Dempster Highway

Roads of Adventure (Part I)

Little did I know that the next week would get me to drive so many extremely scary but extremely awesome roads. Dirt, mud, dust, potholes, washboards, ferries, washouts, rain, fog, 24h sun, steep mountains and many many mosquitoes.

I left Tok, Alaska to head back to Canada over the Top of the World Highway. The road is only open in summer and partially unpaved. Sounds like good fun. I had waited a day in Tok because the weather would be much better the next day. Well, weather predictions are always wrong. It was pouring rain. But just before the road went from paved to unpaved the rain magically stopped. That was all I needed! The only town between Tok and the Canadian border is a town called Chicken. The people wanted to call it Ptarmigan after a very common local chicken-like bird but nobody knew how to spell it… So Chicken it is! Chicken isn’t very interesting, a tourist town themed on gold mining and chickens. From Chicken the road continued unpaved over steep mountains. The road was very narrow, there were no shoulders or guard rails. Also, for whatever reason, all Americans with the touring car sized RVs pulling a pickup truck behind it think this is a good way to drive to Alaska. Those guys are so big that you can barely pass them. (At the stops on the way you hear them complain about how bad and narrow the road is… well… then don’t drive up here… take the normal road to Alaska!). The Canadian border is a tiny tiny border post in the middle of nowhere on a steep pass at 1300m. Crossing was quick and easy. From the border the unpaved road zigzags down to the Yukon river at Dawson City. You need to take a ferry to get across the river and since it’s summer season there was a long queue. Luckily they could only fit one big RV at a time and filled up the rest with small cars like me. So I could pass the queue and hop on the first boat. More luck with having a small van came when I got into the campsite in Dawson City and they only had one site left for a very tiny car. ME! ME! Dawson city is a weird combination between an actual town of 1300 people and an outside museum. At its peak as gold rush town more than 30,000 people were living here. The town has some beautifully restored wooden western style buildings. But because of budget cuts a lot of other buildings are falling apart.

Dawson City

Dawson City

When I first started planning this trip I wanted to drive the Americas north to south, coast to coast. The road going up in Alaska (Dalton highway) is infamous for the amount of flat tires and long distances without services. However, you can’t actually get to the coast up there. You have to stop some 30km south of it. Also the road is supposed to be full of heavy traffic for the oil industry up at the coast. An alternative road would be the Dempster Highway in Canada. It’s also infamous for being a bad quality dirt road and also goes close the the coast but not all the way. Looking into both options the Dempster sounded prettier and less busy. However, the road quality is so bad that people say you have to bring at least two spare tires and that you will for sure ruin your windshield. Google Maps predicted an average speed of 50km/h, my navigation went for 60km/h. The road is 750km of dirt, with barely any services, you will be driving for a very long time. So I was a bit scared of these roads, especially with my van in a sub optimal state. So I had decided to not drive them. But the Top of the World Highway turned out to be pretty doable and the weather was great. So I decided to just drive the first 70km of the Dempster Highway to the first view area. The views driving up were beautiful. The road had loads of potholes but it was very wide and quite empty so you could just zigzag around them. So I decided to drive a little but further. Then it started raining, something that’s supposed to turn this 750km dead-end dirt road into a nightmare. But still it was quite doable. I thought, I will have to drive shitty dirt roads in the rain when I get to Central America, so I might as well get some practice. So I drove a bit further. The rain stopped and before I knew it I was already at the halfway “town” (fuel station, garage, hotel, campsite, population 8). Well, now it was too far to drive back the same day, but this campsite didn’t look very nice. It was only another 50km to the arctic circle and another 50km to another campsite. So I drove some more. The road around the Arctic circle had wide views of the hills and mountains. Sadly the campsite was in a forest at the bottom of the valley without nice views. Even worse the campsite was next to a river which meant loads and loads of mosquitoes. The first time I tried to kill one on the back of my leg I actually killed five in one go. The mosquitoes were so bad that I spend the whole evening inside my van.

Dempster Highway

Dempster Highway

Since I was already two thirds up the road there was no excuse not to finish it. The weather was grey but fine. From the campsite it was a short drive to the border from Yukon to the Northwest Territories. To be honest the road from here to Inuvik (the town at the end) is not that interesting. But there are two small ferries that get you across some rivers and the town of Fort McPherson (300 people or so), where I had to stop to fill up diesel. The last bit of the drive is quite flat with loads of spruce trees and pretty lakes with beaver lodges in them. I stopped for a small hike but ran back to the van after 5 minutes. I have never, ever seen so many so aggressive mosquitoes. It was terrible. By this time my van was dirty beyond recognition, the van was brown, no longer red and I could not see through my back or side windows. Then comes the town of Inuvik, the road is paved again. And there are side roads… with cars coming out of them… but I can’t see through my windows… Weird and a bit scary after 2 days of driving mud and dust. Inuvik is a weird place, a few thousand people living in a government build town. People either work in tourism, maintaining the road leading up there or the government. The town is build on permafrost, so to prevent that from melting all buildings are build off the ground, roads are on a 1-2m thick layer of gravel and piping for water and heating is build above ground. The buildings also show that it get’s very cold and very dark here, bunker like buildings with tiny windows. Weird but interesting to walk around. That night I sat outside my van until 1 at night. The sun was still high in the sky. I had reached the northern most stop on my trip. When I finally went to bed the sun was shining straight into my face.

Midnight sun in Inuvik

Midnight sun in Inuvik

I wanted to stay in Inuvik for a day but the weather was grey and day trips form Inuvik to the coast started at 600 bucks. So it was time to head back. The same way for 750km. I had more rain and more sun. The car got a bit cleaner and a bit dirtier. The part where you drive over a mountain ridge with the mountains going down on both sides of the road had great views yesterday. Now I was in a thick fog of clouds. Extra scary is that you couldn’t see anyone’s tail lights because of the mud. Eagle Plains at the halfway point was in the clouds. So I only got some more diesel (most expensive so far at 1 Euro/l) and pushed on a bit further. I got down to Engineer Creek (awesome name!) and that’s where it got sunny. Another campsite with too many mosquitoes another night in the van.

Bad weather on the other side of the ferry

Bad weather on the other side of the ferry

The next day I started driving… and after only 15 minutes I noticed I was driving in the wrong direction… north instead of south… already thought it looked familiar. I was pretty happy when I made it to the end of the road and got back on the paved ones. I decided not to wash my van that night and keep the mud as a badge of honor for just one day (it was recognized as such at the campsite). Dawson city was sunny and everyone was walking around town until late.

Very very dirty van

Very very dirty van

The things I learned while driving the Dempster Highway:

  • Using the whole road to avoid potholes, washboards and wildlife (yes, I’m talking about you, stupid suicidal ground squirrels)
  • Driving dirt roads in heavy rain, fog and/or baking sun
  • I’m now a mountain road steering and gear shifting master
  • Catching mosquitoes with one hand while driving with the other
  • Trying to clean the mud/dust of your tail lights to make sure other people can see you is hopeless… It will be covered again within minutes.
  • Midnight sun is awesome!

Costs for Driving the Dempster Highway:

  • The most expensive diesel so far (at 1 euro/l it’s still cheaper than in Europe)
  • There is dust everywhere in my van, including the cupboards and my bed (Don’t drive with your windows open when you are on a dirt road)
  • The van is covered in a thick layer of mud. When it dried out, the outer layer started crumbling off showing another layer underneath.
  • A second crack in my windshield after another truck tossed a rock at me
  • A mosquito battlefield on my butt, my arms, my legs, my face
  • When I took a shower in Inuvik the drain filled with mud, dried up blood and mosquitoes coming of of me.

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