When they heard that a new all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean had been opened, two friends were determined to be among the first to lay their tracks down upon it.
Two Wheels to Tuk (Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk)
Last year I heard exciting news that inspired me to launch this summer’s motorcycle adventure—an all weather road had just been constructed in the Northwest Territories, linking and it was set to open November 2017. This meant that for the first time in history, it was possible to motor all the way to the Arctic Ocean almost 500 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Now that is what I call an irresistible call to motorcycle adventure.
Previously, Inuvik was the most northerly town in Canada and it was 3,800 kilometres north of my home in BC, and 475 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Any motorcycle trip to Inuvik would certainly qualify as a great adventure especially as it includes the famous Dempster Highway to Inuvik: 730 kilometres of unpaved road. The Dempster ends at Inuvik, but 155 kilometres north of that is Tuktoyaktuk, right on the Arctic Ocean. Ever since hearing about the construction of this new road, I talked about it with every motorcycle friend I had to get others interested in riding there with me. Finally, Brent Lines announced, “I’m coming too.”
I freely admit I had done very little exploring let alone adventurous rides on motorcycles but had messed around with a small 125 dirt bike in my youth. Fast forward to my mid 30s and I was back on the road aboard a sportbike riding around the UK. Fifteen years later, now in my mid 50s and with even more enthusiasm, I bought myself a Harley-Davidson.
Brent talked about getting a different motorcycle that would be more suited for the trip than his Harley. Right away he started looking for a new bike and finally showed up with a perfect bike for the rough roads we were to encounter as we approach the Arctic Ocean: an 800cc BMW GS with knobby tires and expandable saddlebags. Along with Triumph Tiger with knobby tires, we could now plan a route. I prefer not to ride more than 400 kilometres each day on multi-day motorcycle trips. However, due to the long distance of this trip, I thought we must plan for mainly five hundred kilometres days.
Through January my daily visits to the garage lifted my spirits as I gazed longingly at the two-wheeled chariots underneath their winter blankets (yes, bikes do feel the cold!).
We had only a few months to plan routes, accommodations, and check bikes, assemble all the spares and widgets we could possibly need and make sure we’d be capable of actually carrying out repairs to punctured tires and the inevitable gremlins that are ever present in the middle of nowhere.
A lot had happened through winter and early spring. Brent and I were ready to start engines on our journey to the Arctic Ocean. I expected that the exuberance we felt initially would be mellowed somewhat by more pressing concerns as the date for departure neared: family commitments, job demands, dental bills, age realities and the sheer magnitude of such an adventure.
By now, we’d heard many horror stories about what the Dempster Highway can do to tires. We were also cautioned about the monstrous size and density of the fly and mosquitos hoards waiting to prevent us from reaching Tuk in one piece.
Our intention was to start our journey at the Osoyoos Canada/US border crossing on the 49th parallel and to head north to the Tuktoyaktuk at the 69th parallel on the Arctic Ocean: a trans-Canada route.
Besides attempting to be among the first bikers to ride to the Arctic Ocean we had another goal in mind. Canada has a designated Trans-Canada Highway network. It connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and stays in the southern regions of Canada. Canada has a huge presence north of that highway ribbon and we would like to see a route to the Arctic Ocean added to the Trans-Canada system.
Dempster Highway, Yukon
Fast forward through a lot of miles and adventures and we are standing on the Arctic Circle. Of course we took a picture but then jumped back on the bikes and kept going. We have to cross two rivers (the Peel and the McKenzie) to get to Inuvik and the ferries go immediately to whichever shore someone is waiting at. A ramp is lowered into the mud and sand and we ride on. Didn’t take long to cross both rivers but getting through the ruts at both ends was a little tricky.
Stopped for gas at Fort McPherson and got invited to a community party by very friendly people. However, we decided to press on as we only had about 180 kilometres left to get to Inuvik and once there we would be poised for the prize sitting just 150 kilometres away.
As we rolled along the Dempster the scenery had gradually began to change. The tree line became shorter and shorter; mountains that had at first been had been tree covered were now granite-topped monoliths. A real sense of adventure overwhelmed us as the scenery revealed its wondrous form.
After a short while we settled into a steady pace following through long straight sections mixed with sweeping corners. Gradually we began to climb. Our first goal on the Dempster had been to get to Eagle Plains, the only sign of civilization between it and Dawson City, 400 kilometres away.
At Eagle Plains we refueled the bikes, which had behaved perfectly so far. With good weather and replenished fuel and food we set off for Inuvik and that would entail another fuel stop, two short ferry rides, and a high mountain pass where we descended into another world of stunted trees and lush green savannahs.
Fifteen hours in total are what we spent crossing the Dempster and we arrived at Inuvik with elated feelings that we were nearing our goal. After all, we had now covered nearly 4,000 kilometres since leaving home, so what could a mere 140 more on a newly built road have to offer?
This is it. The day we push from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean. The day we have thought about and planned for a year. The weather was fine and I was impressed when we started down the new road from here to Tuk. I thought this would be a very enjoyable ride. I was wrong—almost dead wrong.
About 20 or so kilometres out of Inuvik the once pleasant new road changed its personality back to more like that of the Dempster and then it got a lot worse. Work continues on this “new road” and thus gravel that should be blended into the surface isn’t and remains on many parts of the road in four-inch and higher loose death traps for motorcycles. This crap is mainly on the sides where we should be riding, which forces us into the centre of the road where vehicles are going both ways. Huge double hopper gravel trucks are speeding up and down this new road carrying dirt and gravel to do the best to keep it in good repair. When one of the rigs goes by us and the wind is blowing in our direction we cannot see anything for up to five seconds. I just have to hope that I am on a good track and that no piles of loose gravel or dirt are directly ahead. The worst is when the wind dies or is blowing directly down the road. I counted 10 seconds of complete blindness when this happened.
My near death experience occurred on a corner on this road as a corner rose up just enough so that I could not see the multi-wheel monster coming at me. We met as I rounded the corner with me near the centre of the road trying to avoid the loose gravel in the right lane. The dust blinded me as the truck roared by inches away—and then it happened. I hit unseen loose gravel.
My biked lurched violently about 30 degrees from upright to the right and then about the same to the left and then repeated that maneuver! I righted the bike, the dust cleared and by some miracle I was able to stay upright and slowly continued out of the loose stuff to more stable ground. It all happened so fast; no thinking was involved.
The Dempster trains you to keep your bike on a rigid straight track and thus whatever happens my shoulders keep the tires pointed straight ahead so I can ride out of danger.
After three hours and 155 kilometres on the new road we reached our destination—the Arctic Ocean! We had done it. Of course we had to take a picture or two and I dipped my hand into the sea. I had planned to jump in naked waving a Canadian flag but kept thinking that the expected storm may be coming any moment and we still wanted to get back to Inuvik today on this crazy road.
We talked with fellow adventurers, watched Beluga whales blowing close to shore and then saddled up for the return to Inuvik. We were not the first bikers to take this new road to the Arctic Ocean but we were among them.
Story/photos by Greg Smith and Brent Lines
(This story is a greatly condensed version of the detailed travel and pre-travel blogs shared between Greg Smith and Brent Lines.)
Canadian Biker, Issue #339