All the way north in 2023
From Vancouver to Tuktoyaktuk and back again.
There's also a photo gallery.
I'd begun planning this trip even before I returned from my first visit up north in 2022. The weather proved the main consideration for both. Most important of all, I knew the Dempster Highway closed for a few weeks during the spring thaw. Starting in May I checked the government road web sites nearly every day. Winter dragged on and on, and they finally shut down the ice crossings five days later than usual. I reasoned that the ferries would most likely also start running about five days late, then worked backward from that to set my schedule.
As I waited, I found ways to busy myself with preparations. Most important, I bought a full-sized spare tire for my car (the Dempster Highway has a reputation for destroying tires). I emptied my frig of anything perishable, cleaned house, talked to passing overlanders. I also followed the news of the northern wildfires, with growing concern. My first plan had been to travel north along the Alaska highway, by way of Jasper. While that road may have been possible to drive despite the nearby forest fires, it didn't look enjoyable! My plans shifted as I waited, until finally departure day arrived.
To Dawson City
From Vancouver to Smithers, the highway rolls mostly through farmland. While pleasant enough, the scenery didn't really interest me. On the way to Terrace I hit rain and fog, which made for some dramatic views. After brief side trips to Kitimat and Prince Rupert, I turned north onto the Cassiar Highway.
In November I had passed through Stewart briefly but didn't stop; the weather at the time made it look frankly depressing. In spring the place looked much more attractive, and the nearby glaciers more accessible. Bears liked it, too. Two or three wandered by the town's boardwalk that night but, apparently unlike some others, didn't venture down the main street.
Leaving Stewart, I made a quick but profitable side trip to the nearby Salmon Glacier. While this road wasn't completely open, my Honda CR-V made it handily to the lookout. Driving onwards would have required going over a snow drift about 5-6 metres high. Four-wheel drive or not, that looked a bit much to tackle.
The drive up the Cassiar turned up a great variety of wildlife, including more bears than I've ever seen in such a short time. By the time I reached Jade City I think I'd passed a couple dozen black bears. These included one particularly young and stupid one that ran in front of me on the road, forcing me to hit the brakes quickly.
Atlin's beautiful setting surprised me. The scenery reminded me of the area I'd grown up in, near Pincher Creek and Waterton Lakes. I had time to spare, since the ferries on the Dempster were still not running, so I spent a whole day relaxing in Atlin before pressing on to Skagway.
White Pass, on the way to Skagway, proved the most scenic part of the whole drive. The snow had partially melted by then, framing the peaks and ponds well. Skagway itself seemed a decent town, but totally overrun by cruise ship tourists. One night sufficed for me. The next day I drove the length of the Klondike highway, up to Dawson City. That same day the ferries on the Dempster Highway began running, and the road to Tuktoyaktuk was finally open.
The Dempster Highway and Tuktoyaktuk
From here travel was simple; there is only one road north from Dawson City. The Dempster Highway has a bit of a daunting reputation, no doubt amplified by local government promoting adventure tourism along it. I found it to be a pretty typical dirt and gravel road, just much longer than usual. Some parts of it could use resurfacing, as with most such roads I've driven. Still, I found its image exaggerated. My advice to aspiring Dempster travellers is not to panic, but do make sure you have a good spare tire along.
Parts of the highway had recently washed away in floods, but they had been rebuilt by that point. The ferry on the Peel River still struggled somewhat, with workers constantly rebuilding the dirt landings. This made driving off the ferry a bit more interesting than I liked, but caused no real problems. There are very few services on the road (make sure you fill up with gas at Eagle Plains) but quite a bit of traffic. In early June it was mercifully bug-free, but that presumably does not remain true for long.
Some will not want to hear this, but for much of the drive north the terrain really looked much the same. The low valleys along the Dempster don't differ all that much from the high valleys farther south. Inuvik offered the first real signs of change. Sitting on top of a low hill, the town is built for subarctic weather. I found particularly interesting their central heating system, with insulated pipes running all over town above ground.
From Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk requires only an easy day trip. The scenery here begins to look really different. The road winds over the rolling permafrost, past marshes and ponds. Towards the end you encounter Pingos, a distinctive local feature. These are small hills formed where water pools above permafrost.
Tuktoyaktuk, like Inuvik, is built for the weather — but that weather is more extreme there, and the adaptations more noticeable. The buildings sit on posts and pilings above ground, to avoid melting into the permafrost. They all looked heavily insulated, short on windows and doors. Off in the distance you can see the domes of the town's DEW station, presumably still keeping a radar eye open for invaders.
Finally, I arrived at Flagpole Point. Ahead was only the Arctic Ocean. In early June, the ice on the harbour was just breaking up. It was possible to wade in (and I did), but not to run a boat yet. The wind howled and whatever wildlife was around must have hidden. It was an other-worldly site, one you could sit and watch for hours.
It was hard to make myself turn around and go home, and I felt a bit sad. In other places I have commented that when I was a kid, we'd go out for drives and I wanted to keep on going. This wasn't just an expression. I really wanted to drive those particular roads and see where they went. Now, fifty-odd years later, I had finally done it; gone all the way to the literal end of the road. I've driven almost all the main roads of Canada, from coast to coast to coast, and quite a few back roads too. There are still side trips to be made and plenty to see that I haven't, but it'll never be quite the same again.
Obviously, I did force myself to turn around and drive back again. The trip back down the Dempster Highway went a bit differently than the trip up, because the weather had changed from smoky haze to light rain. That provided many good prospects for photography, and I took several.
Back in Dawson City, with my mission accomplished, I had a couple days to relax. Unlike my previous visit, this time the town was open for business. I finally got to see somebody drink one of the infamous Sourtoe Cocktails in the Downtown Hotel. In fact, I got to see an endless stream of people doing it (it's a quite touristy thing). Cannibalism was still not on my ToDo list, so I didn't partake personally.
Going back, I still had one new road to drive; the Top of the World Highway. This dirt road runs west from Dawson City into Alaska, and only opens when the snow's gone. The panoramic views from the top of this road made it worthwhile, even considering the winding track it turned into in Alaska. At the end of that I turned south on the Alaska Highway again, passing Kluane National Park on my way down to Whitehorse.
Somewhere along this stretch I collected another star or two of windshield damage, to add to the 3 chips and large crack already there. Despite having driven my car some 45,000 km all over Canada, including the whole length of the Dempster and Labrador highways, it is an odd fact that all the windshield damage it's taken has happened on the Alaska Highway. If you're reading this with an eye to driving in the area, I suggest you keep that datum in mind and hold off on any windshield repairs until after you return home. It will save you some stress.
I had wanted to continue on down the Alaska highway, stopping in at a few places I didn't get to see properly in November. With the worsening fire situation, though, I finally decided that would be a bad bet. So, I returned the way I'd come. The scenery looked remarkably different going south on the Cassiar, as opposed to north. It was a good choice; the fire news went from bad to worse while driving, but on that side of the mountains all was well.
I stopped in Smithers, checking out the town as it's on my list of possible future places to live. It remains so; I liked what I saw. Continuing south, the scenery interested me no more than it had going north. I thought about visiting Barkerville again but opted not to, picturing potential tourist crowds there. So I drove straight home, stopping only to see the old Alexandra Bridge along the way. Upon arrival, I'd driven 9636 km in 18 days.