In December 1910, four Mounties set off from Dawson for Fort McPherson, on dog sleds, to patrol and deliver mail. When they hadn’t arrived by February, a rescue party was sent in search of them. A month later, the frozen remains of ‘the lost patrol’ were found and the leader of the search party made it back to Dawson in record time with the news. This man, Inspector Jack Dempster, would be immortalized in a stretch of gravel that nearly parallels the old patrol route, a road that reaches far beyond the Arctic Circle and which links the western arctic to the rest of Canada. What a legacy.
Driving this fabled route to the Northwest Territories was a childhood dream inspired by geography classes, movies, books, and tv shows. It was a dream much separated from that of making my way to the Klondike to the point that I sometimes forgot the two were even related. The Yukon isn’t in the Arctic except for a very narrow, inaccessible, sliver. It isn’t the land of barren rock and tundra where many Inuit still live according to the old ways. It doesn’t have the same remoteness factor, what with only one of its communities being of the fly-in variety. The Yukon and Northwest Territories evoked very different romances in me.
It was with trepidation that I set off down the Dempster. I’d done my research, spoken with many who had done it. I knew what the risks were and that my vehicle was inadequate. I left room in my budget for new tires and a replacement wind shield. I stocked up on supplies in case I became stuck in the middle of nowhere due to mechanical issues or bad weather. But I didn’t make a big deal of it, didn’t let the horror stories set a somber mood to my trip. I savoured every kilometre, paid attention to the road, and drove for the conditions.
The result is that even with several bad stretches, I have returned triumphant from the Dempster with nary a problem with the car–no flat tires, no windshield chips, no damage whatsoever. I slowed to a crawl whenever another vehicle passed me, which paid off when a rock hit the windshield and bounced off harmlessly. I drove defensively around pot holes at low speed. I inched my way onto the ferries. The point is made: slow and steady is the way to do the Dempster. If you’re traveling solo, slow even gives you a chance to admire the scenery. Just pull over to the side and let the locals roar past you!
Over the course of the next few days, I will share pictures and stories of the great big adventure of 2010 that took me right to the Arctic Ocean.
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Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea;
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.