September 23, 2009

Riding to the Arctic Circle (part 3)


Not very far down the Dempster highway is a campground, and the 'Dempster Interpretive Center'.   I had only just arrived on the highway, but here was a stop with picnic tables, a rare luxury.  The lady running the interpretive center was rounding up people for a guided nature walk.  A naturalist was going to tell them about the local plants.   I passed, as I just wanted to sit, have some coffee, have something to eat and get psyched for the ride.  The interpretive center lady lends me a guide book on the highway.  She says I can bring it back on the way back, but it does not take long to read, so I return it right away.
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When I travel on back roads or remote areas, I always carry some food with me.  Motels are scarce, and don't always have vacancies.  I don't adhere to a schedule and am prepared to camp in a nice spot, should I stumble across one.  Always having food allows me stop whenever and where ever I want.   I typically carry enough food for a few days,   plus, in remote areas once should always be prepared .   A few days food does not take much room if you carry the right stuff.    The hiking store sells food in pouches, just add water, the dollar store sells food in pouches, just add water.  I get Uncle Ben's wild rice and veggies or maybe tomato sauce and pasta in a pouch, a stick of dry salami, a block of cheese, a 'loaf' of Ryvita (a cross between bread and a cracker),  a can or two of beans, stew, chili and a box of granola bars from the grocery stores along the way.  This does not take up much room in my top case, and I could probably live on it for a week if I had to.

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While I am vegging at the interpretive center, Mark and Evelyn roll in on a BMW 650 GS, a German cousin to my Austrian made KTM.  They are from Inuvik, and are returning home from the Dust to Dawson rally.  We chat a bit.  Mark bought the BMW a few years back and rode it to Inuvik.   There are no dealers there, but Mark has a friend who gets his bike fix by fixing Mark's bike for no charge.  A symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.   We will pass each other on the road to Eagle Plains, the next and only gas stop on the Dempster before Inuvik.

The Dempster is truly spectacular.  The road runs between two ridges, and from time to time climbs on top of one of them.   The vegetation is low and does not obscure the view.  Farther south trees are tall and close the road creating the effect of a tree tunnel with little to see.  Up here nothing gets in the way of the view.  Added to that is the total absence of anything man made beyond the road itself.  Off in the distance is a small lake still covered with ice.

Farther on I ride by what looks like a gravel mountain.  Weathering has broken up the mountain surface into little pieces. 



Stunning vistas.

 
  The unpaved road blends with the landscape like no paved highway can, with all its painted lines reflectors and bill boards.


Tundra is a dense mattress of plants growing all over each other, none are more than 12 inches high.

Eagle Plains is about half way up the Demptser, and about 30 km from the Arctic Circle.   There is a gas station (the only one), a garage,  a  motel and campground.  I opt for a room with heat and a soft bed.  I am really tired.  There are quite a few bikes here.  Mark and Evelyn arrive on their BMW.   The motel bar is large and empty, two sides are all window, it is like sitting outside but warmer :-)  It is  daylight all the time so you lose all 'feel' for  time.   You eat and sleep when you feel like it instead of what the sun is telling you.  The staff at the hotel have imposed some limits though, I am told I need to get dinner before 7:30 if I want a cooked meal.  I am reminded of the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe" in the "Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy" series.  This is the restaurant at the end of the world where the sun never sets.

The people I meet tell me the road from Eagle Plains to Inuvik is not as scenic as the part I just rode.  They also tell me how nasty the road gets when it rains.  The weather has been all cold, low teens C.  I am really tired.  I decide that I will stay in Eagle Plains an extra day and turn around and start back, leaving Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk for another day.

The following day I rest up.  The Arctic Circle is only a short distance down the road, so I grab my camera and head out.   There is a roadside monument.  I join a German couple touring in a rented motor home and a gentleman from Alberta in a camper at the marker.  We pass our cameras around so we can get pictures of ourselves.   I return to the motel and set the alarm for midnight in case I fall asleep again. 

June 28, midnight pacific standard time (not daylight savings) the sun is completely below the horizon, but only just.  It is still full daylight, there is no darkness in the sky anywhere.

  The next day, warm and rested, I head south again.  A few hours out of Eagle Plains there is an abandoned BMW K1200, a sport touring bike like my old FJ.  What was he thinking!  I stop and quickly see the problem.  Flat tire.  Large street bikes have alloy wheels and tubeless tires.  This set up is pretty trouble free, but if you do have trouble you will need a tire shop to fix it.  You can't fix a tubeless tire by the side of the road unless you have a tire machine and an air compressor.  There was no rider, he must have hitched a ride, and will be coming back for his bike with a truck.   A couple from Georgia riding matched Kawasaki KLRs, the Japanese cousin of my bike, also stop.  They trucked their bikes to Edmonton and rode the same route I did, but up the regular Klondike highway route.  I tell them about highway 4 and they think they might try that for the trip home.  As for me, I will stick to the paved route this time.

Going the other way on a road, pretty much any road, is like seeing a whole new road.  Everything looks different going the other way.  This is good because I am easily bored.    The Dempster was equally awe inspiring going back.  The vistas here are definitely worth the trip.   However, I had to admit to myself it would have been just as great sitting behind the wheel of a heated motorhome with one of those huge picture window sized windshields.  Being in the wind is not all its cracked up to be when the wind is blowing cold non stop.  It never did really warm up, every day of the trip I rode wearing all my gear and my Helly Hanson arctic long johns.
On the bike I wear a a nylon 3/4 length motorcycle touring jacket (Joe Rocket), denim shirt over sweatshirt over T shirt, rain/wind over-pants from an outdoor store (Marks Work Warehouse) with side zips all the way up each leg so I can put them on over boots, jeans, Helly Hanson arctic long underwear bottoms, thick socks over thin socks, engineer style high boots, and cold weather motorcycle padded gloves with gauntlets.   When the boots are well dubbined, this outfit keeps out the wind and the rain when I am on the bike.  As it gets warmer, stuff comes off and goes into the saddle bags, but not this time.
The KTM offers pretty good weather protection for what it is, a dual sport bike.  The short windscreen breaks the wind, and the wide and deep gas tank protects me between waist and ankles as well as any touring fairing.  The thing that is missing is that slidy thing you crank to the right for heat, along with a fan control to  blow hot air in your face at  force 9 like I have in my truck, and oh yeah, windows that roll up.   I am beginning to wonder if I am too old for this extreme stuff.  I have been riding steady for six days with a one day break, but it seems harder then when I did it before.
 
It is pretty hard to continue feeling sorry for yourself when the sun sort of comes out and there is all this scenery to look at.

 
I haven't seen a lot of wild life yet, a moose or two, a caribou and lots of deer.   I don't even try to take animal pictures on the road, for one, they are moving, usually rapidly, and so am I.  Even if they are standing, they will be gone by the time I have stopped and fumbled my camera out, turned it on, and waited for it to 'boot' and two, I don't think it is a real good idea to chase wild animals around waving a camera.  Especially if they are bears.  Bears that lose their fear of humans will end up getting shot.  I can't feel too sorry for the morons that get mauled because they got too close to a bear and did something silly, they usually survive, but the bears will be hunted down and killed.  My camera has 20X zoom, though, which lets me take great close ups without getting close up, but there is still the problem of stopping, unpacking the camera, etc. etc. when there is a roadside encounter.

After the Dempster is behind me and I am back on the Klondike Highway I pass by the Ethel Lake turn off at a good time and spot to call it a day.  Ethel Lake is 40 km down an access road barely worthy of  the name.  As you enter there is a sign that says "Abandon all hope all ye who enter here".  I went down that road to the campground on my FJ 3 years back and it was an unpleasant and scary experience.  On the KTM it was still a horrible road, maybe even more than before, but it was a blast to shoot down on a competent bad road bike.   I arrived at Ethel Lake just as it was starting to rain a bit, scattered showers.   I quickly set up my tent and had a look around.   The campground was almost full (about 15 spots).  It was as I remembered, like a post card from Canada's North, it could have been North anywhere, from Newfoundland to British Columbia.  Boreal forest, small lake with rocky shore, a guy fishing from an aluminum boat, and the obligatory Loon patrolling the water.  A golden eagle flew into a tree, and let me try out my 20X zoom.  Worked just fine, woohoo!
 

 

 
 End part 3.





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