This is an old place--raw, poetic, unpredictable. Natural drama abounds in this temple of the North, an infinite, meditative space so vast your mind first perceives it to be empty before it quickly fills with detail--golden light piercing through its endless ceiling, hundreds of caribou herded by a grizzly across a carpet of red bearberry, and golden draba in the distance.
There is nothing tame about the Dempster Highway, in fall or any other season. Venturing north with your camera up the hardscrabble 734-km road--which begins just outside of Dawson City and winds through the Peel Watershed, crossing the Arctic Circle and ending in the tiny town of Inuvik, N.W.T.--you’d better be gutsy, grounded, and prepared. A sturdy vehicle is recommended as your tires skitter to find purchase on the gravel berm floating above the permafrost. Carved like a petroglyph across the wilderness, the road loosely follows an ancient route where people moved in concert with migrating caribou tens of thousands of years before William Dempster, the gold-rush-era North-West Mounted Police inspector for whom the highway is named, ever set foot in the North.
“Why on earth would I return to the place that killed my brakes and destroyed my morale?” asks professional wildlife photographer John Marriott, 42, of Canmore, Alta. “Because I had to. I simply couldn’t let the Dempster win, at least not without a bigger fight.” Marriot returned in 2010 for a fourth battle with the Dempster after first encountering the wild expanses of the region in 2002. He was searching for the migrating Porcupine caribou, a 120,000-strong herd that returns south from the coastal plain near the Beaufort Sea to overwinter in Yukon and Alaska, crossing the Dempster between September and October. Bunked down in the back of his vehicle beside the Richardson Mountains, between Km 350 and 450 of the highway, his first day on his mission came and went with not a caribou in sight. When he woke the next morning, there were 200–300 emerging from the fog like a magical entity, antlers crowning both male and female. Silently, these “ghosts of the tundra,” as Marriot calls them, moved closer until he could hear the click-click of their hooves against the sand. He moved carefully. The caribou are notoriously wary of humans, especially during the fall hunt--it only takes a passing truck banging against a pothole for these spectral figures to vanish into the surrounding bush.
Every nature photographer wants to take that jaw-dropping photograph on the Dempster, the one that puts the viewer eye to eye with the wild and in tune with the jazz riff of wind playing across that barren mountain moonscape awash in a valley splotched with riotous Pollock-colour. Marriot is no exception.
“You have to be ready to shoot in a second,” says Marriott. “Even in fall, I’ll be up at 6 a.m. driving so I know where the animals are and can get staked out.”
He recalls a moment of victory when he captured an elusive wolverine in the crosshairs of his viewfinder. “When I saw the wolverine I had maybe 10 seconds before he ran,” he remembers.
In a three-week period, from mid-August through September 2010, Marriot shot over 10,000 images of rarely seen wildlife and lush, prehistoric scenery, a gain he weighed against the exorbitant cost of those new brakes when rain turned the road to a muddy snake pit.
Tipping the scales was a scene-stealing grizzly Marriot nicknamed Stripe for the dark band of fur running down her blonde back. After pouncing on Marriott’s car, the young grizzly, common to the Arctic tundra, seemed to follow him, strolling into shot after shot to strike a pose. He had heard about this bear from another photographer, when she was one of three cubs with her mother the year before.
The tales nature photographers bring home are often as breathtaking as their images.
Sitting atop a mountain in the northern Ogilivies for three days, in 2009--like a yogi with a tripod--Whitehorse-based landscape photographer Damien Tremblay witnessed an incredible synchronicity: the red ember of alpenglow on the summit struck a rainbow, fiery colour shooting up its column like an enflamed cross. After scouting likely sites on Google Earth, backpacking four to five days into the heart of Beringia, the vast land bridge left untouched during the last ice age, and waiting through cold and rain, he would have less than a minute to compose this shot.
“All night long I listened to the rain falling on the tent while replaying in my mind the ecstatic vision I witnessed,” recalls Tremblay. “The combination of the two phenomena is rarely seen, much less photographed. That rainbow will haunt me for months.”
Returning home, 800-km south in Whitehorse, it became clear to him this apparition was a sign--on the day it appeared his wife had learned she was pregnant with their first-born.
“Was it the rainbow protector of pregnant women who visited me?” Tremblay wonders, thinking of a deity that figures prominently in some Native American cultures. “Maybe it was Iris herself, goddess of the rainbow and messenger between earth and heaven, who was bringing me the good news.”
Fall comes and goes in a flash in the North. Photographer Rom Smid, of Powell River, B.C., who visited in 1999, recalls pulling off the road to catch that ephemeral moment of change in Tombstone Territorial
Park. Then just starting out as a landscape
photographer, shooting with film, he had followed the Dempster on the advice of the more experienced Darwin Wiggett, who promised it would be “vivid, as if paint was spilled over the entire scene--you just won’t believe the colour!”
In a lone, stunted spruce set against a blaze of crimson, yellow, and orange that stretched back towards the mountains, he recognized something of himself on his first solitary journey across Canada. Standing on the edge of a brewing storm, he watched the tree trembling through his lens. Snow began to fall as he packed his camera in his bag, and the landscape had turned white by the time he reached his vehicle. He sat, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, wondering, “Should I go on?”
“I had a sea kayak strapped to the roof of my tiny 1985 Golf diesel, with one of those cheap doughnut tires in the kayak’s cockpit,” recalls Smid of his less-than-ideal transport. But perhaps he, too, was under watch of some unseen protector. “I didn’t have a single problem.”
In fact, the only obstacle he confronted was “the Mount Everest of the mind. There were no human[-made] signposts, no radio stations, and the only other people I saw were Gwich’in elders, bundled up and picking berries while a truck tire was changed out.”
When the road turned to smooth pavement at the north end of the highway, in Inuvik, “it was like a gong going off in my mind,” says Smid. “I was used to the gravel and dust and solitude, and it felt like it would go on forever. You leave something of yourself there.”
Many veterans of the Dempster will tell you that walking onto the tundra will shatter your sense of scale and self. One moment you’re as small and humble as the tiniest atom, and in the next breath you become part of the Dempster’s living pulse, where there is no separation from the gyrfalcon’s dizzying dive or the ptarmigan camoflouaged in the dwarf willow below.
“Do you ever really come back from that road?” Tremblay asks. For him, travelling the Dempster was a turning point in his life. After his first trip, in 2004, he moved to the Yukon so he could make this pilgrimage at least once or twice a year.
“As a landscape photographer, I have the possibility to make images that have never been made and to record something that is quickly disappearing everywhere else,” he says.” The Dempster crosses the western part of the Peel Watershed, a true wilderness of rare beauty. It is the only road in the watershed. It is important to preserve the area, as it is one of the last remaining wild landscapes in North America. Maybe in the future the wilderness photographers of today will be seen as ‘archivists’ of the land.”
Says Marriot, “It’s otherworldly, it’s not so long ago that woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers roamed here.” In the Richardsons, the northernmost section of the Rockies, no vegetation impedes the vista. “I can watch a grizzly making its way across the valley for tens of kilometres,” adds Marriot.
For the first-time traveller or aspiring photographer, these seasoned Dempster-philes have lots of advice.
Marriott has found the Dempster’s first 450 km to be particularly wildlife-rich. There, he has spotted a lone lynx in the northern Ogilvies and, at the edge of the boreal forest, a young wolf cub, the size of a cocker spaniel, out on its first exploratory wanderings.
“Plan your mileage even more than your food and water,” stressed Marriott, “especially in the upper reaches and the Richardsons, where it may be 75–100 kilometers to the nearest gas--don’t cut it close!” His GPS SPOT tracker links to his blog, so readers can follow his travels vicariously, and provides location information in case of emergency. “This last trip really illustrated to me how prepared you have to be from a photographer’s perspective.”
Spectacular lighting effects from rainbows and kaleidoscopic sunsets giving way to northern lights in the evening are a hallmark of autumn on the Dempster. This is pure light, undiluted by urban haze, but the Dempster’s mood can change quickly, making lighting a challenge. Nature is in charge here.
Tremblay favours overcast light to make fall foliage pop. But as the Dempster changes, so, too, do the landscapes which capture a photographer’s fancy.
“Lately, I have been focusing more on the moonscape of the northern Ogilvie Mountains,”says Tremblay. “There, I am more attracted by shapes and rocks, in the strong lighting of sunset or sunrise.”
Marriot, who prefers bright light to capture the full glory of grizzlies and caribou, is already planning his next trip during winter to document wolves in the region. However, he’s still excited by the warmer months as well. “In May to June, the snow has just melted. It is a wildlife-rich time to be there, with foxes denning on the side of the road and peregrine falcons,” he says, before adding that mid-summer also has its virtues. “There are wildflowers in July and August.”
It’s clear from listening to these photographers that the Dempster is a chameleon, offering fresh subjects in every season. Its beauty is a reward for patience and loyalty, and so it is no wonder that when most people are comfortably in their beds, intrepid nature photographers like Marriot, Tremblay, and Smid, are up pursuing light and wildlife, making an art out of adventure. Y