Up the Dempster

The Dempster highway is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. As it winds it’s way north, it would have eventually taken me to the arctic circle (although I never quite got that far!). The landscape changed with every rounded hill or crested mountain. At one point it was a winter wonderland, with every mountain covered white with snow, but a short drive further and I found myself taking off layers and in a spring-like tundra. Thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of the people in Dawson City, I’ve had the opportunity to travel it twice while here in the Yukon, and both times it’s blown me away.

The Dempster travels a big and open landscape. It’s full of animals, trees and plants, but not a lot of people. While travelling on the highway during a ten to twelve hour trip, we never saw more than a dozen other people. Anytime we wanted to stop and look at something we simply left the car on the road and walked off in that direction.

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The wildlife here is incredible, too. I’ve been told that I was very lucky to see as much as I did, but while driving the Dempster we got to see many animals from the north that I hadn’t seen before—ptarmigan, dall sheep, caribou, moose, black and grizzly bears, and even a couple of black wolves. Most of these didn’t seem overly perturbed at our presence and either ignored us, or sauntered away at their own pace.

And, of course, there’s the landscape’s local colours! On my first trip with Dan, Laurie, and Jillian, we found the brightest red ochre you can imagine floating on top of the spring foam on Engineer Creek (a week later, when I returned, it had all dissipated). There was also black earth run-off and, once we got to the Ogilvie Ranges, some areas of bright yellow ochre. I especially enjoyed this trip because of the love of the landscape that Dan and Laurie shared with Jillian and I.

My second trip was taken with Tyson and Kay, and had a bit more of a goal in mind. On the first trip, I had seen a hill with a bright, red patch on our way north, but driving south we couldn’t find it again. So, on the second trip, I was hoping to find it, and hopefully explore it. We happened to meet Sylvia along the way, who grew up along the Dempster. She, right away, had an idea of where we should go to collect ochre (and even drew me a map!).

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When we got to the spot, Sylvia’s map lined up perfectly with the hills we saw. But, it was obvious that we’d have to hike through some pretty wet areas to begin, and that after that it was a bit of a climb, but all Tyson said was, “Well, let’s get you up there”. I did end up getting a couple of soakers, but when we came to the top of the hill and I saw the red a little ways ahead it was altogether worth it.

The red here is a bright, blood red. And, I wasn’t the first person to collect colour here either … I have no idea how long ago it was done, but underneath a stunted silver birch tree, was a little pit that another had dug. After clearing away many years of leaves and mulch, I continued the digging that had been done before me. The ground was mostly frozen, but I managed to collect a little baggie of colour. Then, I put everything back—returning the ground to how I’d found it. I can’t wait to see what kind of pigment this special place creates!

Silver Birch Hill Ochre

photo by Tyson Bourgard

Somehow, before coming to the Yukon, I thought that such an open landscape would be a lonely place, but having now spent a month up here hiking, exploring and working I’m beginning to realize that its a big space that’s full of wonders and beauty. On the way back down the Dempster I thought about how lucky I am to have been out here. The landscape has been rich in local colours and a joy to explore, and the community in Dawson City has been interested and supportive.

Special thanks to Dan and Laurie, Karen, Vivian, Gaby, Kiersten, Meg and Chuck, Tyson, Kay and Jillian, as well as everyone else who’s been so wonderful during my time in the Yukon.

2 Comments

  1. Caroline on May 9th, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    Wow! What an amazing landscape – and such a great red! I hope you share the resulting colours.

  2. kelly c perry on May 10th, 2016 at 9:11 am

    Symeon looks like you had an amazing trip, such beautiful country. Looking forward to seeing your red on your paintings.

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