Territories

The Final Frontier

~370km (~4460km total)

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Thursday, August 28

Eagle Plains Lodge – Rock River Campground, ~77km

I was awake just before six, well rested and rearing to go. I walked around the lodge, feeling incredibly privileged for what looked to be another beautiful day. The fog that clung to the valley floors was already beginning to clear, and the morning sun was just starting to creep over the sleepy RVs, tents, trucks, buildings, and bicycles.

Bob continued to be an incredible host. He made fresh coffee for us in the morning, along with several pieces of toast. He then filled our panniers with protein bars, energy goos, and cookies on the pretence that he “just didn’t need all that food.” If the brilliance of the northern autumn was nourishment for our senses, then encounters with people like Bob were nourishment for our souls. He was a man with transparent and honest face, uninhibited enthusiasm, and a genuine desire to be good to others.

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A shot of the gentlemen.

Eagle Plains Lodge sits atop of a long ridge that forms the southern border of the Eagle River valley. Beyond the river, the last hills of the Eagle Plain merge with the foothills of the mighty and ancient Richardson Mountains. Their beauty was simply beyond what I could have imagined, and when my eyes chased the Dempster as it snaked into and out of that valley before disappearing in the final remnants of the unglaciated plains, I felt so satisfied about what I had done and what I was about to do.

There was a sign on the highway warning of muddy roads ahead. No surprise, since it had rained for most of the previous night. The 8km descent to Eagle River was a treacherous one over loose gravel and mud. I rode the brakes the entire way down. The ascent out of the valley was similarly surfaced, and it must have taken at least an hour to finish.

But when we finally did summit, the fog was gone, the sky was clear, the sun was high in the sky, and the western wind kissed our faces. The Richardson Mountains now loomed even closer.

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Nearing the Richardson Mountains.

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No worse for wear.

More ups and downs for the next 20km or so, some big and some small. The road surface had significantly improved since we left the valley. Vast fields of blazing tundra covered most of the plain now, a sea of amber veined with magenta, auburn, and crimson.

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Nearing the Arctic Circle.

Just before click-post 406, we arrived at the Arctic Circle, where there was a rest area looking over the now prominent Richardsons. All that lay between us and their soft domed peaks was a sweeping valley of tundra that slowly gave way to scars of lichen as it rose. This was truly another world, an anachronism from prehistory. I mean, the world is of course very old, and each jagged crag and gaping fissure bears witness to its tumultuous and violent past, but this place just breathed it. Everything was unfamiliar and unscathed, as if left in a state of primordial preservation. It was a land wrought with mathematical purity and sculpted with supernatural precision. Welcome to The Arctic.

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Picnic time at the Arctic Circle.

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Posing.

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Surveying.

We followed the foothills for the next 40km until we reached the Rock River Campground, the last Yukon territorial park along the Dempster. We learned from another camper that we had just passed through the muddiest section of the road, yet for us it had been almost completely dry! Considering the stories we had been told by other travellers about the near impassability of this road at its worst, we had been incredibly lucky, not just today, but overall. I wondered: if I had left but one day earlier or later, would my ride have been different?

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Climbing out of a hole in the earth.

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A bit of perspective.

The campground shelter was yet another oasis. A swift river gurgled nearby, and the much taller spruces nestled around it and its valley were an effective shelter from the wind. We were two happy cyclists, dry and secure.

Friday, August 29

Rock River Campground – Fort McPherson, ~106km

Definitely a cold night. I pulled my food bag down off the bear-proof contraption from which it hung, and it was covered with frost. Nonetheless, cold nights are clear nights, and the morning, now well underway, had retained that clarity. There was not a cloud in the sky. It was time for another gorgeous day on the Dempster.

Xavier again set off 5-10 minutes before me. Once leaving the campground, I climbed out of the densely forested river valley and was soon back on the endless fields of tundra. I was approaching Wright Pass, the highway’s highest point through the Richardson Mountains. The land was so open, so spacious, that my sense of scale was obfuscated. The road was visible as far as I could see, a filament of silver among fields of gold.

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Nearly the entirety of Wright Pass.

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Time to stop for some glamour.

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Looking back down the ascent.

The ride to the summit was one of the more difficult climbs on the Dempster. The road was steep and unrelenting. Once I reached the top, my sense of satisfaction was mingled with confusion, for where was Xavier? I had not seen him in well over an hour, and I would typically pass him on ascents such as the one I’d just completed. I asked southbound travellers if they had seen any cyclists. Nope. So, he must have still been behind me…but how?

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No man’s land? Hanging out in between the two borders.

A northbound truck confirmed what I suspected: Xavier was behind me, about 15 minutes by car (at least an hour by bicycle). He had turned the wrong way out of the campsite! Though I was frustrated at having to wait for nearly two hours at the summit, I knew that he would be feeling pretty dumb, so I suppressed my annoyance by focusing on the sheer ridiculousness of my predicament. Here I was, alone on a mountain pass in the Arctic, exchanging messages with another cyclist by way of happenstance couriers. Several of the passing motorists had even offered me coffee to stay warm, and when Xavier finally did arrive, I was being treated to a sandwich in the back of a camper.

We still wanted to make it to Fort McPherson, some 86km away, so we wasted little time breaking during the next few hours of riding. Unfortunately, the road surface had immediately deteriorated once we had arrived into the Northwest Territories. What was previously hard-packed, dry mud was now loose, golfball sized gravel. Downhills were precarious, as my bike became highly unstable if I went too fast. Uphills weren’t much better, as even the mildest grade required me to drop into my easiest ring and crawl along slowly and deliberately.

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In the midst of the Richardsons.

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Winding through the east-northeastern boundary of the mountains.

At last, we exited the Richardsons and descended into the Mackenzie Lowlands. The tundra was now behind us, and in its place was a light forest of spruce and bitch. Our sunny day looked to be rapidly coming to a close, as ominous rain clouds now dotted the sky.

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Not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, my tires, which up until this point had felt unnecessarily robust, came into their own. I dropped the pressure down to about 30psi (from 70psi), and cycled as if I were on pavement.

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Descending onto the lowlands.

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Uh oh: trouble brewing up ahead (and behind, as it turned out).

We crossed the Peel River on a cable-powered ferry. At this point, the thunderheads were amalgamating into something large and fierce. It was only a matter of time until we were in the midst of them, but for the moment, we were dry.

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Midway Lake: empty for nearly the entire year, save for a few days at the beginning of August, when an annual music festival takes place.

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Looking back.

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Thunderheads continued to develop.

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No avoiding them.

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Packing up after the Peel River crossing. The sky was now dark nearly all around us.

The final 12km into Fort McPherson were a painfully slow battle against a menacing headwind. Once we arrived, we found everything closed, all the more frustrating due to the fact that we had pushed for the town solely to resupply.

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Not the most reassuring sign.

There was a community centre in town that was open, and we were allowed to prepare our dinner there, a good thing, too, because the sky was now churning. After dinner, we realized that we were in a bit of a fix. The storm was now on the brink of whatever it was preparing to unleash. Not a drop, flake, or stone had fallen, but the sky teemed with inevitability. Camping within the town was impractical, as there were mischievous kids roaming the streets whom I’d learned from other travellers couldn’t resist antagonizing strangers such as ourselves. Camping outside of town was no longer viable, as the cloud cover had hastened the night’s onset, and we needed to stay close to resupply the next day.

At a loss, I asked a local radio host, on air from within the community centre, if there was any nearby shelter in which a couple of cyclists might take refuge. She made a few phone calls and informed us that we could stay in a nearby church. Wow!

Just as the rain started coming down, we arrived at the church. A boarding teacher was also living there, but he had not been informed about our arrival. I can only imagine his confusion and anxiety at discovering two hooded strangers frantically jiggling his doorknob under the cover of darkness.

Once he learned who we were and what we were doing, he completely warmed up to us, offering full use of the church facilities and pantries. Dalweet was from Ethiopia and was teaching math and science at the local school, and he was happy to share with us what the church was sharing with him.

Sheets of rain ripped across the church, rattling off the windows and roof in a riotous din. It was a real squall. We had again found ourselves with fantastic luck and timing.

August 30, 2014

Fort McPherson – Rengleng River Pullout, ~92km

It continued to rain all morning, but we had fortunately been given permission to stay in the church as long as we needed. We hung around for a while before hunting around town for a wifi connection, still not forthcoming.

We lucked out at the local inn, where the lady running the place gave us wifi access and some complimentary coffee. These random acts of kindness were becoming so frequent that we were starting to make jokes about where we might next encounter them.

It wasn’t until 1pm that we left town. The rain was nearly gone, and, though I had misgivings about riding in the cold and unpredictable weather, Xavier wanted to push on and ideally make it to Inuvik the following day. Tsiigehtchik, 57km away, was our initial plan, and, although it initially seemed a conservative goal, it soon looked to be a surety, because the entire stretch of road between Fort McPherson and Tsiigehchik was a soupy mess of fine coarse gravel, requiring frequent cleaning stops in order to avoid complete drivetrain destruction. Every now and then, a larger pebble would work its way into the chain or between the cassette cogs, and I could almost feel it grinding away at the drivetrain with each rotation of the pedals.

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Nearing the Mackenzie River/Arctic Red River confluence, between which is nestled Tsiigehtchik, directly ahead, a small community we ultimately passed by. Dempster North lies across the river just out of the frame to the left.

A ferry at Mackenzie River operated on a  counterclockwise triangular route encompassing Dempster South (our location), Tsiigehtchik, and Dempster North. When we arrived, the ferry was berthed at Dempster North, and Xavier had to wave his French/Canadian flag for a good 15 minutes before the operator finally noticed us.

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Trying to grab the ferries attention.

One of the ferry crewmen let us sit in a small crew cabin just off the car deck for two rotations of the route, giving us an opportunity to warm up (my feet were numb) and make some food. Oh…he also gave us some coffee! It turns out he knew the teacher whom we stayed with in Fort McPherson, a coincidence not so uncommon up here, where the entire population sometimes felt like one big community.

Feeling energized, we decided to do another 34km late in the day. Now well into the delta, the road was often perfectly straight and flat for long stretches, reminding me of many roads through the prairies. Boring for some, perhaps, but I was briefly transported to another time, another tour, and a flood of good memories washed over me.

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After not riding for 30-40 minutes on the ferry, hills like this are a welcome sight. Summiting them will warm up even the chilliest cyclist.

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Northern prairies.

The penultimate day of a tour is often the best one, I’ve discovered. Life is still just the road. “Normal” routine and duties haven’t yet become a reality, and blissful recollection doesn’t feel like a selfish indulgence. Of course, I wasn’t even close to that reality. I still had to get home. Even so, with one more “official” day on the road, I allowed myself a personal pleasure: I imagined that the ride might never end, that perhaps the Dempster Highway had a secret extension, either west to the northern limit of the Rocky Mountains; north into the Arctic archipelago over impossibly large bridges; or east into Nunavut, Canada’s largest and least populated territory.

A few turns of the road later and I was out of my reverie. We had reached Rengleng River. Time to camp! There were maybe five other vehicles already there. Before we knew it, we were sitting around the campfire having beers and stir fry with locals from Inuvik taking advantage of the season’s final long weekend. Serendipity on a cold night on the cusp of winter.

August 31, 2014

Rengleng River Pullout – Inuvik, ~94km

Cold morning. It took about 45 minutes of cycling to warm up my hands (even with gloves). For some reason, I was in a hurry. I listened to music, for only the third time on this tour, to help pass the morning more quickly. I remembered this feeling from other restless days. Even thought the distance was easily manageable, I couldn’t help thinking of the constant click posts, steadfast reminders of how little or how far I’d travelled. It didn’t help that the terrain was unremarkable. There were no distractions or interjections to break the day into digestible chunks. Just endless road and forest. A few turns, some small hills. Boring.

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Boring? Sometimes, it’s all relative.

We stopped for lunch about 60km into the day at a territorial campground. Their shelters were even nicer than those in Yukon campgrounds, though I imagine that it would have been far more difficult to discreetly camp in them, as all NWT parks thus far had had a full-time gate attendant.

Lunch was a light and silly affair. Our spirits were high, and the smallest incident drove us to fits of unrestrained laughter. Only 34km remained. We were going to make it. Conquer the Dempster. Our optimism was now iron-clad. 34km. Doable in any circumstances. And the sun was coming out. We were going to finish in stye.

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Inuvik lies just over that distant hill.

10km out of town, the ~725km of unpaved road gave way to asphalt. What a luxury! Only a few more turns now. A few more hills…

We arrived in Inuvik and spent some time setting up good photos at the “End of the Dempster” poster board. The first person to greet us was ironically from Pennsylvania, and his thick accent and drunken behaviour were a hilarious surprise. Welcome to the northern limit of road access in Canada!

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Finish line!

The second person to greet was also from away: a Calgary gal who just moved to Inuvik for work. In fact, she had also just completed a X-Canada bike tour this summer (though she had traversed the longitudes).

In Inuvik, we connected with a friend of Xavier’s for a place to crash. Of course Xavier would have a friend from France who just so happened to be volunteering in Inuvik! One final serendipitous coincidence to conclude his and my travels together. We all went out for celebratory beers at a local dive. Suddenly, life was ordinary again. We were just a few more blokes having a few beers in a ubiquitous establishment. Why wasn’t Inuvik remarkable? Perhaps it was a town cursed with the romantic allure of its location, and no matter what it offered, it wouldn’t be able to live up to the anticipation that its eight day approach generated. Perhaps a journey like ours along the Dempster was simply utilitarian for many, and the magic of our ride wasn’t some intrinsic property of the route.

I guess the most challenging of finishing a Big Ride is coming to terms with the “ordinaryness” of life off the bike, not being constantly saturated with the richness of the undiscovered. The ride was not six hours old, and I was already feeling suffocated by the day-to-day realities of the lives of others.

Yet the ride wasn’t over. Not yet. I still had to get home. Somehow.