The Great Dempster Dive

The wilderness swallowed me up for two weeks and spit out a sweaty, starving, smiling fool. What a ride! The Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson was a gravel and mud slug fest, but with so many incredible moments in between I can only count myself lucky to be on the other side.

Computers (and showers) were at a premium in the Far North, but I kept a journal so I could share the day-by-day happenings of the road. Here it goes:

Tuesday, June 16
After being cooped up in Inuvik for so long, I made a beeline south and cleared 133 km on the first day. The first 25 km south of town made me seriously consider what I’d gotten myself into, because the gravel was three inches deep and I could not, for the life of me, get any traction on my back wheel. I didn’t even clip my shoes into the pedals until I’d been on the road for an hour.

Bicycle on the Dempster Highway near the Mackenzie River delta.

The Mackenzie River delta

The landscape up here is from another world. All I see, for infinite miles, are stunted spruce trees and flat bog. Welcome to the Mackenzie Delta.

It’s mosquito heaven, and they swarm around me in a buzz-suck cloud whenever I stop to catch my breath. It’s like a 50’s drive-in B-movie, only with less high-heeled screaming.

No one would hear me anyways. Besides a few large trucks, I’ve been passed by only a handful of vehicles all day. Lots of dust and rock showers, but that’s par for the course.

Saw a lone caribou today!

Thursday, June 18
I lingered briefly in Fort McPherson after spending the night behind a shuttered church. A microcosm of the town, I suppose. People here are guarded and I had trouble getting more than a terse hello from anyone, including my waitress, when I paid $12 for a $5 breakfast.

Outside the restaurant, I saw, etched into a metal pole, the words, “I Don’t Love.” Yikes.

I pulled out of town just after 10:30 a.m. and headed south towards the Peel River. The ride was stunning – flat ground, sweet-smelling trees and enough sunshine to carry me through the day. The ferry ride across the river was exciting, as far as ferry rides go, and I pedaled, grinning, to the mountains on the horizon.

Mountains. They were in every territorial map and brochure I saw, but they were always in the distance – a dreamy accent on already beautiful vistas. It never occurred to me that these massive outcroppings of rock might actually need to be crossed. On a bike.

The climbs were gut-busting and I swear my tongue was hanging out for most of today’s 93 km. But the view from the top! Lush native grasses and freezing streams traced their way down the treeless mountains. It was so rugged, so unbelievably wild, that I half expected to see Marty Stouffer running by in his trademark flannel shirt.

A few kilometres from the Yukon border I stopped to catch my breath and pretend I wasn’t starving. Amazingly – and this is why I love the road – a wonderful woman pulled up in her 4Runner and told me she’d biked the same highway in 2000.

She invited me into the vehicle, out of the raging wind, and said she’d made supper for me because she appreciated (pitied?) the life of a cyclist. A pot was produced and voila, I was eating fresh salmon and buttered potatoes! Even angels drive SUVs.

Bicycle on the Dempster Highway at the Northwest Territories / Yukon Territory border.

The Northwest Territories / Yukon border!

Across the border the wind was so bad and the road so treacherous that I couldn’t safely make it to the nearest campground. I was literally getting blown off the road, so I put on my vagrant hat and camped behind a Department of Highways water truck parked at the side of the road. It blocked the wind wonderfully and I slept like a baby.

Friday, June 19
Tired and in my city state of mind, I decided last night, for whatever reason, that locking my bike to the water truck was a good idea. This morning I awoke to the gravel-growl thunder of the engine starting and my heart leaped out of my mouth. I dashed out of my tent in my long underwear and waved frantically at the truck driver. In the end, he thought it was all quite funny. Hilarious.

I made the final push to Rock River and camped there for a rest day and a chance to wash the stink out of my clothes. It was scrub city in the river, but in the end I smelled like a human being again.

Saturday, June 20
The ride today left me utterly exhausted. I cleared 76 km, all uphill, then collapsed into my sleeping bag. Some of the climbs were insane and it dawned on me, for the first time, that I might not be able to finish the highway. An ugly thought after so much planning and anticipation, but it snaked its way into the back of my mind and wouldn’t leave.

Along the highway, a fat cat camper and his snack laden wife pulled up beside me to ask where I was going. Dawson. Where was I coming from? Inuvik. He snorted and said, “You’re an idiot!” I smiled politely while picturing him hanging from an imaginary hook and then cycled away.

Bicycle crossing the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway.

Crossing the Arctic Circle

It was a good motivator. The guy pissed me off and I biked angry for the rest of the day. I cruised past the Arctic Circle and made my way to Eagle Plains by nightfall.

It’s a community of exactly 14 people, but it has a lovely hotel and restaurant. I ordered a gargantuan bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, fries and bumble berry pie with vanilla ice cream. Then I phoned my folks, stumbled over to the campground and blacked out until the morning.

Sunday, June 21
I got about 20 km south of Eagle Plains and the sky opened up with enough rain to turn the road into gravy. Pushing my gear uphill through the mud was nearly impossible, so I found a place in the bush and set up my camp for the night. It was the only spot for miles that wasn’t surrounded by bear tracks or scat.

Still, I spent most of the night with my sleeping bag pulled over my nose, imagining all the ways a grizzly might eat my head.

The mosquitoes were beyond comprehension. I’ve gotten so good at killing them that I can actually snag them out of the air with two fingers. Ninja biker!

Monday, June 22
I woke up happy to be alive! Seriously. I walked in circles so the bugs couldn’t eat me while I downed breakfast. Then I hit the road and, feeling stronger by the day, was able to attack the countless ups and downs of the so-called plains.

A few hours into the day I spotted what I thought was a caribou and its calves. It was trotting down the highway in my direction so I inched forward and took out my camera for a picture. But it kept coming, and the closer it got the less it looked like a caribou. It wasn’t until it turned that I realized I was playing chicken with a moose.

Finally, when the trio were 20 meters from me, the cow stopped and caught my scent. It was suitably unimpressed, letting loose a grunt and stomping one of its front hooves. It was an oh-shit moment like no other because I had absolutely nowhere to go. The road was narrow and I was blocked in by dense bush on both sides. All I could do was slowly back up.

Moose and two calves running down the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory.

The moose are loose

Then my gear clicked. The animal snorted again and turned to head into the trees. Taking a wide berth around where it had gone, I got over the next hill like my back wheel was on fire.

I hit Ogilvie Ridge by mid afternoon and then enjoyed the rare reprieve of a descent from Seven Mile Hill. The bottom of the hill was a jaw-dropping array of sparkling streams and creeks. With the sun shining and fish jumping all around me, I enjoyed my lunch and then headed for the campground at Engineer Creek.

The road to the camp site started out perfectly flat – the first prairie-like land I’d seen on my travels. I thought it was an awful tease so I tentatively continued south. But it lasted for the next 50 km, which I flew over in less than two hours! It was a shot in the arm for my confidence and marked one of the first times I went to sleep after my head hit the pillow.

Wednesday, June 24
I woke up in a mud puddle and fell asleep on top of the world! I was rained out at Engineer Creek for the past few days, but that gave me a chance to rest my legs and fatten up as much as possible. The visitors that came through the campground made that easy.

One fellow, a white-whisker rancher type, invited me into his camper where “the wife” made us salami and cheese sandwiches. I had two while we talked about things from their lives that I’ll probably never see: shotguns, cougars, grandkids, all sorts of stuff.

Later a mother and son pulled up to share a picnic lunch. My first impression of them was exceedingly poor because the maternal half let a million mosquitoes into the cook shack when she came in to say hello. So, I readied my blood for another donation-by-the-drop and we settled in to a great conversation about our lives – hers in Vancouver and mine from the Prairies.

When they started eating I gracefully left to filter some water from the creek. But when I came back, the son had filled up a plate of some of the most delicious food I’d seen in ages. Smoked salmon, avacados, grapes, chocolate, orange crackers and White Zinfandel wine! And for me! I politely declined at first, but they insisted, so I dug in. It tasted better than I can possibly describe, especially after my constant breakfasts of oatmeal and dinners of rice.

Soon the strange purple-night of the North appeared, and with it a grizzled rigger from Alberta.  We shared a smoke and I spent the rest of the night looking out at the rain, in love with the mountains.

Thursday, June 25
It took two summits and 123 km, but I made the final uphill push to Tombstone Park by mid evening. The skies again threatened throughout the day but I managed to skirt around a downpour with a bit of luck. Sometimes you wait for rain, sometimes it waits for you.

The views from the top of Windy Pass and North Fork Pass were stunning, and even though I was tired, I felt so fortunate to be traveling through such an amazing country. If those of you reading ever have the chance to visit the North, just go. It’s like nothing else in the world.

Bicycle at the summit of North Fork Pass on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory.

Near the summit of North Fork Pass

The descent from North Fork Pass was wild and I came within a whisper of 66 km/h as I blew past the campground. I didn’t care – it felt like I was biking on clouds and I wanted to enjoy every second of it. The 2 km climb back up to the park was only a bliss tax.

Friday, June 26
I left the campground impatiently because I desperately wanted to be in Dawson City. Civilization. It was starting to rain when I left but I figured I could outrun it or at least tolerate the wet. What I hadn’t counted on was the cold.

After only 20 km I was drenched from head to toe and shivering so badly I thought I would catch my death. I hunkered down in the bush for awhile, but looking down, I saw a soggy dead mouse and decided that perhaps this wasn’t the spot for me.

I could have biked back to Tombstone but that seemed like defeat. I kept going and eventually came upon an old hunting shack. Nobody was around, so, though I’m not proud of this, I eased my way inside using a few of the lock picking tricks I acquired as a kid. I only did it because I was frozen.

Interior of a hunting cabin on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon Territory.

The coziest bed on the Dempster

The cabin had an old wood stove so I dried my clothes and prepared to leave when, of course, the cabin owner showed up with a someone’s-been-eating-my-porridge face. I bounded outside to say hello and explain my situation and he nodded, even offering to let me stay the night if the weather didn’t improve. It didn’t, so I slept the night under the faded watch of a Virgin Mary poster and the warm glow of a spruce wood fire.

Saturday, June 27
I left the cabin around six in the morning to take advantage of the first blue skies in days. I sailed down the final 50 km of the Dempster and turned off at the junction to Dawson just after lunch.

It was weird. After nearly 750 km and a hell of a pile of sweat, I was headed for Dawson, just like that. The final 40 km into town made my days on the road seem like a blur. Onward and upward.

Dawson is a mecca for all things tourist, which turned me off at first. I’m a tourist too, of course, but I certainly don’t fit in with the portly Americans wearing “Yukon’t Beat the North” ball caps with the price tags still attached. Virtually all of them drive behemoth RVs and experience the wilderness without ever setting foot in it.

To each their own.

My disdain for RV’s knows no bounds, but I have developed a trick for dealing with them. They always have silly names, compensatory names to give their owners the illusion that they’re somehow exploring something more than gas stations. The trick is this: Put the word “anal” in front of the RV name and let the hilarity ensue. So far I’ve come across an Anal Fun Seeker, Anal Explorer and Anal Four Winds. Love it!

So that brings us to the present. I’ve been bumming around Dawson for the past few days, hiking around the mountains and meeting the locals. It’s a neat town with tons of history and I’m lucky to have the chance to explore it.

Panorama of the Yukon River from the top of the Midnight Dome near Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.

The Yukon River from the top of the Midnight Dome near Dawson

I’m also lucky to be heading to Alaska via the Top of the World Highway. Tomorrow!

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10 responses to “The Great Dempster Dive

  1. You are the most hardcore person I know! It’s good to hear the majority of the people you’ve come across have been helpful so far! I’ve done the trail from Whitehorse to Dawson’s Creek to Alaska (by car) but man what an adventure!
    Keep truckin pally! ♥

  2. Atta boy Mikey. You’re as crazy as they come. I love it. Hope you had a good Canada Day.

  3. Did you take along a can or two of bear detterant?

    Did you see any bear or Cougar near the road, possibly that were near enough to put you in danger?

    It appeared you used narrow tires, did you have many flats?

    Thanks for the great description of a fabulous adventure.

    • Well, I planned to take along a can of bear spray, but the airport authority in Whitehorse had different plans. I did the Dempster Highway without it, and finally got a can from an Alaskan in Dawson City.

      I’ve seen a few bears, but when they spot the hairy guy with yellow panniers, they dart back into the bush. Fine by me. No cougars, thankfully.

      As for the tires, I have a set of 700×35 Schwalbe Marathon tires and I absolutely love them. I used 27’s last year when I toured Montana, and though they were fast, the durability was just awful. So far, I’m getting the best of both worlds.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. mike,
    sitting here in chicken enjoying a burger with baptiste. loved your take on the RV’s… this has provided several chuckles in the past few days, as i can’t help but do the same when an RV comes by.
    on to the top of the world hwy…
    -matt

  5. Thanks for the reply. I did my bicycle ride alone from the end of August to September from Dawson to Inuvik in thirteen days. I saw many sights, numerous grizzlies,about six other bicyclers, many caribou and of course many interesting people. I spent one night at James Creek road workers camp when I became too afraid to sleep near the Dempster when a grizzly was in the nearby creek. They let three people sleep on the floor of there cafeteria trailer and thankfully so. Some of the hills were tough rides and I pushed my bike up many miles. Although I’m thin, I think I lost about 15 or more pounds. I had no flat tires with my boxed kelvar tires from Walmart. Safe riding to you.

    • Congratulations to you! I´ve put on a pile of kilometres since the Dempster and I will still say it´s one of those most challenging roads I´ve ever cycled. Any plans for another trip next summer?

  6. Thanks for the great story Mike. My husband and I are tackling the Dempster from Inuvik to Dawson in a month. I appreciate your detailed and fun post. Happy trails.

    • After all this time, the Dempster is still one of my favorite rides. Stay safe and enjoy! 😀

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