Day 3: Final Fight
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.
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.
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.
Around the next corner, I smelled something change in the air. It was musty and sweet smelling all at once.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.