Tackling the Yukon in a Yukon – driving Canada’s Dempster Highway

Tackling the Yukon in a Yukon – driving Canada’s Dempster Highway
Tackling the Yukon in a Yukon – driving Canada’s Dempster Highway

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;”
The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert William Service

The Yukon territory in Canada is almost unimaginably empty. With twice the land area of Great Britain, it is home to just 40,000 people – and 25,000 of those live in Whitehorse, its capital (and only) city. This means you go for a long time without meeting anyone, as I discovered after sliding off the Dempster Highway straight into a snow-filled ditch…

Finally completed in 1978, the 457-mile long Dempster Highway links the Klondike Highway just outside Dawson City with the First Nations’ town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. The highway has no major junctions along its length, which makes navigation a doddle; just turn onto it and keep going until you hit the Arctic Ocean. It’s a road I’ve long wanted to drive, and the chance to do so in a GMC Yukon XL was irresistible.

Yukon adventure

Powered by a 5.3-litre V8 petrol engine that develops 355bhp and 383lb/ft of torque, the Yukon is exactly the sort of car you’d choose to navigate a road like this. Torquey and quiet and big enough to be able to seat eight people in comfort, it also features a four-wheel-drive chassis and proper winter tyres, so it is reassuringly sure-footed, too.

I book-ended my two-day drive with overnight stops in Dawson City. Previously the Yukon’s capital, it might not be an actual city anymore but its 2,000-odd residents are the friendliest folk I’ve ever met: cars stopped to let me cross the road well before I’d reached the end of the wooden boardwalk pavements; passers-by wished me a goodnight as they made their way home from one of Dawson’s many bars; and after just two days there, I was being invited for a lunchtime beer by people I’d met only the night before. If the Yukon is almost unimaginably empty, it is also almost unimaginably friendly, too.

Yukon adventure

Gold mining is still Dawson City’s principal source of income. With the price of gold at almost record levels, mining it is economical once more, whether on a large or small-scale. The way it’s mined hasn’t changed in the past hundred years, either; you simply rinse and sift gravel with plenty of water and the gold, which is 19 times heavier than water, sinks to the bottom, allowing for easy collection.

I say easy, but the original pioneers found it anything but because winter lows of -60°C meant that the ground was permanently frozen, even during the surprisingly benign summers. To thaw the soil, they would build a huge fire, letting it burn for eighteen hours or more, which thawed a few centimetres (at best), which they then dug away. This process went on for week after week, month after month, until they eventually reached the layer of gravel and silt that might (‘might’, you note…) contain gold. That this layer could be many metres deep gives you an idea of how hard they had to work to extract it.

Yukon adventure

After gold was discovered in Bonanza Creek in 1896, more than 100,000 people set out for the Yukon area. Only 40,000 made it as far as Dawson City; the rest either gave up or died. Those that did make it there found that the gold rush was over in just three years.

Interestingly, the huge dredges that used to sift vast quantities of spoil left ‘tailing piles’ in their wake. Mainly gravel, these piles also contain pieces of gold that were either too large to pass through the holes in the rotating drums, or too small to be easily collected. This waste gravel is used to maintain the unpaved roads of Dawson City, which means that the streets of this fascinating town are literally paved with gold.

An early start saw me turning left out of Dawson City and onto the Dempster Highway. A small bridge guards the entrance but first you have to pass a sign that warns “There are no emergency medical services on the Yukon section of the Dempster Highway”. Gulp. It was snowing, too. And cold. Bitterly cold. The sort of cold that freezes the moisture on the hairs in your nose and kills your camera batteries in less than five minutes. A very un-British kind of cold. A lethal cold.

Yukon adventure

But the road is benign, at least to begin with. Covered with snow, it is diligently ploughed and so suffers little of the drifting that plagues similar roads in Scandinavia. For mile after mile, the Yukon simply ate up the distance, the engine no more than a distant hum. I saw two vehicles coming the other way, which meant that sitting in the middle of the road was by far the safest way to navigate its length.

I also saw two lynx, both sitting at the side of the road. I stopped to photograph them and both simply watched me for a moment or two before wandering off with the kind of irritated nonchalance that will be familiar to any cat owner. There are caribou and moose and elk here too, plus wolves and, in the summer, both brown and black bears. It is a wonderfully diverse landscape, with mountains and valleys, rivers and streams. It’s is both lush and barren, inviting and forbidding.

Yukon adventure

Impossibly beautiful too, at least from the comfort of an air-conditioned luxury SUV with heated leather seats. On foot, during a winter as harsh as this, it would be a very different matter as Corporal William Dempster found when he set out to find a missing police mail patrol in late February 1911. With just two constables to help him, he nonetheless stumbled upon the frozen bodies of the missing officers three weeks later.

The Dempster Highway roughly follows the route he took, and offers a fitting monument to the bravery of the men and women who blazed a trail through this beautiful but deadly landscape during a time in which they relied only on fur, wool and the endurance of their sled dogs to keep them alive.

And it is deadly, as I found. Facing a blind, left-hand bend, I eased the Yukon to the right-hand side of the road to leave enough space for anything that might be coming the other way. Misjudging the Yukon’s width, I accidentally placed the offside wheels on the verge, where I was pulled even further to the right and straight into a snow bank. I was unhurt but the Yukon was completely stuck.

Yukon adventure

I started to dig myself out but, as luck would have it, a passing Highways pickup arrived 20 minutes later and pulled me out. Embarrassed, I later discovered that an experienced Highways supervisor had driven her pickup into a ditch earlier that morning only a few miles away, which eased my discomfort a little. But it was a valuable lesson to learn: the Dempster can bite, and when it does, it hurts…

Safely back in Dawson City, I felt obliged to steady my nerves with a Sourtoe Cocktail in the Sourdough Bar of the downtown Hotel. The cocktail is simple, comprising just two ingredients: a shot of your favourite booze and a dehydrated human toe. The reality is not as bad as it looks but it’s still pretty grim – your lips have to touch the toe – and the certificate you receive for completing it is a welcome reminder that you only have to do it once in order to be able to claim bragging rights forever.

Yukon adventure

On a local recommendation, I then went for dinner at the local hockey rink. A pair of huge veal schnitzels, mushroom gravy and a vast pile of French fries, all washed down with a can of root beer, set me up for a late night drink in the bar of the Westminster Hotel.

Colloquially known as ‘The Pit’, it is infamous for hosting the best late-night parties in Dawson. I ended up having a beer with Hugh Neff, an Alaskan sled-dogging legend who was there to support his wife Olivia, who was competing in the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile dog sledding race for the first time. Widely acknowledged as the toughest race of its kind in the world, competitors face mountainous terrain, deep snow, and day-after-day-after-day of biting winds and sub-zero temperatures.

Full of fascinating stories of his racing career – Hugh has competed in the Yukon Quest 17 times, and won it twice – he was careful to put his achievements, and those of the rest of the Yukon Quest competitors, in context: “What we do is nothing compared to what the guys used to go through to deliver the mail a hundred years ago.”

I’m sure Corporal Dempster would agree.

Yukon adventure

Clothing

The Yukon region reached -40°C while I was there. You can rent heavy-duty winter clothing from M. W. Outfits in Whitehorse, and while it’s top-quality stuff you’ll want to take your own down gloves or mittens, plus a woolly hat and a buff to stop the drafts around your neck.

I found that a decent down jacket was enough for anything other than prolonged periods outside; I took an Arc’teryx Thorium AR hoody, which was warm enough for anything down to -20°C and yet was still thin enough to be worn inside as a jumper and outside underneath a parka.

Travel

For more information on visiting the Yukon region visit www.travelyukon.com and www.explore-canada.co.uk

Windows on The Wild offer a seven-night ‘Husky Adventure in the Yukon’ package from £2,199 per person including return international flights from the UK, transfers from and to Whitehorse, one night’s accommodation in Whitehorse, six nights’ accommodation in cabins or a wood-heated tent outpost camp. All meals and non-alcoholic beverages are included, except in Whitehorse. The price includes the use of a personal sled and three to six Huskies, a musher diploma, and winter boots. info@windowsonthewild.com

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