– I woke up to thick clouds and an overnight rain that was just breaking. After a hot breakfast in town, I rode the 25 miles out to the Klondike River Lodge at the base of the Dempster. The overnight rain had been light above the river valley, leaving the Dempster dust free but firm.
The scenery picks up quickly as the highway heads up into the Ogilvie Mountains, and after fifty kilometers or so enters Tombstone Territorial Park. Close to kilometer 60 I pull off the road into a small parking area with a few cars and trucks, and head up the Grizzly Lake Trail.
The trail goes deep into the park, but my aim was a viewpoint about two miles in. After a mile of forests and muddy single track the trail hit steep grades and gained about 1,500 feet in elevation. By the time I reached the overlook I was winded and hot, but the view was everything I had hoped for. I hit the small window of alpine fall color, and clouds swept by with splashes of sun brightening up the orange, red, gold and green around me. I could see the Dempster down below to the east, dwarfed by the landscape, and to the west a long valley, ending in the jagged gray peaks of Mount Monolith.
I probably turned to leave three or four times. Each time I turned back and reveled in the view for a few more minutes. I had visualized being here for months, and now it was real, present and fantastic. A peak moment. After close to an hour alone enjoying the view, I spied a small group of hikers coming up from below and started my way down.
At the beginning of the ride report I mentioned that movie I saw many years ago. Honestly, that memory hadn’t come to mind for several years prior to this trip. But there is a high point on this lower stretch of the Dempster, somewhere between the northern boundary of Tombstone and Eagle Plains, where an overlook gives you a view of the upper reaches of the Peel River, bending from south to east with the Ogilvie Mountains beyond. As I stood there taking it in, the sun peeked through some clouds and a bright bit of rainbow arced down to the flats below me. I saw that and the image from the movie came immediately to mind and I thought, “I’m there.” I found a place that captured that same sense of wonder and beauty that sparked my imagination more than thirty years ago.
By the time I reached Eagle Plains it had been a long day. The ride itself was probably no more than five and a half hours, but it had taken me twice that time to cover the distance. As I was unloading the bike, Angus rides up on his 1150GS. He’s come from Inuvik and we’re both keen to talk, but it’s close to 8pm, when the kitchen closes, and he needs to eat. We make a plan to meet up in the bar later.
The Eagle Plains bar is a treat. The walls are festooned with the largest, most diverse sampling of taxidermy I’ve ever seen: two huge moose heads; wolf, bear, and muskox among the many furs; a complete, stuffed caribou; and much more. The place is large and well lit, with spaced tables, easy chairs, and a pool table. The bar is decently stocked. The people all seem friendly and approachable. Big picture windows look out over the wilderness to the west as the sun slowly arcs around the horizon. The overall impression is exactly what I would hope: a sense that you’re in a warm, inviting space at the edge of the world.
Angus is a native of Aberdeen, now living in Houston. He’s a big, gregarious guy with great stories to tell. He works in international sales for an energy-related company. Divorced a few years ago, he has paid the toll for a life lived on the road – 250 days a year by his estimate. “I used to always wish I were somewhere else. When I was in Florida with my girlfriend, or in Shanghai with a prostitute, I wished I was back home with my wife and kids. When I was home, I wished I was in those other places.” Now he’s seeking to bring better balance to his life, and to make choices that he feels good about. As he put it, “I’m learning to fully embrace the American weekend.” This trip is a part of that change. “I’ve been riding most my life, but this ‘adventure riding’ thing is new to me. But when some of the people I know at work suggested it, I thought it sounded like fun and said ‘Sure!’”
From their larger group, only Angus and one other rider decided to attempt the Dempster, and 65 miles heading south out of Inuvik his partner lost control and went down. Broken bike and broken ribs meant that after a tow back to town, his partner had to fly out. You can see all of Angus’s and his friends’ adventures here
The rooms at Eagle Plains aren’t cheap or fancy, but they’re comfortable and clean, and after a full day it’s easy to fall asleep.
Starting up the Dempster
Looking to the East from Monolith Overlook in Tombstone
Looking to the West, Mount Monolith in the distance
More from Tombstone Territorial Park
Tombstone Visitor Center
Peel River Overlook
Angus - Cribbed from his riding buddy's blog
– From Eagle Plains you continue to pass through dramatic scenery of hills and mountains up until you cross the Peel River. From then on through Inuvik, the landscape flattens into low taiga. If you’ve traveled the Trans-Labrador Highway it will look very familiar – long, straight stretches of road, scattered small lakes, and mile after mile of stunted, black spruce bogs.
Also in these flatlands are the First Nations villages of Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic. Shortly after crossing the Peel River ferry I stop at the visitor center of a small park. The guy at the front desk is a native elder, he asks me if I’ve seen any caribou. “No,” I say. “Just a few with the Fortymile Herd back near Dawson, none with the Porcupine Herd.” I asked when they migrated through here.
“I don’t know,” he says with a frustrated shake of his head. “I used to know, but it’s all messed up now. They used to come through in September, but this year July! The whole world is screwed up. All of it. We may not know it, but the animals do. They tell us.”
“Is the herd healthy?”
“Yes. But the muskox up at Sachs Harbour are dying! Who knows what will happen next.”
A short way further down the road I fill up with gas in Fort McPherson. A local G’wichin man is filling up his truck next to me. “Where you from?” He asks.
“What you pay for gas down there?”
“About $1 a liter,” I reply.
“See? We pay $1.65! You people should stop whining,” he tells me. “I read about your whining in the papers, but you got it easy!”
We chat a bit more and he finally says, “I’m going to my camp. Fishing.”
I ask: “Is the fishing good?”
“Yeah! Arctic char. Best fish in the world. You like it?”
“Yes, I like arctic char. I also like salmon. You?”
He wrinkles his nose. “Salmon? No, too greasy. Too much fat.”
I roll into Inuvik and after a few passes through town set up my tent at the campground in town, overlooking the Mackenzie delta. It’s Sunday and most of the shops are closed as I walk back through town in the early evening. There are boys playing baseball, skateboarders trying new tricks, and I get to see landmarks like the igloo church and community greenhouse. At the edge of town is a 3-hole golf course. Kids from nearby come into the campground to play and ride bikes.
That night, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the sun just keeps creeping northward along the western horizon. It sets around 11pm, but I wake up briefly around 2am and the sky is still light. The forecast for the next two days is rain.
Foothills of the Richardson Mountains
The long flats between the Peel River and Inuvik
Inuvik's "Igloo Church"
Campsite overlooking the Mackenzie delta
Dawson to Inuvik