I should add here that I was camping beside a mother and son couple who were living in tents here in Dawson while working a gold mining claim about 90 minutes out of town. They got in about 9 PM last night and we had a good talk about mining and what they are doing and when they turned in, I made sure I was as quiet as possible (not an easy thing to do when you are peeling thick rubber off an aluminium rim with steel tire irons).
First thing in the morning – fix the zipper. That’s quiet work at 6 AM, then as camp starts to stir, I pump up the tire (which does hold air) and start loading up my bike. I actually don’t roll out of the campground until about 10 AM because I got talking with some of the other campers about my trip, their trip, life, etc.
Riding back to the Dempster corner (about 40 km out of town) I contemplate the madness of riding on this road. 750 km of gravel…on a motorcycle. The weather looks good but there is a huge distance between the forecast points of the Dawson, Eagle Plains and Inuvik (closer to my home it is like comparing the weather between Vancouver and Kelowna and assuming it will be the same all the way in between).
I top off the tank at the corner and pull up in front of the Dempster monument guarding the beginning of the highway. I commemorate the display with a few snapshots snapshots ensuring the bike is in the picture for good luck and then I’m headed north. I cross over the Klondike River on a wood plank bridge and the road surface changes from pavement to clay/gravel.
A fortress of poplar and black spruce trees line the road guiding you due north for the first few miles but soon opens up exposing a former burned area. As the elevation changes, the road begins to meander and distant mountains grow closer.
I stop at a pullout just north of the Tombstone Interpretive Centre to capture some images of the impressive vista and meet two couples from Germany travelling in rented campers as well as a young lady from Quebec who is going just this far up the highway with friends. Apparently many vistors to the Dawson area come this far for a glimpse of the highway and then turn around. While I wonder if that may not be a wise decision, so far the road is fantastic and the scenery spectacular; I am encouraged to continue.
Contrary to my initial thoughts, the Dempster is not a straight path through a boring prairie tundra. The road winds through gentle sweeping turns, climbing, descending and banking through gentle mountain passes. The road surface changes from gravel to clay and back again and I have to concentrate completely on the path I am taking. Riding on many other desolate Yukon highways, concentration may slip to 30% or 40% as the mind chases other fleeting thoughts but on this road, anything less than 100% concentration is quickly rewarded with very exciting consequences. Ruts, bumps and soft mounds of gravel all conspire to throw my narrow tires off course. The miles and hours pass in an almost zen-like existence. The concentration is tiring and by mid morning I find the warmth of the sun is adding weight to my eyelids. I find a pullout, stop the bike and listen for a moment to buzz of mosquitoes, chirp of birds, the nearby babbling creek and the whisper of wind through the leaves. Propping my bike on the sidestand, I slump over my stuffed tank bag and drift off into dreamworld. Twenty minutes later, I awake with a start and return completely refreshed to the road.
I’m only on the road for about ten minutes when I round a bend and a view of the Ogilvie River greets my eyes. I stop for a few minutes at this seemingly innocuous crossing to take a number of pictures. This bridge is one of two on the Dempster that was constructed by Canadian Army units based in Chilliwack during the initial construction of the highway. A friend of mine who was part of that operation told me they set the forms for the concrete supports in the middle of winter at forty below and colder when the river was frozen. In this land of permafrost and constantly shifting soils, the bridge has remained solid all these years, a tribute to the fine engineering capabilities of our Canadian soldiers.
The road winds along the Ogilvie River for a short time before climbing up and following the ridgeline of mountains as it heads north. The tripmeter on my motorcycle reads 285 as the low fuel light flickers on. I’m not as worried this time as I was back on Highway 37, I’m now packing an additional 5 litres of gas which should give me the range to bring me safely to Eagle Plains.
My calculations are accurate as I roll into the service area with my engine still running strong. My tank requires 16.27 litres to top it off so I think I had about 3 litres left before I had to start walking. Looking up and down the highway as far as I could see (the Eagle Plains complex is built on a hilltop so I could see quite a distance) there was not another fuel station in sight so I did not argue with their $1.69 per litre.
It strikes me, as I buy my gas, that I’m about at the half way point on my journey to Inuvik. Before I left, I was telling people that when I was half way between Inuvik and Dawson on the Dempster Highway, I would be in a very isolated location and could be in great danger. I should have researched that location a little better I suppose. There have been times on this journey so far when I have been much more isolated than I am now.
This was a “gas and go” stop for me. I had topped off my tank at the Dempster Corner five hours ago. I was half way to Inuvik and the ferries stop running close to midnight (I wasn’t sure exactly when but I knew I had no time to dawdle).
Back on the road to the bottom of the hill, I stop for pictures of the Eagle River crossing. This was the other bridge constructed by the guys from CFB Chilliwack but differs from the first in that it is a freespan rather than supported cantilever bridge.
As the road climbs out of the Eagle River Valley, winds become noticeably more forceful. About 17 km from the bridge I pull to the side of the road for another photo opportunity. I have reached the Arctic Circle. As I roll into this turnout I am surprised to see a gentleman sitting at a picnic table with a bicycle hooked up to a trailer parked in front of the commemorative/information panel. Despite a time constraint imposed by the ferry schedule, I am interested to hear about his experiences.
Against the backdrop of incredible scenery, he tells me that he is only a few years from retirement but he had always wanted to bicycle across Canada. A number of years ago he set up a schedule where he would take about three weeks every year to cycle a leg that will take him closer to his goal, this year it was time for the north. Cycling alone gives him a time to reflect on the past year and consider the future direction he wants to take personally as well as with his career. He meets many interesting people along the way and sees amazing things. He considers himself extremely fortunate to be healthy enough for this activity and to have a career that he not only enjoys immensely but allows him the freedom to pursue this interest. The wisdom he shares with me reminds me how important it is to have big goals. In order to realistically achieve big goals we often have to be flexible enough to set smaller achievable goals that together will realize our overall target.
He takes a couple of pictures for me in front of the marker and I am off toward the next point of interest. Only about 60 km up the road I stop again at the border of the Yukon and North West Territories. This is also a point of Continental Divide along the Dempster (only the second of four I have crossed that I actually remember to note). From this point, the road rises a bit more to the summit of the Wright Pass before dropping down to the Peel River Crossing near Fort McPherson, my first ferry crossing on the Dempster.
In addition to high cross winds (which had been getting stronger ever since Eagle Plains), the other challenge I face in the North West Territories is the road surface. While the roads are well maintained, the surfacing material causes great challenge for motorcyclists. Over a solid stable base is a dressing of gravel that moves like marbles under my tires. Ride too slow and the front wheel pushes the gravel into soft mounds that throw me off one way or another, ride too fast and traction decreases on both wheels creating great instability. Just the right speed seems to range between 60 kmh and 80 kmh as long as I keep the established wheel tracks. If I happen to venture out of the wheel tracks, instability can strike with a vengeance and the bike is susceptible to violent sliding and speed wobbles. On the straight section, the track is easy to follow but on corners, gravel is spread more evenly with a less distinct track – much less stability. The “riding on marbles” feeling is heightened by the strong crosswinds. To prevent the wind from blowing the bike off the road, I have to lean. As I lean, the traction decreases causing a tendency for the wheels to slip out from under. Where concentration earlier in the trip was 100%, I now need even more.
I catch the last ferry across the MacKenzie River near its confluence with the Arctic Red River. I have been on the road for 13 hours and have about 125 km or about another 90 minutes of riding.
The sun is strong and behind me as I travel north, balancing between too slow, too fast, correcting for the wind, staying “in the track”. I’m not sure if it is the Arctic light or the weariness but I am having great difficulty determining the track my wheels should be in. The definition between where the tire traffic has been and where the gravel is being thrown to is difficult to discern.
As I leave the ferries about six pickups pass me heading south at high speed and leave me in a blanket of thick heavy dust. Although I’ve slowed down in anticipation and moved as far right as I can while staying “in the track” I am blind for what seems like an eternity after they pass. My wheels bite the soft mounds of gravel outside of the track and the bike wobbles dangerously. Standing on the pegs lowers my center of gravity and I manage to manhandle the bike back into the track, but not without a few sphincter clenching “tank slappers”(when your bike wobbles from side to side so severely the handlebars seem to slap the gas tank). I have survived.
I carry on, less than one hour to go. I am highly cognizant of the fact that those trucks are probably the last vehicular traffic this road will see for the next six hours. Until the ferries start running tomorrow, there is no reason for anyone to drive down this road. I was the last person off the ferry. If I had fallen and been badly hurt, no one would know for the next 5 or 6 hours….emergency room doctors talk about the golden hour. The first sixty minutes after a serious injury.
I ride on, exhausted. My tires bite another soft mound of gravel. At least this time there is not dust cloud to blind me but the flat arctic light is not helping. Again the bike hops from side to side until I manage to muscle it to a stop. I need a break. I put down the kickstand and walk away from the bike. Probably only 30 minutes to go. The road is straight as far as I can see. The sun is bright, broad daylight. But it is late at night. There is no one here. I am all alone. The light and the weariness, it is all very disorienting.
I have no choice, I have to get back on my bike. My low fuel light has been on for quite some time. I don’t know how much fuel I have in my tank but I do have some spare in a gas can strapped to my passenger foot peg. One last push to Inuvik. I’ve read that when you get close to town, there is pavement. I can’t remember how far out, I thought maybe 15 or 17 km. My odometer and my GPS tell me I’m getting close but I’m so tired the math is hard. I balance around another marbly corner, hanging on once again…..and then…pavement!! What a wonderful feeling, I pass the airport turnoff and accelerate into top gear…it is so smooth, I can’t believe it. Town should be very close, there are a few more buildings, more signs. I’m looking for the campsite downtown. The buildings and infrastructure seem to diminish. Did I miss it? The road climbs a bit and as I can see more buildings and more signs of a town and my bike sputters to a stop. I’ve run out of gas. Coasting to the side of the road, the bike stand goes down and I fumble to access my spare gas. Almost there. Back on the bike, through the down town I manage to find the campground I have heard about. I stop in at the registration booth and the attendant advises me to find a site and register in the morning.
The tenting sites here are platformed so the tent is elevated off the ground by about 16 inches. I find a platform and struggle to unload my bike and set up my tent. I don’t recall ever being so physically, mentally, emotionally and psychologically drained in my life. I am totally spent. I collapse in my tent and sleep deeply despite the bright arctic sun streaming through the fabric in the middle of the night.