Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dempster

Hello Everyone,
Please indulge me in briefly discussing the Dempster Highway, after all it is the lifeblood that allows a standard of living within this region that we currently enjoy.
It was named after William John Duncan Dempster, who was a RCMP officer who patrolled the area between Dawson City and Fort MacPherson during the Dawson gold rush, his first appearance in the area was in the year 1898. He patrolled the area between Dawson and Fort MacPherson year round, most of the year via dogsled in -40 degree weather. He would achieve a average of two trips a year and served with the Yukon detachment for the next 37 years. The distance between these two points is 471 miles. His job was to deliver news, mail and to enforce the laws upon the land he patrolled. He learned this route and how to survive these conditions through the Gwich'in elders.
The highway travels a total (at this point in time) of 735 km; it crosses the contential divide three times, contains two ferry crossings (Fort MacPherson with the Peel river, and Tsiigehtchic crossing the Red River and the MacKenzie rivers respectively). Work on the Highway was started in 1959 in a attempt to link the southern world to Eagle Plains where a recent oil discovery had prompted need for the road. That necessitated linking Dawson City to Eagle Plains, the best route to this location was to follow the route that William Dempster learned from the natives 70 years earlier. Three years and 72 miles later the effort was abandoned, the financial toll, the staggering difficulty of the task and the political climate had destroyed the will to complete the project. In 1968, a position very similar to todays, caused a renewed effort by Canadian politicians to finally finish the road to assert Canadian Sovernty in Northern Canada except now the road would go through to a newly designed northern community that would lead the way into northern community design, this community would be Aklavik. As usual plans change, political parties change and destinations change, in a effort to complete the seeming impossible task, the new end of the highway would be across the Mackenzie river from Tsiigehtchic where it would join the Mackenzie Highway to take it the final 67 km's to Inuvik. There the road ends, 148 km's from the Beaufort sea and a legitimate claim to finally reaching the Beaufort Sea. It was completed more than ten years after this renewed effort, and over twenty years from its initial ground breaking.
The highway is a two lane gravel road built upon a berm to protect the road integrity from the permafrost. The berm (or gravel bed) above the natural lay of the land averages about 7 feet. It boasts transmission destroying pothole's, tire shredding shale beds, and some of the most incredible scenery and wildlife that anyone travelling upon it will ever encountered. It is the only year round (relatively) road to cross the Arctic circle. It links many northern communities to the supply chains of the south allowing for (comparatively) cheap goods to be shipped north, as well as providing residents the chance to drive towards the south and everything that that entails. I personally see many ways that the road is a personal northern tragedy, seeing many of the young people making the trip south with dreams of MTV upon their minds, oddly making the reverse journey my family has chosen after being exposed to the joys of the south. Many of these young people are ill equipped for the challenges they will face in a large city.
This community has exposed me to many of the travellers of the Dempster, and they are a interesting group of people. It seems the German's love two things in life, David Hasselhoff (had to throw that in for Megan) and the Dempster highway. So far this year I'd estimate 80% of the travellers I've met have been German. Other people of note I've seen are: A Australian man who had rode a bicycle from San Francisco to Inuvik (5700 miles and 4 months of really tough time), kayaks travelling up the Red River with a final destination of the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska, A 1 1/2 legged man who hiked from Hay River, and today two Swiss men kayaking from Hay River, one Parisian from Fort Providence, and one Japanese man from ...well... OK, I didn't understand that part. That is a lot of paddling. The one I missed today was someone from Buffalo, New York driving a solar powered car, like to see him try that sort of thing in December... guess what?, no sun till February, make yourself comfortable.
Take Care
PS One thing I take a sick personal amusement in is these all these southern people wandering around the north with absolutely no way of protecting themselves, travelling with food, sleeping in the bush, sweating profusely and never realizing one basic fact... You can die just going for a walk up here. In town alone this week we've had sightings of a cougar and one bear killed. Tomorrow Inuvik will hold funerals for five local people with more northern survival knowledge than anyone from the south will ever have. Those not paying attention, or respecting where they are up here will die eventually.

PPS. All information contained here is strictly from memory (except for a couple of things I googled) as such it is probably all wrong. Deal with it. I also never as a rule write this type of article, so forgive me.


Anonymous said...

Gee, that photo looks familiar too...

Curtis Groom said...

Gee, Guess you brought another camera with you (a Rebel) then while I wasn't looking copied the picture's over to my memory card, very tricky. I can honestly tell you that even with credit I will never post another picture of yours on my blog, so rest assured, your images are no longer on my computer, I get enough "told ya so's" in my life without adding yours.
Take Care