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Old 02-21-2009, 07:10 PM   #1
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Riding Canada's Most Northern Road - The Dempster HWY

For those interested in someday riding to Alaska or Canada, here's an article I wrote published in BMW Motorcycle Owners of America's Owners New Magazine in 2008. The ride covered 8,500 miles in 19 days.

Lessens Learned on Yukon’s Dempster Highway

Our journey began when a fellow BMW GS rider mentioned at our BMW club Christmas party that he would like to ride in late May to Inuvik, Northwest Territories (NWT). I was immediately interested. My desire to ride to Inuvik and the Dempster Highway began in 2001 after reading Neil Peart’s book titled, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. Neil Peart is the drummer and lyrist for the legendary rock band Rush. After the deaths of his daughter and wife, Neil regained his desire to live by riding his BMW GS on a fourteen month, 55,000 mile odyssey throughout North America. Inuvik is at the end of Canada’s most northern road known as the Dempster Highway. Less traveled than Alaska’s Dalton Highway, the Dempster Highway is 456 miles of gravel and dirt to Inuvik.

My first concern was I did not own a motorcycle capable of riding the gravel and dirt on the Dempster Highway. This problem was quickly resolved with the purchase of a 2004 R1150GS. Bob and I determined our goal was to arrive in Inuvik on June 1st. June 1st was the estimated date by the NWT Government when the free ferry’s crossings on the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers south of Inuvik began operating for the summer season. From this date, we backwards planned our trip traveling approximately 500 miles per day and determined our route. After comparing packing lists, spare parts, tire repair kits, etc., we decided to keep our loads light by not camping. This was a return trip for Bob, so we were confident that we were prepared for any problems that may arise.

On May 19th, we departed Kansas City for our adventure. The roads to the Yukon and Alaska were for the most part, very good. The Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska and the Klondike Highway from Whitehorse, Yukon to Dawson City is easily accessible with any BMW motorcycle. The ALCAN is completely paved with short stretches of dirt due to road construction. The Klondike Highway is completely paved. The only area of concern on the ALCAN where a rider needs to be cautious is from Kluane Lake, Yukon to the Alaska Border. This portion of the highway is the worst stretch of the ALCAN. However, with a little caution, large touring bikes can safely ride this stretch. An alternate route to the ALCAN is Highway 37 through British Columbia to the Yukon. Only a small portion of Highway 37 is unpaved; however, easily accessible with any BMW motorcycle.

These were all great roads passing through sensational wilderness. However, it didn’t feel like wilderness to me. Granted, you can get off any of these roads and get lost into thousands of miles of uninhabited land. However, the number of cars and good roads takes away the actual feeling of solitude and adventure. This all changed when we rode north out of Tok, Alaska, on the Taylor Highway. Although now paved to just south of Chicken, Alaska, it doesn’t take long before you realize you are on a road less traveled. Chicken needs to be experienced firsthand to be appreciated. Consisting a mercantile, liquor store, an outhouse labeled Chicken Poop, and café, it’s a must stop for gasoline and a break. The remainder of the road to the US-Canadian International border crossing is dirt and gravel winding through beautiful rolling hills with rivers and streams. The roads were narrow and difficult in places, however it was wilderness and we were finally fulfilling the ride we came to Alaska and Canada to experience.

After passing through the US-Canadian International Border at Boundary, Alaska, the highway name changes to the Top of the World Highway. This road is the most northern east-west road in Canada and is mostly dirt and gravel with small portions of bad asphalt. Meandering across open mountains and tundra, for the first time we were experiencing the vast openness of the Artic. Looking north, only the small village of Old Crow is between you and the Beaufort Sea. The views are breathtaking and continue until you arrive at the Yukon River. From the bluff on the west side of the Yukon River, Dawson City is a welcome site. Catering to visiting tourist, visitors can spend several days in Dawson City staying entertained. At the base of the Yukon River, we experienced our first free Canadian ferry. The swift Yukon River provided a moment of concern for first time Yukon River crossers. However, the skilled ferry crews navigated the river with the precision gained from thousands of crossings over the years.

At Dawson City, our first stop was to the Northwest Territories Visitors Bureau. The date was May 30th, and the start of the Dempster Highway was just 20 miles to the east. However, the news was not good. It would be another week before the ferry’s crossing the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers began operating, and we would not realize our dream of riding to Inuvik this year. Since the decision on when the ferry crossings begin for the season is weather dependant, there is no way of knowing beforehand the exact date when the ferries begin operating. However, not all was lost. We could still ride 250 miles north on the Dempster Highway to the Artic Circle. At the 230 mile mark is Eagle Plains and the first gas stop, where we could stay the night and gas up for our return to Dawson City. We spent the night in Dawson City at the Downtown Hotel and experienced at Klondike Kate’s some of the best Salmon available anywhere. The Downtown Hotel has a sign in the window stating, “BMW Motorcycle Parking Only.” The owner of the hotel is a GS rider and provides a wash area to clean your motorcycle. Motorcycle riders are also welcome to mail a set of off-road tires to the Downtown Hotel to change before riding the Dempster Highway. The local motorcycle riders recommend using off-road tires vs. dual-sport to avoid flat tires and for better traction on the Dempster Highway. We did have a spare rear tire. At Trail’s End BMW in Fairbanks, I was able to purchase the last dual-sport GS tire available.

The next morning, we departed Dawson City and begin our ride on the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains. The dual-sport Michelin Anakee’s, new when we departed just a week ago in Kansas, were now showing considerable wear limiting our pace on the loose gravel. The surface of the Dempster Highway is built with material available near the road. After passing through the beautiful Ogilvie Mountains, the Dempster Highway crosses permafrost on top of ground frozen 1600 feet deep. The Dempster Highway sits on top of a gravel berm to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from four feet to eight feet deep. Without the pad, the permafrost would melt and the road would sink into the ground. Without the gravel base on the berm, the road turns quickly to mud with only a light rain. The road is divided into maintenance sections were crews apply gravel to maintain the road during late spring and the summer months. This gravel appears without warning and can easily cause an accident if overriding the road conditions.

Along the Dempster Highway and sometimes on the road itself, airstrips are marked for airlifting injured and sick to basic medical service at Dawson City or Inuvik. Serious injuries require medical evacuation to Whitehorse, Yukon. The airstrip signs were a reminder to me to maintain a cautious speed on this road. There is no cell phone coverage along the Dempster Highway and it may take hours before a vehicle passed by capable of transporting you to Eagle Plains for medical evacuation. A serious injury could easily become life-threatening or even fatal.

Around noon, rain began forming in the west. So we stepped up the pace to Eagle Plains. Near the 170 mile mark, the rain caught us and began with heavy winds and sleet so strong at times we were almost pushed off the berm. At this point, we had already experienced two grizzly bears on the road and were not interested in stopping. As we continued north, Bob starting falling behind and soon stopped. A piece of shale ˝ inch wide and 1 inch long had cut through the thickest portion of his tire. With the rain quickly turning the berm to mud, we placed Bob’s bike on the center stand to determine the location of the puncture. Mud and dirt made it difficult. Using an electric tire pump, we inflated the tire until we were able to identify the location of the air leak. Since it was the last day of May, we were at no risk of loosing our light since the sun never sets on the Dempster Highway this time of year. However, the road conditions were increasing getting worse with continued rain. Using a plier, we removed the shale from the tire and patched using a Stop & Go Plug kit. We quickly filled the tire with air and continued on to Eagle Plains. With Bob now in the lead, he slowed to a stopped within a mile. The road was now three or four inches deep in mud, providing the sensation that his rear tire was not holding air. I assured him that my bike felt the same way. We pushed on barely able to keep our heavily loaded bikes vertical. We were at the very limits of our riding and tire capabilities.

With our bikes now low on fuel, we arrived at Eagle Plains for gas and lodging. Both of us carried an extra gallon of gas, however was not used. At the Eagle Plains service stations, vehicles were lined up for tire repairs. Some of the tires were badly shredded from the shale we had encountered. Eagle Plains employs two service station attendants just to repair tires. Locals recommend carrying at least two spares per vehicle. After fueling, we checked into the Eagle Plain hotel for the night. Bob’s rear tire was not holding air. The long jagged hole was too large for the Stop & Go plug. Using a commercial tire patch, the service station repaired the tire.

There was a good lesson learned at Eagle Plains. Without the help of the service station employees, could we have fixed the tire and continued on? The answer was yes. We had planned for this situation by carrying along a seventeen inch rear and nineteen inch front tube. If the tire plugs failed to hold, we would use a tube. One three separate occasions, we used the side stand on our bikes to break the bead. Using high volume CO2 containers, we set the bead and then refilled the tire with an electric tire pump, saving the CO2 for future flats. To learn how to safely use the side stand as a bead breaker, I recommend purchasing the Helge Pedersen R1100/1150GS Adventure Touring Instructional DVD. To practice Helge’s techniques, I mounted in my garage a new front and rear tire using only the tools I planned on taking to the Artic. Knowing how to repair your tires on the road is a basic skill all adventure riders need to know when traveling in remote areas of the world.

The next morning, Bob and I rode north to the Arctic Circle and returned to Eagle Plains. At Eagle Plains, I removed my worn rear tire and replaced with the new Michelin T66. The new Michelin provided improved grip on the way back to the hard surface, while the worn tire became our spare. Our return trip on the Dempster Highway provided us the opportunity to see the terrain without obscuring from the rain. It also provided us with a good opportunity to inspect the shale roads that was as sharp as arrowheads. With a new appreciation for the damage shale can cause to a tire, we slowed our pace until the surface changed.

Before reentering the Ogilvie Mountains, we encountered our third grizzly bear on the side of the road. This bear was large and unconcerned with our desire to pass on the only road heading south. Prepared to return in the direction I came, I moved towards the bear and angled in a direction where I could easily turn and return in the opposite direction. Using my horn, I got the bears attention. The bear slowly moved off the side of the road into the brush. After a few minutes, we decided to pass his location at a rather brisk pace. I was amazed at how easily a large grizzly bear was able to blend into the brush without being seen when we passed. This experience made me wonder how many grizzlies we had passed on the side of the road and not seen. Due to the large concentration of grizzly bears, I would not recommend tent camping along the Dempster Highway. If camping is desired, I recommend camping in Dawson City along the Yukon River or at Eagle Plains.

After returning to the start of the Dempster Highway, we rode to Dawson City to spend the rest of the day. We now had over 5000 miles on our oil and it needed to be changed. At the Dawson City NAPA, we purchased Pennzoil motorcycle oil and changed on their premises. Although I normally would not purchase Pennzoil motorcycle oil for my motorcycles, this was the only motorcycle oil available in the Northern Yukon and better than BMW oil with over 5000 miles. By the time we arrived home, the Pennzoil would have over 3500 miles and ready for a change.

After a night in Dawson City and a great dinner of Arctic Char at the Westmark Inn, we departed for our return ride home on the Klondike Highway and the ALCAN. At the start of the Dempster Highway, we were surprised to see riders heading north on BMW RTs with worn street tires, no spares, and no idea on how to repair a tire. They had ridden from the states to ride the Dempster Highway and could not be talked out of their desire to ride north. As we rode away, I couldn’t help but think that this ride was going to be their worst nightmare. A month later, I meet a GS rider in Wisconsin at the BMWMOA International Rally who had just returned from riding the Dempster Highway. He stated that a Honda Goldwing rider and BMW LT rider attempted the Dempster Highway before he arrived resulting in a medical evacuation for the Honda Goldwing rider and heavy damage to the BMW LT.

It’s possible you could ride a street bike to Inuvik. However, any small amount of rain may strand you in mud or severely injure you if you crash. The heavy gravel that appears without warning and sharp shale leads me to conclude that even with a GS, it’s best to send a set of off-road tires to Dawson City and mount them before riding north on the Dempster Highway. This is an experienced rider’s ride and very dangerous. Know your limitation, along with the limitations of your bike.

Our return trip proved to be uneventful. We continued south to the start of the ALCAN at Dawson Creek, and then onto Edmonton where Bob replaced his worn rear tire with a new one. Riding east through Alberta’s oil boom region along Highway 16, we continued through the flat farmland of Saskatchewan to the US-Canadian international border crossing at Portal, North Dakota. After 19 days and 8,500 miles, our adventure was over. However, we were both ready to start this ride all over again. Unfortunately, we both had other commitments and needed to return home. Our ride was full of lessons learned that I will incorporate into future adventure rides. Each ride is a learning experience and someday I will return to the Dempster Highway to complete the remaining 206 miles to Inuvik.



The Dempster Highway near the Arctic Circle (Northern Yukon)



Here's some additional photos from the trip. I will return to the Dempster Highway this June with another rider.


Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada


Hyder, Alaska Harbor


Entering Canada from Alaska on the Top of the World Highway


Dempster Highway. Waiting for a very large Grizzly Bear to move off the road.


Chicken, Alaska

Additional Photos are posted on the BMW XPLOR Forum.

http://www.bmwxplor.com/riders/KenK
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Old 02-21-2009, 07:51 PM   #2
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Sounds like a great and uneventful trip, and the weather looks good too. Thanks for the link to more great pics
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Old 02-21-2009, 11:29 PM   #3
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Welcome
I enjoyed your pics and story in the BMW rag last year. makes me want to go back.
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Old 02-22-2009, 01:24 AM   #4
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Ken, Being a beemer head myself, I do remember your article. Thanks for posting. Will make my first run up the Dempster on the KLR this June, providing I survive my D2D christening.
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Old 02-22-2009, 06:32 AM   #5
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Nice pics.....thanks for posting
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Old 02-22-2009, 08:13 AM   #6
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Nice pics! It looks incredible up there. I'm moving to either British Columbia or Alberta this summer and am seriously considering a trip up to the Arctic Circle. Again, great pics and an interesting ride report.
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Old 02-22-2009, 08:43 AM   #7
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I'm returning to the Dempster Highway in June with a different riding partner. We should reach Inuvik around June 15th. This should ensure the ferries on the Peel and MacKenzie Rivers are open and will be several weeks into 24 hours of daylight. In early June, the mosquitoes and other bugs are very light. However, later in June, they get thick. Hopefully, we will be returning home before they get too bad.

On this ride, we will add approximately 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel and will camp three out of four days. My riding partner in 2007 was not a camper, so we stayed in hotels each night.

My riding partner for this ride has never visited the area, so he's very excited to see it for the first time. He's spent most of his life raising a family. This is his first big trip of his lifetime; which makes the trip more exciting for me. It’s going to hard to show him everything in three weeks.

Both bikes will be R1150GSs carrying an extra rear tire, tubes and repair kits. We are cross loading the bikes with necessary repair items, first aid kits, cooking supplies, etc., to eliminate redundancy.

Manhattan Rider screwed with this post 02-22-2009 at 08:52 AM
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Old 02-22-2009, 08:49 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Davemenabat
Nice pics! It looks incredible up there. I'm moving to either British Columbia or Alberta this summer and am seriously considering a trip up to the Arctic Cirle. Again, great pics and an interesting ride report.
Lucky you! I think the Jasper and Banff National Parks areas are the most beautiful mountains in North America. After driving Highway 93 between Jasper and Lake Louise, the Grand Teton's in Wyoming are a let down. I would recommend Highway 16 & 37 through BC vs. the over traveled ALCAN. I really love Hyder/Stewart. It’s well worth an extra day of travel.
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Old 02-22-2009, 12:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Manhattan Rider
I'm returning to the Dempster Highway in June with a different riding partner. We should reach Inuvik around June 15th. This should ensure the ferries on the Peel and MacKenzie Rivers are open and will be several weeks into 24 hours of daylight. In early June, the mosquitoes and other bugs are very light. However, later in June, they get thick. Hopefully, we will be returning home before they get too bad.

On this ride, we will add approximately 1,000 miles of dirt and gravel and will camp three out of four days. My riding partner in 2007 was not a camper, so we stayed in hotels each night.

My riding partner for this ride has never visited the area, so he's very excited to see it for the first time. He's spent most of his life raising a family. This is his first big trip of his lifetime; which makes the trip more exciting for me. It’s going to hard to show him everything in three weeks.

Both bikes will be R1150GSs carrying an extra rear tire, tubes and repair kits. We are cross loading the bikes with necessary repair items, first aid kits, cooking supplies, etc., to eliminate redundancy.
Good Report - I did much of the same route in the Alcan 5000 Rally. We did a lot more dirt, but still similar. Next Alcan5000 is 2010. www.alcan5000.com. Click on the link and check out the itinerary. You should try and do the South Canol Road. It's 130 miles long with gas at both ends. The North Canol is the best ride ever, but no gas at the other end so you need a truck to spot gas for you unless you can get 300 miles on a tank.

I normally camp, but motelling up there is the way to go, given all the wet weather you encounter. Heck, those roadside motels are pretty close to camping anyways....

You should look into the Alcan5000. Sure, it has timed sections every day, but they are short and add some spice. The only problem is you are riding 500 miles/day for 9 days, so not much sight seeing or even dining! Then you need 3 days to ride back...

Thanks for the report and pics. Also, the Alcan was in September. We had no bugs at all, so I am not sure why you are compelled to hit those ferries as soon as they open. September is a nice month up there. It only rains for 3 days at a stretch.
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Old 03-27-2009, 09:44 AM   #10
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Also heading for Inuvik!

I plan to leave Topeka June 2 on my way to Alaska. I am riding a 1200GS. Maybe I will see you on the road. I went to Alaska 6 years ago on a Yamaha Road Star. Have a great trip!
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Old 02-10-2015, 04:59 PM   #11
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Amazing

Thanks for taking the time to post all this information about your trip. It is very inspiring.
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Old 02-11-2015, 05:33 AM   #12
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Nearly every bike I've owned has been photographed at that pull out at the Sunwapta Pass in Jasper. It's a magnificent location.
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