La Carretera Boreal
The weather forecast sounds ominous: cold, rain and snow at higher elevations. We have just arrived at the Inuvik airport and are putting our bikes together in a quiet corner of the terminal.
It takes us a couple of hours to get the bikes assembled and ready for the road. We flatten the four bike boxes and fold them into a small a package as possible so we can ship them back to Dawson City as we will need them again to get the bikes home from there. There is no bike shop in Dawson and the chances of finding cardboard boxes big enough are slim to none. Gérard and I walk them over to the Air North Cargo shed and reluctantly pay $120 to ship cardboard.
It stops raining as we ride north into Inuvik to the camp site. It’s cold and windy and we make a plan to get on the road the next day. We go shopping for stove fuel and food for the next few days. We need four days food as the next store is in Fort McPherson, 185 km south of here.
There are other campers here: a German woman who cycled north from Dawson and is flying home in a couple of days; an American who paddled north on the Mackenzie River and is waiting for his truck to arrive on a barge. It’s two weeks late. Such is the way of the north. One needs patience.
We get on the road the next day under cloudy skies but at least it’s dry. The road is wet and muddy and it doesn’t take long before we are covered in muck. Thankfully, there is little traffic on this road.
Despite the mud, we make good progress and ride 40 km to Gwich’in Territorial Park, a campground that is completely empty. We set up the tents and scavenge the campground for fire wood. Before long, we have a fire going in the stove of the camp shelter and we are relatively cozy in there.
The Dempster Highway is the only road from southern Canada that crosses the Arctic circle. Construction of the road began in 1958 and took 20 years to complete. It roughly follows the old dog sled patrol route between Dawson City and Fort McPherson, and is named for William Dempster of the North West Mounted Police. In December 1910, NWMP Inspector Francis Fitzgerald led three men on the annual winter patrol from Fort McPherson to Dawson City. They got lost, and died of exposure and starvation. When they failed to arrive in Dawson City, Corporal Dempster and two constables went to look for them. Dempster and his men found the bodies of Fitzgerald’s patrol on March 22, 1911.
An extension of the Dempster from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk opened in late 2017, making it the first all-weather road to go all the way to the Arctic Ocean. We had planned to ride the entire road but deteriorating weather and complicated logistics prevented us from riding the most northern section. There is no commercial airport in Tuktoyaktuk so we would have to ride there and back for a total of 300 km, and we simply did not have enough time. The weather was also a huge deterrent.
The weather continued to deteriorate. Cold and rain are the order of the day as we plod along the muddy road. After 60 km, we call it a day and camp in a clearing along the Rengleng River. It’s dry as we make camp but we have no luck finding much fire wood so we make dinner and retire to the warmth of our sleeping bags in the tents.
We continue our muddy ride in intermittent rain. The road has a thick layer of mud on it but our 3-inch tires are quite capable of finding traction in this brown soup. We arrive in Tsiigehtchic in the early afternoon and take the ferry across the Mackenzie River. We are told that the visitor centre is the place to go. We are taken to the kitchen where it’s warm and we can use the facilities for a small donation. We have lunch and hot drinks and take a break for a couple of hours to warm up and dry off. It’s a welcome respite.
We cross the Arctic Red River from Tsiigehtchic and continue our muddy adventure. We ride another 20 km and turn down a side road that shows a large clearing on google maps. We make camp in a giant gravel pit. It has stopped raining and we find enough wood to make a small fire. The sun even comes out and we have a lovely evening despite the primitive conditions.
We have 45 km to go to Fort McPherson but the weather is atrocious. It’s slow going and we are wet and cold. At one point, an SUV stops alongside us and asks if we are okay. I reassure them we are, despite what it looks like. They offer to make us a hot drink. I thank them for the offer and explain that standing around to wait for that is not an option for us. We need to keep moving to stay warm. We take a short break to eat something sitting in the muck on the side of the road.
We arrive in Fort McPherson completely soaked and covered in mud. I walk into the Peel River Inn to see if they have any rooms. The woman and I look at each other for a moment and we both burst out laughing. I know I’m quite the site: wet and covered in mud, but we’re in luck, there is room at the inn. The people at the hotel put garbage bags down on the floor of the room for all our muddy stuff. They’re used to it in this “muddy community” as a sign by the door asks patrons to remove all footwear. The hallways are lined wall-to-wall with thick plastic covering the carpet.
We are shown the boiler room where we can hang up all our wet, muddy stuff to dry out, including our soaked tents. We have hot showers and before long we are sipping hot drinks in the kitchen, planning what we’ll do for dinner. The supermarket is next door and we go to stock up. A few hours later, we have a gourmet meal and all is right with the world. We decide to take the next day off as snow is in the forecast with temperatures below zero.
We have a very chill day, sleeping, eating and reading. The three days on the muddy road from Inuvik were a tough start to this trip and we’re hoping things will improve as we ride south. The snow doesn’t really materialize in Ft. McPherson but it is cold and windy with intermittent rain. But further south, the weather seems to be worse and we learn that a truck has skidded down a hill at Rock Creek and is blocking the road. The Dempster is closed until further notice. That night, we have steak for dinner.
The road is still closed the next day but a woman who works at the hotel suggests we go to Midway, about 30 km south. She says we can camp there, or stay in some of the cabins that will be open. She tells us there might be some hunters at Midway but likely nobody else. Midway is the site of an annual music festival that takes place during the August holiday weekend.
We ride south to the ferry that will take us across the Peel River. The mud at the ferry crossing is horrendous as the river has risen and dropped again because of the heavy rain fall. Keeping this ferry running must be a constant battle.
The road climbs dramatically from the Peel River valley as we ascend more than 400 metres on to the plateau. It begins to snow. The forest has all but disappeared as we are now above the tree line.
We plod on as the snow continues. We are the only people on the road as cars and trucks can not get through. Eventually, we reach a high point. The snow has stopped and we can see ahead to Midway Lake and the cabins dotted all over the site. It’s much bigger than we had expected. It’s like a small village built around a giant performance stage.
We ride into the village and it is utterly quiet. There doesn’t seem to be anybody around. We find several small sleeping cabins that are unlocked and one of them has a functioning pot belly stove. There is lots of firewood around and we get set up in the cabins. Before long, we have fire going and we are warm and cozy in our new accommodations.
The weather is improving. The sun shines as we wake up and we’re excited about what lies ahead. We have breakfast and pack up, making sure to leave the cabins as we found them, and hit the road.
The road steadily climbs as we head south to the Yukon-Northwest Territory border. For 45 km we slowly climb as the snow-clad Richardson Mountains come into view.
We are awestruck by the vastness of this land stretching out before us. It’s incomprehensible, really. We’re cycling on a narrow ribbon of dirt and gravel that stretches to the horizon, disappearing from view in the snow-covered Richardson Mountains.
I think back five years to when we cycled the Carretera Austral in Patagonia, a 1,200-kilometre-long dirt road between Villa O’Higgins and Puerto Montt built in the 1970s. This is the northern equivalent, and since we’re cycling this track through the Boreal forest with our Spanish friends Alba and Gérard, I call it La Carretera Boreal.
We pause at the summit and the border with the Yukon to take some photos and have a snack. Alba and Gérard catch up with us and we put on extra layers for the long descent ahead. It has remained dry all day and we are happy about the improvement in the weather. As a result, the road is drying out.
For 20 km, we steadily descend to Rock Creek and the government camp site there. It’s a lovely afternoon as the sun warms us now and again. The road around Rock Creek is the worst we’ve seen yet. This is where the truck jackknifed a few days ago, closing the road.
We set up our tents in the Rock Creek camp site. The Yukon government provides free fire wood in its camp sites and there is lots of it. We don’t have an axe but we find enough small spruce to get a fire started. The stuff readily burns and it doesn’t take long for us to have a roaring fire going.
We have a long day ahead as we try to get to Eagle Plains and a resupply of food we sent ahead. The Dempster Highway Information Centre in Dawson City will take boxes of food for cyclists and promises to have them delivered to two places along the way by other travellers, mostly tourists in motorhomes. We arranged to ship two boxes to Eagle Plains and two to the Tombstone Park Visitor Centre. There is no store for 600 km between Fort McPherson and Dawson City.
It’s a beautiful day as we ride south, parallel to the Richardson Mountains. The tundra scenery continuously rolls along and there are some hints of approaching fall in the colour of the landscape.
We take a break at a nice view point. We set up the stove to make tea and have a relaxing lunch. There is almost no vehicle traffic on the road and we feel like this beautiful world is all ours.
We are slowly heading southwest along this vast plateau. Here and there, small trees stand like lone sentinels in the tundra while thicker forests cover hillsides in valleys at lower elevations. The road descends and climbs again, opening up new vistas constantly.
We cross the Arctic Circle and take a few photos. There are some vehicles here with people doing the same thing, marking their crossing of this imaginary line on the map.
We still have 35 km to go to Eagle Plains. The kilometres tick away as we ride the undulating road across this giant plateau before it begins to drop into the Eagle River valley. It’s a 10-kilometre-long downhill that takes us only 10 minutes.
What goes down has to go back up, and we slowly climb 10 km up to Eagle Plains, gaining back the 400 metres we lost dropping into the valley. It’s an hour-long climb in failing daylight. We’ve been on the bikes for nearly 10 hours. We’re tired and hungry.
We make camp in the gravel lot that is the campground beside the hotel. We are the only tents as all the other travellers are in truck campers and motorhomes.
The hot showers are heavenly, and afterwards we saunter into the hotel dining room and gorge ourselves on steak and salmon. It’s a welcome feast after a long day in the saddle. We collect our food boxes and head back to our camp site. We’re too tired to sort out our new bounty of supplies for the next five days and 300 km to the Tombstone campground. We leave it for the morning and dive into the tents for some much-needed sleep.
It’s taken us seven days of cycling to cover 370 km. The weather has steadily improved and our theory of riding south to nicer weather is proving correct – thankfully. In the morning we go through our food boxes and manage to find space in our bike bags for all of it. We’re set for the next section of our journey.
We’re tempted to have breakfast at the hotel but we have so much food that we think it best to eat some of it, rather than hauling it down the road. With a belly full of hot cereal and coffee, we get back on the road and leave the settlement of Eagle Plains behind.
We ride along a spine in the landscape with great views of the surrounding plateau. The road does drop into valleys but eventually climbs back up, undulating between 550 metres and 800 metres above sea level. Ironically, after days of rain, we are having a hard time finding water. Late in the afternoon, we constantly check creeks and culverts to try to collect enough water for our dinner, breakfast and drinking. Eventually, we flag down a motorhome with a German couple who happily fill our containers with water from their kitchen tap.
We ride a little further and find a place to camp down a rough road just off the highway, ending in a small clearing where we pitch our tents. We make a small fire and sit around enjoying the warmth as we prepare our dinner. Something in my peripheral vision catches my eye and in the bush less then 10 metres away a lynx sits and watches us. Who knows how long it’s been sitting there.
We move slowly to get cameras and take photographs of our feline visitor. It gets up and slowly, deliberately moves without making a sound, lifting its wide paws high to avoid making contact with foliage. The cat move silently through the dense bush and casually saunters away. Lynx, with its huge paws, are perfectly adapted to hunt snowshoe hare, a prey it feeds on almost exclusively. What a thrill to have this close encounter.
We can’t stop talking about the lynx. It’s always special to see an animal, especially an encounter like this where it seemed the lynx did not feel threatened by us. We eat our dinner, clean up camp, thinking about what to do with all our food.
Bears are always a concern but there are no trees large enough to hang our food. All we can do is hang the bags on the bikes and hope nothing gets into them. We tie everything together so that if a bear comes by and tries to get into them, at least we will hear something and we can attempt to drive it off with bangers and bear spray. I’m more worried about rodents chewing through the bags and getting into the food as that always seems a more likely prospect.
We sleep in peace without any nocturnal visitors. Well, none that we’re aware of, in any case. We still have enough water for breakfast and drinking for the next while and we are confident that we’ll find water not far down the road.
The Dempster keeps going along this massive plateau for most of the day, roughly running parallel to the Ogilvie River that is occasionally visible. We stop at a view point overlooking the Ogilvie River valley and meet a couple of cyclists heading north. They look exhausted and we find out they’ve been on the road for several months, having started in southern Canada. They are riding road bikes that are not really suited to this rough road.
The Ogilvie and Blackstone Rivers flow out of these valleys, joining together to form the Peel River. Further down, the Hart, the Snake, the Wind and Bonnet Plume Rivers join the Peel that flows into the Mackenzie at Fort McPherson. For years, a campaign has been waged to protect the Peel water shed. (Learn more by clicking this link: Protect the Peel)
Rain showers move rapidly through the valley but keep missing us as we ride along, eventually dropping down to the shore of the Ogilvie River. We take a small side road to the Ogilvie River Airport, a rough air strip that was built in the late 1960s by the Canadian Armed Forces, and used as a place to offload supplies to build a bridge across the Ogilvie River further south near Engineer Creek.
We make camp at the end of the air strip close to the river. This air strip is not being maintained and is classified as an emergency strip, 15 metres wide and just over a kilometre long. Others have camped here before. We find poles and tarps in the bush, as well as a rough latrine built many years ago but still useable.
We get hit by a little rain shower but it mostly stays dry and we manage to find enough wood to have a small fire. It’s a rough camp site but we manage. We have plenty of water and we cook a big dinner as we’re hungry after a 70-kilometre day with more than 1,500 metres of elevation gain.
We don’t linger too long. It’s much more comfortable in the tent, despite the fact that my inflatable air mattress developed a bulge a week ago as a baffle has become unglued. Since this happened, I’ve figured out a level of inflation that makes it still somewhat comfortable and usable but I am getting rather tired of sleeping on a lump. In Ft. McPherson, I bought a half-inch thick foam mat to add to my 3-mm foam mat that I already carried as back-up and added insulation.
I haven’t had much luck with air mattresses in the last couple of years. I had one delaminate on an Arctic ski trip in 2018. Afterward, I bought this one which has now become undone after a year. I’m disappointed as it was very comfortable and cost $250. I will have to do some research and find yet another one. Meanwhile, I slumber on a lumpy bed.
We decide to have a shorter day and only ride as far as Engineer Creek campground today, about 45 km. We have the time and it’s been a fairly hard ride so far, mostly because of the cold weather and a good amount of constant elevation gain as the road undulates with the landscape.
We ride along the Ogilvie River the entire time until we cross it at Engineer Creek. There is a large road maintenance camp, and a bit further along, the Engineer Creek campground where we make camp. It’s sunny and warm, a welcome change from what has predominantly been a cold journey so far.
There are a few other people camped here. We make a fire and spend our time doing camp chores and making sure the bicycles are running properly. They are so coated in mud, it’s hard to tell what’s what. Everything has mud on it now: clothes, bags, gear, shoes. It all has an evenly brown patina, unlike the landscape that has more and more colour as summer slides into fall.
We’re busy cooking when we hear a fellow camper yelling. A black bear has wandered into the campground but it scampers off before we even see it. A few minutes later, in another part of the campground, we hear other campers yelling at a bear, likely the same one. That night, we put all our stuff into the metal lockers provided, keeping nothing around the camp that might attract a bear.
From Engineer Creek, the Dempster begins a slow, long climb of 40 kilometres to Windy Pass in the Blackstone Uplands. For three hours, we cycle along Engineer Creek and then the road climbs more dramatically into the pass at nearly 1,100 metres. The views in the pass are dramatic as the brown tundra gives way to snow-covered mountains.
The road drops down to the Blackstone River, another Peel River tributary, and we begin to look for a place to camp. It’s always nice to camp beside a river but it takes us a while to find a spot we can get into that has access to the river.
The Blackstone Uplands are the richest area for bird life along the Dempster. More than 150 bird species have been identified, including the long-tailed jaeger, gyrfalcon, peregrine falcon, red-throated Loon, as well as owls, many duck and song bird species. It is also home to caribou, moose, dall’s sheep and grizzly bears.
We are nearing Tombstone Territorial Park, considered the jewel along the Dempster. People flock here to hike the mountains, especially at this time of year when the tundra changes into brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows as fall approaches.
The road climbs up to North Fork Pass in the park, the highest point along the Dempster at 1,400 metres. It is the continental divide, draining into the Arctic Ocean on one side through the Mackenzie River system, and into Bering Strait via the Yukon River on the other side.
Our timing for arriving here is pretty good as the landscape is multiple hues of red and yellow. It’s like cycling into a Monet painting. We pause often to make photographs. Distant views of the jagged peaks of the Tombstone Mountains are simply spectacular.
We ride into the campground and are lucky to find a vacant spot as this campground tends to fill up at this time of year. We have a choice spot tucked into the bush above a creek, protected from the wind. After setting up camp, we walk over to the park’s visitor centre to figure out how we will spend our time here, and pick up our second resupply of food we sent up from Dawson City.
We are unable to secure a backcountry camping permit for Grizzly Lake. They’ve all been taken. Reservations at this time of year are recommended but not knowing when we would arrive here made that next to impossible. However, we are free to roam anywhere we want and the next day we hike up the ridge to the west of the campground. Finding a way across the North Klondike River took some time, but once across we climb up along the ridge, marvelling at the coloured landscape surrounding us.
The following day, we cross the road from the campground to hike up Charcoal Creek Ridge. It climbs up all the way to the base of Mount Robert Henderson (2,133 m) and its lesser twin, Mount Chester Henderson (2,088 m). Once we thrash through the bush across the creek and gain some elevation, we are on a well-defined trail that follows the ridge up. It’s gorgeous walking with views of Goldensides Mountain to the north and the Henderson twins to the south.
We cycle to the Grizzly Lake trail head the next day, 13 km south of the campground. We lock up the bikes in the car park and hike about 7 km up the Grizzly Lake trail to where the views of Mount Monolith open up. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous. Too bad we could not camp down there and spend a couple of days exploring the area.
We ride back to camp in the afternoon with our heads full of the colourful vistas that draw people from all over the world to this remote valley. We feel very lucky to have had beautiful, clear weather to take in this spectacle of colour.
After three nights at the Tombstone campground we pack up and head down the final stretch of the Dempster. It’s a long downhill ride in hot sun, and by the end of the day, we’ve ridden nearly 100 km before camping at the Klondike River Campground near the Dawson City Airport.
We have a short ride into Dawson City the next day and head immediately to the Alchemy Café for breakfast. It’s fabulous. Afterward, we check into our hotel, have showers, do laundry and collect the four bike boxes we shipped south from Inuvik at great cost.
We sort out our gear and break the bikes down so they fit in their boxes, ready for their journey to Vancouver and Barcelona, respectively. The hotel kindly gave us a power washer to use to clean the thick layer of mud off our bikes before packing them up.
In the afternoon, we head out for a drink at Bombay Peggy’s bar, followed by a massive feast of a dinner at the Triple J Hotel. It’s a bit of a grotty place on the surface, but the food is absolutely spectacular. We celebrate a wonderful bikepacking journey on La Carretera Boreal, the Dempster Highway.