I have been blessed with the opportunity to drive or ride some of the world’s great roads; the Pacific Coast Highway, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, Colorado’s Peak to Peak Highway. They have all been spectacular and all are indelibly etched in memory. The difference between those roads and the Dempster Highway is that I never felt any of the others were making a sport of kicking my ass. Even the Tail of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, with its 318 turns in 11 miles and its “tree of shame” festooned with shattered motorcycle parts, is a walk in the park compared to this gravel hosebeast.
The first 100 kilometers were smooth sailing over dry hardpack. In fact, I found myself needing to slow down in order to conserve fuel to make it to the next services 350 kilometers away.
“This is a piece of cake,” I thought to myself. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
Then I hit the potholes. Then the mist and fog start. Then, while ascending the Ogilvie Mountain Range the mist develops in to a full-fledged downpour with fat drops that turns the road surface in to a sludgy mess the consistency of porridge with grape sized stones thrown in for good measure. Factor in the arctic wind and the conditions are downright awful.
Just when I think it’s think it’s as bad as it’s going to get, then comes the heavy equipment. Massive graders, saddled with the sishyphean task of maintaining the road surface, leave foot tall berms of rocky muck in the center of the road. The only way to get around these yellow monsters is to ride the motorcycle through the gravelly gunk into the left hand lane, causing the bike to yaw and slide in nerve-racking and deeply unsettling ways.
Despite all of this, it is awesome.
Started in 1959 and completed over a period of 20 years, the Dempster crosses a region called Beringia, over mountain ranges, through valleys and past moraines formed by millions of years of advancing and retreating glaciers. Huge piles of sand and gravel, deposited by retreating glaciers, rise from the valley floor. The road follows the Northern Yukon River valley for a time and crosses the ancestral lands of the Hän, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit peoples. When not white-knuckling it though a mud patch, the views are phenomenal.
So now here I am sitting in the Inn at Eagle Plains, 40 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, with 350 kilometers more yet to go before reaching Inuvik. Then I must turn around and drive back down this hellacious and beautiful road.
I’m looking forward to it.