I’m up again at 6:30am in Fort Liard and on the road by 7:00am. I’m determined to get to Inuvik by tomorrow if I can. The gravel section of the Liard Trail disappears when I enter British Columbia and leave NWT. I see several bison herds by the side of the road and feel fortunate those behemoths jumped away from my van last night rather than at it. I’d have been pummeled.
The journey from Fort Liard to Whitehorse is just over 1200 kilometers but I make good time and roll into Whitehorse by mid-evening. I don’t have camping gear in the van - it’s all up Inuvik with the kayaks - so I look for a room in town. It’s the busy summer season for Whitehorse and the community is completely full. I drive 15 minutes north and find a tired looking motel where the reception desk is also the bar. The bar’s busy and so’s the motel and I get the last room in the place. I’m blind to the roughness though as a hot shower and a soft bed hold my focus.
I rise early and push north to Dawson City and the Dempster Highway. The road between Whitehorse and Dawson is a 525 kilometer stretch of smooth pavement and spectacular scenery. The Yukon River is never very far from the road and presents dramatic views with the Five Finger Rapids being a highlight. Here the Yukon River pushes through a line of steep rock spires to form a series of formidable rapids that posed a major obstacle for gold miners attempting to reach the Klondike in the early 1900’s. Although not very technical by whitewater standards the rapids are big and noisy and had me holding my breath when I paddled through them in 2001.
Dawson City is 40 kilometers beyond the turnoff for the Dempster Highway and I choose to head directly north rather than visit town. The Dempster is a notorious section of road that is as beautiful as it is unpredictable and I’m eager to get it started. The road is made of gravel and rock and is well known for a slick conditions and shock destroying pot holes. It’s Canada’s only all weather road to cross the Arctic Circle and drivers are suggested to bring a full sized spare on a rim as flat tires are more the norm than the exception.
I realize quickly that the road is much rougher than I remember with potholes everywhere. It’s begun to rain hard as well.
I traveled the Dempster Highway for the first time in 2013 when I undertook an expedition attempting to row the Northwest Passage from Inuvik to Pond Inlet. The Arctic dished up some unpredictable conditions to us on that trip and ended up scuttling our efforts after two difficult months. It appears to be doing exactly the same thing today.
The first leg of the Dempster stretches 368 kilometers to the ‘community’ of Eagle Plains. Eagle Plains is in fact just a series of buildings that provides gas, vehicular repair, accommodation and food for Dempster travelers but it has a deserved reputation as being a true outpost of the Yukon and is smack dab in the middle of the journey. The community of Fort McPherson is the next stop on the road some 181 kilometers further on. There’s a ferry crossing here over the Peel River just before the community just as there is at Tsiigehtchic on the Mackenzie another 57 kilometers ahead. We’re very familiar with the Tsiigehtchic ferry having spent the better part of a day watching it do its three way crossing across the Dempster and across the Red River to Tsiigehtchic when we camped at the shores of the community last week. From Tsiigehtchic its just another 127 kilometers north to Inuvik to complete the 733 kilometer Dempster Highway. At the speed I’m averaging it will take me 12-14 hours.
There’s visitor centre for the Tombstone Territorial Park about 80 kilometers up the road and I stop in to check on conditions ahead. I’m told it’s been raining heavily in the mountains for days and the rivers and creeks are swollen but the road is currently passable. A couple I speak with in the parking lot disagree and say they turned around.
“It’s was too dangerous,” says the man with a long black trench coat, a handle bar mustache and large leather cowboy hat. If rock and roll icon Lemmy hadn’t died recently - the legendary hardcore lead singer of the speed metal band Motorhead - I would have asked for his autograph. “It’s not worth risking it mate.” he says.
“I’ll poke ahead a bit ato see what it’s like,” I say, “I can always turn around.”
Within 20 kilometers the conditions begin to deteriorate. The deep drainage ditches on either side of the road are swollen with run off and several have broken their banks. There’s a Park Operations truck stopped on the opposite side of the first overflow section I cross.
“Does the water normally get this high?” I ask the driver of of the Park’s vehicle as I pull up beside them. The passenger answers as she gets out of the truck.
“We’ve never seen it this high. There’s usually no water here at all,” she says, pointing to a significant river below. “We’re checking conditions ourselves.”
“I’ll follow you if you don’t mind,” I say to the driver. “You guys have a bigger vehicle and it’ll help me judge things.”
“We’re not going far,” says the driver, clearly disturbed by the turn of events. “Keep close.”
Within minutes I see a large front end loader and dump truck on the road. They’re creating a make-shift dyke to redirect a huge flow of water that is attempting to breach the road. They have succeeded for a distance but the water has swept across the road just beyond. The Park guy chats with the driver of the front end loader and then continues forward. I follow.
We enter the stream of water. The Park’s vehicle stops halfway across for some reason but starts moving again when he sees me try to go around him. “Sorry dude, can’t risk stopping in this,” I say out loud in the van.
We traverse two smaller overflow sections in the next few kilometers until he pulls over and motions he’s turning around. I give him a wave and continue on.
A short time later I come around a wide bend and notice a couple standing in front of a truck facing a large fast flowing creek where a road used to be. It appears like they’re stranded.
I stop the van and walk down to them. “You guys OK?” I shout over to them. “Park’s guys say it’s the worst they’ve seen.”
“This was a dry creek when we came through a couple days ago,” the man hollers back, “We have a cabin and food back there so we’ll be OK.”
“You’re all good then!?” I yell, giving the thumbs up.
“All good,” he says, “Hey, thanks for stopping!”
I continue and the road gets worse. I stop at a crossing I’m not comfortable to make and see a large 4x4 red king cab power through in the other direction. The truck pulls up beside me and the driver rolls down her window.
“Turn around,” she says, “It’s much worse further on. Huge washouts. Barely got through even with the help of a highway’s truck. Slides are happening too.”
“Thanks!!” I say to her, “I’ll turn around now.”
By the time I’ve turned around she’s gone but I catch up to her soon as she’s stopped at where the couple are stranded. The woman gets out of her truck and I stop too. The couple are still at their vehicle facing the creek and we both go down to talk with them.
“I was thinking of maybe wading across,” says the man as the woman and I come within earshot of him. He’s at the water’s edge. “To see how deep it is. Maybe I could drive it? I don’t think so”
The water is moving very swiftly and has broken into two distinct channels. Both are at least 10 feet wide and likely waist to chest height in depth.
“Don’t do it dude,” I say, “You’ll be swept away in that current. Why don’t you hike around up to the road and we’ll give you a lift back to Dawson. I’m heading back there and so is Gladys, the driver of the truck.”
“You’re heading back to Dawson?!,” says the man. “That’d be great. I have to get to work in town tonight. We both need to get back.”
The couple are able to scramble up the edge of the creek and clamber up to the road where the culvert is.
“My name is Kevin,” I say as the couple reach my vehicle. I extend my hand in greeting.
“Thomas,” says the man “This is my girlfriend Melaina. We both live in Dawson. Thanks for this. This is a huge help.”
Gladys continued on with my insistence. as I had everything under control but I’m not back driving long before we see her parked ahead of us,
“Crap, this is where I had trouble on the way in,” I say to Thomas and Melaina. “I hope it’s passable.”
I park behind the truck and am dismayed by what I see. The berm of gravel placed by the front end loader earlier is still there but the overflow has swollen considerably and appears now like a river running across the road. The edge of the road is eroding badly and there’s a drop halfway across the roadway.
“We should see how deep it is before attempting it” I say.
“I have rubber boots on,” says Melaina, “I can do it.”
“I’ll roll up my pants and join you,” I say, “I don’t mind getting my shoes wet.”
We each grab a branch and use it as a probe. The current is strong and I stop when water nears my knee.
“It keeps getting deeper over here,” I say, “I’m not sure where the road edge is either. It would be chest deep there.”
“The road is crumbling beneath my feet,” says Melaina, she’s probing out on the far side where the road is eroding. “This part would collapse if you drove on it.”
“There’s no way I can cross that in my mini van,” I say. ‘The water will be above the underside of the door.”
Gladys thinks her truck can make it across but doesn’t feel comfortable driving it herself. She asked Thomas if he’d drive the truck but he’s hesitant, it’s not his truck.
A large semi arrives not hauling its trailer. The driver eases to a stop beside us and surveys the water from his cab. He rolls down his window and I step up to him.
“You going for it?” I ask,
“You betchya,” he says smiling, a tooth conspicuously missing among his front teeth. There’s an edginess in his manner and his confidence is obvious. A woman sits beside him. She doesn’t look at me. Her gaze remains locked ahead.
I step from the cab and watch him accelerate towards the crossing. He has no intention of taking this carefully. He enters the washout fast and water immediately sprays upwards in sheets. When he reaches the deepest section the rear wheels of the rig whip sharply to the right but his momentum and power thrust him forward. He rumbles up the other side and stops, maybe waiting for us to follow, but he doesn’t exit the cab. We do nothing. There’s nothing we can do and he drives away within minutes.
Thomas and I look at one another.
“Crap, that looked a little crazy,” I say, “It looks deep too.”
“It’s too deep I think,” says Thomas, “We’re going to have to wait a bit.”
And wait we do. One hour and then we check the water. Little change. Two hours - its come down a little. Three hours - its come down a little more. Thomas and Melaina are resting in the truck as there’s more room. Four hours - Thomas tells me that they’re going for it.
“I have a lot of pressure in that truck,” he says, “They want me to go for it. I think I can make it in that thing.” pointing back to the 4x4.
“Yea, I think so too,” I say, “Waters come down a bit and you got good clearance.”
I walk up to washout and watch. Thomas takes his cue from the trucker earlier and guns it. The 4x4 sends out a big wash as did the semi and fumbles a bit in the middle but pulls though to the other side. Thomas stops, gets out and calls back from the other side.
“You all OK, Kev?!, he screams, barely audible over the rumble of the water.
“I’m good my friend!!,” I yell back and give him a thumbs up with both hands and walk back to the van.
Time to wait.