An Adventure Motorcyclist’s Guide to Riding the Dempster Highway – Part 1
At night you’re tossing, turning and restless. You’ve read an article about riding a motorcycle across the Arctic Circle; you’ve seen the pictures of smiling mud-people standing in front of an adventure bike with a vast sweep of tundra behind. The idea is planted in your head, there is a romance to it, there is a sense of adventure, and you want to ride the Dempster, the only road in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle. So here is what you’ll need to know…
A Dose of Philosophy:
First off you’ll need the right frame of mind; the Dempster has been called one of the last Adventure highways in North America, so don’t expect everything to go to plan. If it did the ride wouldn’t really be an adventure would it? Don’t sweat it though; you can undertake this adventure with a modicum of preparation and a shred of common sense (too much would just get in the way), following a few suggestions that we at OneWheelDrive.Net have learned the hard way.
When to Travel:
June through to the third week of July is the driest on the Dempster, and trust us, a dry Dempster is a happy Dempster. If the road is wet, the ride can become very challenging.
As you approach the Arctic the Beaufort Sea becomes the main weather generator, and it is a fickle one. The accuracy of long-range weather forecasts is tenuous, so use common sense and be patient if you need to wait out bad conditions.
In the summer temperatures can range from 36C in the day, to near freezing on a rainy overcast day. So invest in good textile touring/adventure gear that is waterproof, has removable liners and vents that can be opened on the hot days. We’d also recommend a heated vest and heated grips, for when temperatures drop and the rain hits.
- Dawson: http://text.www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/forecast/city_e.html?yt-6&unit=m
- Dempster: http://text.www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/forecast/city_e.html?yt-4&unit=m
- Rock River: http://text.www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/forecast/city_e.html?yt-9&unit=m This is often the most accurate forecast for the Dempster.
- Fort McPherson: http://text.www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/forecast/city_e.html?nt-10&unit=m
- Inuvik: http://text.www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/forecast/city_e.html?nt-30&unit=m
These are subject to swift and drastic change, the 2009 season saw road closures throughout BC and the Yukon due to bad weather and forest fires, while the Dempster itself can go from hard pack to angry mud-beast with a couple days of rain. When planning your day’s ride in the morning, the following sites can be invaluable resources:
- Government of the NWT, Department of Transportation Road Conditions: http://www.dot.gov.nt.ca/_live/pages/wpPages/roadConditions.aspx
- Yukon 511: http://www.511yukon.ca/
- Drive BC: http://www.drivebc.ca/
Essential Tips to Prepare Your Bike and Yourself:
The Dempster can be hard on an unprepared bike, but a little preparation will keep your prize possession in good condition.
- Wash and wax the bike: Seems simple, but you want to give the bike a protective layer of wax as the Dempster’s surface is covered with corrosive calcium chloride.
- Plexus exposed metal: Plexus is a plastic polish that leaves a thin protective layer behind it, spraying down the exposed metal portions will keep the corrosion at bay.
- Headlight guards: The Dempster is a gravel road, and your chances of taking a rock to the headlight, like our poor BMW F800GS did, are good. If you don’t want to invest in a proper headlight guard, then look at protective vinyl sheets to protect that expensive glass.
- While you’re at it, protect the rest of the bike, especially contact areas between yourself or your luggage and painted surfaces. Vinyl or Urethane protective sheets, like 3M Scotchcal, are the thing.
- Guards: Consider drop guards for the bike, even if you don’t care about the cosmetics these will help keep your bike operable after a drop. Also if your bike has an exposed oil cooler or radiator investing in guards will be cheaper than canceling your trip. We’d also recommend a skid plate to protect the engine from rocks kicked up by the front tire.
- Get your bike serviced in anticipation of the distance covered. Make sure that the chain is in good condition.
Get knobbies! On a dry week, a streetbike can ride the Dempster, but don’t expect a dry week. In the wet, you’ll want knobbies. For the record Pirelli Scorpion A/Ts do not count, as in mud they pack up worse than constipation, becoming slicks. We found the Continental TCK80s a good balance for road work on your approach to the Dempster and the dirt itself.
Depending on your ride route to the Dempster, you may wish to run street tires to Whitehorse, YT, letting you conserve tread.
In Whitehorse we can recommend Yukon Honda (http://www.yukonhonda.com) for tire changes regardless of brand. Conveniently, if you don’t want to pile your bike high with replacements, they often receive tires for travelers. Prearrange this by speaking to John at the service counter. Your tires can then be shipped via Canada Post for between $40-$50.00 a set, and purchased at the outlet of your choosing for considerably less than Northern prices. If you’re traveling from abroad, including the US, we’d recommend having Yukon Honda ordering the tires in for you to avoid hassle and confusion around taxes and duties. Once you’ve changed your tires, keep the take offs and bring them with you.
Prepare for a Flat or Two
The Dempster is notoriously hard on tires, being composed largely of tire slashing-shale for long stretches, so keep your take-off tires to use as spares. One of our bikes experienced a big sidewall slash that made patching impossible, without the spare tire we would have been in trouble. Make sure you’re up for changing or repairing a tire, and bring the following:
- Spare tires / tubes.
- Tire patch or plug kit.
- Tire pries.
- Soap or another lubricant to help ease the tire off the rim.
- Cloth or a piece of leather for cleaning the rim and minimizing the damage to rims from the pries.
- Extra water and a cloth (or three) for cleaning the mud and dust from the rim and bolts.
- Axle wrench (with a suitably long handle for leverage). A large crescent wrench is good if your group’s bikes have different size axle bolts.
- Small 12v pump or CO2 cartridges.
Chain, chain, chain, chain of fools:
If your bike is chain-driven, carrying a spare master-link is a good idea. We experienced a chain failure a few days after completing the Dempster, likely due to rock shards in mud getting in between the chain and sprocket and stressing one side of a link. We managed to limp into Smithers on a chain linked only on one side where the Harley shop expertly repaired the broken link.
MedijetAssist offers medical insurance for the adventurous with an added perk, they will get you and your motorcycle out if things go wrong. That means Air ICU medical transport and evacuation, and retrieval of your motorcycle to the dealership of your choice, even if the local doctor only diagnoses you “physically unable to ride”. The motorcycle plan can be found at: http://www.medjetassist.com/plans/motorcycle.aspx
The Dempster is remote, so don’t expect to whip out the Palm Pre and get your dial on. That doesn’t mean you’re without communications options.
Cell Phones: There are cell towers along the Dempster, but service is spotty at best. If you’re going to rely on a cell phone, make sure it’s compatible with and will roam on the Telus network. No,the iPhone’s 3G is not yet supported, so there will be limited Twittering along the way.
Sat-Phone: Roadpost.ca has a “reasonably” priced Satellite Phone Rental Kit at 229.80 Monthly with free incoming calls and voicemail. For outgoing calls we went with a 50-minute airtime bundle for $89.00. That sounds like a lot, until you’re stuck in a downpour and need to reserve a hotel 60kms back due to a closed highway. Yes, you could race all those other people back to one of the two small hotels in Deese Lake… Or you could just call ahead.
Spot-GPS: Yep, it has a handy 911 button, and it will update Google maps, but it won’t reserve a hotel for you or reach the tow company will it?
Wi-Fi: It’s the oddest thing in the world to stop at a small gas station in the middle of the Yukon and quickly check your e-mail, but wi-fi is more ubiquitous and accessible than you’d ever expect. Most hotels and service stations have it, and often it’s open. So save some sat-phone minutes and install Skype on the smartphone and laptop.
Land Lines: The North is an amazingly hospitable place. Generally if you need to make a call, most gas stations and stores will let you use the phone, just be courteous and invest in a calling card so you’re not racking up their long distance plans.
Moccasin Telegraph: It’s good old word of mouth, and you’ll be amazed at how effective and fast it is. The Dempster is relatively well traveled, with vehicles passing every 20-30 minutes. If you’re on the roadside most drivers will stop to make sure you’re safe and sound. Local drivers seem more than willing to convey a message to the next stop, shoot the breeze about the rest of your ride group “back a ways”, bring you up to date on the road conditions or your compatriots ahead, or offer to contact assistance. If you’ve the chance, be Northern and return the favor.
Read on in Part 2 for what you need to know about the Dempster itself – Fuel, Accomodations, fuel, camping, fuel, service and… fuel.
- Photos Kevin Miklossy and Glenn Simmons