The Yukon Tundra of Tombstone

We’d been driving the neatly packed gravel of the Dempster Highway through Tombstone Territorial Park for a few hours, stopping around each curve of the road to leave the car and take in every angle of the surreal landscape spread before us.

“Look…” Jordy said, pointing to the looser rocks along the shoulder.

Compressed into the gravel was a perfectly formed, disturbingly large footprint of a bear. A meandering trail of tracks continued down the side of the road. We stared off into the low-lying shrub surrounding us, wondering from how far we might see a Grizzly coming. In Tombstone, located just south of the Arctic Circle, there were likely more Grizzlies than people in the vicinity. We were already on high alert, and the scale of the tracks only enhanced our paranoia, sending us scurrying back into the mud-streaked Taurus to continue north.

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Tombstone was the northern-most stop on our epic 20-day road trip that took us through British Columbia, the Yukon and a slice of Alaska. When we arrived at the Tombstone Mountain Campground at kilometre 71, a light but steady rain was falling. The campground was a network of sites fenced by high bushes, mostly occupied by the ubiquitous RVs seen on the road north. With the car backed into our site, we had privacy around our fire pit, and a little trail led to the tent pad, a stream splashing nearby.

Julia and I opted to go for a short hike, and after a few practice sessions in unholstering our bear spray, figuring out just how far 5 metres really is, and going over the basics (for example, check which direction the wind is blowing before you spray), we felt ready to take on Grizzly country.

The North Klondike River trail embarked right from the campground, cutting through the tall scrubby bushes and, for a time, following the course of an icy looking river. Julia and I paused at its side for a moment, admiring the view, when suddenly a large crashing was heard in the bush. Before we had time to react, a red-faced man burst out of the brush, and rambling an hurried explanation to us in a thick Australian accent about his afternoon run and cooling down, stripped down to his underwear and clambered into the river. He spread out, submerging himself completely, clinging onto a boulder as the water rushed over him. It was a truly masochistic sight and I silently prayed that the Aussie be the only freaky thing to surprise us in the bushes in the next few days.

The trail, muddy from the rain, turned to boardwalk. Bright lichen lined the weather-darkened wood, and the brush opened to reveal a spectacular valley. The river ran shallow here, crystal clear water revealing every rock beneath the surface. Chunks of ice, that seemed to glow from within a frigid blue, were scattered across the river.

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Back at the campground, Jordy had a campfire going, and we cooked dinner over the flames in a cast-iron pan. By the time we finished eating and cleaned up the site, it was close to 9 p.m. and the dreary weather had started to clear. It was late June, close to the summer solstice, and we had unlimited light in which to explore. The road north beckoned us– we wanted to be in the midnight sun.

The Dempster Highway crosses the eastern side of Tombstone, running from south to north. From the park, the Dempster ends a 12-hour drive away in the Northwest Territories town of Inuvik, 200km beyond the Arctic Circle. We asked a park ranger if we would have any issues making it to Inuvik in my Ford Taurus. He squinted at the modest car and shrugged.

“As long as you’ve got gas and a spare tire.”

We had both, but opted not to travel any further north than the boundary of the park. But it’s strange how driving for so many days makes 12 hours in the car feel like nothing at all, especially with endless daylight. That evening, as dark clouds parted and the stark rays of the evening sun lit up the road, we felt like we could have driven forever.

First we passed mountain ranges: the craggy teeth of the Tombstones and the Blackstones, brittle-looking trees lining wide flat valleys. Soon the landscape opened into desolate arctic tundra, somehow alien in the lonely way it spread out around us; chilling in its prophecy of the harsh winter to come, that would in some ways never leave, lingering in the permafrost.

At 11:00 p.m. our shadows stretched out before us. We stopped at ponds reflecting the pastels of the never-ending sunset, and for a longer look at a pyramid-shaped mountain, unnerving in its symmetry. We ran away from the aforementioned bear tracks and scanned the horizons for moose. We played Björk as we made our way back to camp, her Icelandic influences a kindred spirit to the tundra. The sky still glowed as we tucked into our sleeping bags well after midnight.

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In the morning Julia and I discovered Jordy huddled in the car. He had brought what our friend Cam described as a “sleepover bag”, and the night had been so bitterly cold, Jordy retreated to the car in an attempt to stay warm. We packed up camp, took a detour to drive up to Two Moose Lake at kilometre 103 to see if we could spot a moose we’d heard about (no moose spotted) and then headed to the interpretive centre. We sat in the parking lot under clear blue skies and portioned out the meagre rations of the coffee I had begged off a neighbouring RV (tip: there is nowhere for a million miles to buy coffee in Tombstone and if your travelling companions are anything like mine, coffee will be a necessity). With half a cup of joe in us, we were ready to tackle the Grizzly Lake trail.

Ideally Grizzly Lake is an 11-km trail and overnight destination. We were lacking backcountry gear, so we decided to hike half the trail and head back to Dawson that evening. The trail started in the forest, and we began figuring out all the ways we could make a ridiculous amount of noise as to not surprise any bears who might happen to be on the same path. No matter how high we climbed–and the trail became quite steep, opening into alpine meadows and shrub-lined switchbacks– we never shut up, singing and whooping and chatting.

We reached a rocky ridge, and after following it for a while, decided to eat lunch and then turn back. It was a perfect picnic spot, with Haory Marmots creeping out of nooks to peer at our food and breathtaking view of valleys and mountains, in particular the rugged shard of Mount Monolith. It was early evening when we turned south on the Dempster, destination Dawson City, and the sun still hung high in the blue sky.

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The isolation and stark vistas of Tombstone evoked a sense of awe in me, oddly tinged with a respectful fear of such a place. The landscape is largely untouched by man, instead shaped by the violence of countless unforgiving winters. I was shaped by my brief time there too; the eerie beauty of Tombstone, lit by the midnight sun, will stay with me permanently, frozen in my mind like permafrost.

If You Visit Tombstone:

  • The Tombstone Mountain Campground is beautiful and private, with outhouses and running water. If you have the appropriate gear, camping overnight at Grizzly Lake would be spectacular.
  • You will be traveling into very isolated land. There is a beautiful interpretive centre with lots of helpful information, but no options for food or drink (we tried to beg hot water off them to no avail). Most importantly, NO COFFEE!
  • Even with the sun shining, temperatures fluctuated rapidly. It was very cold at night. If you’re tenting, make sure you have a warm sleeping bag. A park ranger told us that the best way to sleep in the cold is to start minimally dressed and layer up as the night goes on. Or warm stones in campfire coals and put them in the bottom of your sleeping bag.
  • Be bear aware! I firmly believe there is no overdoing it when it comes to this. Keep your campsite clean, carry bear spray and make noise when walking through areas with obstructed views. Learn some Bearyonce. Sing “If I Were a Bear”. It works.
  • We visited in late June, which was fantastic for the unlimited light. But autumn in Tombstone is incredible, with the tundra awash in bright fall colours.
  • We found the Dempster Highway to be in fantastic condition, with hard packed gravel. The only scary element are the large trucks that careen down the road at terrifying speeds– your best bet is to move as far as possible to the shoulder and slow down to let them pass. My car suffered its only injury of the trip on the Dempster: a small windshield chip from the inevitable spray of gravel from a passing truck.
  • Make sure your vehicle is gassed up and carry a full gas can; make sure you can fix a flat tire. There’s no amenities for many miles. And needless to say, there’s no cell reception.
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