The Dempster Highway is a road less traveled and that makes all the difference. I am drawn to such roads, and when I have my preferences, I spend most of my time on these roads, pausing often, taking time to appreciate the vastness and complexity of place that such trails offer. It is a personal challenge, in partnership with my lens, to do such places justice. It is important to take a picture of the inspiring works of our Creator’s hand with our heart, and all of us can, and should take the time to do so. It is far more challenging to capture that inspiration and preserve the emotion of landscapes, flora and fauna with a camera. I truly enjoy the quest.
Few people have heard of the Dempster Highway. Many drive by it as they travel the South Klondike Highway of Canada’s Yukon Territory between the capital city of Whitehorse and the historic Dawson City. It is “that road” that shoots off to the north that transects the Canadian wilderness and travels on endlessly north of the Arctic Circle to the lonely little town of Inuvik, and, in winter, beyond to the lonelier little hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean. The Dempster Highway is not endless, despite appearances from Mile 0, 25 miles south of Dawson City. The Dempster traverses 458 miles (737 km) of the Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories along a relatively well-maintained gravel road. The Highway is not endless, it just takes a while to accomplish the journey, and accomplish it judiciously, which most casual travelers are reluctant to do, given the sparse services, and nearly inevitable sacrificed tires and windshields. Enter the brave and intrepid travelers.
This is my diary, offering tips on both travel and photography along the long and winding road of the Dempster Highway
The Dempster Highway is a long road, and it can be as long or as brief as your time and plans allow. My wife and I first journeyed into this Yukon Wilderness in 2011, traveling a scant 120 miles (194 km) of the Dempster Highway to Engineer Creek. We had limitations of time, having spent many days traveling from our town of Haines, Alaska, through Kluane Park and across the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City before turning left at the Klondike River Lodge at Mile 0 (Last gas for 230 miles.) We also had a great desire to spend the time we had available hiking in the Tombstone and Ogilvie Mountains rather than spending the time driving. The seed was planted, and in 2012 we returned with more time to spend, and a resolved desire to travel the length of the Dempster.
The Dempster Highway is a worthy road. The highway traverses three ecoregions in its first 40 kilometers, and ten ecoregions along its length (Dempster Highway Travelogue) containing boreal forests, arctic tundra and river delta systems. It crosses the continental divide (Arctic and Pacific) three times, and can be a wildlife photographer’s paradise, hosting caribou herds, grizzly bears, moose, dall sheep, wolves, and a great variety of birds including Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagle, duck, plover, ptarmigan, swan, varieties of owl, jaeger and junco, Peregrin Falcon, Red Throated Loon, among others.
There are many ways to approach travel on the Dempster Highway. I have seen adventurous young people hitch hiking along its way. Many international visitors choose to rent an RV in Whitehorse for the sake of comfort (check with rental companies about limitations of vehicle insurance on travel along the Dempster Highway). Some take motorcycles, some will bicycle the length. I have chosen to pack up the truck with tents and pads and all manner of camera and camping equipment and “rough it” as we go. Services are very limited along the length of the Dempster Highway. Fuel, accommodations and repair related services can be found at Mile 0, km 369 at Eagle Plains Hotel, km 551 at Fort McPherson, and km 737 at Inuvik. For the campers, there are Territorial Campgrounds along the way, though they are somewhat as few and far between as are other services. These fee-based campgrounds offer the luxury of established campsites with fire pits and picnic tables, firewood, outhouses, bear-proof refuse cans, and sheltered warm-up and cook shacks for inclement weather. There are many dry camps along the way in pullouts for those who need fewer “amenities.” Each season offers unique challenges and rewards.
A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. We do however have hopes for foliage and wildlife. I have found the best travel and the best photography comes with doing a bit of research upfront. Foliage along the length of the Dempster Highway is best viewed during the last week of August and first week of September. Things look a bit green as we arrive in Dawson City, but the local Visitor Center for both the Yukon and Northwest Territories assure me I am arriving at just the right time at the end of August. Certainly the best of my own photography has been that which is pre-visualized and anticipated and planned for. On occasion, award-winning shots come by some amount of chance or accident, but more often than not, my best photography comes through planning and returning to hone the light or hedge the bet with respect to wildlife. We have been on the Dempster Highway before, and this has made us want to return. I am a bit more familiar with the lay of the land along the southern reach of the Dempster Highway, though I do know that I have hardly scratched the surface. I gather as much information as I can through Internet sources, and Yukon and Northwest Territories visitor’s centers as well as local bookshops in Dawson City to act as continual reference guides along the course of our trip.
Heading north to the Dempster Highway – August 20
Leaving Haines via Skagway to Whitehorse on Canada’s Discovery Day (national holiday), we are largely traveling against the current, as do the salmon. On board we have selected the Hobbit book on tape (CD) to enjoy as we travel. It seems to be an appropriate choice. The Hobbit (Bilbo) is not keen on adventure, preferring the comforts of home and kitchen and bed to that of sleeping out on the ground and living under the sky. Bilbo finds as he goes along great satisfaction and esteem of his colleagues in braving and greeting the unknown. So go we.
From Skagway to Whitehorse, we climb passes forged by the Tlingits and Stampeders across barren ground covered in lakes. The Klondike Highway takes us to the Train Village, the Roadhouse and South Lakes, where marl yields multicolored palettes.
Photography allows me to love life and light and moments in nature and quiet and solitude. It takes me long to drive places because I am always stopping and watching. When I stop I like to pause and appreciate the scene. The longer I linger, the more I appreciate. The more I appreciate the deeper the appreciation sinks as the scenery slowly unfolds itself to my eye and lens. Again, the good traveler has no fixed plans or schedule. As the scene unfolds it leads me to wonder. So much of photography lies in composition, which is largely determined by points of view. I am never sure which will be the winning shot until I get home and review the “light board.”
First Day on the Dempster Highway – August 21
Left Dawson City for the Dempster Highway. Colors are just starting to turn. We will head for Inuvek and pause there while the season progresses and then make our way south again, hopefully to find more color on the tundra. The highway seems like an old friend and our journey a reunion. Through Tombstone I pause for a number of “insurance shots.” The colors are not there yet, but the light is interesting and the clouds pile to dramatic thunderheads that cry to be photographed. Some fireweed and yarrow remain to make nice foreground.
Northward into the Uplands where we find a bull moose stranding in a pond within easy reach of the long lenses. I have to relinquish the 500-prime in favor of the 80-400 mm lens to get some habitat in the photo.
Photo tip for wildlife: Shoot in Shutter priority to control shutter speed. I like shooting in manual, but when you don’t have the luxury of knowing what the “scene” will do, you best go for the insurance shots. 1/500th sec shutter priority and let the camera choose the aperture. Sort it out later. Nikon overexposes, but in RAW, lots of editing headroom. Better to overexpose than underexpose, and drop the EV in Lightroom. If I get a few shots off and the scene allows, I will dial in the optimal manual settings.
We travel northward along the Dempster Highway past Engineer Creek. We have enjoyed staying at Engineer Creek in the past and hiking the casual trails described in Along the Dempster by Walter Lanz, but it is too early in the day to stop. Onward through the Ogilvie Mountains up to the Eagle Plains. It seems and endlessly vast expanse of windswept vistas. Cairns and inukshucks dot the landscape to be enjoyed by those who watch and tarry along the trail.
We fuel at the Eagle Plains lodge and get a tire repaired that coincidentally picked up a nail as we left the station. We grab a coffee and cookie at the café for some extra push. It is about 7 p.m. and there is lots of light left in the day this far north. We can “see” the Arctic Circle from the Plains and push onward. The Dempster Highway substitution chart describes crossing the Arctic Circle is like a call from your best friend. In a word it is sublime. I want to return to this place where the road crosses the parallel at 66° 33′ 44″ of latitude, but for now, we have our sites set on the Rock River campground a few miles further up the road.
Along the way we find a grizzly sow and cub making their way up the road, preferring the easy road to the tussocky tundra. We share the road and engage in a game of “smile, you’re in my camera.” I pull about 100 yards ahead of them and use the long lens to photograph their approach. At 1/500th of a second shutter speed, some shots are still out of focus, perhaps due to the adrenaline as I try to maintain that respectful distance in front of their approach. It is amazing to me how quickly they are walking along the highway. Mom seems to take no note of us, and I suspect she is habituated to the paparazzi. Junior seems a bit more camera shy, frustratingly hiding behind mom. The little one eventually grants me a lucky shot before they turn up a side road for some privacy, and we continue to our camp for the night, thoroughly stoked about the wonders of wildlife and wilderness the day has afforded.
Day 2 on the Dempster Highway – In search of caribou – August 22
Having made camp at Rock River, we are up early to enjoy a drive up the road toward the Richardson Mountains and a walk about on the tundra to enjoy the autumn-turning flora.
We enjoy a morning of solemn beauty on the tundra and then return to the location of the Arctic Circle for a leisurely lunch, a stroll that is lens led, and a brief reprise for catching up on notes in my diary, toward the possibility of writing an article on the journey.
Photography encourages me to spend more time with, and in, the world, in quest for justice. The more I honor that quest, many fold are the rewards on many levels. I find my legs are stronger, my wind and stamina deeper, in wild places.
Using our Along the Dempster guide (Walter Lanz) we set off for Panorama Hill, to the north. According to the book, “From atop Panorama Hill you get a great panoramic view of the nearby Richardson Mountains, Cornwall and Rock rivers, and the adjacent windswept plains.” Lenz’s book was a bit of misinformation about a trail, but I will not overly fault his description. All the trails in this part of the country are “casual” trails established by the “frequent” occurrence of casual hikers looking to find a common destination. This makes each foray a bit of an adventure, and it does not take long for growth to cover such casual markers as might be made by the occasional footprint. We did find a road on the way back that was a better option, used by caribou hunters. The trip up to Panorama Hill does use an established caribou migration route, and we are hoping to see some caribou, but all we found were piles of antlers left by hunters. I lost a Nikon lens cap on the walk through the woods, but collected a new yard rock (slate and quartz) in exchange. If anyone finds my cap, feel welcome to keep it! Upon reaching the top of the hill we keep an eye out for grizzly bears, who are no doubt also keeping an eye out for caribou. While I take some satisfaction in knowing that we will see a grizzly bear from a great distance if one is on these high plains, it also comes with a realization that he would be equally able to see us, and a sober realization that he would be able to cover the country far faster than we would be able to make our way back to the safety of our truck. The walk down the hill is of course easier than the walk up, but neither were terribly taxing. It is a good warm up. Back to camp and an early night to bed, with a big day to follow.
On to Inuvik – August 23
It is 36 degrees in the morning; the temperature is dropping from previous days, or perhaps we are gaining latitude! Packing up camp, I am thinking about the need for a blog on camping etiquette. Cigarette butts strewn about, bottle caps embedded in the road-base at camp, empties laying about in the bushes. Inconceivable to me how people taking advantage of the most lovely country can show such little respect for the amenities provided by the Yukon territorial government. Are these local folks (Yukon) or visitors who seem to have such a cavalier disregard? We push off late, around 10 a.m. and find a grizzly bear wandering the edge of the tundra near the NWT boundary. Kind of far off for the 500 mm lens, but rattled off a few good “habitat” shots. Up close is nice, but when not available, wildlife in the habitat shots are a great option.
The journey through Wright Pass into the Northwest Territories is beautiful and sublime, and the trip up to Fort McPherson required quite a few stops. I am a sucker for reflections, and find that reflections on water surfaces are often far more dramatic through the lens then through the eyes, which is the exception to the usual rule
As we continued north, we enjoyed two ferry crossings at the Peel River (SAVE THE PEEL!) and the McKenzie River.
Along most of the Dempster Highway, the road and beauty drive you along your way. Beyond Fort McKenzie, you just have to drive the road. The scenery is flat, the vegetation is stinted and dusty. Is Inuvik worth the extra miles? You have come so far, why not go the distance? See what is at the end of the road that caused someone to build the road in the first place. As you approach, things change. There are oil and gas rigs, an airport, and OMG there is pavement! At first glance, Inuvik doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it. It is just a modern government and industry fabricated city. Looks like a wide disparity between wealth and poverty here. (The poverty appears to be welfare mitigated.) After a day in Inuvik I am willing to reevaluate my initial impressions. The longer you stay in a place, the more layers you can peel back to discover its heart. We started with a trip to the visitor center where we received welcoming hospitality, coffee and tea, information and recommendations on what to do and what to see.
North Market downtown is a descendant of the Hudson Bay Company and offers Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken under its roof.
Midtown Market has real ice cream cones. Had a great time at the Aurora College Research Center. A tour of the Catholic Church was a highlight of the trip. Thanks Doug!
Borealis Books is Inuvek’s answer to Barnes and Noble and the city can boast a large community greenhouse. Watching the sunset from the Observation Tower at Jak Territorial Park campground was a long affair at this latitude.
We enjoyed musk ox burgers and fries with gravy at the McKenzie Hotel. Hospitality and friendliness was genuine at every turn. The warmth translated into the weather as well, with temperatures hitting up into the 70’s, which is as warm as we have been all summer.
Beyond the Dempster Highway – Swimming in the Arctic Ocean – August 24
And from Inuvik, it is on to Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk, as it is popularly called. We have come this far, and it would be a shame to miss a trip to the northernmost community in North America and experience (or at least see) the black spruce forest give way to the northern tundra, McKenzie River delta, pingos, and the Beaufort Sea and take a dip in the Arctic Ocean. It is pricey to get there, as there is currently no road except in the winter months. We charter a plane and guided tour of this Inuit fishing community, and enjoy rush hour at the Inuvik International Airport, and northern hospitality.
The biggest treat of our trip was visiting the Ice House, which is a community freezer. An unassuming shack in the middle of town opens to a thirty-foot drop into the permafrost where lockers are carved to give residents permanent freezers for their fish catch.
After a full and great day diving deep into the Earth and experiencing permafrost, and then diving into the Arctic Ocean and experiencing other frosty things, we return to Inuvik. I find myself getting up at 2 a.m. in hopes of seeing some of the northern lights. The local college had told us it is the wrong time of year to experience the Aurora, and I am quite glad I chose to see for myself. They were out in full splendor, and I was exhilarated to catch all the lights: aurora borealis, Inuvik, and the sunrise, all at once. I was intrigued to observe that we are so far north, I could see the northern lights to the south. This is my first experience photographing the aurora, and I am initially quite pleased with the results. As I photograph, clouds slowly move in, and within the hour after returning to my tent we are “enjoying” a downpour.
Heading back down the Dempster Highway – Spirit of the Caribou
I have packed up our wet gear, enjoyed one last shower, and journeyed into town for a few supplies and a cup of hot tea water from the Visitor’s Center. We thanked them, made our adieu’s and headed south again, making pretty good time. There is a long line at the McKenzie crossing which allowed us to make some lunch and dry out some of our gear (tent) on the hood of the truck.
Colors on the tundra are improving and encourages me to make some stops along the way (I never require a lot of convincing). While in Inuvik, we had spoken with some folks who had also recently made the northward trek up the Dempster and heard of a recent caribou kill by a grizzly just south of the NWT boundary a few days earlier. I am convinced the bear I photographed a few days previously in the distance was the culprit in the kill. Keeping a watchful eye, we actually can see the antlers off in the distance on the brightly carpeted tundra. We make camp at Rock River again, getting our “old” campsite. Having made camp, eaten dinner and enjoyed a hot toddy (a concoction of coffee and Yukon Jack I have named the Trailblend), and contemplating the “long” wait till sack-time, we decide to turn back up to the north and make some photographs of the antlers. It is a relatively short eight mile drive up the road to within site and a straight path to the antlers. We venture out into the tussock with wary eyes and shouts to notify a bear of our presence. No sign of any bear. The antlers are a (few?) hundred yards off the road, right next to what I believe to be a buried gut pile. (The bear has feasted and buried the leftovers for later.)
The antlers are still affixed to an empty hide, and the disturbed ground does not give me the opportunity for the photo I would like to make, so I use my folding knife to cut the antlers away from the carcass and transplant them to a colorful tussock away from the hide and pile. Much better aesthetics!
Back at camp, I am enjoying my second hot Trailblend of the night when I notice that I cannot find my folding knife. The knife is rather special to me, as it was a gift made by my friend “Alaska” Rod Hinson and is now nowhere to be found, having searched high and low around camp. There is nothing to do but head back to the antlers and search the ground. I will concede I am feeling no pain and otherwise rather joyful having benefited well from the toddies, but the chance of running into much traffic or a constable on the Dempster at 10:30 in the evening is nil to none, and off we go. What a blessing this extra trip turns out to be. Rock River campground is nestled in a sheltered creek bed comforted by spruce trees, and as we emerge into the higher country we are treated to a display of long evening light reflecting off the high clouds onto the Richardson Mountains, with the added bonus of a rainbow. Back at the carcass location, I cannot find my knife anywhere. I begin to wonder: I have separated the antlers from the spirit of the caribou. Did that spirit separate me from my knife? Being sensitive to such questions, particularly with the heightened enlightenment of a few Trailblends, I return the antlers to the hide. As I turn around and look down upon the ground, lo and behold there is my knife. It is an evening of blessings all around, and the spirits are smiling upon us once again.
By the time we are back in camp it finally IS time to hit the bags and catch some sleep.
Heading back down the Dempster Highway – August 26
We break camp at Rock River, head back up the road to collect some caribou antlers from a nearby hunting camp (there is a small mountain of relic antlers) and we are southbound. There is a feeling of regret as we cross the Arctic Circle as we continue south. Colors are becoming amazing on the tundra. A few days have brought a dramatic change in color, and of course, there are many stops for photos.
Over the Eagle River Plains, past the Ogilvie Overlook into the Ogilvie Mountains and we make camp at Engineer Creek. A note on camping etiquette: do not pull your 5th wheel trailer with multiple families with children of all ages right next door to a tent camper when 80% of the campground is empty!! It is a drizzly night, but we are cozy under our aero tarp.
Tombstone Territorial Park and home
It is a rainy drive down to our next stop at Tombstone Territorial Park, where we plan to spend several days hiking before heading home. It is a relatively short travel day, so of course we make a very leisurely trip of it and take advantage of any opportunity we can to hike and explore. I was disappointed to find, down the line, that one of my photo memory cards had failed to completely download, but these consternations are inevitable. More was gained than lost, even if only in the heart and memory.
Arriving at Tombstone Territorial Park, the weather has done anything but improve. The campground warm-up hut and cook shack is full of soggy campers, hanging articles of wet clothing, and the love found often in the midst of miserable company all making the best of it.
Epic Journeys in Tombstone Territorial Park
It has been a wet night, though we suffered not under the dry shelter of our aero tarp and over the soft comfort of our inflatable queen mattress and ample covers. Emerging is a chilly and damp affair however, as we find ourselves under the graceful mantel of the season’s first snowfall. A quick cup of hot tea off the camp stove and we are on our way to take advantage of the Blazer’s heating system and the photo opportunities that await along the road.
August 28 – Grizzly Lake Hike
Great day for a hike, and we make one of our favorite treks up toward Grizzly Lake and views of Mount Monolith. One of the wonderful aspects of this hike is the transition from boreal forest to tundra environment. Pictures are worth thousands of words, so I will let them speak for themselves.
Back at camp we are soothing sore muscles and the evening chill with a few hot Trailblends when a ranger stops in to greet us and give us the news that a grizzly bear has been raiding a few nearby camps, and we should make sure to keep food put away. If the bear continues to raid, they will have to clear the campground. I can only assume that means everyone driving down the road to some new camp, likely the Klondike River Lodge or Dawson City. Under the influence of toddies, I do NOT see this happening, and we are fortunate to hear no more of our mischievous bruin.
August 29 – Angelcomb Peak
Our last hike will be up Angelcomb Peak and the continental divide, where we hear there are dall sheep running about. The hike is reportedly 2.4 miles in length with a 1900-foot gain in elevation. We are treated to grand views, and a few golden eagles, but no sheep despite hauling my big lens.
August 30-31 – Final leg, sliding into home
With reluctance we make our way south, sorry to leave this land of sublime beauty, yet looking forward to the familiar comforts of home. It will be a two-day journey back to Haines, with a layover in Whitehorse. So ends our journey and this blog, with the offering of a few final images.
Pax y namaste.
I am drawn to the subjects of landscape and wildlife photography. I see little point of making photographs without sharing them. My Photo Gallery contain collections of my favorite photographs and images both by categories and subject collections.