the dempster highway

We drove through Stewart crossing and up to Dawson city to get groceries and prep for the Dempster highway. Dawson city looks like it’s a Hollywood set for a western film. Basically everything we wanted it to be. Saloon doors, old western building facades and kind folks. We went to the Northwest Territories Visitor center first to get info on the Dempster. They prep you fully for the experience as it’s 1900km on a dirt road up to the highest point you can get to by car in Canada: Tuktoyaktuk. We listened to the visitor center lady with a group of others doing the same journey. A Swiss couple came in and said they had to turn around at one point before getting to Tuk because their rv couldn’t handle the road conditions. We all received a pamphlet basically explaining the terrain and special turn offs/things to look for along the way and headed out. We stopped by the Dawson city visitor center after and got the low down about beers and happy hour at ‘the pit’ which is a local bar in town actually called the ‘Westminster Hotel’. He said the youngins dance on the right (snake pit) later on, but the local old alcoholics hang out on the left (armpit).Pretty great place. We then gassed up and headed down the Dempster, airing down the tires a bit before officially leaving. The road immediately became mountainous and beautiful. I think we stopped over 6 times before getting to camp to take photos. The sun was getting low (not setting) and the sky was orange, pink and purple. We got to camp at tombstone territorial park around 12:50 and stayed up till about 2 as the sky changed and we made dinner. Solid first day on the Dempster.

We arrived at the tombstone visitor center by 9am because we thought we were doing a 3 day backcountry hike to grizzly lake. Turns out that grizzly lake has 6 feet of snow still and no one is allowed to go back there. This information was not available on the internets. So instead we hung out at the visitors center with Lucy and the other lady, Annie, running the show. Lucy was rad; she took me outside to teach me about some of the medicinal values of the surrounding plants and gave us her rose root tea which is full of caffeine and supposedly a slight narcotic. It was purple and delicious. We also drank their spruce and Labrador tea which was stewing on the wood stove. I’ve been collecting Labrador tea almost every day for the last few weeks, it’s so abundant up here and tastes like a flowery dream. Since we couldn’t do the grizzly lake hike the girls showed us this old Dempster highway book full of broad directions to trails. They said Rake mountain offers spectacular views when you get to the top and you can just follow the ridge forever. Lucy said it took her an hour to smash out so we were into it. We got a few more pointers about other hikes around the arctic circle for solstice and we left the girls with a sticker. We prepped our backpacks by the van and continued to get bombarded by people wanting to talk to us about bagheera. We finally left 2 hours after we got there and drove up to the tombstone mountain lookout up the road. We hiked through the bush down to a tundra mound below and checked out the rock teeth coming out of the ground. It didn’t look like too far of a hike but the Dempster does that to you. What looks like 20 minutes by foot turns out to be over an hour-we officially learned this very soon down the road. The clouds were crazy all day and the views just kept getting better. We finally got to the turn out for Rake mountain which was across from an old horse outfitter up the road. We ate a bunch of food and headed up the muddy bog horse trail. The rest of the ground was tundra and musk with big holes throughout the bog. We hiked for about 45 minutes and missed the turn off to head up the mountain. There really isn’t one and if there is it’s super faint and unrecognizable. No problem, we’ll just bushwhack up the side! Then 40 minutes went by of us grabbing roots and battling the surroundings. Nugget kept getting fully stuck in bushes. We finally arrived at the top and were rewarded with extreme views of the nearby mountain range and the Dempster! It was totally worth the bushwhack struggle. We traversed the ridge for a bit and played around on multiple mini summits. We were determined to find a better way down. So we think we found the trail we should have taken up and followed it on the south side of rake mountain. Of course, the trail ended and we had to then walk across the tundra to try and meet up with original horse trail. The ground is like walking on soft twisty balls of grass. You’re lucky to find stable ground and get through without an ankle roll. We re-entered the horse trail and made it back to van without injury from unstable tundra ground. The mosquitoes were the worst so we left immediately; stinky and unchanged, full of bug spray and sweat. Down the highway I made tuna wraps in the car while Jordan threw in a few lines by the river. We drove through rad areas by engineer creek and sapper hill watching the rocks and erosion constantly change in the un-glaciated areas. We saw some sheep at mineral creek licking up the salts and minerals that the red creek produces. We saw the elephant rock which is an eroded tor that looks like an elephant, then headed up to camp on top of 7 mile hill. The sun didn’t go down at all so we made dinner around midnight. Ramen soup with stinging nettle bits, mushrooms, and onions. We watched the sky until 2am, it was beautiful.

Day 21 solstice DEMPSTER hwy
We drove over to eagle plains hotel past the ogilvie mountain lookout and over terrible rock roads. Going to Eagle plains hotel has been compared to going to the dentist. On one hand they call it an oasis off the highway, on the other it’s just this armpit of a spot. The food was food, we were starving. The beers were beers, we were thirsty. We split everything and tried to not spend too much but there was this brownie and then a case of beer to-go, woops. We stayed at eagle plains for 4 HOURS using their $5 shotty WiFi (there’s no service up there, and everything from internet to TV is from a crazy satellite) and trying to put up a sticker store on our blog to make a bit of money for travel. We finally got back to the car and headed up as far as we could for the evening of the solstice and aboriginal day. We got to the arctic circle and it was outstanding. It must have been around 10pm or so and it was bright as day. We loved it so much and wanted to take it all in so we stayed for a while making rock hearts out of arctic circle stones and playing with the local ground squirrel. We drove over the continental divide//Northwest Territories border just a bit down the road and looked for an easy way to hike up the rocks while battling vicious winds. It didn’t look terribly safe or worth the injury so we backtracked 5km to Kilometer 460 for our solstice spot for the night. It was a perfect pullout with a fire pit, elk antlers, a snow patch and an upper deck spot. We could see so far into the mountains and watch the sun hover. We did a sweet little photo-shoot whilst wearing our bathing suits in the rocks and the snow patch. We made a snowman and spelled out 'happy solstice' with tiny rocks in the snow. We made solstice spaghetti as you do above the arctic circle. It was the best June 22nd yet. We went to bed after 3am, the sun still above the horizon.

This is fresh so I’m writing it now. So this morning we woke up in our solstice spot. A free camping spot at 460km marker near the continental divide and border between Yukon and Northwest Territories. We made coffee, Labrador and stinging nettle tea (locally foraged by us around our camp spot) and moved on our way. We drove through mountains covered in green tundra, a gorge, and river valleys until we got to our first ferry. It took us across the peel river and it fit about 5 vehicles. Pretty sweet. We got over to nitainlaii territorial park to retrieve our authentic “arctic circle certificates’ written out and signed by Robert Alexie Sr. who has been the long time host there at the center. He wasn’t in so we waited around for a few collecting more Labrador tea and talking to a traveler, who was returning from Tuk, about the road conditions. Robert returned in a few minutes and got out of his truck. He’s this sweet old native guy who is sometimes hard to understand but means well and has some great stories. He started talking to us about how terrible America currently is and then proceeded to talk about how mad he is when he misplaces his truck keys. ‘They were in my front shirt pocket one minute and then who knows how they ended up in my pants’. I immediately ran to the van to grab a small carabiner that we had and threw his key on it. He was impressed and grateful. He signed our certificates and gave us a phone number on the back for a man named roger that we honestly did not understand the significance of and then we were on our way. Before we left he mentioned he had just eaten delicious whitefish and potatoes from the fort McPherson tourism center so we headed north to fort McPherson. The ladies there were super sweet, they were making tacos in a bag, which is pretty common up north and had smoked whitefish and potatoes up for grabs. We took off our shoes and helped ourselves. Waking up at 11 and only ingesting liquids showed as we demolished whitefish, crackers and huge spoonfuls of potatoes. I drew the ladies 2 cartoon bears and we thanked them several times for their hospitality. We then left for the ferry over the Mackenzie river to Inuvik. Getting into Inuvik late there were only a few options for food and still full sunlight. We went to the ‘roost’ cafe who specialized in Canadian, American, Chinese, and pizza. We got pizza to go so we could head over to a camp-site and take much needed showers. As we were stuffing slices down our mouths, this random guy knocked on my window. Nugget barked as he should and Jordan got out to talk to this local guy. Turns out he owned a Delica and was just super stoked on the van. He proceeded to tell us about his Delica adventures he took with his wife back in the day when they lived in Vancouver. He was a climber, mountaineer and just crazy overall outdoorsman. He said he was currently building traditional Inuvalit kayaks and we both lit up with curiosity. We want to find local artisans in our travels and this guy seemed perfect. He invited us over for drinks and to see his kayaks — we immediately said yes! He seemed like a nice guy; he worked with youth in Squamish, was something in the army, had a wife and dogs. He mentioned “if this seems weird, it’s ok,” which wasn’t very comforting, but everyone up north had been so nice and welcoming, we decided to give it a go. We parked in front of his place which was in town and he proceeded to show us he beautiful handmade kayak and old Delica. We took photos had laughs and then he offered us drinks in his house. He had 3 dogs so we left nugget in the van and went in for what we thought could just be a quick drink. These are the situations that could get you in trouble while traveling, or be great stories, and we decided to trust our guts, being suspicious of honest generosity, but to be fair, just generally cautious of a random situation. He first offered us homemade infused gin from a jar out of his cabinet. Just an unopened jar, said it was infused with earl grey tea, ‘take a sip’. I looked at Jordan, he had the ‘hell no it's poison’ look and I took a fake sip. I asked for wine instead and he made Jordan a spritzer with the gin anyway. The gin was excellent it turned out. He gave us gin infused cranberries too that were delicious and we all sat in his kitchen with his 3 ex sled dogs running around. He told us about his bad ass wife and shared stories of their climbing and paddling adventures in the north and south. Special piece of info we quickly gathered: not only was he a bad ass mountaineer and climber in the BC area back in the day, but he was part of a military unit with special training and skills, and he’s definitely had a wild life full of adventure so far. There were a couple times we felt uncomfortable or unsure that we should be there, but overall, we were in a safe place with a new friend who was more than welcoming to two travelers in his city. It’s always a balance — wanting to meet new people and experience the culture and life in a new place, and not wanting to put ourselves in a situation of danger or disadvantage in a place we don’t fully know yet or have a way out of. Just before we said our goodbyes, he brought out some rope (with an awkward leading joke) and taught us a really helpful directional figure eight to use to replace an alpine butterfly. Time to go we finally expressed, gave him stickers and a hug and a handshake. He kept trying to keep us. We finally insisted. He said come back for breakfast at 11am.

Day 23 The day we took a dip in the Arctic Ocean DEMPSTER
We woke up at Jak campground in Inuvik which was a pretty low rent yet expensive place to stay. We took showers and left for Tuktoyaktuk. The road to Tuk was this part of the Dempster that you had to worry about. This is where most of the issues and accidents happened. We triple checked the ever changing weather and hoped for the best, getting gas and food before we left. The road was surprisingly excellent and the landscape was eerily flat as we were basically surrounded by a delta. The only 2 terrible muddy clay parts were in the beginning for about 9km and at the very end for 20km. The slipping and sliding was eminent and the concentration was solid. When we finally starting seeing evidence of a town 2.5 hours later, we got really excited. Power lines, street names, pingos! We drove straight to the edge of town where they man-made a tiny peninsula out of rocks as a ‘beach’. We checked it out for our arctic swim later. There was still ice and it was under 37*F overcast with drizzling rain. A perfect day for a dip! We hit up the kitti market first which was basically Tuk’s farmers market. Instead of local fish they had burgers from a box that they were grilling up and a local made noodle and potato salad. We were hungry so we went for it and split a few things. We talked to Clara Bates; a local Tuk artist who knits gorgeous hats and paints. I drew a little local kid a picture of a polar bear and then did another for Clara who kindly asked for one. Chequita was there too; she was the young girl in charge of tourism — something Tuk is not quite ready for as of yet. She was sweet and we hung out with them for a while. Clara and I were discussing painting and what medium we each used when she explained how they rarely get any paints up there. I jumped at the opportunity to see if she wanted the 3 colors I brought with me along with some brushes and she did. She was stoked, I was stoked to help; all good things. We got some baked goods from the other lady selling food and went to the ocean. We came up with an ingenious plan of what to wear over our bathing suits and how to dry as quickly as possible in the freezing cold. We marched out to the sea and set up the camera for the fastest swim ever and in less than 20 seconds we were in and out of the Arctic Ocean! We screwed up our entire plan and ended up getting the inside of our puffy jackets cold and wet. Whatever, we were warm and we did it. We drove back to Inuvik for much needed beers and decided against a 60$ midnight sun run. It would have been cool but instead we ran around boot lake with the dog and proceeded to find a free camping spot down the street in a local gravel pit. What we didn’t know was that it was also the local drinking spot for Inuvik teens. So as we’re making dinner on the ground behind a pile of gravel these kids roll up next to us and wave. They proceed to get out of the car and wanted to hang out with us. It was honestly a bit threatening and overwhelming at first because 5/6 of them were wasted out of their minds but turns out they were super sweet and friendly and just wanted to welcome us to their town. They told us stories about how they caught whales when they were 12, and how they missed their championship baseball game that day because they partied too hard the night before. We all had a beer together and then they were on their way. Inuvik; the town of kind souls who scare you at first but then turn out to be the sweetest hearts.

Day 24 & 25: DEMPSTER leaving Inuvik and continuing on back to Dawson City
So it turns out gravel trucks do work on Sunday and we woke up to full on machines doing their job in the gravel pit at 8am. We got up and got the f outta there. We went across the street to the gwich’n day use area and slept until 1pm. We walked around chapman lake and headed over to alestines restaurant in town to get Eskimo donuts, reindeer chili and burgers. Seriously amazing set up. They have a tiny log cabin with an upper deck and cook everything out of a school bus. Best food we had in days. We did much needed laundry, caught up on editing photos and writing and took showers at happy trail campground. The next day we got a few souvenirs like our one-of-a-kind free Inuvik pin that you get from the town office, filled up gas getting the locals discount ;) sent stickers and sketches to everyone that kindly purchased our merch and we were on our way back to Dawson City. We stopped at eagle plains again for a delicious cold beer and talked to the bartender about traveling. Her name was Teresa and she’s been traveling for over a year. She’s in eagle plains for the summer saving money with this job. She told us to spend our money wisely as we have a long way yet to go. This was amazing advice and we are still bringing it up every day. We made it to our camp spot on top of seven mile hill and settled in for the night.

Day 26: DEMPSTER morels, fishing, sapper hill
We got up and back tracked to a burn spot near ogilvie lookout on the dempster. We wanted to look for morels and it seemed like a fresh burn. We both caked on the bug spray and started searching. Maybe 15 minutes in, jordan found a few old morels on a slope just near new growth of plants. We looked around and found a handful of morel mushrooms! It was amazing! It was our 2nd big find! We gathered about 24 and headed for the river. We knew we needed some fish to go with our morels for dinner so jordan threw in a few lines in the ogilvie and caught 2 decent sized arctic grayling! We were stoked!! Another meal of my dreams to be cooked tonight! Before we got to our camp spot for the night we stopped at the sapper hill hiking entrance on the north side of engineer creek. We waited around for the rain to stop and ended up meeting a pair of Delica mates in an l400 long wheel base who were on the same track as us! They pulled over and we talked through open car windows as we swatted the mosquitoes away. They are a rad couple named Tom and Colene kicking ass at being old later. They went on their way and we decided to just do the sapper hill hike as it was clearing up a bit. After dodging the worst mosquitoes of the trip so far and going up hill for about 30 minutes, we found ourselves in this crazy valley of protruding castle-like rocks. Every tower had its own path, and we explored all the spots. There was one point where you get up and look down about 800 ft. overlooking the dempster and surrounding hills. We were so happy we did this hike even with the not so perfect weather. It gave us cool swifty clouds and incredible colors. Yet another rad suggestion from Annie the local ranger at tombstone Territorial Park. We left, quickly found a great turn out camp spot and set up the awning for cooking. We fried the fish in a skillet and sautéed the mushrooms in butter with garlic and onion. We basically created a fish/morel soup stock and ate one of the most delicious camping meals yet!

The last day on the Dempster, our last 20k out to the main gravel road, there was a small passenger car coming the other way up the road, and they were coming in hot. Normally, when passing vehicles on the Dempster, it's nice to slow a bit and move over if you can, but this time, that car was hugging the middle and did not believe in slow. As we crossed, there were lots of little rock clinks, then the one that you felt right in the gut. As we scanned the windshield, there it was, a little chip with a few spider cracks. We were so close. I guess we let our guard down a bit too much and got lazy. The Dempster took it's toll. We were lucky to have no other issues on a road known for shredding tires and challenging drivers and vehicles in many other ways, but it was still a bit of a bummer. We found a guy in town to throw some acrylic in the crack, patching it up in about 20minutes. We'll see how that holds moving forward.