Arctic Adventure, Part 2

Here’s where the real fun begins! We rode for nearly 18  hours on the first day of the Dempster. It sounds impressive, but with the road conditions we only averaged about 25 mph (when we were moving). It was slow and tiring, but amazingly beautiful. We must have stopped for pictures about every 10 minutes! (By the way, that’s not a painted center line in the picture below; that’s the tire ruts worn in the dirt road.)

We thought these were snow-covered mountains when we saw them from a distance, but they’re not. They’re actually light gray, nearly white, perfectly smooth stone mounds. Very cool!

It was 7:30pm before we made it to the Arctic Circle, but since it was still light we kept on riding. Accommodations are VERY limited up here, so when you decide to keep going that usually means at least 4 hours to the next campground…

Did I mention there are only two gas stations on the Dempster? Better plan ahead…

One of my favorite pictures from the trip. A fire was actively burning near the road during our travels, and in this section it had burned one half of the road but not the other.

Milestone: Arctic Circle! KM 405, 12 hours of riding
Milestone: Northwest Territories! KM 465, 13.5 hours of riding
You are getting veeery sleeeepy…

It may look well-groomed, but that is actually about 8″ deep of razor-sharp shale. Take my word for it, it does not make the ol’ tires happy…

Nature’s cruel and beautiful joke:
The sun isn’t actually setting, it’s just hanging out in the trees for a while.
OOooh, look! That must be a sunset, right?

Not quite. This is what it looked like when we stopped for the night (well after midnight) at Nitainlaii Territorial Park. The mosquitoes were so thick here that it actually sounded like it was raining all night as they tried to get in the tent. Note Mike applying 100% DEET – didn’t even phase ’em. It  was kinda like being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie…

Day Two on the Dempster was a much shorter day, thanks to a marathon ride on Day One. We needed it, too, because 736 kilometers of dirt road by motorcycle really takes a lot out of you!

Waiting for the Mackenzie River ferry at the fishing village of Tsiigehtchic (say THAT three times fast!) An exceptional summer thaw left the river banks littered with logs and debris several hundred feet from the river. The Mackenzie River is massive – it drains 1/5 of Canada, and only the  Mississippi and Amazon exceed it’s flow.

Crossing the Mackenzie River. The weather is notoriously unpredictable in  this area, but we had managed to skirt the storm clouds yesterday.  Today we were not so lucky. As soon as we disembarked the ferry, the sky unleashed a cold, pelting rain that would last for the next day and a half.

Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, KM 736 of the Dempster Highway. Finally, the end of the road! This is the northern-most point in Canada that can be reached by roads* (unless you count ice roads, but we’re saving that for the next road trip). (Just kidding.) We only saw a few dozen other vehicles over the last two days, and only three motorcycles. We only saw five other motorcycle on our entire drive on the Dempster. We are one of a crazy… er,… brave few.

*2019 Addendum: As of November 2017, a new road opened which allows travel north beyong Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Road trip!

We had heard horror stories about how the road destroys tires, so we came prepared with enough plug kits and CO2 cartridges to repair a couple dozen punctures. We felt lucky to have made it all the way to Inuvik before getting the first flat on Wendy’s rear tire. It took us a few hours to find air (so we didn’t have to waste our cartridges) and repair the tire, but all in all we thought we got off pretty easy…

Windburn, anyone?

Dust, dirt, gravel, and rain combined to make a thick impervious paste on the faceshields of the helmets (and our bikes, and our gear, and every other exposed surface). In order to see, we had to ride with our faceshields up. This meant being buffeted in the face by wind and cold rain for the last 128 kilometers (over 75 miles) of the road. Our faces were chapped like we’d been skiing for a few weeks, but hey – that’s the price you pay for  adventure.

Today was our first – and hard-earned – full day of rest. We stayed in a hotel for only the second time on our trip, and this one was pretty fancy. They didn’t even seem to mind the massive cloud of filth we brought in with us. We had hot showers, a comfy bed, and Internet access! Talk about spoiled! We spent most of the day lounging and staying out of the rain, but we did manage to wander out and snap a few pictures for your enjoyment. Inuvik has a paved road – our first one in two days – but most of them are still dirt. The 
nearly 4,000 residents live in these raised row houses with above-ground sewage lines to prevent freezing in the winter. Yummy! (You can see the lines in the postcard above.)

A little break in the rain convinced us to do a little exploring 
around town. This is the famous Inuvik Igloo Church. It was all hand-built without blueprints. We’ve seen pictures of the inside and it looks gorgeous, but it wasn’t open to visitors when we stopped by.

This is a common “trademark” statue of the native Inuits of the Mackenzie Delta. They were used to mark the coastline of the delta rivers and the Arctic Ocean. Travelers and fisherman used them as reference points and they navigated the surrounding waters.

This is probably tied for our favorite picture from our trip. As you can imagine, Inuvik is a very small town. The main store in town in the NorthMart, which is kind of like a WalMart. Unlike WalMart, the NorthMart is counted on to carry absolutely everything and anything that the townsfolk may need, including off-road vehicles. We were surprised to walk in the door and see three quads – one with an outboard motor on it – but when was the last time you saw a Honda CRF50 on a men’s underwear display? This has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Day Four was off to a great start. We certainly weren’t as apprehensive about the road as we had been on the way up, but we weren’t nearly as excited, either, because we knew what we were in for. We were up and ready for an early departure, and we walked outside to find that my rear tire had gone flat again. Oh, goody. Rather than chance a slow leak, we decided to track down a shop where we could repair the tire properly… Whew! Glad we won’t have to do that again! (Ha Ha) None of the shops in town handled motorcycles tires, but the owner of this shop was kind enough to let me use his machine so I could do the work myself. Nothing wakes you up like a little grease in the morning!

Back on the Mackenzie River Ferry. We hit the road about 5 hours later than we intended, but we were confident we made the right choice. After all, we don’t want to spend the entire rest of our ride dealing with flats, right?

This shot kind of gives you an idea of how slow mike is – I’m that speck waaaay off in the distance. (OK, he’s not usually quite THAT slow…) You if look closely, though, you can see the razor-sharp shale laughing at us from the roadway.

We made it almost to Eagle Lodge, the half-way point of the Dempster Highway, before Flatty reared it’s ugly head once more. All of our plug kits were useless, though, because these weren’t punctures – these were big ol’ slits. We managed to cram enough sticky strips in there to hold a little air, and I made it to the lodge’s tire repair shop just as it officially reached “Completely Flat”. Once again I had to do all the work, but no matter – we want it fixed right so we don’t have to deal with any more flats. Right?

Remember that fire I mentioned earlier? Not only was it still going strong, it was now frighteningly close to Eagle Plains. It was already 9pm so we really should have called it a night, but we were worried about where the fire would go. We decided to push on for Engineer Creek about 100 miles to the south, and it turns out we made the right choice: Just hours after we passed through, the fire overtook the road and it was closed off just south of Eagle Plains.

This is the scene from the road at about 10:30pm. The fire makes it look like a sunset, which it rightfully should have been long before 10:30pm, but it wasn’t because the sun doesn’t set, but it kind of was because it was covered by smoke. See? Or maybe that’s just the extreme exhaustion talking – We didn’t reach the next campground until 1:30am.

Good News! When we reached the campground, it was completely full. On a Tuesday. At 1:30am. The same campground that was completely empty the previous Friday. The next campground is 80 miles south, so that’s not an option.

Now Day Five of the Dempster was off to a bad start, that much was true, but if you had told me that my day would end sleeping in the trunk of a car in Fairbanks, Alaska, I still would have called you nuts. Boy, would I have been eating my words…

Luckily there was this picnic shelter with a potbellied stove, tables, and fully screened to keep the bugs out. This is actually pretty luxurious – why hadn’t we thought of this before? Probably because the rangers are likely to wake you up and make you move out in the middle of the night, but hey – desperate times call for desperate measures.

And what’s this? We woke up to find yet another flat tire! By my count, this makes four flats so far. Are we done yet? Haven’t we paid our dues? To make matters worse, we had used up all our CO2 cartridges on the last flat. We had a backup plan – a hose that screws in to your spark plug hole so your engine acts as a air compressor. It does the job, but it takes a LOT of work to get at our spark plugs. Well, better get started.

…And just look how excited Mike is about it! Boy, by that long face, you’d think HE was the one doing all the work! More than the work, the dirt road was very draining and we were ready to be back on the pavement. (Or, as I was singing, “On A Road Again”) We were about half way to our spark plugs when, from across the camp, we heard the tell-tale droning of an air compressor. We’re saved! They let us borrow it, and it cut our labor in half. That cigarette lighter charger we installed in Mike’s bike really came in handy today!! A few more sticky strips and a quick fill, and we were heading for the highway.

Alas, the excitement did not last. We were less than a third of the way to pavement when Mike caught up and asked how his rear looked. I said “Flat”. He clarified that he meant his rear tire, but unfortunately the answer was still “flat.” Upon inspection we found that my rear tire had also gone flat again, bringing us to a total of six flats.

We started work to remove the spark plugs, and we found that we didn’t have all the tools we needed to get at them.  (Now before you give me a hard time, we had the right SIZE tools, but the bolts were too tight for the tools we had to loosen them.) A few people stopped to help and a tour bus gave us some extra box lunches they had, but no one had the tools we needed. It took quite a while before someone stopped by that had a compressor. Now it was a race against the clock to reach pavement before we were stranded for the night. Where we averaged 25mph on the way up, we averaged over 50mph on the way out. It was do or die time, and we had run out of options. We were flatter than flat and running on the rims by the time we eventually reached the Klondike Lodge, but our day’s adventures were only beginning…

*2019: And that little cliffhanger is where we’ll be leaving off for this week. Tune in next week to find out if we end up in the trunk of a car, jail, or both!

15 thoughts on “Arctic Adventure, Part 2

    • To be fair, there aren’t really any trees up there. That wood had to travel and long, long way over a cheese grater to become disappointing benches at the top of the world. Like when I hike to the top of a mountain a find some rickety little bench of there and I’m like, Who thought this was a good idea? Then I stop to realize it probably took 8 trips of carrying unwieldy stuff up the precarious trail to build this wobbly little fella, he gets a lot more street cred.

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    • Thank you! Sport touring bikes definitely aren’t most people’s first choice, that’s for sure! But in the years after the trip we frequently had people saying “That’s a terrible bike for that! Why didn’t you buy Bike XYZ?” And my answer was always “Because your sitting there dreaming about the perfect bike, and I’ve been beyond the arctic circle.” 😉 Although within the endurance riding community, I know a number of people on Goldwings, Harleys, bigger BMWs, etc, who have ridden to Prudhoe Bay.

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      • on our recent trip to US/Canada I was surprised that I hardly saw any sports tourers – and primarily full dressed tourers. Here is Australia it’s the other way around sports tourers are the standard out on the highway. Although in the last 5 years there has been a shift to alround big adventure bikes.

        Yes I often got comments about taking my ZX14 on the amount of dirt – in fact it probably saw more dirt than most adventure bikes.

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      • Big adventure bikes have only really permeated the market in North America over the last 5 years or so too. There are definitely a couple manufacturers who have done an outstanding job of saturating the full-dresser market though!

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  • Great pics and story, Thankyou! Actually I think the bigger sportstourers make great gravel road tourers. The weight and wheelbase of my GTR makes it a pretty stable platform on the gravel. Still have a Kato for the tricky stuff though! Really looking forward to part 3!

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    • Thank you! They definitely take a bit more work, but on a trip that long – round trip CA to AK – it’s totally worth a little extra work for some sections to have comfort, storage, etc, in the rest. And those FJRs are still going strong!!

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