Posts Tagged ‘Dempster Highway’
It was grey and drizzly in Eagle Plains when we gassed up and headed out. The journey across the plains again felt somewhat bleak and overwhelming, with endless boreal forest rolling in every direction, largely devoid of animal life. It began to open up about an hour or so into the journey, at the same time as the sun began to shine through the clouds.
Dropping down towards the Oglivie River, the scenery and weather improved, and we were again among the interesting rock formations of the Oglivie Mountains, then the less-exotic Taiga Mountains. We stopped for lunch in the Oglivies near a outcrop known for fossils, but didn’t find any.
The mountains gave way to the Blackstone Highlands – the wider tundra plateau – then we climbed gently into the Tombstones again. At around 4pm we crossed the Continental Divide for the final time, and just a couple of kilometres short of the Tombstone campground, we pulled off the highway and drove a short distance to a microwave tower.
We got on our hiking gear and set out for a stellar hike up Goldensides Mountain. It was a steep grunt straight up a steep slope of scrub, then lose barren rock. Stopping to catch our breath, we turned to take in great views west towards Tombstone Mountain and the North Klondike River valley. Cresting the ridge, we were treated to spectacular 360 views, particularly when we hiked the short distance on the open heather ridge to the summit. To the north and south was the Dempster running along the valley. To the west was Tombstone and Monolith, and east were numerous other peaks and valleys. The sun was low and gorgeous, and there was the tiniest hint of snow on the north faces.
We soaked in the view for a while, taking pictures of the scenery and each other, then began the steep descent down about 300m to the van. Once there, it was a short drive to the campground where we snagged the same spot from a few days ago, and I whipped up a fajita dinner to be proud of at home. Now we’re just sitting under blankets and hoping for more northern lights.
Another breakfast and a hungover Brenda greeted us when we got out of bed at 9am. She had intended to have her hair cut and coloured this morning prior to their trip to the Dominican Republic on Monday, but couldn’t face sitting in the chair in the salon, so she cancelled. It was good for us as we were able to spend a bit more time with her.
Moe prepared us a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, then we began to reload the van, take on water, and so on. It was very sad to say goodbye to our new friends, but I hope that we can see them again soon, which is not unlikely since her folks are in Vancouver. It would be great to come up here again; Moe is very excited to take us out to the other cabin on Husky Lake. We would love to show them some hospitality in our home. As a parting gift, Moe gave us the giant horn of a dall sheep!
The day was grey as we rolled out and remained so. Retracing out steps down the Dempster was largely uneventful as we crossed the Mackenzie and Peel, entered the tundra by the Richardsons, climbed the Continental Divide, traversed more open (and rainy) country, then eventually climbed back onto the Eagle Plain. The highlight was seeing a wolf near the Richardson Range near the caribou migration route. He or she was large, sandy, grey and white in colour, and had bright, intelligent eyes. Although the wolf cleared off the road as we approached, it wasn’t skittish, jogging parallel to us about 150m off in the shrubs. We both got good looks through the binoculars.
We are again encamped at the Eagle Plains service centre among the clouds. Our days have been very full here – time seems to fly by incredibly quickly – so we have had very little time to write or read. This evening was one of our first chances, and we are just relaxing and feeling cozy in our van.
We woke clean and refreshed to a breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. Moe and Brenda then took us on a driving tour (in one of their two big diesel pickups) around the town to see views, to meet Moe’s eldest sister Elizabeth (making ground moose) in her house, to see the elevated and heated ‘utilidor’ service system and the igloo-shaped church.
After our tour Kristi and I went for a walk in the lovely sunshine (noting our long our shadows were at noon) into various gift shops and such in the ‘downtown’. We ended up only buying some cards (to thank our house sitters) and some postcards (which we wrote and mailed promptly).
The best part of the day, and likely the highlight of our trip, came in the mid-afternoon. Moe invited us to visit his family cabin up the East Channel. The five of us (Shadow the lab retriever joined us) hooked up the boat trailer and headed to the river. The boat was launched and we piled it. We were treated to a beautiful 45-minute ride upstream by the channels and islands of the massive Mackenzie Delta. Shadow stood nose in the wind, ears flapping, doing circles of excitement as we motored past ice-eroded banks and the spruce trees of the delta.
The cabin sat next to the ancient cabin of Moe’s granny on a lovely piece of land overlooking a bend in the river. It’s a series of old and new structures – cabins, outhouses, sheds – set in a clearing above the riverbank and bordered by spruce and willow trees. A swing set and toys suggest the grandkids are brought up a lot. It’s used year-round; accessed in summer by boat and in winter by skidoo.
We spent a wonderful afternoon there, hitting golf balls into the river (with Shadow chasing down the ones that didn’t make it that far), driving cider and red wine, playing horseshoes, and grilling delicious moose burgers over a fire pit. The most reluctant to leave was Moe, even though he’ll likely return tomorrow.
We took the long way back, detouring up narrow channels to visit Minto Lake, to see beaver (successfully), and to search for moose (no sign). The sun had ducked behind high clouds and we were chilled by the time we returned to Inuvik, but we were thrilled with our experience and Moe and Brenda’s generosity.
We relaxed at the house, chatting and warming up, then shortly after dark drove the short distance to Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth and Frieda, another sister, were there, and they put on a spread of Inuvialuit delicacies: dryfish (smoked and dry from the river), chunks of caribou, and muk-tuk, which is beluga whale skin. We tried them all (how could we not?), and I’d have to say the dryfish and caribou were very tasty. Caribou is a strong meat, a bit like roast beef and venison together. The muk-tuk I was less a fan of (hard to put the image of a beluga out of my mind). It was chewy and cold and fatty. Moe loves the stuff, however, and ate most of the plate himself. Elizabeth also gave us a jar of her delicious home-made local cranberry jam!
Tumblers full of Gato Negro red wine were poured and consumed (Frieda had rum and cokes), the guitar came out, plus spoons from Moe, and songs were sung, starting with ones from their childhood in Aklavik, then into others about po’ folk and then some Johnny Cash.
Around 11pm, it was decided it was time to head to the Mad Trapper, one of two bars in town. A very wobbly Moe was talked into giving up the keys to his truck to Kristi and we drove downtown (1km?). The Trapper is an unpolished place stocked with locals (there are only locals in Inuvik after August). A band played classic rock covers and enthusiastic folks danced. Kristi and I were forced up for a few numbers, and I had a few dances with Frieda. Moe and Brenda showed us how it was done with some two step action. Kristi was asked to dance a couple of times by a local girl (perhaps a relative). We stayed long enough to drink a couple of rounds. Moe was wobblier and unbelieving when it was time to go, and Frieda (the only one to go to work the next morning) was disappointed it was all ending so soon.
The hotel was on an island surrounded by clouds when we woke up. We decided to treat ourselves to a breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The server/cook whipped us up a couple of delicious veggie omelets with toast and coffee for a pretty reasonable price given the remoteness of the hotel. After settling up, we perused the lounge, stuffed full of stuffed critter – moose, bear, lynx, caribou, and so on. We gassed up and headed on our way.
We quickly dropped down to the Eagle River, climbed a bit, then emerged from boreal forest into tundra as we contoured around the Richardson Mountains to our right. The mountains are completely unglaciated, a grassy oasis during the last ice age called Beringia. They are rounded, eroded only by streams and wind. The rolling tundra is part of the migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd although we didn’t see any on our drive.
We climbed up to the Continental Divide for the third and final time on the Dempster. At the Wright Pass we stopped to gave over the tundra and the mountains of the divide, then crossed the border into the Northwest Territories. About 1km later I spotted a fat male grizzly waddling across the land. We stopped and scoped him with the binoculars as his rump made its way away from us.
The tundra gave way to the Mackenzie Lowlands when we dropped down to the ferry crossing at the Peel. After this short ride, the land returned to boreal forest and the roads improved somewhat. The land rolled only gently from her to the end of the road.
After about 10kms we came to Fort McPherson, a ramshackle little place where we stopped for gas and mailed a postcard. We’d be told we could empty our tanks here, but the only option to do so was out in the “Nuisance Yard”, a.k.a. the dump, just past the town. We pulled the van up next to the fetid sewage lagoon and emptied the hose into it.
Sixty kms further we came to the Mackenzie River, one of the 10 longest rivers in the world (1600kms). One-fifth of Canada is the river’s watershed. It was monumental, rolling its grey way to the Beaufort Sea. We had considered it a possible turn-around point, but Inuvik seemed so close (125kms), the day was long, and the weather was gorgeous, so we drove onto the ferry and continued on. It would have been very disappointing to have turned around, and we would have missed out on an incredible experience, which I will get to.
The rest of the Dempster was easy driving – well-graded, straight, and relatively flat. About 10kms outside of Inuvik we hit asphalt (!) for the first time in 700kms. The town itself is clean, colourful and attractive, nicely situated on the East Channel of the Mackenzie. It even has a traffic light (!). We drove through the town to the territorial campsite on the edge of town, but found it closed down for the season, which was somewhat surprising and disappointing. All the campsites leading into down were closed too. Not only did we need a place to stay, we needed water for our tank; it was almost empty. Plus we wanted showers.
We drove around looking for options. We dropped by a hotel to consider prices, and we scouted around for possible places to just park for the night. We returned to the closed campground and seriously considered just parking in the driveway in front of the locked gate.
Kristi ducked under the gate to scout around, and I stepped out of the van. In the distance I heard a man’s voice, but wasn’t sure where it was directed or where it was coming from. When Kristi came back, we heared it again. “It closed on September 1st!” he said. “Come on over here and park in my driveway!”
So we did, and this is how we met Moe and Brenda.
When we pulled into his driveway, Moe came down the stairs and introduced himself, and said that we were more than welcome to bunk at his place – have a shower and sleep in their guest room. It was a wonderful example of northern hospitality.
Moe brought us inside and gave me a goblet of wine, and sat us down on the couch to chat in front of the TV. Which we did. After some time, Brenda, his wife, emerged from the bedroom after a late-night nap, and was somewhat surprised to find us there, but also very welcoming. We had showers and slept in clean sheets in warm room.
We learned more about Moe and Brenda over the next day and a half. Moe is half Danish and half Inuvialuit. He is young for a grandfather, grew up in Aklavik on the Peel River side of the Mackenzie Delta on of twelve kids in a one-room cabin, and has a warm sense of humour. He’s a hunter and an outfitter. Brenda’s parents were teachers in Inuvik, but have since moved south to Vancouver. They were married about four years ago in the Bahamas, and many of their vacations are spent in the Caribbean.
They are some of the nicest and kindest folks I’ve met.
Our wish to see the aurora was fulfilled. At around 10pm I looked out the back window and saw a shimmering band of green light. The band began to dance around, and we figured it was special enough to get bundled up and head outside. The lights were indescribably beautiful. The moved as if they were sentient, changing shape from bands to curtains to swirls. Directly overhead they reached their apex in complex patterns against a carpet of stars. Back in the van we fell asleep with the curtains open so we could continue to watch the lights. Near the top of my tick list of things to see on this trip were the northern lights, so I was delighted they made an appearance.
The morning glow licked the mountains, and at about 9:30am we visited the excellent new Tombstone Interpretive Centre (closing the next day for the season). We sipped local mountain herbal tea and took in the displays on local history, flora and fauna.
Staff recommended a number of hikes in the area. We chose one up towards Grizzly Lake, about 10kms south. It was perfect hike under cloudless skies. We spent the first kilometre through light forest, then we climbed steeply up onto a ridge and into the open. We climbed up on lichen-covered rocks with creeks dropping far below us. At 3km, we came to a viewpoint up the broad Grizzly Creek valley toward the sheer-sided peaks that symbolize the Tombstone Range. The most prominent was Mount Monolith, standing above Grizzly Lake at the head of the valley.
We climbed continuously along the ridge with wide open views of mountain peaks and valleys in all directions. The trail continued on, but we stopped on a saddle overlooking Monolith and soaked up the view before heading down the 750m back to the bottom.
We drove for the rest of the day. The road took us north over the Continental Divide and through the rest of the Tombstone Mountains. After the Tombstones came the tundra-like Blackstone Uplands, habitat for moose and birds. The next major landscape we passed through was the northern Oglivie Mountains, characterized by gentle-sided mountains of fractured light grey limestone and mineralized streams with orange and reddish banks, and smelling of sulphur. On ridges, crests of jagged rock emerge, forming towers and spikes. Cliffs of dolomite also loomed over the road in a few places. The road was rough, probably the roughest of the trip, rutted and potholed. I’m not sure it was as bad as what we experienced around the Alaska border.
Driving along the Olivie River, we emerged from the mountains and crossed the river before heading across a broad, flat valley, then up Seven Mile Hill onto the Eagle Plains, a long stretch of rolling larch and spruce landscape as far as the eye can see. It was almost enough to make one a bit agoraphobic – the endlessness of it. Behind us the sun sat low in the sky for hour upon hour, an infinite sunset you can only experience this far north. Our road actually traced the backbone of the Continental Divide.
In the middle of the wilderness, we came to our destination, the Eagle Plains Hotel, a hotel and service centre built intentionally in the middle of the Dempster and open year-round (!) The RV park was shut down for the season, but they let us park for free and even hook up to electricity. We warmed up some leftovers and turned in for a reasonable sleep in this very exposed-feeling area.
The morning was mostly about addressing logistical issues. A thin layer of low clouds settled above Dawson, so we felt less pressure to get out and about. We did a load of laundry at the RV park, then drove into town to stock up on groceries at a couple of decent local stores, then picked up two wool blankets at an outfitters. Despite having two fleece blankets and a synthetic duvet, we’ve been cold at night in the van; it’s not very well insulated and the propane heater is very loud (we do turn it on first thing in the morning).
After our errands the sun began to burn through, so we strolled around the town. Like everywhere in the Yukon, there are excellent interpretive plaques everywhere. We took in the old and old-timey architecture, dirt roads and wooden sidewalks. A fair number of the buildings are wonky due to the permafrost, just like many of the telephone poles along the side of the highways. We looked at the old saloons, post office, stores and the cabins of Robert Service and Jack London. We chatted about the Dempster Highway to a very nice and helpful woman in the Northwest Territories info centre, and had a tasty lunch (grilled cheese, yam fries, soup and cappuccino) in a more local restaurant on Front Street.
Our final stop in Dawson were the claim sites up Bonanza Creek, about 15kms from town. The weather had turned warm and clear as we walked around this area rich with so much history (thanks again to Pierre Berton for his book on the Klondike which I read before leaving). We visited the site of Robert Carmack and Skookum Jim’s original claims which started the Klondike gold rush. Bonanza Creeks was ripped to pieces by dredges in the 50 years following the rush, but enough time has passed that it probably is starting to look a bit more like it did when they found the original nuggets. There was 1km walk along the creek with a series of very good plaques talking about the area before the rush, the find, and the mining techniques used to extract gold. Downstream these is also a restored dredge (which was closed to touring).
By the mid-afternoon we were on the road again. 40kms west brought us to the junction with the Dempster, and we made a turn north. The road is gravel all of the way to Inuvik, but by now we are getting used to it. We climbed gently until we were among quite jagged and open peaks. Fall colours are further along here. There are still trees – spruce and some cottonwood – and rusty orange bushes. After about 50kms (at 60-70km/h), we came to Tombstone Territorial Park, which was created as part of the land claims settlement with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. It’s a gorgeous place of rugged peaks and vast open spaces. It’s cold and dry, with the summits free of snow at this time of year. Ochre vegetation lines the valleys – home to caribou, moose and bears – and up gulleys towards the rocky peaks.
We drove a short ways past where we are staying to take in a view towards Tombstone Mountain 24kms away. It was early evening with the warm sun in our eyes, cottonwood fluff floating by, and no sound but the rivers and creeks below.
The campground is beautifully situated in the North Klondike River valley, just shy of the Continental Divide. Peaks surround us on all sides, and the air has an incredible freshness. The skies are clear, and with luck there will be excellent stars and perhaps even northern lights tonight.