Dempster Highway

Scenery near the Richardson Mountains.
This article is an itinerary.

The Dempster Highway (known as Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8 in those territories respectively) is a highway through the sub-Arctic wilderness of northern Yukon Territory and extreme northwestern Northwest Territories in Canada. The highway runs 671 kilometers (417mi.) from the Klondike Highway near Dawson City to the Amerindian settlement of Inuvik, extending an additional 194km (124mi) to Tuktoyatuk during winter months as an 'ice road'—where ice on lakes & river crossings is thick enough to safely traverse by vehicles. The road is one of just two roads in North America to cross the Arctic Circle. Although considerably less traveled than its American twin, Alaska's Dalton Highway, the road offers much similar scenery.

Understand

The Dempster Highway—Canada’s only all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle—was officially opened on 18 August 1979, at Flat Creek, Yukon. It was unveiled as a two-lane, gravel-surfaced, all-weather highway that ran 671 km (417 mi) from the Klondike Highway near Dawson City to Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River (now Tsiigehtchic) in the Northwest Territories. The Canadian Forces 1 Combat Engineer Regiment from Chilliwack, British Columbia, built the two major bridges over the Ogilvie and Eagle rivers. Ferries handle the traffic at the Peel River crossing near Fort McPherson and the Arctic Red River crossing near Tsiigehtchic.

The design of the highway is unique, primarily due to the intense physical conditions it is put through. The highway itself sits on top of a gravel berm to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) up to 2.4 m (7 ft 10 in) in some places. Without the pad, the permafrost would thaw and the road would sink into the ground.

In addition to services in Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik, there is one location with commercial services along the highway, at Eagle Plains. It is an important fuel and food stop because of the great distance, and harbours stranded travelers when the highway is closed due to extreme weather conditions. (Until 1979, the highway was only open in the short summer.)

During the early 1990s, Northwestel erected microwave towers along the highway to facilitate public safety with manual mobile telephone service and to provide government agencies such as highway maintenance and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with communications.

History

Much of the highway follows an old dog sled trail. The highway is named after Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector William John Duncan Dempster, who, as a young constable, frequently ran the dog sled trail from Dawson City to Fort McPherson NWT. Inspector Dempster and two other constables were sent out on a rescue patrol in March 1911, to find Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald and his men of three who never made it to Dawson City. They had become lost on the trail, and subsequently died of exposure and starvation. Dempster and his men found the bodies on March 22, 1911.[1]

In 1958 the Canadian government made the historic decision to build a 671 km (417 mi) road through the Arctic wilderness from Dawson City to Inuvik. Oil and gas exploration was booming in the Mackenzie Delta and the town of Inuvik was under construction. The road was billed as the first-ever overland supply link to southern Canada, where business and political circles buzzed with talk of an oil pipeline that would run parallel to the road. The two would ultimately connect with another proposed pipeline along the Alaska Highway.

Get in

By car

The Dempster Highway turn off is on Yukon Highway 2 and is approximately 26km east of Dawson City. It is strongly suggested to fill up your tank either at the Klondike River Lodge at the turn off or in Dawson City itself as there are no services until Eagle Plains 375 km away!

Prepare

Muddy gravel section of the highway.

See also: Tips for road trips and Winter driving.

The Dempster Highway has very little services and shops along its length and those services & goods which are available are quite expensive. Therefore, travelers are advised to have basic survival supplies, car repair equipment, and equipment for camping and other activities:

Itinerary

Distances

The Dempster Highway is currently 742 km (461 mi) long and its terminus is at Inuvik. Kilometre distances here are approximate and start from the junction of the Klondike Highway (Hwy 2).

Kilometres/Miles

0/0 - Junction with Klondike Highway 26 km east of Dawson City.

5/3.1 - Paved road ends. Gravel begins. The road is all gravel until Inuvik.

65/40.3 - Yukon Government highway maintenance camp. No services but may provide help in an emergency.

71.5/44.4 - Tombstone Interpretive Centre (open May - Sept), area information.

Richardson Mountains and Dempster from near the teritorial line

72/44.7 - Tombstone Mountain Yukon Government campground. 36 sites, fee charged.

258/160.3 - Rest area. Toilets.

370/229.9 - Eagle Plains Hotel. Lodging, food, camping, dump station, and gas available.

401.6/249.5 - Arctic Circle.

446/277.1 - Rock River government Campground. 20 sites, fee charged.

470/292 - NWT/Yukon Border

Midnight sun over the Dempster south of Inuvik

546/339.3 - Peel River Ferry. Free. 0800-2400 hrs.

548/340.5 - NWT Nitainlii Camp and Information Centre. Water, firewood, toilets.

557.5/346.4 - Fort McPherson. All services available.

615/382.2 - MacKenzie River Ferry. Free. 0900-2400 hrs.

738.5/458.9 - Chuk Territorial Park. Camping. 38 sites including RV hook ups. Fee charged.

742/461 - Inuvik. All services available. Northern terminus of Dempster Highway.

Do

Stay Safe

Remoteness

Due to the scarcity of services, the traveler on this road will need a certain degree of self-sufficiency while traveling along the highway on your own. Therefore, you are advised to bring what is listed in the Prepare section.

Road safety

A wide variety of different road surfaces will be encountered by travelers on the Dempster. This surface is gravel/dirt and is littered with a landscape of craters and potholes that will often slow your pace down to the 20 km/h mark, or destroy your suspension. Be constantly on the lookout for massive potholes on any part of the road. These will sneak up on you suddenly after a comfortable few miles.

Health

Should you find yourself gravely ill, a medical evacuation is very expensive and can be limited or impossible during severe winter weather.

Should you decide to collect water from streams, it is advisable to boil such water as giardia is common in streams and very contagious.

Weather hazards

Weather is an important factor to add into Dempster Highway trip calculations. Remember, this is the Arctic! During the summer it is very possible to encounter snow. Drive with extreme caution. The gravel can be very slippery, especially in rain or snow. During the winter, the area is possible to encounter temperatures below -60 F (which is cold enough to freeze your brake fluid!). Such temperatures are fatal and thus winter travel is highly discouraged.

Animal life

The Dempster Highway passes through territory of the fearsome Grizzly bear. Understand that grizzly bear attacks are almost always defensive, whereas black bear, of which most Americans are familiar, attacks are predatory (often unexpected). Bear repellent spray (a very strong pepper spray/mace) is considerably safer than carrying a rifle. See this article for comprehensive information on bear safety. In the winter, Polar bears can roam the region near Inuvik. You cannot learn enough about bear safety in this region.

You may also encounter wolves and foxes in this region. Moose can be dangerous if threatened. They weigh, on average, 1400lbs (640kg) and have 6ft wide antlers. Being mauled or stepped on by a moose can be lethal or leave you seriously injured in a region where medical services are distant and take hours for you to be treated. Animal life along the Dempster is great, but enjoy them at a distance.

Go next

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