On the way into Dawson, we consulted maps. Not so much to help us plan our route, but more simply to marvel at how far away from everything we were. And of course, something caught my eye, a faraway place, an inappropriate diversion: Inuvik. This map is terrible, but I needed something with a highlighted route:
The red highlighting towards the left shows the Alaska Highway. Dawson is up near Alaska, along the edge of the Yukon. An unexplained road known as the Dempster Highway branches north and dead-ends at a town called Inuvik, in the corner of the Northwestern Territories. This is where I suddenly want to go.
The whole time we’re in Dawson, I can’t get the idea out of my head. “Forget about it,” the others insist. “It’s just the end of the road. There’s nothing there.” And they’re right. But this is exactly why I long to go.
The raft is coming along. They’ve begun to fell trees and nail them together. They’ve been scrounging around the town in search of rope and empty barrels, and they hope to finish up in another couple days. I muse that I might head to Inuvik around that time. “You know,” Carlos tells me one evening as we sit beside the stove toasting bread. “You can’t do everything you want to do.” Which is true. I’m losing time every day; winter is coming. September already approaches. (I recognize that September is now well underway. I’m a few days behind in this writing.) I was expecting to be in Alaska two weeks ago. The Canadian Border Patrol expects me back in the Lower 48 a week from now. My plans are never firm, so this is all ok, but can I really afford the five extra days it will take me to get up there and back? And money…I have barely enough left to make it to Alaska. Gas is $1.62 a liter ($6.19 a gallon). Gas jugging isn’t feasible with prices like this. I consider driving 40 km to the junction and hitching north from there, but there isn’t much traffic on that road and I risk stranding myself up north. Yet, I can’t just leave that road unexplored. The more I recognize how foolish and trivial the desire is, the more it burns in me to go.
I finally decide to do it. I won’t go all the way to Inuvik, but I’ll spend the last of my money on a single tank of gas and get as far north as I can with half the tank. I’ll worry later about how to make it to Fairbanks. On the ferry that night, as I’m standing beside the cluster of cars making the crossing, one of the windows rolls down as we drift across the river. “Hey,” someone calls. It’s a guy I recognize from the Visitor Center. “Are you good at painting? Do you want to paint her front porch tomorrow?” He gestures to the woman sitting beside him. So I spend the next day painting her porch, and the money she pays me fills my tank. In the morning, I head to the Dempster Highway. I’m running low on food and I expect to eat Ramen noodles the whole time I’m out here. On the way out of Dawson, I pick up a girl who is hitchhiking to Whitehorse and when I drop her off, she says she’s about to catch a plane so she doesn’t need her food anymore—will I take it?
I turn onto the Dempster, the road to Inuvik, and the pavement immediately disintegrates into gravel and dust. Through Tombstone Territorial Park at the peak of the northern autumn; red and yellow and green moss and lichens blanket hills of permafrost in a place where trees don’t grow and the empty landscape becomes of another world. Sulfuric streams carve blood red canyons into the earth. Dry streambeds overflow with rivers of orange shrubbery cascading down the mountainsides.
Rock cairns await my arrival at the summit of Ogilvie-Peel Viewpoint, where I sit in the dust and gaze out across hundreds of miles of plains. I set up my tent and gather firewood in preparation for a long night beneath the jeweled heavens.
The falling sun cracks open upon gray shards of mountain and spills into crevasses. The last of the sunlight fades just before midnight. The temperature is about freezing. And then, finally: the northern lights. Ethereal emerald; I watch them dance through the sky for five hours, until the crack between earth and sky gives birth to blue dawn.