Even for us, it was an ambitious plan. We were going to drive 400 miles roundtrip on a sketchy gravel road, the Dempster Highway, north to the Arctic Circle and back to our campground. The Dempster is the only road in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle, so it was a chance of a lifetime. I have to admit I had visions of sleeping in the car. But my more rational self figured that we would get back sometime around midnight.
The three of us headed out at 5a.m. with lots of food and water. It was still dark and there was a light fog in the air. As we reached Two Moose Lake, which had quickly become one of our favorite spots, light began to filter through the fog and we were rewarded by one of the most breathtaking sunrises we have ever seen. I actually had hoped to see a moose (or two) at Two Moose Lake but this was even better.
Permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is a thermal condition in which the ground remains at a temperature below 0° Centigrade and forms a frozen layer in the winter which does not melt in summer. One-half of Canada and about one-fifth of the earth is underlain in permafrost.
As we continued, we came across various rivers and streams and crossed several passes. And a variety of mountains surrounding us; some covered in lichen, some completely barren and others partially forested.
Angel, as always, guarded Hector’s camera fiercely. Since we knew it was going to be a long day for her, we made sure to take her for lots of walks. We love that the Canada National Parks, unlike the U.S. National Parks allow you to take dogs on their trails and undeveloped areas.
While searching for great gray owls, daytime hunters that reside in this area, we spotted a bald eagle perched on a tree, but no owls. There is lots of wildlife around, we saw two red foxes running across the road, arctic ground and red squirrels, gray jays and other birds we could not identify. But no owls.
The condition of the road ranged from well-graded gravel to areas with lots of potholes to narrow sections with soft shoulders. One particularly scary section was sharp shale rock gravel. The variation in the road is due to the fact that the road is repaired with the closest available materials, and as the composition of the earth around it changes so does the road.
And we only had what Hector calls a “go-cart” spare and a can of fix-a-flat in the car, so we were not exactly well prepared.
The road is not all terrible, but the extreme remoteness adds considerably to the risk equation. So we took it slow to improve our odds.
The landscape became much more forested, to the point where there was nothing but trees all around us.
At mile 231, we safely reached Eagle Plains, a complex that was built in 1978 at a cost of 3.5 million CAD. The complex offers the only facilities available for the next 112 miles and is about halfway to Inuvik on the Arctic Ocean.
Eagle Plains is a large complex, totally off the grid, self-reliant and amazingly is open year round. Anyone seen the TV show Ice Road Truckers? It has a 40+room hotel, a store, offices for various government departments, highway maintenance shops, Indian affairs maintenance shops, a service station, a helicopter pad, a public laundry and public showers. The most lucrative of all, I am sure, is their tire repair service.
We ate a basic lunch at the restaurant while using their WiFi (satellite based) and then stopped in to check out the bar, a very cool old bar with historical photographs and lots of animal heads.
We still had 22 miles to get to the Arctic Circle, so we continued. There were lots of beautiful ponds around this area of the road, and we could see more mountains ahead.
We reached the Arctic Circle, latitude 66°33’N. This is one of the most sparsely populated areas on the planet. The Arctic Circle encompasses the Arctic Ocean and parts of eight countries, including Canada where we were. The other countries are the United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, and Norway, where we crossed the Arctic Circle a few years ago.
There is evidence that this area has been home to humans since the end of the last Ice Age. Over 90 prehistoric sites have been identified along the Dempster. It was the homeland of the Gwich’n, subsistence hunters whose family groups lived in semi-permanent homes. Their history of hunting has continued.
A young couple arrived at the Arctic Circle marker shortly after us and told us that they had a flat tire just before reaching Eagle Plains. But they were able to get it fixed there. They were headed to another Yukon Government campground that is located just past the Arctic Circle. They looked pretty happy.
We drove just a few miles beyond the Arctic Circle to check out the landscape. Since we read that about ten miles past the Arctic Circle the road has a section with very sharp rocks we turned around pretty quickly.
There was a car stopped in the middle of the road, and we stopped and asked the driver, who seemed to be alone, if he needed help. He said his clutch had failed (been there, done that), but a tow truck was coming for him from Dawson, the nearest town, but still about 250 miles away. I wish we could have done more for him, but he was quite cheerful considering his situation (apparently AAA was taking care of it was sure to be a giant bill!) and told us about how this trip had been on his bucket list. A very nice gentleman.
At this point, I was driving and all of a sudden I saw some birds flying that reminded me of the gyrfalcon we saw in Denali. Then I realized that there was a bird in the road ahead of us with a fresh kill, and as I stopped that bird flew off as well.
Hector got out and photographed one of the birds who perched up high on a rocky cliff. A couple of others were circling around. We figured out that they were not gyrfalcon but peregrine falcon. Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of up to 120 miles per hour when they dive.
Shortly thereafter, I spotted a cow moose by the side of the road drinking out of a stream. She raised her head to look at me, and hurried across the road. And of course disappeared in some trees. It is amazing how these giant animals can disappear so quickly.
What was also amazing was that we had read that moose were almost never seen near this road except at Two Moose Lake occasionally (where we never saw any moose). So it was a pretty cool sighting.
Shortly thereafter a tow truck drove by towards Eagle Plains, we assumed to rescue the gentleman we had met. This was about two hours later and he still had about an hour’s drive, so we confirmed that there is a long wait to get help on the Dempster. Hopefully, all turned out well.
And we arrived at our campground just before 11p.m. one hour before my prediction. And 18 hours after we left. A very long, but very rewarding day.