The Yukon and Northwest Territories offer travellers beautiful and remote landscapes and rich history. This is especially true when travelling with a born and bred local
Story by Emily Roberts
“The true north, strong and free” – a motto many Canadians take to heart. However, very few of us will have the chance to make it to Canada’s remote Far North in our lifetime. As motorcyclists, we have a leg up on the average Canadian, given our passion to travel and explore new places. This summer, Glenn (my dad) and I were able to fulfill our dream of experiencing the rugged North together after talking about it for more than 10 years. Both of us have travelled separately through parts of Yukon before, but we always have talked about riding the Dempster Highway together.
When we met Lawrence Neyando, a local resident and former band chief from Inuvik, N.W.T., this past year, we found a missing piece of our puzzle. Lawrence had been working on making his passion a career for the past few years; he now combines his love of motorcycling with the region, its history and the culture of his people. This year, he launched Arctic Motorcycle Adventures, with tours ranging from one to three days riding through Yukon and N.W.T. and north to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., and the Arctic Ocean.
Our biggest hurdle was finding the time to do the long ride to Tuk. Glenn would have to take a staggering 80 non-stop hours one-way to ride from his home in Ontario to Tuk; I would take 48 hours to ride from my home in B.C. Time constraints meant our only option was to fly to Dawson City, Yukon, where Lawrence met us with a pair of Kawasaki KLR 650s for our trip. (Having a bike waiting for you is one of the huge benefits of using Arctic Motorcycle Adventures.)
A Day in Dawson
We spent the day in Dawson, taking in the rich history of the community built by settlers along the shore where the Klondike and Yukon rivers meet. This area held promises of gold and wealth that attracted more than 43,000 people in its heyday – from 1896 to 1899, an estimated $29 million worth of gold was pulled from the ground surrounding Dawson City. Visiting the museums and attractions in the preserved old parts of Dawson gave us a glimpse into the extremely harsh conditions that many gold-seekers withstood and the riches obtained by few.
Following dinner and drinks at the Greek-inspired Drunken Goat was a stop at Diamond Tooth Gerties’, a casino packed with old-fashioned gambling entertainment complete with cancan dancers.
The famous sourtoe cocktail at the Downtown Hotel was the cherry to end the evening – if you’d consider a mummified human toe to be a cherry. I let Glenn go first, of course – I drank a sourtoe cocktail years ago and I was having second thoughts about another. Glenn’s drink of choice was whisky and he slung it back to let the decrepit toe touch his lips as if it was nothing. I hesitantly received my cocktail and tipped my glass of whisky with its side of toe to my mouth. The whisky went down, but the toe became wedged in the bottom of the glass. I gave the glass a little wiggle to dislodge the toe and, before I knew it, I had the full toe in my mouth. With the tart taste of toe still lingering in my throat, we settled in at Klondike Kate’s Cabins, excited about what the next day’s ride to Eagle Plains, Yukon, would bring.
Finally on the Dempster
We headed down a gravel road that is Dawson’s Main Street with the sun sitting high. As we rode along that highway, which hugs the course of the Klondike River, we could see billowing smoke from a distant wildfire southeast of Dawson. Forty kilometres east of town, we turned north onto the Dempster Highway and left the last stretch of pavement that we would see for most of our trip.
We had a great crew to ride with. Lawrence brought a genuine local Gwich’in perspective to our ride. He reminisced of stories from his childhood, such as when he would be sent out to hunt alone when he was only 10 years old.
Also riding with us was Kurt, a local Inuvialuit (an Inuk from the western part of the territories) and lifelong friend of Lawrence who came along with us as our sweep rider. Kurt brought a unique outgoing and storytelling dynamic to our group, riding with his half-helmet and slightly customized BMW R1200GS that he rode like a hot rod. Connor, a young local followed us in the chase truck; he was a quiet and humble addition to our group.
The Dempster led us into the heart of Tombstone Territorial Park. I had long waited to see these beautiful plains, covered with a muted green blanket of tundra as they stretched to purple-hued jagged mountains in the distance. We made our way winding northeast and wrapping around those grand peaks. There are many scenic stops along the Dempster, many of which are easily missed if you don’t have a local guiding you.
An odd feeling crept over my soul as I looked out onto the aged landscape, seeing only the beautiful but remote landscape as the Dempster faded into the horizon. Every moment we experienced with wilderness on this trip is incomparable. The land seems pure and untouched, and this impression is absolute. Glaciers and volcanoes scar the landscape – a unique geology with epic formations mixed with vast open plains landscaped by muskeg layered atop permafrost.
The Decision to Push On
We filled the bikes in Dawson, keeping in mind that fuel is hard to come by throughout the route; at times we grew weary of wondering whether the bikes would reach the next pit stop. We rolled into Eagle Plains with 410 km on our trip meters and no sign of a “low fuel” light. We parked beside a gentleman cleaning his bike and, before I even got off the KLR, he said, “Emily? Is that you?” He then quickly recognized Glenn once our helmets came off. The gentleman was John Hecht, a long-time reader of Motorcycle Mojo who was travelling south from Tuk.
Eagle Plains is interesting – not in any special sense, but just because it’s a parking lot with a repair shop, motel, campground and restaurant set into the feral landscape of Yukon.
Our original plan was to stop here for the night, but as we took a break in the restaurant, we could see the concern on Lawrence’s face with news of rain expected overnight. At Rock River, Yukon, just north of Eagle Plains, rain makes the road treacherous, so this stretch will often be closed for safety. A decision to continue on or not is just another benefit of riding with a local who knows the area. Lawrence made the executive decision to carry on; we weren’t fighting the daylight, but we might have to battle exhaustion, as we had another seven hours of riding to reach Inuvik.
We continued along the ever-deteriorating gravel road, moving closer to the N.W.T. border as the mist crept in above us. After crossing the border into the N.W.T., the condition of the Dempster improved greatly. Road maintenance here creates lots of fresh, deep gravel, making our ride technical in places, especially when encountering oncoming traffic.
As we rode, the bikes danced under us, trying to find any resemblance to traction. Becoming comfortable with the feeling of instability while riding at speed is essential or the risk of arm exhaustion becomes a very real concern. In particular, after a long downhill stretch, we approached the apex of one left-hand corner that had been collecting the gravel on the outside of the corner just as an RV approached from the opposite direction. The timing of our meeting couldn’t have been worse: we had to throttle through the wet, sloppy gravel soup on the non-existent right lane of the bend. Luckily, we all kept our bikes up, but I believe we would’ve benefited from a change of undies afterward.
Land of the Midnight Sun
We followed the road down into a valley while following a small River, where the permafrost has been carved out by running water beneath the valley floor. The temperature dropped as the rain grew heavy during our ride toward Fort McPherson, N.W.T. Little did Glenn and I know that we had been racing against time to catch the last ferry of the night that crosses the Mackenzie River. Lawrence had a Plan B if we missed the ferry, but he was confident we wouldn’t. We arrived just as the ferry approached the landing on our side of the river.
Dark clouds hung above us after our seven-hour ride in rain and mist, and we felt as though the “midnight sun” was just a cruel slogan to entice naive tourists. Then something truly spectacular happened: 30 minutes out from Inuvik, we could see the silver lining of the clouds indicating they were breaking up. Peach, purple and pink colours streaked through the ominous clouds. We were instantly reminded that our 14-hour day was worth every tired and incredible moment. Our welcome to sunny Inuvik was very spiritual as we rolled in at 2 a.m. – Land of the Midnight Sun, indeed.
Inuvik is a unique community that was once a booming oil and natural gas town now displaying its memories throughout the downtown core. Closed-up hotels and restaurants indicate what the town once offered to locals and visitors. Tourism is now an option, but that industry needs help: the day we were leaving for Tuk, we couldn’t find a single restaurant to have breakfast. We should have stocked up on granola bars. Instead, Lawrence and his lovely wife Trina and son Blaze invited us into their home for breakfast before heading out to Tuk.
Trekking to Tuktoyaktuk
We continued our journey, absorbing the morning sun in the 6°C, when suddenly we spotted a creature running alongside us. “A reinbou off in the brush,” said Lawrence. We cocked our heads sideways at that, so he explained “reinbou” is a term used when you’re unsure whether it’s a reindeer or caribou. (These are the same critter, but the former is domesticated versus wild caribou.) We stopped to watch the animal, and quickly understood the horrendous rumours about mosquitos being the territorial bird of the North. The rumours are true. Mosquitos hadn’t bothered us from Dawson to Inuvik, but the annoying little vampires immediately swarmed us on the Tuk highway.
We enjoyed the new road, which had lots of fresh gravel, while taking in the unique terrain leading to Tuk. From the weathered Arctic spruce trees growing on the tundra and muskeg to expansive fields of invasive Arctic cotton, past the Arctic tree line and thousands of lakes – some frozen – leading to the coastal peninsula that cradles Tuk. The landscape was diverse and extraordinary in many ways, with parts of it reminding Glenn of Mongolia and of Scotland to me.
We rode to the farthest point in the settlement, where the Arctic Ocean surrounded us on three sides, before we headed over to Grandma’s Kitchen. This small restaurant is run out of John and Joanne’s home and offers traditional food such as muktuk, dried fish and beluga jerky. John explained the process of fermenting and drying of these staple foods and the importance of these meals for locals. Grandma’s Kitchen is not easy to find — unless you know where you’re going, asking someone is best. The restaurant sits by a sheltered bay of the Arctic Ocean, where there is a great swimming spot for crazy nutters like myself.
I felt our journey would be an incomplete experience if I didn’t dive into the Arctic Ocean, so I quickly stripped down to my undies and ran into the water while trying not to slip on the rocks. It was cold! As I ran back out, Glenn said jokingly: “Wait, I didn’t get any photos yet!” Clearly, I missed the sarcasm: I turned around and ran in for a second swim! With sand in my toes and the Arctic Ocean on my skin, I believed our experience was now complete. We ate, laughed and toured the little town at the end of the road and learned about the culture and history of Tuk.
As we departed Tuk, we stopped at the Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk sign for one last picture and there we were once again recognized by a Mojo reader: Harry (sorry, didn’t get the last name) from Port Perry, Ont. Then we rode back down the gravel highway en route to Inuvik, where we completed our trip while trying not to suffocate on the mosquitos.
As mentioned earlier, restaurants are rare in Inuvik, but if you are there for supper, be sure stop in at Alestine’s. The food is great, but get there early or be prepared to wait for a table.
Lawrence ensured that we were immersed in the culture during every moment of our journey from Dawson to Tuk. He is soft-spoken, genuine and exudes his love for the region – he’s a real class act.
As we watched planes come and go at the airport in Inuvik, Andrew Clayton, another Mojo subscriber who just arrived from Edmonton, introduced himself while clutching the July issue, which he was reading on the plane. I suppose third time recognized is a charm.
There was truly no better way to fulfill our dream of experiencing the Dempster and the highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk than with Arctic Motorcycle Adventures (arcticmoto.ca). If you decide to ride the route we took in order to save several weeks of travel time, give Lawrence Neyando a call and tell him I sent you.
Canada’s true North, undoubtedly strong and free.
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