Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 2: Canada’s Arctic by bike

Biking the Dempster

On the long and lonesome one-way road

Cycling the Dempster Highway Part 2: Canada’s Arctic by bike

Country: Yukon and NWT, Canada

From Eagle Plains to Inuvik

Lesson learned: Don’t trust any elevation profile

Laughed about: Fresh pizza in the tundra near the polar circle

Most wonderful miracle: Angel Martin

Greatest challenge: A nine-hour day

Days on the bike: 6

Kilometers cycled: 381

Average Kilometers per day: 63.5

Total Kilometers cycled till Eagle Plains: 21,073

Blog auf Deutsch: Dempster Highway per Fahrrad Teil 2

This is Part 2 out of 2. Here’s part 1: Cycling the Dempster Part 1: Hungrier than the bears

Scroll down a little 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 2

 

Eagle Plains, „An Oasis is the Wilderness“. This is just how it felt for us. I slept in until 9.45. We started the day with an indoor breakfast, then washed some laundry, checked our mails and chatted with Laura and Justin (the rain team was nearly complete again) who arrived around noon.

Eagle Plains. Population Eight.

Eagle Plains. Population Eight.

It was 4pm when we had finally decided to get going. This is one of the reasons I love the midnight sun: you are not limited by sunset and sunrise, you can just bike whenever you feel like it. Getting used to sleeping with sun doesn’t take more than a few exhausting days anyways.

Cycling the Dempster

Hauling my truck

We started the day with a long decline into a canyon. The gravel was as loose as ever and I rode slowly and highly concentrated right in the middle of the road. With the road declining to the left and the right I would rather not be caught on a gravel avalanche and slide right down the slope.

Roberto in Eagle Plains

Roberto in Eagle Plains

My mirror vibrated and I didn’t pay attention to anything but the road right in front of me, when a huge caravan suddenly appeared right on my side just a few centimeters from me. I jerked the handlebar violently to the right, but my weight stayed on the left.

Roberto Dempster

Roberto

For a moment I saw myself between the wheels, but just a second later the caravan had passed and I had somehow stopped my bike and now found myself in a big cloud of dust. After a short but intense crying attack I continued the ride. The caravan never stopped to check if I was okay.

Scenic Dempster Highway

The ride was incredibly scenic

We climbed the Canyon back up and immediately faced a strong headwind. It was a bleak landscape and not many bushes to stop the wind. This was when we saw the old VW Scirocco. Emily, our rain-team friend, had made her way to the first ferry, but due to all the rain, the river had swollen so much that the ferry couldn’t operate.

The Dempster

Views

Nobody knew if it was a matter of hours or days. Emily had decided to make her way back to Eagle Plains for now. For us the ferry was in the far future and nothing we should worry about too much. We were happy to see her again, so we could thank her for water and beer.

Biking the Dempster

On the long and lonesome one-way road

Martine had problems with her eyes and there came a point that she just couldn’t continue. This was when we stumbled upon Martin (without the E in the end) from Germany. We had met him on day two at the Tombstone Interpretation Centre, where he stopped his motorbike for a chat with us.

Dempster by bike

No noise to be heard

By now Martin was on the way back to Dawson. He had spent many years bicycle touring and was happy to be in a situation to help. So he set off and scouted an even area with some bushes around, less than a kilometer away. Luzia and Denise referred to him as “Angel Martin” from now on, and when he even decided to cook pasta for everybody and share his cans of coke with us, we were absolutely delighted.

Martin and his motorbike

Martin and his motorbike

A cold night

A cold night

Martine’s eye didn’t feel any better, so “Angel Martin” whopped all her heavy bags onto his loaded motorbike, so that she could find a ride back to Eagle Plains with only her empty bike, where she could relax a little and recover in the warmth of the café.

Camping Pasta

Pasta!

Wechsel Tent in the wind

Our little tent had no problems with the wind

Martine wouldn’t be Martine if she wouldn’t keep us updated through messages that she handed over to random drivers, so we would know when and where to wait for her. We knew that nothing would stop her, now that she came so far. Yet it was weird to continue without her through the wind and drizzle.

Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway, Canada

We’ve never been this far up north before

After nine kilometers we reached the Arctic Circle. The original plan was to camp here, but with the harsh wind we were happy that Angel Martin had found us such a comfy spot. Luzia had brought “Arctic Certificates” from Eagle Plains and solemnly handed them over to us. We wrapped Martine’s into a plastic bag, hid it in the info booth and sent her a message with a nice driver who was headed back.

Tasting Travels on the Arctic Circle

We’ve made it to the Arctic Circle!

A nice driver gave us his last can of beer and we celebrated briefly. It was too cold to not be moving. There was far more bear poop and tracks on the road than usually, and we kept a sharp lookout for the bears, but as usual: nothing.

No wildlife on the Dempster

Where’s all the wildlife?

We stopped for lunch at a campground and soon decided to spend the night, even though we had only done 40 kilometers. Martine, who always made fun about our rush, would be proud of us when she heard about it.

Dempster Highway

It just goes on and on and on

In the evening we encountered another cyclist: Giorgio from Italy. He smelled like perfume and his dinner was a pot pull of the content of several cans. Giorgio didn’t speak much English, but what we did understand was, that he had biked up to Inuvik in record speed, stayed for less than 24 hours, and then got on his bike at 2 am so that he could make the first 200 kilometers in a day. It keeps on impressing me how some people enjoy all different parts of cycling. He certainly enjoys the “going beyond your limits”-part.

Fireweed everywhere

Fireweed everywhere

We started the following day with a 20 Kilometer climb in the drizzle. The gradient was gentle and we rode fast enough to stay warm and slow enough to avoid sweating too much. A car stopped next to us and we were very happy to see a smiling Martine on the passenger seat.

Cycling the Dempster Highway

The long and dusty road

The mayor of Tsiigehtchic (two days further north) was on his way back home from Dawson City and gave her a ride. Before they continued, Martine handed us a cardboard box. We couldn’t believe our eyes: it was full of Pizza! Can you believe that? Pizza!!

Pizza in the arctic tundra

Pizza in the arctic tundra

Martine’s eye was much better and we decided to all meet at the Nitainlaii Campground near Fort McPherson for the night. The ride up to the border of Yukon Territory and Northwest Territory was long but doable. It was the third and last time that we crossed the continental divide.

Signpost to Inuvik

Little by little we’re getting there

The views into the wide tundra were so spectacular that I hardly even realized that I was pedaling. Martine later told us how she saw a caribou here, but we had no luck. As usual. All we saw were a few crows and ravens.

Dempster Highway by bicycle

Sometimes after a climb we could see the next couple of kilometers of the road

After the border we were stuck in loose gravel again. It was a nice and long drop, but I had to bike extremely slowly and cramped all my muscles due to the slippery surface. Just keeping the handlebar straight was a challenge for itself.

Goodbye good old Yukon ...

Goodbye good old Yukon …

... and Hello Northwest Territories!

… and Hello Northwest Territories!

Stupid gravel. Stupid Dempster. Stupid wildlife that doesn’t even exist. I was just so tired of it all. Whose idea was it to bike an unpaved 740 kilometer one-way road through the icy north? Oh, yes, right, that was mine. Not a clue what I had been thinking back then.

Lonesome Dempster

That moment when you see the next hour or two of cycling from up there

The landscape was absolutely stunning though. And my pride was in it too. I had to continue. We biked up through a steep canyon, the last climb for the day! Well, but the Dempster had other plans with us. While it was clear in the elevation chart that we had done all the climbing for today, we soon found ourselves facing “the stairs”.

Black Bear tracks or Grizzly Tracks?

Can you tell who walked here?

What was awaiting me was a line of long climbs followed by short declines, just like a huge stairway. I pulled out the travellodge with the elevation profile. Without a doubt, it was impossible that we climbed here! But yet there was no way around it. I climbed slowly but steadily.

Climbs on the Dempster

Up and up and up

By now the deep gravel had mixed up with a lot of mud, because there was a construction site nearby and truck after truck rushed past us. Fortunately the drivers were very empathic and gave us as much space as they could.

No mudguards is perfect

No mudguards is perfect

Yet when there was much traffic we had to flee into the deep mud on the side of the road. Roberto, who biked behind me, was soon covered in the mud that my rear tire threw towards him. In his own words he looked as if a moose had had diarrhea on him.

Biking up through the canyon, aka "the last climb"

Biking up through the canyon, aka “the last climb”

Eventually we reached the last stair and looked down into the green valley. What we saw though, was a road leading up the next hill. This couldn’t be true. This wasn’t the Dempster. This was just impossible! Well, turns out it was the only road and we had to face it. By now I was all dizzy of hunger and shaky of exhaustion.

There was traffic on the Dempster after all!

There was traffic on the Dempster after all!

I cursed the elevation chart and its lies and kept on climbing and climbing. It was this one and then another two. Climbs, drizzle, cold, mud, deep gravel and even much truck traffic – it all came together. At least for once there weren’t any mosquitoes.

Denise and Luzia having a break after the Canyon

Denise and Luzia having a break after the Canyon

Eventually we reached the end of the climb and the end of the construction site. This was where Eric waved at us. Roberto stopped first and gave him a great big hug. We had met Eric earlier today when he stopped his pickup truck to offer us some water.

People on the Dempster

Meeting Eric was the highlight of the day!

And now we finally realized why we were so low on motivation. We were missing the human encounters! Even though we travelled in a great team, we wanted to hear stories about the north, meet local people, get to know their cultures, try their food, see the inside of a house, try fishing or picking berries and play with the kids. And we hadn’t talked to any local in a long time. The distance from Dawson City to the first village (except for Eagle Plains) was a whopping 591 kilometers!

Roberto on the muddy Dempster

We were just so tired of it all.

The short chat with Eric gave us power enough to continue. From now on it was truly a descent all the way to the Peel River ferry. The ferry woman asked where we were headed. Nitainlaii Campground. Oh, you’re nearly there. Just around the corner and up the hill. All I heard was „hill“.

Bicycles on the Peel River Ferry

We made it to the Peel River Ferry!

It was 10 pm and Martine had waited for us down at the park’s entrance. Without even asking she grabbed my bike and pushed it up the hill for me. Less than 100 Kilometers took us nine hours. Roberto went straight for the showers and I sat down.

Good views

Good views

The moment by butt touched the ground I couldn’t care for anything anymore. Not for food, shower or sleeping bag. I just wanted to sit and never move again. Instead of one bag of freeze-dried food, Roberto prepared two bags plus a bag of mashed potatoes.

Very muddy bicycle

We had quite a bit of cleaning to do

So close to a village with shop we couldn’t care any less for our rationing. After a while with the smell of food in my nose, I woke up from my rigidity and shoveled some food into my body. What I did today, that was too much. That was just far above my limit. And I’ll never repeat anything like this ever again.

The view down

The view down

It was a sunny morning and nobody really felt like continuing, so we just enjoyed a rest day. My entire face was swollen and I looked as if I had volunteered for beauty surgery training. Luzia and Roberto hitched a ride into the village and came back with all kinds of treats. We grilled Chili-Hotdogs, ate chips, cookies and drinks with flavors, cleaned the worst mud off the bikes and even found time for a relaxing nap.

Annika swollen face

What had happened to my face?

The owner of the campground, Robert, was a Gwich’in elder and had turned his office into a very interesting exhibition about the Gwich’in’s traditional lifestyle.

Master chef Roberto

Master chef Roberto

We were back on nearly sea level now and after all the time in the tundra, found ourselves back in the boreal forest with swamps, lakes and heaps of mosquitoes and horseflies.

Mosquitoes in the tent

Quite some mosquitoes.

The road was slightly hilly but our legs were well rested and we made a fast pace. We stopped for some more food and chats in Fort McPherson. Everything they sold had to be brought here from far away and that’s why a loaf of toast cost $4.

98% Deet

Let’s spray some poison into our faces to keep the mosquitoes away

It was an easy ride to the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Red River. The ferry stopped at both sides of the Mackenzie as well as on the other side of the Arctic Red, where the small town of Tsiigehtchic (pronounced tsee-gae-chic with emphasis on the first syllable) was situated.

Ferry to Tsiigehtchic

Ferry to Tsiigehtchic

Tsiigehtchic is home to 150 people and the village is famous for its dry fish and dry fruit and berries. Their slogan is “So much more than just dry fish” and it’s true. The village is colorful, the cliffs full of birds and I felt a bit like in Greenland.

Tsiigehtchic

View into the village from the harbour

We made our way to the tourist information, where Amanda was very happy to have some visitors. 15 people had signed into her visitor’s log ever since the information building had opened in June, and today there were five at once!

Tsiigehtchic on the Arctic Red River and Mackenzie River

Tsiigehtchic on the Arctic Red River and Mackenzie River

Next to the information center there was a brand new kitchen building equipped with everything you might need to cook yourself a meal. It was so brand new, in fact, that most pans and pots were still shrink-wrapped.

Tsiigehtchic

We went to the canteen for some ice cream and a chat with the locals

If only we had known we would have bought something more creative and cookable than a can of ravioli. For a fee we could camp (or spend the night on the floor in the kitchen), use the hot and clean shower, the Wi-Fi, and all plugs.

The brand new tourist information and kitchen of Tsiigehtchic

The brand new tourist information and kitchen

After Tsiigehtchic the road was fairly flat and straight. Some might call it boring. I called it a good break from hills and curves. The further up north we rode, the darker the clouds. We got rained on a few times, but it was still warm, so we didn’t care too much.

Accommodation in Tsiigehtchic

Very comfy sleeping in here

The thunder rumbled around us like in a cinema, but fortunately the lightening stayed far enough away. We felt that there was going to be a big rain storm coming up and made it just in time to a campground. But there was no shelter to be found at all. It was too early to pitch the tent.

The free Mackenzie River Ferry

The free Mackenzie River Ferry

Only 14 Kilometers to go till the next campground! We got back on the bikes and pedaled faster and faster, but it took only minutes and we were soaked. To our left the grey sky turned so dark that I couldn’t tell where the sky ended and where the trees began.

Mackenzie River Ferry to Tsiigehtchic

Waiting for the ferry

Denise and Luzia

Denise and Luzia

To our right we saw patches of blue sky. Let’s go right, please, let’s go right. But the Dempster wasn’t done punishing us and made a 90° left turn.

The cliffs of the Mackenzie River in NWT, Canada

The cliffs of the Mackenzie River

My shoes weighed triple when we reached Felix‘s Camping “Gwich’in Territorial Park”. We bought an armful of firewood and creatively stretched all ropes we had around the fire. Nothing really dried all the way, but at least we were warm.

Nothing worse than cold and wet feet

Nothing worse than cold and wet feet

We started the last day in our last halfway clean shirts and with nothing edible left other than a few teabags and half a tube of vegemite. It was a bright blue sunny morning and we were full of energy.

Gwich’in Territorial Park

There were wet garments all over the place

On the way we ran into Emily again, who, back in Eagle Plains, read that the ferry had re-opened and decided to give the Dempster another chance. She stayed at the campground in Inuvik and came out here to observe birds.

Gwich’in Territorial Park on the Dempster Highway

Not a single clean piece of clothes was left

After a while we saw the first airplanes, then some signs, later the airport and eventually we ended up on the asphalt. The riding was so quiet and smooth and the road so wavy that it felt as if we were in a little cockleshell in the middle of the ocean.

Cycling the Dempster

The last two days were mostly flat and easy but with a bit of loose gravel.

On the way to Inuvik

Nearly there!

We had spent most of the past days cycling separately, everyone at their own pace, but for the last couple of kilometers we decided that we should finish this as a team. We reached the official “End of the Dempster” sign and we knew that we had made it.

We cycled the Dempster Highway!

We made it!

The Dempster team: Denise, Luzia, Martina, Annika and Roberto

The Dempster team: Denise, Luzia, Martina, Annika and Roberto

We had all finished the Dempster Highway ride. It felt so good. And it was so worth it. Every drop of sweat, tears and … well, actually there was no blood involved. We biked into town, straight towards the local supermarket, where the locals congratulated us and made us feel welcome and proud and happy from the first moment on. In the following days we would get to know quite some people from Inuvik and here’s a little article on them explaining why Inuvik is so awesome: People from Inuvik. One lady asked whether we were going to cycle all the way back too. Denise and I were the first ones to shout “no!”

Annika and Roberto in Inuvik

After 13 days, 15 liters of sweat, and 780 kilometers we had finally made it to Inuvik

The Dempster was a big adventure that has led me over my limits several times, physically as well as mentally. We bonded and laughed and suffered and improvised together, we had a time that I will never forget and it was a ride that I am happy we did. It has taught me much and more. But once is enough.

 

 

 

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!

This is Part 2 out of 2. Here’s part 1: Cycling the Dempster Part 1: Hungrier than the bears

 

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

  2. Jesse Tuesday says:

    Bravo!!! Well Done all of you!!!

  3. Brent says:

    Brilliant
    I have a couple big trips, by foot or sailing and was thinking about doing the dempster. Your website reaffirms my experience, it’s not all terrific , but it is not all terrible either. The trip is what it is about. I have been considering the Dempster for a while,and I just started researching it . Thanks for an honest mostly positive appraisal of the trip.
    I may be too old and out of shape to do it, but hope and stubbornness springs eternal .
    I wish you nothing but fair winds and a nice beam reach.
    Regards
    Brent

    • Hi Brent!
      Happy our post was useful to you! Naaaah there’s no such thing as “too old” for a bicycle adventure. I’m sure you’ll have a hard time. Seriosly as much as I may have complained during the trip, I’m so so happy we have made it and now that it’s no more than a memory it’s only the good times that come to mind. The landscape, the silence, the great company, the burgers hahaha, the smells and colors and the midnight sun.
      You’ll love it! Please keep us updated on how it’s working out for you! All the best from Mexico,
      Annika

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