– The morning in Inuvik was chilly but fine. A camp breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and then I quickly packed up thinking I’d get out of town early, as I could see the clouds building to the west. But, it was Monday and I got distracted. Jennifer, at the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Center was friendly and fun to talk with. She told me a few places to check out in town for indigenous art, and where to pick up a free Inuvik pin (free pin!). I asked her about the road:
“Oh,” she said. “How is it?”
“Fine riding on the way in. Have you been on it lately?”
“Not in years and years. When folks up here want to get out of town, we fly.”
One last thing about Inuvik - it’s a town built for a purpose, to serve as an administrative hub in the region. The government and tribal buildings – schools, government and tribal agencies, research facilities – are generally the more impressive structures in town. By contrast, the retail establishments are low key at best and a number of places are shuttered. The one place that seemed relatively vibrant was the video/gaming shop.
Anyway, after checking out Jennifer's suggestions (did I mention I got a free pin!), it was past 11am by the time I rolled out.
The road was dry and fast and I made good time through the flatlands between Inuvik and the Peel River ferry. Then I hit the rain. The road surface as I climbed into the Richardson Mountains on the Northwest Territories side was slick and a bit tricky at times. The road improved (less slippery mud, more hardpack) after crossing over into the Yukon and while the rain continued I was able to roll in to Eagle Plains by 5pm.
Another nice evening in Eagle Plains, sipping beers in the bar and as the sun broke through and the rains tapered off in the evening, I went outside and enjoyed a view of many-colored clouds and hills that marched off into the distance.
Jennifer, at the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Center, was friendly and helpful, and a great smile to boot
Tsiigehtchic - across the Mackenzie River
Self-portrait on the Dempster
A popular view of the Dempster, heading south near the Yukon / Northwest Territories border
Evening clouds and horizon from Eagle Plains
– I woke to thick mist, steady rain and temps that were forecast to stay around 40 degrees F for the entire day. The wide dirt lot fronting Eagle Plains was a sea of mud and standing water. I can’t say I was looking forward to the day’s ride, but I’m accustomed enough to the cold and rain to know how to prepare, and with just 230 miles of road to cover that day I wasn’t concerned about making it through, only how long it would take and how exhausted I would be when it was over. So after a hot breakfast in the cafeteria, I geared up, took one last, long look at Eagle Plains, and rode south.
Several days prior, when I stopped at the Northwest Territories Visitor Center back in Dawson, I had asked about the Dempster. One thing the woman said stuck out at me – “It gets difficult when it’s wet. It’s the trucks, they tear up the road in the rain.” What I discovered is something different.
Riding a motorcycle imparts a sensitivity to road conditions that car drivers don’t experience. The mind focuses very quickly the first time your back tire skips out after hitting a few, unexpected bits of loose gravel in a turn, and it isn’t long before you develop an eagle eye for those loose rocks.
On the Dempster that day the road conditions varied, and the most important thing I learned to watch out for was, as the woman in Dawson had said, the deep tracks of trucks. But not because the trucks had “torn up the road,” rather because when they cut deep tracks I knew that a layer of slick mud was sitting atop the road surface. When I saw the truck tracks ahead, or when I saw them deepen, I knew to slow down and prepare for a loss of traction.
After 30 miles or so of generally good surface out of Eagle Plains, I hit a long, difficult stretch of that “snotty” mud. Probably 40 miles or so when my best, sustained speed dropped to 25 mph, and at times much lower when that mud would get up to an inch deep and it was all I could do to keep from fishtailing. As the mud kept on and on I began to calculate the distance to two campgrounds I remembered along the lower stretch of the Dempster, and how likely I’d be to make one or the other before exhausting myself.
When the truck tracks finally grew shallow and then faded out, I twisted the throttle and held my breath around each curve and hilltop, waiting for the mud to return. But it didn’t and my speed ramped up as I splashed through the small potholes and crashed along the hardpack, in and through the Ogilvie Mountains.
My last hurdles were the two high passes in the northern half of Tombstone. The first as you approach from the north, Windy Pass, rises to 1,100 meters. The temperature dropped and the snowline crept closer as the road carried me along. Up and over Windy Pass I figured it would be touch-and-go at North Fork Pass, the highest point on the Dempster at 1,300 meters. Sure enough, I passed through the snowline and visibility dropped as flakes filled the air and the slushy white stuff clumped up on the sides of the road. But the road stayed clear and firm, and by the time I passed the visitor center on the far side of the pass, it was literally all downhill.
With low clouds, mist and rain obscuring the views, there wasn’t much reason to linger on today’s ride, and after the slow going early on I felt myself compensating by cranking up the GS on the better road conditions, cruising at 60 or 65 mph on the straightaways. As a result, I found myself back in Dawson by 7pm, checked into the Spartan, clean Bunkhouse Hotel.
Flirting with the snowline in Tombstone Territorial Park
A muddy couple of days