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Ride to Tuktoyaktuk, Canada: Part One

My 2017 Honda Africa Twin Next to the Tuktoyaktuk Entrance Sign

It’s Done. Whew!

I’m standing in the water of the Beaufort Sea in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. The Arctic Ocean!

In Tuktoyaktuk wearing Joe Rocket Canada and Sidi riding gear in the Arctic Ocean.

Matt lounging on the beach at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT.

Photo Matt de Bourcier

The water is so cold I start to feel the chill of it in my feet coming through the thus far, excellent quality insulation in my Sidi Adventure 2 boots. They’ve proven a huge asset over the 5000 kilometers (3100 miles) I’ve ridden to arrive here at this beautiful, ice-encrusted, rocky shoreline.

These same boots held back the water of the Pacific Ocean about a week before in Kitimat, British Columbia just as perfectly. I owe MotoNation huge thanks for supplying me with them for this specific purpose. The right, waterproof gear for this time and place, indeed.

I scoop up a handful of water to smell and taste, anticipating saltiness but encountering fresh water instead to my surprise! All the melting ice and snow apparently has displaced the salt water at the shore. How about that, eh?

A Proud Moment

I’ve now reached, touched and tasted two oceans inside ten days’ time.

I feel elated, exhausted, proud, giddy and more than anything else relieved (as you can probably tell from the video). I’m covered in dust and grime from head to toe after being on the road 9 straight days, but it feels wonderful! I wasn’t positive I would accomplish the goal I set out on until the moment I actually stood in the water here and now.

Matt, one of the other riders in the tour group flops down on the snowy shore and poses for the camera. All of us are beyond thrilled to be here.

If I walk fifty more feet out from shore I could step onto the solid ice and likely walk on it right out to Hendrickson Island which I can see on the horizon. My newly met friend and local resident Jackie Jacobsen told me that’s where the beluga whales hang out. I’d love to witness those ghostly animals in their natural habitat, but it’s not possible at this time, due to the ice and incoming bad weather looming large nearby.

Cold Weather? No Bugs!

Tuktoyaktuk rocky shoreline

This year’s colder than usual spring weather has blessed me with a rare experience. Namely, a biting insect-free visit here in the north. I brought along countermeasures to deal with even the largest horde of ravenous horseflies, deer flies, black flies, no-see-ums, and mosquitoes, but the packages all remain sealed and I’m not disappointed about that.

Mother Nature has artistically arranged a lovely collection of ice, snow, rocks, and logs together on the shore. It’s much more enjoyable viewing when you aren’t dodging clouds of bugs.

Logs on the beach at Tuktoyaktuk

It’s June 14th, but this place looks more as I would imagine March 14th on this remote Arctic beachfront. It’s sunny and bright out today and the glare coming off the snow is blinding. The wind is blowing steadily on my face and the temperature is only about 5 degrees above zero Celsius (41 Fahrenheit).

It’s perfect! I got so lucky on this ride to Tuk because it was like this each day, affording me the best traction possible out on the Dempster Highway. Many other riders didn’t make it here due to rain and even snowstorms that can turn the road into a skating rink.

Rocks and ice on the shore at Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea.

I’m so very tempted to shed my riding gear and take a “polar bear plunge” in celebration of this triumphant moment as many visitors to Tuk do. I even brought a towel with me, but I dismiss the idea quickly while picturing myself shivering on the 3 hr ride back to Inuvik on the wickedly unpredictable Dempster Highway.

Map showing Tuktoyaktuk NWT, Canada.

This is it! I’ve ridden a motorcycle to the most northern place in all of Canada accessible by road. Waaaahooooo!!!

The course of my ride to Tuk through AB and BC.

The Genesis Of This Plan

“Why don’t you ride to Tuk? The final stretch of the Dempster highway is opening in November, you know.” – Charlie Villeneuve

Springtime in Tuktoyaktuk.

Many thoughts are swirling in my mind at this, the apex moment of the quest or journey I began preparing for almost a year before. All originating from the simple question my friend and co-worker Charlie Villeneuve asked me over lunch one day. We were chatting about how I was considering writing about riding down the west coast from Vancouver to San Diego, but how from a writer’s perspective it had already been covered ad nauseam by everyone and their dog.

He had the answer, and I’m glad he mentioned Tuk. I owe you one, Chuck V!

In Case You Missed It

Caribou head complete with velvet antlers.

If you haven’t any idea what “Tuk” (Tuktoyaktuk) or the Dempster Highway is, I’ll explain briefly. For 60 years the Dempster Highway (purpose-built to link the north to the south) has remained unfinished because of many different factors. Finally in November 2017 the last 180 km stretch of road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk was completed (sort of) and opened to the public.

Dog sled in Tuktoyaktuk.

This “highway” is in a near constant state of flux. It’s never the same road twice and generally can be described as a temperamental, pothole covered, deeply rutted, dirt and gravel road running 900 km (560 miles) from just outside Dawson City, Yukon to Tuk. On the other hand, there are sections that are hard-packed, smooth and downright lovely to ride on. You never know what Dempster will greet you even minute to minute.

The weather changes quickly altering the road surface from hard packed to pea soup consistency in a heartbeat. Until this November completion of the last section of road, Tuk wasn’t land accessible outside of winter and so now presents a new destination for motorcyclists and everyone for that matter.

One of our readers who also rode to Tuk around the same time named Mike McCrary from Austin, TX perfectly described sections of the Dempster as a “truck runaway lane” because the gravel can reach depths of 6 inches. Wild stuff to ride in on a heavily laden motorcycle.

Read more about the Road to Tuk.

Let’s Ride To Tuk

Our Lady of Victory Church and Inukshuk in Inuvik, NWT.

Believe it or not, Charlie’s off-the-cuff question was all it took to launch me on this somewhat crazy 9000 km (5600 miles) endeavor. Once I heard there was an opportunity to be the first or one of the first to conquer a new frontier right here in the country I call home, I was hooked! I don’t know for sure where I ranked in the race to reach Tuk first, but I would hazard to guess I was in the first 100 riders. I’ll take that!

I’m a very proud Canadian (as much as it’s possible for a humble Canuck to be proud). I love the awesome natural beauty of my native land from sea to sea to sea, along with the diverse people who call it home no matter what part they come from or how long they’ve lived here. I also love sharing it with visitors from the United States and all other nations. I met several of them in Tuktoyaktuk and along the road getting there.

Welcome sign at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT selfie.

It’s About Getting There

Make no mistake, this is a story (not just a ride report) and a good one at that. Ranging from the rugged foothills of Alberta to the emerald forests of the western Canadian coast, then north, north, NORTH through Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon to the edge of civilization and Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. I rode the Cassiar and Alaska highways to name just a couple of bucket list achievements to make it to Tuk.

It may be strange to begin this two-part write up with what seems to be the best part, eh? Surprisingly, while reaching Tuk was the goal, it wasn’t the most interesting part of this adventure. Tuk definitely was an exhilarating and unforgettable cap on top of the real story: getting there and back safely.

The Alaska highway and my Ninja H2SX SE.

The journey through the diverse landscape to Tuk was what I enjoyed most of all. The long ride was split between two very different yet impressive motorcycles. Riders gotta ride and I’m definitely a rider.

Me and my 2017 Honda Africa Twin on the Dempster highway.

The photos in these two write-ups alone are worth the read as it’s impossible to take a bad one here in what I would label the most beautiful part of North America.

Keep reading to learn the rest of the story.

Enter the Ninja H2SX

If you already read my first write up on Riding Canada’s Arctic: An Adventure Ride From Dawson City to Tuktoyaktuk published back in March 2018 you’ll recall my original plan at that time was to fly to Dawson City then join up with Dawson Adventure Riding Expeditions (a local motorcycle tour group) and ride one of their Honda Africa Twins up to Tuk. I did indeed ride one of their Hondas up the Dempster, but I chose to ride the whole way instead of fly.

I hate flying. I’m not afraid of it (just the opposite), it bores me. I fly every two weeks to and from the mine site I work at in the Northwest Territories for my real job as a heavy duty mechanic.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja H2SX SE motorcycle ready to ride to Tuk.

I’ve also been negotiating with Kawasaki Canada for months now to do a long-term motorcycle review and finally, the two plans merged into this much more interesting one.

Ride a brand new, SUPERCHARGED, 200 horsepower, 2018 Kawasaki Ninja H2SX SE from home all the way to Dawson City and see whether this awesome and potentially sport touring class behemoth is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ll reference the Ninja’s performance throughout this piece (how can I not?!), but will write a more focused, long-term review piece about it to be published separately.

Spoiler alert! The Ninja H2SX SE is the finest motorcycle I’ve ever experienced to date, and a sport touring bike label is inaccurate. It’s a “Super Tourer”.

Doing Things The Hard Way

Typical of my indecisive nature I only squeezed the trigger on this new plan two weeks before leaving for Tuk. Getting the new bike through its 1000 km (600 miles) break-in period had to be accomplished in just two days to ensure it got the first service completed at the dealership to maintain warranty coverage. The sales and service team at Blackfoot Motosports really came through accommodating me and my departure date. Thanks to their efforts I left as hastily planned on June 5th.

A stop in Morristown, BC on the Ninja H2SX SE.

Someday I swear I’ll do things the easy way, but logging those kinds of miles in a short time at low speeds (due to break-in rules of staying under 4000 rpm) was a good conditioning stint for my backside.

My Chosen Riding Gear: Joe Rocket Canada

Me standing in the Pacific Ocean at Kitimat, BC.

I definitely got to test my Joe Rocket Canada riding gear thoroughly in the rain during the first week of this ride! I pre-tested it in my backyard using the garden hose before leaving home and it proved impenetrable when it came to water.

I sported the RKT-25 TransCanada Helmet (review here), Ballistic 14 jacket (review here) and Alter Ego 13 pants. The helmet is especially suited to this ride in that it is a hybrid on road/off road design with a removable sun peak on it.

I brought along their Atomic riding gloves, but those aren’t waterproof and are for warm weather use. My Rukka Virium Gore-Tex gloves handled the lion’s share of duty and very well indeed.

A waterfall visited along the Icefield Parkway in Alberta.

I had contacted Joe Rocket Canada several months before leaving to ask them whether they wanted to provide me with gear to torture test on a historic Canadian motorcycle ride. They were very enthusiastic and supportive. Originally I was planning to wear Rukka gear on this trip, but it seemed apropos to wear Canadian themed riding apparel instead.

Joe Rocket Canada doesn’t make any boots, but the SIDI Adventure 2 Gore-Tex (review here) was my first choice for this trip without even a second thought.

Luggage For The H2SX

I purchased some very compact camping gear for this trip and I was looking for an opportunity to get my money’s worth out of it. My tent, stove, stove fuel, Thermarest sleeping pad and hatchet all fit into the right side factory KQR (Kawasaki Quick Release) luggage on the H2SX SE. I also managed to cram in my tennis shoes, a campfire lighter, first aid kit and mini air compressor!

I might have been able to get my sleeping bag in there too instead of the last 4 items, but I opted to install a Nelson Riggs tour pack bag on the passenger seat instead to house it and bike maintenance supplies. I couldn’t find any top bag sets for the ninja before I had to leave, but I hear Givi has a kit available now.

Kawasaki KQR luggage and Nelson Riggs tour pack on my 2018 Ninja H2SX SE.

Mission Impossible

Finding a tank bag for this bike was challenging. The local Kawasaki parts department couldn’t come up with anything and this is a major failure on Kawasaki’s part in my opinion. How they could put out a premier touring bike without offering a full complement of optional touring luggage is inexcusable.

Luckily, some savvy members of the FaceBook H2SX forum guided me to the Givi ST602 bag and BF04 flange. I would have been very unhappy without that tank bag on this trip. It housed my GPS unit and all other important documentation and equipment perfectly.

With A Little Help From My Friends

I’ve never undertaken a ride of this magnitude before and I was feeling a lot of pressure despite all my planning and scheming. I was a little nervous about traveling alone in unfamiliar territory over such a long distance too.

Happily, my friend Greg Phillips was planning an even bolder adventure ride in the same part of the world at the same time. He planned to cross the Arctic Circle twice during the same trip up north. He would head first up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska then ride the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyaktuk. I convinced him to let me tag along with him until Whitehorse where we would part ways while he carried on to Fairbanks, AK.

Good Company

Greg has been a mentor for me through the preparation process since he had already ridden successfully up the Dempster to Inuvik a couple of years ago on his own.

His choice of motorcycle for that trip? A Harley Davidson Crossbones, because of his collection of motorcycles it had the best range! That gives you an idea of the excellent kind of company someone like Greg is on a long trip. I relaxed knowing I now had a bit of a safety net in place for the first leg of this trip.

With the plan now solidified, the Ninja packed up with all my camping, bike maintenance supplies, and personal gear, I hugged and kissed my wife and children goodbye early on June 5th to rendezvous with Greg at 7 am out on the Trans Canada Highway west of Calgary.

Keep Reading
Day 1: Ride to Dawson City

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  1. Jim, agree 100% on the Sidi Adventure 2 boots. My own trip to Tuk was within a few days of yours, and our group of four encountered ALL conditions – dry, dusty, wet, muddy, rain, sleet, snow, cold. The Adventure 2 boots kept my feet absolutely dry, as well as comfortable.

    1. You had a much tougher ride on the Dempster than I did Michael.
      I’m in awe that you rode it in the snow.

  2. Yay! great to read of your adventure and glad you completed your mission as I’m sure you are.

    1. It was a really unforgettable adventure for me!
      I think I’m hooked and am already plotting the next crazy ride.

  3. Amazing write up. I found a quiet corner to sit and really enjoyed reading through your adventure. When does Part 2 get published?!

    1. Hi Rob!

      Thank you for the feedback and I’m so happy to hear someone read that novel I wrote.

      Part 2 has been finished for about a week, but our editor is on holidays so things have ground to a bit of a halt around the publishing area.
      Everyone needs some time off so we can’t get upset.

      The second piece is actually longer than the first if you can believe it and twice as dramatic.

      To call the ride to Tuk life changing is completely accurate. I’m not the same rider I was when I left home June 5th that I am now. What a place. What an experience. What a road the Dempster was and still is!
      Have you ridden up that way yourself?

      The boss tells me it should be on the site in the next few days. Trust me, no one wants it in print more than I do.

  4. Nice writeup! I’m planning for this June and would love to read part 2. Probably tomorrow I’ll continue reading.

    Do you have any tips for me? I’ll be on my own from Vancouver to Tuk and back, so, tips like place to stay, must see places on way etc… Thinking of covering a max of 800km a day but take a day or 2 break in place like Whitehorse or Prince Rupert.

    BTW, why didn’t you continue with your Kawasaki? Is it because of gravel road from Dawson city to Tuk?

    1. Hi Rubert!

      Sorry I took so long to get back to you.

      There are quite a few tips in part 2 that might be useful for you. It’s a good idea to make contact with my friend Lawrence Neyando who is up in Inuvik and runs a tour company called Arctic Motorcycle Adventures: he can really get you prepared for the final leg up to Tuk from Inuvik should you need anything.
      I should warn you presently I believe the borders into NWT require you to do a 14 day quarantine after you cross, even for residents returning from other provinces. Go ahead and plan you trip but be prepared to face that obstacle.

      If you read part 2 you’ll understand why I left the Ninja in Dawson City. The Dempster is no place for sport bikes. It’s not your average gravel road. It’s a test of your motorcycle and will.
      I’m considering a return to Tuk myself this year, so I’ll be watching the borders too.

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