Northern Yukon Road Trip 2012

There are only two roads in North America that travel above the Arctic Circle, the Dawson Highway that ends at Prudhoe Bay Alaska and the Dempster Highway that travels through the Northern Yukon and ends at the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Back in the fall of 2008 Brenda and I had arrived at Prudhoe Bay on the same day as the first snowfall of the year. For us it was an epic road trip and a marvelous opportunity to see the high arctic and its amazing wildlife. In August of 2012 we were feeling  that same old tug in our hearts to see where the road would takes us, to cross several mountain ranges and three time zones, and to explore some of the intriguing ecosystems and communities of Canada’s Northwestern Arctic.

Klondike Highway 2

We arrived in Skagway Alaska on the AMH ferry Malaspina and began our drive north on the Klondike Highway 2. We had allowed plenty of time to stop and explore the attractions and communities along the way, after all a true road trip is about the journey not just the destination. Arriving in the City of Whitehorse, Yukon’s capital, we hiked a few of the local trails and made our first camp by Lake Laberge, a place of fond memories for us as we had stopped here in 2007 on our kayak trip down the Yukon River. Then it was on to the village of Carmacks and a brief stop at Five Finger Rapids to hike the short trail to the overlook. The farther we drove north the more the fall colors began to show, here where the highway crosses the Pelly River the golden leaves were surrounding the small village of Pelly Crossing.     

The Silver Trail Highway 11

After crossing the Stewart River we turned onto the Silver Trail Highway 11, a 122 km (76 mi) dirt road that heads east towards the mining towns of Mayo, Elsa and Keno. This winding back road travels through the heart of the traditional territory of the Na-cho Nyak Dun (big river people) who resides in the small community of Mayo. The town of Mayo had its beginnings during the boom years of the silver mines but originally the Na-cho Nyak Dun lived off the land and their lifestyle required traveling throughout the area for hunting, fishing, and gathering to survive. The small town of Elsa was a privately owned mining town that during its heyday was the 2nd largest producer of silver in Canada and the 4th largest in the world but on our visit the mine was closed and the town boarded up. Keno City however still remained occupied by a small but determined crowd of artists, old timers and exploratory miners. There we were pleased to find a small and rustic restaurant, bar, library, fire hall and a museum that was well worth a look around.

A 10 km (6 mi) step rocky road begins just behind Keno City that rises to 1848 m (6063 ft) and ends at an intriguing signpost. From this lofty viewpoint several well marked trails traverse the ridge tops and summits of the surrounding mountains. The landscape is one of barren frost fractured rock and flowering alpine tundra that for ever so briefly becomes prime habitat for butterflies in the summer. The panorama of the mountains of the Yukon Plateau begged for further exploration, if we only had the time.  

We left the Keno Campground and began the drive back down the valley by taking an even smaller back road called the Duncan Creek Road. This single lane track required all wheel drive and patience to descend but was serine and beautiful in the fall colors and vistas seen along the way. The road finally leveled out by Mayo Lake and returned us to the gas station at the town of Mayo and eventually back to the Klondike Highway where we headed north again towards Dawson City. We stayed in Dawson City only long enough to have a quick look around and have a delicious meal at Klondike Kate’s. We’ve always liked this rustic little town and wished we could have spent more time, maybe we can come back for their music festival someday.  

The Dempster Highway

The Dempster Highway, also referred to as Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8, begins at the Klondike Highway near Dawson in the Yukon and extends 736 km (457 mi) to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. During the winter the highway extends another 194 km (121 mi) to the village of Tuktoyaktuk, on the Beaufort Sea using frozen portions of the Mackenzie River delta as an ice road. The construction of the road was no small undertaking, work began at Dawson City in 1959 but due to shortfalls in funding and political will the road was not completed until August of 1979. The highway itself sits on top of a rock and gravel pad thick enough to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath, without the pad the road would sink into a muddy quagmire when the ground thawed. Continuous plowing, regrading and maintenance are ongoing projects for the Department of Transportation throughout the year, I could not find hard figures on this but considering the length of the road the cost must be staggering. There are lodging and automotive services at the very beginning of the road and towards the end at Fort McPherson and Inuvik otherwise there is only one location with commercial services along the entire highway and that is at Eagle Plains. Because of the enormous distance Eagle Plains is an important fuel and rest stop for motorist and has a small hotel and restaurant for stranded and weary travelers. Our first destination on the Dempster was Tombstone Territorial Park a great place to stop for a day or two and hike the trails or just campout and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

Brenda and I hiked two of the trails located in Tombstone Territorial Park and it felt good to finally get out of the car and give our legs a real stretch. The fall colors of the open tundra had set the ground ablaze in a rich mosaic of yellows, reds and umber. We stopped atop a small hill to scan the terrain below for wildlife and we wondered to ourselves if hunters down through the ages had perhaps used this vary same vantage point to look for game. The Tombstone Mountain Range is an important part of the heritage of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (people of the Klondike River) who have hunted and camped in these mountains for centuries. To get some insight into their land, culture and way of life we had visited the Tombstone Territorial Park Interpretive Center and the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in nearby Dawson City.

From the Tombstone Range we drove on through the Blackstone Uplands, a high rolling land covered in willow, birch shrubs and dotted with small ponds. From pullouts along the road we would stop and scan the terrain for wildlife and, though the bulk of the fall migration had past, we did see a few swans some warblers and a Northern Wheatear that was new to us and a fascinating bird due to its incredible migration. Miniature tracking devices have recently shown that the Northern Wheatear has one of the longest migratory flights known 30,000km (18,640 mi) from sub-Saharan Africa to their Arctic breeding grounds, wow, and we thought we were on a long trip!

The Hart River caribou herd is one of two caribou herds that use the Blackstone Uplands. Numbering about 1,200 animals, they are known to share their winter range with the barren ground caribou of the Porcupine herd though they are not known to interbreed with them. I saw a few at a great distance with a spotting scope feeding on willow and birch shrubs but none came close enough to photograph, so in the end the stillness of this small pond offered to be a more complaint subject. 

From the road this viewpoint provides one of the best panoramas of the northern fringe of the Ogilvie Mountains. Across the valley were the northern slopes of the Taiga Range one of the coldest places in the Yukon, the lowest temperature ever recorded in this area was -47.8°C (-54.8ºF) in January of 1985. In the valley below the Ogilvie River, named after the famous Canadian surveyor and explorer William Ogilvie, continued its eastward path towards the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean.

As we dropped down out of the Ogilvie Mountains we crossed the low rolling hills of the Eagle Plains that for many kilometers traversed the transition line between shrub tundra on the upper slopes and the black spruce forest below. Located on the top of a high barren ridge was the Eagle Plains Hotel and Service Center where we stopped to gas up and have a meal that, despite the truck stop décor, was surprisingly good. The hotel was open but we preferred to continue on to the Yukon Government Campground to spend the night. The next day we crossed the slow and meandering Eagle River before reaching the sign proclaiming our crossing the invisible line of the Arctic Circle. From there we continued along the colorful western flanks of the low rolling Richardson Mountains, the open terrain an invitation to look for wildlife. Brenda’s keen eye caught a Barren Ground Grizzly Bear and her cub and, latter on our return, the first two early arrivals of the Porcupine Caribou herd. 

After awhile the road passed through the Richardson Mountains and crossed into the Northwest Territories. For Brenda and I this was our first visit to the region so we stopped at the border to celebrate our passage and turn our clocks ahead one hour. As the road headed east towards the Peel River we observed that the vegetation slowly changed from treeless tundra to spruce, birch and tamarack forests as the road descended into the Mackenzie Lowlands. We stopped in at the Nitainlaii Territorial Park Interpretive Center to view the exhibits about the Gwich’in traditional way of life and to talk, all too briefly, to a Gwich’in elder who worked there. We spoke to him about a number of things but his comment that stuck with me was that he felt that the modern ways of living were easer but not necessarily better for his people.

Most of the Dempster Highway region is part of the Porcupine Caribou herd’s winter range that migrates down from the Arctic coastal plain in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately for us we were there a month too soon to see this amazing event, but for the Gwich’in people who have depended on the caribou for thousands of years, for their food, clothing and shelter, they would be there, ready and waiting. So intertwined are the lives of the Gwich’in with the caribou that they often refer to themselves as “the people of the caribou”.

While we sat and waited to cross the Peel River we caught a glimpse of the Gwich’in fish camps with small cabins and tents set up along the Peel River. Whitefish was the most common catch because it was smoked and dried to make “dryfish” a northern delicacy. After crossing the river on the small ferry we stopped for gas and to do a little shopping at the town of Fort McPherson a community of around 900 and home of the Tetlit Gwich’in people. Folks there were helpful and friendly and we were soon on our way again. After about another hour’s drive we came to the Mackenzie River crossing. The ferry crossing is located at the confluence of the Arctic Red River and the much larger Mackenzie River. Across the Arctic Red River from the ferry landing, located on a high bluff, is the picturesque village of Tsiigehtchic home of the Gwichya Gwich'in. To service this small community the ferry would turn around and make a stop at the village every time it crossed the mighty Mackenzie River.

The Mackenzie River or Deh-Cho is the largest river system in Canada and its watershed is considered one of the largest and most intact ecosystems in North America. The river runs 1,738 k (1,080 mi) north to the Arctic Ocean from its beginnings at the Great Slave Lake. Draining over one fifth of Canada’s watershed it’s no wonder it has earned the nickname “Amazon of the North”. At its terminus the great sprawling delta that flows out into the Beaufort Sea brings along with it the most northern reaches of the boreal forest. This vast fresh and saltwater ecosystem attracts about 80 species of migratory birds during the short arctic summer including Black Brant, White-fronted Geese, Snow Geese and Tundra Swans. As we headed north, downriver to Inuvik, the road paralleled the delta in a low relief landscape of black spruce, tamaracks and small lakes that stretched out to the horizon. Along the way we would stop often to scan the surrounds with our binoculars and look for our feathered friends.

When we finally arrived in the City of Inuvik, after 1905 k (1183 mi) of driving, the skies were clearing and we were able to see clear across the delta to the Richardson Mountains on the other side. We congratulated ourselves on making it halfway and toasted our success over a dinner of locally caught Arctic Char. Of course we still had the drive back over the same dusty, muddy, tire shredding road from whence we came but that was a problem for another day. We were there to find out as much about the city’s rich history and culture as we could during our short stay, so our first stop was to the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre located near the entrance of town.

The City of Inuvik, Pop. 3300, was conceived in 1953 as a replacement for the village of Aklavik because it was prone to flooding and to serve as the regional hub for Canada’s Western Arctic. For Canada building a town from scratch, on the permafrost and in the high arctic, had never been done before and was a major undertaking. Everything had to be either on pilings or on a three to six foot gravel pad to protect it from the permafrost, this also included the water and sewer lines! Construction was slow and expensive but by 1958 Inuvik, which means “Place of Man”, was officially open for business. Over the years the town’s demographics have fluctuated some but runs around 33% Inuvialuit Eskimo, 26% Gwich'in Indian and 41% “recent arrivals”. The local economy is centered on government, oil production, military, retail stores, tourism and the traditional subsistence hunting lifestyle. Brenda and I also noted that there were several prominent houses of worship including, to our surprise, a small mosque and the town’s centerpiece Our Lady of Victory commonly known as the igloo church.   

While in Inuvik we traded our tent for a room at the Arctic Chalet located just outside of town. It felt good to wash up, put on clean clothes and feel civilized one again. We rented a canoe and spent the afternoon exploring a small lake that paralleled the Mackenzie River. We spied several residence of the delta, Red Throated Loons, Kingfisher, Muskrat and Pike in the lake, Ravens, Redwing Blackbirds and a Golden Eagle in the sky overhead and signs of bear and moose when we got out and hiked through the bush. Of course this brief excursion on the water only wetted our appetite to further explore the Mackenzie Delta, perhaps down to the Beaufort Sea and the Inuvialuit village of Tuktoyaktuk. More is the pity we would have to turn back now!

 Some suggested reading for the Northern Yukon and Northwest Territories

Journal of the Yukon, 1847-48 by Alexander Hunter Murray
No fur-trader ranged farther over North America than Alexander Hunter Murray an employee of the American Fur Company. His book provides valuable insights into the manners and customs of the Indians of the Yukon, his adventures establishing a trading post and the early fur trade in Canada’s far north.

The Yukon Territory by William H. Dall, George M. Dawson and William Ogilvie
The narrative of William H. Dall leader of the expeditions to Alaska in 1866-1868, the narrative of an exploration made in 1887 in the Yukon district by George M. Dawson and extracts from the report of an exploration made in 1896-1897 by William Ogilvie

I, Nuligak, Edited and translated by Maurice Metayer
In his own words, Nuligak, an Inuit of the western Arctic, tells his own story of when the European influences were growing but the Inuit still had solid connections to their traditional ways.

“Its miles and miles of miles and miles” -Vern Harris on driving in the Yukon, 1961