- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Its detractors call it the Road to Nowhere—a tire-shredding, car-eating lizard track through some of the most inhospitable country on the planet. Its supporters see it as the final and most vital link in Canada's excellent 185,000-mile highway system—the first low-cost truck and tourist route connecting the populous southern tier with the romantic and oil-rich Arctic North. While environmentalists fret about the new road's impact on the delicate tundra it crosses, hunters, fishermen and recreational vehicle enthusiasts worry that the magic of the landscape through which the route passes will disappear before they can get there. All are in agreement, however, that the 460-mile Dempster Highway—Canada Route 11—from Dawson City in the Yukon Territory to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories (see map, page 86) has, since its opening late in August, carved a whole new wrinkle into the face of the North.
The highway was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, whose Conservative government got the project under way in 1958. The Dief was a politician of vast—some Canadians say "overreaching"—vision, a Westerner to whom great distances and tough country only spiced the challenge to connect, relate, develop. Diefenbaker died only the week before the highway he had conceived was to open; his chair at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Dawson was left symbolically vacant—just like the country his road had opened up. Dempster Highway is named for a corporal in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police—about whom, more later—but it might just as well have been called Dief's Deepfreeze.
In the course of its sinuous, deceptively well-graded length, the road traverses two major mountain ranges—the Ogilvies and the Richardsons. By bridge or ferry, it crosses eight rivers, some benign and some downright murderous: the Klondike, the Blackstone, the Ogilvie, the Eagle, the Rock, the Peel, the Arctic Red and the MacKenzie. There is no pavement. The road builders took their makin's from whatever source of rock or gravel lay on either side of the route. Much of it is a dark-gray shale that, when pulverized for road-surfacing purposes, reduces itself to razor-edged arrowheads. This shale seems to come equipped with an appetite for rubber: it finds its way into tire treads, point first, and after a few bumps penetrates the casing. With the incessant whine of mosquitoes and blackflies in summer and the banshee howl of 50-knot winds in all seasons, the hiss of yet another deflated tire has become a familiar sound along the Dempster. The all-class record for flats is currently held by a man from Saskatchewan who towed a fifth-wheel trailer north on the Dempster early last summer. By the time he reached the government highway maintenance camp at Mile 122.5 on the Ogilvie River, he had sustained 18 flats and was out of patches.
If the shards on the Dempster's surface only lay in wait to ambush tires, that would be bad enough. But they also have an active mode of attack. Slung from the treads of passing vehicles, they can put a hole through a windshield or a headlamp as neatly as a rifle shot. Clear-plastic headlight guards are mandatory in the Yukon, and the wise driver will also mount a heavy-gauge wire-mesh screen on his front bumper to protect both the windshield and the radiator. Gas tanks are prone to rupture under the assault of the heavier rocks thrown up by one's vehicle, so it's a good idea to strap a rubber mat or a few slabs of old truck tire under the tank. Hazardous though it may be to carry canned gasoline in a car, no one should attempt the Dempster without at least a 10-gallon reserve, along with a minimum of two spare tires and a few extra quarts of motor oil. Emergency rations, water, plenty of bug spray and heavy sleeping bags are also necessities.
An abundance of wildlife—moose, caribou, Dall sheep, eagles, falcons and bears of all persuasions—is one good reason to risk the hazards of the Dempster. But the animals are a danger, too. The road crosses the last major sanctuary of the Barren Ground grizzly. During the highway's construction, one surveyor saw his assistant waving madly in the distance. Looking up from his transit, he spotted a grizzly chasing the man. Fortunately, a helicopter pilot also noticed the chase, fired up his chopper and spooked the bear away. The natives of Inuvik still talk about the motorcyclist who was snatched from his bike and eaten not long ago. "Just outside of town," they say. "On the easy part of the road." Even the lowly black bear, normally a retiring sort in the lower latitudes of its range, is by all accounts an aggressor in the North Country. Bull moose—particularly during the rut—have been known to charge cars head on, apparently with mating-season mayhem in mind.
Considering all the dangers, it was with no small amount of fear and trembling that Photographer Bill Eppridge and I set out from Dawson City late in August for the 920-mile Round Trip to Nowhere. Though the weather was excellent—temperatures in the mid-70s and a China-blue sky dotted with saucer-shaped, fair-weather clouds—we knew we ran the risk of snow in the northerly Richardson Mountains. Last year an 8-inch "freshet" of snow hit the Richard-sons during the last week of August. Even a spot of rain on the clay road surface up here would be bad news, because in the wet, even with four-wheel drive, you cannot go faster than 40 mph without spinning, and to drive slower could mean bogging down. But by traveling the road in this season we would be likely to miss the scourge of insects—mosquitoes, blackflies and no-see-ums—that make camping in the summer North a foretaste of hell. Swarming bugs have been known to clog the throats and nostrils of caribou and moose, suffocating them. Mosquitoes can literally bleed a man to death in short order. My favorite insect story is one told by Ed Ogle, a veteran journalist who has seen more of the North over the past 20 years than any dozen Mounties. "I took a picture of an Indian girl water-skiing near Inuvik on the MacKenzie River," he recounts. "She was probably the first person ever to water-ski north of the Arctic Circle. When the film was developed, the girl looked like she was covered with hair—some sort of waterborne Sasquatch. Under the magnifying glass I could see that the fuzz was mosquitoes."
After gassing up at the service station situated at the point where the Dempster takes off north from the Klondike Highway, we stopped on the near side of the Klondike River to savor the scene. The Klondike rolled past, strong and blue-green over big boulders, and an immature bald eagle screamed from a snag on an oxbow bend. The road, empty and yellow under the sun, shot straight north through dense, green-black spruce forest toward the bare, blue crests of the Ogilvies. Behind us, surrounded by miles of rocky rubble—tailing piles created by the big dredges that took more than $500 million in gold out of this land, beginning with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98—lay the dubious comforts of Dawson City (pop. 857). Dawson boasts Diamond Tooth Gertie's, the only gambling hall in the Yukon; turn-of-the-century gaslight follies at the Palace Grand Opera House; rickety-pastel-painted buildings dating from the Gold Rush; a splendid museum; and Robert W. Service's cabin, where his "ghost" reads the great man's verse at 10 a.m. every weekday morning.
Dawson wisely has preserved the Canadian Bank of Commerce building, on the shores of the Yukon River, where Service worked as a teller. Gold lovers can tour the vault in which the dust of the ancients was once kept. Parked on the river beside the bank is the S.S. Keno, one of the last of the paddle-wheelers that once plied the Yukon, carrying supplies and would-be Argonauts into the Klondike. But the true gold digger of the North Country is the ubiquitous raven, revered in Indian mythology as the creator of the earth. He is a bold, fearless, clever bird who enlivens his mornings with the depredation of garbage cans and double-team ploys pulled on dogs. One raven will sit on a house roof while another lures the dog away from its food dish. Then comes chow time for all but the pooch.
Dawson also has "O.P. rum," a 150-proof general anesthetic and memory eraser that could be used to good effect in tranquilizing angry grizzlies. The place was just winding down from Discovery Days, its annual summer blowout commemorating the date—Aug. 17, 1896—when George Carmack and his fishing partners, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, struck pay dirt on Bonanza Creek and triggered the rush. The whole town had a hangover. It would be good to head north into empty, boozeless country, bears or no bears.
At least one traveler shared our sentiments. Trudging up the road behind us, a small pack slung over his shoulder, came a short, wiry man with the forward-leaning, stumpy-legged walk of a woodsman. He spoke with a heavy Central European accent. His name, he said, was Marco Kennedy and he needed a lift to Inuvik. He had temporary work as a welder awaiting him there. He wore faded-green army fatigues, a scruffy beard, a leather bracelet studded with .22-caliber bullets, a sheathed hunting knife at the small of his back, a pop-art gallery of tattoos on his thick forearms and a mottled, purplish-red shiner under his right eye.