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Lonesome highway

Lone business is all things to all travelers

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2000

EAGLE PLAINS, YUKON TERRITORY As a businessman, Stan McNevin probably couldn't have a more well-defined niche in the marketplace.

McNevin operates the only commercial establishment on a 342-mile stretch of the Dempster Highway, between its starting point near Dawson City in the Yukon Territory up to Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories.

The 36-room Eagle Plains Hotel includes a gas station, restaurant, RV park, laundry and gift shop. It has no competitors within 231 miles to the south or 110 miles to the north. And on either side of the highway unbroken wilderness stretches beyond the horizon.

"We sure meet a lot of people," McNevin said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

About 7,000 to 9,000 people are counted crossing the Mackenzie River ferry at Arctic Red River each summer. It's safe to assume that the vast majority of them patronize Eagle Plains during their trip, he said.

For those who end up with more flat tires than spares a frequent occurrence on the unpaved Dempster Eagle Plains can be an inescapable destination. One traveler was faced recently with replacing two Firestone tires on a sport utility vehicle for a cost of $344 Canadian.

 

On the Road: Nathan Tanner and Clifton Cochran of Delaware hitchhiked on the Dempster this month after kayaking the Mackenzie River. Travel literature discourages impulsive exploration off the highway, as there are no trails or signs to guide adventurers.

Although two ferry crossings on the Dempster are closed during the winter freeze and the spring thaw, the highway is maintained year-round and the hotel is open every day, McNevin said. Generally, traffic drops off enough in winter that staff drops from 24 people to 13. But if travelers can make it to the hotel, they will be served, he said.

The Milepost, the annually updated trip-planning book for travel in northwestern Canada and Alaska, describes Eagle Plains as a significant engineering achievement: "Engineers considered the permafrost in the area and found a place where the bedrock was at the surface. The hotel was built on this natural pad, thus avoiding the costly process of building on pilings as was done at Inuvik."

McNevin, the general manager and lead mechanic at Eagle Plains, owns the business with his brother, Kelly, who also works at the hotel, and their father, George, who works at corporate headquarters in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The company also owns apartment blocks and office buildings, and specializes in northern construction.

Eagle Plains was built in 1978 in anticipation of the opening of the Dempster Highway, which was built by the Yukon Territory Government to serve an expected oil pipeline from the Mackenzie Delta near Inuvik. The road was begun during the initial search for oil in the region during the 1950s and 1960s, and was resumed when exploration in the Beaufort Sea looked promising in the 1970s.

 

Igloo church: Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church basks in the midnight sun at 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 1. Usually known as the igloo church,

it was the earliest tourist attraction in Inuvik, featuring paintings of the Stations of the Cross by local Inuit artist Mona Thrasher. Although the

visitor industry has become a staple of the local economy in recent years, Inuvik leaders don't consider themselves saturated with tourists and are

trying to expand the spring and fall "shoulder seasons," as well as establish a winter tourism market.

"We had a grand opening in December of '78," McNevin said. "And YTG didn't want to open up the road at that time, so two outfits in Inuvik, Points North and North Star Construction, they punched the road through and then maintained it to start trucking that winter.

"And that kind of embarrassed YTG to the point where they actually started doing their job. Because they wanted to have it closed so they didn't have the cost of the winter maintenance that year," McNevin said.

The Dempster officially opened in January 1979. Aside from the seasonal disruptions in ferry service in the Northwest Territories and emergency road closures due to extreme winter weather, the highway has been open ever since.

The Yukon highway department didn't want to build its own camp, so the McNevins worked out a deal to build on crown land and provide leased space for a highway maintenance shop and crew quarters. As part of the contract, Eagle Plains is supposed to be protected from competition on the Dempster, McNevin said, although he acknowledged that the government probably couldn't prevent new businesses from springing up on Native settlement land.

"We'll fight tooth and nail to prevent it, of course," he said.

 

Wide open spaces: A trucker gets his tank filled at the Eagle Plains Hotel, at Mile 231 of the Dempster. The only commercial establishment actually located on the Dempster, featuring a restaurant and other facilities, Eagle Plains is a mandatory stop for most travelers.

But while McNevin has a near monopoly on the Dempster for now, he says that it's not a simple matter of just taking in money from passersby with few, if any, options. The logistics of a remote location and dangerous winter weather make running the business a challenge, he said.

"Everything has a lot of zeroes when you're dealing with a place like this," McNevin said.

Just maintaining a dial tone on the microwave-based phone line costs $1,000 a month, he said. The insurance premium for his tow truck is $2,000, with an additional $5,000 to cover towed vehicles.

Depending on fuel costs, his annual bill for diesel generators and oil-fired boilers for hot water heat is about $300,000, he said.

 

Wide open spaces: A turnout marks the Arctic Circle at Mile 252 of the Dempster, with the Richardson Mountains in the distance. On June 21, the sun does not set here for 24 hours. The next 50 miles of the road are treacherous for tires, as the lack of glaciated material nearby forces highway crews to use sharp-edged shale for the road bed.

And that doesn't take into account necessary safety measures, he said.

"Everything here is redundant. We have two of everything. If we have a pump, then there'll be two of them. ... Basically everything that's here we have to repair doesn't matter if it's a coffee maker to an ice machine to the diesel engines to vehicles with problems traveling the road. ... We have two banks of boilers; each one is capable of heating Eagle Plains at 50 below."

Although no catastrophe has occurred in 22 winters, there have been several tense moments maintaining vital systems, McNevin said.

"Roughly, we have about eight hours to restore power at 40 below, and then the buildings would start to freeze up. And if they ever froze, it would be a million, a million and a half, two million dollars to repair. So basically, that can never happen."

Also, Eagle Plains has to haul its water in. In the summer, a small spring about 10 1/2 miles to the south supplies the daily usage of 10,000 gallons a day. In the winter, when up to 4,000 gallons a day are used, the company draws from the Eagle River, three miles north, which is too silted in the summertime.

A nearby airstrip alongside the Dempster is available for medical evacuations, but Eagle Plains also has an ambulance and some supplies. Canada's Good Samaritan Law allows untrained citizens to respond to medical emergencies.

But emergencies have been few, given the circumstances, McNevin said. Although there was a fatal helicopter crash three years ago, he could recall only five vehicular fatalities in the area in 20 years.

And with the remote location, there's little crime, McNevin said.

About 10 years ago, the hotel's water truck was stolen. It was recovered by highway crews the next morning, and McNevin said he spied the perpetrator hiding in foliage. Rather than going through the hassle of having the thief arrested and then prosecuted in Dawson, McNevin said he asked the highway crews to warn drivers that the man was mentally unstable and not to pick him up, so that he would have to walk 200 miles to get off the Dempster.

The type of traveler has changed a lot since 1978. Early on, the Dempster handled mostly commercial traffic, including four tour buses a week. This summer, there probably are only 12 tour buses total stopping at Eagle Plains, McNevin said.

"Now it's come full circle. We do very few bus tours, but the walk-in traffic has tripled," he said.

Originally, McNevin hoped that oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea would lead to a pipeline down the Dempster and the opportunity to provide lodging for maintenance crews. But as that prospect fizzled, tourism traffic especially from European adventure tour operators started to increase, he said.

"One offset the other. We just adjusted to the different type of traffic."

Now, natural resources once again appear as an economic opportunity. Talk of tapping the natural gas reserves in the Mackenzie Delta and building a pipeline to the Lower 48 is benefiting Eagle Plains. One company wants to rent the entire hotel for four months this winter to house a seismographic team, he said.

McNevin, a 40-year-old bachelor, generally goes for a long trip in the winter. Last year, it was two months in Costa Rica. But he has no plans for leaving Eagle Plains.

Asked what it takes to live year after year in such a secluded outpost, he said: "A strong mind."



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