In the land of the shape-shifters

I have convinced Neil to abandon our important fall chores of hunting, building and berry picking to head north to the Arctic Ocean in search of pingos.

Poor Homer got left behind in Dawson. He knew what was coming

                           Setting off

I couldn’t spend another year in the far north without seeing a pingo. It’s hard for us to travel. The river’s either freezing or breaking and we can’t get off our property, or the truck’s in the wrong place, or snowed in or something’s going on. So unless a pingo wanders past the house during its annual migration, we’ll have to go to them.

We packed up our camping gear and drove all the way to Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea, where pingos graze on the golden tundra.

                         Pingos in the wild

No they don’t. Pingos are land forms, conical hills that are created when a pool of ground water sits on the permafrost and freezes slowly, pushing the land above it into a mound that stands up off the tundra in a boob-like hump. The country is so flat here, and so damn wide, that pingos transfix your gaze. I’d seen pictures of them but could grasp no sense of their scale.

                         The Beaufort Sea, at end of the world

Now, having seen them in real life, I still have no idea how big they are. There is a long tradition of shamanism in the cultures of the far north and, driving across the rolling Barren Lands I felt I had a sense of why. This is the land of shape-shifters. We stopped to watch two pingos just outside the town of Tuk.


                          Tuk Visitors’ Centre. (It was closed)

How far away were they? How big? We made an attempt to walk to one and seemed to get no closer. Was I looking at a mound no taller than myself that I would stumble over in the next half hour? Or would it take 3 days to reach a mini-mountain, hundreds of feet high?

We came across a sign but it didn’t say. Maybe nobody knows? Skiing on the tundra years ago in Greenland I found I would suddenly bump into a small ridge of snow that I had imagined to be a high cliff many miles and days of skiing away.

                             Bull caribou

The lack of features, the sky that expands far beyond your field of vision distorts any sense of space or time you bring to this place.

In close view, the tundra could be any British granite upland. The ice shattered chert rock is similar to granite and the land is a moor-like terrain of lichen-covered angular rocks, grasses, mosses, bogs and low brush.

                             Dempster Highway

But what is different is the scale. As we drove, I tried to imagine the expanse of this place, from the far west of Alaska to the edge of Eastern Canada, intersected by no other road except the haul road to the oil fields of Deadhorse many hundreds of miles away. I failed.

It is beyond me and anything I can know. I can no more visualise the breadth of this country than I can outer space.

So I concentrated on the pingos. We viewed them from several different spots and each time I swear they moved. We headed north and they somehow remained north of us. The road bent east, away from them, but they got closer.

                            Pingo and driftwood

Exhausted by their antics we drove onto Grandma’s Kitchen in Tuk and chatted with the owners whilst we plucked dried whitefish flesh from its leathery skin and drank coffee by the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

The Tuk section of the Dempster Highway opened last year. John at Grandma’s told us the Inuvialuit people there had fought hard to have it built and were mindful of what pace and type of development they wanted.

On the drive up, selfishly drinking in the views, I wondered what it might mean for this fragile land to be carved open with another road.

                              Fingers of lichen

On the tundra, I tread as gently as I can, but each step I take feels like a disaster. The lichen is so delicate, I cringe as I walk in fear it might scream with each shattering boot fall.

I tread on a wafer-thin forest of the most beautiful colours and complexity. Brilliant white branches, thin as capillaries, rosettes of black leather, fire-bright oranges and specks of blood reds.

                                 Monochrome lichen

                                  Salmon (or cloud) berries

Roads bring development, more hunters. Some say the caribou are frightened by roads and may change the course of their migration to avoid them. On the drive back, someone had thrown empty beer cans every few miles. They glittered in the mud, as regular as mile markers.

It is not an easy drive. Without Terry, our trusty truck we might still be there as the Peel River ferry was closed to all vehicles except light trucks on the way back and the queues of cars, rigs and RVs were building on either side.

                            Working on the ramp

It had been closed for two days and people had camped overnight. The river rose so high it had washed out the ferry landing and they worked continually with a digger to bank up the sides and keep the flooding water at bay.

                              Snug in the tent with our woodstove

We came prepared. It is 880 km/ 546 miles along the highway to Tuktoyaktuk and the road is not paved. It veers between being a rutted, potholed washboard and a slithering mud bath on the Yukon side. At the Northwest Territories border, things improve markedly, which is a bit of an embarrassment for us Yukoners.

By mid-August summer is coming to an end in this part of the world so we packed heavy. We brought our wall tent, winter sleeping bags and woodstove. It was 0c at our place the morning we left. It’s rained, sleeted and snowed most of the time.

We are snug and rather smug on the campsites with our woodstove chugging away and everything warm and dry, watching very wet people crawl into their rain-battered North Face nylon bubbles in the evenings.

The misery of Eagle Plains hotel and RV park with its resident ravens. The only hotel between Inuvik and Dawson. Known as “The Shining” Hotel

Some people seem very unprepared. We’ve seen them pottering along on bicycles with no fluorescent gear and no lights. We watched in horror as two motorcyclists passed us, sliding in inches of snow, at the top of the Ogilvie mountain pass.

Our truck was almost run off the road by a double tanker that sent rocks the size of my fist smashing into our windscreen and through our front light. Some of these drivers will not slow down to pass, not even for a cyclist. As I feebly tried to describe earlier, this is the great northern wilderness. It is massive, there are grizzlies by the road and, being far above the Arctic Circle, it can be snowy and somewhat cold.

                             Grizzly by the road side

Once you put a road in people want to drive it, and they will want to take their little Nissan Micra, or ride motorbikes and bicycles. And soon they’ll want to jog along it and before long they’ll be bumbling along on a unicycle dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume for charity.

                                 Mist coming in

We met both the doctor and the helicopter rescue pilot at the town of Inuvik on the way. They are the ones who pick up the pieces. And it is the little towns of Inuvik and Tuk whose resources are stretched to save people’s lives, or indeed, get them shipped home in a bag.

                                       Surfbird Ridge

There is a well-known hike off the Dempster, south of here in Tombstone National Park, to Grizzly Lake and the Monolith Peaks. You see the picture on all the brochures, but it is not an easy stroll. It’s about 12km each way and you need to camp overnight and have the right gear.

The Parks Service gives a two-hour orientation talk for anyone doing the trek and loans bear-proof food containers that you must take or be bear food yourself. It is incredibly steep with an elevation of 1700m and much of the walk is over scree and boulder fields. You need to be prepared.

                                         Hike up to Grizzly Ridge

Anyhow, despite feeling so smug in our wall tent with stove and chainsaw, somehow all of that escaped Neil and me. We set off at the relaxed hour of 10.30am to go to Grizzly Lake and back in a day with some sandwiches and a spare sweater each thinking it would be “a bit of hike”, probably.

You get to a ridge a few hours in, where you can see the lake and the peaks, and they appear tantalisingly close. But, like the tundra, Grizzly Lake is in a strange crease of time and manages to get further away the longer you walk.

Deranged with fatigue, we became fixated on it and couldn’t possibly give up. We got there at 4pm, collapsed on the sweet Labrador Tea bushes, minds and legs bandy with fatigue, and wondered at the sheer power of the place. Dark peaks rise in steep lines from the lake into ominous ridges and pinnacles that seem to loom from the water. It was, as they say here, awesome.

We only had half an hour of awestruck wondering as it gets dark by 11pm. We had no idea whether we’d be crawling the last few miles on our hands and knees from exhaustion. I’d packed a headlamp, but discovered the batteries were dead. Brilliant. So we allowed ourselves a long time to get back.

On our return, we met people wielding massive rucksacks, still heading out who said “Oh! You’re heading BACK?” “Yes,” we replied cheerfully, like we did that kind of thing all the time and it was no big deal.
                                           Handy drinking fountain

I’d read in a WW2 RAF arctic survival manual you should rest 10 minutes of every hour on an extreme walk and somehow manged to recall the information. It helped. Hourly, we rested our muscles and ate a chocolate almond each, eking out the last of our food. And that bloody chocolate almond became the sole focus of my world for 6 hours.

A marmot, apparently. We didn’t know what it was and had to ask someone

We did it. 11 hours of very hard walking, either up or down or over but hardly ever along the flat. The weather was warm and stayed so and we suffered no ill effects and, yes it was worth it. And that is the draw of wild and beautiful places on the human mind, even when you’re fortunate enough to live in one as we do. I guess the wilderness just makes you do stupid things.

Today, if the rain stops, we will hike out onto the rocky faces of the Richardson Mountains where we watched grizzly bears grazing for berries from the truck. We have bear spray and a rifle but is it wise to do so? Probably not, but of course we are drawn to it like moths to a light.

My last words to the emergency helicopter pilot we met in Inuvik were “Yeah, we’re pretty well prepared and we’ve got a decent truck and you can remind me how smug I was when you’re strapping me to the stretcher.”

Washing the truck at Rock Creek whilst Neil fished. Both totally pointless.

45 minutes later


  1. Great story and photos, we also like to drive every road north of the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia. We also decided 5 years ago to live there.

    1. Wow, love your Flickr pics. looks like you guys do well for salmon berries! I wish we'd been able to settle further north but it is so tough to live up there.

  2. Fabulous stuff. Only the brave, or the foolhardy, maybe. Sounds like the kind of thing I'd also find impossible to resist despite knowing full-well I'd cock it up too.

    1. Thank you. Yes, foolhardy's probably the right word, for us at least.

  3. Beautifully written and illustrated! Love the grizzly picture <3 Such an immense, immeasurable landscape. I thought it fitting that road conditions on the Dempster often mean driving at snail's pace - the scenery and atmosphere are too mind-blowing and humbling to race through it.

    1. so true, except you have to keep your eyes on the potholes so only the passenger gets to enjoy the scenery!

  4. Hi Louise: This story is fabulous! Thanks for a tour with your words and photos. It brought me back to my trip on the Dempster, alone in my regular van. I have a photo of the Arctic Circle too! (with guys from Taiwan who were test driving vehicles!). I was traveling for 8 wks in Alaska. There were crazies on the road, for sure, but I did fine until my return from Inuvik when I got my first flat (there would be three more). I was only 20 miles from Eagle Plain but the dust told me a truck was coming. Yup, a semi and the driver was very drunk, but he changed my flat in no time--git otta the way, I'll DO IT! Out of the truck came two bicycle tourists..(crazies!!) who were terrified to ride with the truck driver and so happy to get out!! So much adventure. Reminds me I must plan a road trip soon. Best wishes from a sister in adventure. J in Minnesota.

    1. Great to hear from you, and we loved your story too! it's far more exciting than our journey. Interesting, as we were nearly run off the road by a driver in a double tanker. I didn't write much about it but it was really scary. He/she drove so badly we reported them to Transport Canada! Now i know why!


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