Success and Failure on the Dempster

After a relaxed evening camped on the outskirts of Dawson, I get my nylon ghetto packed up and myself into town for the prep errands necessary for the Dempster Highway. Make calls, update website, buy groceries, get package together to leave at Interpretive Center for a passer by to pick up and drop off at Eagle Plains. Out of town by 3:30 pm… Pedal the 25 miles back to the Dempster I had ridden yesterday.

About 5 miles from the Dempster, a monstrous thunder storm ensues, dropping copious amounts of rain along with it. At the Dempster junction, there is the Klondike River Lodge, but it has unfortunately burned down this last winter. I figure it will at least serve me to stand under the fuel pump overhangs and dry off a bit.  The storm rages on, and a French-Canadian Man pulls up in a ragged truck, just to make sure I am not in peril. I assure him I am fine and away he goes, heading south.  The storm continues to increase it’s fury, and I find myself gaining courage in investigating the seemingly abandoned trailers across the compound. The trailers are empty, dry, and warm. But I am apprehensive about invading someone else’s space even if they are clearly not around. So I stick to the porch… and drink up some of my precious beer supply-next beer, Inuvik.

About 8:00 pm, the storm passes over and I decide to roll on down the Dempster a bit and find my home for the evening. An old gravel pit will do just fine, and I camp.

The following morning is glorious.. I feel so lucky to be here now. It is early in the season and I am positive I am the first and only cyclist on the Dempster this year.  I pedal across the North Klondike River and dive into the Dempster.  Rolling through the upper Yukon’s boreal forests and into the heart of the Tombstone Mountains, I stop at the trailhead for Grizzly Lake, where I stash a backpack I have been carrying all this time in order to make a 2 or 3 day trip into the wilderness.  I had planned on doing this now in fact, but there is way too much snow too contemplate. Besides, the trail has been closed due to flooding. I hope this is not an omen of things to come. So, for now, I stash the pack in hopes of hiking in to Grizzly Lake on the way back from Inuvik.

On down the road, I stop at a fine little stream and strip down for a wash. Suddenly, an unexpected tour bus rolls past, slowly at first, I am standing there naked and wet and grinning and waving. The driver accelerates quickly in order to avert his touron’s eyes from the crazy, blasphemous Mountain Man, who is grinning shamelessly at them.

I pedal most of the steep climb of North Fork Pass to the Tombstone Mountain Overlook. At 4800′, it is the Dempster’s highest summit. I camp here due to it’s spectacular views and shoot a time-lapse of an approaching storm, moving over Tombstone Mountain and Mt Monolith.

I awake the 2nd morning to clear skies, but that changes very quickly. However, the weather manages to hold for several more hours, and I am able to pedal on, unmolested by the rain. Over the last bit of the summit, and crossing the Continental Divide, I am thrown into a world of fairytale peaks surrounded by tundra.

The Dempster Highway is the northern most road in Canada, and one of the 2 northern most roads in North America, the other, being the Haul Road (Dalton Highway) in Alaska. Like the Haul Road, the Dempster also crosses the Arctic Circle and additionally crosses and enters the largest river delta in Canada, home to the 10th largest river in the world and the third largest in the western Hemisphere: The McKenzie River. It ends at the community of Inuvik, Canada’s northern most village accessible by vehicular land travel. It is a dirt and gravel road that traverses 500 miles, one way, some of the most intense wilderness one can encounter.

Eventually, I pass through a small,yet majestic little range called the Taiga Ranges, a beautiful set of high alpine mountains, with the Dempster passing through it’s boreal forests, river valley’s, and above timberline area’s, where Marmots and Collared Pika’s chirp as I wheel past. It is stung scenery and I climb the 2nd pass of the Dempster, Windy Summit, at 3500′, and down it’s back side for a ride of many miles through more forest and unbeatable mountain scenery.  The Ogre glides silently northward, as if a giant magnet is pulling us both, onward and into the Arctic.  I see a moose, then another. Then a Blackie, then a Hare. Then I spy a Golden Eagle, a first for me. Ptarmigan’s are squawking at me, no, singing to me as I move into their turf. I see wolf tracks, then tracks of the moose it is following.

It begins to rain, briefly, but stoutly, and after 76 dirt road miles today, I pull into Engineer Creek Campground which is closed, and I utilize it’s cooking shelter to dry off, cook supper, and get re organized. Fantastic Dolomite cliffs festoon the nearby ridge, known locally as Sapper’s Hill. I find out that the road up ahead is washed out and closed. My only hope is that a bicycle and it’s operator might find a place to wiggle past said washout, and pedal dance onward.  At the moment, I am just about one quarter of the way to Inuvik; if I can keep up the pace, I’ll have made the trip in 8 days. Then there’s the return trip.  Backtracking has always been tough for me and I’m sure that the return trip to Dawson of 500 miles will be no less challenging. Ultra long distant travel via bicycle has it’s ups and downs like anything. The biggest struggle for me, at times, is simply the mental willpower to keep going, when you haven’t had a decent meal in 4 days and your stock is low, everything you own to wear is filthy and your body stinks like hell and you are sore everywhere, especially the backside. Did I mention the rain? Everything is soaked, including your tent and sleeping bag, not to mention you. But I love it, really. I love being in these places that it affords. It is an experience similar to that of multi day big wall climbing, where, one is immersed into the vertical realm for days on end, complete with it’s discomforts. This is no different, except that there is no fear factor, really, not when compared to scaling the big stones.

I decide to sleep in the abandoned campgrounds’ screened in cooking hut, and investigate the road damage in the morning.

I awake, and feel as though I have had a stay at the Hilton, and have a leisurely breakfast and pack up the Ogre in a nice, dry, state. However, 2 1/2 miles up the road, the entire trip changes course. After crossing the Ogilvie River, and passing the “Road Closed” signs, I am greeted by a man in a pickup, who pulls up next to me.

“Can’t You read?”.

Yes Sir! I CAN read, Yep!

“Can Ya’ swim?”.

Uh, Yessir, I can swim too!

“Well, that’s what You’ll be doin’ on up ahead, cuz The Ogilvie is runnin’ across the road now. I can’t let You pass on till the water drops and we can do repairs. I might be later today, but it might not be. Best you hole up back at that campground and settle in. I’ll let you know when the road is open”.

He was very firm on this and was not about to let me pass, so I turn tail back to the cook hut and here I now sit, writing and waiting. Even if the road were open, I would be cutting it very close on food, as I do not believe my food package ever made it out of Dawson, since no one is heading this way due to the washout and it being seriously early season. In fact, the river’s are half froze over still, and the lakes are too.  If the road does not open by tomorrow morning, I will have no choice but to high tail it back to Dawson, get re grouped, and head for Alaska.  This is a major disappointment for me as I want to see this Canadian Arctic soo badly…

Sometime later, a pickup with 4 nice folks from Idaho drop in and inform me that the road crew has told them that the road will be closed for at least 2 or 3 more days. I must turn back. The only question is how…Even though my short stint with this part of the Yukon has been thwarted, I am thrilled to have seen even a little of it. I have seen enough to know just how glorious it truly is and I shall return. I toss my bike into the back of their truck, and what took me 3 days to pedal, flies by at warp speed and I am deposited back into the land of Robert Service and Jack London; Good ‘ol Dawson City.  I drop by the Interpretive Center, and there is my food box, still waiting.

Off to Alaska…

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11 thoughts on “Success and Failure on the Dempster

  1. Linus,
    First off great writing.
    I feel as though I’m sitting next to you soaking in the sights and sounds but without all the hard work.
    Bummer that the road was closed but I guess that might serve as a little carrot to get you back there someday.
    If you ever have a chance I would really like to know about what type of lenses you are using with the 60D.
    Safe travels,
    Lee

    • Hey Lee.. Thanks for the kind words. The Dempster is a magical place that I do in fact hope to return to. As far as the 60D is concerned… well, it’s kind of tough on me. I use a 24-105 L series lens, but on a cropped sensor camera, it is not very wide, as the 24-105 is really the kit lens for the 5D. It is however an excellent lens. For really wide stuff, I carry a sigma 10mm. It’s a fisheye essentially, but with careful use and a little photoshop magic, you can limit the amount of vertical distortion it exhibits. I’m going to be looking into a sigma tele-zoom as an alternative to the 24-105 Canon. I really like the Sigma stuff, especially the F2.8, and 9 diaphram variety. It is as sharp as most L lenses and has a beautiful boka.. cheaper too!

  2. You just being there looks like success to me.

    Still listening my way through that 12 gig of music you left me. When i hear “I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream – I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream; you, of course, are the subject.

    Next year; the Altiplano.

  3. Thought I would let you know I am following along with your journal. Sorry to hear you had to turn back, but sitting and waiting for a few day s would have been tough, even if you had the provisions. Keep up the great photos and writing.
    Don Bybee

    • Thanks for reading Don! If I had the provisions, I probably would have waited for a couple of days perhaps.
      Anyhow, I’m back in Dawson, and will be heading out for Chicken and Tok this afternoon.. See Ya on the Web!

      L

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