In all of North America, across the vast wilderness which makes up northern Canada and Alaska, only one year-round public highway crosses the Arctic Circle. Today, the trail has become a well-maintained gravel roadway, leading to an unparalleled scenic wilderness. Surprisingly, at the northern end of the highway there is civilization - in Inuvik, the modern Arctic service center founded in the mid-1950s. Inuvik offers a startling contrast to the virgin wilderness of the Dempster Highway.
Government campgrounds and a most unusual hotel "oasis" at Eagle Plains provide overnight accommodation, allowing visitors as much time as is needed to explore this great wilderness route. The Dempster Highway (747 km (450 miles) of gravel roadway) provides road-explorers of the Canadian northland with the ultimate northern adventure.
The highway is open year 'round except for short periods during spring thaw and fall freeze-up. Ferries at the Peel and Mackenzie rivers will take you across free of charge from June to October. In winter, ice bridges allow traffic to cross.
Well maintained campsites and roadside services are located along the road. The Eagle Plains Hotel provides food, accommodation and a service station for truckers and tourists. The communities of Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River also offer a number of essential services.
The Dempster drive is unforgettable, for its crossing of the mountain ranges, for the alpine tundra on Eagle Plains, the wildlife-filled marshes of the Mackenzie Delta, and the crossing of the Arctic Circle.
Before the arrival of European fur traders and explorers, the Dempster Highway region north of Dawson City was inhabited by Kutchin people, part of the Athabaskan family. There were about 1500 Kutchin, spread throughout the Porcupine, Arctic Red, and Peel river valleys. They hunted caribou and moose and fished in the rivers to provide their winter food. Europeans came to this harsh country with the fur trade and established Fort McPherson as a Hudson's Bay Company outpost. With the traders came the North West Mounted Police.
The Mounties sent a yearly dog-sled patrol along the trail between Dawson and Fort McPherson. In 1911, four men and fifteen dogs set out for the winter patrol from Fort McPherson, to be swallowed up by the bitter cold, deep snow, and raging winds. The members of the "Lost Patrol" were found dead, after enduring 53 days of hardship on the trail, located only 40 kilometers from their starting point.
After the Klondike Gold Rush, prospectors looked for paydirt in the Ogilvie Mountains, but weather and travel difficulties hampered prospecting. In the 1950s a potential for oil was discovered on the Eagle Plains and the first exploration well was dug in 1954. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's government (1957) developed a policy of "roads to resources" as part of its northern vision. Surveying of the road through the Ogilvies to the Eagle Plains was begun in 1958. By 1961, 116 kilometers (72 miles) of roadway had been constructed, but work was halted because of a poor showing in the oil exploration. Construction did not resume for ten years until oil was discovered in the Beaufort Sea and an all-weather road was required to service exploration there. The Dempster Highway was opened to the public in 1979.
North to Eagle Plains
The southern part of the region is the valley of the North Klondike River, which flows out of the Ogilvie Range. Within a few miles, the road meets the treeline, and Arctic tundra landscape is seen from here to the end of the highway, with a few exceptions when the road dips into a few valleys.
The highway crosses the Southern Ogilvies, and then the Northern Ogilvies, reaching black spruce tundra with the stunted spruce clinging drunkenly to the surface of the tundra.
Eagle Plains and Richardson Mountains
Eagle Plains is the hilly region which rolls between the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges. The Dempster follows the high ridges of the land, with dramatic views of the expanse of subalpine tundra. In several places along the road, the scrubby trees lean in all directions, caused by frost heaving in the permafrost tundra. The Eagle Plains Hotel at KM 364 (mile 226) is a unique, self-contained oasis on a high ridge just 39 KM (24 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. From Eagle Plains, the Richardson Mountains provide an incredibly beautiful sight, forming a narrow north-south line of softly-sculptured ridges. They are thought to be the most northerly range of the Rockies. The Arctic Circle is located at KM 403 (mile 250.4).
The Dempster descends from the Richardsons into the Peel River plateau. This is a broad upland leading to the Peel River, the edge of the area covered by glaciers during the most recent ice age. There are many lakes and ponds on the plateau, with tundra and scattered areas of tamarack and black spruce. Ducks and other waterbirds nest here during the summer.
After crossing the Peel River by ferry, you'll come to Fort McPherson, an early Hudson's Bay Company post and now a Kutchin community of 800 people. The wide Mackenzie River is crossed by ferry at KM 613 (mile 381). You have the option of stopping at the small Native community of Arctic Red River. The Dempster leads on through the Mackenzie delta, arriving in the town of Inuvik at KM 740 (mile 460).
For mountain hikers, the three southern Dempster regions provide a hiking paradise. Several routes lead hikers into the Tombstone Range in the Northern Klondike region. Hikers may spend as little as four hours or as long as 8 to 10 days hiking through this range.
The Southern Ogilvies provide several ridges for easy or strenuous hiking in the area of the Blackstone River valley, following creeks or walking across the brush and/or tundra, taking between three and eight hours. The Northern Ogilvie ridges provide many opportunities for hiking from the Dempster roadside.
Canoeing down the Blackstone River provides hikers with access to more remote wilderness. The Richardson Mountains offer several hikes which are even more exciting during the midnight sun period. For the best listing of Dempster hikes, read Along the Dempster by Walter Lanz, published by Oak House Publishing, available at bookstores in the Yukon and in some major centers, including Vancouver, B.C.
One of the largest herds of barren-ground caribou, the Porcupine herd, lives in the northern part of the Yukon. This herd of more than 130,000 lives in a 100,000-square-mile range, some of it crossed by the Dempster Highway. The migration routes of the caribou cross the Dempster in the Ogilvie ranges and in the Richardsons. By early July the entire herd moves into the northeastern Richardson Mountains. The fall migration begins after the first snowfall. Some years see no caribou along the Dempster. In other years caribou winter near the highway in the Southern Ogilvies. Some caribou of the Hart River herd stay in Dempster country year-round, moving up and down the mountains as the seasons change near the West Hart River.
Two types of bears, grizzly and black, live along the Dempster Highway route. The black bear is found in the forests along the Klondike, Ogilvie and Eagle rivers. These are smaller than grizzlies and may be black or a cinnamon-brown color. Grizzly bears range over a wide area, mainly in the Ogilvies. A few grizzlies live in the Richardson range. Moose are seen at the lower levels.
Dall sheep are the white mountain sheep of Alaska and the Yukon. They may be seen along the Dempster as white spots moving along the mountain slopes. Lambs are born in late-May and the sheep stay in family groups during the summer months. Although Dall sheep are prized as hunting trophies, no hunting is permitted within five miles of the Dempster Highway.
The southern stretches of the Dempster route are not known for fish, although Arctic grayling are found in the Blackstone and Ogilvie rivers. However, the Peel and Mackenzie areas make up for the lack of fish elsewhere. An important resource for the Native population of the Western Arctic, there are whitefish, Arctic char, trout and burbot (freshwater ling).
Over 160 species of sub-Arctic birds have been sighted within five miles of the Dempster. The Southern Ogilvies and the Blackstone uplands are prime birding areas. The Ogilvie Mountains provide a home for several birds of prey, including species of eagles, falcons and owls. Ptarmigan are also seen here. Loons and many types of shorebirds inhabit the Peel plateau and the Mackenzie delta.
The various habitats along the Dempster provide visitors with an ever-changing view of wildflowers. From alpine flowers, including saxifrage, heather, and moss campion at the higher levels, to fireweed and forest plants below, there is a rich diversity of plant life. Two rare types of orchids grow in the Northern Ogilvies. In July, the alpine meadows provide a carpet of many colors, 24 hours a day. By early September the color of the Arctic tundra has turned to a light brown.
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In Eagle Plains
Eagle Plains Hotel
Bag Service 2735, Whitehorse YT Y1A 3V5
Telephone: (867) 993-2453
Fax: (867) 993-6162
This unique oasis, on the Arctic tundra of the Yukon's Eagle Plains, is a logical place to stay overnight during your Dempster Highway trip. It is almost exactly halfway between Dawson City and Inuvik. Located just 21 miles south of the Arctic Circle, this is a completely self-contained complex, with electrical generator, and water hauled by tanker truck from the Eagle River. The complex includes a gas station, government office, staff quarters, and a campground with showers and laundry. The industrial-style (but comfortable) modular motel has a dining room and lounge. The hotel is open year-round. ($$)
288 Mackenzie Road -- P.O. Box # S/B 2303 -- Inuvik, NT X0E 0T0
Phone: (867) 777-2647 -- Fax: (867) 777-3442
Located away from the center of town, this hotel offers visitors a quiet, modern place to stay. Amenities include a restaurant, lounge, and guest laundry.
185 Mackenzie Road -- P.O. Box 2303 -- Inuvik, NT X0E 0T0
Phone: (867) 777-2861 -- Fax: (867) 777-3317
This is Inuvik's original hotel, renovated over the years, with a dining room, coffee shop, pub, and lounge (with nightly entertainment). Units include standard rooms and suites. The hotel includes a business centre, dining room, and exercise room.
133 Mackenzie Road -- P.O. Box 1740 -- Inuvik, NT X0E 0T0
Phone: (867) 777-2801 -- Fax: (867) 777-3234
The Eskimo Inn offers accommodations for 156 guests in 74 rooms (smoking and non-smoking available). Located in the heart of downtown Inuvik, the Eskimo Inn is convenient to all the major businesses. Hotel amenities include a dining room, lounge, and a conference room.
All of the three hotels listed are owned by the same group.
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