One of three roads in the world to penetrate the Arctic Circle, the daunting Dempster Highway runs from Dawson City to Inuvik. On its scenic way, the road skirts the Tombstone Range, travels through First Nation towns, and traverses the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers on ice bridges (ferries in summer) before ending near the shores of Beaufort Sea.
Opened in 1979 and roughly following an ancestral track known to the Gwitch'n Indians, the road is named for Inspector John Duncan Dempster of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dempster came to the Yukon in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush and began patrolling, carrying mail and the law, from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, at times traveling in temperatures dipping 40 degrees below zero. Then a corporal, Dempster and his dog team completed this arduous roundtrip journey ten times within four years, earning this Mountie his reputation as "The Iron Man of the Trail."
In 1910 Sergeant Dempster set out to comb the trail for four fellow officers who went missing. Having lost their way without benefit of Indian guidance, they were found too late, only 26 miles from their departure point, the bodies frozen solid by temperatures reaching 50 degrees below zero.
Given all that as prelude, even though we were about to travel in the comfortable chill of the Yukon's late-summer climes on a road that Dempster couldn't possibly imagine in his lifetime, it's understandable why we felt more trepidation tingeing our sense of adventure as we rode north into the wilderness. The land is so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious. We felt like time travelers leaving behind the solid protections of modern life, an existence in which every contingency is often planned for to absurd lengths.