The Dempster Highway (Part 1)

We crossed from Alaska back into the Yukon Territory on July 27, via the very scenic Top of the World Highway, which provides good access to high, dry tundra. Just before reaching the Yukon River, we visited Orchid Acres, a phenomenal protected area containing thousands of Spotted Lady’s-Slippers, Cypripedium guttatum. Like the plants we had found a few days earlier in Eagle, AK, these were in fruit; the normal flowering time is the first week of June. After crossing the Yukon River on a ferry, we disembarked in Dawson City, where we took care of a number of chores in preparation for another few weeks away from civilization, the most critical of which was filling up our camper with fresh drinking water. The last batch we had gotten, in Fairbanks, had a slightly unpleasant, flat taste, and since leaving the Lower 48, we had been having a lot of trouble getting good water.

Campanula lasiocarpa and Vaccinium vitis-idaea, Top of the World Highway, YT
Above: Harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa, purple flower) and Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea, red berry), Top of the World Highway, YT.

After a nice brunch we finally headed up our favorite Arctic road, the Dempster Highway. It starts in central Yukon and traverses 467 kilometers to the border with the Northwest Territories (NWT), and then runs another 268 km to Inuvik, a town of about 3000 people on the Mackenzie River, far north of the Arctic Circle. In November, 2017, the new Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) was completed, linking Inuvik with Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk for short), a village of about 800 souls, located right on the Arctic Ocean. To reach it from the end of the Dempster Highway, stay straight on the Marine Bypass Road for 3 km (circling Inuvik), then turn right (north) on Navy Road. From this junction it is 150 km to the end of the road at the Arctic Ocean. In total, from the start of the Dempster to the Arctic Ocean at Tuk is 887 km (550 miles), all of it gravel.

Above: Short-eared Owl, Dempster Highway, YT.

The road surface is generally quite good, though there is some washboard on the ITH. The road can be dusty in dry weather, and very slippery in wet weather, with the Rocky River area, Km 442 – 447 or so, being especially hazardous during rainy periods. On average we encountered one oncoming vehicle per three miles, or ten per hour at our average velocity of 30 mph, though we understand that there is considerably more traffic in June and July. (I guesstimated in the previous blog post that we met about five vehicles per hour on the Dalton Highway, but that must have been an underestimate, as the traffic volume seemed similar to that on the Dempster, where we did an actual count). To clarify, although we drove pretty slowly, when dry, the road can be safely and comfortably driven at 45 mph. Our impression was that overall most vehicles were tourist rentals (the majority truck campers), though more local vehicles were seen in the NWT, and past Inuvik, the traffic mostly consisted of gravel trucks. Overall, I found the road more relaxing to drive than the Dalton Highway because of the far fewer number of large trucks and their less aggressive driving.

Surf Scoters, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: Surf Scoters, Dempster Highway, YT.

There is gas at the start of the Dempster (Km 0), Eagle Plains (Km 369), Fort McPherson (Km 550), Inuvik (Km 735), and Tuk (Km 887). Most people driving the distance gas up at Dawson City or Km 0, Eagle Plains, and Inuvik. Note that if there are phone line problems, it may be necessary to pay cash for fuel in Eagle Plains. Cell signal is available at the ferry crossing of the Mackenzie River (Km 607), Inuvik, and Tuk. There are decent formal campgrounds at Km 72, 194, 446, 699, and 730. There are several other campgrounds along the route, which we either did not investigate (Km 541) or did not think were as appealing. Although dispersed camping is not illegal unless posted, it is strongly discouraged; nonetheless, we estimated that about half of tourist vehicles camped elsewhere than campgrounds, for example in gravel pits, roadside parking lots, or by microwave towers. We mostly stayed in campgrounds, as most dispersed sites are right along the road and in the open, but we did spend a few nights in dispersed sites as well. The minimal online information about Tuk indicates that free camping is permitted on a gravelly spit extending east from the end of the road (where there is a blue and white sign identifying the Arctic Ocean), but in fact, this spit is usually submerged and has been blocked off. There are about eight campsites by the sign, which cost $60 Canadian, with the only facility being an outhouse (i.e., no water or garbage). As this is an extremely windy spot, and there are essentially no places for dispersed camping between Inuvik and Tuk, we presume that the vast majority of tourists stay in Inuvik and visit Tuk in a single day round trip.

ELK holding Northern Bog Lemming, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: Northern Bog Lemming, Dempster Highway, YT.

On our first night on the Dempster, we camped in Tombstone Territorial Park at Km 72, where we stayed three nights. That day’s drive took us through the first bioregion crossed by the highway, the North Klondike River Valley, which is substantially forested. (The bioregions are adapted from Robert Frisch’s Birds by the Dempster Highway.) A notable feature in this bioregion is the Tintina Trench, a 600-mile long rift valley that is striking in satellite photos because it is so long and straight. The next day we covered just 30 km or so within the second bioregion, the Southern Ogilvie Mountains (Km 72 – 132), sampling what is probably the best stretch of birding and one of the most scenic sections on the Dempster Highway. The high point of the Dempster Highway is at North Fork Pass, Km 85, which is just under 4600 feet of elevation; the mountains rise to about 7500 feet. In June 1999, we did a killer 8-hour hike from Km 96, in snow, to look for nesting Surfbird (a scarce sandpiper at the southeastern corner of its breeding range), which we saw and heard at great distance. But the highlight of that trek was following a perfectly preserved set of Wolverine tracks for at least a quarter mile, until it apparently effortlessly ascended a steep slope we could not climb!

Above: Northern Ogilvie Mountains, Dempster Highway, YT.

This time, we again had an interesting mammal experience. In the morning we saw many waterfowl and shorebirds, including Long-billed Dowitchers in beautiful breeding plumage. In the afternoon we paddled Chapman Lake, which had flocks of Surf and White-winged Scoters. The Surf Scoter flock, containing about 15 birds, was especially interesting as it consisted entirely of males, which were constantly milling about and squabbling. While paddling, we noticed a tiny animal swimming perhaps 75 yards from the shore. We had no idea what it was so we carefully paddled closer but remained quite mystified. We could not think of any aquatic mammal with young this small, yet it was swimming quite well, and occasionally dived briefly, and then popped back up like a cork. Eileen photographed it and we tried hard to see the tail, which seemed to be very short and slender, suggesting a vole – in which case it belonged on land, not in the middle of a lake. So we approached it very slowly and Eileen skillfully brought her paddle up underneath it and lifted it out of the water. Sure enough, it was some sort of utterly adorable vole and it shivered a bit, then started grooming its fur, unconcerned by Eileen holding it. We brought it back to shore and released it, and it headed off into the shoreline shrubs in an unconcerned manner. That night in camp we were able to identify it from the photos as a Northern Bog Lemming, a very uncommon vole and a life mammal for both of us!

The following day was rainy and we stayed in camp. Finally in late afternoon it stopped raining and I took a walk along a trail, surprising a Northern Red-backed Vole, which retreated under a shrub where I could see it well – life mammal number six for the year! The next day we again birded in the Southern Ogilvies and then passed through most of the third bioregion, the Northern Ogilvie Mountains (Km 132 – 248), camping at Engineer Creek (Km 194). The Northern Ogilvies are striking rounded mountains of limestone with extensive talus slopes. We stopped just east of Windy Pass (about 3500 feet of elevation), at Km 155.7, where coarse talus came down to the road, and saw several Collared Pikas. Later a magnificent Dall Sheep ram with massive, curved horns was pointed out to us by a kind highway worker. We spent the afternoon doing a steep hike up Sapper Hill, which had a fine collection of plants because of the limestone substrate, including four species of orchids.




Three-toed Woodpecker, Sapper Hill, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: American Three-toed Woodpecker, Dempster Highway, YT.

We had particular fun on this trail while following a family of American Three-toed Woodpeckers as they slowly foraged in spruces. This is one of three entities in an extremely interesting superspecies. The complex originated in Eurasia, but invaded the Western Hemisphere twice, separated by a great time interval. The first wave of immigrants diverged significantly, becoming larger and losing white on the back and face – this bird is now known as the Black-backed Woodpecker. It colonized much of Canada, the northern Rockies, the Cascades, and the northern Sierras. The second wave of immigrants diverged far less, and until recently was regarded as conspecific with the Eurasian birds. It colonized the same areas as the Black-backed Woodpecker, except the Sierras, but also ranged farther north and west, right to the limit of trees across Canada and Alaska, and also farther south in the Rockies, reaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It is fascinating to ponder why the two invasions produced such noticeably different results.

Next time: The Dempster Highway (Part 2)

One thought on “The Dempster Highway (Part 1)

  1. Eileen and the Bog Lemming makes me think of the special relationship she had with the chipmunks on Braken Brae…makes me smile!
    I love that I vicariously get to experience the journey you are both taking!
    Thank you!!!


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