Cycling The Dempster Highway: Mossies, Pingos & Windstorms
Sime Baricevic is the Content Creator on the 2022 North American Epic. He sends this report from Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory.
“The Point. That’s where you need to take pictures,”said Steven, the local guy, as our convoy of trucks full of riders stretched across Tuktoyaktuk, semi-lost. It had been only about 48 hours since our staff and riders got together in Inuvik with the intention of starting the 2022 TDA North American Epic. Mostly still strangers, by the time we reached Tuktoyaktuk, a slow social cohesion was beginning to build. Upon arrival at the Arctic Ocean, the camaraderie was quite visible through the camera’s viewfinder, although one might easily assume this to be the end of the road, rather than the start. For our 29 riders, this was only the beginning of the long way down the continent. Five and a half months spinning over permafrost, tundra, mountains, deserts… with one major goal in mind – reaching sunny and warm Panama City.
It is easy to give a city close to equator an attribute like sunny but no one would dare to do the same for the town of Tuktoyaktuk, the northern-most place in Canada accessible by road. It is located in the Arctic Circle, where the delta of the mighty Mackenzie River connects with the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. As we stood there, in the scorching 30+ degree Celsius heat, swarmed by mosquitos, you could only be frustrated by such bad representation of the Arctic in the media as this ‘forever cold’ place. We were also here in July, the time of the year when the sun never sets but just keeps circling around like a curious observer.
The Arctic sun certainly didn’t help our jet lagged riders get an adequate amount of sleep before the big day. Oh, and what a day it was going to be. At 6AM the thermometer was already closing in on 25 degrees, the sun was pretty high up in the sky and the clouds of mosquitos were forcing some riders to start pedalling sooner than they intended. “It’s all part of the adventure”, said one rider while pulling mosquitos out of their peanut butter sandwich. You could only admire such positivity after a bad night’s sleep and the immense task that lay ahead. Over 150 kilometres of gravel road, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway was a final addition to the legendary Dempster Highway and we were going to cross it in one day, with hopes to reach Inuvik before sunset, pun intended!
The road seemed endless, stretching over the permafrost landscape. Freshwater lakes were everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, sometimes guarded by Pingos, these distinctive mounds of dirt and rock that resemble mini volcanic hills. The scenery was out of this world and the riders were enjoying it. Nothing but smiles and excitement as their still fresh, relaxed leg muscles pushed their bicycles across this vast stretch of beauty.
It was going to be a long day, possibly the longest one on the whole tour. With no place to stop and camp, we had no option but to reach Inuvik. Baptized by the fire of the Arctic sunlight, without a single tree to provide shade, it soon became obvious that water would be in high demand. Some riders were overheating, some ran out of water very quickly, and our staff were constantly moving up and down the highway trying to supply everyone with enough water to stay hydrated. A tough day for sure, but in the end, a very successful one as we all reached Inuvik right before dinner time.
The next day we woke up with very different weather. You could almost say it was a bit cold. Fog was slowly lifting over our camp stationed next to the Mackenzie River. Riders embarked on another day’s cycling, dressed in long sleeves, with hopes that they warm up in the process. The landscape looked nothing like the day before. Suddenly we were surrounded by these short trees and endless tundra. Water would most likely not be a problem today, but boredom might, as the road stretched straight out for miles on end.
We were continuing South to the town of Tsiigehtchic, situated at the end of the Arctic Red River, where its massive amounts of water spill into the MacKenzie River. We were so used to the concept of south meaning “down”, that it was hard to comprehend that MacKenzie is flowing “up” or north. “Very easy, very enjoyable”, one rider described day two. Even though it was still a long 130 km day, the weather made it much easier than day one.
We received a very warm welcome from the Gwich’in community in Tsiigehtchic that afternoon. A young guy named Jared spoke about their community and the ways some of them are trying to preserve their way of living, threatened by the ever expanding globalization that reaches in even the most remote places like this one. Our camp was sited on the top of a hill overlooking the town and the two massive rivers. The only way to cross over the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers is by ferry. This town is only accessible in summer and winter – summer by ferry and winter by ice roads the locals build every year. In the spring and fall, massive chunks of ice flow down both rivers, sometimes resulting in jams that block the water from flowing downstream and raising water levels by up to 100 metres.
It was hard to leave Tsiigehtchic the next morning, and many riders expressed regret at not taking a rest day here. But it was too soon as there was still a lot of riding to do and the Dempster Highway was calling. With still some 800 km of gravel left to cover, we had no time to waste.
The next place we were going to spend the night was a camp named Nitainlaii, right next to small town of Fort McPherson. The landscape was forever changing, once again different from the day before. The road was slowly turning orange, almost red, as a result of all the iron brought down from the mountains via the Arctic Red River and other streams. It was a short day, less than a 100 km ride and the riders appreciated that, most of them completing the day, some even stopping for coffee in Fort McPearson on their way to camp. Refreshing showers in the camp were welcomed as many cyclists just wanted to wash the dusty Dempster’s red dirt off their bodies and refresh themselves for the hard day of climbing that followed.
Day 4 ,with over 2000 m of climbing was not going to be easy but most riders were excited about crossing the border from the Northwest Territories into the Yukon. While staff were fighting the logistics battle of sourcing water in Fort McPearson, riders were booking it uphill, trying to find the best spot with the nicest views. Once again, the landscape was altered and suddenly this flat red road started turning into steep climbs with a first glimpse of the distant mountains. You could see the Dempster Highway far in the distance, reaching over the mountains and hills and the fastest riders way in front looked like tiny specs on it. We stopped at a wild bush camp we named Snowball Camp, not the place we originally planned to stay but a good alternative.
The original plan was to stay in Rock River camp, some 10 kilometres further down the road but Rock River seemed like the mosquito capital of the world! So we chose the wild camp on a higher point instead. Completely open, with a constant breeze that kept the mosquitoes, ‘Canadian national birds’ away. The breeze was very welcomed, but it looked like it was slowly starting to take shape of a more intense wind.
A little after midnight, the riders and staff were already in a deep sleep, the tents rustling in the constant wind, when suddenly there was a big thump! Our kitchen awning had smashed against one of our trucks, while another one flew across the highway, crashing into the bush 200 m away. Everyone got up, trying to peg their tents to keep them from flying away. The wind was reaching hurricane proportions and clouds were rolling angrily towards us from the nearby mountains. With no place to hide, no phone reception and no help anywhere close by, we could only hope that this was the worst of it. As we secured our tents as best as we could and collected our broken awnings, everyone tried to go back to sleep. Suddenly the wind stopped, almost like someone had flicked a switch, taking away even the hint of a breeze.
No breeze meant, you guessed it – mosquitos! There were many, many of them around us as we prepared to depart towards Eagle Plains for our first rest day. This was another shorter day, but a very special one. We were leaving behind the Arctic as the riders crossed the Arctic Circle around the day’s halfway point. There was lots of climbing again, but the thoughts of a real bed, a shower and a restaurant meal in the Eagle Plains Hotel gave the riders the needed energy to keep pushing onwards.
The Eagle Plains Hotel, described as an oasis in the wilderness, is exactly that. Located around a third of the way from Dawson City to Inuvik, with no other facility anywhere nearby, it serves as a rest spot for many travellers and workers, offering fuel, mechanics, a warm bed, food, and most importantly, hot showers. The riders definitely needed it, as they arrived covered in red dirt, mostly as a result of trucks passing them on the road. The traffic was becoming busier as we rapidly approached the paved Klondike Highway and one vehicle per hour was suddenly one vehicle every fifteen minutes.
Rest days are always welcomed on long tours like this one. Camping and long days of riding definitely make people appreciate the things we take for granted in our everyday life – a warm shower, a comfortable bed, even the roof over our heads. The first portion may now be over, but the North American Epic has just begun. Dawson City awaits and the Dempster Highway is both our main obstacle and our only path.
North American Epic
Cycling from the Arctic Ocean to Panama City will take you through 9 countries and countless variations in landscape, culture, language, cuisine and...