Extreme ADV Touring: Canada’s Dempster Highway

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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.

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David Webb at the Arctic Circle as it passes through the Dempster Highway, Yukon.

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.

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The Dempster Highway at the start of day one: bluebird!

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.

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Halfway along the Dempster Highway. Make sure to fuel up…

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.

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The Dempster North of 66 degrees: lost in the Tundra.

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.

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The terminus of the Dempster Highway: Inuvik, Northwest Territories. “Quyanuk Kikuffi” and “Nedanihi Nanazgee,” mean “Thank you for coming” in Inuvialuktun and Gwich’in, respectively.

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.

Thanks bud.

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.

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Trip-drunk after more than 13 hours of dirt-riding.

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.

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

11 comments… add one

  • Nancy Langford Jan 14, 2014

    Love your story. My husband worked up in Inuvik for many years and I had the fortunate opportunity to travel the Dempster a few times. I loved it more that anywhere else that I have being in this big ol’ world!! Doing it on a bike would be much more difficult for sure, but so much more intimate too I bet. Thanks for sharing your trip with others.
    Nancy Langford

  • buy apparel online Mar 4, 2013

    Peace, joy, quiet, thought processing task, clear mind, freedom, yea! Enjoy the ride.

  • David Webb Jan 19, 2013

    Thanks for the recent comments guys! I have recently had another yearning to do this trip again… But maybe I will switch it up and to the Top of the World Highway, then ride to Prudhoe Bay.
    Anyway, Dan, best of luck on your trip (take extra gas for that DR!). And Jeff – riding the Dempster on a Harley IS crazy… Ha ha. There is nowhere like the Arctic, once you go I will call you back again and again.
    Ride safe.

  • Dan Duma Jan 18, 2013

    David, fanastic!!!that you did the trip.
    I am taking this trip up the Dempster, Inuvik and Prudhoe Bay this June, 2013.
    Leaving around June 4th. Want to be in Dawson City for June 21 st.
    Going up on Suzuki 650. All set up just waiting for the June.
    I worked building part of the Dempster HWY,when the Dempster was getting built. Drove the Dempster in 2010. But, my bucket list was always to do the Dempster, Inuvik and Prudhoe Bay with ADV.
    If there is anyone interested in doing this trip in June, Come join me on this adventure.
    I presently live on Vancouver Island. AGRA, if you are still interest here is a change for you to have someone to go with.
    Or , if there anyone else, that is interested in doing this trip, and didn’t want to venture out , like David did. Like , I said , I am going , so you could join me.
    Dan

  • Jeff Nicholls Dec 23, 2012

    Hi David

    I just happened across your site, it brings back many good memories.
    In 2004 I drove my HD Electra Glide FLHTC across Canada & US, from Newfoundland to Alaska and back to Ontario through the US.
    I hung around Dawson City for a couple of days getting info, most people said that I was crazy to drive a new Harley Davidson up the Dempster.
    Well, being stubborn I thought I will give it a try, bought a little gas can and strapped it on the back.
    Luckily I didn’t encounter any rain, I didn’t see too many people on the way up. It was beautiful, a lot of smoke from the fires that year, especially in Alaska.
    I went slow, pitched my tent at the Communication towers stradling the Yukon/NWT border. This was after I took photos of a Grizzly crossing the road, I saw it way in the distance walking down the road and thought, that’s strange-what is someone doing walking way up here? Of course as I got closer I could see it was a bear. I’m glad he didn’t catch up and eat me for a midnight snack when I was sleeping in my tent!
    Anyway, next day there was road construction and they “watered” the road…that was crazy trying to hold up my heavy pig of a HD.
    Spent a couple of days in Inuvik, then I plowed back to Dawson in one day like you did, was a long haul…I said that I would never try that again, but now I would, only on a different motorcycle like yours!
    I just thought I would write to say hi
    regards
    Jeff Nicholls
    Sauble Beach, Ontario

  • Agra Dec 22, 2012

    It was really enjoyable to read about your adventures on the Dempster highway. I’ve been thinkingit for a long time about driving it.

  • David Webb May 9, 2012

    Thanks Nat! Yup, there’s few bikes as all-round capable as the ol’ KLR650. Wow… snow in July – I thought I had it rough!

  • Nat Goode May 9, 2012

    Gutsy trip, David. I know because I did it summer of 2001 on a 2001 KLR 650 at age 65.
    I had a 55 year old buddy with me on a BMW GS 1100 and the KLR kicked the Beemers
    butt coming out of Inuvik in a drizzle and 34 degree temps with a couple hours of snow
    in the higher elevations between Ft. Mcpherson and Eagle Plains. We made the trip up
    in 1 day and spent 4 coming out counting 2 nights at Eagle Plains because of the July
    snow.
    Keep riding hard, buddy, life is just too short for the many roads one can travel.
    Thanks for the web site and for refreshing my memories. Nat

  • Scott Oct 21, 2011

    Sounds like a hell of an adventure! You know your doing something right when everyone’s telling you “I wouldn’t do that” and giving you the death look.

  • Aldo Jun 10, 2011

    Great article, David. I would never do what you did!

  • Vacation Remix Apr 17, 2011

    Enjoyed the blog post!

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