Sue North

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Tag: Dempster Highway

Our last days on the Dempster Highway

After a busy few days of hiking our way down the Dempster, our legs were ready for a break. And what better way to rest than fishing? The Ogilvie River was not cooperating with us, so we continued south towards Blackstone River which we’d previously camped and fished on before parting ways with Derek and Jeni. We discovered another beautiful campsite on the river, a ways from the highway at approximately km 98. Two other parties had also set up camp here, but there were plenty of spots right on the rivers edge. We went to bed really early that night and rose rather late, almost fully recuperated from our hikes.

 

Paul eagerly set out with his hip waders that morning to scout the fishing for us, but returned with dire reports. It seemed the high water levels were continuing to affect us! We packed up camp and continued south on the Dempster, stopping at any spots that looked fishable. We really wanted a fish fry evening! After one unsuccessful stop, Antoine and I decided to brave the chilly river waters for a much needed “shower.” Brrrrrrr!!!

 

Nat and Paul fishing at a culvert on the Blackstone River

 

Sadly the Blackstone never rewarded us with any fish. Defeated, we headed to the Tombstone Interpretive Centre to sit by the wood fire and enjoy some freshly brewed Labrador tea while we made a plan for the night.

 

We decided to stop in at the gravel pit we’d stayed at on our first night on the Dempster, as this was part of a different waterway than the Blackstone and Ogilvie Rivers. We secured a campsite at the Tombstone Mountain campground, and then returned to try our luck there one last time. We didn’t catch the 8 fish we were needing for dinner, but I managed to catch my first two Arctic Grayling and Paul caught another one. No photos were captured for proof as it started raining just as we cast our first lures. The 3 fish were enough for a delicious appetizer, fried in a skillet with Cajun batter. What a great end to an incredible 11 days on the Dempster highway!

 

Highlights of our time on the Dempster:
  • 3 different mountain ranges (Tombstone, Ogilvie and Richardson), easily explorable from the highway

Drone shot of the Ogilvie Mountains

 

Tombstone mountains

  • Experiencing multiple seasons along the way, and watching the colours change in the mountains and tundra

  • Wildlife and bird sightings including caribou, a grizzly bear, foxes, beavers, and some distant dall sheep; ptarmigans, gyrfalcon and eagles, among others

 

  • Reaching the Arctic Ocean and seeing the Arctic communities of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk

Lowlights of our time on the Dempster:
  • Eagle Plains (very poor road conditions and least exciting scenery)
  • Mud, mud and more mud. It’s everywhere!
  • Few spots to shower, other than a frigid dip in rivers or creeks

The highlights far outweighed the few lowlights of the trip! Next up: we head south back to Whitehorse and Kluane National Park and Reserve for our final few days in the Yukon.

Thanks again for reading 🙂

Liz & Antoine

Hiking in the Ogilvie Mountains: Sapper Hill, Mt. Distincta, Mt. Infant and Mt. Abraham

We thought our days in the Ogilvie Mountains would be filled with fishing. We were naively planning a fish fry night for our first night there, as the Ogilvie River was calling our names and we were ready to slay arctic grayling. Unfortunately Mother Nature had different plans for us! We learned while stopped at the NWT-Yukon border that the Peel River ferry crossing closed due to high water levels. It seems we’d narrowly missed an extended stay in the North, having just crossed the river the day prior. The high water levels on the Peel River could also be seen in its tributary rivers, which includes the Ogilvie River and Engineer Creek. The waterways were barely recognizable from what we’d seen a few days prior on our journey north – they were rushing, high and extremely turbid. There would be no way for the fishies to see our lures in these conditions!

 

The weather was not cooperating either. We arrived at the Northern Ogilvie Mountains viewpoint to pouring rain. The skies were dark and showing no signs of stopping, so we set our sights on Engineer Creek campground. There were a few day hikes nearby that we were wanting to do, and we hoped that the weather would improve the next day. Nat and Paul sent out some satellite phone requests to friends for the latest forecast on the Dempster, and these sounded promising. But we’ve learned that weather forecasting in this region is less than stellar, so we had to take these with a grain of salt.

 

We set up camp at Engineer Creek, and made use of the kitchen shelter for dinner and socializing. There was a wood stove and good company! Most of the folks in the campground were on their way northbound and were disappointed to hear about the ferry closure. We were counting our lucky stars that we made it out. Sadly there are no photos of our time here thanks to the rain… It poured throughout the night and into the morning, and Engineer Creek rose significantly in the night. The rain stuck around for our breakfast preparations but finally abated around 10am, so we packed up camp and readied ourselves for a hike at nearby Sapper Hill.

 

 

The campground sits below the Sapper Hill tores. These unique rock features are apparently filled with fossils. We parked at the Engineer Creek bridge and climbed upwards. The trail had turned into a creek, which made climbing rather interesting. Antoine’s boots are not waterproof, and so it was a rather wet hike for him. The views were worth it though! Everyone clambered to the top of one of the tors for a view of the valley, but my clumsiness and slight fear of heights got the best of me. We dined on Swiss chocolate cookies which Paul had earned that morning when he helped a couple from Switzerland retrieve their spare tire from under their truck.

 

 

We ate a quick lunch in the parking lot after the hike, and hit the highway again with another hike in mind. During the drive Nat and Paul finally got to see their first grizzly bear munching greens on the side of the road. We watched for quite some time as she wandered the roadside, even crossing right in front of their truck for an epic photo opportunity. When she finally disappeared into the bushes we continued onward to Mount Distincta. At km 153 we parked the vehicles and walked onto the ridge of the mountain. Due to the location of the highway, you can instantly walk into the alpine zone for this hike!

 

Storm clouds were threatening to the north, but there was blue sky beyond the grey so we pressed on. At one point we could no longer see the peak we were aiming for, but the skies eventually started to clear as we reached the top and we were one again treated to rainbows across the valley below. Slowly a gorgeous 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and valleys began to reveal itself. This was a relatively gradual and extremely rewarding hike!

 

We decided to switch it up on our way down, heading for a different ridge. Paul continued to that peak, but midway we changed our minds and traversed back over to the other ridge across some unexpectedly dodgy rocks. As Nat described it, “It’s like surfing, but on rocks!”

 

We made it back to the car shortly after Paul. He’d scouted out a gravel pit for us to camp in that night! Situated below the mountain we’d just hiked, it was spacious and serviced by a creek. There were also a number of abandoned pallets nearby so we made a makeshift fire pit and settled in for the night. We sat by the fire and planned our next hikes with the help of “Along the Dempster,” an awesome guidebook that my Uncle Craig sent to us before the trip. This was another memorable evening with great company!

 

 

With so many more mountains to explore, we went to bed early that night. The clouds were clearing as we settled into our vehicles, so I set my alarm for 1:30am in hopes of catching the northern lights. When the alarm went off Antoine told me we were clouded in, but I looked onto the horizon and spotted the telltale green lights. They stretched across the sky, dancing mainly in green but with a few flares of fuschia and purple. It was a frigid night though; ice formed on the dash of our car over night!

 

The next morning rocks in the stream were covered in a thin layer of ice. The sky was bluebird clear though, and we were excited for another day of hiking! We weren’t quite ready to leave the Ogilvie Mountains given the weather, but our options were somewhat limited due to the soggy tundra conditions. A chain of mountains at km 130.5 seemed to be accessible from the highway, with little tundra navigation required.

 

 

We started up Mt. Infant at around 11am. The clear skies provided us with stellar views of the valleys around us, including the Blackstone River we’d camped and fished on during our northbound trip. Partway up the mountain we happened upon fresh scat, which Natalie hypothesized was 1 day old bear poo. Paul wasn’t so sure, but then we came across fresh root digging marks and thought we better not stick around. We hurried up past the tree line with thankfully no sign of the bear.

 

We made it to the summit of Mt. Infant around 1pm for our lunch break. We traded snacks with Paul and Nat to mix up our provisions: Cajun nut mix for Snyder’s Buffalo Preztel bites. We’ve gotten good at mixing up our snack options via wheeling and dealing this past week 😉

 

We continued on for another 30 minutes, but Nat and I were ready for a break. Paul and Antoine continued on to the peak of Mt. Abraham which could be seen in the distance, while we relaxed on a mossy mountainside sheltered from the wind. I organized my photos and finished up this blog while Natalie took more photos. We watched the boys as they progressed to the top in 50 minutes! They’re a bunch of mountain goats, I swear 🙂 When reunited we shared a pop tart treat before descending the remaining ridges together. All in all, the boys hiked around 14km while Nat and I hiked 11km. It was an awesome day of hiking with epic weather.

 

Next up: our final day on the Dempster!

 

Liz & Antoine

 

The Richardson Mountains – km 369 to NWT km 23.6

The Dempster Highway crosses a number of mountain ranges as it winds its way northward. The Richardson Mountains are the last range it passes through, and they are rather unique. Composed of dark shale and sandstone, the tip of the Laurentide Ice Sheet came to rest on the eastern edge of this mountain range during the last ice age. Wind erosion has smoothed the mountains, and canyons have been carved out by waterways. One of my favourite portions of the Dempster was the drive up the gorge, where the highway climbs 853 metres into the mountains from the Peel River.

 

The drive would have been stunning coming down from the gorge on our way northward, but rain and low lying clouds stifled our first views of this are. On the way south we took our time driving through the gorge and stopped for a quick hike when the clouds and snow stopped momentarily. Yes, you heard me correctly. It was snowing!! The peaks of the Richardsons were blanketed with the white fluffy stuff, and snow clouds settled in between some of the mountains around us.

 

This created a real contrast of seasons, as most of the vegetation was beginning to show their fall colours. We hiked to the top of a small hill to scout for wildlife in the valleys.  Although we didn’t have any luck on this front, the views were amazing and it felt good to stretch our legs after a day of driving.

 

 

We attempted another quick hike at the NWT sign, but the snow made the lichen on the rocks incredibly slippery. Traversing the boulders to reach the ridge proved challenging, so we aborted our summit attempt midway. We also learned that partially frozen cloud berries are extra delicious on this adventure!

 

Back at the cars, we decided to aim for Rock River Campground at km 445.8. We had scouted this campground on our journey northward and found that it was pleasantly sheltered in a canyon with large trees. We managed to score the best site in the campground tucked next to the river! We cooked dinner over the campfire that night, accompanied by red wine and great conversation. Emboldened by the wine and a well stoked fire, some of us (ok, everyone but Antoine!!) took freezing baths in the river. For my family back home, this was waaaaaaay colder than a polar bear dip in Lake Superior in the winter!!

 

Rock River Campground

 

We slept soundly in the cool temperatures, serenaded by the sound of the river beside our car. This was one of our favourite campsites of the trip!

 

We continued southward, aiming our sights on the Ogilvie Mountains and Ogilvie River. More hiking and fishing to come!

 

Liz & Antoine

 

Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk – 140km on Arctic Tundra

Before

The goal was to hit the road early to Tuktoyaktuk to give us plenty of time to explore. Unfortunately some time change issues got in the way of this plan! We also needed to take advantage of the amenities at Happy Valley Territorial Campground in Inuvik. All justifications aside, we didn’t hit the road until almost 11am! This too proved to be a false start – as soon as we hit the new road to Tuk and got up to speed, we noticed Sue was vibrating pretty badly despite the relatively smooth surface. Antoine hypothesized that the heavy caked mud on the tires likely fell to the bottom of the tires following our car wash the previous evening and put them off balance. So we turned around for round 3 with the power washer in Inuvik, and this more thorough effort seemed to correct the problem. We were back in business!

 

After

 

What we didn’t expect was how much we would enjoy this drive. When we pictured arctic tundra, we thought it would be fairly flat and desolate. Instead we found the landscape to be rolling and varied, dotted with so many lakes and beautifully coloured vegetation. The clouds also began to disappear as we headed northward!

 

The tree line disappeared behind us at approximately km 100, and there seemed to be as much water as there was land around us. This road was an engineering marvel! One of only a few roads in the world built on permafrost, it’s hard to imagine how they completed it. So much gravel and fill must have been required, and the road meanders amongst the many lakes, creeks and ponds dotting the tundra. Prior to the road’s completion in November 2017, the community of 900 could only be reached by plane or ice road in the winter. Everyone waved hello to us as we travelled the road, including local berry pickers and hunters out on their ATVs. We stopped repeatedly for photos, attempted wildlife viewing (only birds, so far!) and cloud berry picking.

 

 

Due to our late start, we arrived too late to take in the cultural information sessions offered each day at 2pm in the sod house. This was an opportunity to hear from local speakers about life in Tuk, and I’m sad that we missed out on this! We stopped at the point of town to dip our hands in the Arctic Ocean and capture some photos.

 

 

We visited Grandma’s Kitchen for lunch,  as a number of people highly recommended it to us. We dined on cooked muktuk (buluga whale), dried whitefish, and homemade buns with cloud berry jam. We also learned that cloud berries are locally referred to as akpik berries. Grandma’s Kitchen was opened by Joanne in late June in anticipation of the influx of visitors the newly opened road would bring. We were lucky enough to get to chat with her and her daughter Shelby about life in the North after our lunch. Shelby worked on the highway to Tuk driving a gravel truck. Their family has a lovely ocean front home, complete with the food truck on the beach, a sunroom and greenhouse. We wished we could’ve stayed much longer visiting with them!

 

After a quick two hour visit, we were back on the road south to Inuvik. We set up camp in a picnic area just outside of town, where we saw more wildlife than we had all day! While brushing my teeth I watched three busy beavers working on their dam. The next morning Paul got up close and personal with three foxes playing in the parking lot. Nature is so neat!

Next up: the Richardson Mountains 🙂

 

Lots of love, Liz & Antoine

 

The Dempster: Blackstone Uplands (km 78) to Inuvik, NWT (km 737)

After an incredible two nights in Tombstone Territorial Park, we packed up and hit the Dempster Highway for real this time, starting our multi-day drive to the Arctic Ocean. The Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada that takes you across the Arctic Circle. This 737 km gravel road takes visitors through 10 of Canada’s 217 ecoregions, which are large areas of similar landform and climate with different ranges of plants, animals and soils. Prior to the trip my Uncle Craig mailed us a copy of the Dempster Highway Travelogue, and this little guide proved very useful informing us about neat features at various km markers along our route.

 

For example, the travelogue informed us that Dall sheep reside along the mountainside at km 178.4. Their trails down the mountain to Engineer Creek are visible from the roadside, and we were able to spot three of them bedded down on the mountain with our binoculars. We were surprised by how white they were!

 

We stopped for a quick fish at km 195.5, where the distinctly red Engineer Creek meets the blue Ogilvie River. Antoine sent up the drone for some cool shots while I attempted to catch my first arctic grayling. No luck here either! 🙁 But views of the Ogilvie mountains made up for my poor fishing skills. This range of mountains differed from the Tombstone ranges, as they are comprised of light grey limestone rubble slopes and tall spikes of rocks known as tors. These are only found in unglaciated terrain! Here’s a shot of the Ogilvie-Peel viewpoint, which shows the northern fringe of these mountains. We couldn’t wait to return to this area on our way back down the Dempster for more fishing and some day hikes!

 

Engineer Creek meets the Ogilvie River

 

The driving got increasingly dicey as we left the Ogilvie River region and entered the Eagle Plain Plateau. It seemed that the maintenance crew forgot about this section of the road, with huge potholes and slick conditions slowing our drive to a crawl. There were also limited options for camping along the Eagle Plains portion of the highway. Paul had identified a nice spot near Eagle River at km 378 in his Garmin InReach, but it was rained out, with recent tire tracks indicating someone had been stuck. Rain was in the forecast for the next day, so we decided to camp further along at a gravel pit off the highway around km 387. We set up in our two vehicle T formation, with a tarp to keep us dry while we cooked delicious one pot meals on our camp stoves. In the evening we wandered back to the highway to snap some photos, picking Labrador leaves and rose hips for tea later on our drive.

Our gravel pit “campsite” in Eagle Plains

 

We woke up early the next morning prepared for a long day of driving to Inuvik, NWT. By 9:30am, we’d reached the Arctic Circle! The Mackenzie Mountains lay in front of us, shrouded by thick low lying clouds. We were a bit bummed as the views would have been epic, but at least it was rain and not snow! The clouds were even thicker and the wind even wilder once we reached the Yukon-NWT border at 10:30am. Oh wait, I mean 11:30!!! We were on Mountain Standard Time now – 1 hour ahead.

 

Arctic Circle viewpoint – Mackenzie Mountains hidden by cloud

 

Highway conditions improved immensely once we reached NWT. We could now start travelling faster than 30km/h. We reached the first ferry crossing of the Dempster at the Peel River around noon on Tuesday August 21st. This cable ferry had been closed down the week prior for three days due to rain, so we were happy to find it functioning despite the inclement weather. In the winter the ferry is replaced by an ice bridge. After the short ferry ride we had a quick lunch in our vehicles thanks to continued rain at Nitainlai Territorial Park. We stopped shortly after for more snacks in Fort McPherson. This community of 900 sits between two ferry crossings on the Dempster. We were lucky to spot a spunky silver fox just outside of town. He was sporting a summer black coat with a white tail and skipped along the highway for quite some time while we sat parked watching. I wish I’d been able to capture a photo – he was beautiful and the first wildlife we’d seen in some time.

 

Description of local foxes at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre

 

The next ferry crossing at the Mackenzie River was even more beautiful, albeit a little slow with two stops including the community of Tsiigehtchic. The Arctic Red River joins the Mackenzie River near the ferry crossing. 2 hours later, we rolled onto the 12km stretch of paved highway that leads to Inuvik, NWT! According to our travelogue, Inuvik is Canada’s largest centre above the Arctic Circle, with a population of 3,400. That night we treated ourselves to dinner and a stay at Happy Valley Territorial Campground, centrally located in Inuvik. What it lacked in asthetic appeal, it made up for in amenities. Laundry and free hot showers! They were a welcome warm up before heading to bed in 1 degree temperatures. What more can you expect from the Arctic?!

 

Next up: the new road to Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean!

 

Thanks for following along on our journey 🙂

 

Liz & Antoine

Tombstone Territorial Park – Fold Mountain and Grizzly Lake Trail hikes

We were late leaving Dawson City on Friday August 17th, stopping to grab much needed showers and a few supplies before hitting the Dempster Highway. Before leaving town we wandered up to an area known as the Midnight Dome. At an elevation of 2911 ft, this lookout offers a panoramic view of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers. This would have been the perfect spot to catch the Northern Lights which had lit our way home the previous night.

 

After this quick stop it was time to continue on our journey northward. We spent our first  evening in Tombstone Territorial Park camped in a gravel pit alongside the North Klondike River at approximately km 60. Paul was lucky enough to catch a few arctic grayling that night before calling it quits for the night.

 

 

The next day we woke early to head to the Visitor’s Intepretive Centre in Tombstone Territorial Park. We had hoped to do some backcountry camping along the well known Grizzly Lake hiking trail, but were informed that this route had been hit with extremely inclement winter-like weather so hiking was not recommended. A number of hikers had been trapped for a few days awaiting a good weather window to make the hike out. We hunkered by a fire in the Intepretive Centre, enjoyed freshly brewed Labrador tea and contemplated our next move.

 

Based on recommendations from the staff, we decided to hike Fold Mountain, which is visible from the Interpretive Centre. This was not an established trail, but it promised amazing views of the valley and two lakes hidden behind the mountain. The skies looked a little threatening, so we packed our rain gear in anticipation of a wet hike. The hike necessitated a river crossing of the chilly Klondike River. I watched the first 3 in our group roll their pants to their knees and made it across. Unfortunately for me, everyone else was 5’10 and up! The river hit me mid-thigh, but luckily my pants were quick dry. Oh the joys of being vertically challenged!

 

The arctic flora and fauna on Fold Mountain were incredibly memorable – like nothing I’ve come across hiking before. The lichen and spongy ground was beautiful and forgiving to walk on and the arctic plants smelled intoxicating, particularly the Labrador! We stopped repeatedly to gorge ourselves on mountain berries including cloud berries, blueberries, cranberries and crow berries. the cloud berries were a group favourite – they look similar to a light coloured blackberry, with burgundy leaves similar in shape to a strawberry plant. The berries range in colour from white to peach to salmon in colour and the taste is amazing but difficult to describe…like a juicy buttery flavoured delight! I’ve never snacked so much on a hike 🙂

 

 

It began to rain when we stopped for lunch at a nice lookout spot over the valley. We could see spots of bluebird sky poking through the clouds and made the decision to continue on just as a rainbow greeted us over the valley.

 

 

As we hiked along, Antoine spotted two caribou high above us on the ridges where we were headed. We were also consistently greeted by the squeaks of arctic ground squirrels who made the mountainside their home. We eventually crossed the ridge where we’d first viewed the caribou and realized it was a false summit, with a higher peak above us. We continued along as the weather grew increasingly nice in hopes of reaching two mountain lakes. As we plodded along upwards, my cousin Paul shouted at us to get down! My first thought was bear, but as we peeled upwards we saw the two caribou descending towards us. We stayed down and quiet and experienced a close up encounter with these gorgeous animals. They were far bigger and darker than expected – photos from my phone camera cannot do them justice, nor do they show how close we were to them. It was better to put the phone away and just take in the viewing!

 

 

We continued along for awhile longer, ending with gorgeous views of both lakes below. We’d met a journalist and photographer at the Interpretive Centre who joined us on the hike, and so we managed to get some epic non-selfie group photos at the top. Thanks Jimmy for your awesome photography skills!! We will have to share these photos later on – I thought that we transferred them onto my laptop but it seems they did not save. Bummer! I stole a photo from Nat instead, which includes Jimmy 🙂

 

We chose an easier route to descend in order to bypass the bog and deeper river crossing we’d originally tried. From up high we could see the river braided further down, and we crossed back over more easily this time. We met up with Derek and Jeni on the trail back, and joined them at their campsite in the Tombstone Territorial campground. That night we enjoyed great company and food including moose meat, mushroom gravy stop potatoes, maple syrup by the spoonful and nachos baked over the fire. This was a day to remember!

 

 

The next day we decided to do a day hike to lookout along the Grizzly Lake trail. This was a much busier route in contrast to a Fold Mountain, where we never crossed another hiker. This meant no wildlife viewing besides a far friendly arctic ground squirrel who seemed to be used to frequent visitors. The hike to the viewpoint was 3km, but we extended our trip along the ridge line to approximately the 6km point. The sun was shining but the wind was howling. Visibility was perfect to see the snow covered Monolith Mountain and Grizzly Lake below it in the valley. These are vistas that Tombstone had become known for.

 

That night we camped at a pullout along the Blackstone Creek at approximately km 98. Antoine caught his first two arctic grayling here, but we threw them back as pasta and dehydrated meat sauce was on the menu. My cousins had spotted large grizzly bear and wolf tracks along the river bed, so we were extremely cautious with our food and grey water that night. We slept the night with no encounters – phew!

 

On Monday August 20th we hit the road again, leaving the boundaries of Tombstone Territorial Park. Next up: the Ogilvie Mountains and Arctic Circle!

 

Liz & Antoine

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