Forget to buy your packet of cigarettes in Carmacks and it’s another 222 kilometres before the next opportunity, such are the vast distances up here. For days forests and lakes and mountains unfurl beyond our stone-shattered windshield, though we are gaining ground, slowly but surely, on the Arctic Circle and our final goal. Having left Bahia Lapataia, southern Argentina, four and a half years ago, Inuvik, a small town in the Yukon’s Mackenzie Delta, is now tantalisingly close. We’re heading for a big moment in our journey: Inuvik is quite literally the end of the road and marks the most northerly point on our trans-Americas odyssey. Though, before embarking on this last leg to Inuvik we must acquire a few extra supplies: the 700 kilometre Dempster Highway is a rough gravel road that invariably has a sting in its tail. For the moment our nearest town with a store is a quick blast along the valley, a place made famous by the Klondike gold rush of 1897.
Dawson City nestles at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. In 1896, when Skookum Jim and George Carmack dug a shovel load of yellow dirt from Rabbit Creek, they let rip with a cry of glee. With their whoops still echoing in the valley Dawson City took root, quick to feature on every gold diggers bucket list of 100 Places To Bust Your Balls Before You Die. In those gritty days of 1897/98 DC was a tough place just to exist, let alone scrabble for a pan of gold; I’d like to write how Pat Garrett gunned down half the gunslingers in the Silver Dollar saloon, or the day Butch Cassidy lassoed the safe and tore it out the front door of the Wells Fargo, but it just wasn’t that kind of a town, mainly because it’s in Canada and the Mounties had a bite to them as crushing as any grizzly. Today, if you slip on your sepia-tinted shades, sweep the motorhomes and Harleys off the dirt streets, you’ve pretty much got a picture of what the town was like one hundred years ago. I’m not sure if Sourdough Jim existed back then, but if you’re heading beyond the Arctic Circle it’s important to tuck away the best halibut and chips the town has to offer. Who knows what lies on the other side?
HIGHWAY TO THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Notes from the journal
4th July: There’s an aspect to the wilderness of North America that appeals no end to a particular type of traveller. It plays on an irresistible urge to test themselves, or perhaps even to lose themselves. With their belongings pared down to the minimum they gradually withdraw from what is generally considered civilisation – they ride the last bus, depart the last town, beg the last lift, offer the last goodbye – and then simply disappear. By accident, or by design, whichever it is, some never re-emerge. I suspect there’s one of them here now, thumbing a lift by the gas station at the exit of Dawson City. The breeze catches his straggly hair and beard, tugging at the loose, grubby shirt. The smallest of backpacks lies at his feet, the words Inuvik scratched on a strip of cardboard held in bony fingers. His colour is grey and nobody sees him. Would it be for the best if nobody picked him up?
Construction started on the Dempster in 1959, reaching Inuvik by 1979. Oil and gas in the Mackenzie Delta is the principal reason for the road. The highway was named after William Dempster of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In his younger days as a corporal he was known as “The Iron Man of the Trail” for his legendary dogsled journeys from Dawson City to Fort McPherson, sometimes in temperatures of 40 degrees below. Dempster originally came to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In winter he patrolled the route from Dawson to McPherson by dogsled, a 760 kilometre journey he completed 10 times in four years. Starting out of Dawson late afternoon we cut between the Klondike and Snowy Ranges, making camp by six. There’s a notice in the campsite warning that a wolf was present two days previously; we’re asked not to feed it. Though it’s not wolves that are the problem here – the mosquitoes are hellish. They hunt us in the outhouse, curtailing any ideas of living outside. They say these mosquitoes will suck a pint of blood from a moose every twenty-four hours. It is light all through the night – what an extraordinary experience this is.
5th July: Light traffic and a beautiful landscape. Trying to avoid the stones fired from the tyres of passing vehicles. So far so good. We leave the forest to climb over the ranges – the Ogilvy and the Taiga, followed by the Richardson Mountains. Thick dust and then more mud. Stones pound the underside of the camper. After crossing into Northwest Territories we drop down to the delta, the track cutting through the boreal forest, crossing the rivers Peel and Mackenzie by ferry boat. After 500 kilometres we can take no more; we stop by 8.30 in the evening, 30 kilometres short of Inuvik.
6th/7th July: Inuvik enjoys 56 days of 24 hours of daylight (late June, July and early August) and 30 days without sunlight (mostly in December). For us comparisons between Ushuaia and Inuvik are inevitable: Inuvik has no cruise ships, no Russians buying all the vodka at the duty-free store, no signs calling the British pirates for stealing Las Malvinas Islands and no snow (in fact it’s positively warm). Where Ushuaia felt vibrant Inuvik is most definitely snoozing. We camp in the Happy Valley Territorial campsite, overlooking the delta, and make for the tourist office, in the hope of uncovering the heart and soul of this Arctic town. Here we’re given a sheet entitled: Things To Do In Inuvik. Number 1 on the list reads: Check out the White Board at the Inuvik Visitor Centre to see if any current/special events might be happening, such as local feasts, local dances, Northern games, Gwich’in jigging, Inuvialuit drum dancing, etc. Number 2 reads: Watch the Inuvik Visitor Centre’s video collection, or read some books in our reference library, etc. There are 24 items on the list. I slip it in a pocket whilst we toddle off to celebrate our journey through the Americas in the Mad Trapper pub, which is not listed on the 24 Things To Do In Inuvik and then we go to the Igloo church, which is. In the Mad Trapper the Welders Daughter is the featured band; by contrast, in the igloo church, it is a civil engineer from Norway who entertains the small crowd. The following day we visit the northern-most greenhouse in North America. It is located in a former ice hockey stadium. The Things To Do In Inuvik list calls it the only Community Greenhouse of its kind in the world.
8th/9th/10th July: After a couple of days in Inuvik we’re heading back down the Dempster. It is raining and misty. We cross the Mackenzie River without event, though soon learn the ferry on the Peel is out of service: the recent heavy rains in the mountains have raised the water levels in the river, making it no longer safe for the ferry to operate. Small trees and thick vegetation churn in the current. We retire to the Nitainlaii Territorial Park campsite a kilometre up the road. Ironically, Nitainlaii, in the language of the Gwich’in means “water flowing out in all directions.”, so perhaps something like this should have been expected. This boreal forest is not a bad place to be held up, except the two motorcyclists camped a little way from us have to lift their mozzie nets each time they shovel a spoonful of beans into their mouths. When Robert drives round to collect the camping fees he says the ferry won’t run for another four days. It’s all nonsense: in South America a few floating trees and shrubs wouldn’t stop a ferry. By mid-day the following day the river has dropped significantly, though the grandly named Peel River Marine Operations manager won’t lift a finger. More cars and campers arrive. The hotel in Fort McPherson, 10 ks down the road, is now full. Robert organises small boats to ferry the half dozen motorcyclists across the river, charging them anywhere between 25 and 40 dollars. I’m beginning to feel we’re at the beck and call of the local Gwich’in mafia, as we pay another 10 dollar camping fee to Robert. He tells us his aunt has died and that they need to get her in the ground, except several car-loads of mourners are on the wrong side of the river. The food they’ve prepared is starting to spoil, he laments. ‘There’s plenty of chicken, if you want,’ one of the mourners on the right side of the river tells us. By Sunday a touch of cabin fever is creeping in, held at bay by frequent visits to watch the flow of the Peel River. There is a rumour circulating that work will begin in the morning on constructing ramps. The locals of Fort McPherson have taken to driving their pick-ups round the campsite in the evenings, gawping at the stranded travellers.
11th July: Despite thunderstorms and heavy rain in the night the Peel River Marine Operations crew have ambled into action, constructing a ramp from the surrounding mud. A dozen or so vehicles now await the resumption of services, all of us questioning how one makes a ramp from mud. The locals of Inuvik moan how useless the ferry service is and the incompetence of the Peel River Marine Operations manager in particular. Robert is talking of commandeering the one and only digger so that a hole can be dug and his dear aunt finally be laid to rest. Might this spark a riot? In any event all work ceases for two hours whilst the lady is buried. By 9 in the evening we are finally across and free to resume our journey. By midnight we make camp beside the Arctic Circle sign. It is as light as it was at mid-day.
12th July: Eagle Plains is the half-way point on the Dempster Highway. There is a motel here and a rather fine, old-world style hunter’s bar. Any wildlife you’ve missed out on the road can be viewed at your leisure nailed to the wall in the motel’s bar. A dozen grumpy truckers are awaiting the full resumption of services at the ferry landing. Too often their journey to Inuvik is interrupted like this, they tell us. I ask one of them if he is one of the famous ice-truckers. ‘Ooh, I don’t know aboot that,’ he says. (Many Canadians say oot instead out). They mutter about some guy called Dave or Johnny, who is an ice-trucker on the TV show. They say the whole thing is rubbish. Another trucker asks if we’ve seen a ginger-haired hitchhiker out on the road. We tell him we haven’t. The man says, ‘The kid left at two this morning on foot, heading for Inuvik. I told him the grizzlies would kill him.’ Perhaps he’ll get his head mounted in the motel bar, I want to say. By late afternoon we reach the junction with the Klondike Highway and turn towards Dawson City. There is a makeshift tent at the roadside near the junction. On a piece of cardboard is written “Cigarettes needed … and food.” Staring forlornly is the young, grey traveller we’d seen on the way out. He’s made it a little further along the road; the highway to the midnight sun is within his grasp.