Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: Devilish Dempster

At the start, the quality of this one-lane dirt road named Dempster is deceiving, but the scenery is uniformly spectacular

The Yukon's Dempster Highway is a beautiful bitch of a road. Running 454 miles from Dawson City to the Arctic Ocean-side village of Inuvik, the Dempster will beckon you to the top of the world ... then kick your ass for trying. It's a hellish clay-and-gravel path through Heaven's back gate, a tire-ripping, windshield-busting, fender-furrowing trail too mean for asphalt. A Sunday drive in Afghanistan would be less nerve-wracking.

And the reward for the brave (or the insane) is worth every ding.

Matt and I just rolled off the Dempster this afternoon after plunging only 300 miles into it. We built roadside inukshuks, replicas of ancient Inuit stone men who help travelers navigate, or warn of problems ahead. We camped above the Arctic Circle and spent Thursday -- the longest day of the year -- under perpetual sunshine. Midnight was as bright as suppertime. And for the privilege of our day without darkness, we fought off the hordes of mosquitoes, bathed in creeks of glacier water, and scrambled along slippery shale slopes to see what was on the other side. We also caked our rented camper's body in a quarter-inch of sticky dust, cracked the windshield and blew two tires.

Ah, but the view through that cracked windshield. The tundra was alive with cotton grass (pictured), purple saxifrage, wild crocus, arctic poppies, buttercups, cinquefoil, arctic azaleas and lupine. The woodlands were hung with dwarf willow. They all grow small and closely knit in the thin topsoil, as if to protect each other from Arctic winds and cold.

The mountains are a long way away, but they are so mammoth that the distance is deceiving. And you can see wolves, grizzlies, caribou, foxes and more at almost any mile.

You are otherwise alone here. A sign at the beginning says "Next Services 370 kilometers" (that's 229 miles.) In almost 600 miles on the Dempster, we saw fewer than 40 vehicles -- and fortunately one of them was driven by Maurice Poirer of Ontario, who helped us repair our hopelessly punctured tire.

Our cell phones didn't work, not above the Arctic Circle nor below it. No Internet either, unless you've got a direct satellite feed to God. The radio is electric fuzz. The Dempster sneers at our pitiful attempts at community.

And I must admit it rattled my nerves a little to learn that the Dempster doubles as a landing strip for bush pilots ... in several stretches. No problem, just keep your eye out for planes coming directly at you.

So we risked the Dempster, against saner advice, and I am so terribly glad we did. Ultimately, we came out OK (although the camper company might have something to say about that.) I never truly appreciated the melodic hum of pavement until we hit Yukon's Highway 2 after three days on the washboard-and-marbles surface. My guts thrummed for a hundred miles after we hit the blacktop; my stomach churned for another hundred.

But my son and I faced the Dempster and came out on the other side. Better for the adventure. Not everybody can say that ... and honestly, if you're smart, you'll keep it that way.


Love, Rita said...

Gorgeous photos, interesting commentary! I would LOVE to travel to that area. (I grew up in rural Louisiana, so I know all about "washboard and marbles".) Maybe I will get to...someday.

But the "Sourtoe"? No, I don't think so. I found the story (and the images) quite gruesome.

Enjoyed the "tales from the road".

Jana said...

I feel like I have some insite after seeing The Snow Walker...the inukshuks in the movie were used to help herd the caribou toward the hunters -as though they were part of the hunting party.
So happy you made it off the Dempster...sorry you had so many flats, but heck what better way to spend QT with the son - under the midnight sun, than changing yet another tire!!! Hope you got some pics of the 4-footed critters..
Maybe you'll write a new book??

Jana said...

Of course insite doesn't mean experience, I've never been any further north than Nenaimo Canada...and we flew to the island...(City people... geez)

Anonymous said...

Ron, please call me immediately. MCV

Ron Franscell said...

Oh yeah, Jana, it's gonna be a book! Maybe it'll even get published!