Dead End Roads

When my paraglider started spinning backwards, out of control, 100 feet above the mountainside, I knew I was in trouble. In less than ten seconds I impacted the ground, landing on my back. Dazed, and the wind knocked out of me, I wasn’t sure if I was dead or alive. Fortunately I was alive, but my arm didn’t quite work right and really hurt. With my one good arm, I packed up and hiked out to the road and headed to the hospital. A broken arm (humeres bone) and a sore back was all that was wrong. Not something I’d wished for in the middle of a beautiful Alaskan summer, but this was the predicament I was in. On the drive home from the hospital I realized I’d better make good use of the three months I’d have off work and my inability to do anything very active. The doctor said to take it easy and don’t use my arm for anything. It didn’t take long to realize I couldn’t really do much. I couldn’t even tie my own shoes, but I could drive!! Shortly after I arrived home I was looking at maps and planning a road trip.

Being a bit of an explorer, I’ve traveled almost every road in Alaska. Pouring over the maps I spotted the one road I hadn’t been on and had always wanted to travel. This trip had evaded me before because of its length, time commitment, and amount of gravel, rather than pavement. It was a lone highway cutting north and east in Alaska and eventually into the Yukon Territory. It looped back down to Whitehorse, YT and connected up with the Alaska Highway. I would log nearly 2000 miles just driving that loop and endure over 200 miles of gravel.

However, the real attraction was a dead end, gravel road, that went northeast off this highway, just out of Dawson City, YT. This road, called the Dempster Highway traverses some extremely pristine wilderness for 460 long miles to a small native village, Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, near the Beaufort Sea. Northwest Territories? I’d never been there, nor did I know anyone that had. Despite precautionary advisements from family and friends about traveling with a broken arm on a lengthy road trip, mostly on gravel roads, with a manual transmission, and in uninhabited wilderness, I decided, broken arm and all, this was the trip for me. I knew that it would only take one good road to have a grand adventure, even if it was a dead end road.

Just out of the shop, my trusty 10 year old Subaru was loaded with camping gear, food, music, and maps. And on a clear, magical Alaskan summer day, I pulled out of my driveway headed north, not really knowing what to expect, or realizing how many dead end roads I would come across.

My first goal was to explore a short gravel stretch of road that leads into the north side of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. I had spent considerable time in and around the Wrangell’s and even tried to drive this road to a small township called Nabesna before, but was evaded by high water and heavy rain. The road crosses several streams and becomes impassable in bad weather. Although, this diversion would take me 45 miles down a dead end gravel road, and 45 miles back, it was certainly on the list of places to see on this trip. The road to Nabesna turned out to be beautiful. The drive, complete with stunning views of the Wrangell Mountains reflected in kettle ponds and vast stretches of wilderness and tundra. There was no one else on the road and when I got to the end of the road and Nabesna, there were a few small cabins and no one around. Just what I had hoped to find at the end of a dead end road. I turned around and drove back to the main highway and headed north.

After hours of driving across Alaska I made it to the cutoff for the Taylor Highway and turned north again. More hours behind the wheel found me amidst dust and a winding road that was hard to keep track of. As I approached a small historic mining settlement called Chicken(pop.37), the road was up and down and random beyond belief, while the landscape was littered with gold mining tailings and huge dredges dating back to the gold rush days of the early 1900s. I fueled up, as any other gas was nearly a half day’s drive from here.

For another hour I drove on rough gravel before I had to make another navigating decision, explore another dead end gravel road that went straight north to a small town called Eagle, AK. or continue on. Without question, I headed north. By nightfall I was in Eagle (pop.152) and spent the next day exploring this small township located on the Yukon River. Once the supply and transportation center for miners working the upper Yukon River and its tributaries, today, it is a quiet town with few services and unique northern charm. Unbeknownst to me, polar explorer Roald Amundsen stopped here in 1905 to dispatch telegrams to the world of his conquest of the Northwest Passage. Oddly, I had crossed paths with Amundsen before, as he was the first explorer to reach the South Pole, and I stood at the same spot nearly 90 years later.

Back on the road I traveled east and crossed the border into Canada on the highway known as the Top of the World Highway, not only for its northern latitude but also because it was built across the ridge tops of all the surrounding hills. The views are immense and spectacular and truly an unforgettable experience, not to mention this section of road is paved. Arriving in historic Dawson City, YT (pop.2019) was a treat. It was sunny and warm and tourists were everywhere. I had read and heard so much about this place I was interested in walking along its dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. Dawson has been preserved too much of the same way it was in the Klondike gold rush days of the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is like stepping back in time to walk the steets of this historic town. But, I didn’t stay long; I had other places to explore. Just outside of Dawson city, the Dempster Highway begins and that was my real goal.

Turning onto the Dempster, I was back on gravel and back into some serious remote wilderness. For several days I drove north on this forbidding highway, never seeing many cars or people, which is just how I like it. I rolled by the landscape in awe of the vastness and beauty of this area. Quiet mountain streams, towering peaks, rolling tundra, and a single place to get gas, Eagle Plains. I was now 250 miles from Dawson and about halfway to the end of the road. I asked the attendant if he had been to the end of the road. He had and told me to not waste my time even going into the NW Territories or Inuvik (the town at the end of the road), as there was nothing up there. Undeterred, I traveled on, heading north.

By nightfall I had crossed the Pel River, not by bridge, but by ferry. In the winter travelers just drive across on the ice. I spent the night under the stars listening to howling dogs from a local native village. In the morning I rode another ferry across the Mackenzie River and drove north as the landscape flattened out to rolling hills and endless tundra as far as the eye could see. More hours behind the wheel found me pulling into Inuvik, NWT. (pop.3452). I had made it to the end of the road. Under a veil of clouds, the sun found a hole and illuminated this native village in a magic glow. Like most dead ends, there was no one around. Filling up for gas, I asked the boy at the station what he did for fun in such a northern place. His eyes lit up as he told me about the basketball tournament he was playing in and his team had received a “bye” into the championship. I assumed it was all teams from native villages across the territory, but no, just three local teams, all aged 16 and under. I drove away scratching my head wondering how three teams make much of a tournament and how all that works. Yet, it dawned on me how simple and happy life can be in a small northern town at the end of a 460 mile dead end gravel road. In this place, it was obvious, you are just happy with what you have. I contemplated this as I watched the Mackenzie River go by and figured this was a good lesson for modern society.

Before long, I pointed my car south and drove for days, back the way I had come, all 460 miles of gravel. I did stop to see the gas station attendant in Eagle Plains, the halfway point, and he laughed as I told him he was right, there wasn’t much up there, but it is well worth the trip. He only smiled and agreed, for he had been down the same dead end road.

I completed the loop on the Top of the World Highway and hooked up with the paved Alaska Highway, and headed north, back to Alaska and home.

In the end, I had no breakdowns, yet, my arm was still broken. I traveled 3000 miles of desolate, beautiful highway across Alaska, the Yukon, and the NW Territories. With over 1000 miles of gravel it was the road trip of a lifetime. I learned that just like life, all roads are worth exploring, and sometimes, it’s the Dead End roads that make all the difference.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska, is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, October 17th, 2004