For many overland travellers the goal of reaching the Arctic circle is a big pull but getting into Alaska is not an option if you only have an electronic three month USA visa. This is because entering Alaska starts the USA visa ticking then you have to ride back through Canada and the lower 48 before the visa expires. The alternative is to travel the Dempster highway to Inuvik which is the only all weather road in Canada which crosses the Arctic circle.
Dawson city is the starting point for this relatively new highway in the Yukon. Highway is a bit of a misnomer as it is a gravel and shale road which leads to Inuvik which is also a dead end so you have to retrace the 736km (457miles) back again. During the winter months the highway extends another 194km (121miles) to Tuktoyaaktuk using ice roads.
It’s construction started in 1959 when oil and gas exploration was booming in the McKenzie Delta but spiralling costs and political arguments over funding led to it being abandoned still unfinished in 1961. It wasn’t until 1968 when huge reserves of oil and gas were found at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska (USA) that the Canadian government stepped in to assert its sovereignty over the Arctic seabed off the Yukon coast. They finished the road which was primarily intended to supply the oilfields and the growing town of Inuvik. The road now passes through unspoilt areas of the Yukon and is a popular adventure touring route.
The road was officially opened in 1979 and the full journey includes two ferry crossings (or seasonal ice bridges).
It is built on a gravel berm which in places is up to 2.4metres (7ft 10 inches) thick to insulate the permafrost underneath. There is only one fuel station at Eagle Plains which is 408km from Dawson City hence why we filled our spare fuel bladder before we left. There are no other services whatsoever until Inuvik.
Kev was quite keen to ride all the way to Inuvik but everyone we spoke to in Dawson that had travelled it recently had all got punctures in the later sections which were paved with needle-like shale. We didn’t have a spare tyre and we were mindful that we needed to preserve the tyre we were running on until we could replace it in Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Our compromise was to ride up the Inuvik road (Dempster Hwy) about 80 miles into Tombstone territorial park and back. Quite a few people we had spoken to had said that was the most scenic part of the trip and it was before the tyre shredding shale section.
The scenery was spectacular and it was well worth the detour. Our favourite part however was looking around the frozen ice in the river. Bear in mind this was late June and there were still these huge hunks of river ice that was like a mini glacier.
Ice like this can be dangerous so we moved carefully amongst it to get some pictures.
This was a flowing river without a huge glacier behind it so we didn’t have that worry, that said we could see when we looked back up towards the road (that Kev is sitting on) the gravel hid the ice underneath.
Tombstone national park is quite special in that it is the meeting point of boreal, alpine and arctic environments and there are flora and fauna here that exist nowhere else on earth.
Next Up – Dawson City the history and the buildings.