The Holy Grail of Biking Destinations

Having treated my BMW 700 GS motorcycle to some aggressive new tires and a full service in Edmonton, Alberta, I steered toward Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. North? Yes, a tad different from most of my international trips, which have generally landed me in more tropical locations around the globe. It was about time I rode through more of my own country. And now I had a new road I could not refuse, some 900 km of gravel layered over rock and fickle permafrost to a dead-end at frigid saltwater at Canada’s third coast.

A Northwest Territories tourism ad calls it, “Canada’s Northernmost Public Road”. While it’s true I previously resided for more than 30 years in communities a stone’s throw from the Arctic Ocean in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, this was all about a post-retirement motorcycle pilgrimage to the Arctic Ocean. I’d been monitoring the extension of the Dempster Highway that runs from near Dawson, Yukon, to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The last bridges and helpings of gravel on the final slice (ITH for Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway) were to come after freeze-up in 2017. Heeding the advice of an Inuvik buddy, I penciled in August 2018 as my best bet. And now the ride was on.

A stop for gas and coffee.

In Fort Nelson, British Columbia, I started running into other adventure bikers, a funneling reminiscent of many other “roads less travelled” far from home. I look over the various mounts, bikes with attitude, most of them with appended camping gear and backup gas containers. I mingle, breathing in the camaraderie. Some of these riders have ridden far and wide and are lusting for more. And now we head North to the latest Holy Grail.

Roads that win their way into adventure bikers’ conscious share several attributes: remote, challenging/dangerous, exotic, unique, scenic, often terminating somewhere. “New” is a plus. This new extended public highway linking the Alaska Highway to the Arctic Ocean brushed on most of these: pingos, the midnight sun lighting up the Tombstone and Ogilvie Mountains, indigenous cultures, and wilderness geography transforming from northern coniferous to taiga to tundra. Spectral panoramas pull your eyes up from the mesmerizing road surface, and you are ultimately rewarded with a glimpse of a polar sea most folks will never see. And yes, the road is new, very new.

I zoom right by the Liard Hot Springs, opting for an earlier arrival at my friend Mike’s place in Whitehorse to catch up. Then it is on to Dawson, where I hop the ferry across the Yukon River to overnight in a hostel. More than a decade earlier my Iqaluit buddy Dave and I passed through here on KLR 650’s primed for the Top of the World Highway bound for Tok, Alaska, and beyond.

Next morning, I look at the pot-holed and rain-slickened surface of the Dempster. I check over my bike, take a deep breath, and let out the clutch. As the minutes pile up event-free and the sun breaks through the clouds, the scenery begins to engage me. There are a few trucks and RVs, not much dust, and the surface offers more grip. A couple KLRs pass me, Colorado boys riding a little too fast for me. We meet up again at a patch of road construction and a pilot-car driver herds us through a section of nasty road.

Waiting for the ferry to cross the Mackenzie River. There were reportedly 34 bikers on one ferry crossing of the Mackenzie. These bikers usually travel solo or more often in pairs, sometimes three together. They gather at ferry crossings, gas stations, etc.

Eagle Plains is situated at about the halfway mark to Inuvik and is a good fueling and resting spot. I spend the night there in a comfy bed, not knowing what tribulations lay ahead. Next morning, I stopped at the “Arctic Circle” marker for the obligatory picture, and shortly after am trading the Yukon for the Northwest Territories. Then before long it is the ferries, first the relatively small cable ferry over the Peel River. Another gathering of bikers there, and a few more up the road at Fort McPherson where I top up my gas tank. As I approach the next ferry, the Louise Cardinal over the mighty Mackenzie River, I have flashbacks to my days in nearby Arctic Red River (now Tsiigehtchic) where I managed a Hudson’s Bay Company post. It was a remote fly-in Gwich’in community back then. A casual word with the ferry crew has them rounding a bend and dropping me off at the community instead of heading directly across the big river with the other traffic. The crew advises I have an hour to indulge myself in nostalgia and the loss of my youth.

Back on the road, I have come to learn that “variable” is a key word here: the weather, the road conditions and construction, the traffic, the mosquitos. As Forest Gump might put it, this road to the Great White North is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. You can get blissful gravel where doing the speed limit is a breeze, and then there are other patches (sometimes known as a kilometre of terror) where attempting this will get you a helicopter ride home. There are potholes and ruts and mud that blossom with heavy rains, and, even worse, is the occasional greasy calcium chloride anti-dusting surface. Toward Tuk there is still summer melt into July, including ice crystals trapped in the gravel of the roadbed during construction. My ride in mid-August is problem-free, with only a few tense moments of wrestling the road for traction and direction.

Inuvik is not only a waypoint for me but an opportunity to get together with an old Arctic hand from the past. After a pleasant finale to dip my toe in the Arctic Ocean at Tuk (145 km one-way on mostly firm and level gravel with short breaks for picking a few handfuls of aqpiq berries) I return to Inuvik for a few more days of combined rest and reminiscing. This interlude followed by my resumed journey home to Nova Scotia was an opportunity to reflect on my latest journey. To most bikers, Inuvik and Tuk are great places to ride to, but we know that this roadway was not built for us. Originally it was all about access to Arctic oil and gas (“roads to riches”). Then the federal moratorium put a halt to that, though there remains potential for smaller-scale natural gas development proximate to this new road and for a regional market.
Sovereignty figures large too, as does a national vision of trans-Canada highway infrastructure connecting our huge land-mass to all our three oceans. It is also about tourism development and business opportunities for local indigenous businesses in construction and maintenance. And it’s about lowering the cost of living for Tuk.

Tuk residents, numbering 900, view the road as somewhat of a mixed blessing. Rubberneck, camera-toting tourists are a reality, but now one can drive to Inuvik or even Vancouver. While economic return on investment on the 300-million-dollar Tuk road may be nebulous, Mother Nature is posing some clear threats to the community. Rising sea levels and storm surges together with melting permafrost along the coast are an ongoing concern. Yet there is perseverance in Tuk, a determination to adapt while developing new attractions and opportunities for local people, especially youth.

Summer of 2018 saw a reported 543 bikers board ferries to cross the Peel and Mackenzie, most of whom continued to Tuk. Next year this number could double as the word gets out that the Dempster/ITH riding experience arguably trumps that of Alaska’s Dalton Highway feeding the oil and gas infrastructure at Prudhoe Bay. And, unlike the Dalton, the Dempster/ITH offers unrestricted public access to the Arctic Ocean.

With estimates of more than 7,000 visitors of all stripes in the first year (also projected to double in 2019), new hotels and restaurants are opening, arts and crafts are booming, and tourism outfitting is finding its legs. A new Tourist Visitors Centre is in the wind to replace the cabin at “the Point”. For now, you can check out the traditional sod house and the Catholic Church’s famous coastal vessel Our Lady of Lourdes, snap a picture of the North Warning (Dew Line) site with its radar domes, and gobble down a muskox burger while ogling handicraft offerings. Skip a rock on the Arctic Ocean and reflect that you are at the end of the Trans Canada Trail while chatting with some friendly locals. Nellie Cournoyea, a former Premier of the Northwest Territories now residing in the community, says it took 45 years of ups and downs to get the road to Tuk, and now it will take some time to fully capitalize on the opportunities and benefits.

As I ride back to Nova Scotia, I am proud to share my recent journey with other travelers and to show off my “I made it to Tuk” sticker purchased there, happy to know that the sales proceeds ($8,000 and climbing) are directed to community projects. Some say travel is about the journey and not the destination, but the fact is that they are very much intertwined. Here’s to Tuk!

Larry Simpson first ventured north with the Hudson Bay Company before moving on to Inuit cooperatives and the Government of NWT and Nunavut. He has lived in the western, central, and eastern Arctic for more than 30 years, and three of his children were born there. Happily retired in Nova Scotia, Larry continues to explore the world on two wheels, sometimes with one or another of his sons. He also writes for magazines and, more recently, is just about finished a historical fiction novel based in the Baffin region (Cold Refuge).