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Riding the Dempster to Tuktoyaktuk

I’m away from Dawson City early. I want to give myself plenty of time, as I’ve heard so many varying reports on the condition of the road. The first few km give me a taste of the real beauty that lies ahead. I had no idea when I planned this ride that I would strike the autumn colours at just the right time. Apparently the 1st weekend of September is ‘peak colour’ up here, and there are quite a few vehicles on the Dempster that have made the trek for that purpose.

My early departure also rewarded me with a pair of beautiful cow moose, who wandered out of the trees into the warmth of the roadside sun. I don’t know who was most surprised, me or them, but as I fumbled to get my gloves off and camera pointed in their direction, they crossed in front of me and disappeared silently into the brush. 

There are a few mountain ranges to climb and as I reach higher elevations where the trees don’t grow, even the smaller vegetation puts on a colour show.

Slowly I climb onto Eagle Plain and the road deteriorates for the last 200 km. Apparently it’s often raining at this altitude and gravel for roading is somewhat scarce here. There are many areas where roading materials need to be trucked for more than 100km. Roading crews are always working on the Dempster and live in ‘camp’ working 2 weeks on and 1 week off.

Those lucky enough to work the Eagle Plains section get to stay at the Eagle Plains Lodge. The lodge is a major overnight stop for truck drivers, road crew and tourists alike on the Dempster, and while it’s fairly rudimentary, it does have a restaurant and bar of sorts. Up here, Huskies get to sleep wherever they choose.

In the morning I leave Eagle Plains in the drizzle and the fog. Just a few slippery kms down the road I reach the Arctic circle.

Unsurprisingly my temperature gauge is reading 0 degrees and I’m feeling really cold. My heated handlebar grips have become my closest friend, and I can’t imagine how adventurous souls rode to such places before heated grips became commonplace. Hats off to them! 

Crossing over the last and tallest mountain range, and into the Northwest Territories.

 I spot a large grizzly just below the snow line.

While he knows I’m there, he doesn’t seem too interested in me, but I keep the motor running anyway (just to power my heated grips... honest).

The road was wet and slippery before, and now there is ice that’s frozen over night, just to keep things interesting.

As I drop down out of the mountains and on to the vast Arctic plain, I leave the freezing temperatures and wet behind me. The temperature climbs to a balmy 10 degrees and the sun warms my back as I head to the first of the ferry crossings. This is the Peel River.

The ferries are free and link all of the local Inuit communities and assist the oil companies who operate up here in the Arctic. At the second crossing, the much larger and swifter McKenzie River, the river has washed the landing away. There is no rock or gravel for hundreds of km, so the ferry crew rebuild the landings as required. They always have a bulldozer or excavator on each side of the river, and a crew member will jump ashore and hop on the bulldozer, rebuilding the landing before the ferry returns.

I met a few of the crew members, they are all Inuit, and are super helpful and friendly. While we were waiting midstream for the landing to be rebuilt, I was invited into the smoko room for coffee and a chat. They were as interested in what I was doing, as I was in how they operate the ferries.

Later in the afternoon I reach the oil town of Inuvik. It’s not much to look at, but on the edge of town they have the best weather vane I’ve ever seen.

I think it’s an old Piper Cub, looks to be 50-60’s, mounted on a pole, with bearings, so it turns according to wind direction. The propeller also turns according to wind speed. Brilliant!

I stay overnight in Inuvik and make an early morning dash for Tuk. Once again the temperature is 0 degrees, but I’m rewarded by the sun rising across the arctic plain and the colourful landscape at this time of year.

At last Tuktoyaktuk is on the horizon and the first view is the oil tanks and oil worker accommodation blocks.

Aesthetics come a distant second to the practicalities of staying warm and dry in this environment. All buildings are lifted off the tundra to help with heating.

The village of Tuk could never be described as a pretty place, with a large rubbish dump just beside the road on the way into town. Here the villagers still hunt for their food. There are signs all along the road from Inuvik, telling which tribe the land belongs to, and politely asking people not to hunt these lands as they are a food source for the land owners. 

The Inuit people appear very polite, and as you leave their territories there are often signs thanking you for visiting the area and respecting their hunting rights. Here they hunt moose, caribou and grizzly bear.

While there are still many sled dogs in the village, many have been replaced by snowmobiles. No wonder this dog has a woolly coat. His kennel is on the edge of the Arctic Ocean! The antlers are freshly hunted caribou.

At last I wind my way through the village and reach my goal, the Arctic Ocean. I’d made it!

Many people who make this journey like to take a celebratory dip in the Arctic Ocean. Fuck that, they must be mad, but I did dip the toe of my boot in...

Life here must be incredibly difficult for those who choose to live or work here, but not nearly as difficult as it was before the road here was completed 2 years ago. Before that, access in the summer was by boat or float plane and in the winter by the Ice Road. To think that generations have been born here, lived their lives here, and died here, takes a little bit of getting my head around.