37 Above 60, Part
Story and photographs by Adam Sholder
t was 4:00, and far too late to begin an eight-hour journey into the
unknown. But there I was anyway, 30 miles out of Dawson, and sitting
parked in front of the sign indicating the beginning of the 450 mile-long
gravel road known as The Dempster Highway. Completed in 1979 after 20
years of construction, the Dempster is named after Sergeant Jack Dempster
of the North West Mounted Police. He became a prominent Canadian historical
figure in the winter of 1911 when he led the search for the "Lost
Patrol." The Dempster follows the old trapper trail that was navigated
on sled behind a team of dogs. In turn, these trails followed the trails
established by the Inuvit and Gwich'in people, who still account for
most of the population in this part of the world.
With my video camera atop its tripod, which I had secured
firmly to the passenger seat with bungee cord, I shifted into drive.
Soon I found myself driving on gravel and entering a forest of Black
Spruce. My Sirius satellite radio was picking up some great classic
rock, and I pushed on for about an hour or so, until I reached Tombstone
Recreation Area, where the road begins to ascend into the Ogilvie Mountain
Range. I stopped at the Interpretive Center and talked with the Ranger
for a while. He, like almost everyone I had met so far, wanted to know
about the camera I was carrying a Panasonic DVX, not a small
point-and-shoot kind that most travelers would carry. Mine was much
larger, with a large lens and shotgun microphone attached to its side.
I had been asked if I was with the news, or if I was filming for the
CBC, or sometimes it was just, "Hey, that's a nice fuckin' camera,
A quick note almost all Canadians Ive
met swear. Young and old, men and woman their acerbic tongues
did not discriminate. But Canadians are such a warm, friendly, unassuming
bunch, with such a pleasant, lilting accent that the words just roll
out in a very casual, inoffensive way. I loved it.
The young kid working at the Tombstone Interpretive
Center was no different:
Gee, thats a nice fuckin camera. Whatcha
doin with it?
Im just making a little film of my trip
up the Dempster.
Shit, how far ya goin, ay?
All the way to the Arctic Ocean
Oh shit, thats fuckin wicked, ay?
Yes, it is fucking wicked. Fucking wicked indeed.
Well ya heard aboot the five people got killed
on the highway up by the border there, ay?
Yes, I had heard. Nearly everyone Ive met has
told me about it. Comforting. We chatted for a while about marmots,
and then I shot some video by the creek. Then I was back on the road.
The highway is made entirely of gravel, built straight
up as high as 20 feet in some places. It curves and dips, it is uneven
and filled with potholes, there is often no shoulder, and there are
no guardrails of any kind, even when ascending though mountainous passages
snaking over precipitous cliffs. The road is covered with shale in many
places, a sharp, jagged stone that can easily shred a tire in an instant.
And, there are no services until the halfway point at Eagle Plains,
at mile 220.
The Dempster Highway looking north
I began the ascent into the Ogilvie Mountains, the first
range I would pass through on the journey. I drove through some stunning
vistas, and stopped to get some footage. As I turned a bend in the road,
I got my first breathtaking eyeful of the sweeping Sub-Arctic tundra.
As far as I could see in any direction easily hundreds of miles
the landscape of rolling hills was covered in a hirsute of small,
green, mossy bushes. Bright blue bodies of water hundreds of
them, in all shapes and sizes, were the only things that interrupted
the greenery. Not a tree in sight. And, other than the gravel on which
I rode, there was no hint of human presence, past or present. Spectacular.
I pushed on through, vista after endless vista, all washed in a palate
of greens and blues the land, the lakes, the sky. Unless you
count the white clouds, which I noticed were getting a bit darker.
The road rolled on, through stunning mountain passes,
through impossibly narrow canyons, and through endless, lake-filled
valleys. The skies, which were at first a deep blue filled with perfect
white clouds, were now darkening to an ominous gray. Within minutes
it began to rain. I traveled on through the bottom of a narrow valley,
where a few trees were hiding. My car, already quite dusty from the
streets of Dawson, was now covered in a thick layer of dirt. I couldnt
see out the back window at all, for all of the grime. It rained heavily
for a few minutes, but overall it was a fairly short storm. Soon the
sun reappeared and seemed to cast a whole new light on the scenery.
In fact, the landscape seemed to transform itself with every curve of
the road. With varying light and elevation it was a constantly changing
I continued on through the valley floor when my satellite
radio finally quit on me. There was no more signal to be found. I switched
to my mp3 player. I drove past Engineer Creek Campground without stopping
at the Interpretive Center. I didnt need to hear, yet again, about
the tourists who ran off the road. As I turned a bend in the road in
a particularly heavily wooded area I came car-to-face with my first
Yukon Blonde a grizzly bear. Not 50 feet in front
of me stood the enormous creature. I came to a stop and he turned to
look at me. His eyes met mine straight through my chipped-up windshield,
and we regarded each other for a brief, tense moment. It was just the
two of us, and he must have been three times my size. After careful
deliberation on his part (I assume choosing whether or not to eat me),
he padded down the side of the road and was lost to the thicket of trees.
It was getting late, about 10:30, but still light despite
the cloud cover. I finally ascended out the valley and into another
pass when I hit a fog bank that reduced my visibility to less than 10
feet. I was crawling along down the center of the road, where I was
doing most of my driving anyway, as you pass almost no one, and when
you do, you usually see them coming from miles away. I was hoping that
should I meet anyone coming from the other direction, theyd be
going just as slow as I was in this thick, white haze.
Then, in an instant, with not so much as an, Ill
fuckin catchya later, ay? the fog was gone. But, the
low fuel light had turned on. I was sure that my initial
estimates were right, and I had plenty of fuel to get to Eagle Plains.
I was doing a quick re-figuring of my kilometers-to-miles calculations,
when the next fog bank hit just as hard as the first. I thought I saw
a sign for Eagle Plains, but how far? I was at the top of a summit with
no end in sight. Then the fog broke. And then it was back. It carried
on like that until almost midnight, as did the car, seemingly riding
on fumes, when in the middle of the darkest fog bank I rolled up on
the Eagle Plains Lodge.
The inaptly named lodge (located on an eagle-less summit)
offered food, gas, tire repair, a few motel rooms, a campground, and
limited airstrip facilities. I had initially intended on camping. However,
it was very cold and windy, the fog remained thick as my grandmothers
homemade pea soup, and I was quite exhausted. If there was a room available,
it had my name on it.
I entered the lodge, passing a stuffed caribou on my
way to the office. Blood-red carpets trailed off down long, narrow hallways.
The walls were covered with death pictures of the three
frozen men from the Lost Party of 1911. I saw not another living human
in the place. I suddenly had the eerie feeling I had just walked into
a forgotten ghost-lodge that rises out of the fog, beckoning
travelers to their doom. The office was closed, but the sign said, See
bartender for rooms.
The Eagle Plains Lodge
I found my way into the lounge, across the lobby of
the lodge. A dozen people, all clearly locals, were drinking and talking,
and everyone in the joint came to a sudden and abrupt stop when I walked
in. All eyes shifted to me, the big pale guy with the camera walking
into the lounge at the stroke of midnight in the middle of the middle
of nowhere. I nodded a few greetings and then turned to the bartender,
a girl barely old enough to drink herself. Before I could ask for a
room, she announced last call, and everyone in the joint ordered three
more beers apiece. I ordered a shot of Canadian Club with a Molsons
Canadian back, to celebrate my arrival.
I exchanged my signature on a credit card receipt for
a room key, and was working on my Molson when I noticed a large man
wave me over to his table. I walked over and he pushed a chair out for
me with his leg, motioning for me to join him and his two buddies. They
seemed to be a few Molsons to the wind themselves. Turns out they
were three Gwichin men from the tiny town of Fort McPherson who
had been fishing all day.
The fishins been fuckin great, ay?
Caught us some trout and grayling almost twelve inches long. Been drivin
all up and down the road stoppin at every creek and river. You
Well, Im not much of a fisherman
Shit, cousin, you gotta get down to Klondike Corner
and drop a line!
Stanley Kubrick's "Eagle
So there I was sitting with Kenny, Perry, and Keith,
talking about fishing and the grizzly I saw and the fog. A deep-blue
twilight streaming in through the mist filled the windows of the lodge.
Twenty minutes later, with my beer quite finished, I shook the meaty
hands of my new cousins and called it a night.
I awoke early the next morning and looked out the window.
The fog was thicker than the night before. There would be no way to
drive in this. I spent a little time in the room, and then went for
breakfast in the dining room. By the time I was done eating, the fog
had lifted and I was ready to go. However, there was a buzz of activity
in front of the lodge, and there would be another hour of conversations
with friendly strangers. A motorcyclist asked me about the road conditions
to the south. A middle-aged couple asked if I had seen any grizzlies.
A young family man advised me on some driving tips along the road. It
seems as if everyone had something to say about something. And, of course,
everyone reminded me of the five who died last week, just up the road
a bit from here, near the border crossing into the Northwest Territory.
I was warned that the road gets really bad just north of the lodge,
made worse by the rain and fog, and I should be, Extra fuckin
The Signpost at the Top of the World
It was now 11:00 and they skies were iffy, at best.
I filled up the tank and headed out. The next dozen miles or so werent
too bad, with some foggy patches here and there. And then I reached
another milestone of the trip the Arctic Circle. I pulled off
the road to step out and take a few pictures and video of the signpost.
I stood there alone in utter silence, admiring the very best that nature
has to offer. I must have stood there for thirty minutes, uninterrupted,
in silent reverence.
An ominous boom of thunder broke the glorious silence.
I instantly recalled walking into Chatres Cathedral in the French countryside,
outside of Paris,
many years ago. As I entered the doorway of this magnificent thousand-year-old
cathedral, a thunderclap roared in an otherwise sunny sky. It was a
powerful and profound moment of my life. And here I was, standing at
the Arctic Circle, a doorway to one of natures own ancient cathedrals,
and a loud thunderclap again punctuated another overwhelming and poetic
Yours truly at the Arctic Circle
Disturbingly dark clouds had now moved in behind me
and quickly covered the sky. The thunder became louder and more frequent
and louder yet, and seemed to echo against the mountains that rose from
the tundra miles away. Rain began to drop, lightly at first, then steadily
harder and harder. It was time to move on. Back on the road things quickly
got a bit dodgy. I had hit that much-talked-about rough
spot on the road. It was rutted and pockmarked and narrow. The rain
and thunder picked up in intensity, and so did I. My hands gripped the
wheel and I struggled to see, even with wipers sloshing at full tilt.
The numerous potholes quickly filled with water and blended in with
the gravel, making them difficult to distinguish until I was on top
of them. The car bucked and bounced, splashing up great sprays of water.
Bolts of lightning flashed in front of me, lighting up the ethereal
landscape. I was in my element. I love the rain and to be caught in
a storm of this magnitude in this part of the world was more than I
could have asked for.
Then it really started to rain. Blankets of water
seemed to move sideways, buffeting my car. The road literally turned
to a river of slick mud, and now driving was truly impossible. I pulled
as far over onto the soft shoulder as practical, and sat in total amazement
at the force of the rain. The wipers were useless, and my car was awash
in thick mud. I rolled the video camera, sat back and enjoyed natures
Ten minutes passed and the rain had diminished enough
that I felt it was okay to drive, and I had a lot of wet ground to cover.
The road was still slick, and the potholes remained a constant obstacle,
but my four-wheel drive was up to the task. While the weather slowly
improved, the road itself worsened. The gravel was looser and made worse
by the rain, and although I found myself sliding around a bit, I continued
on. The skies were finally starting to clear in front of me, and a quick
look behind me confirmed the storm was rolling away, a goliath roaming
the tundra. By the time I reached the border crossing, the skies were
again bright and blue.
At the summit that serves as the dividing line between
the Yukon and the Northwest Territory, I came across three travelers
from France. They were making the same journey, from Whitehorse to Inuvik.
However, they were doing it by bicycle. It made my three-day, camping-by-bike
trips to Catalina Island almost seem embarrassing. They had been en
route for five weeks and seemed in bright spirits. We talked for a long
while in the cold, gusty wind atop this summit before taking some pictures
and exchanging Merci Beaucoups and Bon Voyages and Au Reviors.
For days it had seemed as if I had been climbing the
side of the very Earth herself, pulling my self ever upward over uncertain
terrain. Now, as I descended the final summit on the last bit of unstable
road, it felt as though I had made it over the final precipice, heaving
myself up to a safe and secure plateau.
Not long after entering the Northwest Territory I rolled
onto the ferry for the short trip across the Peel River. In the winter,
the river freezes and you can simply drive across it on an ice bridge.
But, in the summer, a two-car ferry stands at the ready for the random
traveler or supply truck. On the other side of the Peel I made a quick
stop in Fort McPherson for gas and water, then Northward once again.
The road, while still gravel, was wider and flatter and smoother, and
I could reach speeds of 90 kilometers per hour (55 mph). Soon I boarded
another ferry, again as the only passenger, and crossed the McKenzie
River, second in length and volume in North America, to be outdone only
by the mighty Mississippi. It drains a full one-fifth of all of Canada.
Now, it would be only an hour or so on the road until I reached Inuvik.
Waiting for the McKenzie River Ferry
I was zipping along the tundra heading straight for
the Beaufort Delta. The McKenzie river begins far to the Southeast at
The Great Slave Lake near Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest
Territory. It heads north from there, eventually draining into the Arctic
Ocean at the Beaufort Sea, creating one of the worlds largest,
natural deltas. As a result, the tree line extends further north here
than anywhere else on the planet at this latitude. The Spruce, however,
are short, spindly, and sparse, and only grow near the water. And, there
are no mountains. The land stretches on and on with nothing to interrupt
the view for hundreds of miles in all directions.
Soon, I passed by the sign to Jak Park, where I would
be camping. It was about 10:00pm and the sun was higher in the sky than
I had ever seen at this hour. I bypassed the park, opting instead to
head straight into Inuvik to pick up some supplies. A few minutes later
I was in what passed for their downtown. Inuvik had none of the charm
of Dawson, but a unique atmosphere all its own. The town was built
by the government in the 1950s to replace the native village of
Aklavik, some 60 miles to the west, which was sinking into the permafrost.
However, the locals tell a different story of how this was just an excuse
used to create a hub for the emerging oil business in the region. To
this day, Inuvik serves at the center of commerce for the Canadian Western
Arctic, including oil, transportation, communication, and the environment.
However, it is still populated mostly by the Inuit and Gwich'in. All
of the buildings sit atop log or steel pilings, 4-5 feet off the ground,
so the heat transfer doesn't melt the permafrost beneath. Long metal
tubes known as Utilidors run above ground between all buildings. The
permafrost also prevents pipes from being buried underground, so these
Utilidors house the lines for water and waste. Most buildings look like
government-built structures of the 50's, save the Catholic Church in
the center of town built to resemble an igloo.
Igloo Church, the architectural centerpiece of Inuvik
The town, even at this hour, was abuzz with activity
mostly teens and younger children on bikes or skateboards speeding
through the streets. And there were taxis running to and fro
a non-stop stream of them it seemed a peculiar sight in such
a small town. I stopped in Maxs News Stand, the local convenience
store, for a few items and noticed the headline on the local paper
"Grizzly Scare in Delta." The second heading on the page read
"Five Die in Dempster Crash."
I pulled into beautiful Jak Park campground, situated
on a bluff overlooking part of the delta, and it quickly became obvious
that I was the only one there. The grounds were empty. I checked in
with the attendant, who warned about the bears. It seemed that Inuvik
was a bit overrun with them this summer. Seven of them had been hanging
around the park, and a few had been heading into town. One even pushed
its way into a house by the lake around two in the morning the previous
week, giving the owners out-of-town visitors quite a start. Determined
bears, swarms of steroid-using mosquitoes, and the bright midnight sun
conspired together, prompting me to seek safety in the shelter of my
SUV I opted to sleep in the back instead of my tent.
Above 60, Part I: You’re Going Where?; A
Return to Alsaka; Alaska
Marine Highway; The
Frigid Temperatures of Alaskas Mighty Interior; In
My Wildest Dreams; Dalton
Highway and Prudhoe Bay; Sitka
By The Sea; An
Expedition to the Norwegian Arctic