Last year, Gilford author Eric Whitehead and his wife Karen spent a five-week vacation travelling north to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in Northwest Territories, and west to British Columbia’s coast.
Since his retirement in 2008, the annual vacation has been an opportunity to see the world, and to write about the experience, although the roots of Whitehead's travelling and his writing both go back decades to the 1970s.
In 1971, Whitehead and buddy Murray Jupe, fresh out of high school, travelled across North America. The experience, and the photos he and Jupe took, provided the material for his first book, Then There Was One… The Ultimate ‘70s Road Trip.
Since then, Whitehead has written nine other travel books, including The Holiday Road, about 20 years of family road trips with sons Gavin and Adam; A South American Odyssey; Journey to the Lost City (Machu Picchu); Emerging From the Shadows: Exploring Vietnam and Cambodia; and Antarctica an expedition cruise.
Each book is filled with photos taken by the author, illustrating the challenges but also the cultural adventures, scenic beauty, and human interactions that have kept the Whiteheads travelling.
In recent years, they have kept their journeying within Canada, exploring Newfoundland and Labrador – and last year, travelling the Dempster Highway, from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, and then heading to the west coast of B.C. and Haida Gwaii.
“One trip, two very different experiences,” said Whitehead. And, two new books.
Destination Dempster covers the 700-kilometre journey along one of Canada’s toughest roads, and a side trip along the 148-km Tuktoyaktuk Highway in late August and early September of 2018.
The trip did not start well. They arrived in Whitehorse to discover the airline had lost their luggage – apparently a common occurrence. When they checked into a hotel in Whitehorse without any bags, the desk clerk immediately said, “You came in on Air Canada, didn’t you?”
One bag turned up the next day; the other – containing all of their rain gear and winterwear – wasn’t found for more than three weeks, long after they had left the Arctic.
“We had to wait ‘til we got to Inuvik to find a coat,” Whitehead said, and while the airline generously told them to purchase what they needed and save the receipts, the options were pretty slim.
They rented an SUV in Whitehorse to drive the notorious Dempster.
“It’s entirely a dirt road, and there’s only one town, from beginning to end,” said Whitehead. “Fortunately, it’s in the middle.”
Whitehead found the stark wilderness relaxing, although there was one disappointment.
“We never saw a thing in the way of wildlife. The biggest thing we saw was a squirrel,” he said.
Despite the warnings, the Whiteheads experienced little more than stone chips out of the windshield. It was a different story when they took the new road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.
“The new highway was outrageous,” despite ongoing efforts to keep the sand and gravel road graded, Whitehead said. “The rain just turned everything into a mud bath.”
Mud packed their car's wheel wells, making steering difficult. In addition, they woke up in Tuk to find a foot of snow had fallen, and their SUV did not have four-wheel drive.
They headed back to the Dempster, thinking the road conditions would get better.
“It didn’t,” said Whitehead. Instead, the snow got deeper.
They made it over the pass that separates Northwest Territories from the Yukon by following the ruts made by a truck... that had run off the road. They learned later that the highway had actually been closed because of poor driving conditions.
“My summer vacation – but it made an interesting story!” said Whitehead.
One of the highlights of the trip was the Sign Post Forest near Watson Lake in the Yukon. Started by workers on the Alaska Highway project back in 1942, the sign posts indicate the distance to locations around the world.
“It went from having a dozen sign posts, to 88,000 signs,” said Whitehead. “You can buy a piece of wood in the hardware store for $1. They’ll give you paint and markers, and you can add your own.”
Karen and Eric added a signpost giving the distance to Gilford.
The second half of the trip started after they returned the SUV and flew from Whitehorse to Vancouver, heading from there to the archipelago formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands, and now called Haida Gwaii.
It was Karen who was wanted to visit the traditional homeland of the Haida people, acquainted with a resident through her work.
“I wouldn’t have thought about it, to be honest,” said Whitehead. “I would have thought to go to Vancouver Island before going there.”
But the trip, which included a rendezvous with a high-school friend who was living in B.C., ended up being memorable for the human interactions, the First Nations heritage and culture – and the wildlife.
On the very first day in Haida Gwaii, Whitehead spotted a deer standing on the ramp to the ferry, and on their one and only pre-booked tour involving a Zodiac boat trip and a trail hike to the wreck of the logging barge, the Pesuta, they saw a bear in the middle of the road, and a whale sporting in the coastal waters.
“We saw more wildlife on this day than we saw in two weeks on the Dempster,” he said.
Those experiences and visits to traditional Haida villages, where totem poles are allowed to return to the Earth, were the inspiration for British Columbia: Experience Something Sacred.
“We were gone five weeks in total. It was quite a vacation,” Whitehead said, adding he didn't bring back any souvenirs. The only purchases, besides ill-fitting coats to replace those in their temporarily lost luggage, were some Haida-themed clothes for the grandchildren.
"That’s what the books and photographs are for. That’s my souvenirs,” said Whitehead.
For more information on his books, see thatroadtripbook.com. To order any of his books, contact Eric Whitehead directly at email@example.com – or drop by Carrot Fest in Bradford West Gwillimbury on Aug. 17 to meet the author.
For the past three years, the Whiteheads have travelled exclusively in Canada, visiting every province and territory – except for Nunavut and Saskatchewan.
Nunavut is too pricey, but Saskatchewan is definitely on the radar, Whitehead said. “That’s where we’re going next September."