After a somewhat stressful sojourn in Fairbanks, it was time to make our way to Dawson for the next leg of our trip. Our plan was to drive all the way north along the infamous Dempster Highway, including the newly opened extension to Tuktoyaktuk at the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, we had stops planned in Tombstone Territorial Park and Inuvik. We had images of vast northern landscapes and awe-inspiring wilderness in our minds, so when basically every person we shared our plans with raised their eyebrows and made some comment about the potholes on the Dempster, we smiled politely but were not deterred in the slightest.
Car Troubles and Wildlife
Our first sign of trouble was a strong burning smell less than an hour outside of Fairbanks. Bryan, very familiar with burning oil, immediately knew what the issue was. He hoped that some other car was having an oil leak issue, but just to be safe, pulled over to check things out. When we pulled the dipstick out, it showed empty. Ugh.
We had one spare litre of oil, which we added, and this restored the oil level to somewhere between low and high. Good enough. With that we drove on towards Tok. As we were going all the way to Dawson in one day, we had to cover 620 km, over some nice highways and some poor highways. Not even close to our longest day of driving, but still not a whole lot of fun.
About 30 minutes out of Tok, Bryan slammed on the brakes and pulled over, yelling “some kind of big bird” excitedly. Lisa had no idea what he said but could tell he had seen something exciting. We jumped out of the car and made our way towards what turned out to be a large great grey owl sitting in the trees! Fortunately, the highway was mostly deserted, with only one car every few minutes, and we had it all to ourselves.
The owl looked at us, but only very briefly before it returned to staring intently at a spot on the ground. We were very careful not to approach too closely or disturb the owl, but it seemed entirely unbothered by our presence. Lisa figured out that it must be hunting something, while Bryan hurriedly set up his camera and began firing off shots, hands shaking with excitement. Then the owl launched itself off the tree, right down into the grass, and flew up onto another tree, a small rodent struggling in its claws. It wolfed it down and then sat, turning its head and looking at us. We watched it for a while longer – it was one of the best wildlife encounters of our trip.
As we arrived in Tok, which Bryan believes must surely be the hometown of Ke$ha, we could smell the burning oil quite strongly. We checked the dipstick again: empty. Noooooooo. We bought two litres, and after adding one, it was still empty. A second one restored it to close to full. So we had an oil leak, and a decently-sized one at that.
We bought more oil for the road, and carried on to the Top of the World Highway, which is described in the Milepost as follows. The 65-mile Top of the World Highway is a winding, sometimes narrow road with frequent surface breaks, potholes, washboard and little to no shoulder.
The description was quite accurate, but it was also a beautiful highway, so we enjoyed the views and at one point saw a wolf (!), which ran away as soon as we stopped the car. Then the rain came down and we drove to Dawson through the downpour.
Once in Dawson we tried to book a car appointment to get the oil leak checked. We figured it would probably be OK to drive the Dempster, and just add lots of oil, but we weren’t 100% sure. And that is an issue with the Dempster, because the Dempster is no normal highway. It is a 736 km beast of a gravel road, starting outside Dawson and ending in Inuvik, NWT, with services very few and far between, and a reputation for destroying tires and damaging vehicles. After that is the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, which is a further 138 km of even worse road conditions, but is the only way to get to the Arctic Ocean by car.
It seemed that car troubles were common in these parts, as all the shops were fully booked for the next 4 days to a week. Desperate, we asked (begged) at one shop if we could get them just to take a quick look and give us a verdict on how bad the situation was, even if they didn’t have time to actually fix anything. Luckily they were able to accommodate us, and they gave us their suspected diagnosis – a leaking oil pressure sensor. This meant we would have to visit the Subaru dealership in Whitehorse to get it fixed.
We told them about our Dempster plans and asked for their professional opinion about whether we could still proceed with that before heading to Whitehorse. They said that the car wasn’t going to blow up or anything, but it would be pretty silly to drive the whole Dempster. Even if our car was in good shape, the guy at the shop said he wouldn’t recommend it, as the road was in terrible condition, with huge potholes spanning the entire width of some sections. He had just driven it in a truck and said it was possible we would need to replace the side panels on our car if we attempted it (!). He also said that there was no reason to go all the way – the best part was Tombstone Territorial Park, which was along the first 100 km. In fact, that’s something we heard from every local we talked to – why would we ever want to do the Dempster for fun? Just go to Tombstone already!
At this point, Lisa had serious reservations, but Bryan still wasn’t ready to give up on his Dempster dreams. We looked online and found that the first section of the Dempster, including Tombstone, was in fairly decent shape. But leading up to Eagle Plains, the first place where gas and services were available, there were multiple travel advisories and graphics proclaiming “multiple incidents.” We were not sure what that meant, but it did not sound good.
We then called the information line for current road conditions, and were treated to a robotic voice repeating, over and over for the various sections of the Dempster, different permutations of “wet, muddy, icy, slippery, potholes, washed out, hazardous, uneven, rutted.” Even if we were able to make it, it would mean driving for stretches of up to 50-100 km at a time that were just covered in potholes. Just thinking about that possibility had Bryan’s shoulders feeling so tight that he actually winced in pain. It sounded like driving the McCarthy Road 7 times in a row, and then repeating that on the way down.
At this point, we made the decision to end the Arctic dream, at least for this year. It was not worth it. Even if we were to survive physically, surely it would leave mental scars, and the relationship might not make it either. (Oddly enough though, we started planning a trip in an RV with our future children to explore this part of our country).
We then realized that if we took back the extra days we had planned for the drive, we could spend 10 days in Victoria to relax and prepare for French Polynesia. Our current plan had us arriving back in Victoria on the evening of September 15th, spending the day of the 16th clearing out the car, doing laundry, and changing over our packing from “Alaska” themed to “all around the world from tropical beaches to mountains and glaciers, including scuba diving, underwater photography, kayaking, multi-day backpacking trips, and fashionable cities” themed and then flying out first thing in the morning on the 17th. Wow, what excellent planning (thanks, Bryan).
Upon realizing we had all this extra time, Lisa recalled how everyone had asked whether we were going to Haines AK, and mentioning what a beautiful place it was. And Bryan thought about how we had missed out on doing some of the things we wanted to do in Kluane National Park. Lisa also thought about our route back to Victoria and how it might be nice to spend some time in the wilderness of northern BC. Up until this point, our trip had been following a pretty strict itinerary (as we were traveling during a busy time, and faced the risk of missing out on activities or accommodations if we did not book things in advance), but now everything was all up in the air, and the possibilities were endless.
With that, we made a car appointment in Whitehorse for the day after Labour Day, and headed off to Tombstone, armed with lots of extra engine oil. We had timed it just right for fall colours, and it was spectacular.
We camped at the Tombstone campground and drove up to km 195 of the Dempster and back, and really loved all of the colourful scenery.
One of our favourite parts of this park was the amazing Grizzly Ridge hike, with its awesome views of the surrounding area.
More Car Troubles
After arriving back in Dawson and checking in, the receptionist asked if our car was the blue Subaru across the street. Uh oh. It had a flat tire. Fortunately, we had a full-sized spare, along with a weird “Slime” tire repair kit and air pump kit.
We were not particularly concerned, as Bryan was very well versed in changing tires on the Subaru and could do it in 10 minutes or less. Well, that was under normal conditions. After confidently loosening all of the lug nuts with the torque wrench, and lifting the car up on the jack, he went to remove the wheel, but it would not budge. No problem, he figured… sometimes it takes a bit of kicking. So he kicked it lightly. Then he kicked it heavily. Then he kicked it as hard as he could. And the wheel did not budge one bit. It was totally rusted on.
At this point, a friendly local approached. He did his best at kicking the hub cap to try to loosen it up, but this did not work either. As we sat there contemplating using the Slime, he went looking for a piece of wood to put against the wheel, so we could smash the hell out of it with something heavier than our feet.
Then another local in a large SUV drove up. He diagnosed the situation and went to get something from his shed to help; a giant crowbar. The first local came back with a big piece of firewood, and the second local put it up against the hub cap and started to smack it with the crowbar. The stubborn wheel did not budge at all. He smacked it more. Nothing. Finally he told everyone to step back, put the wood on the ground perpendicular to the wheel and straddled it with his feet, putting all of his strength into the crowbar. I winced with every smash, but finally the stubborn wheel broke free. We were very grateful, and installed our full-sized spare.
Back to Whitehorse
The next day, we drove back to Whitehorse. About 200 km into the drive, with the rain pouring down, we spotted a black bear along the side of the road. We pulled over, pulled a u-turn and came up alongside of it to watch. It was, like every other bear we’d seen, eating everything it could get its mouth on. It was so close that we didn’t even open the windows the whole way, in case it decided to investigate us. But as with other bears, it had no interest in us at all. We sat there watching it for a few minutes, until a road cleaning vehicle pulled up behind us, and we had to move on.
We rolled in to Whitehorse 45 minutes before the tire repair shop closed, and got our tire fixed. Then we had some dinner and drove back to Haines Junction, for our second Kluane visit.
Back to Kluane
This time in Kluane, with no injuries, we went straight for the King’s Throne hike, and it was fantastic (though also very steep and treacherous at times).
We also did Lisa’s first overnight backpacking trip, a return to the Auriol Trail, to have some fun camping along the river and for her to see what the experience was like. At 15 km round trip, it was easy, but also quite pleasant.
We also did a flightseeing tour to land on a glacier at 8500 feet and see Mount Logan (~19,500 ft), the highest mountain in Canada. Although it was really cool to land on the glacier with a ski plane, and see Mount Logan, the scenery from the flight did not quite stack up to our earlier Wrangell-St. Elias tour.
As we drove out through the park, we had a great roadside encounter with a large grizzly. Guess what? It was also stuffing its face with everything it could find… dandelions, roots, sticks, whatever.
We headed to Haines for one night, to see bears fishing for salmon along the Chilkoot River.
Along the drive through Tatshenshini Alsek park, in BC, we had another of the best wildlife encounters of the trip – two foxes playing by the side of the road. We enjoyed them all by ourselves for at least 20 minutes, before other tourists pulled over to see what we were looking at. Fortunately, they were nice polite Germans who kept quiet, kept their distance and enjoyed the spectacle with us.
The bears of Haines were also neat, but it felt kind of artificial, as they did most of their salmon fishing from the man-made weir that traps salmon to count them for the fisheries folks. What was a little shocking was the cavalier attitude people seemed to have to the large grizzlies which were right by the side of the road.
At one point a mama bear and her 3 cubs crossed the road into the bushes, and people followed them on foot trying to get pictures with their cell phones. People seemed to have no qualms about following the bears right to the edge of the bushes. They also didn’t seem worried about the prospect of the bears re-emerging out of the forest, potentially right on top of them.
We could understand the excitement, as we also love seeing and photographing bears, but we do have what we feel is a healthy sense of fear/respect for them and wouldn’t be inclined to risk our lives or stress out any wildlife for a photo.
As we were returning back to Canada, the car decided that the border stop was the perfect place to belch a giant black cloud of burnt oil. We assured the border guard that we had an appointment in Whitehorse the next day, and that we had a mechanic tell us that it was safe to drive. After a bit of discussion with another border guard, she let us through.
We returned to Whitehorse in the evening, and the next day, we had the oil leak fixed in a couple of hours.
Liard River Hot Springs
As soon as we got the car back from the dealership, we hit the road for Liard River Hot Springs – 650 km/8 or so hours. After a long drive, we got to enjoy the fabulous springs, soaking up their warmth long after night fell. The springs were nestled in a lush forest, very natural and untouched, with minimal infrastructure. You walk along a boardwalk through a swamp and boreal forest from the campground to the springs. On our first trip to the springs, we were delayed by a mama moose and her calf hanging out along the boardwalk. We were eager to get to the springs, but also wanted to keep our distance from the moose, so we held off for a bit until they moved along.
The next morning, we returned to the springs for another soak, and then drove all day to Prince George – 1,115 km/12.5 or so hours.
After having seen 50+ bears so far in Alaska and the Yukon, we still hadn’t had enough, so we decided to make one last stop in Bella Coola to try to get a glimpse of them fishing during the salmon run.
As we arrived at Bella Coola, we stopped by the Belarko Viewing Platform to see what was going on with the bears. The platform was staffed with park rangers who escorted visitors from the parking lot up to the platform, which had some sheltered areas and was protected by an electric fence. They also had a binder that had pictures, names, and histories of several bears in the area. We were told to be quiet and stay as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to disturb the bears. It was a welcome change, standing in stark contrast to our experience at Haines.
Unfortunately the bulk of the salmon had not come far enough up the river yet to reach the viewing platform, so the bears that were fishing were doing it downstream – close enough to see with binoculars or a heavy telephoto lens, but not as close as we had been hoping for. We did get to watch some drama with a male grizzly stalking a mom with cubs, and fortunately the mom scented him in time and took her cubs out of danger.
We spent the night in nearby Hagensborg and tried to see bears at a couple of other locations, but our luck didn’t hold and we did not see any bears fishing up close. We learned from a very nice couple from Vancouver Island that the best way to see bears fishing was to take a boat ride down the river, as that would cover enough ground to find the bears, and get you really close to them as well. But the boat rides were all booked up, so we decided we would have to come back another year, and it was now time to head home.
Bryan drove like a banshee across the rest of BC, and the only other stops we made were for food, gas, bathroom breaks and an overnight stay in Lillooet.
Home at Last
Finally, after being on the road for 55 days and covering some 12,000 km, we made it back in one piece. It was none too soon, as we were completely and utterly exhausted. But it had been an amazing journey, one we will never forget. And as a plus, we had managed to keep our relationship (mostly) together and in (mostly) good shape, through all of the trials and tribulations.
But although we didn’t know it yet, greater challenges were yet to come…
Here is a video of some highlights from this portion of our trip: