The Dempster Highway is 450 miles of unpaved road that starts from the Klondike Highway east of Dawson City, and travels through the mountains north and east into the Arctic Circle, then into Canada’s Northwest Territories, and ends (for now) at the town of Inuvik. Inuvik, pronounced i-NOO-vik, is a town of about 3500 or so people, and was our destination after two days of riding up the Dempster.
7/14/2014 – 313 miles, Whitehorse, YK to start of Dempster
After having tires changed at Yukon Honda in the morning, we left our comfortable guest accommodations in Whitehorse and headed north on the Klondike highway towards the turn off to Inuvik. Our research said that there isn’t always fuel at the start of the Dempster, and that we would probably have to go into Dawson. When we arrived, there was an unmanned pump that had a small portable building made from quarter of a container that you entered to pay, take the safety training, and start the pump. We filled both bikes and the extra 3 gallon rotopax on the back of my bike. It would be 230 miles from the start of the Dempster to the first available fuel in Eagle Plains, a distance that is at the very limit of fuel range for our bikes. That night we camped for free behind the gas station right at the start of the Dempster, in what used to be an active campground.
The street tires that got us here would not do for the Dempster, so on went some Continental TKC80s. The bikes look completely bad-ass now, but naturally, compared to the street tires, they handle like complete crap on the road. Better than actual knobbies, but geez, they kinda suck the fun out of road riding. It’s worth it, however, for the long stretches off pavement.
7/15/2014 – 230 miles on the Dempster to Eagle Plains
I’m not going to lie; the two days riding up the Dempster were very challenging for me, and proved to be an entirely different trip than the ride back down. There was quite a bit of rain, making it very slippery. It was a 450 mile education in various types of lack of traction. The worst were the wet, greasy, slippery places, made more difficult by rain obscuring my face shield, but the deep gravel sections and construction weren’t much better. Areas that were freshly graded are very tricky for motorcycles. By the second day, I was really frustrated, and giving up and trying to pay for a ride started to seem like a good idea. The Dempster is the only route, other than flying, to reach Inuvik, so it is being constantly maintained. In a car, this trip would have been much easier. Any two track vehicle could make it. Your car will be incredibly dirty, and there are enough bumpy sections to tax your suspension, and a spare tire is prudent, but there are no clearance issues, and the road is passable by anyone. Many a tourist passed me on the way up. If you are on a motorcycle, it’s best to have more off-pavement skill than I have, or just go when it’s dry.
It was cold, windy, and rainy when we got to Eagle Plains, which is perched on top of a ridge and has a fuel station (gas, diesel, and helicopter fuel), a restaurant, hotel, and small campground. Both our fuel lights had been on for some time, but both bikes made the entire 230 mi trip without getting into the spare fuel. After filling up with $7/gallon gas, we hurried inside to rest and inquire about camping. The story we got was that there was a bear in the area, and no tent camping was allowed, but we could have a hotel room for $160. The next campground was 50 miles up the road, which seemed like forever at the pace I had been managing on the wet, muddy surface. We were both pretty tired and hungry. So the plan was settled. We had a huge, satisfying hot meal in the overpriced restaurant, and stayed comfortably inside in the overpriced but decent hotel room.
7/16/2014 – 230 miles on the Dempster – Eagle Plains to Inuvik
We weren’t the only ones to make the choice to stay inside that night. In Whitehorse, Kevin had met two other moto-adventurers at the Honda dealer headed up the Dempster. We saw Bill again at the gas station at the start of the Dempster, waiting for Thomas, a friend he had just made earlier in his trip, and agreed to ride with to Inuvik. In the morning at Eagle Plains, we saw both outside the hotel and stood around kicking tires until we decided to actually do some riding. I was slower than they were, so they eventually passed us for the final time, but it was nice having some riding buddies on the way up.
It was windy and spitting cold rain at the border to the NWT. It was hard to take the photo, as the rain was pressure washing my face. That’s Thomas and Bill below. Thomas was just having a grand old time and taking pictures, saying this was just like Scotland. I told him he was crazy, and he pointed out that I was there too :)
Edit: Thomas sent this photo of Kevin later:
The second ferry across the Mackenzie River.
As we approached Inuvik at the end of the second day, Kevin wanted to camp a bit south of town. The Great Northern Arts Festival was happening while we would be there, and we weren’t sure of the lodging and camping situation. This is where I should probably note that the sun never sets up here in the summer. It’s one thing to understand that academically; of course it doesn’t get dark this far north in the summer, but another to experience the consequences. We could have kept riding as long as we could stand it. Being able to see, unless it’s raining, is never a problem. It just doesn’t get dark. This, apparently, it how a lot of accidents, car and motorcycle, happen. You just don’t realize how tired you are, and start making mistakes. We decided to learn from others, and didn’t take that risk. The road was easy and dry at this point, but a full day on the bike is enough. We camped at a campground with a name I can’t pronounce, and with the worst mosquitoes I have ever experienced. Those $12 head nets were worth their weight in gold. Also, you can’t buy higher than 30% Deet in Canada. You can get straight 100% Deet in the US. As far as I can tell, 30% just means you have to use more for it to be effective. Seems like a great revenue stream to me.
Also, I’ve devised the latest diet plan. All of your food is located in an enclosed room full of mosquitoes. You can only eat while in that room. This plan is remarkably effective at suppressing appetite. It will be all the rage.
7/17/2014 – Inuvik
We reached Inuvik in the morning in sunny and warm weather, and headed straight for the gas station. We’d ridden all the way from Eagle Plains, skipping the fuel in Fort McPherson, knowing we could use the spare fuel if we had to. We just barely made it, Kevin’s bike had been on “zero miles to go” for the last 10 miles. We saw Bill riding into town to get lunch, and he stopped to chat on the side of the road, and seemed relieved that we’d made it ok. It turns out that both Bill, Thomas, and another couple we had seen riding up the Dempster were staying at the ADV recommended Arctic Chalet, which has Cabins and allows some tent camping, so we decided to see if they had any vacancies. Our timing was perfect; there was one vacancy for just tonight, so we sprung for the cabin, which was reasonably priced compared to most everything else in this land of expensive everything. This was a great decision, as we had a great time with our new moto buddies. We explored the trail at the Arctic Chalet and learned about their 30-some white huskies, went into town with Bill and Thomas to check out the art festival, and picked up groceries to grill some burgers for dinner back at the cabin. Kevin and I aren’t usually that social, but somehow we hosted the party that evening for half of the Arctic Chalet.
Its not the dumpster Inuvik wants, but the dumpster Inuvik needs.
And the “2014 Tour de Trunk” continues. It seems like whenever I am taking pictures of the bikes some place, Kevin is inevitably doing something the trunk/topbox on his bike. Go back and look. Lots of pictures of the bikes in places with Kevin standing and digging through the trunk. Thus, our trip is dubbed the 2014 tour de trunk.
So, we buy a lot of eggs to have for breakfast in camp, because hard boiling eggs is easy to do, and its cheap and delicious (with a little salt and pepper) protein that sticks with you awhile. We bought a dozen eggs in Whitehorse, and then for some reason that escapes us now, rode up the entire dempster without cooking them. Thus, we have created:
THE DEMPSTER CHALLENGE
Can you ride to Inuvik with a dozen raw eggs? We only lost two, can you beat our record?
Pro tip: Do not store them in your topbox underneath your laptop (which is still preferable to on top of your laptop), without adding additional packaging. Plastic bags (without holes in the bottom) are your friend.
Also, eggs are really expensive in Inuvik, they were about $4/dozen.
7/18/2014-7/19/2014 – Back down the Dempster, Inuvik to Dawson City
The ride down the Dempster was an entirely different experience than the way up. We had two solid days of dry roads and sunshine (mostly, what little rain we saw was brief and very light and didn’t make a mess of the road). When we got to Eagle Plains, the weather was warm and sunny, and they said they hadn’t seen the bear for days, and we could tent camp for $20 (access to bathrooms with running water and showers). The Dempster had become the good road everyone said it was. I flew through all of the previously challenging sections, not even recognizing most of them, only realizing later that I must have already passed that section that was so difficult on the way up. It’s possible that I was getting a bit better at riding off-pavement, but the truth is that it was far easier because it was dry. The scenery was finally visible in places it wasn’t before, and I wasn’t anxious and struggling to ride, and was actually having fun. By the end, I had come around to thinking I would do it all again if I knew I could have a dry road.
Mostly, the off-pavement riding for that distance is about endurance, mental and physical. Physically, off-pavement riding requires more energy, but I found it mentally tougher, partly due to lack of experience. The constantly varying surface requires constant focus, and the entire 450 miles is an exercise in picking the best line. Pavement is largely consistent across the width of the road, but a dirt road is not. You just cannot assume the road will be the same at any given point, as there are random patches of deep gravel or mud, and the surface type changes quickly and frequently. It just requires a consistently higher level of mental energy than regular touring on pavement.
Grabbed this shot on the way out, since we hadn’t bothered on the way in.
The dust and rocks thrown from the trucks was sometimes a bit intense. If the wind didn’t carry the dust away, you couldn’t see the road at all for 5 or 10 seconds. Unless it was wet, we would often just pull over to a stop to let the trucks by, to reduce the speed differential of flying debris, and increase visibility. If nothing else, I’d pull in the clutch to minimize the dust ingested by the engine.
Kevin’s dash cam caught this Grizzly bear in the road. It was easier to see it running away in person, the video is a little hard to see.
This little bird (a ptarmigan) cracks us both up. We saw a number of these along the road, and I was always amazed that they just sat there, and didn’t scurry out of the way. Kevin pulled right up to this one before it decided it should move.
Kevin caught this fox wandering around the campground.