WHEEL­ING THE DEMP­STER HIGH­WAY

Not your av­er­age March break

4WDrive - - Contents -

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.

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