I'd been obsessing over the Dempster for the better part of a year. Like many people I'd poured over ride reports that seemed to range from total-cakewalk to complete-and-utter-nightmare-I-nearly-effing-died! The more research I did the more intimidated I became so I just decided to stop researching. Ha problem solved!
The afternoon before I was scheduled to ride it I was doing some last minute prep in Dick's garage and had to laugh to myself as he gave me the perfect pep talk. "Yeah that fuckin' road can sometimes just be hours and hours of sucking your arsehole up through your heart"
he said slowly shaking his head.
hahaha. oooo kay then. I thought to myself.
So at 7:00am the next morning it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I pulled up alongside this sign at the beginning of the Dempster.
I stared at the sign for a few moments kinda chuckling at the slightly perverse quotes around the "Drive with Care" line.
Normally you do that when you're trying to indicate irony right?
It's then I thought about a great mechanism my friend Heather uses whenever she's faced with an unnerving situation on the road— She'd just say 'Fuckit" and let things unfold as they may. So with this in mind I hopped back on my idling bike, stomped it into first gear and said "ah fuck it" as I throttled into a dicey 800 mile journey on a road built from mud and rocks.
So far so good.
For awhile I was riding a rock hard packed strip of mud and sandstone that took on an almost cobblestone-like feel. The dempster ride reports I'd read hadn't mention this stuff at all. It was fantastic! Riding south of Eagle Plains I knew the pendulum was definitely swung hard into the total cakewalk realm of experiences for me but it was early days yet.
Much of the Dempster follows an old dog sled trail into the northwest territories and it doesn't take long to discover the schizophrenic nature of its surface.
One moment you'd be riding a nice packed gravel surface thinking "ok this is no problem…" and then the road, almost sensing your rising confidence, would let you round a corner and present you with a huge mound of soft dirt left by the graders the day before. Things nearly came unravelled in precisely that fashion barely 200 miles into the journey but I managed to keep it together. It wouldn't be the last time my heart would nearly stop either .
In my book of rad things I think having to share the road with aircraft would be on page one.
The Yukon is so remote that the Dempster spontaneously morphs into airstrips every now and again. Each time I rode along one I was kinda hoping I'd see a plane on final approach — Hey I'm a sucker for punishment what can I say?
The Yukon: weakening bladders the world over.
I blame the smug look on the fact that I was finally starting to conquer a ride that's weighed on my mind for over a year.
The pagans would also high five me given the fantastic weather window I'd scored.
Above the arctic circle the geography starts to look more like a moonscape — There's nothing much to support life here and I was very aware I was riding along the back of a sleeping mud beast. You didn't have to look too closely at the calcium chloride impregnated shale surface to realize that when it gets wet it'll transform into a slick black grease nightmare and then you're in trouble— and the problem is it rains a lot up here.
Climbing into the Northern Territories
Rolled into Fort McPherson at the 346 mile point at 7:50pm.
I was feeling pretty tired and had a brief scout about for a campsite but quickly realized that I just didn't have the energy to deal with the tent that night. In the end I decided to reward myself for a successful first day on the Dempster by staying at the one and only place in town: The Peel River Inn. I was super lucky to get a room actually as it officially locks up at 8pm and all the employees bugger off home— After that only guests with keys can enter.
After wrestling with a faulty lock I finally got into my dorm-like room and dumped all my gear onto the floor. "A real bed to sleep in. Thank god. It's worth any price at this point" I thought to myself. Well it just so happened that "any price" when you're above the arctic circle staying in a place basically built for government and oil employees works out to be 200 bucks a night. Ouch. Oh well I'm definitely not getting out my tent out now.
The summer solstice sun blasting through the window of my room at 1:00am. Even after riding for 12 hours and feeling crazy tired the weird 24 hour sunshine was messing with my body clock. I just couldn't fall asleep and I felt like I was living that movie Insomnia.
So really the only option was to wander about a semi-deserted Fort McPherson at 1:00 in the morning like a zombie…
About an hour later with the sun showing no signs of quitting at 2:00am I returned to my room and finally fell asleep. I felt pretty pleased with my first day on the Dempster. No crashes, No equipment breakages.. all in all an exhilarating day.
Tomorrow I wouldn't be so lucky.
Waiting for the Peel River Ferry to open at 9:00am
During the winter months the Peel River is frozen and an ice road joins the two land masses. Come breakup season a ferry is used to shuttle traffic across the water. The whole thing has a temporary feel to it as each morning they use earthmoving equipment to build a dirt "ramp" for traffic to drive onto the ferry. During the course of the day this "ramp" gets increasingly messed up as vehicles move across it— my advice to anyone riding it is stay in the wheel tracks made by the trucks or face picking your bike up out of the soft dirt.
I'd been lucky as the weather had been perfect for my two days on the Dempster. I'd skirted heavy rainfalls the day prior and the road had been virtually dry all the way. So by the time I was on my return journey I'd developed a certain amount of confidence with the road and it was starting to rear it's ugly head with my average speed.
A few bum puckering close calls on this road had instilled this mantra I was reciting in my helmet "slow the fuck down, don't fuck this up" . I knew I'd lucked out with the road conditions. I knew this road would lull you into a false sense of security and then toss something heart-stoppingly scary out just to remind you that it could seriously mess up your day. I knew 2 guys crashed the day before doing this road. I knew all of this and yet my average speed was still creeping up.
That was about to change.
I was cruising along a nice hard packed section at 65 mph about to exit the the arctic circle when I discovered another little gift the Dempster can toss at you— Pot-holes. Not the ordinary dimpled holes with soft edges but sudden deep sharp edged, invisible, scary-as-shit ones. A guy I later spoke to about it said the road is basically built from sandstone on permafrost. Sometimes the permafrost can melt a bit and the sandstone drops away to form these mini grand canyons. Yay!
As you can probably guess I can now tell you that when your loaded GSA hits one of these guys at 65mph it feels and sounds like a small explosion just went off under your seat. It's funny how ones mind starts processing things in the 3 seconds that follow an event like that.
The second my bike hit the road crater it started making this god awfully loud scraping sound— as I throttled off I remember thinking "can't be a tyre blowout because the bike is still handling ok", I looked down and thought "Doesn't look like the rear suspension bit it" It's at that moment the sound suddenly stopped and I looked back to see a black piece of plastic lying on the road behind me.
I remember breathing a sigh of relief knowing that I'd just dodged a bullet and got away with simply entering the club of GS owners whose TKC80 has caught, chewed up and spat out the hugger mudguard.
This happened just as I was exiting the arctic circle so I placed it on the sign as a hopefully adequate sacrifice to the gods of the northern territories. It was also a real reminder to pay attention to my mantra for the rest of the journey out.
I managed to ride the rest of the way at a respectable pace and made it out with the balance of bike bits I arrived with.
I've never developed such an close psychological and physical relationship with a road like the Dempster Highway.
Amazing, Amazing experience —I'll never forget it. However I know I was very lucky with it.