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Ride To Tuktoyaktuk, Canada: Part Two

Warning sign at the beginning of the Dempster Highway, Yukon. No emergency services.


This is the last half of the story to finish the one I wrote about riding my 2018 Kawasaki Ninja H2SX SE from my home in Alberta, Canada to Dawson City, Yukon. That part can be found here Ride to Tuktoyaktuk, Canada: Part One and shouldn’t be missed before reading this one.

For this half, I switched from the Ninja to a 2017 Honda Africa Twin all geared up for tackling the Dempster Highway.

Riding from Dawson City, Yukon to Tuktoyaktuk using the infamous Dempster Highway is not for the faint of heart as you’ll soon read. The 1000 mile round trip journey shouldn’t be underestimated or taken lightly. Looking back now, I’m quite surprised no one has died attempting to ride it this year.

The daily ride reports that make up this article are taken from the FaceBook posts I made each day along the way and the photos help showcase the beauty of this rugged area located on top of North America, right beside Alaska.

Me and the 2017 Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

My trusty steed through it all was a 2017 Honda Africa Twin outfitted with an Outback Motortek skid plate and crash bar set. The skid plate was severely tested by flying gravel continuously, but happily, I never tried out the crash bars on the trip. There are plenty of videos showing the quality of the bars in weathering a tip over onto varied terrain on the web.

This half of the trip begins in Dawson City, Yukon at the Downtown Hotel. Previous to this day I had encountered 7 straight days of pouring rain on the road and wasn’t savoring the idea of enduring more on the “highway that hates you” up to Tuk.

Day 1 Ride To Tuktoyaktuk: Glorious Gravel

Sign showing the Dempster highway from Dawson City to Inuvik.

I woke up bright and early to finally see a beautifully clear, blue sky outside my window. Could it mean we might get good weather for the ride north??

Wade, Pat, Matt, Carolyn and myself at the sign marking the beginning of the Dempster Highway.

Arriving at the meeting point for the group, Wade informed us that last night it had snowed in Inuvik so much that travelers had been trapped there. Yikes. Doesn’t matter, we’re going anyway and we’ll see how far we can get.

The large sign marking the start of the Dempster greeted us and after a quick group photo we all tore off on the bikes down the road. It wasn’t long before it turned to a hard packed mixture of gravel, dirt and calcium chloride. It’s really quite hard to the touch and the Mitas E10 and E09 tires on the Hondas bit in well giving us excellent traction.

Tammy taking a group photo at the beginning of the Dempster Highway.

2017 Honda Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

I was cautious at first, not even shifting out of 4th gear or going above 80 kph, but as time went on and I even passed through patches of soft gravel 2 inches deep without any loss of control I realized just how perfect the setup of these bikes was, and I went for it!

The Africa Twin has a 1000cc inline, 2 cylinder engine that produces the sweetest growling exhaust note, 97 hp and gobs of linear torque. It’s a fairly lightweight bike compared to many adventure bikes that steer light and tight. It has traction control and ABS to keep things on the road more often than not too.

2017 Honda Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

I dialed back the traction control to level 2 instead of maximum (level 3) because I found when I really honked on the throttle it robbed me of all tire-spinning power which is boring and a problem when trying to pass a car for example. The middle setting was perfect.

This Honda just loves to play in any loose ground and is so well suited to the Dempster that I was flying around corners and leaning hard into them with full confidence. The bike was just as solid on this rough road as my Ninja is on asphalt.

The hard packed section of the Dempster highway with potholes beginning to form.

The Dempster is littered with all different sizes of potholes everywhere. It makes for a very fun game to try dodging them all and the Honda makes the game pretty easy.

Tombstone Park in Yukon Territory on the Dempster Highway

Tombstone Park in Yukon Territory on the Dempster Highway.

Tombstone Park in Yukon Territory on the Dempster Highway.

We took a break and stopped at the Tombstone National Park interpretive center to look around, and I spotted a small grizzly inside that was quite friendly as you can see in the photos.

A friendly grizzly bear at the Tombstone Park Interpretive Centre on the Dempster Highway.

An interactive display of animal parts at the Tombstone Park Interpretive Centre on the Dempster Highway

The fanciest feast ever eaten on the Dempster Highway.

We rode until noon when Tammy rolled out an Italian pasta feast for us to enjoy out in the middle of absolute nowhere. I didn’t expect such decadent food out on the road, but she really delivered and made the day.

She and Wade have gone out of their way to help me and the others feel looked after. We’re getting the royal treatment. I’m glad I decided to go on this tour instead of trying to handle everything myself for this ride.

Honda Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway with a warning sign. 370 kms to the next gas station.

We refueled all the bikes at this point even though it looked like these Twins have enough range to barely make it the 370 km to Eagle Plains on one tank.

Wade and Matt fueling up the Honda Africa Twins on the Dempster Highway.

Not having any luggage weighing them down likely helped increase the range of the Twins significantly.

Tombstone Park in Yukon Territory on the Dempster Highway.

The scenery from there was beyond breathtaking. I think most of the photos I took today are panoramas because I couldn’t capture what I wanted just using a standard size. There were wide open valleys without a single tree in them, then five minutes later snow-capped peaks with glaciers and dense forests around them.

What lovely eye candy this varied terrain is.

Orange coloured river on the Dempster Highway near Tombstone Park.

Especially weird were the ORANGE colored streams! I’m guessing the rocks in the area are very high in iron content and so rust is formed when the spring melt of snow flows into the streams turning them a fairly bright orange/rust color.

Rusting rocks due to high iron content on the Dempster Highway.

Africa Twins on the Dempster Highway.

The road suddenly changed to a dark and wet looking paste from there. The consistency of Play-doh and quite tough to steer through even with the Mitas tires gripping at it. This is what pouring fresh calcium chloride on the mud and gravel will produce along with recent rain or snow. It dries hard as concrete, but otherwise can be treacherous to ride on.

I slowed down to better navigate it and then it was no problem.

An Africa Twin overlooking the Ogilvie Ridge on the Dempster Highway.

I’m amazed at the number of people bicycling on the Dempster! Seriously, what are they thinking? There are bears everywhere (though I didn’t see any today other than that strange, friendly indoor one), the road is very rough and would be hard to navigate if you’re pedaling. The Ogilvie Ridge climbs for many kilometers and would be brutal on a bicycle.

View from the Ogilvie Ridge on the Dempster Highway.

That’s just a question of endurance I suppose, but some cyclists just aren’t being careful. I came upon a couple of them riding on my side of the road directly towards me and they wouldn’t move over to the other side. I couldn’t believe it! They expected me to move over to the opposite side of the road when I had the right of way or crash into them head-on.

An Africa Twin overlooking the Ogilvie Ridge on the Dempster Highway.

Another shocking example of people not taking the Dempster seriously came when I found people driving a Toyota Prius out there! Yes, the Prius has excellent range, but look at the puny tires on it, the weak suspension and steering components. That car is going to be destroyed driving through all the potholes and ruts.

Better yet, if it gets wet and slippery it has no AWD and will definitely get stuck. What is wrong with these people? They clearly haven’t done proper research to investigate how dangerous this road can be.

A Suzuki V Strom destroyed by the Dempster Highway

Not long after this, I spotted what turned out to be a Suzuki V-Strom crashed on the side of the road. I stopped right away and jumped off my bike to search the ditch for a hurt rider. I didn’t find anyone happily so I figured they must have found help. This V-Strom had Ontario plates on it and was trashed as you can see from the photos.

A Suzuki V Strom destroyed by the Dempster Highway.

If you don’t stay focused on this road, you can crash very easily or ride off a cliff, into a swamp, stream or rock face. It’s not difficult to hit a big pothole and destroy your wheel rim or blow out a tire too. This isn’t named the “highway that hates you” for nothing.

Map showing the Dempster Highway from Dawson City to Eagle Plains.

Not long after the broken bike I reached our rest stop for tonight and roughly the halfway point to Tuk called Eagle Plains. We traveled 400 km today in 8 hrs of riding.

Eagle Plains Motel on the Dempster Highway.

Eagle Plains is motorcycle traveler friendly. They’ll let you pressure wash the filth off your bikes if you want for free.

Washing the Africa Twins at the Eagle Plains Motel on the Dempster Highway.

I met and spoke to a rider from Edmonton at the hotel who had also crashed his bike the day before while trying to ride in a freak snowstorm. He said the road suddenly iced up and he lost traction.

Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but the mount for one of his saddlebags had broken in the fall and he had just gotten it towed to Eagle Plains for repairs. He mentioned another rider had broken his leg in a crash two days before while riding too fast in more bad weather.

Today was the first day the weather was perfect, warm and rain-free since I started this journey and I’m grateful for that. The forecast shows us getting more perfect weather the rest of the week and that thrills me. I really want to reach Tuktoyaktuk without incident and return to Dawson City in one piece afterward too.

I’m having a great time.

An Africa Twin riding the Dempster Highway.

Keep Reading
Day 2: Steady as She Goes

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Matthew! You definitely owe a trip like this to yourself.

      Life changing experiences like these are what make it worth waking up in the morning.

  1. Just back from Tuk two weeks ago – the Inuvik to Tuk road was the single best gravel road I’ve ever been on – perfect condition and fast. The Eagle Plains to McPherson however was one of the hardest bits of riding I’ve ever done both ways – wind, rain, zero degrees, no traction. A tremendous, difficult, challenging, and ultimately immensely rewarding journey .

    1. Unbelievable eh?! It’s the road that’s never the same twice. I’m glad to hear it’s gotten somewhat safer now and that you made it there and back in one piece.

      1. Thanks for taking all the time and effort to create this vlog. I plan on riding this July with my 16 AT if Covid 19 is clear. I really enjoyed reading all your write ups as a fellow Albertan myself!!!

        1. Hi Anthony!

          I’m thrilled to hear you enjoyed this piece. It has great sentimental value to me because that trip changed my perspective on life. It sounds perhaps like an exaggeration, but after I stood in the Arctic Ocean in Tuk and realized what an incredible journey it had been to that point I had an overwhelming sense of contentment come over me that I’ll never forget.
          I hope you get to go, if not this year another sometime. It’s worth the effort, expense and risk. July will be very rainy and there’ll be plenty of bugs after you, but that’s part of the fun… sort of. I’d still recommend going in June instead! hahaha

  2. Wow! I just came across your article. I’m the Louisiana boy that trashed that BMW. I was surprised to see it!

    1. thanks for sharing your experience in such detail! Me and my riding partner are in the planning stages of this trip for the summer of 2020. Your journal is invaluable! Thanks again and I look forward to reading about your next adventure. California to Tuk 2020

      1. Ben are you and your partner ever in for a treat! Do yourself a favour and take your time getting there. Really stop and smell the proverbial roses along the way.
        I can’t believe I’m actually thinking about going back! I promised myself when I made it there without any issues that I wouldn’t push my luck by attempting it a second time, but I admit I’m considering a return.

  3. Nice report Jim, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Your friend Greg was planning to ride an HD Crossbones on the trip across the Arctic Circle twice, but later you mention he was riding a Triumph Tiger? Did he make his entire trip on the Tiger to both Deadhorse and Tuk?

    1. Hi Troy!

      I guess I may have been a bit unclear in the write up so here’s how it is.

      Greg has ridden his Harley Crossbones all the way to Prudhoe Bay a couple of years ago and later took his Tiger all the way to Inuvik. His plan last year was to ride to Prudhoe Bay first and then to Tuktoyaktuk in the same trip on his Tiger.
      When we parted ways in Whitehorse his Tiger was starting to act up and by the time he got to Fairbanks it was worrying him enough that he turned around and went home instead.
      He’s traded the Tiger in for a new F850GS now and plans to do the ride this June so if you go this year you may bump into him.
      If I can by some miracle get delivery of my KTM 790 adventure R before June I’m toying with the idea of following him to Prudhoe Bay too, but it looks doubtful at this point.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I think it’s my best work to date and have reread it myself once or twice to relive the experience.
      If you get to go yourself you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I say it was life changing.

  4. Great to read about your trip (up and down). I’m debating doing a similar trip up north this year and it was good to read about your experiences!

    That rear tire on the Ninja was definitely on it’s last legs coming home 😉

    One tip: If you go back with a bike loaded down with gear, try and get out and offroad with it a bit beforehand. Having ridden dualsports for 10+ years, they behave very differently with a load on!

    1. Hi Bj thank you for reading the whole thing! This series is my favorite piece of work to date and it makes me really feel justified putting the effort into it if it inspires and helps others to follow that same path.
      It’s very much worth the trip. I hope you go.

      Ya totally agree about the tire and the loaded bikes!


      1. Jim I have just read your journal. What a great adventure. Im planning the same trip the summer of 2021. Given the tour company you went with has closed their business are you aware of anyone else that provides bikes from Dawson? My plan would be to ride my BMW k1600B to Dawson from Calgary and then ideally use a tour company for the tuk leg.


        1. Regan thank you for appreciating the work I put into this one. To date, I think it’s still my magnum opus, lol!

          I hope you get to make the trip in full next year. COVID19 made it all but impossible this year unfortunately with northern communities closing up to the outside world which is such a shame. It’s truly the trip of a lifetime. I’m considering another ride up next year myself if borders stay closed as they are now to the south.

          Yes, to answer your question there are other alternatives to take advantage of to ride north. Get a hold of my good friend Lawrence Neyando who lives in Inuvik and runs Arctic Motorcycle Adventures: He can meet you in Dawson City with one of his KLR650s and help as much or little as you like on the trip to Tuk. He’s a great resource even if you go it alone (and can provide rescue if needed). Arctic Moto is also on FaceBook if you are on that platform

          If I decide to head up that way I’ll post something on the site and maybe I’ll see you along the way.

  5. Hi Jim,
    This is the second time I have read this. It’s a great read! I had plans in 2020 to go to Prudhoe Bay but because the boarders were closed that didn’t happen. For 2021 I booked five weeks off, the last week in May and all of June and decided I’d have a better chance on making it to Tuk this time. Spent all of 2020 outfitting my new bike for it and met more people that want to go too. We spent most of the summer tearing up forestry trunk roads in southern Alberta practising for the trip.
    Reading this article really helps with the planning. Thank you!

    1. Hi Wayne!

      Greg has ridden both the Dalton and Dempster on the same trip since I wrote this piece and he agrees with me that the Dempster is more challenging and Tuk more enjoyable as a destination than Prudhoe Bay. I know you’ll find the same thing if you can get up there in 2021. The borders to the NWT remain closed at this point to my knowledge and there’s a 14 day quarantine even for residents that leave the territory. That would be a huge bummer if it doesn’t change now that the vaccine is rolling out.

      I’m considering a return trip in 2021 myself since I didn’t ride Top of the World Highway neither did I get to explore so many side routes due to being on my Ninja for most of the trip. If the US border stays closed (and I expect it will) this will become even more enticing for me. Are you in Calgary, Wayne? I think I found you on FaceBook after a quick search. Keep me in mind for your plans if you want another person to tag along. There are a number of riders that have commented on this piece who are also planning to ride up in 2021, but I imagine the timelines will vary so depending on availability our plans might align.

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