The Yukon is really big and incredibly wild. Emphasis here: It is difficult for a person from the middle latitudes to accept with credibility just how wild the Yukon is. For perspective: The Yukon Territory (pop. 34,000) is pretty much the physical size of Colorado and Utah combined (pop. ~ 8 million), or Germany + Switzerland + Austria (pop. ~98 million). About 70% of Yukon’s population resides in one town, Whitehorse.
In the lower 48 we think of Colorado and Utah as sparsely populated western states. Their shared population density is 235 times greater than the Yukon. Outside of the “metropolitan” areas (Denver region, Salt Lake City region and Whitehorse), the population density of the two states rises to 500 times that of the Yukon.
Alaskans like to think of their state as wild. It’s certainly big – more than three times the size of the Yukon. But it’s also relatively crowded, with eight times as many people per square mile. (Not a terribly illustrative measure, since for both Alaska and the Yukon we’re talking tiny pieces of a person per square mile.)
So, again – really big, incredibly wild.
For you East Coast Americans out there, you can think of the Alaska Highway as the I-95 corridor of the Yukon. It’s difficult to get a sense of its wildness if you just travel that route. So, I’ve decided to get as remote as I can on a big R1200GS. I’m heading up the Dempster Highway.
A few facts about the Dempster before turning back to the trip. Its southern terminus lies 25 miles east of Dawson, on the banks of the Klondike River. It covers 457 miles, mostly north, to Inuvik, which lies on the east side of the expansive Mackenzie River delta in the Northwest Territories (which, it should be said, puts the wildness of the Yukon to shame). Excepting a few miles on each end, the entire road is unpaved. Coming from the south, it’s 229 miles to your first fuel stop and overnight shelter at Eagle Plains. Twenty-two miles further north you cross the Arctic Circle, and about 50 miles after that, the Northwest Territories border. Past that and before reaching Inuvik, you pass two small First Nations villages, Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic, near the banks of the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers, respectively.
The Dempster passes through two major mountain ranges, the Ogilve and Richardson (the Richardson Mountains are considered the furthermost northern end of the Rocky Mountain spine). It crosses two major rivers, the Peel and the Mackenzie, by means of public ferries in the summer and ice roads in the winter. About two months a year the Dempster is closed to through traffic as the ice forms and breaks up on the two rivers. The Dempster also passes through the wintering range of the famous Porcupine Caribou Herd, whose annual migration to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge draws comparisons to the legendary migrations in Africa’s Serengeti. A big chunk of land along the middle part of the Dempster was, surprisingly, unglaciated in the most recent Ice Age, due to low precipitation.
The plan to construct the Dempster was unveiled in 1958. Prior to that time, cargo and supplies were transported to the far north by means of “Cat trains,” strings of sledded cargo hauled hundreds of miles through the wilderness by tractors (get it? ‘Cats’ = Caterpillar tractors) in the winter months. Highway construction stalled in 1961 with only 71 miles of road completed. Arctic oil and gas discoveries eventually prompted a restart of construction and the road was formally opened in 1979.
A defining feature of the Dempster is its elevated construction. It is overbuilt on top of massive quantities of stone and gravel in order to keep the heat generated by road traffic from melting the underlying permafrost.
To this day, the Dempster is the only public roadway that crosses over the Arctic Circle in North America. The Dawson Highway, leading to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, is a privately owned and constructed road.
The Dempster Highway