Friday, June 10, 2011

There and Back on the Dempster

This is the second part of our journey along the Dempster.  This will be more about the road, services available, and our experience driving rather than the scenery.

On our trip to Alaska in 2004, we had planned to drive the Dempster.  When we got to Whitehorse, like this time, ice was still in the rivers and the ferries were not running.  Instead of waiting like we did this time, we decided to go on with our trip and do the Dempster on our way out in August.  That plan didn’t work out because wildfires on the Top of the World Highway had our way blocked.

Since that time, the Dempster has remained on our “to do” list.  During these years, we’ve really paid attention to what people said about driving the Dempster Highway and we’ve heard some real horror stories.  We had decided we wouldn’t drive, but would go on a tour bus.  That may not be an option anymore, because Gene could never find any information on such a trip.  We had also thought about renting a car to take, but would have to do that from Whitehorse.  We quickly discarded that option because the rental company is in Whitehorse.  To take the rental car back to Whitehorse would add a few hundred miles to our trip.

From the time we got to the Yukon, we spoke with everyone we could find about driving the Dempster.  Always, the answer was the same--”it’s fine.  People do it everyday.  Just go slow and take a full-size spare tire.”  Even the guide books and the Milepost give the same advice.  So that’s how we came about the decision to drive ourselves.

Gene purchased the spare tire and, because we only have a 10-gallon tank on the Honda, also purchased a couple of extra gas cans.  Once we got on the road, we felt confident about our decision because there were a lot of people out there in their own cars.

As I said previously, the road is an all weather road.  In winter, travelers just drive on the snow pack and cross the rivers on ice bridges.  The snow is off the road now and it has been grated for summer use.  The road is built on top of a gravel berm which is designed to insulate the permafrost.  Without the insulation the permafrost would melt and the road would sink.  The gravel berm is over 7 feet think in places.

As with any gravel road, it is in constant need of something (Gene says it needs asphalt) and the road crews are out daily with graters.  We crossed a few areas that were washboard-like, but not many.  Even the pot holes were not so bad, but the rocks were a killer.  When I think of gravel, I think small.  Some of the “gravel” on the Dempster is as large as a softball, but without the smooth surface.  For your tire’s sake, you really need to avoid those larger rocks. Over time, these larger pieces get buried, but are then partially re-exposed due to grating or washing out with rain.  These create a very rough surface.

Truly, the key is to go slow.  We drove between 30 and 40 mph usually, but there were times when 20 was too fast.

The graveled areas were dusty.  In the recently grated areas, this black goo had been put down to reduce the dust.  I’d rather have the dust.  In some areas, the road surface was more like dirt and in the rain, which we had a lot of, it was mud.  Nothing we owned inside or out of the car escaped getting dirty.

Another piece of advice everyone has given us was not to drive these gravel roads when it’s raining because they are very slippery.  Boy, is that true.  We had checked the weather forecast and had a week of blue skies and sunshine without a chance of rain at all.  Perfect.  It started raining before we got very far from Tombstone Park and rained off and on for two days.  That played a big roll in our decision to turn around.

In my feeble mind, I had envisioned a relatively straight road through flat terrain that went on for 450 miles.  Boy, was I surprised.  There was hardly any flat or straight.  The road winds around like the rivers and is one very steep uphill after another.  We often had 10% downhill grades.

When I say there were a lot of others out there, what I really mean is there were many more than we expected. Each day we saw about 50 cars.  That’s really not very many over a 200 mile stretch.  We saw everything imaginable--pick-up trucks, all types of automobiles, lots of pick-up truck campers, Class Bs, a few Class Cs, a few older Class As (no new ones), fifth wheels, lots of motorcycles, even a man walking pulling a cart.  The ride was very rough at times, even at 20 mph, and I, personally, would not have taken my RV.

After our stop at Tombstone Park, we pulled off at scenic view points as we made our way north.  Our intention was to camp at Engineer Creek Territorial Campground, but we arrived there about 4 PM and decided to go on to Eagle Plains. Several things brought about that decision.  Probably first and foremost were the mosquitoes.  OMG.  Never have I seen those little devils so thick.  Because it was only 4 o’clock there would be nothing to do except sit in the car to escape the mosquitoes.  Might as well be driving.  Then there was the water.  No water spigot here; had to get water from the creek.  We’ve drank a lot of creek water backpacking, but nothing that looked like this.  The creek was named Red Creek because there was so much iron in the water that it was literally red.  Thanks, but no thanks.  We had a couple gallons of water, but not really enough for drinking plus preparation of two meals each.   We had seen on the road quite a bit of bear scat in the area, so that was really playing heavily on Gene’s mind since he would be sleeping in the tent.  Thus, the decision to continue on.

Cooking shelter at Engineer Creek Territorial Campground
About 5:30 we stopped at Ogilvie Viewpoint to fix dinner.  We still had a couple hours to get to Eagle Plains and we needed a break.  Ogilvie Viewpoint really had the view.  It was at the top of Seven Mill Hill and had spectacular views of the river valley below and the mountains on the other side.  Lucky for us it was windy enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  We took an hour and a half break cooking dinner, eating, and making pictures.  Since it never gets dark this time of year this far north, we weren’t worried about getting to Eagle Plains so late we had to pitch camp in the dark.

The next morning after we decided to turn around, we stopped again at Ogilvie Viewpoint to take a break and enjoy the views.  By the time we got back to Engineer Creek campground we once again discussed camping there for the night, but quickly dismissed that idea for all the same reasons.

At this point, we were feeling pretty fortunate that we hadn’t had a flat tire.  We had seen so many who had.  A couple of guys from Ontario, who were next to us at Eagle Plains campground had a flat, but had no full-sized spare.  They had made it to Eagle Plains on their small donut the day before and had ordered a tire to be delivered from Dawson City.  That cost a whopping $400.  We were about a 100 miles from home and were thinking we might actually be able to return that spare tire to the dealer in Whitehorse and get our money back.

I was driving when the low pressure light came on.  I immediately stopped and Gene checked the pressure.  The driver’s side rear tire had lost almost 10 lbs.  While he was checking the pressure, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police pulled up.  He was in a truck; not on a horse.  Nevertheless, he was right there and at our service.  He advised us to turn around and go back to Ogilvie Highway Maintenance station which was only about 20 miles back.  They had an air compressor or they could repair the tire.  Okay, we turned around.

We drove about 10 miles and Gene checked the air pressure again.  This time the pressure was down to 15 lbs.  He didn’t feel like we should continue on that tire.  We pulled off of the road to change the tire.  Of course, all the stuff we had, which was a lot, was pilled on top of the spare tire which was on top of the spare tire compartment were the jack and tools were.  Just about everything had to come out of the car.  To add to our misery, it was raining and 200 miles of mud was on our car mixed with that black stuff they put on the road to keep down the dust.  The picture is worth a 1000 words.

You should know that the full-size spare which we purchased in Whitehorse was not mounted on a rim that fits our car but one of those “universal fit” things.  Gene got the flat tire off, but couldn’t get the spare tire on.  He had to put the donut on.  Because we were so far from the end of the road, we were afraid to drive that far on such a rough road with the donut.  After all, it’s a temporary tire to start with.  So after the tire was on, we continued on toward the Ogilvie Maintenance Station.

I really had doubts that this government facility would be open since it was almost 7 PM.  We had already seen the maintenance trucks heading in that direction at least an hour earlier.  We pulled in anyway; the gate wasn’t closed.  However, everything was closed up.  We saw a sign on the wall and Gene went up to read it.  While he was standing there, a man came out of the building and said he would help.  Thank you, Lord.

This nice man finished eating his grapes, put on his work clothes, and opened the shop.  After taking out a large piece of shale, he patched our flat tire and sent us on our way.  Our full-size spare is still unused and ready to be returned when we get back to Whitehorse.

That whole process took an hour and it was now about 8 PM.  Engineer Creek Campground was only a couple miles away, so we pulled in there.  Again, because of the same reasons, we decided not to stay, but only stopped long enough to fix dinner and eat.

With only a hundred miles to go, we pressed on.  It was a nice time to be out on the road.  There was hardly any traffic.  We saw 2 motor cycles and 2 cars driving north and only one semi tractor/trailer rig going south.   The road is better in this section so we were able to drive close to 40 mph most of the time.  The long late evening shadows cast by the sun were nice.

We were so very glad we had left the motor home at Dempster Corner rather than in Dawson City.  We pulled up to the storage lot at about 11:30 and crawled into our own bed--the end of a very long day and a great adventure.

As it turned out, we didn’t need the extra gas we took along.  The car did fantastic on gas milage.  We had only used 6 gallons in 200 miles.  You gotta love a small car.  We needed the extra tire, even though we were lucky enough not to have to use it.  That wouldn’t have been the case if we hadn’t been so close to the Ogilvie Maintenance center.

Speaking of gas, here’s the----

GAS REPORT from Eagle Plains.  We paid $6.52 US per gallon of gas which wasn’t all that much considering where we were.

I think that’s all I have to say about this aspect of the trip.  I just want to emphasize how wonderful the RCMP were and especially the guy in the Ogilvie Maintenance shop who was off from work, but went back out to the shop to fix our tire, was happy to do it, and didn’t charge anything for his services.  If it weren’t so far up the worst road in North America, I’d take him some home baked cookies.

Now, that’s it.  Thanks for tagging along.

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