Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 1: Hungrier than the bears

Cycling the Dempster Highway!

Cycling the Dempster Highway!

Blog auf deutsch: Dempster Highway per Fahrrad Teil 1

Missed the last blog entry? Here it comes: Cycling the Top of the World Highway and Taylor Highway

Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 1: Hungrier than the bears

Country: Yukon, Canada

From Dawson City to Eagle Plains

Lesson learned: Three liters of water are more than enough for two people

Laughed about: “Potable” Drinking water that has to be boiled before consumption

Most wonderful miracle: Christmas for the rain team

Greatest challenge: Hunger and mud

Days on the bike: 5

Kilometers cycled: 414

Average Kilometers per day: 82.8

Total Kilometers cycled till Eagle Plains: 20.692

Scroll down to read the blog entry

 

Do you want to cycle the Dempster Highway?

The Tasting Travels team has prepared you a little something!

Here’s a free PDF with all information you might need to know.

Dempster by bicycle PDF

Click the image to view the PDF!

Dempster by bicycle – cycling the true North

Feel free to download and share!

Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 1

The Dempster Highway is a 740 Kilometers one-way road that leads from 40 Kilometers East of Dawson City all the way up to Inuvik at the Mackenzie Delta, at 68 degrees north. The only way to bike even further is to wait for winter and add 137 kilometers of ice road up to Tuktoyaktuk. If you want to do this, hurry up, because in winter of 2016/17 they will start the construction of an all-year road.

The Dempster Highway Elevation Profile

This is what we expected …

Dempster profile by bike

… and (SPOILER ALERT) this is what we actually went through

For us Inuvik sounds like enough adventure. Taiga, tundra, bears, moose, caribou, Beringia and pure wilderness. There’s a National Park information centre at Kilometer 71.5, where they even have flush toilets. Then there’s nothing at all until Eagle Plains at Kilometer 369 (half way up). Eagle Plains is home to eight people. North of the Arctic Circle there’s the only two villages: Fort McPherson (some 900 inhabitants) and Tsiigehtchic (150 inhabitants).

Teaming up with Martine from Québec ...

Teaming up with Martine from Québec …

Our team of two has grown into a team of five. We’ve been biking with Martine from Québec since Alaska and we only met Denise and Luzia from Germany on the day before departure in Dawson City.

... and Denise ...

… and Denise …

We have heard the creepiest bear stories and all decided that with a bigger group the chance of an attack was much smaller. A young excited teenage bear might test his strength on a single person, but will most probably run from a huge animal with five heads and ten wheels, arms and legs.

... and Luzia from Germany.

… and Luzia from Germany.

The team quickly evolved into a harmonic group that made sure that nobody got left behind. We even helped each other with food – and food is worth more than gold on the Dempster.

And so the Adventure Arctic began.

And so the Adventure Arctic began.

Martine got on her bike when we were still half asleep. It was another sunny and warm day. At 1 pm we were finally ready to go too. The first 40 Kilometers to the Dempster junction were rather boring. Then we took a left turn and let the adventure begin. The asphalt ended soon, but the surface of the unpaved road was in very good conditions.

Some animal on the road

What is this??

Construction on permafrost is tricky and the construction workers were busy year-long. We had a gentle 70 kilometers climb to start with and sang out loudly. Primarily because we enjoyed it and because there was nobody near to judge our poor singing skills. And secondarily because loud human voices kept the bears away.

Hardly any people on the Dempster Highway

We hardly saw any traffic at all.

The bear bell was of little use here. Dawn from Inuvik, who worked at Dawson City’s NWT Information, had explained us that many bears who are used to humans, confuse the ringing of the bell with the clapping of pots and pans – dinnertime music. She believes that bear bells might attract bears rather than keeping them off.

Truck followed by a cloud of dust

Only the occasional truck forced us to either stop or continue with eyes closed. The second option worked surprisingly good!

Left and right we saw taiga. Small crooked spruce, few birch trees and fireweed here and there. We had just stopped singing some silly song, when I spotted two other cyclists in my mirror.

Luzia cycling the Dempster

Hello there Luzia!

It was Luzia and Denise, who had left Dawson City even later than us and hitched a ride up to the junction. By now Martine had long reached a good spot to camp. Creative as she is, she sent u a message about her location through a nice lady in a car.

Dinnertime!

Dinnertime!

Freedom Camping on the Dempster Highway

It was a flat space with no bear tracks or poop, a river nearby and even a fireplace. Perfect!

What Martine had found was a great spot for the night that probably was frequently used by hunters. There was a fireplace and even a rusty box for our food, cooking utensils and bathroom items.

Camping in mosquito territory

We wore our mosquito nets all evening. Luzia and Denise only lifted them to bring the fork full of food to the mouth.

Bear box

There’s even a box for our food items! Not as good as a tree, but good enough.

The next day was harder for me. We had brought all kinds of snacks that were heavy on calories and proteins, like granola bars, dried fruits and trail mix, believing that they would make a good power breakfast and a filling lunch. But what I really needed was volume.

Camping on Dempster Highway

We burnt everything with a odor to it and then collected the leftover pieces of can and plastic.

Bread, oats, pasta, anything that would fill my stomach up and stop the roaring. Only in the evening after half a bag of freeze-dried dinner was my stomach satisfied and shut up for a while. I quickly turned hangry and my motivation sank. It was only day two.

Entering the beautiful Tombstone National Park

Entering the beautiful Tombstone National Park

Biking the Dempster

Biking the Dempster

Shrub and road and the odd squirrel and bunny

Shrub and road and the odd squirrel and bunny

Biking got harder with every kilometers and soon I found myself so far behind that the others seemed to be no more than little dots. I was grumpy and miserable, until I completely lost sight of everyone. After that I somehow stopped trying to keep up and started to enjoy the beautiful views into the tundra of the Tombstone National Park.

Tombstone Park in Yukon Territory

It was absolutely spectacular

Cycling the Dempster Highway

Teaming up with the girls

Freedom Camping in a random pullout

Freedom Camping in a random pullout

We had been biking for more than six hours to cover 84 Kilometers, when Roberto found a narrow street that led to the river. We pitched the tents, boiled water for the freeze-dried food, hid our smelly items and burned the smelly trash. The mosquitoes pretty much ate us alive, until we applied Curtis’ 98% poison.

feast for the mosquitoes

Meat on wheels. We were a feast for the mosquitoes.

In the Tundra

In the Tundra

We left the Tundra on the third day, and continued through tiny and crooked black spruce and even tinier birch trees. It was hard for the trees to keep their roots anchored in the permafrost. Only the little ones survive.

Spot the bear! Can't find it? Well, neither could we.

Spot the bear! Can’t find it? Well, neither could we.

Views in the Tombstone Park

Views in the Tombstone Park

By now the others had spotted a wild mare and her fowl, a porcupine, some moose and a wolverine. All we had spotted was one moose, a kind of mink (just a guess though), a bald headed eagle, and a few rabbits and squirrels. We had also heard some hoary marmots, but never saw a single one.

Tundra

Tundra

Sometimes I wish we could just stop, sit, watch and listen for a few hours.

Sometimes I wish we could just stop, sit, watch and listen for a few hours.

The views down after the North Fork Pass

The views down after the North Fork Pass

The climb up the Windy Pass was easy at first and harder the closer to the pass we came. And it was indeed windy up there. We rolled down to the Engineer Creek Campground.

Denise on the Dempster Highway Windy Pass.

It was a very hard last kilometer, but eventually we all reached the Windy Pass.

Cycling through Beringia

The landscape changed quickly. We were now cycling through Beringia, a land that was so dry, there was no layer of ice around it during the entire Ice Age!

This was one of the many state operated campgrounds hat cost $12 per night (self-check-in) and usually provided (gravely) campspots with fireplace, free wood, some picnic tables and outhouses that were home to 10,000 mosquitoes.

Biking alongside the Oglivie River

There were Sulphur Springs nearby and the water was partly clear, partly red and yellow.

Roberto rides towards the mountains

Roberto rides towards the mountains

Roberto sleeps inside the kitchen shelter

Who needs a tent if you’ve got a kitchen shelter?

Sometimes you were lucky and also got a kitchen shelter and running water. We found ourselves a shelter without windows and a river with yellow water that was said to be “Potable drinking water that needs to be boiled or treated before consumption”. Go figure!

Potable Drinking Water

Want some potable drinking water? Better boil it though.

There were some bear footprints in the driveway, but no living bear to be seen, so we decided not to worry. Martine had found out that from here until Eagle Plains in 175 Kilometers there was not a single source of water.

So for days we had been collecting everything we could find that could make a good water container. Now it was time to fill them up, pump the water through the filter and additionally purify it via infra-red. Soon the kitchen shelter looked like a factory with heaps of bottles, pots and cup filled with differently colored water.

The water factory

The water factory

It was early in the afternoon but there was rain forecasted, and we have heard stories about muddy, sticky roads that are impossible to bike through. But why waste a sunny afternoon? After quite some discussion we decided to be on the safe side and spend the night. Only half an hour later it began to rain and wouldn’t stop for 72 hours straight.

Bear tracks

There was a visitor!

Nobody felt like pitching the tent under the cold rain, so we simply rolled out our mats on the shelter’s floor.

Martine couldn’t care less for the forced off-day. She was in no hurry and had brought several kilos of tortillas and freeze-dried food. But us others started to get nervous. Our food had been planned quite tightly for four days.

Comfy times in our rain hut in Engineer Creek

Comfy times in our rain hut

This was day three, and we still had one rest day (maybe more if the weather didn’t get any better) and two bike days till Eagle Plains. Eagle Plains was, where the rest of our food was waiting for us. Dawn and Evelyn from the NWT Information in Dawson City had offered us to leave half of our food with them. They would find nice tourists who would drive it up and leave it in Eagle Plains.

The Rain Team of Engineer Creek

The Rain Team before the Arrival of Emily, Laura and Justin. Our new geologist friends (on the left) bought a round of carrots. We very very excited.

But Eagle Plains was far and we were hungry now. We went from 1 ½ slices of bread to one per person per breakfast. There were no more snacks left and all our tea was waiting in Eagle Plains too. So instead I prepared hot water with milk powder and honey. When milk and honey came to an end we just imagined ourselves back in China and drank hot water without flavor.

Rain Team Engineer Creek Campground

Emily joined our rain team soon (on the right). We were even more excited about our apples. So excited indeed, that we saw it necessary to take another group picture with them.

It was a cold night and a colder morning. There was a fireplace with a rusty stove pipe and by noon we were cold and desperate enough to ignore the warning sign and light a fire nevertheless. The pipe worked like a charm. This was when the annoying waiting day turned into a relaxing and comfortable rest day with hot drinks and card games.

Fire in the fireplace

Everything changed with a little spark!

Luzia and Denise playing "Who am I?"

Luzia and Denise playing “Who am I?”

In the afternoon we met a nice couple from Wisconsin who were on their way to the Arctic Circle and back. They offered to bring some snacks from Eagle Plains on their way back. It was late in the evening and we thought they had decided to spend the night in Eagle Plains, when a caravan with the look of a camouflage truck came rolling in.

Camouflage truck

Camouflage truck

The driveway to the campground had turned into a lake and the mud was thick in wheels, windows and doors. Susan told us that the road was pretty much impassable. Yet they have made it through. And we got to eat our snickers.

After some time we all agreed, that if the rain was to continue, we would get into serious food trouble and that one or two of us would have to hitch a ride back to Dawson City and buy groceries for everyone. Just when the decision was made, a nice couple from Wisconsin came through. “Is there anything you need?” they asked just before they left. “Water? Food?“. All talk ended abruptly and four heads stared towards the door. „Did he just mention food?“

SO! MUCH! FOOOOD!!

SO! MUCH! FOOOOD!!

Wilf left into the rain and came back a minute later with a big box full of deliciousness. That was their emergency ration, in case the road was closed or they got stuck somewhere. But now that they were on the way back to Dawson City, he gave his entire emergency pack to us. We could not believe our eyes. Martine, during all of this, remained quite calm and unexcited. She happily lived mostly of cold tortillas and freeze-dried ready-made food and had packed amounts big enough for unexpected delays. Yet, who could resist such deliciousness? Now we were ready to wait for how long ever it took.

Biking the Dempster in a group

The rain was history and so was the rain team. But we’re still in contact.

Our little kitchen shelter filled up quickly. There was Emily from Alberta, an amateur ornithologist who was on her way up the Dempster in an old VW Scirocco, who didn’t want to test the powers of her little car in the mud and rather waited the rain out with us. Later came Sheriff Justin and fire fighter Laura, who travelled on motorbikes from their home town in Colorado. Two geologists had camped out here for a week or two. They worked during the day and joined us in the shelter in the mornings and evenings. With all this company, some food and the fire, it was a very cozy evening in our shelter. Justin grabbed a skin of wine, Emily added hot chocolate with whiskey and we shared the brand new crackers with peanut butter.

Biking the Dempster's Tundra

We continued nevertheless

The rain stopped at 5 am after some 36 hours. But we didn’t really trust any of this. Other travelers had told us that this kind of mud sometimes takes some days to fully dry out. Especially with all the calcium that the workers added to the road in order to keep it maintained. Roberto walked through the “lake” to the road and flagged some motorcyclists and car drivers down. Most of them agreed that “It’s not good, but it’s okay to drive.”

So much water!

So much water!

It stayed dry and we were ready to go at 3 pm. After many hugs and pictures the rain team separated. Our bikes were much heavier with all the full water bottles

Roberto bikes along the Ogilvie River

Roberto bikes along the Ogilvie River

Martine recommended every one of us to carry 9 liters per person and day (just in case), but that was a bit too much for us.

We just enjoyed the views

We just enjoyed the views

For the first 50 kilometers we followed the Oglivie River whose water looked quite good. On the other side of the road we saw several small waterfalls of spring water. And we carried filtered yellow water.

Cycling Beringia. This is pretty much exactly the same sight, that the first Homo Sapiens had, that came here.

Cycling Beringia. This is pretty much exactly the same sight, that the first Homo Sapiens had, that came here (except for the road of course).

And eventually the trees came back

And eventually the trees came back

But after the Seven Mile Hill we biked alongside the ridge didn’t cross any creeks anymore. The view back onto the Oglivie Mountains was gorgeous. It was after 11 pm and the sun stood so low that the mountains appeared in cream-color.

Cream colored Ogilvie Mountains

Cream colored Ogilvie Mountains

Ogilvie Mountain Range

View down into the mountains

Emily had left us another 10 liters of water on milestone 260. And with the canister we found two delicious cans of cold beer. Thanks Emily! 18 Kilometers later we reached water depot number two.

Camping under the midnight sun

Camping under the midnight sun

Night cycling up North

Night cycling up North

Martine had asked a family from Québec to leave her an entire bear canister full of river water! Surprisingly none of us had used their nine liters, so we had to throw the river water out in order to store the food bear safe overnight.

Just us and the mud and the green

Just us and the road and the green

The first and only sunset that we saw in our time up North

The first and only sunset that we saw in our time up North

The temperature dropped to 5°C and it was far after midnight when we decided to pitch the tents right where we were in between the bushes. The sun was about to set when we crawled into the sleeping bags by 2 am.

Empty roads as usual

Empty roads as usual

Cycling North Canada

After midnight

It was a sunny morning and most of the mud’s surface had dried out. This was about the area that most drivers had told us to be careful, because it had the deepest mud. Indeed it wasn’t easy to keep the balance up in the narrow truck tracks, but it was easier biking than in the fresh mud.

Mud on the Dempster Highway

Mud

Scenic Cycling

Scenic Cycling

Yet it’s hard for me to believe that a caravan had made it through here two days ago. Beneath the mud the road was covered with big rocks and we jumped up and down like on rodeo horses.

It was getting colder after midnight

Team meeting. How much further should we go today?

It was getting colder, but the mosquitoes stayed active

It was getting colder, but the mosquitoes stayed active

It turned out to be a hot day with some showers and we spent a lot of time stopping and getting into and out of our rain gear. The road was very hilly, an endless up and down.

Muddy Dempster Highway

Muddy roads

Mit dem Fahrrad auf dem Dempster Highway

A great view after every climb

The last climb was specifically hard. By now the bumpy mud had made place for deep fresh gravel and my wheels wobbled to the left and right like on fresh ice. Couldn’t tell what was worse, the mud or the gravel. It was more than eight hours of biking for 92 kilometers and when we finally reached Eagle Plains at 8.10 pm I was so worn out that I just leaned my bike against some bench and went straight for the restaurant.

It's not always easy

It’s not always easy

Eagle Plains is a hotel/restaurant/campground with eight inhabitants. They offered hot showers, hotel rooms (great discounts for truck drivers but very pricy for us) and a restaurant with Burgers that Denise and Luzia had been dreaming about for days now.

Reaching Eagle Plains

Restaurant – here we come!

I ran straight into the restaurant only to be stopped at the entrance. “Sorry, we’re closed already, but there’s crackers and sandwiches if you want”. My jaw fell open. Closed?! At 8.10 pm? What kind of restaurant closes that early? One moment later Luzia and Denise showed up, grabbed us and pulled us into the bar. They had arrived a long time ago and ordered burgers for everybody just before the kitchen closed.

Beautiful Ponds

Ponds

I was totally impressed. I’m not sure if I could have waited that long. It wasn’t much later when Martine arrived too. She had seen a huge black bear some 500 meters south of Eagle Plains.

Eagle Plains. Population Eight.

Eagle Plains. Population Eight.

We all grabbed our burgers and for some minutes all you could hear was chewing and happy sighs. We all have well deserved this meal. We’ve made it halfway up the Dempster and spent 30.22 hours in the saddles since Dawson City. Only 369 Kilometers to go!

Eagle Plains Burger!

Nom Nom Nom!

Do you want to cycle the Dempster Highway?

The Tasting Travels team has prepared you a little something!

Here’s a free PDF with all information you might need to know.

Dempster by bicycle – cycling the true North

Feel free to download and share!

Enjoyed this one? Here’s the next one: Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 2: Canada’s Arctic by bike

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  1. Pingback: People from Inuvik - Tasting Travels | Tasting the cultures of the world by bike

  2. Jesse Tuesday says:

    Epic! Those must have been the best burgers you ever tasted!

    • We’ve been wanting them forever and yes, I believe they were haha. Especially after we thought that we had missed our chance! In the end after a day of hard riding, everything would have been a great taste. But something delicious is even MORE delicious! 😀

  3. Hi; Thank you for the fabulous km by km description of your ride up the Dempster. I’m planning a ride from Tuktoyuktuk this spring and your candid observations and suggestions have been invaluable in my planning. Thank you again. I can’t wait to read your other adventures. Bill Brooks, Victoria Canada

    • Heya Bill, thanks so much for your kind words! I’m so jealous, even though it wasn’t easy at times I had such a wonderful time up North and wish I was there again! How was your trip?
      Cheers from Germany,
      Annika

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