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The Dempster Highway and the Yukon – Northern Essentials

motorcycling the Dempster Highway 

A sense of unease follows one V-Strom rider from his home in Ontario to the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. What did he forget? How could he have prepped better?

Northern Essentials – A Trip to the Dempster Highway
Story/photos by Bill McKenzie

Leaving my home in Orillia, Ontario in July for the Dempster Highway, I was feeling a little nervous. Aside from ordering Tour Pack soft luggage from Rev Pack for my Suzuki 650 V-Strom I had done little to prepare for my ultimate destination, the Yukon Territory’s Dempster Highway. I had equipped it with heated grips, engine guards, frame sliders, and a sheepskin from Alaska Leathers. I had also installed a throttle lock and a homemade skid plate the day before leaving. But starting with 2,500 kilometres on the clock, and with around 7,000 km to go to the start of the Dempster, I knew I had to ride conservatively or else be looking for new tires somewhere in the far north.

Many remote and mountainous sections lay ahead on my route. Some of them would even be in the early going. First, through Calgary, Banff, and the Icefields of Jasper. Then west along the Yellowhead to the village of New Hazleton, BC near where I’d turn north on the Cassiar Highway, which runs for 725 km before it connects with the Alaska Hwy on the southern apron of the Yukon border.
Some riders might tell you that a 650cc bike is too small for the lengthy trip I had in mind, but the sheepskin, the frame sliders, and the occasional use of the throttle lock made 1,000-km days a breeze: the sheepskin has almost magical qualities and the frame sliders are excellent highway pegs that allowed me to stretch my legs and change positions while riding.

So in early August, with threatening clouds and temperatures hovering just above freezing, I felt thankful for the mere $50 I’d spent on heated grips as I rode through the Jasper Icefields. With only light waterproof gloves and the heated grips on high, my hands were warm and comfortable. Under my Ballistic nylon jacket all I needed was an undershirt, a neck tube, and my Gerbing heated liner to stay warm. The heated grips and liner meant there was no need to carry or wear bulky clothes. The only area that was giving me concern was my decision not to take long underwear. This proved to be a bit of a mistake, but putting my rain pants over my leather pants alleviated the problem.


The Dempster Highway and the First Problem

IT WAS ON A SHORT SIDE-TRIP THAT I encountered my first problem. I had stopped to watch grizzly bears chase salmon, but when I went back to the bike I found it wouldn’t start. With that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I unclipped the Tour Pack so I could remove the seat and check the fuses. The bike came with spares but after a quick check all the fuses were fine. In fact, everything seemed to be in order. I had a fairly comprehensive tool kit packed under the seat—tubeless tire repair kit complete with compressed air and pump; duct tape; factory tool kit; Vice grips; mini-socket set; Multi screw driver; stainless wire, siphon hose; rag; pliers; small hammer; large adjustable wrench; and assorted nuts and bolts. I even had a First-Aid kit, an extra deer whistle and twist ties, but after an hour of searching I remembered the cut-off switch on the clutch lever. To say I was relieved would be an understatement, when I saw that the wiring connection from the clutch had become disconnected.

TRAFFIC WAS LIGHT AND WILDLIFE abundant on the Cassiar. There seemed to be more bears on the road than cars, but this will soon change. The road has been paved only a few years, and with just 70 km of gravel remaining, travelers are getting to know the Cassiar. But as luck would have it, I encountered my first heavy rain just short of the gravel. It was time to get the two-piece rain suit and the rubber booties out of the tank bag, which also contained the usual collection of maps, ear plugs, bug spray, sun block, tire gauge and Swiss Army knife. Although my jacket and boots are supposedly waterproof, the truth is that in heavy rain they have always fallen short of the mark. The rain suit and booties may be a little more to carry, but they ensure a dry ride and they also provide extra warmth on those below zero days.

As I approached the town of Dease Lake it was dark, and the rain was getting worse. Not wanting to ride on the gravel in the rain and darkness I spent the night there—on the floor of a motel room, courtesy of two gracious BMW adventure riders I’d met earlier in the day.

The next morning was clear, but I learned that some of the gravel sections the BMW riders and I had passed the night before had been washed out. Fortunately we were going north. Also at the motel was a rider named Kevin from Nelson, BC on a 2008 KLR, so the conversation at breakfast was interesting. One of the BMW riders thought his bike was too heavy for him, and that the gravel section was the worst part of the trip. He was glad the rest would be on pavement. His buddy, on the other hand, said this had been the best part and the reason he bought an adventure tourer in the first place. For him the heavy bike felt very stable on the gravel. Fortunately, Kevin also enjoyed the gravel because he planned to do several hundred more miles of it up the Campbell Hwy enroute to the Dempster. As for me, I liked the gravel and rain in a perverse sort of way. It made me feel I could handle the legendary rough sections of the 735-km Dempster Hwy that connects a spot just east of Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, NWT.

MY TIRES STILL LOOKED PRETTY good in Yukon’s capital,Whitehorse. To be on the safe side though, I located a rear at the local Honda dealer and made arrangements to have it shipped up the Dempster. While I was there I also bought a tubeless tire repair kit for $50, which fit easily under the seat with the other tools. Though some riders carry a spare gas can on the Dempster, where services are few and far between, I didn’t see the need. The V-Strom was averaging well over 25 km per litre, and with a 22-litre tank my range was going to be well over 400 kilometres. Other than a borrowed set of long underwear and quite a bit of food, I left Whitehorse with basically the same equipment that I left Orillia. Maybe a little less, because I left my warm weather mesh jacket and mesh pants behind at my friend Jerry’s house.

WHEN I REACHED THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY, I was cautious at first, but soon realized that speeds of 80 kmh plus were reasonable on much of the road as long as the surface was dry and not too dusty. Staying alert to changing conditions proved to be the key, as ruts and deep gravel could be disastrous. Despite my vigilance, I still managed to fall off once on a section of graded gravel that hadn’t been compacted by the roller yet. A more experienced dirt rider would probably have stayed upright, but the short bit of deep gravel just seemed to suck me in like a snowdrift. Although the skid plate and the engine guards prevented any major damage in the fall, the gravel rash on the plastic will serve as a souvenir of the Dempster for a long time.

The first night there, I began camping. In an attempt to keep the bike light I kept the camping gear to a minimum. I had a half-length Ridgerest pad, a four-seasons sleeping bag in a compression sack, a ground sheet, and a North Face two-man tent, also in a compression sack. I had made the decision not to cook and this saved a lot of bulk and weight because I didn’t need a stove, fuel, pots, or extra water for wash-up. Instead I carried two 500-ml water bottles, a mug to eat my cereal from, powdered milk and a lot of fruit, granola bars, and other easy to eat cold foods. Some might find this a bit sparse, but even on the Dempster there are restaurants.

I had quite a surprise that first night on the Dempster Highway when Kevin the KLR rider from Nelson walked past my campsite. With similar objectives, we agreed to ride to Inuvik together. It occurred to me then that a KLR with full touring gear didn’t appear to have any advantages over the V-Strom on the Dempster. In many ways my bike seemed more stable on the gravel, lighter and more compact than the loaded KLR. The Tour Pack rode squarely on the back of the V-Strom’s seat, while a small gym bag holding the camping gear was strapped to the luggage rack. If I hadn’t taken a few items I didn’t use (such as my mesh jacket and pants), I could have easily eliminated the gym bag and fitted the camping gear in the Tour Pack.

One of the problems I had on the Dempster Highway was that the evening sun would sit on the horizon for hours, which bothered my eyes. When I mentioned this to Kevin he showed me how he had put a couple of strips of electrical tape across the top of his visor. Luckily I had some in my tank bag so I gave it a try. I couldn’t believe after 40 years of riding that I could learn something new that was so simple yet so effective. To this day the tape is still on my helmet. Now when I come round a corner, and the sun is in my eyes, I just dip my head a bit for relief.

Yukon - Dempster Highway

ALTHOUGH WE WERE ON THE Dempster Highway only three days, Kevin and I got to be good riding companions. So, after the Dempster we decided in Dawson City to ride over the Top of the World Highway to Chicken, Alaska where we met two riders on new KTM adventure tourers. They had started in Oregon and were now returning from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. In many ways the trip to Prudhoe Bay is the American equivalent of the trip to Inuvik, so we were all interested in each other’s experiences and how our respective bikes had performed. In the parking lot the V-Strom and the KLR looked like poor men’s rides compared to the big orange KTMs with their GPS units and spare tires strapped to aluminium luggage. After a long discussion over coffee however, the KLR and V-Strom could be seen in a different light. Although the KTM guys were pleased with the performance and the power of the bikes they had already used two sets of tires, the chains were beyond adjustment, and the drive sprockets were worn out. Gas had also been an issue as they weren’t seeing anywhere near the mileage I had been getting on the Dempster. Perhaps it is unfair to compare bikes, but to me the V-Strom had more power than I could use, the light, soft $100-luggage had served me well even on Canada’s most northerly road, and as for the GPS, well, I didn’t notice any turns on the Dempster Highway.

Feeling content with our bargain tourers, Kevin and I eventually made it back to Whitehorse. With nearly 12,000 km on the bike, it was due for service. A simple oil change and a filter were all the bike really required except that the front tire was only so-so and there wasn’t one in town that would fit. The prospect of returning on either the Alaska Hwy or the Cassiar with an iffy tire wasn’t appealing. As an alternative, I booked a $400-ferry ride from Skagway, Alaska to Prince Rupert, BC. By saving me nearly 1,000 km riding, the fare for the two-day sailing seemed a bargain.

Bikers tend to find each other and on the ferry I made friends with two veterinarians from Ottawa and a fellow V-Strom owner who phoned ahead to Prince George to source a new tire for me. The veterinarians would have to be described as born again bikers. Neither had been on bikes for nearly 40 years, but they had decided to ride to Alaska. Their choice of bikes was interesting: a 750 Honda Shadow and a Yamaha 1100 V-Star, both of which seemed ill-suited to touring. The bikes were further encumbered by huge Rubbermaid tubs bolted on the back with suitcases strapped to their sides and sleeping gear piled on top. Beside this pair, the V-Strom, fully loaded, looked like a GSX-R, yet they had taken the vets on some of the same gravel roads Kevin and I had done a few days earlier on our dualsports. What’s more, they didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves any less.

THE TRIP FROM PRINCE GEORGE TO Banff was uneventful, if you can call a ride in the Rockies that. But at one point I spotted a small deer on the Trans-Canada Highway. As I got closer I slowed down and lifted the bottom half of my Vox flip-up helmet, only to realize that it wasn’t a small deer, rather, a very large wolf. I stopped for a photo but to my amazement the wolf kept coming my way. I put the camera back in the tank bag and started to move ahead, yet as I sped up so did the wolf. I was in second gear before I lost him.

A long motorcycle trip gives you a lot to think about.

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