Reliving old journeys
COUNCIL ON POSITIVE AGING, By Dolores Kivi
These days, despite the towering snowbanks clinging to the street where I live, I often go for trips — virtual ones that I take while enjoying my morning coffee.
Memories may be triggered by a coffee mug bought long ago. Among the most memorable trips are the three — one in February — which I have taken over at least the Yukon section of the Dempster Highway.
The last one was in 1987 when my daughter Kathleen and I drove to Inuvik, and from there flew to Tuktoyaktuk.
Today I drank coffee from one of two identical mugs bought in 1982. Although the English-made mugs have been much used, the words, “Eagle Plains Hotel, Kilometer 371, Dempster Highway” are still easily visible.
On our first trip on the Dempster Highway, still the most northerly public highway in North America, it had been open only three years. It begins 42 kilometres east of Dawson City, Yukon, or 530 kilometres west of Whitehorse, going north from the Klondike Highway. Its terminus was and remains Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, some 725 km from the Klondike Highway.
Kathleen, who spent many years in Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Whitehorse, Yukon, (mostly in the latter) and I had been planning to drive the Dempster almost from its opening in 1979. During our first trip in ’82, we found sections so narrow that, when meeting others, whoever could do it most safely would pull over and stop.
The highway has now been widened, and its most troublesome hills with their oil-rich soil — treacherously slippery when wet — have been replaced with hard shale and gravel. It remains a gravel road today but wider.
On the evening of July 28, 1982, we stayed overnight at Tombstone Mountain Yukon government campground, about 72 km from the Klondike Highway. Kathleen had chatted with an RCMP officer who was chauffeuring his superior back from his annual inspection trip to the high Arctic.
They had kept track that day of the vehicles they had met between Inuvik and the park, and they totalled 31.
Yes, it is much busier today but still not as many vehicles as around Thunder Bay.
Despite a torrential afternoon rainstorm, Kathleen made it up the oily, slippery hills of the 30 km north of the Eagle Plains Hotel complex. We were overjoyed to find we were at the Dempster’s midway point when we saw the billboard identifying the Arctic Circle.
Adding to our joy was the wide semi-circular drive allowing vehicles to park but not obstruct others.
We had originally planned to drive to Inuvik, but when a couple arrived from there and told us about sliding backward on a hill several times before the husband eventually got to its top, that discouraged us.
Five years later when we returned we found that thousands of truckloads of gravel had greatly improved the highway.
We drove to Inuvik. From there we flew to Tuktoyaktuk for a few hours spent walking about and gathering pebbles from the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Traffic has greatly increased since the early 1980s, but vehicles no longer need to pull over and stop when meeting another.
The Dempster continues to improve but it remains a road to adventure, magnificent vistas and soul soothing silences. It transverses ever-changing terrain from cascading mountain streams — we found two still strewn with ice the last week of July — to evergreen-covered hills and roadsides brilliant with fireweed.
The mountains are unforgettable. They vary from the snow dusted “young” Southern Ogilvies to the ancient, unglaciated rubble mountains of the Northern Ogilvies, followed by the rugged and picturesque Richardson Mountains.
The Dempster Highway — rememberable.
(The Council on Positive Aging column by Dolores Kivi appears every Saturday. Comments or suggestions can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org)