Canadian fashion indicating “Rough Road”; this after 90 kilometres of bouncing along and fighting to remain on the road and at times struggling to remain in my seat in the SUV. As if that wasn’t funny enough, it wasn’t long until we came across a “Bump” sign on one of the smoothest sections of the road, a “Reduce Speed” sign and an orange traffic cone indicating a bad spot to drive. Who comes up with this stuff?

Once back in Inuvik I got to see how incredibly dirty the vehicle was. It was hard to believe we made it safely back to town. We really had been driving almost blind. When we did get to the car wash it was hilarious. Everyone there had obviously been on the Tuk Highway today. The guy in front of me had a camper van and as he washed it Karen commented he looked surprised to see stickers on the back. “Stickers,” I said, “he’s amazed there’s a window in the back of the camper!”

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