Into the Northwest Territories
Beyond Eagle Plains, the Dempster crosses the Arctic Circle at 66°33' north, a latitude where the sun never completely sets on summer solstice and never rises during winter solstice. A few clicks further and you’ll gaze over the famed Porcupine caribou herd’s winter range, known for the thousands of roving caribou that carpet the valley from September through May.
Another 35 miles and the Dempster welcomes travelers to Canada’s Northwest Territories at an interpretive kiosk. During the height of summer, the ground trails here are flanked by crimson alpine tundra and patches of vivid Arctic windflowers of neon intensity, thanks to an insomniatic sun that never sets.
After the Mackenzie River and Arctic Red River Ferry crossing (both free), a two-hour drive past the pristine lakes and forests of Gwich’in Territorial Park lands drivers in Inuvik. On the cusp of the Arctic Ocean, the town of 3,400 residents overlooks the sprawling maze of lakes and waterways of the Mackenzie Delta, and is the territorial homeland of the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in peoples. Travelers can get their bearings and learn about the town’s history at the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre, which catalogs and displays important aspects of the land, history, and cultures.
Town locals are especially proud of a singular distinction here: the Inuvik Community Greenhouse—North America’s northernmost greenhouse. Converted from an old hockey arena, the structure is used by residents during the summer months’ 24-hour sunlit days to grow fruits, vegetables, and plants. Tours are available most days throughout the season.
Inuvik marks the beginning of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, the Dempster’s new, final extension, that starts in boreal forest (or taiga) before abruptly giving way to flat treeless Arctic tundra. The gravel road snakes for 85 miles across the Mackenzie River delta’s countless lakes, ponds, and tributaries, a feat made possible by eight bridges, 359 culverts, and 177 million cubic feet of road material. In the distance you’ll see peculiar Arctic phenomena for which the region is known: the quixotic pingos. Tuk is surrounded by the world’s largest concentration of these large conical hills (formed when bulging ice cores gradually grew as water expanded into ice). About a quarter of the world’s pingos—roughly 1,350—exist on the Tuktoyaktuk peninsula, measuring up to 160 feet high. Many are still growing.