Day 10: Surviving the Arctic

2008-07-18

Inuvik (NWT) 08h30
Eagles Plain (YK) 17h30
366 km

2008-07-18-Dempster-Highway-072008-07-18-Dempster-Highway-042008-07-18 Dempster Highway 062008-07-18 Dempster Highway 032008-07-18 Dempster Highway 022008-07-18 Dempster Highway 01

The most difficult and dangerous day.

The night is cold. I can hardly sleep. In fact, in the beginning of the trip I decided to travel as light as possible which meant that I had to make concessions for many things, including my camping equipment and more importantly, my sleeping bag. To save space, I carry a bag very compact bag that is typically adapted for summer temperatures (+7 celsius).

I now realise that I have made a mistake because the nights are so unpleasant and the cold makes it impossible to sleep. I will review this strategy for my future travels.

I get up at 07h00, exhausted, not knowing what will happen to me really. It slightly rained yesterday and probably all night. But nothing serious, at least from my experience. In fact, I welcome this moisture as it certainly will reduce the clouds of dust created by heavy trucks on the gravel road. I decided to go south for the 2nd portion of the trip. It would be wrong to pretend that I’m not tired of the cold, rain and wind. On the motorcycle and with camping, I’m totally exposed and I’m starting to dream about warmth and comfort … The south is a good solution.

Usually…

Upon my departure, I see that the road is wet and less risky. I’m cautious and drive slowly. The road is difficult but the bearing balls that scared me so much aren’t as much a problem now.

The weather is not so bad. It’s cold, but the rain is light and the wind isn’t too violent .

But everything would change …

After 100 km, the road became much more difficult, wet and rain increasing. After Fort MacPherson, I need to be very careful because it was very slippery. I still managed to go reasonably fast (30 – 40 km/h).

During the 2nd ferry crossing, the attendant comes up to me and start to talk a little. He tells me that several people had indicated that the road was damaged in the south. I tell myself that it can’t be worse than what I had just went through!

Wrong answer.

Obviously, it’s human nature to believe only when touching, feeling, seeing. But this is not always good …

In fact, the road is rapidly deteriorating to the point where it becomes very difficult to move, literally impossible in some areas. The cocktail produced by the gravel, rain, cold and the wind is so slippery and muddy as it is making the bike feel so heavy, as if I was driving in snow!

And the inevitable happens: the fall.

Fortunately, I was driving very slowly, therefore no damage, but I quickly realized that it’s catastrophic because I am literally covered with a vicious and sticky mud. The situation is pathetic.

Picking up the bike is a real test because everything is so slippery. I need to remove all my gear in the mud and rain, because the bike is simply too heavy.

In fact, normally, I’m able to raise the bike relatively easily, despite my luggage and the weight of the machine. I also had the chance to practice the day before my departure! But here the situation is completely different. I’m exhausted, wet, everything is so slippery. The least I can say is that I feel a bit alone in the world! And it true.

Miraculously, I managed to pick it up and drive away. Slowly, very slowly.

It’s difficult or impossible to describe the road conditions and especially the feeling of despair which is very present.

The questioning begins. Should I turn? Return to Inuvik or Fort MacPherson? I quickly decide to go forward, to the south! In fact, I never really consider going back because I want to leave this hell as soon as possible and I know that the road will be better a few kilometers south of the Yukon border.

I’m once again going very slowly. It’s so damn slippery. I come across a car 500 meters away as it’ s trying to make it’s way in the mus as well, in a rising slope. I am trying to squeeze to the right as much as possible because it’s quite evident that he’s having problems! And in doing so, I lose my concentration and therefore, I loose it and go down again. Once again, no damage due to the low speed, but this time, it’s impossible for me to raise the machine.

I’m too exhausted, it’s too slippery. Unfortunately, still unable to pick it up.

I resign myself , after dozens of attempts, to wait for help. After an hour of painful waiting (standing in the rain), a car passes by and stops to give me a hand. The bike is not difficult to lift with assistance. 5 seconds and I’m back to vertical. I thank them, exchange a few words and they go slowly towards the south. Even for cars, the road is a challenge. I replace the boxes and the tires on the bike. And I leave again to the south …

Not for long.

After 200 metres, another fall.

Discouragement is very present. I am not able to lift the bike and I have to wait more than 30 minutes for help.

The worst is that I cannot sit down to rest because everything is so dirty and the road is elevated, there is really nothing around me except the tundra that is wet and soft. And mud …

Once the bike upright, I realize that I’m really in trouble. I’m in the middle of nothing, alone, without communication. Without support. If I fall again, I have to repeat all of this losing a lot of time. If I go back, when will I be able to return? The conditions will be better? Nothing is less certain. I look at the possibility of setting up a camp but the reasoning is the same. I have provisions for a few days, but I’m frozen, wet and exhausted. I don’t really see any spot to make my tent and the grizzlies are present in the area.

So I decide to move forward again, but my main objective is clear, I do not fall anymore. It’s not complicated, I must do whatever necessary to stay in control of the bike, my emotions and be concentrated 110%.

This emotional control is difficult when I consider the goal of the day. It’s obvious that I will not be able to cross the 800 km of the Dempster and my goal is now turning towards Eagle’s Plain, a refuge in the middle of the highway, where there’s a hotel … but the GPS does not lie , I have 160 km to do … Yes, this is the reality. I start the calculations and I realized that I probably will have to drive all day but I have no choice.

The technique becomes obvious and simple. Whenever I see a change in the color on the road, either pale or dark, I stop and I go through it with both feet on each side, slowly, making sure not to fall. I ride at less than 5 km / h for many kilometers. The climbs and descents are the most difficult passages.

Fortunately, I chose my BWM with a Enduro gearbox which essentially means that the first gear is shorter and allows me to better control my driving at low speed.

And thank god for the TKC80 tires that are perfectly adapted to such conditions. With a normal tire, I will not be able to leave because the mud is sometimes hollow and very slippery.

The hours that followed were very difficult and discouraging. Heavy rain, wind, wet hands. The degree of concentration not to lose control must always be 100%. Obviously, if I miss a dangerous spot, I might fall.

After a few difficult hours, I manage to get to Yukon where the road improve slightly with each kilometers.

I did not come across any other bikes today … A sign?

Finally, around 17:30, I see a house in the distance. What a relief, what joy! Upon my arrival I’m greeted by a group (also GS http://www.gsriders.us) asking me if I’m the guy from Montreal! Pleased that I arrived safe and sound, they say that people who stopped to help me advised the hotel staff of my presence on the road.

Then I get to the small garage and the guys wash me (the bike and myself!) with the pressure hose because I couldn’t enter the hostel so dirty! Whew, what a relief to lose all this mud! My poor bike will keep the marks of the Adventure. First, it’s impossible to remove the mud because it was cooked on the exhaust so that instead of presenting a beautiful shiny chrome, they are now orange!

I then get a room. $ 125! But I’m in survival mode so the price doesn’t matter tonight! A looooooong shower,so hot, so nice! Happiness!

Thereafter, I contacted my Nadine who is the George Michael show in Montreal. I tell her a bit about my adventure but not in details because I don’t want to make her too nervous, especially as tomorrow I have to possibly do the rest of the road! Anyway, I don’t think she can grasp the actual situation because the words only describe very little about the whole thing and the severity of that day.

Then I go to the bar to exchange words with other adventurers!

I learn that the 5 guys in GS arrived yesterday on a government truck because they were unable to pass through the road that I did today. One biker event lost control and slipped off the road, 4 meters lower!

These are 5 middle aged men with considerable experience in off-road motorcycle. They are unanimous: these are the worst conditions they have had ever seen in their lives. Wow, and I did it a day after them, having rained an extra 24 hours.

Some are also waiting to go north to Inuvik and asked me my opinion on whether they should take the chance to go there … The answer is simple. No. Yet they all left the next morning!

Time to sleep now.

Tomorrow, I have to take a decision whether or not I’m going south … We all hope that the weather will be on our side.

It was a day that will remain engraved in my memory forever.

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