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The road to the land of the Midnight Sun.

On the Dempster Highway across the Arctic Circle.

The Dempster Highway, carved through the Yukon’s empty wastes as recently as 1979, is unlike any major road I have ever driven. In 457 miles – think London to Dundee - I counted just 90 vehicles coming towards me, roughly one every five miles. Picture - Gareth Huw Davies at the Arctic Circle, by himself.

I’m at the grandest intersection in the whole of N America. But you don’t wait on endless red lights at the corner of Route 5 and 66°33’.

There are no snorting trucks here. No revving, rubber burning cars. Just me under a vast sky, with the call of a distant raven on a pure breeze scented with black spruce.

Keen geographers already have all the vital clues they need. I’m high in the Yukon, where the Dempster Highway crosses the Arctic Circle. It’s the only public road on the entire continent into the land of the Midnight Sun.

Between here and Florida there are 100 million cars or more, and drivers keen to use them. Yet I am quite alone in this car park - and shall be for another 22 minutes. Nobody is selling anything. I’m alone with an information board and two bright blue litter bins, the sort that grizzly bears can’t lift the lid off, to stop them developing that dangerous dependency on human rubbish.

The road I have just driven curls away up a mountainside of brush-needled tamarack trees. Ahead, it corkscrew down into a shallow valley, sparkled with red bearberry; to the east are sharp-etched peaks few people have ever cimbed.

I walk around in the immense silence in shirt sleeve comfort - summer is benign up here - and gaze into the silent tracts. Somewhere out there is the 120,000 strong Porcupine River herd of caribou, among them Dasher, Homer, Blixen, Lynetta, Cupid, Lucky and Springy. They wear satellite radio-collars, and you can follow them on the Internet.

At last the precious peace is fractured. A vehicle, headlights blazing, appears from the south, trailing a vortex of dust like Mr Toad in his new car in Wind in the Willows.

A couple from California arrive in a camper van. They show the usual Dempster courtesy and offer to take my picture. Then it’s my cue to drive on and hand over the solitude to them.

Until tourism numbers really build up here, we can count ourselves - cosseted drivers that we are – among the last of the Yukon pioneers. Nothing like the brave explorers who came first; or the crazy romantics of the Gold Rush to the Klondike, half way up the territory. And yet there is still that element of danger. Before you head off into the forest for any distance, you are advised to leave a timetable so that the Mounties know when to start searching.

The Dempster Highway, carved through the Yukon’s empty wastes as recently as 1979, is unlike any major road I have ever driven. In 457 miles – think London to Dundee - I counted just 90 vehicles coming towards me, roughly one every five miles.

Numbers help to define the Yukon’s immense emptiness. At 483,450 square kilometres, it is twice the size of the UK. We have 57.6 million people. Just 30,129 live in the entire Yukon, and 18 700 of them are in Whitehorse, with another 2,000 in Dawson.

You don’t just stray into the Yukon. It’s a 26 hour drive from Vancouver, and as far from Calgary. I fly into Whitehorse, right in the territory’s south, a sort of base camp where you contemplate the hugeness to come.

The Yukon is founded on epic journeys. The most enduring image of travelling hopefully is of the masses heading to the Klondike in the 1898 gold rush. Many passed through Whitehorse, along the Yukon river in its pre tamed state. The wild water - white horses - gave the town its name. The Mounties imposed traffic control on the river and saved many lives.

I take an easy day in this pleasant town. At the museum some actors recite the verses of Robert Service, the wilderness’s poet laurate. In Canada people put what they like on front licence plates. On theirs somebody had put a wolf howling at the Aurora Borealis. A hint of the wonders to come?

It’s 333 miles to Dawson City, my first target, up the North Klondike Highway: straight, empty, easy to drive. The Canadians add value to their roads with a story at every pull-in. Often it’s to do with a fire. This is the land of the big blaze. Fire is normal in this natural forest of willow and lodgepole – half started by lightning, half by careless campers.

Signs mark great conflagrations of history – I pass the fires of 1969, of 1958, even 1951. You can see for yourself nature’s astonishing capacity to repair itself. At Fox Lake I stop to see the ravages of the 1998 Fire. The trembling aspen are back. The slopes are bathed pink by fireweed.

Dawson city, like a Wild West frontier town, is a delightfully frivolous stop over. My hotel is Bombay Peggy’s, an opulent restored bordello, with golden slipper tub and sumptuous deep red furnishings. This was one of many original wooden buildings in the Paris of the North, restored after Dawson resolutely pulled itself out of near terminal decline in the 1960s after the gold industry slumped.

My press kit is done up in a garter, but in reality utter propriety reigns in Dawson. The last brothel closed in the 60s. Even the nightly floor show in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is as tame as Tonbridge Wells.

I walk the raised wooded sidewalks to check out the 17 restaurants. In Klondike Kate’s service is warm, even by effusive Canadian standards. Many of the waiters and waitresses are students, coming north in the season to seek another form of gold. Wisely they don’t stay. In summer there is no hint of the cold to come. It plunged to – 50 C (minus 50 C) in 1990.

And so I set out for the utter North. The Dempster is an unmade road, frequently rock strewn, pitted and savaged by winter. They fit extra robust tyres on my Chevrolet Blazer, and top up my insurance for the threatened punctures.

I needn’t have worried. On an objective risk assessment, this is one of safest highways in the world. So little traffic, and a proud etiquette among drivers. If you see a vehicle in trouble, you stop to help. I saw two punctures, but the good Samaritans were already there.

Demster was named after a hero scarcely credited in his native land, Wales. Col Jack Dempster joined the Mounties in the 1890s and won fame for crossing the empty wastes on winter patrols. In 1911 he was sent out to find the Lost Patrol, four colleagues who missed a crucial turning. Dempster found them, but only after the atrocious cold had killed them.

The rationale behind the road, roughly following the line of the patrols, was to open up the north to oil and mineral exploration. It was variously dubbed Road to Resources (the government); Road to Remorses (the opposition); and Road to Divorces by those who built it. Now at last it’s being promoted for its outstanding tourism value.

A helpful leaflet tries to make sense of the wilderness through forests, up mountains, along valleys parallel to pure, gurgling rivers. There is many a Grizzly Creek and a Moose Lake. Golden eagles and peregrines are said to soar along frost-shattered cliff. And there are wolves.

The highway is neatly divided into two. Half way up is Eagle Plains, (permanent) population 8. This motel is surely one of the most welcome on the continent, 229 miles since the last fuel. I share a Yukon Gold beer with over-nighting lorry drivers and an adventurous motorcyclist from Wisconsin. But we are all wanderers here. The lady operating the petrol pump is an Australian, on a round the world tour.

Next day to the Arctic Circle. And beyond. The guide book will excite you with talk of grizzlies, seduce you with caribou, tantalise you with wolves. They are all here, somewhere in those endless tracts. But the best time to see them is autumn, when the tamarack trees turn gold and the first snow blows in from the North.

Today the wildlife is reticent, and especially the caribou. But the driving is so easy, I’m alert to the cameo performance. I spot the local hunting bird, a gyrfalcon, moving intently, with sharp wing beats, close to the road and just ahead of me.

Don’t try this on the M6, but I am able to creep along behind it for half a mile, as it sweeps the roadside with withering gaze. Our strange parallel progress came to an abrupt end when it fell like a stone on some hapless prey.

I pull over on the border with North West Territories, under Richardson Mountain. There are places around here not even mapped until the 1950s. Dall’s sheep browse on the craggy flanks. I sink ankle deep into the tundra, a nature reserve of delicate miniatures.

The Artic tern is the local star, nature’s greatest sun worshipper. It feeds here in almost clock-round daylight, then heads to the South Hemisphere for more sunshine per hour of its life of any species on earth.

The road heads on, cleaving straight and high over the tundra. These are the lands of the First Nations people, such as the Gwich’in and the Han, who adapted so well to this savage land and its aching cold. Summer is their compensation. I stop at the Gwich’in-run Peel River Inn café Fort McPherson, first community for 336 miles, for a Dempster Burger. We are way beyond the reach of any McDonald’s delivery lorry here.

Then journey’s end - the small town of Inuvik, on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. It took me two days, although you could easily take two weeks, stopping at the many quiet RV parks and campgrounds. This is the true north, buildings raised on blocks over the permafrost. I order the Inuvik grill at my hotel - caribou and arctic char – then go to watch the buzzing night – I mean day - life. The skateboarders are out in in the main street at 11pm. It was bright sunlight and 22 C.

At the airport - star display a huge stuffed polar bear – I notice a huge snowy photo of Inuvik in winter. It feels so remote, closer to Vladivostok than Ottawa. But wait. Who smiles out over this airport concourse at the edge of the world? None other than our shared Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.

I scour the tundra from the plane but never do see the caribou. I shall follow the progress of Dasher, Homer, Blixen and the rest on the Internet at home. I can’t wait until the day they cross the Dempster. I only wish I could be there to be held up by that magnificent road block.


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