My journey to the Yukon and Inuvik, Northwest Territories (NWT) began when a fellow rider named Bob mentioned at a bike club Christmas party that he would like to ride his BMW R1200GS to Inuvik in late May. I was immediately interested. My desire to ride to Inuvik and the Dempster Highway began in 2001 after reading Neil Peart’s book entitled, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road. Neil Peart is the drummer and lyricist for the legendary rock band Rush. After the deaths of his daughter and wife, Neil regained his desire to live by riding his BMW GS on a 14-month, 55,000 mile odyssey throughout North America. Inuvik is at the end of Canada’s most northern road known as the Dempster Highway. Less traveled than Alaska’s Dalton Highway, the Dempster Highway is 456 miles one way of gravel and dirt to Inuvik. My long desire to travel this road was soon possible, since I was scheduled to retire after 24 years of military service on May 18. We determined our departure date would be May 19.
We began our ride by heading north out of Kansas City, Missouri on Interstate 29 through the Dakotas, making our way to North Dakota’s Highway 2 at Minot. Riding west on Highway 2 from Minot to Montana’s Glacier National Park, we expected more from this road. We agreed after arriving at Whitefish, Montana, that we wouldn’t ride this road again. Although scenic at points, Highway 2 is predominately high plains for 680 miles. It’s a long lonely road with little change.
From Glacier National Park, we rode north and had an uneventful crossing at the US-Canadian International Border of Roosville. Our goal for the day was the Canadian resort town of Jasper, Alberta, with a great day of riding through Lake Louise and Jasper National Park on Canadian Highway 93. It’s hard to explain this highway with words. Arguably, this is most scenic road in North America, riding between jagged mountains lined with glaciers.
Later that day, we met Peter from Toronto at the Mt. Robeson Inn in Jasper. For some odd reason, Peter’s red GS looked familiar to me. Maybe it was fate or simply coincidence; the former owner of Peter’s GS was none other than Neil Peart. This Neil Peart GS was featured in the April 2005 issue of BMW Owners News in story about Neil Peart’s riding adventures between concert dates. Peter and a friend from Chicago were riding to Hyder, Alaska for Ron’s Ayres annual Hyder Seek. Bob and I were unaware the Hyder Seek was occurring while we were passing through. However, the Hyder Seek provided us a great opportunity to schedule an extra day to rest and enjoy the company of the Iron Butt participants in Stewart, British Columbia; a neighboring town to Hyder.
From Stewart, we rode north on Highway 37 to Watson Lake, Yukon. Since Highway 37 is known for the large number bears along the road, we rode cautiously in rain for most of the day. By the time we reached Watson Lake, our Michelin Anakee rear tires were beginning to show significant wear after just 3000 miles. The combination of coarse roads and heavy loads had worn our tires to a point here it was questionable whether they would last the duration of our 8500 mile trip. Since we were now only 600 miles from the start of the Dempster Highway and it was only May 26, we decided to ride the ALCAN to Fairbanks, Alaska, for tires and an oil change. At this point, Bob still believed our tires would last the duration of the trip. However, I was determined to buy a tire to strap onto the bike just in case.
The road to Fairbanks on the ALCAN is easily accessible with any large road bike. The ALCAN is completely paved with short stretches of dirt due to road construction. The only area of concern on the ALCAN where a rider needs to be cautious is between Kluane Lake, Yukon to the Alaska border. This portion of the highway is the worst stretch of the ALCAN. However, with a little caution, large touring bikes can safely ride this stretch. From Kluane Lake to Fairbanks, Bob and I experienced all-day rain. Unfortunately, the rain also spoiled our plans for a salmon bake in Fairbanks. The next morning, we rode to Trail’s End BMW in Fairbanks. Unfortunately, George (Trail’s End BMW owner) was unable to provide us with an oil change. However, I was able to purchase his last available BMW GS tire Strapping the tire onto the back of my bike, we departed Fairbanks backtracking to Tok, Alaska.
Up to this point, good roads pass through sensational wilderness. However, it didn’t feel like wilderness to me. Granted, you can get off any of these roads and get lost in thousands of miles of uninhabited land. However, the number of cars and good roads takes away the actual feeling of solitude and adventure. This all changed when we rode north out of Tok on the Taylor Highway. Although now paved to just south of Chicken, Alaska, it doesn’t take long before you realize you are on a road less traveled. Chicken needs to be experienced firsthand to appreciate. Consisting of a mercantile, liquor store, outhouse labeled Chicken Poop, and café, it’s a must stop for gasoline and a break. In the mercantile store, I asked the store clerk how the town got the name Chicken. She stated when early settlers arrived; they survived the winter on ptarmigans. However, none of them could agree on how to spell the word ptarmigan. So they decided to just call it Chicken. The remainder of the road to the US-Canadian International border crossing is dirt and gravel winding through beautiful rolling hills with rivers and streams. The roads were narrow and difficult in places; however, it was wilderness, and I was finally riding the roads I came to Alaska and Canada to experience.
After passing through the US-Canadian International Border at Boundary, Alaska, the highway name changes to the Top of the World Highway. This road is the most northern east-west road in Canada and is mostly dirt and gravel with small portions of bad asphalt. Meandering across open mountains and tundra, for the first time we were experiencing the vast openness of the Arctic. Looking north, only the small village of Old Crow is between you and the Beaufort Sea. The views are breathtaking and continue until you arrive at the Yukon River. From the bluff on the west side of the Yukon River, Dawson City is a welcome site. Catering to visiting tourist, visitors can spend several days in Dawson City staying entertained. At the base of the Yukon River, we experienced our first free Canadian ferry. The swift Yukon River provided a moment of concern for first time Yukon River crossers. However, the skilled ferry crews navigated the river with the precision gained from thousands of crossings over the years.
At Dawson City, our first stop was to the Northwest Territories Visitors Bureau. The date was May 30, and the start of the Dempster Highway was just 20 miles to the east. However, the news was not good. It would be another week before the ferries crossing the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers began operating, and we would not realize our dream of riding to Inuvik this year. Since the decision on when the ferry crossings begin for the season is weather dependant, there is no way of knowing beforehand the exact date when the ferries begin operating. However, not all was lost. We could still ride 250 miles north on the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle. At the 230 mile mark is Eagle Plains and the first gas stop, where we could stay the night and gas up for our return to Dawson City. We spent the night in Dawson City at the Downtown Hotel and experienced at Klondike Kate’s, some of the best salmon available anywhere. The Downtown Hotel has a sign in the window stating, “BMW Motorcycle Parking Only.” The owner of the hotel is a GS rider and provides a wash area to clean your motorcycle. Motorcycle riders are also welcome to mail a set of off-road tires to the Downtown Hotel to change before riding the Dempster Highway. The local motorcycle riders recommend using off-road tires versus dual-sport to avoid flat tires and for better traction on the Dempster Highway.
The next morning, we departed Dawson City and began our ride on the Dempster Highway to Eagle Plains. The dual-sport Michelin Anakees, new when we departed just a week ago in Kansas, was now showing considerable wear limiting our pace on the loose gravel. The surface of the Dempster Highway is built with material available near the road. After passing through the beautiful Ogilvie Mountains, the Dempster Highway crosses permafrost on top of ground frozen 1600 feet deep. The Dempster Highway sits on top of a gravel berm to insulate the permafrost in the soil underneath. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from four feet to eight feet deep. Without the pad, the permafrost would melt and the road would sink into the ground. Without the gravel base on the berm, the road turns quickly to mud with only a light rain. The road is divided into maintenance sections where crews apply gravel to maintain the road during late spring and the summer months. This gravel appears without warning and can easily cause an accident if overriding the road conditions.
Along the Dempster Highway and sometimes on the road itself, airstrips are marked for airlifting injured and sick to basic medical service at Dawson City or Inuvik. Serious injuries require medical evacuation to Whitehorse, Yukon. The airstrip signs were a reminder to me to maintain a cautious speed on this road. There is no cell phone coverage north of Edmonton, Alberta and it may take hours before a vehicle passes by capable of transporting you to Eagle Plains for medical evacuation. A serious injury could easily become life-threatening or even fatal.
Around noon, rain began forming in the west. So we stepped up the pace to Eagle Plains. Near the 170 mile mark, the rain caught us and began with heavy winds and sleet so strong at times we were almost pushed off the berm. At this point, we had already experienced two grizzly bears on the road and were not interested in stopping. As we continued north, Bob started falling behind and soon stopped. A piece of shale ˝ inch wide and 1 inch long had cut through the thickest portion of his tire. With the rain quickly turning the berm to mud, we placed Bob’s bike on the center stand to determine the location of the puncture. Thick mud made repairing a tire difficult. Using an electric tire pump, we inflated the tire until we were able to identify the location of the air leak. Since it was the last day of May, we were at no risk of losing our light. The sun never sets on the Dempster Highway this time of year. However, the road conditions were increasingly getting worse with continued rain. Using pliers, I removed the shale from the tire and patched using a Stop & Go Plug kit. We quickly filled the tire with air and continued on to Eagle Plains. With Bob now in the lead, he slowed to a stop within a mile. The road was now three or four inches deep in mud, providing the sensation that his rear tire was not holding air. I assured him that my bike felt the same way. We pushed on barely able to keep our heavily loaded bikes vertical. We were at the very limits of our riding and tire capabilities.
With our bikes now low on fuel, we arrived at Eagle Plains for gas and lodging. This is the only gas stop on the first 230 miles of the Dempster Highway. Both of us carried an extra gallon of gas, however, it was not used. At the Eagle Plains service stations, vehicles were lined up for tire repairs. Some of the tires were badly shredded from the shale we had encountered. Eagle Plains employs two service station attendants just to repair tires. Locals recommend carrying at least two spares per vehicle. After fueling, we checked into the Eagle Plain hotel for the night. Bob’s rear tire was not holding air. The long jagged hole was too large for the Stop & Go plug. Using a commercial tire patch, Bob and I removed the tire form the rim and the service station repaired the tire.
There was a good lesson learned at Eagle Plains. Without the help of the service station employees, could we have fixed the tire and continued on? The answer was yes. We had planned for this situation by carrying along a 17-inch rear and 19- inch front tube. If the tire plugs failed to hold, we would use a tube. One three separate occasions, we used the side stand on our bikes to break the tire bead. Using high volume CO2 containers, we set the bead and then refilled the tire with an electric tire pump, saving the CO2 for future flats. To learn how to safely use the side stand as a tire bead breaker, I recommend purchasing the Helge Pedersen R1100/1150GS Adventure Touring Instructional DVD. To practice Helge’s techniques, I mounted in my garage a new front and rear tire using only the tools I planned on taking to the Arctic. Knowing how to repair your tires on the road is a basic skill all adventure riders need to know when traveling in remote areas of the world.
The next morning, Bob and I rode north to the Arctic Circle and returned to Eagle Plains. At Eagle Plains, I removed my worn rear tire and replaced it with the new Michelin T66 purchased in Fairbanks. The new Michelin provided improved grip on the way back to the hard surface, while the worn tire became our spare. Our return trip on the Dempster Highway provided us with the opportunity to see the terrain without obscuring from the rain. It also provided us with a good opportunity to inspect the shale roads that were as sharp as arrowheads. With a new appreciation for the damage shale can cause to a tire, we slowed our pace until the surface changed.
Before reentering the Ogilvie Mountains, we encountered our third grizzly bear on the side of the road. This bear was large and unconcerned with our desire to pass on the only road heading south. Prepared to return in the direction I came, I moved towards the bear and angled in a direction where I could easily turn and return in the opposite direction. Using my horn, I got the bear’s attention. The bear slowly moved off the side of the road into the brush. After a few minutes, we decided to pass his location at a rather brisk pace. I was amazed at how easily a large grizzly bear was able to blend into the brush without being seen when we passed. This experience made me wonder how many grizzlies we had passed on the side of the road and not seen. Due to the large concentration of grizzly bears, I would not recommend tent camping along the Dempster Highway. If camping is desired, I recommend camping in Dawson along the Yukon River or at Eagle Plains.
After returning to the start of the Dempster Highway, we rode to Dawson City to spend the rest of the day. We now had over 5000 miles on our oil and it needed to be changed. At the Dawson City NAPA, we purchased Pennzoil motorcycle oil and changed on their premises. Although I normally would not purchase Pennzoil motorcycle oil for my motorcycles, this was the only motorcycle oil available in the Northern Yukon and better than BMW oil with over 5000 miles. By the time we arrived home, the Pennzoil would have over 3500 miles and be ready for a change.
After a night in Dawson City and a great dinner of Arctic Char at the Westmark Inn, we departed for our return ride home on the Klondike Highway and the ALCAN. At the start of the Dempster Highway, we were surprised to see riders heading north on BMW RTs with worn street tires, no spares, and no idea on how to repair a tire. The riders had ridden from the States to ride the Dempster Highway and could not be talked out of their desire to ride north. As we rode away, I couldn’t help but think that this ride was going to be their worst nightmare. A month later, I meet a GS rider in Wisconsin at the BMWMOA International Rally who had just returned from riding the Dempster Highway. He stated that a Honda Goldwing rider and BMW K1200LT rider attempted the Dempster Highway before he arrived resulting in a medical evacuation for the Honda Goldwing rider and heavy damage to the BMW 1200LT.
It’s possible you could ride a street bike to Inuvik. However, any small amount of rain may strand you in mud or severely injure you if you crash. The heavy gravel that appears without warning and sharp shale leads me to conclude that even with a GS, it’s best to send a set of off-road tires to Dawson City and mount them before riding north on the Dempster Highway. This is an experienced rider’s ride and very dangerous. Know your limitations, along with the limitations of your bike.
Our return trip proved to be uneventful. We continued south to the start of the ALCAN at Dawson Creek, and then onto Edmonton where Bob and I replaced his worn rear tire with a new one while we were stopped for the night at a hotel. Riding east through Alberta’s oil boom region along Highway 16, we continued through the flat farmland of Saskatchewan to the US-Canadian international border crossing at Portal, North Dakota. After 19 days and 8,500 miles, our adventure was over. However, we were both ready to start this ride all over again. Unfortunately, we both had other commitments and needed to return home. Our ride was full of lessons learned that I will incorporate into future adventure rides. Each ride is a learning experience and someday I will return to the Dempster Highway to complete the remaining 206 miles to Inuvik.
By Ken Krumm