WHEELING THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY
Not your average March break
Ed Note: Last issue, Budd Stanley and his crew left from Vancouver, BC in two Nissan Titans to overland to Tuktoyaktuk during the last season of the famous ice-road. This issue, a wheeler leaving from Ottawa, ON makes the trek solo, demonstrating that placing their footprint in the Arctic is an ambition shared by Canadians across the country.
When it comes to vacation time we all like a break from the normal humdrum routine, and it’s reasonable to assume that an Ottawa city-bus driver in his late twenties, would be scouring the Internet looking for a two-week fun-in-the-sun winter vacation somewhere down south. Not Alan Wong.
With a fascination for the Arctic, and a desire to go somewhere “a little different”, he came across the Dempster Highway on a map and figured that it would be fun to swap his eight-hour shift driving a bus, for what would be up to sixteen hours a day driving his Toyota FJ Cruiser to the northern-most point that he could find; Tuktoyaktuk.
The Dempster Highway is pure Canadian adventure, and all 671 km of it to Inuvik is filled with breathtaking views and an abundance of wildlife. Named in honour of Welshman ‘Jack’ Dempster, who after joining the North West Mounted Police in 1897, spent most of his thirty seven year career patrolling the Gwitchin First Nations trail in the Yukon wilderness between Fort McPherson and Dawson City, a trail that the Dempster Highway still follows today.
Jack Dempster was recognised for his endurance and dedication after making a record-breaking eleven day journey back to Dawson City to report the sad news that the bodies of the Lost Patrol had been found. No mean feat considering that this was an eight hundred kilometre trip by dog sled in the depths of a Canadian winter. The Lost
Patrol is one of the north’s saddest, and most well-documented tragedies that tells the story of how after a series of errors, a North West Mounted Police dog sled mailrun ended with the loss of all life – human and canine - including the NWMP first commander, Francis Joseph Fitzgerald.
Several enthusiastic friends expressed
an interest in driving this historic route with Wong, but unfortunately life got in the way and they had to cancel. Disappointed but undeterred, he embarked on his epic, 14,253 km oncein-a-lifetime adventure, solo.
Having already decided that this was going to be the vacation trip to beat all others, Wong began to make plans roughly a year beforehand. Planning was pretty minimal compared to most trips of this nature, and consisted of working out a route from Ottawa to Tuktoyaktuk, noting fuel stops as he began to travel further north into the wilderness, and calculating a rough timeline.
The unknown can often be scarier than reality, and the high speed roll-overs, near-death-encounters with moose, and frostbitten extremities that Wong had nightmares about never actually occurred. There are Bison though, and lots of them, so he had to keep an eye out for these slow-moving, half-tonne road blocks. The breathtaking views coupled with the pure adrenalin-buzz generated by driving
on top of a seemingly endless ribbon of gravel for hundreds of kilometres, was enough to keep Wong fired-up and alert. The Dempster is constructed on top of a huge gravel berm because otherwise, the permafrost would melt in the spring and frost heave would eventually cause the road to sink and disappear back into the earth.
One of the few modifications made to the FJ was an aluminum storage basket on the hitch that had four, twenty-five litre jerry cans mounted on it to extend the range. Good job too, as the truck burned eighteen hundred litres of premium gasoline during the course of the trip, and running out of fuel, and consequently cabin heat, is a big no-no in the middle of an Arctic winter. March temperatures in Tuktoyaktuk average a bone-numbing -25°C.
The only other modifications made to Wong’s 2014 6-speed manual transmission FJ, was a 20" LED light-bar on the front, a CB radio, and a washer fluid heater. Not exactly what you’d call expedition-ready but it worked.
Survival and recovery gear were also minimal; Wong carried some basic tools, a tow strap, hi-lift jack, air compressor, tire repair kit, knife, fire-starter, and first aid kit. The roads were all reasonably welltraveled, and even though Wong didn’t feel too worried about emergencies he rented a satellite phone just in case. Oh, and he took snowshoes, which he says “came in really handy”.
The best part of the trip, and one of the most unforgettable experiences of Wong’s life, was driving out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean, all alone with nothing but a perfect red sunrise for company. “Likely”, he says, “this will always be the best road I’ve driven on.” Fatigue only began to kick-in on the return leg of the journey, but this was never really an issue as a comfortable bed (made from two sleeping bags burritorolled into two queen-size duvets) was just 15 cm away from the driver’s seat. Wong could be snuggled up and snoring in less than five minutes after applying the parking brake.
The final one hundred and forty kilometres of the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyuktuk (Coordinates 69.455960, -133.036558) is only passable on winter roads. Or at least it was.
Construction crews have been busy for the past couple of years transforming the one hundred and forty kilometre winter route into a bridge-filled all season route. Set for completion in the fall of 2017, this three hundred million dollar project will make Canadian history, as for the first time ever; it will be possible to travel the entire country by road, from sea-to-seato-sea. Best start planning now.