Fresh from almost 1340 kms up and back the Dalton Highway in Alaska ( described in Post 2 ), it was time to rest up and recharge in Fairbanks. After a few fairly exhausting days on long, dusty, potholed roads the comforts of Fairbanks were a welcome relief – hot showers, laundry facilities, a great selection of food and drinks, and a Japanese restaurant were all enjoyed before heading east and ultimately back into Canada.
The ’shortcut’ back to the north Yukon took us over the scenic ’Top of the World” highway via the quaint community of Chicken – last stop in Alaska before crossing the US/Canada border . The highway got its name due to the unusual nature of the road – unlike most roads through mountains which follow the valley floors, this road ( for the most part ) hugs the high ridges giving it a ‘top of the world’ feel. Chicken is an old gold mining centre ( still actively mined ) with only basic facilities but what must be one of the coolest bars in all Alaska – local legend has it that the town gots its name when town founders could not agree on the spelling of ‘Ptarmigan’, the name originally proposed !
Dawson City, Yukon, home of the 1898 goldrush, never disappoints and probably has one of the best visitor centres we have come across – that and a visitor centre for the North West Territories ( across the street ) where we stocked up on tips about our planned run up to Tuktoyaktuk on the Dempster Highway in the days to come. The mandatory warnings ensued……drive slowly, watch for wildlife, take extra tires, extra fuel and be prepared for long distances between services – hey, that’s what make it such an adventure ! Jokes aside we were very much looking forward to the Dempster Highway and knew much of what had been explained to us in Dawson ( the jumping off point for the trip ).
In the past days we had started bumping into other travellers at campsites with the same route in mind – getting to the Arctic now that Canada finally had an all season regular road to travel on. Seems that remote, hard to get to places, will always attract a diverse assortment of visitors – we’d already met 3 young Dutch travellers sharing ( and sleeping in ) in a mini van, a retired single lady from Ontario, a couple of Americans on motorcycles, several Swiss and Germans in true ‘overland’ vehicles shipped to Canada for the adventure and more Kiwi’s in rented truck campers than we have ever met in one place ! These would all become friends in the coming days as we traversed an almost identical route north – on 900kms of very dusty, rough, unforgiving gravel road.
Out of Dawson and on the Dempster our first stop was to be the very famous Tombstone Territorial Park – alas, the weather was not in our favour so rather than linger we pushed on to Eagle Plains pushing the Tombstone stop out to the return journey ( it proved to be a good call since folks we would later meet were to wait 3 days for the weather in Tombstone to change ). ‘Fair’ would best describe the road conditions – lots of loose gravel, and in some places severe washboarding reminiscent of the Dalton just a week before. Nothing like a trip up the Dempster to remind one just how big ( and beautiful ) this country is with every few miles bringing something different. One surprise – and we could not help but compare the road to the Dalton ( as everyone did ) – was the relative lack of bigger wildlife; no moose all the way up and just a black bear and two cubs and a fox on day two, yet it made the scenery no less stunning.
Day two took us all the way to “Tuk”, crossing the Arctic Circle, the Continental Divide, Yukon/NWT border ( gaining an hour and an appreciation for their markedly better roads ! ) then passing through both Fort McPherson and Inuvik. Doing so involved crossing the Peel and Mackenzie rivers on seasonal ferry’s which had only started operating a few days earlier – one can’t arrive here before June 1st or it’s a long boring wait at the Eagle Plains campground ( a trap many fall into every year we are told ). Finally, at around 7pm on Wednesday, June 5th, and after over 7,500kms ( 4,000 direct, the rest due to our detour via Alaska ) we pulled into the “Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk” right on the shores of the Arctic. We’d made it – no flats, no broken windshields ( and praying we could duplicate that feat on the way back ). That all said there is really not much in “Tuk” – a very small community and still getting used to the fact that they are now ‘connected’ by road to the rest of Canada ( the all season road was completed only in November 2017 ). The tourism infrastructure, while very limited, is not stopping a throng of adventurous types from making the pilgrimage north – it remains to be seen how this tiny community will cope with their sudden fame. Like all before us we made the requisite photo ops at the ‘Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk’ sign and the Arctic Ocean signs on the waterfront, dipping our feet in the cold Arctic for good measure. Today, as far from Kelowna as we would get and as far north in Canada as it is possible to drive – tomorrow would begin the long journey back.