Ride To Tuktoyaktuk, Canada: Part Two


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

Day 2: Steady as She Goes

This morning we sat down as a group for breakfast early to plan out the day at the Eagle Plains motel restaurant.

As luck would have it the two men sitting next to us were both involved in motorcycle crashes the day before. One of them was the owner of the smashed bike I took the photo of yesterday. The poor guy had lost control on that Play-doh mud section of road, gone into a wobble and flipped V-Strom! He had landed on his back, but happily, the level 2 back armor in his jacket saved him from injury.

The other rider we had already spoken to yesterday (lost traction in the snowstorm) and was still trying to figure out whether his bike was rideable or not. He crashed in the snowstorm after not being able to find a hotel room in Inuvik or Fort McPherson to wait it out. The whole experience mentally rattled him and he was genuinely afraid to get back on the bike if it meant taking on the Dempster again.

Wade told him if he was still there when we came back from Tuk in a couple of days he could load his bike in Wade’s trailer and we would take him back to Dawson City with us where he could figure out what his next move was. Ditto for the V-Strom rider.

The gravel covered Dempster Highway and my 2017 Honda Africa Twin.

Their stories and their fear hit home with me. Riding a motorcycle safely on a road like the Dempster takes confidence, concentration, and skill. Without confidence though, it’s really hard to harness the other two. Having all systems online between your ears while you hurtle down the road is paramount.

With that fresh in my mind, I jumped on my bike and roared off northbound from Eagle Plains. I decided to take it a bit easier today not only because of what I’d just heard but a truck driver had given us a heads up that “resurfacing” was going on right near the Yukon and NWT border, which we would be passing through soon.

The Africa Twins at the Arctic Circle marker on the Dempster Highway.

Me standing at the marker for the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway.

We arrived at the marker for the location of the Arctic Circle around 10 am and all celebrated that milestone with photos and a certificate. We met a couple from Florida there who had driven all that way in their truck and brought their old Siamese cat with them! I would bet that hasn’t happened a whole lot over the years. We bid them a good journey and carried on.

A Siamese cat from Florida at the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway.

The road then turned very soft and covered in loose gravel about 3 or 4 inches deep for many kilometers. Obviously, the trucker was right and this was the work of a grader and road crew.

The Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

The good news is that it means no more potholes. The bad news for motorcyclists is that the deep gravel makes your bike weave back and forth instead of tracking straight, even with excellent tires and bikes like we’re riding.

The Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

I turned the traction control down as low as I could to give me the ability to drift when necessary in order to keep the bike pointed straighter and stayed in 4th or 5th gear throughout this messy section of road. It’s a fine balance while riding in this stuff to know when the bike is weaving at an acceptable level and when it’s about to go out of control and throw you.

Basically, if it wobbles once or twice in a row and then straightens that’s fine. Any more than that and you have to gently roll off the throttle until it settles.

Yukon-Tundra-3574

The NWT/Yukon border was next and the temperature dropped since it’s at a higher elevation. We had been traveling up and up until that point. There was plenty of snow all around the road and on the hills surrounding the area.

The bright sunny day really lit it up and I was glad the Joe Rocket helmet had an extra dark sun lens in it. We took some pics at the sign, chatted with travelers from all over and carried on to our first ferry crossing over the Peel River.

The Peel River ferry on the Dempster Highway.

This river is only about half a kilometer across, but I didn’t feel like trying to jump it a la Evel Knievel and drove up on the barge instead. It was a very uneventful crossing and we found ourselves right in Fort McPherson moments later to stop for gas and lunch.

The Peel River ferry loaded with Africa Twins on the Dempster Highway.

Tammy and Wade once again made sure we ate like kings. They even laid out a table and chairs at the gas station and we dined on delicious finger foods in the parking lot. It really must have looked bizarre to the passing locals, but I loved the contrast of luxury dining set against the harsh environment we find ourselves riding in.

Another decadent lunch on the Dempster Highway thanks to DARE.

Past Fort McPherson, the deep gravel got even deeper and I even came across a tanker truck spraying calcium chloride on the newly graded gravel. So now not only am I fighting deep gravel, but I’m fighting soaking wet deep gravel.

Yeeeeeehaaaaaa! It was a wild rodeo of weaving back and forth for the next 70 km (50 miles) until I was flagged down by a road worker who “informed” me about all the new gravel on the road ahead and that extra care should be exercised.

Gravel 3 inches deep on the Dempster Highway.

No kidding, eh? Thanks for the hot tip.

The irony is that only about 10 km (6 miles) after that the road went back to the hard-packed normal gravel variety and I was able to ride at normal speeds again.

The terrain has changed dramatically since the border crossing. The mountains are now gone from the horizon and we are noticeably descending. The temperature has gone from a chilling 6 degrees Celsius all the way up to 23 Celsius while we were at lunch and I’ve peeled off two inner layers of clothing, opened my jacket and pant vents and switched to summer gloves from my Rukka ones.

What a refreshing change!

The only problem now is that the road is really, REALLY dusty and the oncoming transport trucks whip up such huge clouds of dust when they go by that you’re riding totally blind for about 10 seconds afterwards.

The only way to deal with this is to pull over as close as you dare to the edge of the road while the truck passes and the dust cloud diminishes. It’s more than a little concerning, but there’s no alternative.

This is a brand new problem to deal with: being covered in dust. The visor is getting harder to see through and so are the gauges on my bike display.

The dusty Dempster Highway surrounded by forest.

As I carry on I pass sprawling expanses of evergreen trees broken up only by tranquil lakes embedded in them. It’s a really beautiful countryside.

Small settlement on the Dempster Highway beside a lake.

The small settlement of Tsiigehtchic came into view at the top of a hill that had the next ferry crossing at the bottom. We’re at the MacKenzie River now and the last ferry before we get to Inuvik.

The MacKenzie River ferry packed with vehcles on the Dempster Highway.

The MacKenzie River ferry packed with vehcles on the Dempster Highway.

This ferry crossing is a long one and I take a few minutes to catch up on emails since suddenly we all seem to have regained cell service, surprisingly.

The MacKenzie River ferry packed with vehcles on the Dempster Highway.

I feel refreshed and unencumbered now that it’s sunny and warm. The road ahead looks hard packed with a light coating of gravel on it. You know what that means? Good traction. Good traction means, it’s time to have some fun and let the horses out for a bit.

A Side Note About The Honda Africa Twin Performance

Let me talk a bit more about the Africa Twin and how it handles out on this road. It absolutely dominates on this kind of terrain with its 21-inch front wheel, excellent torque, and precise steering.

This bike is just so… how can I put this? Honda! The bikes they build are so good at giving the rider confidence by providing terrific handling and the kind of power that is useful without being unpredictable.

Me and the 2017 Honda Africa Twin on the Dempster Highway.

I’ve read in more than one forum about how people don’t appreciate the suspension on these bikes, but nothing could be further from my experience with it this trip. This terrain is rough, bumpy and very uneven. The AT has soaked up everything I’ve gone over with ease.

The road after the ferry is wide open and straight all the way to our next stopover at the Gwi’Chin Campground just outside Inuvik and let me tell you, I was doing some low level flying with the bike on that hard packed gravel road.

I just couldn’t resist opening the Honda up on this road. By the time I remembered how dangerous that is to do in the middle of nowhere I was traveling 178 kph (110 mph) down the Dempster. I quickly came to my senses and rolled back on the throttle recognizing how far from any help I was if I crashed.

I’m not including my speed to brag, but more to the point I was amazed how well this bike handled at such a high speed on a gravel road. It was rock solid in fact and still pulling hard as I cranked on the throttle.

Bravo Honda! The Africa Twin has totally won me over at this point and I really like the whole package. The bike was completely under my control and I managed to dodge two rabbits and three gophers that ran out on the road with ease even at unsafe speeds.

My Africa Twin at the Gwich'in Territorial Park campground on the Dempster Highway.

Gwich'in Territorial Park campground on the Dempster Highway.

The lake at the Gwi’Chin campground was like something off a postcard. The surface didn’t have a single ripple on it and was dead calm. The mirror reflection on it of the sky was something special to behold. Not a soul was out there and it looked frozen in time as if someone had paused a movie scene on an HD TV.

Gwich'in Territorial Park campground on the Dempster Highway.

After a well-deserved water break at the lake, we mounted up and rode into Inuvik to check into the MacKenzie Hotel. The sign outside Inuvik is outdated now that it’s no longer the end of the Dempster Highway.

The midnight sun in Inuvik, NWT.

It’s midnight now as I write this and the sun is high in the sky outside as you see in the photo above. We have to close heavy drapes in order to get any sleep up here. We are VERY far north, and only about 180 kms (115 miles) from Tuktoyaktuk.

The final goal is in sight, the weather appears to favor us reaching Tuk tomorrow afternoon and celebrating the end of half the journey I started planning about a year ago, thanks to an off the cuff suggestion my friend Charlie Villeneuve made to ride to Tuk.

Utilities Oddities In The North

An interesting aside about Inuvik is how the utilities are distributed up here.

The ground is permafrost or very hard granite here making it too costly to run conventional underground water and sewer lines.

Instead, as you can see in the photo above they run everything in large steel conduits which are heated in the winter to avoid having things freeze up.

In smaller and more remote communities like Tuktoyaktuk, all the buildings and houses work more like RVs where they have a large holding tank for water and sewage which have to be pumped out or refilled regularly whatever the case may be. These tanks are heated in winter as well to avoid really messy problems as you can imagine.

Keep Reading
Day 3: Final Fight

18 Comments

  1. Matthew
    August 23, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing the story. Inspiring. On my bucking list 🙂

    • Jim Pruner
      August 24, 2018
      Reply

      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.

  2. Rob
    September 9, 2018
    Reply

    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 .

    • Jim Pruner
      September 12, 2018
      Reply

      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.

      • anthony klatt
        April 1, 2020
        Reply

        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!!!

        • April 1, 2020
          Reply

          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
          Cheers!

  3. Nathan Stueber
    December 7, 2018
    Reply

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

    • Ben Smith
      January 30, 2019
      Reply

      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

      • Jim Pruner
        January 31, 2019
        Reply

        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.

  4. Troy
    February 17, 2019
    Reply

    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?

    • Jim Pruner
      February 17, 2019
      Reply

      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.

  5. Bj
    June 22, 2019
    Reply

    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!

    • Jim Pruner
      June 22, 2019
      Reply

      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!

      Cheers.

      • Regan Davis
        November 13, 2020
        Reply

        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.

        Thanks
        Regan

        • November 14, 2020
          Reply

          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: https://www.arcticmoto.ca/ 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 https://www.facebook.com/arcticmoto.

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

  6. Wayne Laczo
    December 28, 2020
    Reply

    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!

    • December 29, 2020
      Reply

      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.

  7. Wayne Laczo
    December 29, 2020
    Reply

    Yes I’m in Calgary. I don’t really use facebook anymore.

    That would be great.!

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