The desire to return to British Columbia and the Yukon is always strong. I am planning to go there next year if possible, with the aim of travelling the full length of the Dempster Highway, a gravel road that connects the northern Yukon with the Beaufort Sea. I went up the first third of the Dempster in 2007 and have dreamed of enjoying the full experience ever since.
I am hoping to get a small group together to spend a month on the trip, to allow for plenty of walks ‘off piste’. Contact me if you are interested.
To give a glimpse, the following is an entry from my journal covering the first few days of my Dempster time in 2007. No photos, hopefully the text speaks…and you can Google Images the Dempster.
“The music-loving folk at the café had kindly let me recharge my MP3 player, giving me an energising musical accompaniment on the slow drive back to Mayo, Stewart Crossing and a further section of the North Klondike Highway. I tend to keep the player on its (so called) Intelligent Shuffle setting. Sometimes it works out. At the pit-stop junction where the Dempster branches off from the main road to Dawson City I re-fuelled and re-stocked. I drove onto the short section of paved road that crosses the Klondike River. Just as the tarmac gave way to the first of 460 rough miles of gravel the player hit on Bach’s “Mass in B-Minor”. By the time I reached the Tombstone campground it had followed the “Mass in B-Minor” with The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”, “Litany to Thunder” by an Estonian choir, and “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Each seemed curiously appropriate.
Sculpted majesty of the Ogilvie Mountains on both sides. Mainly around 6,000 feet, but the Dempster itself is about 3,000 feet up, so the ‘feel’ is like driving through miles and miles of enticingly formed, scarcely visited Scottish Munros. On some high slopes the fireweed is so thick and widespread that it reminded me of old colour photos of the Highlands, where they would jazz up the pink of the heather for postcard perfection. Very few vehicles in evidence. All the way up to the Tombstone area the sky was superb…a brilliant blue studded with small, high, child’s drawing clouds, all identical, all static, and all symmetrically placed. The perspective was stunning. I kept fixing on the furthest little cloud and imagining the details of the land immediately beneath. It became like a relay process: choose the far-off cloud, drop a plumb-line directly down from its base, visualise the terrain.
Stopped at Tombstone campsite, well-run and informative centre. Maybe twenty or so folks overnighting. Really nice pickled-walnut tanned woman ranger loaned me some binoculars and gave me a stern ticking off for planning to walk alone out here. “If I get these binocs back in ten years time off of your bones somewhere out in the buckbrush don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
I made an early start and left the van just off the highway near Yakamaw Creek. Spent two days and nights wandering in trackless wild land into the Blackstone Range of the Ogilvies, following a happy succession of small rivers, Beauty Creek, Foxy Creek and Cry Creek, over a high pass to pick up the hidden u-shaped north-south trench of the big Blackstone River. Very conscious that this whole area is the land of the Hän and the Gwich’in peoples and all these place names have native names that will hopefully come back into usage, despite the challenge they pose to the Euro-jaw and to the standard keyboard. The Blackstone River is Tth’ohzraiinjik in Gwich’in and Thozrąy Dëk in Hän. Archaeological finds in this whole tundra and mountain swathe show thriving communities going right back to the earliest passages of humans from Asia across Beringia to America.
I climbed to Azure Lake and up into the talus and scree beyond for an all around vista that, coupled with the sheer remoteness, has left me unable to write about it until something has calmed inside. The names of some of the peaks are succinct in themselves: Horn Mountain, Mount Monolith, Tombstone Mountain, Yoke Mountain et al (not sure about the source of Prune Mountain).
So much richness of flora and a fair sampling of fauna too. Lots of caribou in the river basin. I tried to contour fairly high up the slopes, to help with creek crossings, to see and be seen, to get some insect clearing breeze, and to reduce the amount of up-and-down ravine work. On the second day I saw a grizzly about a quarter of a mile below me whilst I was packing my bivvy bag at dawn. It was already aware of me and was staring up towards me on its hind legs. I spread my sleeping-bag and shook it and tried to look generally big. It took off at an ambling trot towards the river and I lost sight of it in the scrubby trees. It looked like a very large male. About three hours later I had to get a grip on a violent panic attack when I looked back and saw what I took to be the same bear standing up and looking towards me, about 300 yards away on the line that I had been picking across an elevated scree slope.
All the books tell you that if a grizzly stalks you a serious attack is inevitable. There was a moment when I felt as if the sudden explosion of heartbeats in my chest would kill me before the bear could even get anywhere near. I raised both my trekking poles above my head and waved them around, despite feeling my legs flickering with fear. I started to sing in a confident, deep voice (“I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash…nice steady rhythm, no scary high notes, ripe for inclusion of surreal, panic-induced words). I took my pepper-spray from the sling I’ve fashioned round my pack. It was then that I noticed a movement higher up the slope and directly above the grizzly. A cub was making its way down. I realised that the bear was smaller than the one I had seen at dawn, a mama grizzly shepherding her cub down towards the river. Her route must have crossed my pathway across the scree (I’ve been ultra-careful about food smells but with several days worth of hard walking sweat and Muskol all over me I must be making quite a few creatures regret their super-fine nostrils). I giggled with relief as the mother bear swung off on a leisurely diagonal that steered her cub (first year by its size) away from any closer contact with this strange hominid gangrel.
Azure Lake turned out to be home to a huge variety of water birds, most of which I didn’t recognise, the well-named Harlequin Ducks excepted. I joined them for a joyous naked wallow. Eventually plotted a course through the Cloudy Range to the east of Azure Lake and yomped back towards the Dempster via the valley of the North Klondike River. Surprised a massive bull moose grazing on weeds in a small lake. It swam over to the opposite shore, leaving a perfect set of ripples in its wake from the shape of its sweeping, satellite-dish antlers. At 7.30 pm yesterday evening I walked back into Tombstone campground, shattered from two nights with no real sleep and from all the up and down miles. Most of all I felt overwhelmed by the scale and the character of the land I had experienced. And I was still 7 or 8 miles from the van.
I set off up the grey dirt of the Dempster, buoyed up by the sunlit clear ridge lines of the slightly lower mountains to the east of the highway. Thankful for the never-ending daylight, I walked for a mile with golden eagles, kestrels and a very friendly hawk owl for company. Cream coloured fireweed seemed to have suddenly bloomed to offset the ubiquitous pink. After a mile I came to the wide pullout which gives great views west towards Mount Monolith. There were 2 vehicles parked, one facing south and one facing north. I lingered whilst the couple with the north-facing Toyota 4WD took pictures. They happily agreed to give me a lift.
They were in their late thirties and were originally from Germany. They had moved to the Marsh Lake area after discovering The Yukon on a kayaking holiday some years ago. They were driving the Dempster for the first time, heading all the way up to the end of the road at Inuvik. Once settled in the back seat I realised how necessary and fortuitous the lift was, especially as the highway climbs as it crosses the Continental Divide, leaving the boreal forest and gently easing into unglaciated arctic tundra.
Their conversation and their excited pointing out of Red-Throated Loons, Red-Throated Phalaropes, Long-Tailed Jaegers and Northern Wheatears (“those amazing little guys winter in Algeria and Morocco!”) were nice, but I was so glad to see the van and to snuggle into its metal-box-in-warm-sun-all-day cosiness.
Found myself drifting off to sleep to the internal music of my personalised, bear-defusing version of “I Walk the Line”, using the chorus as a template for embellishment, and I do mean embellishment:
“Because you’re mine, I’ll walk the line.
Because you’re a bear, I’ll tear my hair.
Because of your claws, I’ll sit and watch ‘Jaws’.
Because of your teeth, I’ll wear a sheath.
Because you’re massive, I’ll just be passive.
Because people hunt you, I won’t confront you.
Because you might be suffering from aphasia, I’ll make this song crazier.
Because your shit’s full of berries, I won’t call Germans ‘Jerries’.
Because you’re a wild creature, I’ll call you a child of Nietzsche.
Because you’re a big hard grizzly, I’ll pretend to be Alfred Sisley.”
It’s amazing, and scary, what fatigue and euphoria can produce.”