There were moments we dared not blink. Knuckles white and neck muscles aching, we'd survived the first 80 miles of the Top of the World Highway. Every couple of minutes, we summoned...
There were moments we dared not blink.
Knuckles white and neck muscles aching, we’d survived the first 80 miles of the Top of the World Highway. Every couple of minutes, we summoned the courage to glance sideways at what seemed like the Bottom of the World down steep cliffs below. Eyes glued to the narrow dirt road ahead, we braced at every turn in case yet another RV came barreling toward our rental car, refusing to concede our half of this perilous potholed highway.
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All in the name of driving farther north than we’d ever been in our lives.
Two roads with hair-raising reputations the Top of the World Highway and the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon Territory are unforgettable trails for travelers venturing into the spectacular Far North. There are few roads on the planet above the Arctic Circle, and the Dempster is the only public highway in the Western Hemisphere that actually allows you to cross that magic line in a car. (Alaska’s Dalton Highway, the less-scenic service road for the Trans Alaska Pipeline, is technically a private road but is open to the public most of the way north).
It’s a journey of a lifetime … if you’re prepared.
Our trek began in Tok (rhymes with “Coke”), Alaska, a strip of service stations and restaurants 176 miles southeast of Fairbanks along the Alaska Highway. Before it was fully paved a few years ago, the 1,520-mile Alaska Highway was an authentic adventure, demanding skill, patience and a bit of luck to avoid blowing out tires, breaking windshields or running out of fuel and food. These days, the asphalted Alaska Highway is tame and tedious; to find the old thrills, you have to drive north from Tok.
The Top of the World Highway connects Tok to Dawson City in the Yukon. On the Alaska side, it’s called the Taylor Highway; on the Yukon side it’s known as 60-Mile Road (christened before Canada went metric). We entered the Taylor Highway at a place called Tetlin Junction, and for the next 23 miles, the road was pure pavement. Miles 24 through 65 were wide, smooth gravel. The highway seemed fast and easy. And there lies the problem.
It will fool you
Most who venture here have read horror stories about the Taylor, but by the time they reach the tiny hamlet of Chicken at Mile 65, they feel a bit cocky. They stop to buy Chicken T-shirts and postcards at what must be the World’s Smallest Tourist Trap, then jump back on the road, confident that all the travel warnings are overblown. Drivers who’ve piloted their giant RVs on interstates between Arizona and Florida press pedal to the metal, including the growing number who tow full-size SUVs behind their mammoth motor coaches.
Without warning, the road grows deadly.
Back in September 1988, a tour bus flew off a cliff, killing one and injuring 28 others. In 1994, a tractor-trailer hauling 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel overturned and burned. In June 1997, a woman flipped her Subaru and died before rescuers could reach her. In 2001, a Vancouver, B.C., man was crushed when his van rolled over. A few weeks before we came through, another tour bus plowed down an embankment.
Near Milepost 95, an RV lay mangled at the bottom of a canyon. Up the road from Chicken, we passed two giant motor homes that had slid off the road, awaiting rescue from tow trucks 100 miles away. A tow all the way to Tok the day before cost someone $750.
Cars crash and people die on roads all around the world, but rarely in such dramatic fashion. Yet, travelers are drawn to the Top of the World Highway for two very good reasons. During summer (Taylor is closed in winter), the highway offers a significant shortcut to Dawson City, saving more than 500 miles over the alternate route through Whitehorse.
Almost as important, the view from Top of the World can be drop-dead spectacular. While the martyr in the driver’s seat slams into potholes and tries to avoid soft gravel shoulders unprotected by guard rails, the person in the passenger seat enjoys sweeping ridge-top views extending past hundreds of miles of wilderness in every direction. Traveling in the middle of the day (not the best time for wildlife), we saw birds, a porcupine and the only caribou of our trip.
Hundreds of travelers make it all 165 miles to Dawson City every day without dying in a ditch, so there’s no reason to avoid the road. And negotiating the Top of the World is a reasonable price to pay for the really big reward to come: the amazing Dempster Highway.
History along the Dempster
The starting point for the Dempster is Dawson City, an eclectic rebuilt remnant of the short-lived Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1900. The banks of the Klondike River just east of town are still littered with small mountains of hideous tailings from a time when 100,000 prospectors flooded this bend in the river. These days, tourism is gold, attracting tour- bus retirees to the Palace Theater for vaudeville, or to Diamond Tooth Gertie’s for a chance to roll dice and feed slots in Canada’s oldest legal gambling hall.
A much younger community of artists, musicians, river rafters and drifters come for the frequent festivals and summer days of 20-hour sunshine. The town is still restoring its historic buildings and tries to keep the authentic 19th-century charm of wooden sidewalks and unpaved muddy streets.
The Dempster Highway is named for Jack Dempster, a heroic Canadian Mountie best known for trying to rescue the infamous “Lost Patrol.” In December 1910, four Northwest Mounted Police dog-team patrolmen lost their way 310 miles north of Dawson City. Dempster led a dangerous rescue effort in miserable weather, ending with the discovery of the frozen bodies of the four Mounties (they had eaten their dogs).
While in Dawson, we ran into Hugh Dempster, Jack’s son. A handsome man who has since passed away, Hugh rarely returned to his childhood home, but had arrived this day with a party preparing to raft down the Yukon. He looked like a man still strong enough to rescue a few stranded tourists on his father’s highway, if necessary.
Driving north on the Dempster is like driving back in time way back in time. At Mile 47, a spacious valley opens to the west, revealing a jagged peak called Tombstone Mountain. The vast landscape is hypnotic … looking eerily like the painted dioramas that museums place behind displays of woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. For the next 114 miles, every view is like a time before man: no other roads, no fences, very little sense that other humans have passed this way.
Giant green meadows, sprinkled with fireweed, foxtail and Arctic cotton, stretch to the horizon, clinging to a thin layer of soil atop a foot or more of permafrost. Braided glacial rivers give way to rainbow streams stained with gypsum, salt and sulfide.
In midsummer, most glimpses of wildlife come early in the day or late in the evening. We saw one moose, two black bears, an arctic fox and broods of ptarmigans. We were fortunate to see a few peregrine falcons gliding along the cliffs, and turned a corner just as a small flock of regal sandhill cranes took flight. There were reports of grizzly bears along the route, but we never saw one. The famous Porcupine River caribou herd, 150,000 strong, migrates through this corridor every spring and fall, but is far from the Dawson road during summer. The farther we pushed, the more mosquitoes emerged from the tens of thousands of ponds in the tundra.
Most travelers make the Dempster a two-day trip. There are several clean campgrounds along the way, each offering 20-25 sites. The only hotel accommodations are at Mile 229. The Eagle Plains Hotel was built to house highway workers, and the brown carpets, flimsy curtains and threadbare towels still retain the smell of mud, mildew and cigarette smoke from those guests. The restaurant was adequate, with passable food (considering it has no competition for hundreds of miles). Most important, a service station, with fuel and repairs, is right next door.
The best part of the Eagle Plains Hotel is its marvelous collection of historic photographs hanging throughout the hallways, restaurant and bar. The most riveting is a series of photos on the walls of the Millen cocktail lounge, detailing the fateful manhunt for a fur poacher named Albert Johnson, known as the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”
Twenty-three miles beyond the hotel is a monument that almost no one passes by without stopping: the Arctic Circle. Here, just beyond 66 degrees North latitude, the sun never sets June 21 … and never rises Dec. 21. For world travelers, it’s a landmark in the same category as crossing the Equator or the International Dateline: one of those quiet accomplishments no one can ever take away from you. I tend to get a little more carried away about these landmarks than most, and stared misty-eyed in the general direction of the North Pole, a “mere” 1,650 miles ahead.
At Mile 289, we crossed the border from Yukon into Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT). Standing at the border, the view north flattens to the vast expanse of the Mackenzie River Delta. This area is so unpopulated, most of the thousands of lakes do not have names. (NWT is so uninhabited that the peak with the highest elevation in the territory doesn’t have a name!)
The final 150 miles of the Dempster are a relative breeze. At Mile 378, we reached the Mackenzie River, where we waited for the small ferry that docks about once every hour. We chatted with Pierre Norman, a 62-year-old Gwich’in Indian who spends his summers living in a tent on the riverbank, catching and smoking whitefish and Arctic grayling.
Norman was eager to talk about his escape from heavy drinking, extolling the virtues of living on the land, away from his wife, his grown children and the influence of satellite televisions, cell phones and the Internet.
The final push to the end of the road is a monotonous 90-minute scramble along a wide gravel road that gets heavy use from road crews and their too-fast trucks. Like most Dempster travelers, we pulled into the surprisingly modern city of Inuvik tired and dusty, but not nearly as frazzled as we did after our trek across the Top of the World Highway.
We inventoried the damage: a new crack in the windshield, a slow leak in one tire (one of the infamous Firestone/Bridgestone Wilderness AT tires), and a solid cocoon of caked mud on the back half of our vehicle.
At 20 miles to the gallon and a 15-gallon gas tank, our car never came close to running out of fuel (thanks to the service station in Eagle Plains). We were glad we’d carried plenty of snacks and water, if only to help make our journey more leisurely.
All in all, the Dempster Highway was nothing near the horror we had feared. It certainly helped that we passed no more than one vehicle every 10 minutes coming in the opposite direction.
While a few reckless trucks slammed past along the way, we rarely saw any of the supersize RVs that had driven us so crazy on the Taylor Highway. If the weather had been a little drier, dust might have been a bigger issue. If it had been a little wetter, the mud and potholes might have made it all a little less spectacular.
But we made it … to the end of the northernmost public road in North America. The tow trucks will have to wait.
Jack Hamann, a Seattle writer is the author of “The Broken Column,” to be published later this year by Algonquin Books.