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Up the Dempster: Riding Canada’s Western Arctic by David Lisle

Up the Dempster: Riding Canada’s Western Arctic by David Lisle

             To pedal the Dempster Highway is to experience awe, in spades. The vast open spaces conjure wonder; they set the spirit soaring. This is a majestic bike ride, replete with challenges and epic rewards.

The Richardsons -- freshened by a brief cloudburst

             Vix and I spent the whole month of July on the Dempster, riding up and back — nearly two thousand kilometres of rough gravel. We went slow and savoured it. Since we stepped off the cargo freighter that brought us from Australia to San Francisco in spring 2017, we’ve ridden around the north-west of the continent, on many splendid routes. But nothing has been so utterly enchanting, so wild and rugged as the Dempster. Dwelling in those untamed, lonely places really makes life thrum to a higher pitch.

             The road is rarely flat, often steep. The surface, a capricious mix of locally quarried materials, is riddled with potholes and loose. One moment you’re in blinding dust, then a cloud bursts and the road becomes a viscous quagmire; a mucky soup that threatens to swallow you whole and adheres to everything. It’s an understatement to suggest that Dempster mud sticks like shit to a blanket.

Climbing Seven Mile Hill onto Eagle Plains
Vix under a vast sky on the way back to Inuvik -- silhouetted against the Richardson Range
The Blackstone Uplands

             The highway transects a vast, seemingly endless swathe of wilderness — Canada’s northwest arctic — weaving through taiga forest and tundra, crossing the continental divide three times. After parting ways with the Klondike Highway near Dawson City, it climbs out of the Yukon valley to the Tombstone Mountains, then cuts through the glimmering Blackstone Range and runs alongside the Ogilvie River for a time. It then climbs onto the parched Eagle Plains, and glides across the majestic Richardsons before penetrating a small cleft in the mountainside and dropping precipitously into the Mackenzie Delta. 

Evening light on the Ogilvie Mountains

             The people of “Tuk”, an Inuvialuit community of about one thousand hardy souls, are thrilled to now be connected by a permanent road to the outside world. Everyone we met would greet us with a warm “Welcome to Tuk”. Far from being jaded by the sudden influx of outsiders, they greatly appreciated the effort we’d taken to visit their home. The day we arrived the season’s first whale, a beluga, was caught. The village was abuzz. We camped for a few days on the point, watching the sun loop around in the sky, dip precariously close to the sea, but never set. As dictated by tradition, we swam in the Arctic.

             Beyond the mountains, the road wends its way ponderously through tarns and lakes for another 350 km to the sea. The delta is a great repository of biting insects where the serenade of songbirds is the only antidote to the fevered itch induced by their quarry. The Dempster crosses the Peel River near Fort McPherson and the mighty Mackenzie River at Tsiigehtchic, via ferry, or ice bridge after freeze up. It officially finishes at Inuvik; the last 160km to Tuktoyaktuk, only finished this year, is designated as the Mackenzie Valley Highway.

The Mackenzie Delta

             The ride back was pure jam. We knew the choicest spots to camp and streams to draw water. We had a huge cache of food in Eagle Plains. The sun shone often and the road never really went to mud. Nests of birds, whose migratory routes we’d followed up from Vancouver Island, had become home to chicks feasting on insects or being force-fed by their parents. A peregrine falcon saw fit to swoop us, and a wolverine, normally so elusive, briefly presented itself on the road near where we rested. Mosquitoes and black flies — which had chewed us mercilessly on the way up — were almost in abeyance. The wind even blew at our backs for a time.

             Riding a bike along the Dempster Highway is a rarified privilege. It’s not such a rare feat though — dozens of cyclists make the journey every summer, and a hardy few brave the dark, cold winter months. But the Dempster has quite a reputation as a tough route. I would suggest this notoriety is overblown: with some preparation and attention to logistics, riding the Dempster is a real pleasure, especially if you’re not in too much of a hurry and the weather is kind to you.

Tombstone Mountain behind a sheer veil of summer wildfire smoke
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about the author

Dave Lisle presently resides in an old bus on a farm in the hills outside Mullumbimby on Australia’s east coast. He’s recently returned from a few years rambling around North America on his bicycle. In the past he’s studied economics, international relations and politics, and written about climate change and sustainability. He travels whenever his feet itch and writes because it beats yelling at the radio.

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