There is a saying in the north. Or at least there was when Dave said it:
“If you can wait up until 2:00 a.m., you’ll see a gorgeous sunset. Wait another 45 minutes and you’ll see a gorgeous sunrise.”
It was hard to get into any kind of sleeping pattern in Inuvik, NWT. The sun didn’t set but also, it stayed up, high and bright in the sky all night. I would have stayed up 24 hours to let the land of the midnight sun prove its namesake to me but who are we kidding—I’m over 40. A girl gets tired.
After leaving Keno, Dave and I rode on to the junction that connects with the Dempster Highway, which starts about 40 km (25 mi) east of Dawson City. A very nice thing happened here. We were trying to fill up our gas tanks, seeing as the sign had said, “Next service 360 km (224 mi).” The gas station was un-manned. It is just a card lock with public access provided you have a credit card. My credit card wasn’t working. While I farkled with it, Dave chatted with a guy driving a Toyota Tundra with a homemade camper on the back. I called over to Dave that my card wasn’t working and the guy came up with his card, inserted it and, as it seemed to work, filled his own tank. When he was done, he handed the hose over to Dave and said our gas was on him.
A great thing about being on a traveller’s route is we get to see the same people again and again. We came across this nice free-gas man several times along the Dempster Highway. He was there filming a documentary on grizzlies. We’d see him parked on the side of the road with his tell-tale camper, pull up and say, “Do you see any bears?” He never would have with us around anyway as we’d all stand on the side of the road chatting away.
One area we were excited to see along the Dempster was Tombstone Territorial Park. My parents had visited the area a few years ago and my mom had done a beautiful painting of the Tombstone valley in fall. You can see it here. (P.S. it’s for sale!).
Although it wasn’t quite fall enough yet for the really vibrant colours, it was getting there. We found a place to camp a few kilometres past the Tombstone visitor centre and watched the night set in and change the landscape around us.
In the morning we packed up under angry-looking clouds hoping the day would clear as we headed north. These unpaved highways accessing the earth’s far northern regions are terrible to navigate when wet. We were lucky (for now). The weather stayed tolerable, although as we crossed over the chilly Arctic Circle it was definitely not ideal temperatures for motorcycling. We sent our families a message using our InReach device saying we’d crossed the Arctic Circle and that it felt like it.
The weather’s not looking good!
From the Circle, the Dempster climbs high, overlooking the Ogilvie mountain range. At this altitude it’s easy to see why some people have hugged the staff at Eagle Plains, despite its dreary-looking digs. It’s the only point of civilization for a few hundred miles in either direction and this part of the road gets blasted in bad weather. Some of you may be familiar with the TV series, Ice Road Truckers. Although it is sensationalized as TV is, there’s no mistaking how challenging this road can be in the winter as well as summer, when storms can happen anytime.
Many times I wanted to stop and hike up a peak along the way. You could be at the summits of some in an hour or less. My eyes were hardly ever on the road. I kept scanning for bears, moose… anything. Finally we saw some mountain sheep as little white dots on a scree slope and pulled over to watch them.
When we started out this day, Dave said he’d be glad if we got to Eagle Plains, which was about 300 km (186 mi) from that morning’s camp. But we got almost 200 km (125 mi) and a ferry ride past that number, not to mention through a long, muddy section. While I was shrugging my shoulders trying to get the knots out, thinking when am I going to get in shape I had to remind myself I used to be exhausted at the end of a 400 km (249 mi) day on pavement let alone off-road. And there was a time I couldn’t do more than 100 km (60 mi) of dirt in a day without calling it quits. After a year on the road, my body was adapting, even if it didn’t feel like it some days.
The Dempster Highway will take you 736 km (457 mi) to the end of the road and subsequently, Inuvik, NWT. It passes through the Mackenzie Delta—Canada’s largest wetland), over two rivers—the Mackenzie and Peel via seasonal ferries and crosses the Continental Divide three times.
Although the isolated community of Inuvik, pop. approximately 3,500, isn’t the most beautiful destination in the world, what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in its claim as the Canada’s most northern settlement to which you can drive. A 4 litre carton of milk will cost you over $10, however, and it’s not easy to find much at the Saturday Farmer’s Market but the Visitor Centre does a great job of pulling out Inuvik’s attractive points and advertising them to travellers. We stayed at a campground near the downtown area named, “Happy Valley,” but Dave and I renamed it to “Grumpy Valley” after the owners, who should really just get out of the business of tourism.
Inuvik turned this former hockey arena that was going to be torn down into the world’s largest greenhouse!
The great thing about Inuvik is every traveller there has a story; even if you drove an RV up for the comforts it provides, the road is not easy and many driver’s will tell you of close calls in slick mud or having to change more than one flat tire along the way. Some people have even walked to Inuvik from all parts south. Others pedal bicycles or float in on a canoe.
On Aug. 7, after two days in Inuvik, we rode a very long day south to Engineer campground, 520 km (323 mi), spotting our first grizzly along the way. A repeat phenomenon of kindness happened while leaving town and gassing up. Another generous soul handed over his hose after filling up his truck and told us to fill up our tanks on him. Were we just coincidentally lucky twice or is this a lovely traditional welcome for travellers up in these northern regions? Either way, we were indeed grateful to have ridden almost half the entire length of the Dempster with free gas. Especially when fuel is $1.71/litre.
Generosity along the Dempster seemed to follow us. About 50 km (31 mi) south of Engineer Campground, we ran into my parents’ friends from Whitehorse, Joan and Don Turner. We half expected to see them the night before in camp as they mentioned maybe being in the area but weren’t surprised when we didn’t find them. The weather remained wet south in the Tombstones and we thought they likely opted out. We passed them waving and everyone pulled over. After chatting about our plans for the next few days, we mentioned wanting to camp in the Tombstone area but that we were running out of food so could maybe only squeeze in a day. The Turners were travelling with a friend and said they’d all put together some food for us and leave it in a bear bin in the campground. We said thank you and goodbye hoping to see them later when we thought we’d be passing through Whitehorse again, and found a trail called Goldensides overlooking the Tombstone valley. We hiked for a few hours and when we returned to set up camp, we found a huge bag of food in one of the bins and a note telling us to enjoy. Inside we found homemade granola and crackers, three different cheeses, salami and a few other delicious items. Now we could stay for several days!
Sadly, after a fairly nice evening it poured the following day. We thought we’d wait around and see if it cleared in the afternoon. To kill some time, we hiked through the forest a half kilometre to the very cozy visitor centre. There we found a fire, some hot Labrador tea and a great little library. While I studied a book on edible mushrooms, Dave started reading a book about the adventures of a dog mushing party. If you want to know the outcome of the weather, one hint: Dave finished all but the last 50 pages of the 300-page book.
We also used the free time to calculate our riding distance to date, so from Quartzite, Arizona, down Baja to Mexico, Central and South America then back to Santiago, Chile and starting our ride north from California into Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, up into Alberta, B.C., back to Washington, then into Northern B.C. and up to Inuvik. The total was 42,939 km (26,681 mi)! This really put things into perspective.
Restless, I went for a walk in the rain and was struck by a thought; when a person looks around in a place as beautiful as this and everywhere is surrounded by healthy trees, plants, berries, mushrooms, animals and crystal clear water it’s hard to believe there are so many places, people and things in the world working to destroy our Universe.
It continued to pour all over the scenery for two days without letting up for a second. Our tent and sleeping bags were perpetually damp and we could never seem to get our hands dry. We were lucky to be camped near the Visitor Centre with its woodstove, but the campground also had a large cook shelter with a woodstove, so it could have been far worse. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of this amazing park. It’ll have to wait for another time. We had actually run out of fuel for our stove anyway.
Two days after we arrived at the Tombstone campground, we slid onto the soaking wet seats of our bikes to leave. Our tires kicked up mud and gravel from the parking lot onto our luggage and riding pants and we encountered the first kilometres of “seagull-shit” on the road. The Dempster is maintained with calcium chloride, which they put on the road to harden it. When it’s wet, it turns into a slick film that gets everywhere and gives motorcycle riders more bang for the buck than they likely want or need. It was a very slippery 80 km (50 mi) ride to the highway junction and then a much more pleasant 40 km (26 mi) of pavement into Dawson City. At some point we spotted a moose standing in a river. We scrambled to get the photo but weren’t quick enough.
While walking around Dawson the next day we heard news that the Dempster was closed. It had washed out in four places. We placed the timing to be just mere hours after we’d connected onto the pavement. It would have been a miserable few days waiting to get out with no food or stove fuel and a soaking wet tent had we not left when we did. Instead we found a place to have a beer and congratulate ourselves for riding to Canada’s northern-most, road accessed settlement. Another milestone achieved on our round-the-world trip.
The yellow bag is how I carry extra fuel for my small tank, which only holds about 3 gallons. It’s strong and folds up when not needed.
In our next post we’ll talk about what propelled us to let a severed human toe touch our lips in a sketchy downtown bar in Dawson City.
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