Three days alone on Canada’s infamous Dempster Highway teaches me the true nature of the north and the meaning of self-reliance
In This Adventure Article You Will Discover:
- The adventure of Northern motorcycle touring
- The wrath of the Arctic
- All about Canada’s Dempster Highway
- Note: ADV Touring is moto-speak for “Adventure Touring”
- And More!
I dismount my KLR 650 at the Arctic Circle and moose-fed mosquitoes kamikaze every inch of exposed skin. Alone at exactly 66 degrees 33’ North — latitude marked by the most famous interpretive sign along Canada’s Dempster Highway — I absorb Arctic mist through my pores and release my spirit into our True North.
Riled by a weather system over the Beaufort Sea, the mist quickly turns to rain. Arctic wind gusts in from the Richardson Mountain Range. My muddy motorcycle, which I’d ridden 3,650 km from Vancouver, offers nothing to protect me from the northern bite; even the bugs are taking shelter from this storm.
Like the Talking Heads ask in their signature song, Once In a Lifetime: “How did I get here?”
The Dempster Highway is Canada’s greatest adventure road. Officially opened to the public on August 18, 1979, it is 736 km — each way — of mud, shale, gravel and bad weather, leading from just east of Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories.
It is the only all-weather road in North America that crosses the Arctic Circle (at only 403 km into its total length) and it is Mecca for motorcyclists hungry for adventure.
For the past year, I had been single-minded in my quest to become one of those mud-soaked adventure riders.
Like a Venus Fly Trap entices insects, so too had the Dempster enticed me that morning. The previous night’s rain had dried, sunshine peered through receding clouds and stunning Tombstone Mountain, 75 km into the Dempster, encouraged me that the best was yet to come. For all I had heard of the Dempster’s dangers, it had been a two-wheeled sightseeing tour at that point and little more.
Of course, I know if I crash on the loose shale I would require rescue by helicopter. Yes, I am utterly alone. No, I have never done anything like this before. But surely I won’t end up like so many other motorcyclists, one just a week earlier, who ride home via MEDEVAC chopper, right?
In the Arctic, when the weather changes, it changes hard. From my vantage point at The Circle, I witness the northern horizon turn from Endless Summer to Lord of the Rings. I had planned to ride my motorcycle the Dempster’s whole length — come hell or high water — but commonsense was tasking me to trade in darkening skies for a night of gambling at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, back in Dawson City, some 445 km south.
A rental RV pulls up, reminding me that on the Dempster, solitude is fleeting. The driver has come from Inuvik.
“The roads are muddy to the north. Real muddy.”
It’s time to head back.
I hop on my bike, snick it into first and putter south. I’ll be back in Dawson for dinner.
A few dozen kilometers south of Eagle Plains Lodge, the Dempster’s halfway point and the only service station for 370 km, the easy rain turns to an Arctic downpour. Once hard-packed roads become chunky cake batter. My rear tire spins wildly and the 200-plus kilograms of motorcycle I straddle tells me it wants to lie down and give up, with or without me. My helmet’s face shield is lousy with fog, but the rain stings my eyes if I lift it. My hands are numb and useless as hooves. Ahead, the clouds are sinister enough to shut out even the eternal sun of an Arctic summer. Still, I continue south.
My odometer tells me there is still 300 km until paved roads. The trip up that morning reminded me there is nothing — not one speck of civilization or assistance — along the way.
A muddy rut lashes out at my front tire, spinning it 90 degrees. I plant two feet down hard and avoid an ankle-crushing crash.
I cannot do this.
Heading back to Eagle Plains Lodge for the night, the haven I arrogantly ignored some 70 km earlier, is my only choice. I concede and redirect.
Motorcyclists know, although counterintuitive at first, standing on one’s footpegs actually lowers one’s centre of gravity, and is a rider’s modus operandi when in loose dirt or mud. But in doing this I can’t see my mirrors, and shoulder checking would mean taking my eyes off the road — too deadly to even consider.
I crouch for a cursory glance into my mirror — the grille of an 18-wheeler stares back. I lean my bike over, sliding onto the mushy shoulder — a route second only to the path of a skidding semi-truck as the most dangerous a motorcyclist can track. Mud and sharp shale peppers me as the truck passes. I whisper a prayer for vacancy at the lodge.
Eagle Plains Lodge: 2 km.
The clerk, who had earlier warned me of muddy road conditions, bites her tongue as she slides me a room key. I can breathe again. I wash mud down the shower drain and collapse in bed, utterly defeated by the Dempster. Less than an hour later, the Arctic delivers another sobering blow: a fellow rider has crashed just south of the Eagle Plains Lodge. He arrives, rescued by a passing truck driver, with a broken femur and a debilitating case of shock. That infamous yellow helicopter touches down by the time the midnight sun has danced along the horizon… the world’s most expensive ambulance.
I phone Erin, my horrified girlfriend, who sends me to sleep with point-perfect insight, “If you don’t finish, you will regret it.”
The rain quits by 9:00 a.m. An Inuvik local, stopping for fuel on his way south for the weekend, gives me a road update.
“I think you should just go ahead to Inuvik.”
It’s the final encouragement I need.
Sixty-odd kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, as I climb the Richardson Mountains and pass into the Northwest Territories, the weather descends into the ninth circle of hell. The road surface is like porridge, temperatures feel near zero, wind is gusting east-to-west hard enough to throw my bike around and rain hammers down like copper BBs. I am lost in the tundra. Alone. Scared. Motorcycling north of 66 degrees is no sightseeing tour, no joke and no tourist-friendly amusement ride.
For the first time since leaving Vancouver, I feel my sense of safety slip away.
Sixty kilometres past The Circle becomes 100; becomes 140. I descend into Fort Macpherson, a Gwich’in settlement of about 800 residents that holds the second of two service stations along the Dempster. Friendly locals give me road updates. By the time I get to the Mackenzie River ferry crossing, just 129 km south of Inuvik, the weather eases and the roads harden. I actually smell dust. Dry roads — I could kiss you.
Two days after I had started the Dempster, I ride into Inuvik — at 68 degrees 18’ north — like Hannibal crossing the Alps. It’s a triumph short-lived, though, as Inuvik is only halfway. I still have to get back.
Written on Inuvik’s welcome sign: Quyanuk Kikuffi. Nedanihi Nanazgee. It means: “Thank You For Coming.”
I stay a day in Inuvik to rest and await the return of better weather. It is an anxious day — I pass the hours by touring the annual Great Northern Arts Festival. Every moment, though, is consumed with one thought: what will tomorrow hold? I check Environment Canada’s Weather Office website hourly. Rainy in the morning, windy in the afternoon. Not great.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010 — I wake to light rain at 6:00 a.m. I’ll be damned if I’m starting out in that. I sleep until 7:30. The rain has stopped, and I set out in a rush.
The roads out of Inuvik are dry-ish, flat and easy — just as on the way in. After a couple of hours on an empty Dempster, I’m chatting with a trucker as we wait for the first boat at the Mackenzie River Ferry Crossing.
“I rode a motorcycle for 20 years, and I would never ride the Dempster. A guy crashed just north of here couple weeks ago. Hurt himself real bad,” he says.
Riding into the mountain pass south of Fort Macpherson, I am deep in denial: The water hitting my face shield is not rain, but mist. Those clouds are not really dark, but off-white. The roads aren’t softening, it’s just a bit of gravel. This is all fine. Fine.
The clouds thicken. I can’t see 30 feet. The moisture on my face shield turns to a vicious pattering of rain. I can’t deny it anymore. I’m in the shit again. But — at least I have experience. I lift my face shield and squint. My bike carves a serpentine pattern though the greasy mud. It all seems so much easier the second time around.
As I descend, though, I realize that I am virtually invisible in the fog. I tap my front brake – not enough to engage, but enough to strobe my rear light – in order to make myself just a little more visible to any oncoming logging trucks.
Please, no truck. Please, no truck.
The Dempster leads me south to the Arctic Circle. Beyond, the rain lets up. Blue sky teases me through wink-holes in the cloud cover. The weather is breaking, and if I want to take advantage of it — I have to do this return trip in one day.
By the time I’ve passed Eagle Plains, I’m officially leaping into a 13-hour, 15-minute-long marathon motorcycle ride from Inuvik to Mile 0 — the Dempster Highway one-way in one-day — through blinding fog, greasy mud and finishing as I started… under friendly skies and atop hard-packed roads. At Mile 0, a cow moose stiff-legs across the road — sending me off in true Yukon style. I am physically beaten down and trip-drunk.
Three-thousand-plus paved kilometres until Vancouver? Peanuts.