Ken's Arctic Adventure

For avid riders, a journey using all your vacation time is usually a great challenge. Not just the journey but the scheming, conniving, bartering, etc, one must do before your partner in life finally relents and agrees to let you go.

Before getting into the trip itself, I’d like to share a sense of the experience. First, the vastness of the arctic terrain and the sense of a solitary experience are without equal in my experience. It’s just you and your bike. This trip was all about being self-sufficient, depending on me and on my bike. The environment was hostile, unrelenting and without the slightest wiggle room for error. My sat phone was my only safety net. And yet, the trip itself was comfort in that it provided all the challenge and payback that I could have possibly built into a short period of time. And the few other riders I met, whether for a meal even for only a few minutes, reassured me that if I needed help, they’d be there. It was a true band of brothers, brothers of the road.

The trip began in Anchorage, to Fairbanks, then on to Tok, Alaska, a real out of the way place. Traveling to Tok I took a less traveled road, the Richardson Highway and then the Tok Cutoff Motorcyclists Gather 
Gathering for Chow Highway, a large portion of which follows the Alaskan Pipe Line. It was a very scenic highway with an abundance of wildlife and only seven other vehicles during a five hour ride. I spent the night at a lodge just south of Tok, owned by a couple who moved there from Syracuse in 1980. The next morning I headed off to Dawson City, Yukon, Canada through Chicken, Alaska, on the Top of the World Highway.

For the most part the roads were decent, the scenery was spectacular and the village of Chicken was fun. From Chicken to The Top of the World Highway was fabulous. It truly was the top of the world. In some places I was able to see the road snaking its way over the mountain right to the horizon.

From the border to the ferry crossing, you see great scenery and the Klondike River winding its way past Dawson. There is no charge for the ferry, however, if you’re unlucky and hit it wrong, there could be a wait.

Dawson City is a town loaded with history. The outside of the buildings look the same as they did during the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. During that period Dawson's population was between 30,000 and 50,000 people. Today there are fewer than 1,600 residents.

The Dawson Downtown Hotel is biker friendly, a very BMW friendly hotel. The owner is a rider checked out the weather for my trip up the Dempster Highway. He delivered the forecast to me with his best wishes for a safe trip, and a warning. "Even though the weather looks good, the road can be treacherous, the weather can change in a matter of moments."

When I returned to the Downtown Hotel 5 days later from Inuvik above the Arctic Circle. I returned there a day ahead of the well-known Dust to Dawson annual ride that goes from Anchorage to Dawson held each year with an estimated 200 bikes (mostly dual sports) arriving in town. It is estimated that, of the 200 bikers attending this event, less than 5% will travel the Dempster Highway. Gives one pause for thought.

The famous Dempster Highway is the only road north from Dawson. It’s approximately 500 miles to Inuvik, North West Territory, and is as far as one can drive. The highway is gravel, pot holes and, if it rain, is the slickest mud. Otherwise, it’s fun. The thickness of the gravel pad ranges from 4 feet up to 8 feet in some places. Without the pad, the permafrost would melt and the road would sink into the ground. It is one of the most desolate roads I’ve ever traveled, with only one place to get food/fuel/lodging. There are many emergency airstrips built right on the road.

The halfway point is Eagle Plains; far enough from the last fuel stop so you have to carry extra fuel or invest in a GS Adventure. Just as one can never be certain about the weather, likewise you can't be certain about the road conditions, I spent a night at Eagle Plains both going to and coming from Inuvik. While the roads were good and I didn’t hit rain and mud until leaving Eagle Plains heading back to Dawson, I was happy to get off the bike in Eagle.

I met a few riders who tried to push all the way and they all ended up camping uncomfortably somewhere along the way. I met all of them at the junction where the Dempster Highway begins and we shared our experiences. The Dempster scenery was absolutely spectacular. The wildlife was plentiful, with multiple spottings of moose, black bear, and a healthy grizzly who ran along beside me for about 20 yards, arctic fox, coyote and numerous varieties of birds.

At the north end of the Dempster, after crossing both the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers, lies Inuvik. It is on the East Channel of the Mackenzie River Delta.

I returned to Eagle Plains June 21, the day of Summer Solstice. There was an Inuit celebration that lasted 24 hours directly across the street from the hotel. I enjoyed chatting with the Inuit people and enjoying their food, a great meal that featured moose, caribou and arctic char, cooked over an open fire. There was a band and lively dancers. At midnight, a 10k race started. An armed escort person in a truck led the race. There had been reports of a couple of grizzlies on the track. Before they took off. I asked "What happens to stragglers?" Answer was "They're on their own. I'm just clearing the trail. Besides, up here you don't have to be the fastest, you just don’t want to be the slowest."

The return trip, from Eagle Plains to Dawson, was what all the horror stories are about. The rain hit and the mud was the slickest I’ve seen. There was an outdoor pressure washer at the end of the road. It took $15 of pressure washing to get the bike clean (the mud was almost 1" thick). Then there was me. Another rider offered to hose me off and I let him.

Then I was back on the "roads more traveled."

I hope you enjoyed sharing my arctic journey. If you are planning a trip to Alaska and are interested in my maps and waypoints drop a line to Art and Lyn.

I have already started softening up my wife for my next Adventure.

—Ken