There’s only one public-access road in the western hemisphere that takes you across the Arctic Circle. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Dempster Highway, which connects Dawson City in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
Let me remind you of one harsh reality. If you’re driving a rental vehicle, you’ll probably pay a hefty premium to drive it here - if the rental company allows it at all.
The Dempster, named after a Mountie called Jack Dempster, is a highway like no other. It is basically a thick gravel strip that is from 1.2 metres to 2.4 metres deep, sitting atop the permafrost beneath. And when the locals tell you it can be tough on tyres, let me tell you, mate, they’re not over-stating the issue.
But if you’re a photographer, this is Paradise Road. And here’s another thing - you keep hitting the trigger at every new sight, but on your way back to Dawson City, it’s almost like driving another, different stretch of highway. The same views, seen from a diametrically opposite point of the compass, look so very - and inexplicably - distinct from those you shot earlier.
When we drove the Dempster on 29 August, the weather was brilliant. Blue sky. Clear views. White mountain peaks. Lakes. Valleys. Every bend in the highway opened up a new vista as we drive towards the tundra-like flatland.
The vivid reds had not yet taken hold across the sweeping landscape, but here and there we could see isolated little pockets of rich burgundy. The fall colours were predominantly dark green and a vivid yellow that took on a special quality, glistening in the late-afternoon sunshine. There was early snow, too, even though the calendars had not yet turned over to September.
At Grizzly Creek (above) the clear, cool water was graced with shimmering sunlight reflected on its dappled surface. At a couple of the stops we made, the over-riding silence was a hymn of praise to Nature, but here at the creek, we witnessed the full cloak of autumnal beauty. The rushing water presented a glistening blue that perfectly complemented the mountains and foliage.
At one lookout point we were able to look straight down the barrel of a valley to the majestic sight of Tombstone (above) in the distance. Earlier that morning I had taken several hundred photos of Tombstone and surrounding peaks during a helicopter ride; now I was able to shoot the same distinctive monolith from ground level.
Here I walked down the hillside to capture some glimpses of the vivid foliage. Brought up to have a deep and abiding respect for my surroundings, I chose my path carefully down the slope, trying not to trample what grew wild, abundantly and so arrestingly. No matter that the hardy undergrowth would have sprung back. You tread carefully in a brick-and-concrete structure, so you do the same in the wild.
At Two Moose Lake, where we eventually turned around, again I marvelled deeply at the silence. Surely a view like this should have had the best work of the classical composers playing softly but distinctively in the background.
Something called The Tombstone Two-Step, perhaps. That would be appropriate when you are in the embrace of the mountains. Especially here on Jack's road.
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