Friday, March 14, 2014

The Dempster Highway, Part 2

The amazing girl that I'd met at the tourist info center had eaten up my entire day in Inuvik; by the time she and I finally parted ways, it was past 8pm and everything was closed.  Directions from her lead me to the automated fuel station, through the town's only stop light.

Having spent the entire day talking with my new friend had given me an interesting perspective on the place.  It's a town with a lot of problems; unemployment is high, drug abuse is rampant, the population is shrinking and there's still a strong socioeconomic divide between Inuits/natives and white people.  The town feels hardscrabble and run-down; slightly depressing and like it's trying very hard to put on a good face, but it's facing down some fairly bleak odds.  The only possible bright spot on the horizon is a long-talked-about pipeline that would start in the area to carry oil south, which would bring jobs and prosperity to the town again, but this project has been talked about for years and it's possibilities of fruition seem low.

Many of the houses are prefabricated trailers that look to have seen better days, although that could be a result of the harsh climate.

The town's school.

With my tanks full of fuel, I headed back south.  I did toy with finding someplace to eat, but everything was closed save for one super-sketchy looking pizza joint that I decided to avoid.  I rode back out of town in a cold drizzle, bidding goodbye to the tarmac.

The strangest thing about the Dempster was how developed it often felt.  Aside from the lack of pavement it felt typical in many ways as there were frequent rest stops, info plaques and even fully serviced camp grounds at regular intervals.

The campgrounds were largely empty; this is the tail end of the tourist season here and in just a couple weeks it would all shut down.  But even here, deep into the arctic, there were camp grounds as typical as you might find in any state park.  Graded camp sites, fire rings, picnic tables, playgrounds and hot showers.

They were as expensive as anything else around here; around $25/night and because of that, I didn't bother.  Unless there is wi-fi, I will always prefer a small clearing off a side trail as opposed to an actual campsite, even if the campsite is empty.

Finding a good stealth camping site up here is usually quite easy, but sometimes you find someplace that's perfect in all ways but still feels wrong.  This little site was such; it was far enough from the main road to not get bothered, it was right next to a creek for easy dish washing, the ground was flat and even with no big bumps or rocks.  But something about it still felt off; maybe it was the trash scattered around.  It seemed like this place was popular with the "park somewhere and get drunk" crowd as in the bushes I could see old beer cases and cans, and maybe I was worried this would attract bears.

For whatever reason, I abandoned it and moved on.

Back across the same ferries that I'd been on just a day earlier.

It seemed to be hunting season up here; numerous trucks I passed had animal parts in the back, and from the road you could often see temporary camps set up on the shores of lakes and streams.

Southward I went, through occasional patches of rain, balanced with the occasionally blue sky. 

But the farther south I got the more rare the blue sky became, and as I got closer to the mountain range to climb out of the MacKenzie River delta, I found myself in ever more frequent rain.

I made camp for the night during a period of not-rain, at another random clearing off the highway.  Most of it was gravel and rock with a gentle slope down to a small lake; if it did start pouring rain, hopefully I wouldn't find myself camped in a puddle.

The next day was more of the same as I got back into the mountains; intermittent rain with small patches of clearing.

The shear amount of time that's spend on these roads is difficult to convey in pictures and text.  For some sections I could buzz along at 50mph very comfortably, and sometimes even higher, but the vast majority of it was often spend at 30mph or lower, threading my way around the deeper patches of gravel and always being wary of where I'd have traction, and where I wouldn't.  I could have been riding for a few hours that day already, and when checking the trip counter I'd find that I'm still six more hours away from my next stopping point.

The distances are long and the going was slow, compounded by the frequent rain squalls.  All the water had odd effects on the road; if it was slick-looking and shiny, that was a good sign, you'd probably have grip.

But if it was dull and heavily rutted, watch out.  This stuff is soft and will slip around on you without notice.

You want to stay in the shiny parts, the tire tracks where the lose stuff has been pushed away, revealing the hard gritty clay underneath.

By the time I got to Eagle Plains, the halfway point back down to sort-of civilization, I was overall feeling pretty optimistic.  While the road so far hadn't been easy, it hadn't been as bad as it could have and it wasn't NEARLY as rough as much of the other stuff I've been on.  There were a few sloppy parts, but almost all of the bad parts had solid paths through it and with some attentiveness I'd gotten through it without problems.  I was cold and wet for sure, I'd been rained on fairly regularly for the last two or three days, but that's all part of motorcycling. 

Even the bike was . . . well, not as dirty as it has been.  As long as the worst of it was behind me, I was going to be fine.

But the worst of it wasn't behind me . . . not by a long shot.  I checked the forecast in the lodge at Eagle Plains as I was paying for my gas; it wasn't looking promising.

As I was settling into the lounge enjoying some warmth and internet, a couple of older guys pulled up on BMWs, looking completely beaten to shit.  Both of them were covered in mud, and one had evidence of a hard crash.

I made quick small talk with the guys as they were taking off their riding gear; they'd come from the south and apparently the road was in VERY bad shape.  One of them had crashed twice, once very hard, and was obviously not doing well.  His entire right side was covered in mud and his arm didn't seem to be working properly; he seemed dazed and out of it, his fine motor control wasn't there and his friend had to help him take off his boots and helmet.

When I'd been making my way north I'd passed a few trucks putting down fresh dirt onto the road, and I figured it was a localized patching or something.  But as these guys told me, they had dumped fresh dirt on almost 150 miles worth of the road, and now it had two days of solid rain on it; they warned me that it was in TERRIBLE shape and even with the aggressive knobby tires on their bikes they'd had a very bad go of it, crashes and everything.  The road was now reduced to a deep, loose, sloppy mud that was an absolute disaster.  Their advice was to just get a hotel room here, expensive as it was, and give the road a few days to get packed down.  There was nothing but rain and snow in the forecast, but hopefully that time would give traffic some time to solidify it.

I got dinner here to give myself a bit more time to think about my options.  The tires on my bike were a 90/10 designed, or maybe 80/20 at best:  Designed for 80% pavement usage, 20% off-pavement, they did have some sizable grooves but they were far removed from a proper dirt tire.  And they were not exactly fresh either, the rear was at probably 60% and the front not much better. 

I asked a few other people around the lodge who'd come up from the south what their opinion was; every single person replied with an emphatic "Do NOT try to ride it!"  Even the truckers who were driving the trucks dumping the fresh dirt told me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn't even try to attempt it.  They said that the mud would start about 30 miles south of our current location in Eagle Plains, and would continue for another 150 miles south.  It was a guaranteed crash, they said, and a crash solo in an extremely remote area.  The rain and road had gotten so bad that they'd been called off the job site; their 18 wheelers couldn't safely navigate the road anymore, and they were under orders from their company to wait out the weather. 

So I did what any sensible motorcyclist would do.

I packed up the bike and headed south.  (I never implied we were a particularly bright bunch)

 As they said, the first thirty miles south were not too bad.  The rain was mostly a cold, steady shower, with occasional patches where it would reduce itself to a very light drizzle.  Light enough that you could still get some good views.

And then . . . then it all went wrong.  I came around a corner and suddenly the front wheel was doing it's own thing with little care for what direction I was trying to point it in.  I'd crossed into the mud at almost 40mph with little warning, and the bike was very nearly out of control.

I whacked the throttle open in a panic move to keep the bike upright, and managed to keep my weight centered as the tires both slithered left and right hunting for grip.  I was now doing 60mph, on a heavy bike with street tires and a very real sense of my own mortality.  As soon as the bike felt reasonably stable again I started engine braking to try and slow it down, and was mildly successful until again, the front wheel started to wash out.  A big application of throttle saved it, but I was still going way, way too fast and things were looking bad.

This pattern, trying to slow down until the bike started to fall and then goosing the throttle to keep it up, continued for a solid minute, although those 60 seconds felt like an eternity and took a week off my life.  I was scared, really scared, just trying to keep riding this bike and struggling to get it slowed down. Every time I let off the throttle, I'd feel the front end start to wash and I'd have to get back on the gas, adding more speed to an already bad situation.

To complicate the matters, I was panting and breathing so hard that in this cold and moist air, my visor quickly fogged up completely and I didn't dare removed my hands from the handlebars for even the split second I would need to raise the face shield.  I was that much on the knife edge of keeping the motorcycle upright that an instant of not being able to work the clutch and stabilize my weight would have instantly had me down.  I was now riding blind, at almost 70mph with barely any traction to speak of.

There were countless times I felt the bike was so close to losing it completely that I was a hair's breath away from giving it up.  Put it on it's side and stepping off the outside footpeg, get myself and my limbs as far away from the crash as possible, tuck my shoulder in and roll to the ground, go limp to try and avoid tumbling.  My brain told me that a crash was inevitable; best that I have it on my terms, where I had some minor control of the outcome and might survive with all my parts intact.

I have got no idea how I slowed that bike down.  I have no idea why I didn't crash on that mile-long stretch of road that I couldn't even see as I was slipping down it.

But I didn't crash.  I kept that bike up, finally getting it stopped somewhere to the left of center with the engine lugging along in fourth gear because in my panic I'd not had the ability to downshift as I slowed down.   But I was stopped, I was upright, and I was still alive.

What the fuck.

I opened the visor and only not got a chance to really look at what I was on.  They hadn't been kidding at the truck stop.  This was almost completely unridable, even if I had knobbies.

I had to stand there for a solid 3-4 minutes as the adrenalin left my bloodstream enough for my breathing to return to normal and my hands to stop shaking.   I was panting, feeling like I was completely out of breath from having been re-breathing the air inside my helmet so rapidly.

You could barely stand or walk on this stuff, it was so slick.  Even getting off the bike wasn't possible, because the kick stand would have sunk into the mud in an instant.  Even getting going again wasn't easy; the bike was starting to sink into the muck and I had to give it a shove to get it moving forward at all.

I managed to duck-walk it over to what passed for the shoulder so I was at least out of the center of the road.  I waddled along until I saw a big enough rock in the road that I could put the kickstand down onto.  I got off the bike and used my leatherman to let almost all the air out of my tires; my pressure gauge was buried in my tool tube and I didn't care enough to get it out, but I let out enough air that the tires started to squish out on the road.  And in my experience, that's probably less than 15 psi.

Letting most of the air out lets the tire squish down more and gives you a larger contact patch on the road; in conditions like this, it was my only hope.  It's really not good for the tires, but crashing is really not good for the whole bike.

This reduced tire pressure made a huge difference; I felt like I at least had some modicum of control.  It wasn't much, but it was at least predictable; I knew what inputs on the controls were needed, and the front end at least felt planted enough that it wasn't going to wash out on me with no warning.

I rode on through this mess for two hours, cursing the rain and assholes in the Roadworks department that thought this was a good idea. (A more logical person might have blamed himself for ignoring the advice of literally everyone who had any knowledge of the situation, but let's not confuse this situation with the facts).  Having made barely 60 miles from Eagle Plains in three hours of riding, I was exhausted and found a clearing somewhere to set up the tent for the night, in a cold and steady rain.

I don't recall the rain ever stopping overnight.  I made a quick breakfast of my usual instant oatmeal and hot coco, knowing that I'd need the calories dreading what was ahead of me for the day.  I did consider delaying here for a while to see if things would improve, but I had no indication that they would and this was my fourth day in rain.  Even the most waterproof of modern materials eventually gets waterlogged, and my sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent were no exception.  Everything was wet by now, and my spirits were lot.  The only bright spot for me, my only salvation in the near future, was the Tombstone Visitor Center that I knew was 100 miles to the south.  When I'd past through it previously, I'd seen a row of small cabins next to the campground behind the building.  Tiny cabins, no more than 50 square feet, but with small chimneys that meant they had some sort of heat.  I didn't care how much they were charging; I was going to rent one of those cabins.  The idea of another night in the went tent with temperatures in the mid-30s was not appealing.

To make matters worse, my bike had continued it's eternal quest to shake itself to bits.  The rear subframe and luggage rack was AGAIN missing many of it's bolts.

Any crash now would be bad, as bad as when I went down in Labrador and twisted the whole rear end of the bike out of shape.  I could not go down today; I really didn't know if the bike would survive another big crash.

And yet the road was exactly as bad today as it had been the day prior.

First gear gave too much torque, so I spent most of the day in second gear, occasionally duck-walking through the particularly bad parts and having to give the bike a push through the really deep sections.  A highly skilled, experienced motocross rider would have probably just gassed it through everything at 40mph, but a tip-over at 10mph was a lot more tolerable in my mind than a proper crash at 40mph when I over-stepped the bike's (or my) capabilities.

The rear of the bike felt different than yesterday.  It was squirming about all over the place, but not in a  . . . scary way.  It actually felt pretty controllable, and while it was wiggling plenty, it was never really stepping that far out of line.

It took me nine hours to go 100 miles.  Nine hours.  Nine of the most exhausting and stressful hours of my life.  What kept me going, the only thing that kept me going as I was shivering under my wet suit, was the prospect of a wood burning fireplace and a cot that would be waiting for me at Tombstone.  That light at the end of the tunnel was what I could hold onto in my mind through all the mud.

It was almost 6pm by the time I got out of the muck.  I have never, ever been so happy to see a normal gravel road in my entire life.

I pulled into the Tombstone campground/visitor center parking lot in the pouring rain.  Just a few more minutes, I thought.  A few more minutes and I could be warm and dry once again.

I went into the visitor center praying for a vacancy . . . and was told that the cabins weren't for rental.  They were for the employees of the visitor center.

I do not think I've ever had quite the emotional low point as I did right then.  No amount of begging, bribing or pleading made and difference.  Surely not ever SINGLE cabin was occupied?  This late in the season you must have sent a few employees home, one of the must be empty?  For the love of god, please, I don't even need a cot in there.  Just four walls, a roof and a fireplace.

But they were having none of it.  "Sorry", the lady at the desk said. "They're not available, but you can set up in the campground."

Words cannot express how crushed (and probably hypothermic) I was.  I simply did not have it in me to do any more riding this day.  Maybe I was going to have to be in a tent tonight.  I went to the sign-in board, filled out a card, put in my $12 and picked out a spot.  I did set up my tent, at least, I set up the rain fly.  It was soaking wet, as was everything else in the world, but at least it claimed the spot as mine and I was technically an inhabitant of the campground now.

To make matters worse, I then looked at my rear tire.  I mentioned earlier that it was feeling different from yesterday, feeling squirmy and weird?  I know I'd let some air out . . . but I don't recall letting THAT much air out.

At a bit of a loss and completely out of motivation to do anything but feel sorry for myself, I dug out my stove and food bag.  The one pleasure I had left in the world, it seamed, was a hot meal.  Cooking at the camp sites was prohibited here due to the risks of bears; I took my stuff over to the dedicated food prep hut.

And in this hut, I found my salvation.


There would be no sleeping in the tent tonight, for I had found my heaven on earth.  I parked the bike in front of the building and as the last of the families and other campers were cleaning up from their dinners, I carried my things inside and hung them up to dry.  I think I spent an hour just standing next to the roaring furnace, feeling my fingers tingle as the heat leached back into my bones.

I think I ate four dinners that night, so hungry and happy was I to have this enclave of dryness and warmth.  As the last of the campers dwindled out of the hut around 10pm, I laid my now-dry sleeping pad and bag out on one of the tables, and had the best night sleep that I could ever remember having.

The next day dawned similarly drizzly, but with frequent breaks where the sun actually shown through.  I packed up my bedding just before 5am as the first of the early risers were coming into the hut, and as the day dawned I went out to take a closer look at the bike's rear tire.

The tire was completely flat, but I had planned for this situation.  I pulled out my little 12v pump and hooked it up to a lead I'd wired in before I left Chicago, planning for this exact eventuality. 

But within a minute of pumping the tire back up, it was flat again.  Rotating it found the culprit.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't . . . actually a little bit excited to use my tire patch kit.  I've never actually gotten a flat on the road before.

I dug the reamer out of my tool tube and rasped out the hole a bit, then gooped up a sticky string, put it on the insertion tool and shoved it in.

The tar string, along with the glue I'd coated it with, was now completely plugging the hole with a nice big wad of it inside the tire to prevent it from pushing out.  I trimmed off the ends, hooked up my compressor again and re-inflated the tire.  An hour later, and it was still holding air perfectly.  Victory was mine!

And as another blessing, the weather cleared up temporarily. 

I took advantage of the narrow window that I had, and headed south, in the direction of Dawson City, 90 something miles away.

The tarmac that greeted me as I was approaching the outskirts of Dawson City marked the end of my Dempster Highway adventure. 

I was on a bike that was trying to fall apart, I had an emergency patch in my tire, I'd met one of the most amazing women I'd ever spoken to and my head was still swimming from the whole experience.  But the nice thing about a motorcycle trip is in the middle of it, you simply don't have time to self-reflect.  There's always a more pressing immediate matter that demands your attention.  So while I can now look back on the whole experience with a sense of wonderment, at the time my only focus was on my grumbling stomach, with any leftover attention devoted to the state of my rear tire and how I had to burn miles south. 

But that was it.  I'd ridden the Dempster.

Inevitably, people will ask for a comparison to the other Arctic adventure road; the Dalton Highway, running to Prudhoe Bay on the Alaskan Coast.  A road seemingly similar in design and ridden with similar intentions, to test the man and the machine.  Another thousand-mile round trip through a seemingly endless wilderness.

In spite of everything I'd just been through, the wetness and misery and tire patching, I can answer without hesitation:

The Dempster highway is FAR easier than the Dalton.

This is largely a function of it's remoteness.  The Dempster is remote, yes, with huge stretches of forest between populated areas, but it does have populated areas.  There's Fort McPhearson, Tsiigehtchic and Eagle Plains, culminating in the not-exactly-small town of Inuvik at the north end.  There are serviced campgrounds with some regularity, the ones in the Yukon give you free firewood and the Northwest Territories even have hot showers.  There are regular tourist info plaques, hell there are other tourists!  The number of RVs I passed simply boggled the mind.

Aside from a few higher-altitude mountain passes, I was in the forest for the whole ride.  It felt lush, it felt alive and it was beautiful . . . but it wasn't quite as remote feeling as I might have expected.

The Dalton, by comparison, is still at it's core the Pipeline Haul Road.  It's a work route; driven almost exclusively by massive old company trucks and a small handful of partially insane motorcyclists.  Especially once you get north of Coldfoot, there is nothing for 250 miles until you get to Deadhorse, and even that is just a work camp.  There are no campgrounds, there are no RVs, there are no nicely labeled scenic pull-offs.  And once you get over the Atigun Pass and enter the north slope, it is EXTREMELY clear that you are in a completely foreign climate.  The tundra up there was unlike anything I'd ever experienced, before or since.  It is lonely, it is cold, it is a place where life is clinging on with it's fingernails. 

To any future adventure riders reading this, thinking of taking your first big trip to one of the major remote destination roads, my advice would be to tackle the Dempster first.  I did it the opposite way, of course, and I'm still here to tell the tale.  So if you really want to tackle the hardest of them, Fairbanks is that way and good luck.  You'll probably make it, unless you don't.  But if you have any lingering doubts about your machine or yourself, test yourself on the Dempster before you tackle the Dalton.

Think of it as practice for Alaska.