Chapter 16. Dempster Highway to Inuvik
(Bert) Our RV climbs out of the wooded valley surrounding Rock River and to the open tussock tundra, the first really expansive treeless area. Its color is a warm shade of yellowish greenish brown, hardly the bright colors yet to come. The fields are speckled with the white tufts of cottongrass. I scan for large mammals and suspect I could spot one several miles away in this open country. If I ask Shari to stop for a suspicious sighting so that I can focus binoculars on it, invariably it turns out to be an isolated bush. The roadsides have more action. Arctic Ground Squirrels have fattened for upcoming hibernation. American Pipits and Savannah Sparrows are gathering for migration.
We reach Wright Pass, the border between Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories. At the crest over the Richardson Mountains, it is chilly, but not as cold as it was in 2008 when it was covered with ice and the snow blizzard was blowing. Just as we enter Northwest Territories I see a flock of three Northern Wheatears on the highway. I stop for photos and with each click, one of them hops closer to me. Wheatears are one of the oddities of North American breeding birds; these will soon migrate to Africa during our winter.
Soon thereafter, two Rock Ptarmigans are running on gravel to the right of the RV. They could easily escape our attention by exiting into the tundra, yet keep running ahead of us. The ptarmigans are still completely brown in plumage except for their wings when they take a short flight. Their white winter plumage has not yet started to show.
Our next stop is 44 km into Northwest Territories, at Midway Lake. Just last weekend they held their annual music festival. We drive into the settlement, if that is what it can be called. It is a hundred one-room shacks, perhaps sufficient for a weekend stay. No one is around except for one man tending a barbeque fire. Birds are plentiful, however, and especially White-crowned Sparrows. I count eight Pacific Loons on the lake. Common Ravens call raucously as they explore the abandoned village for leftover morsels. A Merlin allows photographs and, just as we are leaving, a Northern Harrier flies over.
(Shari) The road is downgraded to a 2. My, it is awful. To make matters worse, the fog has arrived and I can’t see too far ahead of me to predict the potholes. At Midway, I don’t even want to drive and Bert is not allowed to bird while he drives. He has to keep his eyes on the road at all times. The road is full of soft slippery muck right before our descent to the Peel River ferry.
(Bert) I take over the wheel, as Shari has been complaining about the road. The next 30 km are difficult as the road is in process of being repaired. Recent rain has made mush of the silt-laden gravel and our tires slip as I try to pass between the construction machinery. Slowly, at 10-15 mph, I get through the mess and we are on the downhill slope to the Peel River. We wait as the ferry is on the other side. It arrives and unloads its vehicles. Ours is the only vehicle for the northward crossing. Only a kilometer on the opposite side we reach our campground for the night. After we settle in, I take a walk around the campground and then back to the river. My best birds are numerous White-winged Crossbills, but when I get back to the RV Shari says I should look at the last photos on her camera. She did much better than I, without even leaving the RV. Her camera shows the evidence, with lots of good shots of a Spruce Grouse.
One last story. After dinner–salmon roasted over the campfire–we are facing the fire and a log cabin. A Red Squirrel runs from the right, under the cabin, appears on the left and stops at a particular tree. It picks up a morsel of food and retraces its path to the right, stopping at a short cluster of alder and Prickly Rose. Here the squirrel deposits the morsel and then repeats the transfer process many times. Curiously, I check the food–it is seeds pulled from spruce cones–and the hole. The hole is one of several and together they are the squirrel’s winter food cache.
(Bert) I had forgotten how far the boreal forest extends northward on the Dempster. After having traveled the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse, the contrast is even more obvious. On the Dalton, we drove out of forests on the first day and it was all tundra thereafter. Now, today on the Dempster Highway we are in boreal forest again. In other sections, though, we pass through wetlands of Black Spruce, Tamarack, and tall grasses, with White Birch on the drier ground. Appropriately, I see Rusty Blackbirds on three occasions and also a Muskrat. Numerous small lakes are mostly vacant of bird life, although I do see a pair of Pacific Loons again.
We descend to the Mackenzie River for our second ferry crossing on the Dempster. While waiting for the ferry arrival, I step outside to study the Herring Gulls and ravens. A flock of eight Northern Shovelers flies across the river. I inspect the outside of the RV, noting all the mud we have collected. Then I look at the tires and am drawn to one that is hissing. On our previous RV I would have attributed the sound to our air suspension, but we don’t have that feature on this smaller vehicle. It definitely seems to be coming from one of the dual tires, so I get out my tire gauge and measure each tire. Three rear tires measure 70 psi and one is 60 psi. It must be leaking air, although I can see no damage and it doesn’t look flat. Another driver pulls up behind me and I ask him for advice. He says the ferry has a compressor and can add air. We can probably make it to Inuvik since we have dual tires. So, that is what we do. Fortunately, the highway is much improved. In fact, it is the best so far and I can drive 50-55 mph on the smooth gravel. I have to concentrate on driving, but cannot help noticing the Red Squirrel crossing the road. We are only 30 mi. from Inuvik–Arctic Ocean country–and still this far north there are Red Squirrels!
(Shari) Yesterday I complained about the road condition. Now, to add insult to injury, Bert hears air from the vicinity of our back tire. He measures the tire pressure and finds it to be 60 on one of the dual rear tires and 70 on the others. While we wait for the ferry to take us across the Mackenzie River, Bert learns of a compressor onboard the boat. We ask to use it and he pumps the low tire back up to 70 psi. Now there is no stopping until Inuvik, about 70 mi. distant. Luckily the road allows 50 mph and we race to get to town before our tire becomes flat. Not so fast! An oncoming auto approaches us and does not slow down. Whack! It throws a rock at our windshield and it gets a whopper of a chip.
(Bert) Not to worry, we have made it to Inuvik on at least five of our six tires! I drive directly to a tire service shop that Shari has looked up on one of the numerous brochures she collects. They can take us immediately and I drive the RV into a service bay. At first the serviceman suggests he can repair the tire. He says the tread is still good and we apparently picked up a nail or sharp stone. But our conversation progresses from repairing one tire to replacing two tires, then four tires, and ultimately to replacing all six tires. The price per tire keeps going down and the labor charges dissolve to zero. I vote for getting all six so that Shari stops worrying. Slowly, Shari also agrees to get all six. Total bill: $1638, a lot less than I thought six tires would cost at this end of the earth. Problem solved!
(Shari) We race on to town and arrive at the tire shop with the tire reading 20 psi. We discuss the merits of having the tire repaired, buying one or two tires or four tires and finally decide to get six new tires. Ouch! $$$$ We were going to buy tires when we got home anyway, but this just cinched it. Next stop is windshield repair. The good news is that it can be repaired; the bad news is the shop is out of resin. The shop worker says one of his company trucks ran into the ditch while unloading the merchandise from another truck that also fell into the ditch. He tells us to come back Wednesday or Thursday. We go to the grocery store for lettuce and diet coke. We pay $3.49 for the lettuce and $9.49 for 12 cans of coke, but $9.99 for a gallon of milk makes me pass up that deal. Next stop is the liquor store for a bottle of wine. A half-gallon for twice the price of the milk! Now after today, that one is worth it. We get to the campground and I sit by the fire sipping my wine and the sun comes out. “See,” Bert says, “It turns out to be a nice day.” Is he serious?
(Bert) The car wash takes loonies and I use 15 to spray the RV undersides and get the worst of the mud off the sides. I top off the fuel tank at CDN$1.70 per liter. That’s less than the $1.75 I paid for diesel in Eagle Plains. Translated to gallons and US$, that is $6.98/gal, the highest we have paid so far since Texas. Later in the afternoon I hike part way around Boot Lake. Not many birds, but challenging to identify in fall. The juvenile Yellow Warblers look a lot like dull colored Orange-crowned Warblers and I identify them mostly by their faintly white eye rings. The feathers on the female ducks have dulled and it takes patience for me to separate bird identities into wigeons, pintails, and Mallards. A surprise is a Cliff Swallow circling over the town.
(Shari) The library is the place for tourists to be in Inuvik. There are more people from out of town than locals using the library. All are here to use the Internet. I find I need help logging on with my iPhone as the message that comes up is to allow cookies. I do not know how to change my iPhone settings, so some kid, who was 5 when we sold our computer store, does it for me. I have to smile as I have become technology challenged. I used to help people with computer problems at one time but the technical advances have passed me by. The weather report shows nice sunny days until Saturday. I tell Bert we should depart tomorrow. Probably, it is still too early for fall colors, but better than driving in the rain.
After our stint getting connected to civilization, we eat lunch at the Royal Canadian Legion. It is the best bargain in Canada so far. We have a nice roast leg of chicken, roll and butter, roasted potatoes, carrots, and corn for $11.50 each. After lunch we walk over to the fancy Mackenzie hotel. It is new since our last visit and it is very, very nice. Its restaurant is nice too, but a bit pricey. At the visitor center, I learn of a place to buy ground muskox and steak. We go back in that direction, Bert gets fuel and I buy the second bargain in Canada. Ground muskox is only $3.75 per pound. I take three pounds and would have bought more but I have no room in the freezer.
I drop Bert off at the start of the lake trail he wants to hike and head back to camp. I find someone is in my Site 22, but after noticing he has a trailer and just finished leveling it on blocks, I tell him I will take Site 21. He wants to buy me a beer for being so nice. I figure it was easy for me to just go into the next site than to make him move to it.
(Bert) We leave Inuvik in light rain that soon abates as we head south and the sun reappears to produce blue skies. Shari drives the good road at 50+ mph. I watch birds and see a few: Osprey, Bohemian Waxwing, American Robin, White-winged Crossbill, and a few more Pacific Loons, including a juvenile. We eat our lunch while waiting for the Mackenzie River ferry. I drive onto the ferry, followed by a Canadian Air Force truck. At the river we have been watching the military exercises, which have mostly been helicopter sorties. However, in Inuvik, there also was a large tanker truck dumping effluent at the sewage treatment plant when I was looking for birds. I wonder if it had to drive all the way from the camp near the ferry because they have no treatment plant here. The truck driver on the ferry says he and the other the military men flew to Inuvik and then trucked and helicoptered to the river for their two-week exercises.
I drive now because Shari expects the road condition to be poor, but it isn’t. I stop at Frog River to photograph the steep embankment. Few wooden or metal bridges span the creeks and rivers along the Dempster. Instead, steeply banked, carefully crafted piles of gravel cover culverts and the road is built up to extreme heights. The Frog River gravel bridge must be at least 50 ft. tall. In fact, almost all of the Dempster Highway north of the Arctic Circle is built above the surrounding land by 6-20 ft., undoubtedly as a buffer to the permafrost. A lady I met in Inuvik said the highway condition is bad because the permafrost is melting, another effect of global warming. Well, as of today, the road graders have fixed the road. All of the sections Shari complained about are quite drivable and even the Peel River to Midway Lake section which I drove is now dry, firm, and smooth. Today I can take it at 40 mph.
At KM 40 I photograph a Willow Ptarmigan and at KM 28 we see an adult with five half-grown chicks. Shortly after we cross James River I spot a Grizzly Bear far in the distance, our first sighting of bear from the Dempster Highway this year. This one is two-tone: blond on its back and dark brown on its sides.
We cross the border into Yukon Territory and just a couple of miles beyond we stop at a wayside pullout to camp for the evening. We are at high altitude in alpine country and the winds are blowing mightily across the smoothed treeless hills, though we are partially protected on two sides by the steep hills. Nor does the light rain affect us while nestled in our dry and warm RV.
(Bert) It is barely 7 AM. I am awake, still inside, when I hear a car pull up and the two occupants begin climbing the steep barren hill beside us. They are carrying a tripod and camera and climb so high I can barely see them. I get out to look for birds, finding a lone Mallard on the tiny pond beside the RV. When the hikers return I ask them what they saw. “A small herd of caribou,” the man responds, “but they have moved away.” As we drive away from our campsite, I see five of the caribou are still just around the curve of the hill. We are driving across the migration path of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, estimated to be about 100,000 animals. We are seeing a few caribou, but the main herd is not expected to move to their winter residence–a trek of about 500 mi.–until later this fall.
Again we see Grizzlies, this time a sow and her cub. The big bear plods on through the tundra, searching for berries, while the cub scampers after her. The landscape has taken on more color than when we passed here five days ago. Now we see more yellow and a hint of red. The farther we travel south today, the brighter the colors and the greater the variety. We stop again at the Arctic Circle for berry picking, this time selecting a field a bit away from where others have picked. I prefer the blueberries; Shari goes for the cranberries.
The road is in good condition and I’m traveling much faster than on our northward drive. We leave the Richardson Mountains and descend into Eagle Plains. From this direction the plains are more obvious and the valley looks flatter than I previously thought. Still water stands between the Tamaracks that are still displaying green needles, their conversion into gold in fall not yet initiated. We stop for a hearty late breakfast at the Eagle Plains Hotel and then continue south. At KM 330 I add Say’s Phoebe to the list and come upon Northern Wheatears at two other locations. Shari checks for berries at the Ogilvie Ridge lookout and finds none, so I check the opposite side of the highway. Here the berry picking is good, so we collect another bagful. Camping tonight is again at Engineer Creek and this time our site and campfire faces the creek. The setting sun illuminates the ragged tortured rocks on Sapper Hill and casts long shadows.
(Shari) Upgrade to 3. The Dempster Highway, that is. Now that Bert is driving most of the time and the construction is finished and the grater leveled a lot of the road, it seems just like a normal gravel road. We traveled faster than we did on the way up and passed Fort McPherson early afternoon yesterday, finally stopping at a pullout just south of the Northwest Territories border. Today we see caribou not 5 min. into our early morning drive. Not much later Bert spots a grizzly and a cub. My new camera is even able to take a picture of it. Then we see more caribou. It is a banner day for wildlife. The yellow on the way up has turned to gold with hits of orange and small patches of red. More trees have turned yellow, too, but I think peak color is still a week away. It is pretty nonetheless and the sunshine behind the clouds makes purple shadows on the mountainsides. Again we stop for berry picking and this time Bert picks about a cup of blueberries and I get 1-1/2 cups of mixed berries. At another stop I get 1 cup of low bush cranberries. We get to Eagle Plains by 10:30 for breakfast and a WI-FI fix before traveling more miles. I have learned to NOT believe the weather reports. The only true one is the present time. Yesterday was supposed to be close to 80º in Inuvik with 0% chance of rain and all sun. It turned out rainy and cool, at least in early morning. We left anyway. Today was supposed to be part sun and cloud. That rings true. By 3 we are at Engineer Creek and stop of the day. Tomorrow we should see a real road, with lots of people and cars and PAVEMENT.
(Bert) The Gyrfalcon is on the same high perch we left it almost a week ago. This morning’s bright skies allow a better photograph of its nest and the steep cliffs on which it rests. In fact, all of the scenery photos are brighter, both from the better lighting and the kaleidoscope of colors. Below, on the wide gravel, a former riverbed, are spread thousands of Mountain Avens, one of the few flowers that is easy to identify even after it blooms. The seed stalks twist into a cottony head somewhat like a dandelion, but with silky white threads tormented from a brown head, and here producing an army of hoary witches on broomsticks.
Milestones of our trip north slip by quickly on our trip south. I am driving much of the highway at 50 mph or even faster, such is the improved condition of the gravel. On Shari’s scale I’d rate the road as 4 out of 5.
Chapman Lake and Two Moose Lake are as still as glass and reflective as a mirror. Smooth mauve hills of treeless tundra are inverted at the distant shore. One mountain looks like it is covered with snow, but it may be the distance and its bald bareness that creates the illusion. Close up, my attention is diverted to a Northern Waterthrush. Later, on another small lake I stop for five Trumpeter Swans. At KM 91 I see a pair of Willow Ptarmigans, but it is when we stop for four Spruce Grouse at KM 13 that I begin to hope for more grouse. I say to Shari, “We should get Ruffed Grouse now!” Amazingly, it is only 5 km farther and we see a Ruffed Grouse. “Okay, now, we need Sharp-tailed Grouse,” I say, knowing this will be the greatest challenge. Sure enough, not one kilometer farther, there is a Sharp-tailed Grouse crossing the road in front of us. We even see another Spruce Grouse a few kilometers farther. That is four grouse species in one day and five grouse species in total along Dempster Highway, the best I have ever done!
(Shari) Bert is driving the RV and driving me nuts. He stops too much to take pictures or look at birds. I had hoped to get to pavement by ten but it is afternoon before we pull into Dempster Corner to refuel. As usual Bert does not want to get too much expensive diesel and calculates how many liters it will take us to reach Whitehorse, where it will be cheaper. I hope he is right or he will be the one to walk.
Not long after turning onto the pavement we see a Black Bear scamper across the highway. Cool! We try to stop for the night at Pelly Crossing at a Yukon Territory campground. We are the only ones there at 4 PM and the place is littered with garbage. Bert takes a walk and I get dinner ready and put the wood out for a fire. Bert comes back from his walk with tales of abandoned campers, wrecked awnings, and open RV doors. We walk across the highway to the store and ask the clerk there about the status of the campground. He says it is free. I ask him about its safety and he says if he were us he’d move on south. This is a Yukon Territory long weekend and he expects a lot of drinking to occur. He does not have to tell me twice. We pack our things and head out, stopping at the next territorial campground. This one is great and even has split wood for us to use. We invite a traveling Swiss couple and a woman from Alaska to join us around the campfire, pitched next to a fast flowing salmon stream. Before I know it, it is after 7 and I have not started dinner. I go in to finish the meal I was to prepare earlier and call Bert away from his conversation with the Alaska woman.
As I am putting food away into the refrigerator, I notice no light goes on inside. Then I see the refrigerator is not even on and I cannot turn it on. We look for a fuse or another switch to no avail. We try electric mode with the generator. Nothing works. I go outside and unplug the darn thing. Bert gets an extension cord to plug the refrigerator into another outlet. That does not work either. We take apart boxes and look for burned fuses. Markus, the Swiss, comes to help, but he knows less than we do. He does read the directions, though, and points to the section that describes a sensor and it will operate the refrigerator even though the lights are not lit. That is good news. Bert looks at other places for fuses. We have the whole outside compartment emptied of our tools, manuals, and electrical spare parts spread on the ground around the camper. Another woman comes over and asks if she can help. I say, “Not unless you know something about refrigerators.” She says that she does. Wow, my heart skips a beat. Her refrigerator did not work and she had to light it. She asked if I knew how to light it. Well, I don’t, but that is not the problem. I quip to Bert that things could be worse as it could be raining. I rattle some more and wiggle the cables in the compartment. Bert finds another fuse box location and begins checking those fuses one by one. He finds a broken one, replaces it with a spare he has with him, and wonder of wonders, that fixes the problem. Bert, the mechanic, did it again.
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