Dempster Highway drivers flock to new destination — the Arctic coast

'A lot of people are coming here to say that they want to do the Inuvik-[Tuktoyaktuk] highway,' said Dawn Kisoun, who works at the N.W.T. tourist information centre in Dawson City, Yukon.

This is the first summer travellers can continue by road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

The Dempster Highway, which runs from the Yukon up to Inuvik, N.W.T., has long been a magnet for adventurous travellers. It seems to be even more of a draw now that drivers can continue on from Inuvik to the Arctic coastal community of Tuktoyaktuk. (iStock)

The Dempster Highway has long been a destination in and of itself — but this year, a lot of adventurous tourists seem to be using it to get somewhere else.

"A lot of people are coming here to say that they want to do the Inuvik-Tuk highway," said Dawn Kisoun, who works at the N.W.T. tourist information centre in Dawson City, Yukon. The Dempster connects to the Klondike Highway just outside of Dawson.

The $300 million all-weather road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., opened last fall, meaning this is the first year that summer tourists can drive the Dempster to Inuvik, then drive another 137 kilometres to the Arctic coastal community of Tuktoyaktuk (winter tourists have long been able to reach the community on a seasonal ice road).

Kisoun, who has worked at the Dawson City office "off and on" for more than 20 years, said this year she's seeing about 100 to 125 people each day. That's up quite a bit from last year, when she saw around 75 people on a typical day.

"A lot of repeat people coming back, saying that they came back because of the highway," she said. "They want to go the Arctic Ocean, and they want to experience a new road."

In Inuvik, the Esso gas station is opening two hours earlier each morning because of increased demand.

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"This year we're seeing a flood of... a lot of adventure motorbikes, like, way more than normal. We're seeing a lot of motor homes, a lot more than normal — like, four or five times more than normal," said Kurt Wainman, president of Northwind Industries, which owns the gas station.

"The Arctic Ocean's number one on their list - they dip their toe in the ocean."

Conditions improving

Wainman said motorcyclists started arriving early last month even though the conditions weren't great.

"It's still a little wet and rainy and muddy and drying out ... A lot of the bikes are realizing that coming up in June is a little early."

The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway was closed at times this spring, due to rainy and muddy conditions. (Submitted by Michael Wieleba)

​The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road has seen some closures this year, and Kisoun said conditions on the Dempster have also been rough at times, with rain and mud. 

Still, travellers have not been deterred, Kisoun said. She said a lot of Americans come into her office thinking they need permission to continue.

"A lot of people saying, 'Oh, do I have to register here, to go on the public highway?' And I say, 'no — it's a public highway.'"

With files from Dave Croft