The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold.
The sign at the northern approach to the Dempster Highway, designed to warn people not to start down the highway due to dangerous weather conditions, should have been lit that night. It wasn’t.
So our tour guide and the guys in his band, returning from a gig in Aklavik, started home to Dawson City. It wasn’t long before they were engulfed in a total whiteout which forced them to pull over to wait out the storm. The temperature outside their vehicle was -74.
“The storm eventually let up, so we got lucky that night, real lucky,” our guide says, without a trace of a smile.
Northerners know to treat the Dempster Highway with respect, no matter when they travel it. Its 738 gravel kilometers with few services along the way mean it’s essential for motorists to carry at least two spare tires, Jerry cans of gas, food, and even firewood. Conditions on the highway can change quickly, punishing the unprepared.
So, why do people use it? First of all, there isn’t another choice if you want to travel the northern Yukon from Dawson City to Inuvik. Second, in the summer, the highway is a place to experience the Yukon’s wild, unspoiled beauty. Mountain ranges, deep valleys, rivers, streams, and waterfalls line both sides of the road, as you transition from boreal forest to sub-Arctic tundra. And who knows when you might see bursts of colorful wild flowers, a caribou trotting across the highway, or a black bear feeding beside the road?
If you just want a small taste of the highway and all it offers, you can head about 100 kilometers north of Dawson City, to Tombstone Park, which is co-managed by the territorial government and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation. On the way there, you’ll likely encounter few other vehicles. Even in the summer, you might run into chilly temperatures, rain, and low-hanging clouds on the mountains.
But you’ll experience great beauty as well, especially if you brave the elements, put up the hood of your rain jacket, and go for a little walk on one of the Park’s trails. Keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of wildlife, moss and lichens, and pretty little wildflowers. Dangle your hand in an icy mountain stream or dig a finger into the spongy ground to remind yourself that this is permafrost country.
If you want to try a more ambitious hike, need more information about the area, or just want to warm up a little, drop by the Park’s interpretive centre. Try a cup of Labrador and spruce tip tea, and cozy up to the roaring fire. Even in isolated country like this, Yukon hospitality is never too far away.