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Ride To Tuktoyaktuk, Canada: Part Two

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

Day 3: Final Fight

Inukshuk and Our Lady of Victory church in Inuvik.

The day has only just begun and already I’m shaking my head in disbelief.

Matt and I were out waiting by the bikes for everyone else to appear when two other riders pulled up to chat with us. They asked whether we were sponsored riders for Honda since we all were riding the same bike.

I can see how they would think that.

We laughed and explained we were a part of a tour group with DARE going to Tuk. Turns out they were heading there as well and I noticed one of them was riding a Triumph Tiger with stock tires on it which aren’t suited to ride something like the Dempster. I asked incredulously whether he was taking that bike to Tuk. He said yes. Wow.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only person on earth who does their homework and respects this highway??

Our group left at 10 am and headed out of Inuvik towards our final destination at last.

The tundra looking out from the Dempster highway near Inuvik.

At first, the road wasn’t any different from how it had been on the south side of Inuvik and I was a little puzzled. Maybe this road’s reputation isn’t as bad as rumor had it?

Nope. Wishful thinking.

It wasn’t more than half an hour into it that the fangs and claws came out in this road. I saw it coming from a ways off, believe it or not. The road’s color changed from the hard-packed grey to a light brown color indicating a newly built section of soft earth.

We’ve been extremely fortunate having had perfect weather to tackle the highway so far and today is no exception. I can only imagine what this section of road would be like if it was raining.

The moment my front tire hit this weird new section of road I could tell something was amiss. There was zero feedback from it coming to me up the handlebars. The road material was so soft that it wasn’t moving the forks at all as I rode over it. I couldn’t even tell the wheel was riding on anything. It felt really strange and what I imagine riding on top of a sponge would be like.

That was nothing though compared to what came next.

The super soft section was being repaired by a road crew. I had heard this was happening, so I wasn’t overly surprised to have to dodge a grader, some water trucks and several compactors on this section. The problem I faced was the fact that all the surface gravel from this section seemingly had been plowed beyond the soft area onto the next section of hard-packed road afterward.

That made the layer of gravel covering the road twice as thick as normal or around the 4” depth mark. Riding a motorcycle in that feels a lot like trying to walk across a polished wood floor while wearing three pairs of wool socks. Right away I was fighting all the swerving and washing out of the front end frantically.

I had to slow down drastically, turn off all traction control and try to sort out what speed I needed to go in order to maintain momentum necessary to power through the deep gravel while also not going fast enough to lay the bike down. What an intense balancing act that turned out to be for about 20 km before things settled back into the usual pattern of hard packed gravel road.

Me and my Africa Twin tired of riding in deep gravel on the Dempster Highway.

Next came tons of deep washboard ruts and potholes. Usually without warning and always surrounded by soft ground and deep gravel. I fought my way through it too and rolled on.

After the first 70 km of this pattern coming and going, I was feeling a bit played out and I was only halfway to Tuk! I couldn’t believe my eyes when Pat and Caroline pulled up to me and Matt while we were resting from that first half.

They were still riding two up through this mess!

Bravo to them both for getting that done. I would have had my wife jump off long ago and ride in the truck instead. The last thing I needed was more weight on the bike or the worry of doing something to pitch my passenger off the seat to go skidding down the rough road surface.

This erratic pattern of terrain went on for the rest of the way to Tuk on and off. There was a long section where it was easy-peasy hard packed road that would suddenly transform into a marble-covered highway of greased Teflon again soon after. It was nerve-wracking for me.

The road was playing tricks with my eyes too. Spots that looked soft sometimes were hard when I got on them and vice versa. It felt like trying to box with a heavyweight champion. The road would practically play dead at times, then come out swinging ferociously and from angles that I never anticipated in the next minute. The battle raged on between us for hours and there were times I really wondered if I would make it.

More capable riders who are used to riding on this kind of road probably wouldn’t have found it as challenging as I did. I openly admit that much. I think I was gripping the handlebars a little tighter than necessary today because the end goal was in sight and failure just wasn’t an option.

I also wasn’t riding a motorcycle that I own and at all costs, I didn’t want to have to explain to Wade and Tammy how I had been the one to damage their brand new machines. I put extra pressure on myself without a doubt.

The Africa Twin through it all was as supportive as any best friend would be. I can’t stress enough how important it is to select the right bike and tires for this road. It gave me the confidence to push through. I imagined its rumbling parallel-twin voice calmly reassuring me it would take care of everything as long as I just did my part.

On one corner just outside Tuk I very nearly went down for a slide when I hit a patch of deep gravel that fooled me by appearing solid while trying to climb a small hill at the same time. My heart leapt and I believe I had three or four strokes before I got the bike pointed straight down the road again. I managed it though.

Me at the welcoming sign for Tuktoyaktuk.

Around the next corner, I smelled something change in the air. It was musty and sweet smelling all at once.

The Ocean!

A sod hut in Tuktoyaktuk.

Finally, on the horizon, I spotted a man-made structure off in the distance with lakes nearby and I knew I had made it. Next appeared the welcoming sign for Tuktoyaktuk and I sighed audibly in huge relief. I pulled up to the sign and started snapping selfies and photos.

Off to the left of the sign in the distance, I spotted two HUGE Pingos too. It felt so good to finally realize this goal after so much planning, stressing and traveling too. Thousands of miles were behind me already and a couple more would get me to Tuk.

The shoreline of the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk.

I went into town and cruised down to the first shoreline I could find, shut the bike off and walked into the water. I reached down and scooped up a handful of water to see how salty it was.

Just like in Kitimat.. it was fresh water! I was sure we were on the ocean, but I suppose all the ice covering the area even now was diluting and damming the salt water down deeper or possibly further out. I’m no scientist able to explain how it was so, but I assure you the water was fresh on the shoreline I was standing in.

Tuktoyaktuk harbour.

Map showing where Tuk is located.

Matt had beaten me into Tuk already because I was riding so cautiously on the way in and we joined up now for the triumphant moment of staring out into the harbor. While I was sitting waiting for the other members of our group up pulled an SUV and out jumped Jackie Jacobsen to greet me!

I had been communicating with him over FaceBook for a while about Tuk to gather photos, information, and contacts for the first article I wrote about this trip and it was great to finally speak to him in person about the place where he had grown up and even represented as a member of Parliament before.

The rest of our group arrived and we all gazed in wide wonder at the pristine snow and ice out on the water. We had made it! All of us, safely. Pat and Caroline had even managed it two up on the bike the whole way.

A 15 passenger white van with the words “Tuk Taxi” on the doors pulled up while we were taking photos and celebrating. A woman named Ilene Jacobsen was driving it. Tammy had arranged for a tour of Tuk before we arrived with Ilene and I was really keen to do it. Ilene took us out to the northernmost point of Tuk which is a community picnic spot and we had lunch.

Ilene Jacobsen explains how muktuk is made in Tuktoyaktuk.

A plate of muktuk or beluga meat and dried fish in Tuktoyaktuk.

As I hoped, she brought out plates of local traditional food for us to sample including dried Whitefish and “muktuk” which is smoked beluga meat and fat. The fish was great and basically just tasted like dried fish.

The muktuk meat tasted just like beef jerky to me so I loved that and ate all of it offered to me. The white colored fat was the big surprise for me. I had heard it was an acquired taste, but I was keeping an open mind about trying it. Ilene had cooked this fat in oil and to me and Pat, it tasted exactly like pork fat. Delicious!

We all contemplated a swim in the Beaufort Sea, but honestly, the wind was blowing steadily and it was only about 5 to 8 degrees out. We had a long trip back to Inuvik ahead of us on a treacherous road and shivering the whole way just wasn’t something anyone wanted to deal with. I guess that’s just a diplomatic way of saying that I wimped out! LOL!

Me wearing Inuit sunglasses in Tuk.

Ilene’s tour was thorough and detailed. She talked about the origins of Tuk as a hunting ground for the Indigenous people, tried to teach us how to pronounce the name in Inuvialuit and showed us the school, college, medical health center, grocery stores and everything in between.

She talked about the fact Tuk has always had timber to build with and heat their homes because of all the driftwood logs that float down the MacKenzie River out to the ocean. The sod huts people lived in at one time were built with that wood and surprisingly many of the homes in Tuk today that are still used were too.

Ilene Jacobsen shows us a spear used for hunting beluga in Tuktoyaktuk.

Ilene brought us to see her smoke shack for preparing the fish and beluga along with the hunting tent she keeps pelts and furs in that are harvested and tanned locally. Wolverine, musk ox, caribou, polar bear, martin, three kinds of foxes and even some vertebrae from a beluga were there for us to touch and see. All the traditional tools used to do it as well.

Being that I’m a hunter myself I found this fascinating and imagined what it would be like hunting beluga while Ilene described how it’s done. She says the Hamlet typically brings in about 50 belugas per year – give or take – and that nothing is wasted.

These animals are vital to the community’s food supply. Perhaps now that the road south is open that will lessen somewhat, but these people are proud of their traditional way of life as they should be and want to pass the culture down to future generations.

Arctic, Grey and Red fox furs in Tuktoyaktuk.

Beluga vertebrae in Tuk.

An ulu or traditional knife used by people in Tuktoyaktuk.

Wade reminded us the forecast was for rain tonight and there was no way any of us wanted to attempt the Dempster while soaking wet. We all took some last photos, bid adieu to Tuk and hopped on the bikes. For the first time in over a week, I’m heading south.

The ride back was much better than the one up because I knew the road now and where to look for the nasty areas. I knew to stay in 2nd gear for certain patches of ridiculously deep gravel to power through them, and I was just better prepared to pick a cleaner path through the gravel and rough patches in general.

The road crew had managed to flatten out the huge windows they had dredged up earlier that day and so even though it was still a long ride back, we made it without incident.

Meeting up with other riders on the Dempster Highway near Tuktoyaktuk.

Along the way we caught up with the same two riders we had spoken to that morning and got to flesh out their view of the road. The one who was riding on the Triumph Tiger equipped with stock tires very quickly acknowledged how foolish that choice was and that if he could do it over he would have put on some aggressive tires like we were running.

I’m glad he made it safely to Tuk and back and that his eyes have been opened to the reality of this highway.

The Dempster humbles everyone who rides it. This fellow obviously had lots of skill and experience riding motorcycles and managed the road well, but if it had rained today with those tires his trip would have been over.

Once back in Inuvik I toured the town a bit more and came across 4 young girls selling drinks on the side of the road. I pulled over to greet these opportunistic entrepreneurs and see what a cup would cost. $1 for some warm iced tea, eh?

That’s probably the most inexpensive thing you can buy up here, so I handed over a buck then offered the drink to the girl who had done the negotiating. I told them there were three other motorcycles and a truck coming behind me with thirsty riders on board. Their eyes lit up at that prospect.

I parked the Honda in front of the hotel and collapsed into a chair in the restaurant to get something cold to rinse all the dust out of my throat. I began pondering the magnitude of the experience I just had.

Holy moly… I really had just ridden the whole Dempster Highway to Tuk.

Now all I have to do is get back to Dawson City safely. Rain is still in the forecast for tomorrow and the Dempster despite being basically at it’s most welcoming could easily change its tune on the return trip.

Keep Reading
Day 4: The Road Back to Dawson City

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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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