The Dempster Highway, summer 2003 

The Dempster Highway : "the great ride North".

Story and photo’s By Sebastiaan van den Heuvel


We left a sunny Dawson City on the first of august of 2003 to travel the 750 km. long Dempster Highway to the City of Inuvik which lies 200 km. above the arctic circle. 


Dawson City.


The Dempster highway is a 750 kilometer long gravel road in the Canadian Arctic, the road begins about 50 km. east of Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.



Dempster highway near Engineer creek


The Dempster Highway goes threw rough mountain territory, high arctic woods, tundra and many rivers including the mighty MacKenzie river.

Driving on this year open gravel road can be dangerous; in summer the road can be very slippery in cold and wet weather in drier days the road in known for it’s dusty conditions, in winter temperatures can far below zero and high winds poor visibility and no daylight can make it a very difficult drive.

Traffic in summer is about 100 vehicles per day, in winter this can be as low as 15. In winter ice roads provide access to the towns of Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk, ice roads are open from late December until March.

The Dempster Highway can be driven on any vehicle but a very large four wheel drive SUV is no luxury (and bring those spare tires !!).

The  Dempster Highway runs through  Tombstone Territorial Park.

After 365 km. there’s the first gas pump on the Dempster Highway, this place is called Eagle Plains, here you can find a Hotel, Restaurant and repairs can be done here. Eagle Plains was build in 1978 a year before the opening of the road. The place is build on a hard surface where there is no pilings are needed against the permafrost, the population of eagle plains fluctuates between 25 in summer and 8 in winter.

Approaching Eagle Plains.

The “Dempster” is widely used for transportation of goods to the MacKenzie delta Oil and Gas industry.

Truck on the highyway.

The Arctic Circle lies at 66.33.3 degrees north, on 22 and 23 December the sun does not come above the horizon and in June there’s 24 hour of sunshine, in Canada this is the only permanent road that crosses the Arctic Circle.

The arctic circle.

In the winter of 1931-1932 a man named Albert Johnson killed a mounty here, a manhunt had begun he wounded two others and eventually he was shot he became known as THE MAD TRAPPER.

The mad Trapper looking not so healthy……(that’s because he’s jus  shot).

In summer calcium chloride is used to reduce dust, but in wet conditions this makes it very slippery.

Dusty roads becoming very slippery…

Richardson mountains, near the Yukon-NWT border

The border with the North West Territories is shown, from now on we are in different time zone and can’t buy beer anymore (or at least not in the supermarket).

The border with the North West Territories, time to change time !

In the summer (from early June until Oktober) ferries take you across the Peel and Mackenzie rivers, in the four or five weeks after closure of the ferry service the “ice bridges “ will open and you can drive over the frozen rivers.

The Peel River crossing point.

Fort McPherson is a town located at the east bank on the Peel river, it is home to about 800 people.

Fort McPherson’s main street..

On the 21th of december  1910 an four man expedition led by Inspector Francis J. Fitzgerald set off  from Fort Mc Pherson by dogsled they intended to reach Dawson City 475 miles south but something went terribly wrong they perished near Fort MacPherson. The search party was led by corporal W.J.D Dempster, they found the “ lost patrol” all of the members frozen to death. The lost patrol was buried in Fort McPherson, the graves can still be seen today. The Dempster highway is named after corporal Dempster.

The graves of the Lost Patrol in Fort McPherson.

Further on we come threw Tsiigehtchic (or former Arctic Red River) which is another village along the mighty MacKenzie river, it is home to about 200 people.

At the end of the Dempster Highway there’s the town of Inuvik. Inuvik is a “big town” , 3500 people live here. Inuvik was ceated by the Canadian government as a replacement for the village of Aklavik which was prone to flooding and had no room for expansion. A number of people decided to stay in Aklavik and the village exist until today. Most people however moved to “new Aklavik” because the confusion the name changed to Inuvik . Between 1971 and 1990, the town's economy was supported by the local Canadian Forces Station (a naval station that maintained part of the DEW Line) and by petrochemical companies exploring the MacKenzie Valley and the Beaufort Sea for petroleum. This all collapsed in 1990 for a variety of reasons including disappearing government subsidies, local resistance to petroleum exploration, and low international oil prices.

“Downtown” Inuvik.

In winter you can drive further on ice roads to the town of Tuktoyaktuk, but that’s another story.


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