Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Beauty and the Beast of the Dempster

The Dempster Highway is the Northernmost all-season road in Canada.  It runs about 800km North from Dawson City, Yukon all the way up to Inuvik, NWT.  In that 800km, there are two service stops: the Eagle Plains hotel and restaurant at 400km, and the small town of Fort McPherson at 600km.

This road was the main attraction of our trip up North.  It’s a real beauty; barely any traffic at all, wide open landscapes, camping anywhere … it’s a cyclist's dream.  But it’s not easy.  In fact, it’s a beast of a ride.

The Dempster goes through four beautiful regions: Tombstone Park, Eagle Plains, the Richardson Mountains, and the Mackenzie Delta.  This post highlights the beauty of each of these, separated by something that makes this road a beast to cycle.

Beauty: Tombstone Territorial Park

The first part of the road passes through the Ogilvie Mountains.  At the centre of them is Tombstone Territorial Park.  People come here to hike in the beautiful landscape.  We were planning to hike, but with the rainy weather we decided to skip out and continue the ride.

Beast: Dempster Mud

The Dempster Highway is all dirt.  Much of it is made of clay.  In the summer it can get dusty, so the workers spray a mixture containing calcium on the road to keep the dust down.  But when it rains a lot, the clay and the calcium combine to form this horrible sticky mud that coats your wheels and gets all over the chain.  You can hear it eating away at the drivetrain as you pedal.

Mud coating the tires (can you spot it camouflaged in the left picture?) and the drivetrain

Beauty: Eagle Plains

After crossing the Ogilvie Mountains, the road enters the Eagle Plains.  This is a large region of gentle hills.  For cyclists, the best part is the Eagle Plains Lodge.  It’s the first stop, 410km from Dawson, with the chance to get a meal and a hot shower. 

The NWT tourist information office even carried a package of food for us to the lodge!  This great service meant that we only had to carry 4 days of food on the bike instead of 8.

The long climb up to Eagle Plains

Outside the Eagle Plains Lodge we started talking to some folks from Ontario.  They came and grabbed us while we were setting up our tent and said “Oh, no you don’t” and bought us a room in the hotel for the night and a steak dinner in the restaurant.  How wonderful!  We were so comfortable that we took a day off to relax in the lodge.

Well hello there Red Birch Boletes  … won’t you go well with dinner tonight!

The land of the midnight sun!

Beast: Mosquitoes

People warned us about the mosquitoes in the North.  Up to this point it actually hadn't been that bad... We thought we got off lucky, but here, they swarm in full force.  They get everywhere, in your eyes, mouth, nose, and ears.  To top it off, they are so big it actually hurts when they bite!

Thankfully, the mosquitoes aren't too much of an issue while we’re riding.  We’re usually going too fast for them to keep up, and it’s too hot for them during the day.  But wow, do they ever come out when you stop for the night.  Sooooo many mosquitoes!

Jenn dressed for the campground

It seemed like the tent was always covered in dead mosquitoes.  This is the dead mosquito cycle:
1) Open the tent door, mosquitoes get in.  Kill all the mosquitoes.  Dead mosquitoes all over the inside of the tent.
2) Get up to go to the bathroom.  More mosquitoes get in the tent.  Squish them all.  More dead mosquitoes in the tent.
3) In the morning, shake out the tent to clean out all the dead mosquitoes.  During this operation, more mosquitoes get into the tent.  Tent gets packed for the day, all mosquitoes inside get squished.
4) Stop for the day and set up the tent.  Already stocked with dead mosquitoes.
5) Repeat the cycle day after day.

Hundreds more waiting for us on the outside of the tent in the morning.

Beauty: The Richardson Mountains

After Eagle Plains the road climbs again to pass through the Richardson Mountains.  There is more wide open space and hard but beautiful riding.

Picturesque riding through the Richardsons

Welcome to the Northwest Territories!

Tundra is so fascinating up close

Beast: Wind and Rain

Although it is summer, this is still the Arctic.  The weather is pretty volatile.  Wind, rain, and even snow are common in the summer.

The road is raised off of the ground to prevent the permafrost from melting.  This means that you really get blasted by the wind on a bike.  If it’s not in your favour, things can get pretty hard.

Our last two days on the road we had a strong headwind.  Through the flats the road is dead straight.  Pedalling along a muddy road into the wind all day is pretty demoralizing.  It felt like we were never going to get to Inuvik.

Finally, the pavement near the Inuvik airport.  We were spent!

Fortunately we only got a couple really rainy days.  But it’s been a wet July here.  Every day it was raining somewhere on the horizon.  We heard a story of some other cyclists who had so much rain that it took them 14 days to ride the road (it took us 8).

Beauty: The Mackenzie Delta

The Mackenzie River is the second longest river in North America, draining a full one fifth of Canada!  Inuvik is located in the delta of the river, and the Dempster follows the delta for almost 200km.  The delta is home to all kinds of wildlife, including caribou, polar bears, beluga whales, and lots of birds.  Unfortunately the caribou (and fortunately the polar bears) aren't here this time of year.

There are two ferry crossings that are part of the road.  The ferries are little boats which run back and forth every few minutes.  Dirt ramps are made on each side and the ferry just butts up against them and keeps the motor running.

Getting off the cable ferry across the Peel River

We arrived at the right time.  A few days earlier the Peel crossing was shut down when the river flooded and washed away the dirt ramp!

Coming down to the confluence of the Mackenzie and Arctic Red River at Tsiigehtchic

Finally, after 740km of dirt, we made it to the end of the road in Inuvik, NWT.  Riding the Dempster Highway was a real pleasure.  We feel so lucky to be able to experience this part of Canada on a bicycle.

We have a few days off here to explore Inuvik before we box up the bikes once again and fly back home. 

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