Canada's Arctic beckons travelers up the Dempster

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2000

INUVIK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES -- Nathan Tanner characterizes the Canadian Arctic as "a place where you do occasionally have to rely on others."

During a two-month trek in the Northwest Territories this summer, Tanner, a twentysomething poet and marine biologist from Delaware, relied on the kindness of strangers, and offered it as well.

After he and friend Clifton Cochran kayaked the Mackenzie River several hundred miles north from Fort Providence to Inuvik, they explored Arctic Ocean islands and Native whaling camps. They then put their boats on a barge and hitchhiked the 456-mile-long Dempster Highway, helping one host change a blown tire just above the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Territory.

"You're very much at the mercy of the elements," said Tanner, who had been shocked at the speed and sudden ferocity of a storm while they were out on the ocean. "The wind just howled. We had to lay our kayaks over on their sides. It really was survival paddling for a while."

In the NWT, "They're still very isolated communities," he said. "It's very good to have someone help you out. You'd better be there for them if you expect them to be there for you. It's not unthinkable that you would have to rely on your neighbor."

The isolation also can generate revenue.

With more than half a million cruise ship passengers visiting Southeast Alaska every year and RVs a common sight along the Alaska Highway and with even Whitehorse, Y.T., getting three direct flights from Europe every week in the summer tourism promoters in Canada's far north hope their region will become known as the new "last frontier."

In Inuvik, a NWT town of 3,300 at the northern terminus of the Dempster Highway, tourism coordinator Brian desJardins is selling distance as an attraction.

"We sell the location pretty much it's the end of the road," desJardins said. "We sell the pristine wilderness; it's untouched. ... We're the gateway to all the surrounding (Arctic) communities."

The town recently played host to the Northern Games and the Great Northern Arts Festival, events that have brought people from locations as far-flung as Greenland. For the traditional art and athletics of northern Natives, Inuvik was, in late July, the center of the world. Although exact visitor numbers this year aren't available, "You couldn't get a hotel room; you couldn't get a camp site," desJardins said.

From Inuvik, tourists can fly northeast to Tuktoyaktuk, a small village above the timber line, where they can dip their toes in the Arctic Ocean, or northwest to Herschel Island, an extremely remote Yukon park where adventurers are on their own.

Spare no expense on tires

The all-gravel Dempster Highway, named after a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who searched for the "lost patrol" from Fort McPherson in 1911, is a forbidding experience, even in good weather.

Completed in 1979, it is open year-round and is the only land route to Inuvik and Canada's Arctic. Road signs warn that the next services are hundreds of kilometers away, and that there is no emergency medical care on the entire highway.

The number of tourists traveling the Dempster is unknown. The NWT's Dempster visitors center in Dawson City had 16,536 people stop in during 1999, while 6,616 people visited the Western Arctic center in Inuvik.

Travel guides and visitor centers advise motorists to have at least two spare tires on hand, and for good reason. On one recent day, at least two vehicles experienced two flats each in the same section of the road, just north of the Arctic Circle.

Fortunately, informal protocol on the Dempster has most motorists slowing down to offer help when they see vehicles stopped along the roadside. The full-service gas station at the Eagle Plains Hotel, at Mile 231, responds to most emergencies. And highway crews work constantly on evening the road surface.

RVs, tour buses, commercial trucks and SUVs regularly travel the gravel road in the summer.

But some make the trek with smaller vehicles.

Craig Schenck, a homebuilder from the San Diego area, drove his 1997 Harley Davidson Road King up the Alcan and the Klondike to the Dempster with friend Marisha Quintanilla on the back.

"He wanted to see the last frontier," Quintanilla said during a stop at the Ogilvie Ridge turnout at Mile 161, which was mile 4,067 of their trip.

"The road's pretty good for a dirt road," Schenck said. "Actually, I thought it would be more washboards and stuff."

Coming through Juneau a week later, Schenck said he had done 75-80 mph on the Dempster in both directions, completing the trip each time in about eight-and-a-half hours. "My tire is, like, bald right now." But the motorcycle didn't break down, he said.

Even more adventurous was Hannes Lechner, an Austrian physician.

Lechner flew his bicycle, a Cannondale F600, to Anchorage. He packed it with a tent, sleeping bag, cooking stove, six liters of water, a five-day supply of food and materials to patch a flat. Along his path, he traveled the Denali Highway in Alaska and the Top of the World Highway, which crosses from Alaska into the Yukon near Dawson City, before starting out on the Dempster.

"It's a nice trip," he said, after wracking up 1,000 miles in two weeks. "This highway is a fantastic highway."

A true, daunting wilderness

Spruce, aspen, cottonwood and birch line the North Klondike River valley at the beginning of the Dempster but thin out as the road ascends. Although part of the highway rises above the tree line the summit is 4,265 feet, at Mile 51 travelers can enjoy a variety of geological formations, animal life and flowers.

The region is well-populated, if not by humans. The area near Mile 46 is well-known for Dall sheep, grizzlies, marmots and ptarmigan. Caribou herds often are seen crossing the road at Mile 72 in October. For birders, there are peregrine falcons, red-throated loons, oldsquaw ducks and arctic terns. Fishermen can find Dolly Varden and grayling in rivers. And at Mile 96, there reportedly are species of butterflies and moths that can't be found elsewhere in the world.

A turnout marks the Arctic Circle at Mile 252. On June 21, the sun does not set for 24 hours. At Mile 341 is Fort McPherson, NWT, a Native village of 632 people with some limited services for travelers. The local Anglican church cemetery is renowned as the burial place of the "lost patrol," four Mounties with a dogsled team who perished during the winter of 1910-11 while en route to Dawson.

Although there are campgrounds along the way and heli-hiking and flightseeing packages out of Dawson City wilderness adventurers are generally on their own. Hikers often find the footing poor, and novices aren't encouraged to venture out by themselves.

At the end of the road

Inuvik used to be an unlikely tourist destination. Unlike Dawson City, at the opposite end of the Dempster, it didn't have a rich folklore upon which to build a visitor industry. Inuvik was built by the Canadian government in the late 1950s as an administrative center for the western Arctic and a base for satellite spy operations. Its largely cookie-cutter architecture, flat terrain, alternately buggy and bone-chilling environment and limited access made the village little more than a regional hub for public services.

Even the completion of the Dempster didn't change things right away, said Mayor George Roach.

For years, the only attraction was the so-called igloo church, still popular today. Completed in 1960, the Roman Catholic church is a round, white frame with lines to simulate snow blocks. Inside are local Inuit paintings of the Stations of the Cross.

"They used to drive here, and (say) All right, what do I do? Have a look at the church and turn around and drive back, basically,' " Roach said. "We've gone from no tourism base at all, other than the hotels, to people with tour groups now and trips and stores that have geared themselves to selling souvenir items. So we've come a long ways in the last few years in tourism, but we still have a long ways to go."

Inuvik has had a good summer with the 30th annual Northern Games, which rotate among host cities, and the Great Northern Arts Festival, which has been held in Inuvik for 12 years.

The arts festival includes workshops for artists and the public, a fashion show and various entertainment, including dancing, music and film.

The games feature events not seen in the south, including pain-endurance competitions such as "the knuckle hop." Another draw is the Midnight Madness festival at

the summer solstice. Throughout the summer, there's a local dinner theater with a play concerning the history of Inuvik and a wild-game meal including caribou and

musk ox. Tourists can visit a Native elders camp and watch traditional fish-drying and whalebone-carving activities.

DesJardins, the city's tourism coordinator, wants to expand the off-season traffic. He is coordinating the next Sunrise Festival, which takes place in early January, when the sun makes an appearance after a month of continual darkness.

"I think what we need to work on is the winter months, which I see as the most beautiful part of being in the Arctic: Northern lights," he said.

"The terrain it's so beautiful. And the snowmobiling and the dogsledding, and all those things that you can experience. On the Mackenzie Delta, you can

just drive forever and ever and ever."

Mayor Roach said he'd like to see more help from the territorial government in Yellowknife.

"It's been our feeling, as a council, that tourism spending has gone way down," he said. "The Yukon is miles ahead of us, in promoting the Yukon, and you see the results there. They are aggressively marketing the Yukon, while we do very little."

He said it was "a step forward" this spring when a delegation of NWT government and business leaders traveled to Alaska to discuss possible joint economic ventures. In Juneau, the group talked with members of the chamber of commerce about the local tourism economy.

Roach sees potential for an Alaska/NWT synergy.

"Both are the wildest, most remote parts of North America. You get them that far and then send them here over the Top of the World Highway in the summer, or fly them up," he said.

"There should be more interaction between Alaska and the NWT, and the Yukon, for that matter."

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