There’s a highway in Canada that bounces 734 kilometres across tundra.
It crosses no other road. It defies asphalt, as it would melt the permafrost. There are as many shorn tires here as grizzlies. You pass another car maybe once every four hours. The Dempster is one of only three roads in the world to cross the Arctic Circle, and our most northern highway.
Ten years after learning of it, I find myself in a restaurant at Kilometre 0, an hour east of Dawson City, holding a map with place names like Tsiigehtchic and Nitainlaii that make me feel like a visitor in my own land. I coax every last drop of gas into the gas tank as there isn’t a station for another 365 kilometres; 365.3, actually: This road requires meticulous planning. Next campsite: 237.6 kilometres. Highway turns into emergency airstrip: next 0.762 kilometres.
I waited to make the trip until my son was old enough to capture it in memory. Glancing at Oliver’s widening eyes, I realize that won’t be a problem.
Here, everyone drives drunk, because the scale of things is intoxicating.
You can hold the mountains in your hand and never touch them at the same time. But the shale road is torture and takes its toll on the RV. Our fridge door comes off. A panel wall comes down. Table supports snap, dishes crack, and remarkably, the lid on the pickle jar pries itself loose.
Our first night in Eagle Plains, Yukon we hear of folks turning back; the road wreaking havoc on their vehicle. We cross the Arctic Circle the next morning. A small band of motorists gather silently at the signpost.
This place may simply be a line on a map, but it feels like church.
We pass from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories and move our watches ahead, though the constant sun mocks the measuring of time.
Straddling the continental divide and the great Mackenzie Delta, you look one way and all water flows to the Arctic. Turn, and it flows to the Pacific.
Road signs are so rare that we stop at each, as if we’re reading little novels. One tells of a CBC radio signal. We eagerly tune in, but the Inuvialuktun is unintelligible.
What can they be reporting on? Ottawa? Hollywood? Doubtful.
A song comes on. The strange drumbeats and human wailing feel all of a piece with the landscape.
The one thing I never made plans for was the road’s end. We roll into Inuvik and it casts no spell. The paved roads and storefronts are those of any town. At our campsite, travellers aren’t discussing what their plans are while in town, even though we’re at the cusp of the Arctic Ocean, with its pingoes and icebergs and polar bears.
All anyone talks of is the drive. The road. And sure enough, after only one day in Inuvik, I find myself pulling out of our camp at 6 a.m., eager to have the North all to ourselves again.