Dawson City – Tuktoyaktuk – Dawson City
Includes: The Dempster Highway and the new road – The Mackenzie Valley Highway
The journey continues as we head south out of Dawson briefly to the start of the infamous and mighty Dempster Highway. The Dempster Highway was originally constructed in the late 1950’s for oil and gas exploration. The Canadian Government wanted to build a road from Dawson City to Aklavik, high in the Mackenzie River Delta to aid this exploration and to assert sovereignty to the Western Canadian High Arctic. This assertion was spurred on due to the discovery of oil and gas in neighbouring Alaska around Prudhoe Bay. The original part of the current road follows the old dog sled route from Dawson to Fort Macpherson and crosses over the Arctic Circle and continues all the way to Inuvik as a year round road. From there on to Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk is the famous “Ice Road”. It is this ice road that is being replaced by a year round road, the very reason why we are here – to travel this new road.
For more historical information check out this great article: Dempster Highway History.
Our journey on this portion of our adventure takes us from the start of the Dempster Highway all the way north to Inuvik where we would meet the North West Territories Government who would escort us on the new road to Tuktoyaktuk. The Dempster is roughly 700km of “maintained” dirt road each direction and with only two outposts and one fuel spot on its entire length it is desolate. It is known to be a challenging road with soft edges, very little signage & protection, tire killing gravel & rock, steep winding routes, ever changing weather, often large trucks transiting at high speed, true wilderness travel, no communications coverage and no rescue services what so ever.
We had planned to two take two days on the Dempster each direction to allow us to enjoy the journey and wow are we ever glad we did. Obligatory photos at all of the interesting spots, signs and the endless truly stunning terrain kept us on our alert for the entire section. We were unlucky in a way, in that it was a very wet drive being fall. However the complete lack of the infamous bugs was a blessing. The rough with the smooth right? It was typically cool, but that being said, apart from the horrible mud – conditions were perfect. For us the road was very very quiet, it was fall after all and just after the schools had returned to session. We saw the odd fellow traveller and work vehicle but that was about it. Camping was wet and muddy – thankfully we were all off the ground sleeping in vehicles our our Treeline roof top tent (a serious must for this time of the year).
700 kilometres later we pulled into the larger than expected Inuvik to rest for a day, stock up on fuel and supplies, take a shower and meet our government escorts. These big trips never go quite to plan and funnily enough our wheels were about to fall off. Upon meeting and chatting to the project manager and the local government we discovered that the new road had received way above average rainfall in the previous weeks and that the road was saturated and almost impassable! In short we were told we may not be able to travel on it! Heart broken to say the least, however a glimmer of hope was given as it was meant to be dryer over the days and if we could extend by a day it may make a difference. It was fun having some time to explore Inuvik,to spend time at the visitor centre learning about the local history, the Inuit, hunting and gathering, oil & gas exploration and chatting to the local people to try and gauge the effect the new road will have.
A day later and another few phone calls, it was on!! The cold dry weather had dried it out enough to travel in only but capable 4×4’s. Thank you weather gods!
Early next morning we met our government escort, a lovely chap full of energy and answers. A short safety briefing, hi-vis vests, vhf radios and strict orders we headed to the new road at the north end of Inuvik.
The new road is an all year road that is to replace the ice road. This new road opens on officially on Wednesday 15th November 2017, although is not open to none local traffic until June 2018. The road is approximately 140 kilometres long in each direction and links Inuvik to Tuktoyakyuk on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. Part of the process of constructing the road was to be respectful to the local highly sensitive geography. A vast portion of the road sits on permafrost and as our escort explained, this would be a major problem. Melting permafrost due to construction would be a disaster. To negate this issue, insulating matting was laid throughout the entire route over the tundra and then the road construction materials were laid on top of this to build the road surface. Another aspect of the build was to ensure that machinery was only allowed to move within the road footprint itself to avoid any damage to the local surrounds, flora, fauna, geology etc. This is an impressive feat and one that we observed to be successful for the entire road. Breathtaking & respectful engineering. Within about 40 kilometres of heading north on this new road we pass “The Treeline”, the line at which all trees cease to exist only Arctic tundra survives. It’s like a line is drawn in the sand as you look east / west to a barren expense that flows as far as the eyes can see north of this line. Our journey north on the new road was approximately 6 hours in length. Slowed by the hundred’s of photos, the many questions we had, the muddy nature of the road, construction traffic and sheer beauty of the area.
Tuktoyaktuk or Tuk as it is known locally is mostly habited by Inuit people who hunt and gather on their territorial lands. Tuk itself is a tiny population of about 800 people, overshadowed by dormant oil & gas exploration camps on the outskirts of the settlement. This whole area across north west Canada is synonymous for the great Peel River & Porcupine River Caribou herds and where Tuktoyaktuk takes its name from. It is Inuvialuktun for “it looks like a caribou”. We spent one night camping within metres of the Arctic Ocean (Beaufort Sea) on a small peninsular, good dinner and celebrated with cocktails & wine at the foot of a finally setting sun. Our sleep was good, content with wine and good food. Next day however, we were keen to finish our exploration of this small town, to continue to chat to the locals and find out their opinions of the new road before meeting our escort again for the journey south. There is something about this place that drew us closer. Young men working on their snowmobiles, their winter hunting gear, their boats. The ladies bustling about in the limited winter or barge supplied grocery store. Others working at the small airport, the single gas station and a few small businesses. It is so remote, so far removed from the world most of the year, yet everyone seems happy – certainly everyone we encountered. Most people met us with big smiles, open arms, intrigue to what these outsiders were doing here, and how the heck we got here through closed gates and an uncompleted highway.
Sadly our brief time in Tuk came to an end, far too quickly, as we headed south back down the new road. Again the scenery blew our minds, many more photos, stops of silence and reflection where possible. It was sad leaving Tuk, who knows if we will be back, it is about 4000km from the US border after all. But never say never. Yet, we still had the mighty Dempster to challenge once again as we head south. Again a quick re-supply in Inuvik and onwards. Colder this time, but a little dryer, we cruised on down this marvel of wilderness dirt road, taking in different views, taking pictures in different places. It didn’t disappoint, especially as we passed through Tombstone Territorial Park, near the southern end of the Dempster. The perfect mist, the sub-arctic crystal clear light and atmosphere, morning sun – a perfect setting.
Somehow we had escaped the mighty Dempster with no wounds, no breakdowns and every tire intact. Thank you General Tires! This time…
The Dempster Highway and Mackenzie Valley highway are approximately 2000km of dirt round trip. More information can be found here.
Home – Dawson City
Includes: Peace Arch US Border crossing, The Peace, Ross River, Hyland River & Dawson.
Perhaps we should start with the goals of our journey, set the outline of what we wanted to achieve and why we wanted to complete this journey:
Be the first public to travel the new section of the Mackenzie Valley Highway, an extension to the Dempster Highway, to Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean.
Be the first ever to travel the full length of Canada, south to north, in the summer.
Travel the new section of the highway prior to completion and prior to being opened to the public, by the way of a government permit.
Complete the journey in old Land Rovers.
Be totally self sufficient.
Share our story across several publications and media channels.
Our little team of three people and two vehicles wanted to achieve a long and challenging journey. We wanted to take in some of western Canada’s greatest sights, visiting places none of us had seen before. Ultimately to share with the world our journey and the amazing places we would see. Places that the majority may not have heard of, or seen before.
The first leg of our journey started at the US & Canadian border south of Vancouver. We aimed to arrive in Dawson, Yukon Territory in just under a week.
Approximately 3200km : 4+ Days Travelling
We had a fairly tight timeline and were under pressure right out of the gate for a variety of reasons. Firstly a hugely busy year for us work wise and a government travel permit date(s) from the North West Territories Government to make and a goal approximately 4000km away from our start point. Still, nothing like a challenge to make things exciting.
The first few days of the adventure were fairly straight forward baring the odd minor mishap that was overcome with some ingenuity and team work. Travelling north through British Columbia always inspires me. I love getting away from the hustle and bustle of the “people belt” that is southern BC, or at least the very tip of southern BC. As you head north, things become quieter, cleaner, more and more beautiful and it’s worth the hours you put down to get there.
We had some spectacular but saddening sights of the forest fires as we cruised through the southern middle part of BC, near Quesnel and Williams Lake. It is truly breathtaking the scale, power and impact these mostly natural phenomenon have.
I have a favourite hunting area in the southern part of northern BC and I adore being up in this part of our great province. It is always a joy to be in the Mackenzie area of BC, so spectacular. Heading north of Mackenzie has been a dream and featured highly on my must do list.
Finally we slide north following dreams and goals, old Land Rover’s humming away in happy unison – a surprise I know… We had spent many hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on making both of our vehicles fit for the purpose prior to the trip. Everything from reconditioned engines, conversions, new suspension and so on. So far money very well spent. Heading up into the fertile Peace River region was breathtaking. The classic rain forests of BC peel back to sprawling fields over laying the rolling hills of the BC. It’s a sad state the BC Hydro is working on flooding thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land to create a dam to feed the industrial and corporate hunger that dominates our world. I am glad we got to see some of this area before it is soon gone for good. It reminds me of the battle of Lyn Celyn and the Afon Tryweryn in the 60’s.
The road must go on, deadlines to meet and a place to be. Sitting there in noisy old vehicles has it’s benefits in a way. We are hardly the fastest out there. BUT, that allows more time to take in our surroundings as we consume the miles. And what spectacular scenery it is. Damn, as I write, I wish I could go back!! I will…
Just before we hit the border of British Columbia and the mighty Yukon Territory are the amazing Liard River Hotsprings & Provinicial Park. This has long been a place I wanted to visit as a young boy, flicking through majestic picture books of Canada whilst living in the United Kingdom. Finally, it was my time to soak up the natural wonder and I was not disappointed. Living out of a roof top tent and a small old Land Rover is fantastic challenging fun, but the ability to have a soak, a wee scrub and freshen up re-invigorates the body more than we can hope for, an amazing feeling.
Onwards north, still the same deadline, becoming more prominent in our minds, many more kilometres and much to do. The kilometres tick off, slowly but steadily…
North of Watson was an important area for fellow traveller Ray. His family had been instrumental in the exploration of the area and as such had a river named in their honour. Ray really wanted to re-visit this area and it of course sounded like fun to us. We managed to get a mandatory image with Ray and the river sign on highway 4, but more importantly headed towards Tungsten and the Little Hyland River which holds more heritage importance to the family. A special moment in a truly special and spectacular place. Moments like these help cement a friendship and allow one to care for others dreams. An honour.
Travelling through Western Canada, or Canada as a whole allows for the magnificence of the country to show itself. The scenery is magnificent, but so is the wildlife; coyotes, cougar, bald eagles, fox, loons, geese, wood buffalo, black and brown bear and so on abound. We are truly lucky to be able to travel through their territories!
The further we head north, the quieter things become, the more wild, the scarcer the population. We pass through small, mostly native dominated settlements such as Ross River. Stunning places, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere. We pass old hugely historic roads, make notes feverishly for future adventures, eager to make our next plans, dream of the future. Even though we are less than a quarter of the way through our current adventure. Dreamers, but hopefully doers.
Finally civilization abounds again as we cruise into Dawson. A major milestone. We are in the heart of the Klondike, a massive bucket list location and an area rich in a real passion of mine, the gold rush. As part of my life leads me to work in gold rush rich heritage areas that are the Thompson & Fraser valley’s, Dawson is really exciting to me. I have spent time travelling through Skagway, the Chilkoot Trail, White Pass & Yukon and many a trip to San Francisco. Dawson was the final key in the completion of the west coast Gold Rush Trail. Dawson is a place I have to return to, to understand and explore more, to learn more of this random passion of mine. However glad we are to be here, the road continues. Next stop the mighty mighty Dempster Highway, the Canadian Arctic & Tuktoyaktuk…
We decided a little while ago to plan and undertake a big journey in classic old Land Rover’s and we wanted to do something unique, challenging and never done before. After some research we realized that we wanted to go to the Canadian Arctic and explore some of the least explored terrain in the world.
We found that there is a new section of dirt road being created across the Mackenzie Delta in the northern North West Territories and this road was yet to be travelled upon by anyone other than construction crews.
The iconic Dempster Highway currently runs from Dawson in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. This road is about 750km’s long and is part of the famous winter ice-road. In the summer it is a maintained dirt road that passes through true wilderness with very very little human habitation or settlement. During the winter months an ice road is made across the Mackenzie River Delta from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the very edge of the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. During the summer months there has been no way to drive to Tuktoyaktuk from Inuvik until now. The Northwest Territories provincial government has been constructing an extension of the Dempster Highway to allow resource supplying and tourism within Tuktoyaktuk and area. The new section of road officially opens later this year or early next year.
Our trip is hugely unique in that we will be the very first public to be allowed to travel this new section of road before it is open to the general public. We managed to secure a permit to be able to travel this new section of road, escorted by the Northwest Territories Department Of Transport – a huge privilege.
Our journey starts at the US / Canada border on August 22nd 2017 and we hope to be in Tuktoyaktuk by August 29th 2017.
Our journey consists to two vehicles as that is all our permit allows. Ray Hyland in his 1988 Land Rover – Range Rover Classic and myself in my diesel 1996 Land Rover – Defender 90.
The “first” journey itself is about 4000km in one direction from the Peace Arch Border Crossing just south of Vancouver, all the way to Tuktoyaktuk. Our route is planned as follows. Our aim was to take two separate routes there and back where we could to be able to enjoy the most of Canada’s amazing scenery and to visit a couple of Ray’s families historic sites.
View route on Google Maps here
The journey there, the world’s first section
Peace Arch Border Crossing, BC / WA
Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park, BC
Watson Lake, YK
Ross River, YK
The journey home
New Aiyansh, BC,
Prince Rupert, BC
Haida Gwaii / Gwaii Hannas, BC
Prince Rupert, BC
Port Hardy, BC – via the True Inside Passage