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.
Junction of the Klondike and Dempster Highways: Our last chance to fill up empty tanks and stomachs at the roadhouse. Shortly after, the crossing of the Klondike River where we watch the salmon run. Most of the river's gold has long disappeared, and what remains are the stories of the good old Dawson City gold rush days, like the ones told about a particular Klondike Kate (at least 13 women claimed the nickname in that era). Any man the legendary showgirl could consider worthy of marriage had to be rich enough to match every ounce of her body weight in pure gold.
Mile 0.9 (km1.5)
A sign warns there is no gas available for the next 370 kilometers (230 miles), and apart from wild cranberries and blueberries, no burger venues either. A little farther on there's a last reminder to ride carefully: NO MEDICAL SERVICES.
Mile 14 (km22)
A grand vista of an almost perfectly round valley carved by a glacier.
Mile 46 (km74)
Jolts of joy when we ride up the first pass. Although the gain in elevation was only a few feet, suddenly one can see that no trees can stand against the tough conditions anymore. The landscape is empty. We've entered tundra now, a unique landscape that glows at summer's end in all imaginable shades of yellows and reds. It looks as if an artist has spilled his paint box. The surrounding mountaintops of Tombstone National Park hide in fluffy clouds.