A devoted road-tripper, Mark Vanhoenacker tackles the Dempster Highway, an unpaved journey across miles of desolate Arctic landscape. "I’ve never been more aware of being on the surface of a turning sphere"
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
“You can sleep in the trucker’s shower,” said the woman, her face a mix of defiance and apology, as she cleared grimy glasses from the motel’s bar. “The road’s washed out to the south and we have 30 people sleeping in cars. We gave your room away hours ago.”
At the last river crossing we’d heard that the road beyond Eagle Plains, south of the Arctic Circle, might be closed. We’d driven on regardless, as there was no other road. After 13 hours of edging through thick fog and near-Biblical downpours, we were weary. Whatever a trucker’s shower was, it couldn’t be worse than a night in the car.
In "Big Sur", Jack Kerouac compared road-tripping to “sitting in a rocking chair on a porch only this is a moving porch and a porch to talk on.” My friend and I have a long tradition of road-trips, and have piloted the moving porch across much of America over the years . But we’d never steered towards Canada.
The Alaska Highway would have been the obvious choice, until we heard about the Dempster Highway. No committed road-tripper could fail to be entranced by the Dempster. This remarkable stretch begins near Dawson City in the Yukon, the Klondike gold-rush capital. From there it heads north, tracing its way across more than 450 miles of achingly desolate Arctic landscape, and traversing several enormous rivers on ferries or ice bridges. It crosses the Arctic Circle—one of only two roads in the Western Hemisphere to do so—and finds its end in Inuvik. This town near the Arctic coast is just about on the tree line, where the vast boreal forest finally yields to tundra.
The Dempster is unpaved. Its jagged surface is notorious for breaking axles, smashing windscreens and shredding tyres. Travellers can be caught for days between landslides, snowdrifts or washouts. The first petrol station is so far down the road that there is a known “point of no return”, beyond which most cars, not having enough fuel to turn back, must continue north. This was where we wanted to be.
In July, we flew to Whitehorse in the southern Yukon, where we learned an early lesson in the mysteries of the north. After a night-time takeoff from Vancouver, the summer sky brightened. The plane’s northward trajectory toward the continuous Arctic day see-sawed the deepening night to the south. The effect was an hours-long amalgamation of sunset and dawn. Sky alit, the jagged Rockies gradually fell away, and the tree-lined landscape was bathed in near-daylight at 1am.
The Arctic Circle is one of the most compelling features of driving the Dempster, with its fascinating light and climate. Even if we know the reasons for days and nights and seasons, the mechanics aren’t readily obvious; driving on the Dempster they become so. I’ve never been more aware of being on the surface of a turning sphere.
One “night” we rowed a boat out onto a lake: at 2am it was bathed in full golden sunlight (above), the surface teeming with insects, fish and birds. Hours later on shore, the sun was equally high in the sky, moving laterally along the horizon. The Circle is the lowest latitude at which that happens. The weather warmed only as we travelled farther north, deeper into the area of uninterrupted daylight.
Apparently the Circle itself is migrating north—roughly a metre per month—as the Earth’s axis trembles. It was hard to fathom our position on the planet, so near the point on a typical globe where the sphere is held in place. With no particular skills and every motoring comfort we’d driven farther north than Henry Hudson had sailed when his mutinous crew abandoned him in an open boat, after a winter frozen in the waters he once mistook for the Pacific.
The next day we reached the last part of the Dempster, landing in the town of Inuvik (population 3,500). The most conspicuous residents of the well-tended but decidedly un-pretty town were energy workers. The local Inuvialuit teenagers loitered on corners with the affected nonchalance of teenagers everywhere, except that the buildings they leaned against stood on permafrost-protecting stilts. When the town enters its months-long night, broken only by occasional northern lights, temperatures often dwell at -40 degrees Celsius.
Inuvik was the end of the road. In winter it is possible to drive on to Tuktoyaktuk (population 800) via an “ice road" through the continuous night, on the frozen surface of a river and then on the Arctic Ocean itself. “Tuktoyaktuk” means “it looks like a caribou”, a reasonable name for anything in the high Arctic, if one imagines a season-long darkness and a certain intensity of hunger.
We decided to book a flight to see Tuktoyaktuk for ourselves. Life doesn’t get more isolated than Tuk, as it’s known. This tiny settlement, inaccessible by land, is scratched onto the north coast of the Americas, facing the North Pole. On its stony beach summertime tourists can dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean, and in autumn one can watch the polar ice growing southward, until it envelopes the settlement entirely.
In Tuk we found a Catholic church poised on stilts above the permafrost, and a schooner, the Our Lady of Lourdes, sitting improbably in the middle of the town—4,400ft long and largely frozen miles from Lourdes itself. Near Tuktoyaktuk are pingos, which are bizarre earth-covered ice hills that grow 60 metres above the permafrost. The cars in Tuk have electrical cords dangling from their hoods, to start them up for the long drive to Inuvik across the frozen sea.
Leaving Tuk there’s nowhere to go but back south, to Inuvik and then down the Dempster to Dawson. This is when the weather took its remarkable turn for the worse. Landslides and washouts cut the road, stranding us in Eagle Plains. Road repairs were estimated to take anywhere between four days and several weeks. That was more than enough time for us to acquaint ourselves with the trucker’s shower, which turned out to be a dilapidated room for long-distance truckers to wash and change. In terms of road-trip accommodations, it marked a new low for us, with the furniture and charm replaced by some acutely odd smells and an alarming pile of used towels. Perhaps such detritus naturally accrues in rooms rented by the half-hour, particularly with no competing businesses for some 200 miles.
Too exhausted to care, we fashioned pillows out of clothes from our suitcases and lay gratefully on the hard floor of the trucker’s shower, the midnight sun sifting through the dented blinds. It took some time to fall asleep.
Meanwhile we marvelled at crossing the Circle, and rowing onto the sun-drenched lake, and above all at the very idea of places like Inuvik and Tuk, well to the north of everywhere else we’ve managed to explore. It was a new sort of wonder—a fresh awareness of the roundness of our world, mixed with the satisfaction of knowing it still has edges to which one can drive.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer based in London
Images Kirun Kapur, Mark Jones and Mark Vanhoenacker (via flickr)