Dawson City – Tuktoyaktuk – Dawson City
Includes: The Dempster Highway and the new road – The Mackenzie Valley Highway
The journey continues as we head south out of Dawson briefly to the start of the infamous and mighty Dempster Highway. The Dempster Highway was originally constructed in the late 1950’s for oil and gas exploration. The Canadian Government wanted to build a road from Dawson City to Aklavik, high in the Mackenzie River Delta to aid this exploration and to assert sovereignty to the Western Canadian High Arctic. This assertion was spurred on due to the discovery of oil and gas in neighbouring Alaska around Prudhoe Bay. The original part of the current road follows the old dog sled route from Dawson to Fort Macpherson and crosses over the Arctic Circle and continues all the way to Inuvik as a year round road. From there on to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk is the famous “Ice Road”. It is this ice road that is being replaced by a year round road, the very reason why we are here – to travel this new road.
For more historical information check out this great article: Dempster Highway History.
Our journey on this portion of our adventure takes us from the start of the Dempster Highway all the way north to Inuvik where we would meet the North West Territories Government who would escort us on the new road to Tuktoyaktuk. The Dempster is roughly 700km of “maintained” dirt road each direction and with only two outposts and one fuel spot on its entire length it is desolate. It is known to be a challenging road with soft edges, very little signage & protection, tire killing gravel & rock, steep winding routes, ever changing weather, often large trucks transiting at high speed, true wilderness travel, no communications coverage and no rescue services what so ever.
We had planned to two take two days on the Dempster each direction to allow us to enjoy the journey and wow are we ever glad we did. Obligatory photos at all of the interesting spots, signs and the endless truly stunning terrain kept us on our alert for the entire section. We were unlucky in a way, in that it was a very wet drive being fall. However the complete lack of the infamous bugs was a blessing. The rough with the smooth right? It was typically cool, but that being said, apart from the horrible mud – conditions were perfect. For us the road was very very quiet, it was fall after all and just after the schools had returned to session. We saw the odd fellow traveller and work vehicle but that was about it. Camping was wet and muddy – thankfully we were all off the ground sleeping in vehicles our our Treeline roof top tent (a serious must for this time of the year).
700 kilometres later we pulled into the larger than expected Inuvik to rest for a day, stock up on fuel and supplies, take a shower and meet our government escorts. These big trips never go quite to plan and funnily enough our wheels were about to fall off. Upon meeting and chatting to the project manager and the local government we discovered that the new road had received way above average rainfall in the previous weeks and that the road was saturated and almost impassable! In short we were told we may not be able to travel on it! Heart broken to say the least, however a glimmer of hope was given as it was meant to be dryer over the days and if we could extend by a day it may make a difference. It was fun having some time to explore Inuvik,to spend time at the visitor centre learning about the local history, the Inuit, hunting and gathering, oil & gas exploration and chatting to the local people to try and gauge the effect the new road will have.
A day later and another few phone calls, it was on!! The cold dry weather had dried it out enough to travel in only but capable 4×4’s. Thank you weather gods!
Early next morning we met our government escort, a lovely chap full of energy and answers. A short safety briefing, hi-vis vests, vhf radios and strict orders we headed to the new road at the north end of Inuvik.
The new road is an all year road that is to replace the ice road. This new road opens on officially on Wednesday 15th November 2017, although is not open to none local traffic until June 2018. The road is approximately 140 kilometres long in each direction and links Inuvik to Tuktoyakyuk on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Part of the process of constructing the road was to be respectful to the local highly sensitive geography. A vast portion of the road sits on permafrost and as our escort explained, this would be a major problem. Melting permafrost due to construction would be a disaster. To negate this issue, insulating matting was laid throughout the entire route over the tundra and then the road construction materials were laid on top of this to build the road surface. Another aspect of the build was to ensure that machinery was only allowed to move within the road footprint itself to avoid any damage to the local surrounds, flora, fauna, geology etc. This is an impressive feat and one that we observed to be successful for the entire road. Breathtaking & respectful engineering. Within about 40 kilometres of heading north on this new road we pass “The Treeline”, the line at which all trees cease to exist only Arctic tundra survives. It’s like a line is drawn in the sand as you look east / west to a barren expense that flows as far as the eyes can see north of this line. Our journey north on the new road was approximately 6 hours in length. Slowed by the hundred’s of photos, the many questions we had, the muddy nature of the road, construction traffic and sheer beauty of the area.
Tuktoyaktuk or Tuk as it is known locally is mostly habited by Inuit people who hunt and gather on their territorial lands. Tuk itself is a tiny population of about 800 people, overshadowed by dormant oil & gas exploration camps on the outskirts of the settlement. This whole area across north west Canada is synonymous for the great Peel River & Porcupine River Caribou herds and where Tuktoyaktuk takes its name from. It is Inuvialuktun for “it looks like a caribou”. We spent one night camping within metres of the Arctic Ocean (Beaufort Sea) on a small peninsular, good dinner and celebrated with cocktails & wine at the foot of a finally setting sun. Our sleep was good, content with wine and good food. Next day however, we were keen to finish our exploration of this small town, to continue to chat to the locals and find out their opinions of the new road before meeting our escort again for the journey south. There is something about this place that drew us closer. Young men working on their snowmobiles, their winter hunting gear, their boats. The ladies bustling about in the limited winter or barge supplied grocery store. Others working at the small airport, the single gas station and a few small businesses. It is so remote, so far removed from the world most of the year, yet everyone seems happy – certainly everyone we encountered. Most people met us with big smiles, open arms, intrigue to what these outsiders were doing here, and how the heck we got here through closed gates and an uncompleted highway.
Sadly our brief time in Tuk came to an end, far too quickly, as we headed south back down the new road. Again the scenery blew our minds, many more photos, stops of silence and reflection where possible. It was sad leaving Tuk, who knows if we will be back, it is about 4000km from the US border after all. But never say never. Yet, we still had the mighty Dempster to challenge once again as we head south. Again a quick re-supply in Inuvik and onwards. Colder this time, but a little dryer, we cruised on down this marvel of wilderness dirt road, taking in different views, taking pictures in different places. It didn’t disappoint, especially as we passed through Tombstone Territorial Park, near the southern end of the Dempster. The perfect mist, the sub-arctic crystal clear light and atmosphere, morning sun – a perfect setting.
Somehow we had escaped the mighty Dempster with no wounds, no breakdowns and every tire intact. Thank you General Tires! This time…
The Dempster Highway and Mackenzie Valley highway are approximately 2000km of dirt round trip. More information can be found here.