Tuktoyaktuk, NWT

The end of the Trans-Canada Trail

As the most northern place you can reach by road in Canada, this sleepy little town of 900 people is a mix of the modern and the old. The first thing I did upon arrival is head straight to the “Arctic Ocean” sign for a quick picture and then to find the camping spots. There are a limited number of spots by the water so I’m glad I arrived early.

Once again the miserable weather had followed me to the Arctic Ocean. I’ve had rain every day for six days now, so why should this one be any different, right? At least I had a camping spot right on the edge of the water. Every time the weather eased up, I went for a walk around the shoreline and took a peek around town.

There really isn’t anything to do or see here but people are extremely friendly and seem to like engaging the travelers to their town. The town has grown since the videos I’ve seen from previous travelers and although they have cell service you can see much of how they do things are in the old ways. The traditional Sod House would be a good example. It’s just a wood shed really but it’s covered in sod (the stuff your lawn is made up of), which is used for gatherings.

Many times on my trip around Canada, I have often been wondering why the native people of these lands choose certain spots to set up at and call home. So much of the territory further south is simply inhospitable, and far too dense with trees and shrubs to make for a good place to settle, but here…in this place…it’s clear why they settled here. Wide open space on the ocean, with just enough of a sheltered Harbour for fishing boats, and easy access to Caribou migrations. Also, the tundra is frozen year round but it’s just pliable enough to dig into to store their stocks (fish, seal, and of course whale). Once smoked, the food can be stored long-term underground. Now though, they have electricity and fridges so those old ways aren’t needed, but they are still used. 

All the houses, buildings, huts, etc are on stilts to avoid damaging the permafrost. 

This also one of the many “Dry” communities, so we’re allowed to bring in a small amount of alcohol for our personal use, but there is no alcohol sales in most of the NWT or Yukon. It is available in the large cities like Whitehorse, or at some small shops that are far from major town.

For the record, you are NOT allowed to swim in the ocean in Tuktoyaktuk. It’s a fishing ground and come on…show some respect to the community! They do have a spot where you can put your toes in the ocean if you really feel compelled. They established this spot just to appease the silly tourists who come here just to do that. Well since my camping spot was right on the water’s edge, I did go sit on the rocks of the shoreline and place my hands in the ocean.

One of the coolest features of the area are the Pingos, which are very distinct landmarks of the Tundra. There are about 1300 of them and they are basically mounds of tundra with an ice core that have been pushed up due to an old thaw and re-freeze cycle.

I only stayed the one night. The weather just wasn’t cooperating and the bugs were relentless. I really do hope to return one day. Ideally in September though. Less bugs.

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The Dempster Highway – Canada’s Road to the Arctic Ocean

The farthest north you can drive in Canada is to a small town called Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. It lays on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and the only way to get there by land is via the Dempster Highway. One road in…one road out.

The trip, and the road, is not for the faint of heart. The Dempster Highway is 880km (550miles) of ever changing surfaces that can, and will, bite you the instant you drop your guard. Contrary to common belief, you do not require a 4×4 or AWD to get to the top and back, but good tires are a must.

It is said that you never visit the same river twice. It’s always changing…the depth, the current, erosion, etc all add to the mix for an ever changing landscape. The same holds true for the Dempster. Not only does the surface change every kilometer or two, but those sections also change from one day to the next. One day a section could be loose gravel and the next that same section could be flooded over, or a grader may have come through and filled in some potholes, or sections that once had grip, now completely lacks it. You need to be ready for it all. There are also two ferry crossings to get across the Pelly River and the MacKenzie River (3rd largest in the America’s behind the Amazon and the Mississippi). They run about 18hrs a day until the rivers start freezing over and they are free, which is a nice bonus.

Waiting for a ferry

The one constant is the need for concentration. The official speed limit for most of the Dempster is 90km/hr and although you can go faster (not legally) most sections require a much slower and more cautious pace. Many of the corners are blind and covered in loose gravel, and since there are no barriers or guard rails, keeping to the speed limit will certainly result in flying clear off the roadway and landing far below on the Tundra or among the trees. Even in places where it’s flat and wide open, the potholes are no joke. It’s a toss up between what causes more flat tires here…the potholes or the sharp shale stones that make up much of the surface.

Along the Dempster, you’ll cross into the Arctic Circle

There was a time when driving the Dempster Highway, when you were pretty much guaranteed to get a flat tire and everyone recommended having at least one spare tire (ideally two) or don’t even attempt the trip. The service centre at Eagle Plains landing is busy all day doing tire repairs. Now I happened to have on my van a new set of Goodyear ComfortDrive touring tires and they worked surprisingly well considering what I put them through. They aren’t designed for such an abusive “off-road” type of road, but not a single issue despite the serious hammering that they were subjected too. I did have a tire repair kit on hand if needed but thankfully it remained unopened.

I chalk this up in part to very attentive driving on my part by avoiding as many of the really nasty potholes as possible. Having said that though, I did hit a few nasty ones so hard that I thought for sure that I bent a rim. Fortunately I survived the Dempster unscathed. Dirty for sure…oh so very very dirty…but not a single flat tire. I’m actually surprised that my 20yr old van survived. The tires, suspension, chassis, all took one hell of a beating for over 1700km (round trip).

If you’re going to visit Tuktoyaktuk, then you will have to take on the Dempster Highway…but be prepared. Bring survival gear (it could be a while before someone finds you), a spare tire or at the very least a tire repair kit, tools for changing a tire, a tire inflation pump, and your wits and your full concentration. You should also bring some extra fuel. The largest gap between fuel stops is 380km, so if your vehicle can’t do 400km with fuel to spare, bring some extra with you. You should also bring cash because the electronic payment terminals aren’t always reliable and there isn’t any mobile service until you reach some of the most northern settlements like Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk at the highways end.

Goodyear ComfortDrive Tires

If you’re going to do the Dempster, be prepared for a very challenging drive and an adventure, and of course it wouldn’t be an adventure if it was easy.

Oh…you’re going to need a car wash by the time you’re done. Pay special attention getting ALL the mud out of your wheels. If you only blast out a bit of it (with a power washer), you will unbalanced them and then bad things happen. Clean them thoroughly!

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Greater Vancouver Area Tourist Stuff

I don’t think I’ve ever done so much touristy stuff before while visiting an area. Although I’ve never been to Vancouver before and to say that there is a lot to see there would be a huge understatement.

Canada’s only steam Grandfather clock

The biggest problem though is the weather! I often joke that being a weather person would be a great gig because I’m a bit of a weather nerd but also, it’s the only job where you can be wrong almost every day and not get fired. What I’m trying to say is that the forecast was hardly accurate. It’s rather difficult to plan outdoor activities when you have no idea if it’s going to rain or not.

I was staying at the Pan Pacific Hotel right downtown with a room overlooking the bay. I found myself staring out the window for long periods of time because the view was just so amazing. Boat taxis, day cruises, float planes taking off and landing every few minutes, and every morning there seemed to be a different cruise ship docked below my window. A real treat though was the sunsets which I had a great view of every night (weather permitting). After settling in, it was time for a walk around town a bit and right around the corner is the famous “Gas Town”. A couple hundred years ago the area was full of saloons, drunks, brothels, and all the problems that came along with it. The brothels are long gone though and so are drunken fights that happened all day and night, but it’s still ‘the spot’ to hang out with all it’s shops, bistros, restaurants, and pubs. One of the coolest features is the only steam powered Grandfather Clock in Canada. Just sitting out on the corner for all to see and be entertained by it’s steam powered chimes every 15 minutes and full “blown” melody at the top of every hour.

Totem Poles in Stanley Park

The next excursion was to Stanley Park, which was a short 6min cab ride away. There is a little something for everyone here. Whether it’s visiting the aquarium, the tiny steam train, native totem poles, lighthouses, old canons, or even horse drawn wagon rides (if you’re into any of those sorts of things). For a short while, and quite by accident, I ended up in the middle of a guided tour of the island. It was being led by a member of the Squamish people and in the way of his people, he passed on tales of the area as they were passed on to him. Just based on the little bit that I heard, I wished that I had been part of the whole tour. If you like history, consider joining one of these tours of the area.

I also spent some time at the Capilano Suspension Bridge and touring around Vancouver Island by way of the BC Ferries. Book well in advance if you want to take your car on the ferries or you will find yourself stranded.

Orcas (Killer Whales)

The highlight excursion for me was the whale watching. Orcas are common in the area year-round but apparently Humpbacks are common in July also (we just didn’t see any). I did however see several Orcas (Killer Whales) and we fortunate to follow a pod of five for about an hour. I also saw lots of Seals (the preferred meal for Killer Whales) and a couple Bald Eagles. I can check Whale Watching off the bucket list!

After five nights in Vancouver, I didn’t even come close to seeing it all, but it was time to go visit my cousin in nearby Burnaby for a couple nights, and a day trip up the “Sea to Sky Highway” before continuing my 3C Expedition and epic road trip around Canada.

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Urgent Update: Forest Fires Run Wild in the Yukon

Being from Toronto, I’m never really at risk of being caught in a wildfire. As an outdoorsman though, I’m well aware of the need for maintaining discipline when it comes to controlling your campfires, ensuring that they don’t get out of control, never leaving them unattended, and ensuring that they are fully extinguished before turning in for the night.

Last summer, the evening news was all ablaze with headlines about the bright orange sunsets and how the sky itself seemed to be burning. That was due to a huge wildfire up near the Thunder Bay area. The smoke was choking the air and affecting air quality hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers away.

Burned out Forest in central British Columbia

Early on in my 3C Expedition, I came across the leftovers of that fire as I drove through northern Ontario. Many days later while in lower mainland British Columbia, I came across more evidence of wildfires that scared the hillsides and mountainsides with burned out and charred trees. As I pressed northwards, I came across even worse devastation of recently burned up forests.

Seeing this type of destruction wasn’t unexpected but actually seeing it firsthand left me in awe as I remembered hearing about wild forest fires on the news. Fort McMurry in 2016 is strong in my mind as one of the worst fires in Canadian history and because I have family there…the destruction, evacuations, and the thousands of lives turned upside down.

As my trip continues and I head north to the Arctic Circle, I am now faced with the realities of wildfires firsthand. A few key roads in northern BC and in the Yukon are now closed and unpassable due to wildfires that are threatening them. This leaves me with a dilemma. I may not be able carry on as planned but I haven’t come this far just to have my dreams go up in smoke. I either risk travelling through areas with active wildfires, or I take a massive detour into Alaska and go around the fire areas altogether. Fortunately I brought my Passport just in case I had to seriously go “off script” and deviate from my main plan and routes.

At this point, it’s to early to make a decision. All I can do is keep a close eye on the fires, road closures, and weather forecasts.

For now, I will carry on northwards towards the danger zone. Perhaps things will improve as I near the region. If not, I will try and detour through Alaska.

Please consider donating so that I can complete this trip in its entirety. Detours will be costly and it looks like I will have to make a few adjustments. You can help me out greatly by pitching in for fuel at GoFundMe (click here).

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Glaciers Galore

Glacier Runoff leads to 3 Oceans

There are only a few places on the planet where you can see glaciers and Canada is one of them. Getting to stand on one and drink glacier water has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember.

Thanks to global warming, they are receding and aren’t as vast or massive as they used to be but they are still majestic and once they came into view…breath taking.

On this trip I was able to visit the Columbia Icefields which consists of six glaciers. It’s located in the top end of Banff National Park and the southern end of Jasper National Park. It holds the Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield, and the Saskatchewan Glaciers. Interesting side note…the water from the melting Snow Dome feeds into all three Canadian Oceans and visiting all three oceans is the goal of this trip. I just won’t be intersecting the oceans at the same spots.

Standing on the glacier and drinking its water…check that off the bucket list! If this is on your list, I would encourage you to do it before it’s to late. They are melting fast and the rate they are melting is increasing.

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