Road Trip: How It All Went Wrong On The Dempster Highway

I was stuck. Completely and totally and irrevocably stuck, head-first in a bank of snow at the side of the Dempster Highway. All four wheels were spinning uselessly. It was -25°C and early afternoon. It would be dark in just a few hours when the temperature would fall even further.

I was reminded of the sign we’d passed as we turned onto the Dempster Highway just outside Dawson City:

There are no emergency medical services on the

Yukon section of the Dempster Highway

“Drive with care”

There was nothing for it but to start digging. At least the exercise would keep us warm.

1.

The Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada that takes you up and beyond the Arctic Circle. Completed in 1975 it initially only went as far as Inuvik, but it is now paved all the way to the Tuktoyaktuk, a small village that lies next to the Arctic Ocean. The latter stage previously relied on ferries in the summer and ice roads in the winter, leaving the northern section isolated and unreachable in the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn.

The road’s twin lanes are surfaced with gravel instead of tarmac and it lies on top of gravel pads that range between 1.2m (4 feet) to 2.4m (8 feet) thick. The road is essentially a bridge suspended above the permanently frozen ground; the gravel berm acts as an insulator to prevent the permafrost thawing. Were it to thaw, the roads would sink and heave, just as many of the houses in Dawson City have over the years.

The weather fought the construction crews every inch of the way. In 1979, a blizzard trapped a team in the Richardson Mountains and they nearly lost their lives to hypothermia. Temperatures of -60°C aren’t uncommon here, and when the wind howls, it howls with Arctic fury.

The area that lies either side of this iconic road is so vast in its scale as to be almost unimaginably uninhabited. There are, for example, no major intersections or junctions along its entire length, and sections of it are actually designated as runways where bush pilots can land their aircraft in the event of a wild-fire or a medical emergency.

And, while the Dempster might teem with campervans and motorhomes in the summer, you can drive for hours without seeing another soul in the winter. It’s just too damned cold for casual tourists who want pretty, snow-topped peaks, groomed trails, and the chance to sip something hot and alcoholic while basking in the glory of a ski-lift assisted black run.

The Yukon isn’t like that. In the winter the Yukon fights you every inch of the way and in order to survive you need to fight it right back. You need to stand toe-to-toe with it, gaze deep into its soul, and show that you ain’t scared. It demands your constant attention even then and is quick to savage you if you turn your back on it. Survival out here is down to you and you alone; help might come, but if it does it will be hours or even days away.

Or it might not come at all if the weather gets worse.

2.

The section north of Eagle Plains had been closed when we arrived the previous day. Word among the stranded truckers was that it would reopen sometime this morning, but there were, as ever when you’re travelling in the Yukon, no guarantees.

So we sat among men and women for whom the road opening was a matter of finance rather than fun, and drank coffee. The Eagle Plains Hotel is basic but clean, and something of an institution. Completely self-contained it also houses a petrol station and a work’s compound, complete with accommodation for the crews who work out of it. It’s the only hotel on the Dempster Highway and it sits at the halfway mark, providing accommodation and food (and some great Yukon beers…) for travellers and workers alike.

Rumour has it that a black bear wandered into the hotel lobby a couple of summers ago. While most stood there wondering what to do, the owner took up a broom and chased it out. That’s the kind of pioneer spirit you need out here; she didn’t stop to take a selfie before phoning for help. No, she just picked up her damned broom and took care of business.

A rush of drivers to their trucks and a shouted “they’re gonna open it!” had us running to our vehicle too. While we were happy to yield to a pair of souped-up GMC Ram pickups – I’d seen similar vehicles yesterday; familiarity bred the sort of titanium balls you need to drive at 150km/h on snow, and I wasn’t keen to get in their way – I’d rather get ahead of the semis that had been idling now for three days. They’d be in a hurry but I was in more of one, even if I was doing it for kicks and they were doing it for clicks.

We queued at the snow gate, only to be shouted at by the works supervisor. She told us that she wanted the road clear, “clear, d’ya hear me?” before she was prepared to open the gates.

We sheepishly reversed back into the hotel car-park.

The gate opened and the first Ram surged away. The second just sat there and after failing to catch his eye, I moved away. The road was straight-ish, and newly ploughed, so 100km/h didn’t seem entirely unreasonable. The second Ram clearly thought that I was being a bit of a wuss because he came howling past me at easily twice my speed. His rooster-tail of snow blinded me completely and I counted silently in my head as I kept the wheel straight and eased off the throttle. I got to 32 before I could see again.

In weather this cold – the thermometer outside the car showed -35°C – the condensation from your breath freezes on the inside of the side windows no matter how high you crank up the heater. Random electric faults come and go, and your rear ‘screen wiper is useless after just a few miles, jammed tight with ice and grit from the road. You drive in a bubble that relies on diligent engineering and scrupulous maintenance to keep you alive.

We made the Arctic Circle, stood there for ten minutes to let the semis get past us, and then set off on the long drive back to Dawson City. It would take us around ten hours, but spirits were high; we’d seen the Yukon in all its glory and were gaining confidence.

Possibly too much confidence.

3.

By the time we got stuck we’d been travelling for a couple of hours and hadn’t seen a single vehicle, which meant we were in for a lot of digging. The soft, powdery snow we’d waddled through earlier to take selfies at the point the Yukon breaches the Arctic Circle was compacted now, squeezed as hard as rock and wedged into every crevice of our super-sized GMC Yukon XL.

I’d moaned earlier to some friends about the crap tyres that were fitted to it. While others had Nokian Hakkapeliittas or even BF Goodrich All Terrains on their hire cars, mine had some spectacularly poor all-season tyres that simply weren’t up to the job.

And yet, despite me slipping and sliding when the Nokians would have been gripping hard, the accident was my fault and mine alone. Faced with a blind but sweeping left-hand bend, I’d edged my way to the right of the road to leave space for any oncoming traffic; we hadn’t seen any on this leg of the trip but we’d been rocked in the wake of passing articulated lorries yesterday and I didn’t want to have either party have to make any sudden evasive manoeuvres.

And so I moved over to the right of the road, just a couple of feet but it was enough tip my offside wheels into the culvert at the side of the road. The loose snow sucked them in tight and we heeled over at such an angle I was worried that we were going to roll. I did the only thing there is to do under these circumstances and hit the brakes hard, relying on GMC’s algorithms to pulse-brake me down to what I hoped was going to be a controlled stop.

They did, and we did, nosing our way into the compacted snow so gently that the only damage was a cracked bumper and a smashed front fog light. We’d been lucky.

We started to dig, and were doing a fine job of freeing ourselves when a passing highways’ truck pulled over and offered to tow us out. The strap we were carrying snapped after a couple of pulls, so they pulled out a length of rusting chain. It wasn’t pretty but it sure as hell wasn’t about to snap on us. Half-a-dozen tugs had us free and they were off before we could even thank them properly.

I was embarrassed, but less so when I heard that their supervisor – a woman with decades of experience driving the Dempster Highway and the same one who had shouted at us earlier – had put her own pickup in a ditch only minutes before us further back along the road. That the recovery of her truck needed heavy plant and took hours rather than minutes made me feel a bit better about my lapse of judgement.

You see? The Yukon comes and bites your ass, no matter who you are or how tough you think you are.

Just ask Corporal Dempster.

4.

The Dempster Highway is named after Corporal William Dempster of the North-West Mounted Police. An experienced outdoorsman, he was part of a rescue party sent out to find a missing mail patrol. The patrol, which was led by Inspector Francis Fitzgerald, set out in December 1910 from Fort McPherson.

Ahead lay 470 miles of mostly unbroken trail and Fitzgerald, possibly wanting to set a new record for the journey, decided to cut down on the usual quantities of food and equipment. The record for completing the one-way route stood at just 14 days, but it had taken some men as long as 56. Fitzgerald split the difference and took food and supplies for 30 days.

The Yukon, never one to miss the chance to do its worst, decided to punish him and his men. It cranked down the thermostat until the mercury read -62°C in the Richardson Mountains and threw out more than the usual amount of snow. Strong winds compounded the problem and the men struggled to find their way as the snow obscured the trail and nine days were wasted as they tried to find their way over the mountain before they eventually conceded defeat and turned back.

Their food ran out and, in time honoured fashion, they started eating their dogs. Fitzgerald’s last diary entry records the fact that just five dogs were left at that point, the men being too weak with exhaustion, hunger and exposure to carry on. Three died and one committed suicide rather than face any more of the brutal winter conditions.

Corporal Dempster and his men found their bodies just 34 miles from the safety of Fort McPherson and there is a marker post at the 118 kilometre point to commemorate and remember what has since become known as The Lost Patrol.

Dempster returned a hero and was asked to improve trail conditions – and did a fine job of doing so; one of his recommendations, which was implemented without quibble, was that a First Nations guide should accompany every mail patrol. Emergency cabins were also established, and caches of food ensured that future dogs would expend their energy kinetically to propel the sled, rather than calorifically in feeding the mushers. Permanent trail markers were installed, and not a single man was lost from that point on.

Dempster rose to the rank of Inspector and died at the ripe old age of 88. Beautifully, the man who became known as “the best trail man in the Yukon” found out that the Dempster Highway was to be named after him shortly before he died.

5

You still do not take unnecessary risks in the Yukon in the winter because when your petrol runs out, you’re on a par with Inspector Fitzgerald and his men. In fact, scratch that; you’re not even on a par with them because they grew up in this brutal cold. They knew how to live with it, to mould their lives to survive here. You? You’re probably like me; a soft, feeble shell of a man made even weaker by easy living and too much food.

We wouldn’t last a day out here, much less a month. But that’s okay because for now we’ve got satellite phones and four-wheel-drive vehicles and alloy shovels and energy bars and while they’re working, we’ll be fine. And we’ve got a road, a miracle of engineering that serves as your 458-mile guide to some of the most spectacular scenery that you’ve probably never heard of.

And it is spectacular. Towering mountains vie for your attention with vast plains and meandering rivers. All covered, of course, with snow. The snowploughs are out, lights flashing, grinding their way long the Dempster Highway. You pass them slowly, hand aloft in greeting, but they’re swathed in heavy wool hats and trail headphone wires. For them it’s just a job, but for me? For me it was something much more intimate, something almost primeval.

I must have pulled over half-a-dozen times on that journey. I stood by the side of the road with my engine turned off, taunting the Yukon. Reveling in the silence, which is a physical thing out here, a blanket that damped down everything around me. There is no noise in the Yukon in the winter. It’s too cold for that, too desolate. Nothing moves in nature unless it has to, and we saw no animals on our journey bar a bored-looking lynx which melted into the trees when I got too close.

For now, the Yukon is a world stripped bare, a world reduced to the irrevocable minimum of snow and ice and rock and trees. It’s vast and desolate – and utterly unforgiving.

It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno