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What it’s like to hike (part of) the Dempster Highway

What it’s like to hike (part of) the Dempster Highway

And some advice for anyone crazy enough to try it
By Daniel Campbell
Feb 29
2016

In the spring of 2014 a young German named Marco Marder set off on an epic solo-journey across the Canadian North. Over two months he paddled from Fort McMurray, Alberta, down the Athabasca River, Slave River, across Great Slave Lake and down the Mackenzie River to Inuvik, NWT. To cap off his trip, he then planned to hike the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson City, Yukon—all 775 kilometres. I ran into him 185 kilometres down the trail in Fort McPherson, NWT, after paddling a good portion of the Mackenzie River myself. Two months of travelling the North—and more specifically, the Dempster—had worn Marder down, and he was ready to quit.

I caught up with him via email recently to stir up some of his memories of that walk:

What was the scenery like? “From Inuvik to Fort McPherson the landscape is quite flat and swampy and the road is quite straight. It’s hard to keep the motivation up.”

The Dempster is quite narrow, did you have enough room to walk on the side?  “Most of the people slowed down, some even stopped and asked if I needed help. But very few truck drivers slowed down, which means a lot of dust and little stones. Generally I ensured I gave the vehicles room.”

Who did you meet along the way? “I met many [of the motorists]. A woman ran into me twice between Inuvik and Tsiigehtchic and gave me a bottle of water every time. I also remember two guys working a gravel crusher. I met them a few times between Tsiigehtchic and McPherson and they stopped every time to chat. I also stayed in their place for two nights in McPherson—great guys! One guy stopped to take a picture of me, and a lot of people stopped to warn me about bears down the road.”

Where did you sleep? “The camping situation was mostly very bad. It was very swampy ground, with no free space and almost no firewood. Yet there are campgrounds between Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik. The water situation is not easy to handle. I carried a filter and got it from very bad smelling pools sometimes, or mostly out of moving water along the road.”

What did you bring? “Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, fire starting stuff, spare clothes, rain gear, emergency gear, first aid, filter and tabs for getting water, food for seven days, cooking stuff and most important a very big knife. I went to the post office in Inuvik and the scale said more than 65 pounds! This is the problem walking alone: You can share gear [with two people]. Also this heavy load was the reason for my knee problems, in combination with sitting in a canoe for two months. I wasn’t really in shape for long distance walking.”

Any advice for someone considering doing the same hike? “If you choose my approach make sure you are physically up to the task. I was not because of the canoeing. Travel fast and light—I would recommend doing 30 kilometres a day from the first day, and try to get up to 40 kilometres a day. Of course there are other approaches—like having a supply vehicle or hike as a group—which would make things easier. But if going alone, speed is all.”

Marder decided to end his hike right there in Fort McPherson. He hitched the rest of the way and enjoyed the remaining scenery of the Dempster from the passenger seat of a car—except for a good stretch when a weary driver decided to let him drive. He stayed in a secluded cabin for a few days, and finally made it to Dawson City, 3,500 kilometres from where he began.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Read more about Marder’s trip and other epic Northern walks in our March issue, coming out soon.