Herschel Island Odyssey-Driving the Dempster Highway through the Canadian Arctic

Flying low over the Arctic Ocean on our way to Herschel Island, we spot a pod of beluga whales on a collision course with a couple of kayakers. Herschel Island, Yukon Territory is located in the Arctic Wilderness, in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of the Yukon, in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone drive hundreds of miles to the north on dirt and gravel roads through desolate Arctic tundra as far as you can go by road, and then continue to fly north on a bush plane to reach an abandoned whaling station on an island in the Arctic Ocean? Well….if you have to ask that question, then you have never visited Herschel Island!

Maybe it is an itch you didn’t know you had to scratch. For me, I had this itch for a long time. You may know people who have visited several oceans such as the Pacific, Atlantic and maybe even the Indian Ocean. But few have ventured far enough north to experience the Arctic Ocean, which the Beaufort Sea is connected to. It was important enough for me at the time to block out a week during the high season of kayak guiding in Southeast Alaska, and head for the Arctic. In retrospect, the trade of a week of lost income for the adventure was well worth it!

Map of the Yukon territory and location of Herschel Island

A six hour ferry ride from Juneau, put us in Skagway, Alaska, at the end of the Inside Passage. From here, we would drive to the Canada Border just a dozen miles uphill. The drive would take us through Carcross, British Columbia and into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. After that, we headed up to Dawson City to reminisce about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. At Dawson City, the second largest city of the Yukon (pop. 900), we stocked up on supplies before heading out on the lonely Dempster Highway. The 456 mile journey on the Dempster would culminate at the town of Inuvik, NWT, situated near the delta of the mighty Mackenzie River.

Beth flew up from Oregon to meet me in Juneau for this epic road trip. All we needed was our camping gear, a cooler full of food and drinks, a full tank of gas, and a sense of adventure! This would be Beth’s first trip above the Arctic Circle.

The trusty old Nissan crossing into the Northwest Territories

The Dempster Highway is a bucket list road trip of 740 km, which starts in Dawson City, Yukon and terminates in the town of Inuvik, NWT in the Mackenzie Delta. The well graded gravel road crosses the continental divide three times and passes through both the Ogilvie Mountain range and the Richardson range. One can see a variety of wildlife species along the route, like this lone caribou we saw walking along the road. In the summer, lone caribou look for windy places to avoid the hordes of mosquitos and flies. So also do human campers. The big caribou migrations occur in the Spring and Fall, so if you are trying to catch a large herd migrating, September might be a better time. The swarms of bugs are less at that time. Always check ahead on road conditions or travel restrictions before you head away from Dawson City. As of this writing, the road is closed at the NWT border to all non-essential travel due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Lone Caribou on the Dempster

Prior to 2017, Inuvik was as far as you could go by driving in the summer, due to thawing permafrost and boggy conditions which made road building difficult. It was possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk in the Winter, after the Mackenzie River froze solid enough to drive on. However, a new road (the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road) was opened in late Fall of 2017 which opens up another 147 km of road to allow drivers to navigate all the way to the Arctic Ocean by vehicle. However, our trip was prior to 2017, so we ended the land journey in Inuvik.

Pink Fireweed in bloom

While still in the Yukon portion of the road, we passed by a purple and pink field of fireweed in bloom. It is called fireweed because you will often see it after a disturbance on the land. The seeds are wind blown and are excellent colonizers to areas where there is little competition for sunlight.

Down the road, we came to the Peel River crossing. We had to camp on the south side of the river to wait for the ferry to run in the morning. We pitched a tent on a hill overlooking the river and sipped tea inside the tent as we watched the arctic sun set and then rise again twenty minutes later. The wind calmed. Hordes of mosquitos clung to the outside of the tent. The buzzing sounded like we were camped under an electrical transformer! Poor Beth drank too much tea and had to go outside to pee….After coming back into the tent, we spent the next half hour swatting mosquitos who followed her in.

Sunrise and Sunset in the same half hour!

Heading further North after the ferry, one should stop at Eagle Plains for gas and food and a vehicle check before continuing further. It is an oasis of civilization in the Arctic wilderness. Just past Eagle Plains, YT, you will cross the Arctic Circle

Mick at the Arctic Circle
Dempster Highway Map (Research Gate)

Once you cross into the Northwest Territories you may see an Inukshuk on the side of the road like the one in the picture below. Inukshuk is an extension of the Inuit word “Inuk”, which means “a human being.” They are piled stones in the shape of a human for either communication purposes, as navigational aids, or as a message center. It also symbolizes a spiritual connection with the land. The flag of the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut has an Inukshuk on its flag.

Inukshuk in the NWT
Flag of Nunavut

The city at the end of our road was Inuvik. From there, we took a bush plane across the Mackenzie Delta towards the Arctic Ocean and Herschel Island. The pictures below are from our plane ride. The Mackenzie River has a myriad of channels, lakes and backwaters at its delta. The soils are underlain with permafrost and are poorly drained. It is hard to build a road here. The river gets its name from Alexander Mackenzie, one of the partners of the Montreal based Northwest Trading Company. Mackenzie explored the river in 1789.

The Mackenzie Delta

In the past, there would be no overland road travel in the summer, but when the river froze up, one could drive on the river once it froze up. The seasonal freezing and thawing of the top layers of the permafrost results in a unique landform called “patterned ground.” Larger stones are moved and “sorted” by this freeze-thaw action which forms wedged polygons. They are not as visible while standing on the ground, but really pop out when you see them from the air. The patterns resemble a tortoise shell.

Patterned Ground Polygons

The road to Tuktoyaktuk was not completed when we visited here, but nowadays you can go overland to see another Arctic landform called a pingo. The picture below is of this rare periglacial landform, created by the freeze-thaw expansion of water. From afar, it resembles a volcanic cinder cone, but it is not volcanic in nature.

Pingos on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula
First Nations summer fishing camp on the Arctic Ocean

When we reached the Arctic Ocean by air, we headed west along the coast towards Herschel Island, just off the northern coast of the Yukon Territory. Once the bush plane landed, we had a few hours to explore the island on foot. As it was summer, the hordes of mosquitos rivaled the biblical plagues of Egypt.

Head covering for the bugs on Herschel Island

The island was used by native Inuit peoples in the past, and historically was the location of Eskimo trading. Modern activity on the island surged after the appearance of the first commercial whaling ships arrived in 1889. Some of them were forced to winter over in Pauline Cove on the east side of the island. Similarly to how the fur trade was driven by the demand for raw materials for the European hat making industry, the demand for whale bone was partially driven due to the use of whalebone in the manufacturing of corsets at that time.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a post in 1903 on the island, mostly to be able to collect customs and duties from whalers. The early 1900s saw the height of commercial activity there, but over-hunting saw the decline of human activity on the island. The Hudson Bay company, who had a fur trading post established in 1915, abandoned their post in 1937. For a more in-depth history of this region, I recommend reading Ken Coates “The Northern Yukon-A History”, written in 1979.

As we hiked across the Arctic Tundra towards the buildings at Pauline Cove, we encountered tracks of Muskox, caribou, and wolves. The closer we got to the Cove, the more we encountered the bleached ribs of old whale bones scattered through the tundra.

Abandoned Northern Whaling Company Building

While walking near ridge tops, we could remove our headdresses. Thankfully, the wind was strong enough to momentarily knock the hordes of mosquitos down.

Beth on Herschel Island
Herschel Island shoreline

A sojourn on the island is a field trip into natural and human history. We did see some Muskox off in the distance, but were reticent to approach them. They are big, strong, and known to have bad attitudes.

Oomingmak -the Muskox

Time to hike back to the plane and leave the island. On the way back to Inuvik, we flew low over the Arctic Ocean and spotted a pod of beluga whales. Soon we would wave to a group of kayakers who were paddling on a collision course toward the pod. How I wanted to be in the water paddling with them! I’ve paddled with Humpback Whales many times, and a few times with a Gray or Minke Whale, but never with a Beluga.

A Pod of Beluga whales in the Arctic

The trip was far from over though. Retracing our route back down the Dempster Highway, we camped by the roadside and experienced a strong thunderstorm that nearly took our tent down. Further down the road the next day, we met a road crew who were getting ready to close the road off, due to half of it being washed away by the raging torrents from the previous nights’ rain. We were the last car to pass through that day. The truck was caked in mud from the drive south (see picture below).

Beth’s first trip into the Arctic- a dirty ride!

After a very long drive, we pulled into Haines, Alaska and got a hotel and cleaned up. We planned to take the ferry the next day back to Juneau. Haines, population just over 3,000, seemed like a megalopolis to us after where we had just been. Haines is almost 350 road miles from the town of Skagway, which lies only 17 miles away by boat. We drove the extra miles because there were no slots available on the ferry from Skagway to Juneau. Lots of RVers get their only taste of ferry riding on the Inside Passage from Skagway to Haines. A few slots opened up on the Haines to Juneau leg. Since Mick had to get back into town for an upcoming kayak expedition, it was prudent to drive the extra distance.

Haines, Alaska (photo:KTOO tv)

Four and a half hours later on the ferry, and we were back in Auke Bay, ready for the 30 minute drive home to North Douglas Island. Back in Alaska’s “Banana Belt” that night, we dreamed of Muskox, Beluga Whales, Pingos, Caribou….

Years later, we still cherish our adventure to the Arctic Ocean!

4 thoughts on “Herschel Island Odyssey-Driving the Dempster Highway through the Canadian Arctic

  1. What an incredible trip! I really appreciate when you give me more places to look up in Google Maps! 🙂 I cannot imagine how cool it must have been to see belugas from above.


  2. Reading your posts is like doing a geography class- very educational. Kai still tells me your classes are his favorite…can’t imagine going to remote places like that, thanks for sharing…Kai and I enjoy reading about your travels!! How’s retirement? Hi to Beth!


    1. Glad you both could come along on a virtual trip with us! At least you only had to read about getting bit by the mosquitos. Retirement will be even better once we can travel some more. Thanks for you comment on the post….


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