Driving The Dempster

March 1, 2004 by Les McLaughlin

The Dempster Highway curls through Wright Pass in the Yukon Territory; Caribou use the Dempster Highway as a migratory pathway; the search party for the Lost Patrol prepares to leave Dawson City in February 1911.

The sign on Bill Rutherford’s 53-foot Mack truck trailer reads The Fruit Man, but to his grateful customers in Inuvik, N.W.T., he is more than that. Since 1985, Rutherford has been hauling fresh fruit from British Columbia via the Alaska and Klondike highways to the cutoff near Dawson City, Yukon, where he follows the gravel of the Dempster Highway for 741 kilometres to the Mackenzie River Delta.

Every three weeks, through rain, snow, blizzards or sunny summer days, his arrival in Inuvik is as welcome as the sunshine that returns to this distant land in late January after a six-week absence.

Before the Dempster Highway officially opened in 1979, the only fresh fruit that Inuvik residents could purchase year round were flown in from Edmonton on board planes with limited space for peaches, pears and other fresh food. Rutherford says he never tires of driving the 8,000-kilometre round trip from B.C. He especially treasures the solitary freedom of the Dempster and “the sunshine smiles on the faces of my northern clients” as they line up—summer or winter—inside his fruit-filled trailer to check on the firmness of the peaches or the colour of the cantaloupes.

The Dempster Highway has made his unique delivery service possible though that is not what highway planners and politicians had in mind. Rather, the road is the result of a 1950s vision in which the vast riches of the Far North would be tapped and transported south to a waiting world market.

During the boom of the postwar ‘50s, multinational exploration companies expected to find commercial oil and gas deposits in the Eagle Plains area of the north-central Yukon while the Mackenzie River Delta showed geological evidence of vast hydrocarbon wealth. As Canadians came to believe that the Far North was truly a treasure trove of natural riches, a wily politician pounced on the idea. During the historic federal election campaign of 1958, John Diefenbaker’s ‘vision of the north’ speeches captured the hearts and minds of the electorate and earned him the largest majority government in Canadian history at the time.

The central component in his political platform was a program conceived by his chief lieutenant, Alvin Hamilton. It was called Roads to Resources and would involve building highways that would lead to known and still-to-be-discovered mineral-rich regions of Canada. As newly appointed minister of Northern Development, Hamilton was handed a whopping $175 million budget and by the summer of 1959, the road building program began to take shape as bulldozers sliced through the northern Yukon, carving out a nameless trail to Inuvik.

Just 50 kilometres were built that year and for the next two years, only 76 kilometres were added. Then construction came to an abrupt halt when the promising oil discovery at Eagle Plains—300 kilometres north of Dawson City—proved to have little commercial value. The Liberal opposition—under Lester B. Pearson—pounced, accusing the government of recklessly spending huge sums to build roads from “igloo to igloo.”

Other political opponents said the highway and others on the planning books were nothing more than “roads to remorses.” Meanwhile, some of the construction workers still working in the wilderness called it the “road to divorces.”

In 1962, Dief’s vision had become a nightmare; lost in political bickering. By 1963, the highway had become a 116-kilometre dirt trail to nowhere, but at least it had a name. The Dempster Highway honoured Inspector William John Dempster, a Mountie who served his entire 37-year career in the Yukon and gained a permanent place in the honour role of red-coated heros when he found the four frozen bodies of the Lost Patrol.

The loss of the patrol was a tragedy that probably should not have happened. From headquarters in Dawson City, the Northwest Mounted Police had begun an annual dogsled patrol to Fort McPherson in the Mackenzie River Delta in 1904. It was an early-day demonstration of Canadian sovereignty, but had the more immediate practical value of delivering mail and dispatches to the farthest reaches of the Mountie’s domain.

The 700-kilometre winter trail between Dawson and Fort McPherson was relatively well known and members of the Northwest Mounted Police in the Yukon were schooled in survival on this stretch of wilderness. Still, the land had its way of exacting the ultimate price from even the most experienced traveller.

Halifax-born Francis Joseph Fitzgerald had joined the Mounties in 1888 and served at several stations during the opening of Western Canada. By 1903, he had become a skilled outdoorsman and was instrumental in establishing police outposts as far north as Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea. In early December 1910, as inspector in charge at Dawson City, Fitzgerald mushed out of the gold rush city with constables G.F. Kinney and R.H. Taylor and Special Constable Sam Carter, who would act as guide.

The journey north past the ominous Tombstone Mountains, across the high alpine tundra and through the valleys of the Richardson Range was uneventful though the temperature held at a bone numbing minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The patrol arrived in McPherson on schedule, delivered the mail and collected dispatches from the local constable. In the early hours of Dec. 21, 1910, the Mounties hitched up their dogs and mushed south, homeward bound for Dawson. But somewhere along the trail they made a wrong turn and headed up an unfamiliar valley. Several days had passed by the time they realized their mistake. The land looked strange and Carter could not identify any landmarks. Since supplies were low, Fitzgerald decided to return to Fort McPherson, but the situation quickly turned from troublesome to grim. The patrol was lost.

Soon their supplies were gone and the weakened men began to kill and eat their dogs. They were forced to walk through the deep snow pack, losing strength with each footstep. Finally, in their aimless trek, Kinney and Taylor could go no further. Kinney died where he lay face down in the snow. Taylor shot himself. Fitzgerald and Carter pressed on in a desperate attempt to reach Fort McPherson, but they were by now reduced to skin and bones. On Feb. 14, 1911, huddled in sleeping bags, Fitzgerald and Carter died. It is amazing they lasted as long as they did.

When the four failed to return to Dawson, a search party—led by Dempster—set out to find the missing patrol. On March 21, they found the frozen remains of Kinney and Taylor. Next morning, they discovered the bodies of Fitzgerald and Carter along with Fitzgerald’s will: “All money in dispatch bag and bank, clothing, etc., I leave to my beloved mother Mrs. John Fitzgerald, Halifax, God Bless All. F.J. Fitzgerald, RNWP.”

Today’s Dempster Highway winds northward through the land of the Lost Patrol where at Kilometre 118 there is a monument to the winter patrols.

A massive oil and gas strike on Alaska’s north coast in 1968, coupled with promising discoveries in the Mackenzie River Delta, led the Liberal government to take up the Dempster challenge. A new minister of Northern Development—–Jean Chrétien—allocated funds to complete the road. But by now, environmental concerns for the future of the world famous Porcupine Caribou herd were in vogue. More than 120,000 animals cross the region in an annual migration to the northern calving grounds. The road, said biologists, might forever alter this important rite of passage. But rather than avoiding the road during migration, the caribou used it as a migratory pathway. The greater threat came from human hunters who would have access to the once isolated herd.

Eventually laws were passed prohibiting hunting on or near the highway. Today, during migration, thousands of caribou can be seen near or on the road and it seems that if truckers like Bill Rutherford were to run into wildlife, it would be caribou. Rutherford’s only unfortunate animal encounter in 18 years of hauling produce came on a blind

S-curve when he struck a free-ranging horse owned by an outfitter and guide.

The highway was officially opened at a ceremony in Dawson City on Aug. 18, 1979. The celebration featured words of high praise for Diefenbaker who died at his home in Ottawa while packing for the trip to Dawson. Instead of his presence on the podium, an empty chair was reserved for the former prime minister.

Following the opening a 17-vehicle convoy consisting of 10 heavy trucks, a few cars and a D 9 Caterpillar headed north. A good thing the organizers brought along the bulldozer since on more than one occasion it was needed to pull trucks from the ever-present muskeg. “Not a trip I would recommend as a pleasure cruise,” general contractor Len Cardinal told a reporter as the convoy struggled northward, all the while marvelling at the perennial solitude that did not evoke images of the country where one of Canada’s most famous gun battles occurred.

Barely 80 kilometres from a bridge over the Eagle River at Kilometre 373, a trapper died in a hail of gunfire that would support the legend that “the Mounties always get their man.” The man, of course, was Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River. Johnson, whose true identity is still unknown, arrived in the summer of 1931. Following complaints that he was disturbing native trap lines, two Mounties, King and McDowell, mushed 80 miles from headquarters in Aklavik to check out the story. When King knocked on the door of the trapper’s dilapidated cabin, Johnson’s reply came from his rifle. A single bullet fired through the door wounded King.

A 10-man team, led by Constable Edgar Millen, was sent to arrest Johnson, but the cunning trapper engaged the sharp shooters in a wilderness gun fight that ended in the death of Millen. The subsequent chase lasted more than 50 days and on Feb. 17, 1932, the posse cornered Johnson on the Eagle River where 15 heavily armed men surrounded him. But instead of surrendering against these odds, Johnson decided to shoot it out. He lost.

Johnson is still the subject of conversation at locations along the Dempster. The Eagle Plains Lodge, situated at Kilometre 371, is one of them. This oasis on a hill of subalpine tundra—where scrubby trees lean at diverse windswept angles—is an attraction for those who travel the road. In 1989, Diane Godson answered a newspaper ad for a cook at the lodge. Fourteen years later, she still works here and has no plans to leave.

Many visitors, she says, expect to see igloos along the road and are surprised, some even disappointed, by the modern facilities at the lodge, including the Internet hookups which are in stark contrast with the stunning solitude of the untouched wilderness just outside the door.

Photography is one thing that motivates Godson to stay and she has captured much of this wild country on film.

The highway also passes through the Tombstone Territorial Park in the southern Ogilvie Mountain Range. The 2,000-square-kilometre haven was created in 1999 as a spin-off from a land claims agreement with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in aboriginal band, headquartered in Dawson City. Tombstone Park is a place of natural marvels where visitors can hike the region just off the highway or take in the more strenuous climbs in the mountainous back country.

Tombstone Mountain is the most recognizable land form in the park, while tundra-like valleys form a stunning backdrop to a wide range of plant and animal life. The highway, meanwhile, is one of only three major roads in the world that cross the Arctic Circle at Kilometre 403, that significant geographical latitude where the sun does not set on the longest day of the year, nor rise on the shortest, the day of the winter solstice.

For years, Harry Waldron, the self-proclaimed Keeper of the Arctic Circle, sat in a tuxedo on a rocking chair near a roadside cairn, posed for photographs and informed visitors that they had reached a milestone. They were indeed, he said, among a select few who have crossed the celebrated circle. Before he retired from this job, the former highway worker celebrated Dempster travellers with a toast of champagne and entertained with verses from poet Robert Service.

The Dempster cuts across the Yukon– Northwest Territories border at Kilometre 471 and heads for Inuvik, the end of the line at Kilometre 741. This subarctic town was created by the federal government in the late 1950s as a new home site for people who then lived in nearby Aklavik.

Southern engineers had predicted that this traditional aboriginal village would eventually be washed away by the omnipresent Mackenzie River and the idea of Inuvik took shape.

Fifty years later Aklavik is an active place though Inuvik, with a population approaching 4,000, is a boom town because of significant oil and gas exploration.

A multibillion-dollar pipeline to deliver both Alaskan and Canadian arctic gas down the Mackenzie Valley is likely in the future and the N.W.T. government is proposing a $57 million, five-year reconstruction program for its 260-kilometre stretch of the Dempster calling it a vital link in the supply chain to oil and gas wealth.

This reconstruction can come none too soon for the Fruit Man. Bill Rutherford says the road has taken a beating in the past 10 years and his precious peaches and other products are at times in for a rough ride. But as long as the Dempster is open, he has no plans to retire from a job that brings smiles to northern faces when he arrives at the end of the longest fresh fruit haul in the world.

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