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Marathon of Madness – Dempster Highway Snapshot

Dempster highway Arctic circle sign circa 1994

My friend for the past 20 years, Daryl Brown, emailed a photo  to my desktop in late May. It was of himself in a yellow slicker and another wind-whipped rain-soaked rider posed on an obviously miserable day on the Dempster Highway.

“Look hard and you can see the wind whistling between our ears … you know where our brains were before the picture was taken,” he says. 

Their location—the famed landmark advising travelers on the Yukon Territory’s remote Dempster Highway  they’ve just crossed over the Arctic Circle. The year was 1994 in the month of August; Brown and his riding companion Daryl Collerman had decided they “wanted to make a big ride” and were enroute to Dawson City when they made an impromptu decision to tackle the notorious 700-kilometre gravel road that leads to Inuvik, high on the Mackenzie River delta. “Daryl heard the call of the pines,” says Brown, when they suddenly opted for the Dempster cut-off that lies just south of Dawson. “We rented a couple of five-gallon jerry cans from the guy at the Esso station [at the Dempster corner],” says Brown. “Well no, actually he just lent them to us; he knew we’d be back.” Travelers on the Dempster have no recourse but to make the return journey unless they leave all their possessions behind and fly out of Inuvik, far at the end of the road.

One of only three public roads in the world that crosses over the Arctic Circle, the Dempster Highway passes over three mountain ranges, forges two major river valleys and is constructed of sharp-edged shale and rounded stones the locals call “Yukon gravel.” Topped with a dust-dampening calcium chloride mixture that turns to absolute grease when it rains, the Dempster can be one of the most unforgiving pieces of infrastructure the north has to offer.

A classic dualsport environment that under the wrong conditions will make even veteran GS and KLR riders pause, Brown and Collerman nevertheless tackled the Dempster with a pair of heavily-loaded rigid-framed Harley-Davidson Shovelhead choppers—respectively, Brown’s 1968 80-incher, which he still rides to this day, as he has for the past 27 years, and Collerman’s ‘66 88-incher. 

They had good reason to later refer to the ride as their “Marathon of Madness.” The rain was unrelenting and the Dempster Highway quickly lived up to its fiercesome reputation as an eater of men and machinery. “Basically, the weather defeated us,” says Brown, who would later in life become a record holder in the Canadian Motorcycle Drag Racing Association’s Modified class and who now earns his living as a lawyer specializing in motorcycle-related issues (www.motorcycle 

The greasy, gritty road material destroyed Brown’s brakes and worked its way into Collerman’s engine, with predictable results—the bike was blowing smoke by the time they reached the Dempster’s halfway point, the Arctic Circle monument, and both riders were dogpaddling their bikes to stay upright.

The celebratory Arctic Circle photo commemorating their survival to that point was taken about two minutes before Brown’s kicker snapped. 

Through sheer determination, the boys made the return trip back down the Dempster with a set of Vice-Grips clamping the kicker stub and Collerman, an electrical mechanic, coaxing the best out of his wounded bike. Brown references a BMW R1100GS he and Collerman spotted on the road the same day that makes him wish, in retrospect, they’d gone up the stunningly beautiful, but unrelentingly dangerous, Dempster on “something more civilized.” 

“The moral of the story?” asks Brown, rhetorically. “Contrary to popular belief, some Harley-Davidson riders are really not that smart!”

by John Campbell Canadian Biker #234


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