Friday, June 26, 2015

Dawson City to Inuvik on the Dempster

Notes on the trip up the Dempster to Inuvik.

Thursday, June 25

About 25 miles out of Dawson is the junction of the Klondike and the Dempster Highways. The Dempster is the subject of this post. It's also one of the main reasons we've come this far north. For years, I've had the Dempster on my "bucket list". I've read about others doing it. I've dreamt of reaching the Arctic Circle and going beyond, maybe even to the Arctic Ocean. The Dempster is about 460 miles of gravel road that stretches from the Klondike Highway to the town of Inuvik. It was conceived and built in the 50s and 60s and was officially opened to public travel in 1979.

Why is it a gravel road? Much of the road is built on permafrost. Gravel is a much more forgiving surface, and much less expensive to build, to repair, and to keep in good shape. Traditional road-building techniques produced roads that become soft and unusable when they sink into the thawed frozen ground called permafrost. In order to preserve the frozen ground beneath the road, newer building methods use thick layers of aggregate as insulation. In this way, the warmer road surface and the permafrost are kept apart, and the road is more stable and long lasting. It also adds to the cost and time to build roads like this.

It's important to be prepared for the Dempster. One recommendation is having two spare tires because the Dempster is known to chew up tires on a fairly regular basis. I've talked to some who wouldn't be without two spares and I've talked with others who've driven the Dempster 20 times without a problem. I brought 2 spares.

And speaking of tires, because the road is gravel... and much of the gravel they use is very hard and sharp crushed shale... it would be a good idea to have some good all-terrain tires... the kind that can take gravel and sharp surfaces better than regular street tires. I just mounted a set of new All-Terrain tires before the trip. On the other hand, I saw a lot of folks with standard highway tires too.

There is fuel available in a few places along the Dempster. The longest stretch between pumps is about 240 miles between the junction with the Klondike Highway and Eagle Plains, about mid-way. We have about 400 miles of range with the pickup and never came close to sweating it. Just because fuel is available doesn't mean it's cheap. While we were paying $1.15C further south in BC and Alberta, the price at Eagle Plains was $1.50C and $1.69C in Inuvik.

Got a cell phone? Forget using it on the Dempster. For emergency purposes, and to send out a daily location "ping" to family and friends, we have a DeLorme InReach device that can do two-way text messages via the Iridium Satellite System from anywhere on the planet. It provided us with a measure of comfort.


A very nice couple from Ontario destroyed their truck and camper to an incident on the Dempster just a day ahead of us. This occurred about 90 kilometers (50 miles) north of Eagle Plains. At 7pm in the evening, their truck and truck camper ran off the road and into the soft downward sloping shoulders of the roadway. A panic steering correction just made things worse and they eventually rolled the unit... truck and camper separating in the process... with the truck finally resting on it's wheels in the ditch on one side and the camper laying on it's side in the middle of the road.

On the Dempster, there's no one to call as there's no cell service. Imagine, the nearest facilities are 50 miles away, and even there there are no police or emergency services. Not only did you completely destroy your truck and camper, you're totally alone... at the mercy of other travelers who happen to pass by. And let me tell you, there' are not a lot of people on that road at that time in the evening. You are so alone. A smoldering broken pile of metal that used to be your truck... your means of transportation... your lifeline. Another pile of broken wood and fiberglass, split open at the seams, that used to be your home away from home. Suddenly you have nothing... and you're in the middle of nowhere with no support or assistance of any kind. How must that feel?

We ran into these folks at dinner tonight and they told us their tale. They told us how no one responded... no police, no EMS, nothing -- when you're on the Dempster, you're really on your own. This is true wilderness. They told us of the difficulty in dealing with an insurance company that doesn't understand the wilderness and the distances involved. They recounted how they had to contact multiple people to report the incident and how few really cared or could do anything about it. It wasn't until late the next day that the highway maintenance guys based at Eagle Plains got equipment to the site and could push the broken camper off the highway. It was in the middle of the road for almost a day, traffic having to slow and inch around it. Without cell service up here, you have to rely on the few landlines available at a few places along the way. One of those places, Eagle Plains Lodge, was the nearest place in this case.

Eventually, passers-by helped them pick up some of their possessions and valued items, and gave them a lift to Eagle Plains, some 50 miles away, where they got a motel room and began the process of getting all the loose ends tied together. They couldn't take or pick up everything, so much of their stuff was just strewn beside a broken camper at the roadside... and still is at this writing.


We had our own issue that first day, which I recorded in a separate post which follows this one. It's titled "Tire Tales from The Dempster". Just an inconvenience and not at all catastrophic, it gave us just a taste of why it's necessary to be self reliant and to have the basic resources you may need to address situations as they crop up.

We drove to the half-way point the first day, to Eagle Plains, where we spent the night in their camping/parking area. There's a restaurant and bar, both seemed inviting and reasonably good, and we spent some time chatting with a few locals.

The second day was less troublesome. The drive through the Richardson Mountains was scenic despite the general smokiness and haze in the air. There are two small ferry crossings: The first is at Peel Crossing, where a small cable ferry pulls loads across the river in just a few minutes. Only a short wait for us. The second is about 40 miles further where a larger ferry lugs loads across the larger MacKenzie River. It's a larger boat, with more capacity, but with the width of the river and the occasionally used third landing for a small nearby village, it can take more time to cross. Another thing about these crossings is the ferry landings themselves. The ferrys just pull up to the natural shore of the river, and drop their ramps, landing craft style, onto the sand and dirt. No concrete docks here. They try to maintain the landings to minimize the dips and inflections between the river bank and the ferry ramp, but often RVs with long rear overhangs are not able to be loaded. River levels and eroding banks are always changing things. Beware of this before you drag your big RV up here.

And since we're on the subject of RVs, I guess it makes sense considering the ruggedness of the road, but more than half the RVs we see are truck campers. The next most common are C-class RVs, and then a mixture of everything else. While it's possible to make this trip with a big A-class, long travel trailer, or big 5th wheel, I wouldn't recommend it.

We decided to make camp at a government campground called Happy Valley RV and Campground right in town and within walking distance to much of what we needed to do.