Death Or Glory On Dempster Highway

– A long escape from the wrong end of the world

Dempster Highway

10:00am. Goodbye Inuvik and fuck you sideways. A week of storms has taken its toll and Dempster Highway is currently a road in name alone. Brown slime comes in tidal waves across the windscreen and jagged rocks strafe the bonnet. We weave through semi-visible trenches and potholes flooded with corrosive calcium chloride. The road is deserted and we drive for an hour without seeing another vehicle. My secretary said ‘This can mean only one of two things: a. we know something no-one else does, b. everyone else knows something we don’t.’

She was right, but about what?

They say that Dempster Highway is one of the worst and most dangerous roads in the world. At over 500 miles into the Canadian Arctic from Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, it is certainly a sizable bastard. But it seems to me that the people who most fear the Dempster are the people who have never driven the Dempster, and fear, like ignorance, is contagious.

The road began as a dog sled trail from Dawson to Fort McPherson (75 miles south of Inuvik) used by the RCNWMP for the annual winter patrols of the early 1900s. It would take a team of five or six highly trained Mounties a month to complete the one way journey. The most notorious of these patrols was the Lost Patrol of 1910. Led by Inspector Francis Fitzgerald, his team was plagued by ill fortune and disappeared. Inspector William Dempster was sent after them, but he knew this was no rescue mission – this was a recovery mission. Dempster followed the trail of dead dogs into the wilderness before discovering the bodies of the men who had ultimately succumbed to starvation, hypothermia and suicide, a mere 35 miles from Fort McPherson.

We careen through the Mackenzie Lowlands, high on the smell of our own terror and never once getting close to 35mph.

So it remained until the discovery of rich oil and gas deposits in the Mackenzie Delta during the 1960s. Very suddenly the Canadian government found enough money to build a road to connect these isolated northern communities to the outside world. It wasn’t a good road though. Dempster Highway is built on permafrost which exists in constant flux. Traditional tarmac retains heat which would melt the frozen ground causing the road to break up and sink into the tundra. To separate traffic from the permafrost, layers of gravel are built up as high as three metres in places and packed down into something that loosely resembles a road, but is actually just a pile of dirt. Dempster Highway is in a perpetual state of decay and once workers finish resurfacing the road at the end, the beginning has fallen apart and it’s time to start again.

2:15pm. The Peel River Crossing. A week ago violent storms destroyed essential infrastructure here rendering the crossing useless and the Peel River impassable. Our early departure has paid off and there is only about a quarter of a mile of big rigs in front of us. We speak to a trucker near the front of the line; he has been here for four days. Word is that Transport Canada mercenaries are aiming to open the crossing by 3:00pm.

3:00pm. The Peel River crossing will definitely be open by 5:00pm.

5:00pm. Work will be completed by 6:30pm.

6:30pm. Almost finished now. Tangible deadlines are no longer uttered.

7:30pm. The sound of engines spluttering back to life after days in stasis flashes down the line. Electricity. A dormant colony of ants reanimated in an explosion of mundane trivialities. What are you going to do when you get to Eagle Plains?

‘I’m gonna get me a gooooood hot meal.’

‘I’m gonna drink me some beer.’

‘I’m gonna take me a sheeeit.’

Note: The above quotes should be read in a casually racist ‘hillbilly’ accent.

The first ferry docks on the north bank of the Peel and a handful of the most dedicated truckers roll aboard. We join the small crowd of stranded adventurers watching the first crossing from the north bank. If the repairs don’t hold up then we’re here for another week.

After an eternity of silence, the ferry docks safely on the other side and our brave pioneers disembark to continue their long journey to wherever as the north bank erupts with cheers. Freedom is in the air.

A few minutes later, we are on the move. A few meters later, we come to a stop. The celebration is over and the reality is this: a traffic jam in the Arctic Circle.

9:30pm. We board the ferry. I can see the floodwaters surging now. The ferry will turn to the sky and the banks of the Peel will melt into its own dark waters. We will cry out in vain as we slowly disappear from view. But no, whatever sick god is presiding over us today clearly has further torments in store, much more cruel and elaborate than merely vanishing into the great Iron River and being washed deep into the infinite deaths of the Arctic wilderness. No, we land on the south bank of the Peel River and live to fight another day. We have escaped the slow jaws of Inuvik, but what now? What happens next?

The race is on. A new storm is mid-birth and we have 100 miles to cover before the hotel at Eagle Plains – the only permanent habitable structure within a 500 mile radius – closes. The sky is a spectrum of metallic greys oxidising over the mountains and this is the darkest I’ve seen it in weeks. We burn southwise down the Dempster. No time to waste. In the distance, heavy storm clouds flex to the ground, dropping their soggy payload over the land straight ahead.

Somewhere around Richardson Pass, the wheels of our car locked into a skid and we began to hydroplane across the mud. As we slowly drifted over to the wrong side of the road, I realised that we were going to die. This was no existential revelation – Dempster Highway is not a metaphor for a journey through life. This was real. We were about to be smeared across the Arctic tundra. Our insides will leave our bodies and we might even go on fire. The steering wheel no longer had any authority over the direction of the car, nor the brakes on its speed. We were coasting sideways across the road. It was quite graceful, in a non-survivable way. A vertical drop to the permafrost lay beyond the edge of the road. No barriers here.

No barriers.

I think of Bill The Trucker. No fear. No regret.

My secretary and I had met Bill while stranded in Inuvik. Bill was a veteran trucker and greengrocer extraordinaire. Bill had seen everything. He spoke in slow deadpan, the hallmark, I imagined, of the most hardened big rig badasses.

Bill once got stuck at Eagle Plains (pop. 8) for a week. Another time, his appendix burst outside Fort McPherson and he had to wait out a storm until he could be airlifted to hospital. Bill eats bullets for breakfast and washes it down with gasoline and drain cleaner. People are afraid of too many things, he says. Death is only scary if you wait for it in Starbucks.

No fear. No regret.

Once again, we teeter the precipice of enlightenment. Free of corporeal concerns, we will explore strange new dimensions that our earthly cranial prison boxes could never possibly begin to understand. No time for mortal nostalgias now. Death will be the greatest adventure of all.

It occurs to me that my final thoughts were of an overweight, hairy trucker selling vegetables.


This is it. Live fast, die young and leave a grotesquely mutilated corpse behind. I watch the edge of the road disappear beneath the left passenger window.

I read somewhere that the best chance of surviving a car crash is to go limp. This is why an unusually high percentage of drunk drivers walk away from wrecks unscathed. Drinking and driving saves lives kids. Today, in the here and the now, however, we are far from the Arcadian pastures of floppy limbed complacency. White knuckles on the wheel and teeth ground to stumps. Buttocks clenched for impact.

And then traction. Beautiful traction. The car pulls away from the edge of the road. I can’t help but let out a belch of a laugh. But traction, like our luck, is fleeting and our arrogance short-lived. We are hydroplaning across the road once more, now in the opposite direction. Un-fucking-believable. Fear turns into exasperation in a car crash of this length. My innate British sense of fair play has been offended by these crooked laws of physics.

Four times we blunder the edge of the road uncontrolled before the car comes to a halt. Four times death poked us in the eye. Nerves shattered. Must drive slower.

66° 33’ 44”. We have officially left the Arctic Circle. The cloud thins enough for us to see a pair of grizzly bears play fighting at the side of the road. They don’t care about any of this; the mud and the car crashes, $300 tanks of gas and waiting at a ferry crossing for over 7 hours. Our woes are of no consequence to a grizzly bear on the edge of the Arctic Circle. A grizzly bear is evolved and adapted to its environment. A grizzly bear doesn’t need to pay $300 to sit in a traffic jam in the middle of one of the least populated areas in the entire world before driving over the edge of a cliff. That’s more of a Man thing.

Man is surely the weakest of all species. Man is evolution gone awry. Man constructed an internal reality which has no connection to the world it lives in. God did not create Man, Man created God and God, in its most pure form, is The Economy. It was Man who cut down the Amazon to print porn and Ikea catalogues. It was Man who gassed Jews, dropped bombs on Arabs and yet inexplicably continues to allow Piers Morgan to live. And when The Economy hath forsaken us, it will be feral Men in suits who eat rats in the dark corners of the crumbling office buildings they once worked in.

11:00pm. The cloud breaks as Eagle Plains, the closest thing to civilisation for the next 250 miles, rolls into view. Hazy sub-arctic plains touch the sky under the sleepy light of the midnight sun. It was almost still. A sanctuary, not from the wilderness, but from a world gone stupid.