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  #1  
Old 31 Jul 2009
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The Dempster Highway (Canada) Report

Hi There,
I completed the Dempster Hwy on July 27th 2008, reaching Inuvik at 2200hrs, as the initial leg of my PanAmerican Adventure next year. It was a fantastic adventure however was dangerous…at times extremely. I’m more than happy to give you information about the route so as you may better make a decision on whether or not to go. In my personal opinion, the Dempster should not be attempted without an Enduro or MX motorbike, and some degree of Off-Road riding. Although the highway can be a very clean gravel road, deteriorating weather conditions turn this route into absolute HELL. I prepared this report for HU a while ago but forgot to upload it. I had perfect cold weather the day up and cold rain/hell the way back down. Email for anything!!

Road Surface:
The Dempster Hwy can generally be broken into two sections at the Arctic Circle, where a vast majority of tourists (mostly in RVs) turn back South. North of the circle is generally only commuted by locals (Fort McPherson/Tsillis…/Inuvik) and adventurers trying to reach the Northernmost point in Canada (by road). Due to the weight and sheer number of the RVs and such, the road surface is riddled with potholes. However, these are NOT city potholes…because of the suspension, anytime the wheels it a hole in the road it starts to “bounces” which literally creates lines of a series of progressively larger potholes that generally span about 3-5m but there are longer ones and the longer the stretch, the larger and deeper the holes will get. These “strips” are very frequent up to the circle.
The northern section is generally in better condition however the route through the Richardson Mtns. does contain steep grades and blind tight corners. After the Richardson’s the road levels and straightens out all the way to Inuvik. There are two ferries to use which are open early morning to about midnight. There is also construction crews along the entire route resurfacing the road…this means they use a grader to spread a new layer of gravel mix to fill any holes; this fresh surface can be slick. Also, larger crews are found at major problem points, like where the road as recently washed out. The road can washout quite frequently during the thaw and throughout the summer months (3 occurred 4 days before I went up). The information center in Whitehorse and the Dempster Hwy “Center” in Dawson City will provide road conditions and significant events.

Extremely important to understand the Dempster has two faces or moods…everything detailed above are under good weather conditions; more precisely, under DRY conditions. Be well advised, the Dempster Hwy is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS and seriously life-threatening under WET conditions…email for accident stories (too many!). Under wet conditions the road surface becomes extremely slippery especially where the grader has passed. Also, not visible under dry conditions, there are three depressions in the surface along the entire road where the tires are constantly passing (left, middle, right…both directions share the middle line unless passing)…these fill with water creating three 3” deep pools about 736km long…the potholes are all in there too. Larger pools of water can form and can be deep in addition to the washouts mentioned above. Do not travel this hwy under wet conditions with road tyres…70% off-road tyres minimum.

Weather
This is the most important aspect governing any motorbike travel along the Dempster. Current and forecasted weather should be constantly verified and is available at centers in WH and DC. Although forecasts are usually generally precise for the area, all bets are off when in the Richardson’s. This area is subject to unpredictable weather and rain/fog is often found as you exit the mountain range when heading north. Also, there are some strong crosswinds when traveling parallel to the Richardson range just before entering it.
Although definitely warmer than winter, areas this far North do not experience summer. The temperature in these areas are as predictable as the rain, and one must be prepared to ride in temperatures as low as freezing…especially in the mornings and evenings. However, that being said, temperatures can just as easily reach 20-25C during the day…it is very erratic (2 wks of 20C+, and then I arrived, and froze from Whatson Lake, North and back…8 days of max. 8-10C…all the rivers/creeks along the Dempster still had ice on their banks). Carry Cold Weather Riding Gear!!

Traffic
As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of tourists going up to the Arctic Circle in vans, trucks, and RVs. Between the Arctic Circle and Fort McPherson, traffic becomes extremely sparse as its mostly only vehicles heading to the top. Lorries are used to supply the towns with products and the construction crews with gravel, and can be found throughout the Dempster. Approaching and between the towns there are more local vehicles and RCMP vehicles are present in and around the towns.
Under dry conditions, 100-120km/h can easily and safely be maintained even through the Richardson’s however there are marked signs indicating upcoming curves and suggested speeds throughout the Richardson’s and Ogilvy’s…Pay Attention!! Although you can travel faster through these curves, be aware that there is a curve coming and use caution.
Under HELL (wet) conditions, 100-120km/h can still be maintained however it is Extremely Dangerous, especially through the mountains. One should be very well advised to travel under these conditions only at a comfortable speed…Do Not Rush!
It is also very important to slow when passing vehicles stopped along the road and to stop for anyone asking for or appearing to require assistance…remember you may brake down as well!

Special Notes
Motorbike breakdowns do occur on this route with punctures being the main problem so be prepared with spare tubes and patch kits; and do not forget a pump and tire levers. When traveling behind vehicles, rocks do come up and can be very destructive, therefore headlight, radiator and vital components should be protected (I lost my entire headlamp…smashed). Also, when the road surface is wet, mud does slowly (sometimes rapidly) accumulate on the engine and does tend to clog the radiator...watch your engine temperature and be aware that air cooled engines are not properly cooled when covered in mud; mud is actually an extremely efficient heat insulator.
Bugs do get larger the further North one travels. Starting at about the territories boundary, the mozzies are the size of quarters…literally!
There is a hotel at the halfway mark (Eagle Plains) and in the northern towns. There are a few campgrounds along the route but they are well spread out. Backcountry camping is allowed however there are several problems with this option; to protect the road and the permafrost, the road surface is 3m above the ground and the banks are steep and loose…the other problem is the wildlife; bear in this area include Grizzly and Kodiak Grizzly in addition to the black and are high in population…wildlife viewing tours are present everyday in the Ogilvy’s. In 2007, a viewing group found a Polar Bear on the Dempster!!!
Firearms are permitted for protection against attacking wildlife, however hunting required permits and permission from first nation authorities (I brought my 300 riffle)
Everything is unbelievably expensive so have money…banks only in Inuvik; I think. (Gas: 1.85CAD/Ltr, Poutine: 11CAD on my trip).
The sun does not completely set starting at the Territories boundary however everywhere north of the Circle experiences 24hr Daylight. The sun literally goes round and round in the sky. Although seemingly unimportant, the 24 daylight does have pronounced effects on the mind and consequently the body. In addition, the Arctic itself is home to very different and strong magnetic fields. (I left Inuvik the day after arriving…the stress was too much and I literally felt the need to get out of the Arctic)
Travel time to complete one direction of the stretch is a minimum 1 solid day. I left Tombstone (km 79) at 0900hrs and arrived in Inuvik at 2200hrs...picture stops are plentiful throughout and many breaks are required to revive your butt as the vibrations are quite intense. However it is important to remember that due to the 24hr sun, one could ride all night and could therefore complete both North and South runs within 24hrs. An early start is required as the ferries stop at midnight...you must reach the Southern ferry before midnight or you will be stuck in the Arctic. Also, the distance between the ferries is quite significant (at least 1hr), DO NOT get trapped between them...you will be on your own with only the bears until morning (about 0700hrs). I was going to head right back south after dinner but I would have never made it to the second ferry...so spent the night (day) with the locals, who apparently don't sleep.
Enjoy your journeys.

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  #2  
Old 31 Jul 2009
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Sounds like you write for the American govt, beware of everything!!! Seriously though, not being critical, but doing 100-120kph on wet dirt I would expect things to be hazardous.

I did 6000kms in the past two weeks in the maritimes doing no more than 85 kph and it was fast enough. How do you feel about the Trans-Labrador in the rain/wind?
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  #3  
Old 31 Jul 2009
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Alaskan Roads.....Dempster Hwy

I seem to remember that another problem of the mud is the clogging of the front wheel/tire and eventually, after it has scored off thousands of miles of rubber, your front wheel stops. Three bikes at the Yukon River settlement toppled over after fuelling up.

Oh and the "hard-shoulder" being as soft as porridge! Stop to take a photo and you drop-off the road.
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Old 31 Jul 2009
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Yea, I guess it's a bit stern but it is well merited. Before going up, the visitor's center people in Dawson warned me that 3 days earlier, a group of riders encountered a storm and the injured had to be HeliVac'd out and the bikes trucked out. This was one of many stories I got before heading North... and then I encountered two motorbike accidents and one flipped pickup enroute. One poor guy on his GS wiped out at this notorious dip in the road (plumits into the valley then goes right back up...steep) and ended up slaming into a signpost off the 3m side, only to have his bike follow him through... 2 broken ribs and back south...this happened 1 hour before I reached the dip on my way back, the rain/road was scary.


I did the Trans-Labrador Highway all the way to Goose Bay from Montreal in the early spring of the same year...I went to get ready for the Dempster. It was mid May and very cold...and wet...again. I left Lab City as the sun was setting to reach Churchill and hit rain...the road was just as bad as the Dempster in the rain...without the hills. The only cop on the road stopped me for being an idiot, but let me press on.


Actually, Quebec's Hwy 389 from Baie-Comeau to the Lab Border was definetely my favorite part...maybe because it was sunny on that stretch. But the curves and scenery was fantastic. I was heading back up there this May but there was still snow on the Hwy itself. Maybe next spring...there is another Quebec Hwy that goes to the James Bay then to the center of the province which is suppossed to be just as good.
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  #5  
Old 1 Aug 2009
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NicholasBellefontaine View Post
Yea, I guess it's a bit stern but it is well merited. Before going up, the visitor's center people in Dawson warned me that 3 days earlier, a group of riders encountered a storm and the injured had to be HeliVac'd out and the bikes trucked out.
I met this group a week or so later crossing the border into the States (at least, I hope it's not too common for riders to require medivac off the Dempster). They were riding big, heavily-laden GS's with street-oriented tires, and they described the guy who wiped out as having been going far too fast for conditions. These might be important clues.

On the other hand, they also described conditions as being ridiculously slick and dangerous---far worse than the usual northern clay and salt mixture, which is (in my estimation) plenty bad enough. They said this was due to the unexpected weather in combination with some recent roadwork---three inches of clay freshly spread, then rained on before it got compacted---and that this would not be normal for the Dempster.

They were quite shaken, and had indeed had had their bikes trucked through the bad section following their friend being medivac-ed with a broken back. If any of that group is present, maybe they'll chime in (I'm the KLR rider who led you through the back roads after the border crossing). I'm still planning to make it up the Dempster at some point, and the question of whether those conditions are normal or extraordinary has some bearing.

Enjoy,

Mark
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Old 1 Aug 2009
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Small World!!

Apparently last year's summer was the worse in decades up in that area.

I hit 3 km of that fresh stuff in the rain as well...i think road resurfacing is fairly common.
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Old 16 Aug 2009
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thanks for the tips - i'm about to head that direction from texas in 2 days and though i've read a ton about traveling up the dempster, it seems that the more prepared, the better.

glad you made it through okay!
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Old 16 Aug 2009
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Originally Posted by URALiNEED View Post
thanks for the tips - i'm about to head that direction from texas in 2 days and though i've read a ton about traveling up the dempster, it seems that the more prepared, the better.

glad you made it through okay!
Being on a Ural, have you considered swapping tyres to Heidenau K37s?

They are the right size and weight rating for the Ural and, having seen them in the flesh, do give you loads more grip in loose conditions, whilst being entirely road legal. They also last longer on the pusher (I get about 3000 miles from my Russian tyre):

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Old 16 Aug 2009
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Originally Posted by Warthog View Post
Being on a Ural, have you considered swapping tyres to Heidenau K37s?

They are the right size and weight rating for the Ural and, having seen them in the flesh, do give you loads more grip in loose conditions, whilst being entirely road legal. They also last longer on the pusher (I get about 3000 miles from my Russian tyre):

funny you should mention that - i just got off the phone with a dealer who is going to send me one (just for my pusher) to coincide when i get to whitehorse... good advice!
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Old 16 Aug 2009
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Originally Posted by URALiNEED View Post
funny you should mention that - i just got off the phone with a dealer who is going to send me one (just for my pusher) to coincide when i get to whitehorse... good advice!
I'll be interested to see what you think as these are tyres I would ultimately like to get. However, although one is cheap, 3 is less so, so I like first hand accounts!!

Sorry to N.B-F for my initial thread hijack!

Back to Dempster, Folks, and let not one of my posts stand in your way!!
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Old 21 Sep 2009
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I've done this ride twice, the last time this summer with my wife 2 up. It rained but its all about the tires and paying attention. Every problem I have seen people have is a direct result of not having knobbies or going too fast. It's a fantastic ride.
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Old 22 Sep 2009
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Two-up, Luggage & in the Rain...what a trooper!

I agree that knobblies are required...I had new TKCs front and back.

Met a young guy heading north on my way north, at the circle actually, and he was on a DR with mildly aggressive street tires. He made it to Inuvik the same night I did but the weather was spectacular that day. It was the next day that the rain set in and he hadn't come back down.

...he had a puncture kit but no air pump of any kind...funny realization being at the Arctic Circle and all.
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