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Northern Extremes

Canada: Enjoying a barren kind of beauty on a driving trip to the Arctic

July 28, 2002|CARL DUNCAN

DAWSON, Canada — Anne Saunders has lived here for 15 years. She likes the town, but that's not what keeps her tethered.

"Much as I love Dawson," she said, "the Dempster is why I live here."

Reaching north for 457 miles, the Dempster Highway runs from Dawson in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, two degrees north of the Arctic Circle. Sitting atop the permafrost and weathering temperatures that can vary as much as 142 degrees, the Dempster is entirely gravel, 20 feet thick in places.

Mile Post 0 of the Dempster stands just outside this colorful turn-of-the-century Gold Rush town in the middle of the Yukon. Century-old wood buildings here sit askew, and miners still pawn their pokes of dust at the General Store on Front Street for a season's worth of grub.

In the summer Dawson welcomes thousands of visitors who come here to stroll, shop for antiques, explore historic mines and old log cabins, and catch the Gaslight Follies at the Palace Grand Theatre.

The Dempster, by contrast, is legendary for the isolated landscape it traverses and the flora and fauna it showcases along the way. Saunders, whose hobby is photographing wildflowers, drove the Dempster 25 times last summer, she told me.

For most of its length, the land the Dempster crosses bears no sign of human passage or presence: no side roads, no houses, no telephone or power poles, no scars upon the land. There is but a single hotel/service station complex midway. On the road, travelers routinely spot grizzlies, black bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and many species of birds.

Having heard glowing accounts of Dawson and the Dempster, I decided to see for myself and timed my drive to be in Inuvik on the summer solstice, the first day of summer when the sun won't set again for nearly two months.

I flew to Whitehorse, the Yukon's capital, and rented an SUV at the airport, then headed north for 330 miles on the quiet Klondike Highway to Dawson. As I drove, the trees got smaller, and the sky got bigger. By the time I reached Dawson, I was beginning to understand why it's said that the Yukon is the place Alaskans go to get away from it all. The entire territory--at 205,345 square miles, about the size of California and Tennessee combined--has just 31,000 people, and I had left 23,000 of those behind in Whitehorse.

Dawson, with 1,800 people, is the Yukon's second-largest community and sits at the juncture of the Klondike and Yukon rivers. In August 1896, Skookum Jim and some mining buddies found gold just outside Dawson at Bonanza Creek, kicking off the Klondike Stampede. Dawson shot up overnight, adding boardwalks, barrooms, bordellos and boardinghouses. It's a fun town to visit, and like many Dempster drivers, I tarried for a couple of days before setting out and felt transported to another era.

And then it was time to go.

Before the Dempster, the only way into Canada's Western Arctic was by bush plane or dog sled. The Dempster Highway project was begun in 1958, following a route laid out by native trapper Joe Henry, who lived in Dawson. In 1964 the entirely gravel highway (asphalt cannot be used because of the shifting permafrost) had reached only to the 120-mile mark at Chapman Lake. It wasn't until 1979 that the Dempster was officially completed all the way to Inuvik.

It was 80 degrees at the service station in Dawson when I topped the tank. The next gas station was not for about 250 miles. Soon after I entered the Dempster the scenery changed dramatically.

Rounded hills turned into jagged peaks with snow highlighting the crannies. The landscape was carpeted with dwarf birch, stunted spruce and Arctic willows that in southern climes would be thick forest.

Although only about 60 miles from Dawson, I stopped the first night at the Tombstone Park Campground alongside the North Fork of the Yukon. The Tombstone region has the most easily accessible hiking of any place along the Dempster. The park warden here in the summer leads evening interpretive hikes into the surrounding hills.

I joined half a dozen fellow campers on a scenic traipse over springy moss and crispy lichens. The view was spectacular, and the air deliciously fresh.

Back at camp, I sat near the tent by the river reading a book of poetry by Robert Service. The so-called "Canadian Kipling" lived in the Yukon for eight years and wrote his most famous works in a little log cabin in Dawson. Though I read well into the night, there was no need for a flashlight. At midnight, the sky was blue, and white clouds cast shadows.

Weather can change rapidly here. By 6 a.m., rain clouds had blown in, and by midmorning it was chilly and much darker than the previous night's "dusk." At Mile 64, just beyond the aptly named Two Moose Lake, I saw my first Alaska Yukon (or Tundra) moose, the largest in North America. The big bull, about 7 feet at the shoulder, was standing in the middle of the road. I never realized how big they really are. As I fumbled for my camera, he loped out of sight.

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