The Dempster Highway (known as Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8 in those territories respectively) is a highway through the sub-Arctic wilderness of northern Yukon Territory and extreme northwestern Northwest Territories (NWT) in Canada. The highway runs 671 km (417 mi) from the Klondike Highway near Dawson City to the Indigenous settlement of Inuvik. A 137-km (85-mi), all-season extension to Tuktoyaktuk opened in November 2017, although the extension does not seem to be considered part of the Dempster Highway, instead being referred to as the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
The Dempster is one of just two roads in North America contiguous with the majority of the North American road network to cross the Arctic Circle. Although considerably less travelled than its American twin, Alaska's Dalton Highway, the road offers much similar scenery.
The Dempster Highway — Canada’s only all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle — was officially opened on 18 August 1979, at Flat Creek, Yukon. It was unveiled as a two-lane, gravel-surfaced, all-weather highway that ran 736 km (457 mi) from the Klondike Highway near Dawson City to Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River (now Tsiigehtchic) in the Northwest Territories. The Canadian Forces 1 Combat Engineer Regiment from Chilliwack, British Columbia, built the two major bridges over the Ogilvie and Eagle rivers. Ferries handle the traffic at the Peel River crossing near Fort McPherson and the Arctic Red River crossing near Tsiigehtchic.
The design of the highway is unique, primarily due to the intense physical conditions it is put through. The highway itself sits on top of a gravel berm to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) up to 2.4 m (7 ft 10 in) in some places. Without the pad, the permafrost would thaw and the road would sink into the ground.
In addition to services in Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik, there is one location with commercial services along the highway, at Eagle Plains. It is an important fuel and food stop because of the great distance, and harbours stranded travellers when the highway is closed due to extreme weather conditions. (Until 1979, the highway was only open in the short summer.)
During the early 1990s, Northwestel erected microwave towers along the highway to facilitate public safety with manual mobile telephone service and to provide government agencies such as highway maintenance and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with communications.
Much of the highway follows an old dog sled trail. The highway is named after Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector William John Duncan Dempster, who, as a young constable, frequently ran the dog sled trail from Dawson City to Fort McPherson NWT. Inspector Dempster and two other constables were sent out on a rescue patrol in March 1911, to find Inspector Francis Joseph Fitzgerald and his men of three who never made it to Dawson City. They had become lost on the trail, and subsequently died of exposure and starvation. Dempster and his men found the bodies on March 22, 1911.
In 1958 the Canadian government made the historic decision to build a 671-km (417-mi) road through the Arctic wilderness from Dawson City to Inuvik. Oil and gas exploration was booming in the Mackenzie Delta and the town of Inuvik was under construction. The road was billed as the first-ever overland supply link to southern Canada, where business and political circles buzzed with talk of an oil pipeline that would run parallel to the road. The two would connect with another proposed pipeline along the Alaska Highway.
For years, an annual ice road connected Inuvik north to Tuktoyaktuk during the winter months, crossing several frozen rivers and even part of the frozen Arctic Ocean that extended to depths of 3,000 ft (1,000 m) below sea level. Construction on a 137 km (85 mi), year-round highway to Tuktoyaktuk at a cost of C$229 million began in 2014. The ice road closed permanently on April 30, 2017 at the end of the 2016-2017 season and the new Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway opened in November 2017.
The Dempster Highway turn off is on Yukon Highway 2 and is approximately 40 km (25 mi) east of Dawson City. It is strongly suggested to fill up your tank either at the Klondike River Lodge at the turn off or in Dawson City as there are no services until Eagle Plains 365 km (227 mi) away!
The Dempster Highway has very few services and shops along its length and those services and goods which are available are quite expensive. Therefore, travellers are advised to have basic survival supplies, car repair equipment, and equipment for camping and other activities:
- CB radio
- Cash and/or major credit cards (i.e. Visa or MasterCard). No services accept debit cards and there is only one ATM in Inuvik (a CIBC bank machine).
- Spare tires (full-size, preferably on/with another rim) and basic car repair tools.
- Kits used to repair windshield chipping can be especially valuable in preventing chips from turning into full-fledged cracked windshields.
- Windshield cleaning fluid (you will need to clean your windshield many times from the dust trucks create)
- Road flares (trucks can't stop quickly and there are numerous blind corners and crests)
- Protection against the elements (warm clothes, rain jackets, blankets, etc.)
- Spare fuel (at minimum a 20- to 40-L container (5 to 10 gallons))
- Potable water
- Garbage/rubbish bags
- Toilet paper, hand sanitizer or soap and water
- Insect repellent and/or mosquito netting
- Optional: Camping equipment, stove and pots (to cook food and boil stream water or snow), canoes/kayaks/rafts, rifle (for hunting or bear protection), and for hiking: a backpack, hiking pole, bear repellent spray, knee-high waterproof boots (for marshes) and snow shoes (winter).
If approaching the highway from Dawson City, it is advisable to stop in at the North West Territories Visitor Information Centre. It will have as up-to-date information as possible on the highway including conditions of the road, weather and any other notices. There is a log book that drivers write in which describes road conditions and recent first-hand experiences can be read there.
The Dempster Highway is 736 km (457 mi) long from Dawson City to its original terminus at Inuvik. (By ice road, Tuktoyaktuk was 144 km (89 mi) further north.) Kilometre distances here are approximate and start from the junction of the Klondike Highway (Hwy 2).
|1 Dawson City||−40||−25||All services available; northwest of the southern terminus of Dempster Highway.|
|1 Junction with Klondike Highway 2||0||0||Southern terminus of Dempster Highway.|
|2 Paved road ends.||5||3||Gravel begins. The road is all gravel until Inuvik.|
|1 Yukon Government highway maintenance camp.||66||41||No services but may provide help in an emergency.|
|1 Tombstone Campground and Interpretive Centre||72||45||36 sites, fee charged; interpretive centre open May - Sep (area information)|
|2 Engineer Creek and Sapper Hill||194||121||15 campsites|
|1 Ogilvie-Peel Lookout||259||161||Rest area. Toilets.|
|3 Eagle Plains Hotel and RV Campground||369||229||Lodging, food, camping, dump station, and gas available.|
|2 Arctic Circle||405||252||Rest area. Toilets.|
|4 Rock River Campground||447||278||20 sites, fee charged.|
|3 NWT/Yukon Border||465||289||Time zone change; set watches one hour ahead when travelling north, back when going south.|
|1 Peel River Ferry||539||335||Free. 8AM-midnight. Winter ice bridge.|
|5 Nitainlii Territorial Park||541||336||Information centre, campground (23 sites, fee charged), water, firewood, toilets.|
|2 Fort McPherson||550||342||All services available.|
|2 MacKenzie River Ferry||608||378||Free. 9AM-midnight. Winter ice bridge|
|3 Tsiigehtchic||608||378||Limited services available (no fuel). Accessed via ferry.|
|6 Vadzaih Van Tshik Campground (Gwich’in Territorial Park)||692||430||11 sites. Fee charged.|
|7 Gwich’in Territorial Campground (Gwich'in Territorial Park)||705||438||Camping. 20 RV sites and 4 tent sites. Fee charged.|
|8 Jak Territorial Park||731||454||Camping. 36 sites including RV hook ups. Fee charged.|
|4 Inuvik||736||457||All services available. Northern terminus of Dempster Highway. Start of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.|
|5 Tuktoyaktuk||880||547||144 km (89 mi) north of Inuvik; end of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.|
- Camping: This great wilderness is a great place to set up camp and enjoy the great outdoors.
- Just pull off the road at least 10 m (30 ft) and set up camp. See also: Car camping.
- If leaving the highway for an extended hike, a GPS device is helpful. Declination can be 27º or more in this region.
- Hike/backpack: Fresh air, free of smog and car fumes; short grass; no snakes or other hidden dangers; beautiful, unspoiled land. Why not? Walk through forests or tundra, climb one of the numerous hills. Once away from the highway, the virgin land appears before your eyes as it did to those in search of the Northwest Passage hundreds of years ago.
- Be careful to avoid bears.
- If bringing a GPS, recommended for long hikes, the declination at this latitude is great.
- Kayaking, rafting, & canoeing: There are several possible river trips along the Dempster.
- Cross country skiing is available in most months outside July. Bring your own skis, as there is nowhere to rent skis along the highway.
- Visit the Arctic Ocean. By travelling from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the eponymous Imuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, travellers can reach the shores of the Arctic Ocean. This is the only highway contiguous with the majority of the North American road network that reaches the Arctic Ocean. (The Dalton Highway in Alaska ends 13 km (8 mi) from the Arctic shoreline, which can only be reached across privately-owned land by participating in an organized tour.)
- The region is extremely remote. You should bring appropriate maps or a GPS device when doing so. Remember declination can be 27º or more, so recalibrate your device before leaving the highway.
Due to the scarcity of services, you will need a certain degree of self-sufficiency while traveling along the highway on your own. Therefore, you are advised to bring what is listed in the Prepare section.
A wide variety of different road surfaces will be encountered by travelers on the Dempster. This surface is gravel or dirt and is littered with a landscape of craters and potholes that will often slow your pace down to 20 km/h (12 mph), or destroy your suspension. Be constantly on the lookout for massive potholes on any part of the road. These will sneak up on you suddenly after a comfortable few miles.
Should you find yourself gravely ill, a medical evacuation is very expensive and can be difficult or impossible during severe winter weather.
If you collect water from streams, be sure to boil it as giardia is common in streams and very contagious.
Weather is an important factor to add into Dempster Highway trip calculations. Remember, this is the Arctic! During the summer it is very possible to encounter snow. Drive with extreme caution. The gravel can be very slippery, especially in rain or snow. During the winter, the area is possible to encounter temperatures below -50 °C (-60 °F) (which is cold enough to freeze your brake fluid!). Such temperatures are fatal and thus winter travel is highly discouraged.
Be prepared in summertime for the possibility of forest fires shutting down the highway. Delays of a day or two are possible.
The Dempster Highway passes through territory of the fearsome Grizzly bear. While black bear and brown bear attacks are most often defensive, the grizzly bear is larger and its attacks often occur when the animal is surprised. Bear repellent spray (a very strong pepper spray/mace) is considerably safer than carrying a rifle. See this article for comprehensive information on bear safety. In the winter, Polar bears can roam the region near Inuvik. You cannot learn enough about bear safety in this region.
You may also encounter wolves and foxes in this region. Moose can be dangerous if threatened. They weigh, on average, 640 kg (1,400 lb) and have 2-m (6-ft) wide antlers. Being mauled or stepped on by a moose can be lethal or leave you seriously injured in a region where medical services are distant and take hours for you to be treated. Animal life along the Dempster is great, but enjoy them at a distance.