The Dempster Highway (Part 2)

We left off last time on July 31, camped at Engineer Creek at Kilometer (Km) 194 on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory. A long drive the next day, with some rain, took us past the Arctic Circle and through the fourth bioregion along the highway, the Eagle Plains (Km 248 – 410). These sloped uplands have little water and the sparse spruce woodlands have burned extensively in the past, so this is perhaps less scenic than other areas on the highway, although there are some nice views to the east. We camped at Rock River, Km 446, and got an early start the next morning to look for mammals in the fifth bioregion, the Richardson Mountains (Km 410 – 492).

Willow Ptarmigan, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: Willow Ptarmigan, Dempster Highway, YT.

This range is the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, and the combination of high latitude and elevation make this stretch of road the most arctic-alpine in character; the tundra overlies permafrost and has only very short vegetation, such as mosses, lichens, and sedges, which are broken up by extensive stony areas. The crest of the range (Km 465, 3000 feet) defines the boundary between the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and the mountains are used as a migratory corridor by Caribou, and so are also a good place to see Grizzly Bear. Although a bit early in the season, we saw both species as we drove through the Richardsons. At Km 488 (corresponding to physical kilometer-post 23, as the post numbers are reset at the Northwest Territories (NWT) boundary), we hiked up the road to a microwave tower under frigid conditions and found a family of Northern Wheatears, and a late-blooming Blackish Oxytrope (Oxytropis nigrescens), the first we had seen this year of this characteristic high tundra plant.

Dryopteris fragrans, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: Fragrant Cliff Fern (Dryopteris fragrans), Dempster Highway, YT.

The next bioregion, taking only an hour or less to cross, is the Peel Plateau (Km 492 – 541); it is similar to the Eagle Plains but quite a bit wetter and so more interesting. Almost all elevation is lost in this section, and the roadways subsequently do not exceed a few hundred feet of elevation. The remainder of the distance to Inuvik (Km 541 – 735) is classified as a single bioregion, the Peel-Mackenzie Lowlands, named after the two large rivers that drain it. Both rivers have ferry crossings, and so there is a several-week period each spring and fall, during breakup and freeze-up, respectively, when no vehicles can cross – there is too much ice for the ferries but the ice is not firm enough to drive across.

Pacific Loon, Dempster Highway, NWT
Above: Pacific Loon, Dempster Highway, NWT.

We camped at Gwich’in Territorial Park, Km 699, hoping for a paddle the next day on beautiful Campbell Lake, which the campground overlooks. But the weather deteriorated further, the cold and wind from yesterday being augmented by rain today. We spent most of the day in Inuvik, doing errands, taking advantage of a cell signal, and eating out. The next morning, while Eileen was attending Mass at the iconic church in Inuvik, which is shaped like an igloo, I walked around the town park. There I found two new plants in a weedy-looking area, Northern Larkspur (Delphinium brachycentrum) and Bodin’s Milkvetch (Astragalus bodinii), both of which I had been watching for since May. But while I was doing this, the weather turned even worse with the arrival of an aggressive cold front with high winds. The weather forecast was now so bad for so many days that we decided simply proceed to the end of the road in Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk), at the Arctic Ocean, rather than try to wait it out in Inuvik.

Glaucous Gull, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
Above: Glaucous Gull, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

We have not seen a bioregion classification covering the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH), but the habitats are fairly similar to those of the Peel-Mackenzie Lowlands. One might recognize two zones along the ITH, the first 80 km being slightly rolling tundra, and the last 70 km being low coastal plain with a magnificent assemblage of beautiful lakes. When we arrived at the Arctic Ocean sign, the winds appeared to be around 50 mph; we had several items blown out of the truck and literally lost out to sea, and it was nearly impossible for me to close the truck door when parked at an unfavorable angle. We finally lined up the truck exactly parallel to the wind from the northwest, to minimize noise from the canoe, and protect the entry door at the back of the camper. This meant taking great care not to have the truck door slam on your legs when getting in or out of the truck cab. The entire camper rocked all night long, the noise from the wind was maddening, and the hinged cabover wall facing the wind was bowed with the pressure, letting frigid air in. We decided the only way to keep warm was to get in our sleeping bag, piled with blankets, and wear everything possible. This was successful, but it was not a pleasant night!

ELK, BWK, camper, Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
Above: At the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

The next morning was still bad but the wind slowly dropped during the day, and it warmed a trifle. I spent much of the day in the truck cab, running the windshield wipers frequently so I could scan the ocean to see what birds or mammals might come by. There were moderate numbers of Glaucous Gulls and Greater White-fronted Geese; and one to a few each of Red-throated Loon, Arctic Tern, Mew Gull, Parasitic Jaeger, and Surf Scoter. Late in the afternoon the rain finally petered out, a bit of blue sky appeared, and the wind dropped below 20 mph, so we walked around a bit, Eileen dipping her hand into the ocean, while I checked out the few plants growing on the gravelly shore. Surprisingly, one of these, resembling a daisy, turned out to be a new genus for us, Tripleurospermum. It was hard to decide whether to stay another night and hope for better weather tomorrow, or take advantage of the lull and slowly make our way back to Inuvik. We finally chose the latter, and began carefully birding Tuk, with particular attention to the harbor shoreline. We found Sandhill Crane, Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, American Pipit, Common Redpoll, and Savannah and American Tree Sparrows. A bit south of town we had a picnic dinner in a day use area from which it is possible to paddle to two large pingos — a canoe trip we would dearly have loved to do if the weather had been favorable. A pingo is a mound of earth forced up when water that is trapped between soil and permafrost freezes and expands. The Tuk area has the highest pingo density in the world, and the tallest one, Ibyuk Pingo, is 161 feet high.

Stilt Sandpiper, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
Above: Stilt Sandpiper, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

Continuing south of town on the ITH, the sun broke through the clouds and the scenery was bathed in magical low-angle light. We stopped at nearly every lake – there were scores of them – and scanned, hoping in vain for Yellow-billed Loon. But we did add to the list many Pacific Loons, Tundra Swans, Willow Ptarmigans, and Long-tailed Jaegers, as well as smaller numbers of Common Loon, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Pintail, American Wigeon, Canvasback, scaup, Long-tailed Duck, White-winged Scoter, Bald Eagle, Whimbrel, Thayer’s Gull, Common Raven, American Robin, Beaver, and Moose. With all the stops it took 5.5 hours to drive the 150 km from Tuk to Inuvik, and we finally made it into camp at 1:00 a.m. after an exhilarating evening.

Pingo, Tuktoyaktuk, NWT
Above: Ibyuk Pingo, just south of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

The next day was cold and gloomy but we paddled briefly on the East Channel of the Mackenzie River, via Boot Lake in Inuvik. The wind was strong enough initially that it exactly cancelled the current, but as it increased in velocity the situation became unstable and we retreated to the calmer lake waters after only two miles on the river. According to the weather forecast, the following day, August 8, looked excellent, but with poorer weather returning after that. We chose to spend that day on a long paddle in Campbell Lake, and it did turn out to be a truly lovely day of canoeing. We covered 12 miles and our lunch spot overlooking magnificent cliffs of limestone was exquisite. We finally added Gray Wolf to our year mammal list as we heard a couple of animals barking. We also enjoyed great looks at a Rusty Blackbird (a formerly common boreal breeding species that we had only seen a few times all year), and hearing a flock of 39 Tundra Swans calling back and forth.

Caribou, Richardson Mountains, Dempster Highway, YT
Above: Caribou in the rain, Dempster Highway, NWT.

The drive back south was mostly in rather poor weather, with few sightings of note. (Apparently the first half of August is quite nice some years, with rainy fall weather starting mid-month, but other times, like this year, is pretty unpleasant.) There were again Caribou and a Grizzly Bear in the Richardson Mountains, but the main Caribou herd was still farther northwest and probably a week away from starting to cross the Dempster. Other notables were Pine Grosbeaks and a very brief view of a Least Weasel crossing the road. We were held up two days at Rock River when we judged the road to be too slippery to drive on safely. Even with brand new mud/snow tires and four wheel drive, we slid sideways on a gently banked curve, and had to steer sharply uphill, the camper proceeding down the road at a diagonal, using both lanes – not a pleasant experience! The day we finally continued on, a bus and at least one car slid off the road, though there apparently were no injuries. We enjoyed the beginnings of fall color, which were very pretty; the peak color on the tundra typically occurs around the end of August. We arrived back in Dawson City 17 days after starting on the Dempster, and once there, the first thing we did was spend 45 minutes at a carwash, to wash off the caked mud coating the camper – the trademark of the Dempster Highway!

Limestone Cliffs, Campbell Lake, Gwich'in TP, NWT
Above: Campbell Lake, Gwich’in TP, NWT.

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