The Dempster Highway is well known for its beautiful scenery and rough driving conditions. They brave blowing snow, white-outs, ice fog, and creepy innkeepers on this stretch.
It seemed like everyone in Whitehorse had come to know that we were going to do the Dempster. And, immediately everyone was full of advice, even though I was very doubtful whether any had attemped a winter crossing. “With that car you’ll have no problems. No way you gonna make it with those tires. I go 80 kph the entire way. Go slow!! This is the fookin Arctic! I have a friend in… Hey, I love San Francisco, I was just there”.
One can say that we drove here to do the Dempster, our first adventure on this trip. In the summer the shale highway is infamous for chewing up tires – one of the people we met takes four (!) spares with him when he goes on the Dempster. In winter the shale freezes and the chances of getting a flat go down greatly but other, more significant problems crop up. Howling winds blowing snow can swallow up a big-rig and if you slip off the road you’ll likely be waiting hours for help.
Traveling with winter survival gear is essential. Extra food, water, warm clothing, and emergency candles to survive a night out in the arctic are carried by all prudent motorists. In addition to those we have two shovels, satellite phone, and full mountaineering down gear to keep warm.
We got on the Dempster at in total darkness at 8:30am. The first section was very slippery and the going was slow until the sun rose to illuminate the roadway so we could gauge the road conditions. Frequent brake tests further assessed the traction quality. The weather was good and we made the Hotel at Eagle Plains well before sunset.
Out of Eagle Plains the next day the conditions deteriorated quickly with blowing snow forming snow drifts that the FJ had to plow through. At the border to the Northwest Territories we were in a near white-out. Like the Saramago novel “Blindness” I felt like I had been dropped into an ocean of milk where it is hard to tell which way is up.
A new winter horror without a name greeted us – fog with super cooled droplets of water that freeze on contact with the windshield or the road. It was a fog that would have solidified into layer of ice if we hadn’t cranked the heater. So here we were, in the Arctic, and boiling in our car!
The Peel River had frozen and the Canadians had created an ice crossing. The weight limit was 3500kg, but there was no one around to check for Darwin Award candidates who would ignore this. After a tough journey we came to a warm reception from the Gwich’in government office, with warm coffee, smiles, and home-baked snacks…