The Dempster Highway - 450 miles of Gravel and Joy

August 29 - September 2
Demptser Highway, from Dawson City, YT to Inuvik, NWT
Round trip around 1500 km / ~ 1000 miles of gravel "highway"

I started off August 29 at Moose Creek campsite.

It had rained on me most of the day before, but by the time I got ready to set up camp, the clouds broke, and life was looking ok. Cold, but still ok. I started a good camp fire, thankfully most of the fire wood at the campsite was dry, but the air was damp and cold.

I didn't have much for dry tinder with me, so ended up using my little butane torch to start the fire. I suppose that is cheating, but after getting rained on all day, I really needed that fire, and it felt so good!

Since the ground was soaked, and my tent was pretty wet, I decided to try an experiment. I put my air mattress and sleeping bag on top of the picnic table, to get above the wet ground. I hung the tent over the seat of the table, closest to the fire, hoping by morning it would be dry. And I figured if it did start raining, I could just pull the tent over me like a tarp, and not be too bad off. The sleeping bag itself is made from waterproof Denier material, basically the same as my riding pants and jacket, so I didn't worry too much about getting wet. Every couple of hours I'd wake up and toss another log on the fire, which didn't really warm me up much, but it did make me seem warmer. I love camp fires!

Sometime during the night I noticed things feeling a bit odd. I was pretty comfortable in the sleeping bag, as I was wearing wool socks, jeans, shirt, and fleece, and topped off with my wool "watch cap" hat, life was good. When I got my eyes to focus a bit, and got out of the sleeping bag, I notice the sleeping bag, tent, table, and all my gear was covered with a nice layer of frost! That explained the odd feeling, the sleeping bag, and air mattress, was getting stiff!

8am and still frosty!

Ok, 2 more logs on the fire, warmed up some water for some tea, and spent some time thawing my gear out. I probably got up around 7 or 8, but didn't leave camp till closer to 10 or 11, more or less typical time I guess by now.

One thing I've found I don't like about the campsites I've been to so far, they all have tall trees, which is nice for protection from the wind, and making you feel sheltered. Unfortunately, it takes forever for the sun to get to you! There have been a few times I realized that it would probably be 2 or 3pm before the sun ever got to me, so no sense waiting!

From the camp site, it was about 2 hours to Dawson City. Probably would be less, but I always stop for taking pictures. That is the purpose of the trip for me, so I can hardly call it a distraction!

After a quick driving tour of Dawson City, and a stop for gas and trail mix, it was a short back track to the beginning of the Dempster Highway, which runs from Dawson City, across the border into the Northwest Territories, up to Inuvik. Inuvik is a town of about 3000 people, and is the most northerly in Canada town to which one could drive in the summer months, according to Wikipedia. The town of Inuvik is about 100 km / 60 miles south of the Arctic Ocean.

The Dempster Highway is built mostly on top of the permafrost, and is entirely a gravel road. There are graders and water trucks out constantly, grooming the road a few miles at a time. For a few minutes you may have loose, freshly graded gravel, then it turns to hard pack dirt, then it gets really bumpy, or slippery where the water truck has been. Speeds vary greatly. When I first got on the road I was hopeful I could at least maintain 80 km / 50 mph, because it was so rough I was sometimes only going half of that! Then I'd hit a smooth stretch, and noticed I was going 120 km / around 75 mph. Eventually I got into a rhythm, and would speed up for the smooth straights, and take the corners pretty conservatively. Bumps not only wear you out, they tend to break things on a heavy motorcycle, and crashing 500 miles from a hospital could be a bad deal.

The other issue on the Dempster, asside from the condition of the road itself, is the distance and actual fuel range. There can be extreme winds, there is the White Pass which climbs pretty high. And not many people have ever driven their motorcycle a few hundred miles on gravel, to get a good estimate of fuel economy, and then you factor in the load you are carrying. Every story and blog and article I've ever read has said to plan conservatively, and carry extra fuel.

I filled my 2.5 gallon gas can a few days ago, when I first noticed the fuel prices in Yukon were less than they were in northern BC, so I've been just keeping it full, and so far haven't used it yet. On good conditions I can do better than 350 km on my bike before going onto the reserve, and I have no honest idea how far I can go on reserve. But if the tank is over 6 gallons, and I can go 350 km, another 2.5 gallons should give me another 150 km or there abouts.

Coming into Dawson City I had actually gone onto reserve at about 375 km, but I'd been running 110 to 120 km on the highway. I've noticed my fuel economy really suffers now going that fast with a full load. Ironic, now that I have the big tank, and the big load, I have almost the same range as what I had with no load and the stock fuel tank! But at least I haven't gone backwards!

I knew it was over 400 km from Dawson City to the first fuel stop at Eagle Plains, YT. So imagine my surprise when my odometer trip meter read 407 km as I rolled up to the pump, and I had not even gone on reserve yet. So there is a bonus to driving on rough gravel roads, in that you go slower, you are not dealing with as much wind resistance, and get better gas mileage. According to the numbers I have so far, the best mileage I've gotten was on that road. Go figure. And your results will likely vary widely!

Once you make Eagle Plains, the fuel stops are closer together. There is one at Fort McPherson, NT, which was about 183 km on my trip meter, and then Inuvik was about 195 km, although I toured around the town a bit before finding the gas station in Inuvik.

But lets not get too far ahead of ourselves now!

Just a few miles (relatively speaking) after Eagle Plains is the Artic Circle, at 66 degrees 33' latitude. By definition, the Artic Circle is where the sun never sets in the summer, and never rises in the winter. The further north of the circle you go, the more days of either sun or darkness you get. What I hadn't realized until just before starting the trip north, is there the only place on earth where the "antartic circle" hits land is Antarctica. South America and Africa don't extend that far south. So from that point of view, if I do go to South America, I can't go as far south, as I've already gone north. I guess that's just a weird factual thing that doesn't mean much when it comes right down to it!

A very touristy looking picture!

They have a nice little rest stop with a sign marking the Arctic Circle, so I stopped, took a few pictures of the bike next to the marker, and then headed out. By this time I was getting tired, having already driven about half of the Dempster Highway, and taken advantage of all the extra daylight I was going to get. I found the Rock River camp site just a few miles before the border of Yukon and NWT, and set up camp in the dark. This was the first time I found a Yukon Territorial campsite that was lacking firewood, which made me sad... I really have gotten used to my evening camp fires!

The next morning, I had planned on getting a good start to the day, and of course it just never happened. I'm not normally a social animal, I like to write, sure, but I usually try not to get into conversations with people. Maybe just because they take so much time! So I'm loading the bike, and notice a guy dragging a piece of fallen tree behind him. Realizing he's looking for firewood, and not planning to start his own wood sculpture exhibit, I tell him I have a couple pieces of wood left that I had found, but wasn't able to get started. Pretty soon he and his friend come over to grab the wood, and about 3 hours later, we got tired to telling stories and I finally got out of camp around 2pm or there abouts. Then when I did finally get up and over White pass and into the Northwest Territories, I had a time zone change, and lost another hour. Still things were going well, and I made Inuvik that night, sometime after 9pm, so everything was closed up. Not that I'd planned on a lot of shopping, but the one thing I have just not done at all was to buy post cards or stickers or anything to show my progress.

Cold and windy enough to leave the visor closed!

I guess that is part of the motorcycle experience, you really can't go buying a lot of trinkets, unless you plan on mailing them home directly from where you buy them.

Once I fueled up in Inuvik, I turned back to the south, and stopped in about the 3rd camp site. There is one in town, which I'd have a couple of people mention not to use. Then there are 2 Day Use only sites, and then a campsite near the airport. I wanted to get as far out and down the road as I could, thinking I could make a good run for the next day. I'd not taken hardly any pictures on the way up, realizing if I did keep stopping, I'd never make it back out again. I did mark a good campsite on my GPS I wanted to hit on the way back, and it was going to be a long run.

After self registering at the campsite near Inuvik, I realized there was again no firewood. And the NWT sites cost more than the Yukon ones did. Something like $22.50 vs $12.00, so a big difference. Now, had I realized they had no wood, I'm not sure how willingly I'd have paid the fee!

Then, the morning of the 31st of August, I got off to a good start. On the way from Inuvik to the Yukon border there are 2 ferry crossings, which go pretty smoothly, but if you miss a ferry, you end up sitting there waiting. Its not like a schedule, the ferry just crosses when someone is there. So you don't know if you'll make it until you turn the corner and see either the ferry, or water!

So I made the first ferry pretty good, little wait, and was buzzing along. I figured I'd get gas at Fort McPherson again, just in case, and be in good shape for making it to Eagle Plains again. My camp site of choice, Engineer Creek would be a stretch, but would put me closest to the places I really wanted to spend time taking pictures.

Then about 20 km before Fort McPherson, I noticed the bike doing a little more wiggling in the rear than normal. At first I was thinking I was in a little rut or loose gravel maybe, then I remembered once when I was about 17 and had a flat tire on my first street bike... ohh bummer. Its been "almost" raining today, not really pouring, more of a misty drizzle, a perfect time to change a motorcycle tire on a gravel road!

Knowing I was only about 20 km from the next town, my first plan was to pull out my air compressor and see if I could air the tire up. I really wasn't sure if the compressor was working, as the tire wasn't going up, so eventually I decided that wasn't working, and I'd have to fix the tire. I have a spare tube, the tire irons, and also a patch kit. And I had put a center stand on the bike.

The problem was, once the bike was loaded, it was too heavy for me to get it up on the center stand!

So now I got to unload most of the bike, and try to get it up on the center stand, so I could remove the back tire. As I'm making my pile in the mud, almost every one who drove by stopped to see if I needed help. At this point I was pretty confident I could fix the tire, so I'd wave them by.

Finally the bike was unloaded as much as practical, and I still couldn't get it up on the center stand! Turns out with a flat tire, the bike sits low enough that its very difficult to get it "up and over" on the stand. What I needed was to get the bike up an inch or two. A nice flat board would be perfect. If only...

So I go into survival mode, and start scavaging to see what resources I have available.

This is freaky, really. Across the road, within 40 or 50 feet, are 2 wood pallets. Pallets have lots of flat boards! All I need to do is take my little camp hatchet and pound the boards loose, and a few minutes later I have the bike up on the stand. Bonus points here, because now I have one pallet to use for a work surface, so I'm not kneeling in the mud, and the other pallet had all my unloaded gear on it. I took my ground cover and draped over the pile, and life was grand!

Ok, for any non motorcycle people reading, or if you've never changed a tire, here's the basics. This is for the rear wheel, the front is pretty similar, but simpler, because you don't have the chain. You do have the speedometer cable to deal with though.

Get the flat tire off the ground. Center stand is important here, but there are some other ways to do it too. In my case, even with the center stand, the remaining gear on the bike tipped it back, so the wheel was still on the ground. So I took my tool pouches, food pack, and gas can, and tied them over the front fender, which almost did it. Then it was a little board to push up the back, and prop it up. Success, wheel off the ground!

Next, on my bike at lest, you remove the rear break caliper assembly, and "support it so its not hanging by its hose..." Ok, easy enough, 2 allen screws, and it slides off the disk. I had bungees hanging all over from unloading, so one supported the break caliper just perfectly.

Loosen the chain adjustment bolts completely.

Next remove the cotter pin, and then loosen and remove the axle nut, washer, and push the axle out, supporting the wheel as you go, and catch any spacers that may fall out. Bonus points if you can remember which goes where, and don't drop them in the mud!

This is a great time to take one of the freezer or sandwich bags you have, to start putting all the tools and parts in as you go. Makes putting back together much easier!

When the axle bolt is removed, and you have all the spacers in the bag, push the wheel forward, until you can lift the chain off of the rear sprocket, and then support the chain to keep it out of the mud.

Once clear of the chain, you wiggle and roll the wheel out from under the bike. Now the real fun begins!

Go ahead and take the sprocket off the wheel (on my bike at least, it just slides off, and eventually you'd drop it in the mud.) and double check if there are any spacers that will get lost. Put them in the bag.

Since your tire is flat, take a minute to visually look at the tread of the tire and see if you have a nail or other visible puncture. That might save you time later of finding the hole in the tube, if you have tube tires as I do. Plus wouldn't it suck to put a new tube in, only to then find you had a nail in the tire, and punched a hole in the new tube too?

Next you remove the valve stem out of the tube, to make sure its all the way flat. That will make it easier when you're trying to get the tire off the wheel. Now you need to "break the bead" of the tire. Tires are pressed against the wheel bead by air pressure, and when they go flat, they still tend to stay stuck to the wheel. What you need to do is break that seal. On the tires I have on the bike, this can be a real challenge, because the tire sidewalls is very stiff. I've heard stories of guys using the other motorcycle sidestand, to lean over onto the tire, to break it loose. Since I'm riding alone, that wasn't an option.

If you've ever changed bicycle tires, the process is about the same. Except you can't use your Mom's spoons to get the tire over the wheel. Basically, you take the tire iron, which is a long skinny piece of steel flat bar, with a bit of a hook on one end. You slide it between the tire and the wheel, and first try to break the bead, and separate the tire from the wheel.

Now's a good time to mention you want to be extra careful in all the prying and wiggling, not to catch the tube with the iron. Tubes are kind of fragile. Just saying.

I think its possible to change a tube without taking the tire completely off the wheel, but so far I've not been able to do it. So I'd slide one bead over the rim, then reach in and pull the tube out of the way, then pull the tire the rest of the way off the same side. Then reach inside, maybe with a rag, and feel around the inside of the tire tread, to find something that might be poking the tube. If you slide a rag, it should catch on anything sharp, and not slice your hand. Gloves are good too.

Once you have the tube out of the wheel, if you have a spare tube, which is a very smart plan, put that in. Next time at camp, or the next down, you can patch the other tube, or replace it. Much faster than doing the patch job on the side of the road, in the rain. So you put the tube into the tire, and thread the stem into the wheel. Then a reverse of before, roll the bead onto the tire, one side at a time, and pay attention to the tube. I can't stress this enough! More on that later.

Ok, so you've now used up all your nice swear words, and are up to full blown sailor talk, you've probably taken your jacket off now, and you have the tire all back together. Now its time to inflate it. Hopefully you have a known good air compressor. Since I'd never really tested mine, I just assumed it didn't really work well.

So I get the air going into the tire, and it slowly does eventually inflate, to the point where the bead kind of got seated. Then that's as far as I got.

Long story short, I had nicked my good tube when I put it on. But I didn't know it then. And I didn't want to pull the whole thing apart again, in the rain, and risk nicking it (again) if in fact it wasn't nicked already. So I started flagging people down and asking for an air compressor. Lots of helpful people, all wanted to help. None had an air compressor. So in the mean time, I started putting the bike back together, just in case I did find an air compressor that worked.

Finally a motorhome stopped by, and this wonderful guy from New Zealand says he does have a good compressor. I'm pretty sure his name was Pete. His friend's name is Patricia, I got her card. Turns out she's living down in Coronado. I used to be stationed just up the beach from there. Anyway, we get his air compressor out and it does better, but never gets me above about 20 psi. I need about 35 or more with my load. When we unhooked the compressor, the tire goes flat again. So now I know I have a leak. Before I suspected I had a leak, or just a bad compressor. Now, well, at least I know which problem I have!

I tell Pete that I really appreciate his time, but there's no sense in him hanging around any longer, so we say our goodbyes and they're off.

Its now getting late evening, and I've been mud wrestling this tire probem for about 8 hours. I'm done. I've decided its time to look into getting the bike hauled into town and trying again in the morning.

So the next person that stops to check on me, I ask if they can please go into town and find me a tow truck or something to haul me in. Ok, he says sure, he'll see what's available. Of course no cell signal anywhere in the area, and I have no idea if he'll even find someone, or if I'm looking at a tow truck coming out from Inuvik, which would likely be 3 or 4 more hours time. But here I am.

In the mean time, I realize that I've run the motorcycle's battery dead with the air compressor. Well, that's not a big deal anyway, because who cares if it will start if the tire is flat?

Still, I wanted to see if it would be possible to push start it. It only took me about 12 feet to decide that was hopeless, you really can't push start a flat tire motorcycle in the mud!

In the back of my mind, I knew I still had options, so if no help would come, I wasn't too worried. I had all my camping stuff with me. I had a few days of food. It was raining, so I wasn't worried about water. I had the tools so could try to change the tire again in the morning and patch the leak. And I have a solar trickle charger, that would eventually recharge the battery. So still not hopeless, right? I had a certain sense of satisfaction, that I had done everything I could do that night, and I'd put in a good effort. Still had a flat tire, and a dead battery, in the rain, in the mud, and now almost in the dark. Oh well!

About an hour later, as I was sitting on my pallet, eating my can of chili, the truck came back and told me he had found some road crew guys who could come out to get me. He didn't say exactly when, but at least I knew help was coming. Another half hour later, I see a UFO coming toward me. It turned out to be a pick up with lots of pretty blue lights all over it, but at that point I wasn't too picky :)

So, these guys roll up, in a super high jacked up 4 door short box truck. Like, I'm about 5'11", and the tail gate hit me mid chest level. And they don't have a ramp. Fortunately the bike is mostly unloaded still, but even empty it weighs around 400 pounds. And they had no idea what they were coming out to find, I guess the message got passed a few times by the time they got it.

Well, come to find out these guys race snowmobiles, and are used to just picking up 800 pound sleds with a few guys and lifting them into trucks, so this isn't a big deal. Cool, bring on the hurnia! We flag down the next truck, and a couple more guys jump out, so we're in business. Heave ho, and away we go. Oh, no tie down straps, no big deal, we just lay the bike over against the side of the truck, then throw all the gear in. The guys were all asking me how I managed to haul 2 pallets on the bike! No, no... I just found them... :)

We get back into town, and they're all asking all the normal questions, where I'm from, why I have so much stuff, how long I was on the side of the road, what kind of mental problems I must have by now, you know, the normal. Then we were talking about different jobs and stuff, and I mentioned I used to build work trucks for Finning. Well, I knew Finning was up in the area, because I'd seen their facility in Inuvik earlier. Finning is probably the biggest Cat dealer and maintenance company in western Canada. So these guys knew who Finning was. Now they want to give me a job fixing all their stuff! No, really, guys, I'm trying to get out of snow country, I don't want to move to Inuvik!

Eventually we get into Fort McPherson, and they decide they'll just drop me off at their shop, and I can camp inside with the trucks and the tools there. Sweet! So we unload the bike, and all my gear, they show me the light switch, and I'm camping inside, not out in the rain. Life is looking good. And over in the corner is all the tire fixing tools I could ever need, including big truck tire irons.

I slept really good that night, and in the morning got right to fixing the tire. Well, acutally the owner of the company has his house on the same property, so I get invited in for coffee and breakfast first. But after that, then I got the bike tire off, patched, and installed again. It went a lot faster the second time, not being in the rain and the mud this time! And it held air, which is always nice! By about 2pm, I was back at the gas station, topping off the tank, and was on the road.

By this time it had rained the last 24 hours or so, but had tapered off. The road was kind of a slippery snot texture, so I was a bit worried. But I also knew I had decent tires, and if I took it easy I'd probably be ok. I could have easily stayed a day, but then I took the chance of it raining more, so I decided to take my chances.

About an hour out of town, after the second ferry, the bike started sputtering going up a hill, and then it just coasted to a stop.


Ok, mental trouble shooting time, it sounded like I ran out of gas, most likely not electrical. It sputtered, didn't die right away. Ok, what's that mean? I thought maybe fuel clog, fuel contamination, fuel flow something. Its a simple carburator bike, so I should be able to figure this out. First step, pull the fuel cap vent hose and make sure its not crimped or clogged. Take the cap off, and blow through the tube, seems to vent ok. Cap back on. Look at the carb, its got a drain screw on the bowl. Hmmm turns out to be a 3mm allen screw. Why not a philips? Sigh... ok, find my allen wrenches, open the drain. No fuel. The bike has a vacuum operated fuel petcock. Meaning when the bike isn't running, fuel won't flow. Still, the float bowl should have fuel. So I follow the hoses on the petcock, both are attached. So I open and close the petcock a few times, from off, to normal, to reserve, back to off. Then I crank the bike and it starts. Just for good measure I smack the tank a few times, most likely I had something floating in the tank against the fuel pick ups. Then when I stopped, the sloshing dislodged it. Its a theory anyway! Once the bike was running, I opened the fuel float drain and sure enough gas runs out. Onto the hot engine. Ok, enough of that! Off again! Pick up all the tools, get them put back in the bags, secure everything, and I'm off and running.

Had a few sputters for the next couple of days, but it never quite died out after that. I'll probably drain the tank sometime and look for contamination. But for now, it seems fine.

Still, what are the odds of fuel problems and tire problems in the same 100 miles, when I've gone 3000 miles?

With the late start, I still made Engineer Creek camp site, but it was after dark. I knew the road was mostly ok, so was thinking I'd be able to make good time, but wouldn't you know it, Nature can be a real Mother sometimes!

First there was the rain, so I could never run very fast, because the road seemed slick. Then going over White pass it was even windier than it had been the last time. So windy I could hardly see, because of all the flying dust, dirt, and rain all mixed together. I had to take my glasses off, and ride with my visor open. Every time I stopped to clear the visor, my glasses would fog up. So I found if I only rode 30 Km/h or so, I could blink fast enough to see. Except I couldn't see very well with out the glasses, but it was that or stay on the pass until it snowed!

When I got down over the top far enough to where I felt like I could stop without blowing over, I checked the wind speed, I have a little hand held wind meter for such nonsense, and I clocked over 40 mph winds. So it was way more than that at the top. I was just too scared to check it then!

Ok, what are the worst things on a bike then, wind, rain on gravel dirt roads, darkness and oh yeah FOG! Lets take all of them together!

Finally I got to the campground at Engineer Creek. I'm so excited, its after midnight, I'm cold, exhausted, kind of numb, and wow, look at all the big piles of beautiful camp fire wood. Except... there is not one space left to camp in! I drove around the park twice, just to be sure. Only about 15 or so spots, so not a big drive, finally I park next to the camp kitchen. I was actually thinking of sleeping in the camp kitchen, but there was a "Do Not Sleep In The Camp Kitchen" sign. That's not a good thing to get caught doing when they put a sign there. I mean, maybe if I spoke good Dutch or something. So I self registered, paid my fee, and camped in an open parking spot. No camp fire ring. No ring, no fire. Besides, its after midnight, so I wanted to be quiet and not annoy my neighbors.

That was the night I came up with my other clever short cut. Rather than pounding in the stakes and poles of my tent, I just blew up the air mattress, put it on my ground cover, unrolled the sleeping bag, and pulled the tent over the whole kit like a tarp. Figured if it rained, I'd just pull it over my head. No wind, no problem. Worked great! And it was much quieter!

The next morning I got a reasonably early start, and did have plenty of time to take lots of great pictures. Even saw a moose in the Two Moose Lake.

My new friends with the air compressor, Pete and Patricia. I caught up to them a couple days later, they seemed relieved to see me rolling again!!

By early afternoon on the 2nd of September, I was back in Dawson City. I've been looking through the pictures, and wow, what a difference. The bike, my gear, everything is so dirty looking now. I saw a picture of before, and the first thing I thought was "Wow, look how nice my gear used to look!".

I can now say, in one sentance, that on one highway, I am not who I was. I'm dirtier! I survived the Dempster Highway, I changed tires, and I think if I can do that highway, I can probably handle anything else out there. I know there are places that are still worse, but I think I can do it. But first I want to go wash the bike, and buy some more spare tire tubes! And probably eventually take a shower!

By Carlin Comm posted on 2012-09-5