Dates: 14-15 June 2016
Start: Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory, Canada
End (14th): Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada
End (15th): Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada
Distance: Too far
Time: Too long
Crossing the border of the Arctic Circle felt like I was literally crossing the barrier into an alternate dimension, as if I was stepping into the pages of a fantasy novel.
At the rest area on the side of the Dempster Highway, there wasn’t a single sound except for the crunch of the gravel underneath my feet. The two other visitors there were doing the same thing I was: wordlessly taking in the view. There was something surreal about the place; it almost felt, dare I say, magical.
If there is one thing this road trip has taught me, it is how huge the world really is. Seven days of driving has only really covered 1/3 of the distance from the north pole to the south pole. Even so, up there, the world feels massive all on its own. I now understand what astronauts mean when they say that looking down on the world makes them feel as if our struggles and bickering is so small and meaningless; the scale of the earth is really quite humbling.
Regardless, I don’t think I will ever forget leaning against the hood of my dust-covered car and simply watching the fog roll down the mountains on the border of the Arctic Circle.
Farther up the road, the fog had entirely obscured everything, and my speed slowed down to a crawling 30 km/h. That didn’t stop me from nearly getting mowed down by a semi-truck barreling down the middle of the road far faster than anyone should have with zero visibility. Fortunately, it didn’t last much beyond the border of the Northwest Territories.
The mountain ranges soon gave way once more to boreal forest, this time with stunted trees that couldn’t be more than 6-8 feet tall. That continued all the way to Inuvik – which, if you haven’t guessed by now, was my ultimate northern destination.
The town of Inuvik is a remarkable place. With a population of around 3500 people, it is the hub of the western Arctic, with an airport, supermarket, hospital, and all the other amenities one would normally find in a bigger town. All of its buildings and pipelines are raised above the ground so as to prevent melting the permafrost underneath it and causing it to sink in. During the winter, the Dempster Highway extends all the way up to the village of Tuktoyaktuk, NT by way of an ice road on the Mackenzie River; however, all other times of the year, Inuvik is the farthest north you can go. A permanent highway will be completed sometime within the next couple years that will finally unite the two year-round.
While eating a reindeer burger at a small local restaurant, I got chatting with a couple Canadian tourists, and eventually I joined them at their campsite where we had conversations ranging from topics such as the most redneck way to start campfires to discussions about politics, religion, and all those other things you’re not supposed to talk about with people. Eventually, we decided that we wanted to drive down to the bank of the Mackenzie River.
Finally, I got to watch midnight pass by with the sun still hanging in the sky. That was a truly surreal experience, one which almost felt like I was on an alien planet. Had I not been in the company of others at a perfectly ordinary campsite, I might have believed it.
Following a good night’s sleep in a quaint little log cabin at the side of a lake – with blackout curtains drawn shut, of course – I hit the Dempster Highway once again, but in the opposite direction. This time, I drove all the way back to Dawson. By the time I reached the Klondike Highway once again (where the Dempster begins), I had traveled almost 1000 miles exclusively on gravel.
Now that we’ve covered the most northern road in North America, it’s time to head south. Stay tuned.