The Dempster Highway passes through a land of extremes. Yet, far from being an uninhabited wasteland, it has been home to humans since the end of the last ice age. Archaeologists have identified over 90 prehistoric sites along the Dempster. On the evidence of stone tool fragments found near Rock River and the North Fork Pass, prehistoric use of this area spans thousands of years. Bison and caribou were hunted by these early peoples and possibly, at the end of the ice age, mammoth and horse as well. Patterns of land use indicate a history of hunting that has continued virtually unchanged to the present day.
The first contact with Euro-Canadians was made in 1839 with Robert Bell of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the early 1800s, three Athapaskan-speaking groups occupied the land: the Hän, centered around the Yukon River, the Tetlit Gwich’in on the upper Peel River and the Dagoo Gwich’in on the upper Porcupine River. Geographical and cultural boundaries were relatively fluid although there was a strong association with commonly used land. These people were great travellers, moving throughout the area along well-established trade and hunting routes. You are travelling one of them today.
The Gwich’in were (and many still are) subsistence hunters who lived in family groups in semi-permanent settlements, moving on annual cycles to hunt, fish and pick berries. Only in the last 50 years or so have permanent communities been established. While the archaeological record gives us some insight into their lives, the strong oral tradition of the Gwich’in peoples gives us their own history.
Place names are one means of using the landscape to record that history and can be reminders of stories that are passed from generation to generation. Vadzaih Kan (Caribou Place) Creek, crosses the Dempster Highway north of the Arctic Circle. “Vadzaih” is the Gwitchin word for caribou and refers to the Porcupine Caribou herd migration. Hunters from northern communities in Yukon and the Northwest Territories are still drawn here for the annual harvest.
You have reached the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line around our planet at 66° 33’ north latitude. It marks the southern limits of the Arctic, Land of the Midnight Sun. The “line” is actually the edge of a band of 24-hour sunlight that stretches from the North Pole to here at midnight on June 21, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Six months later, on the shortest day, it is the edge of a huge shadow that blankets the Arctic. On June 21, you would not see the sun set here: on December 21, you would not see it rise. As you go father north, the number of days that this happens increases. At the North Pole itself, the sun does not set for six months, from the spring equinox to the fall equinox. For the next six months, the sun does not rise. These seasonal extremes are due to the 23° tilt in the earth’s axis. As the earth circles the sun, the Arctic is alternately tipped toward and away from its influence at different times of the year.
Although the Arctic Circle can be located, it cannot be properly observed from the Earth’s surface. This is the result of sunlight passing through the atmosphere. Gasses in the atmosphere act like a giant lens to refract or “bend” the sun’s rays, making it appear higher that it really is. For this reason, the midnight sun can be seen from places like the top of the Dome near Dawson, well south of the Arctic Circle.
The main physical characteristics of the Arctic are the extreme differences between the seasons, and the low levels of solar energy. Because of the Earth’s curve, sunlight strikes the Arctic at a different angle than nearer the equator and the energy within those rays is spread over a larger area. This lowers the amount of available heat. Solar energy is also lost when rays bounce off of the atmosphere and still more is absorbed by the greater distance it must travel through the atmosphere. When the ground is covered with snow and ice – a highly reflective surface – up to 80% of the solar energy is reflected back into space. If it were not for warmth redistributed from other part of the Earth by air movements and ocean currents, Arctic winters would be even colder than they are now. By summer, however, as much solar energy is received in one 24-hour sunlight period as is received at the equator during its 12-hour day. Plant growth is greatly enhanced during the brief arctic summer.
In the far north, on days in which the sun rises and sets, it does so at a shallow angle to the horizon. This makes for long periods of dawn and dusk, resulting in summer days that appear to be longer than winter nights. Summer visitors to sub-arctic destinations like Anchorage, Whitehorse, and Yellowknife delight in the experience known as white nights, when it is possible to read at midnight by natural light.
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