A newbie on the Dempster, or can one transfer backpacking skills into bikepacking.
Let's first set up the pitch.
The Dempster highway is a 900km gravel road that stretches from Dawson City (YK) to the Arctic Ocean's shore in Tuktoyaktuk (NWT). It is the Canadian equivalent of the Alaskan Dalton Highway which runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
I'm a 27 y.o. outdoorsy guy with a good physical condition (marathon 3¼ hours, half ironman 5 hours) who, other than swimming, cycling and running, loves to embark on crazy adventures, mostly on foot. After one month of hiking the Continental Divide Trail in New-Mexico, I realized how much I missed a bike on those endless gravel roads.
The idea of crossing the American Continents, from North to South, hiking and cycling, was born. The only thing was that I had never bikepacked before, neither rode anything else than my carbon road bike. I assumed that I was fit enough to cycle consistent distances daily and that I could easily transfer my backpacking experience into bikepacking. Live in the wilderness according to the elements, find and treat water, plan resupply, search for camp spots, packing light with only what you really need, have a rodent minimalist lifestyle are the same things in either scenario, as is the daily routine : walk/pedal, enjoy the scenery, eat, sleep, repeat. The Dempster was the perfect way to start my Arctic to Antarctic journey and a straight forward baptism by fire. How did it go?
I flew to Inuvik, the small town 150km south of Tuktoyaktuk, during the second week of June. I was gladly surprised on how warm and sunny it was. But it did not last. After a few days resting from the long journey and the jet lag, I hitched a ride to "Tuk", where I was welcomed by an overcast sky and glacial wind. After a greasy lunch and dipping my back wheel into the ocean, it was already 2pm but I was not stressed timewise thanks to the midnight sun and its 24/7 daylight. The game was on.
Many people warned me about the loose and unstable gravel making the ride back to Inuvik fairly sketchy. And it was. I took the time to make it safe and enjoyable, going up and down those rolling hills gazing at the endless tundra turning into boreal forest. I swore to myself to keep it easy on the first day(s) but the lack of camping spots and the permanent daylight fooled me. Before I had realised, I was 145km in and it was 1am. It was time for a first chilly night. I woke up a few hours later with the rain and urged my way back to Inuvik where I was kindly offered a bed to shelter from the nasty weather and to rest.
The next two days brought me to the first mountain range. First along long straight lines cut through the bush, then over a more hilly terrain. The weather kept teasing me, throwing in freezing headwinds, big dark clouds and beautiful clearings. The road got slightly better but still had a lot of loose spots. I was happy to have my 47” tires and an ultralight setup. On the way I discovered the two small communities of Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson where I was invited to share the free "Dad’s Day" lunch with locals. One thing is for sure: the bikepacker hunger is the same as the backpacker's! Fort Mac was the last resupply place, except the meal at Eagle Plains restaurant. Here again, no big difference with my backpacking strategy, same food and number of planned days +1. After the Peel river crossing, the road steeply climbed up to a plateau with a pristine view on the Richardson range. I truly felt blessed to be right there, right then. I just could not stop worrying about those stormy clouds rolling over the peaks. I understood that I quickly had to leave this super exposed place and miraculously found shelter right when the sky started falling on me with lightning and thunder. Locals had mentioned this summer village where a big music festival happens once a year in August. I sheltered in one of the stage's corners and woke up humid and shivering. The thunderstorm lasted all night with insane winds and had transitioned to a snowstorm. I quickly found burning wood and an unlocked cabin, lit a fire and spent another cozy rest day reading a book. The extra day of food came handy.
The next morning brought a bluebird and I was super excited to finally enter those mountains. The climb was strenuous but the view could not stop getting more awesome. I was totally overwhelmed by such beauty and the luck I had to be there. The day flew by with endless epicness as I went over two passes, across the Yukon border and the Arctic Circle, as well as a last climb out the Eagle River up to Eagle Plains. The last ascent made the big fat meal in the warm restaurant taste ten times better and the first shower in 6 days feel even better.
The rain came back during the night but turned to be just a drizzle when I woke up. I then made a big mistake by heading off. This was a totally ok weather to hike but bad conditions to cycle on a gravel road. I was quickly covered with cement-like mud and soaked to the bones but was going at a decent speed and had a lot of fun. It lasted one hour. Then I started to shiver and was not able to warm up. The rain had intensified and the road turned into an absolute mess. I revived some good hiking memory and took refuge in a roadside toilet. For 5h I tried to hitch a ride back to Eagle Plains because "there is no shame in turning back". But it didn't work and despite the changed clothes I was still unable to recover feeling in my feet. It eventually stopped pouring down and parts of the road looked like drying up. I decided to take my chances and keep going. Second worst idea, ever. I struggled over crazily muddy sections and had trouble finding a decent water source. I just found a nasty murky pond infested with thousands of mosquitoes that at least allowed me to clean my bike from some of the clogged muck in the chain and derailleur. It was the roughest ride of my life, no doubt. I finally made it up a ridge where the road improved but the wind was blowing me off it, and almost off my bike. I was exhausted and pushed to the next rest area where I found another toilet, big enough that I could lay down in it. My survival reflexes made the rest with warm dry layers, a hot tea and a warm meal. I had my space blanket ready but finally did not use it as I got up early and went straight on pedalling. From here everything started to change, first with a long downhill, followed up by straight flat lines that I could grind out in an aero position.
The landscape totally changed and the road was now winding along a large river surrounded by big cliffs and rolly mountains. It felt like I was entering Patagonia already. I stopped for a second brekkie, a nap, lunch, another nap and in the early afternoon the weather started to clear up, along with my foggy mindset. I climbed up another small pass and continued riding across this gigantic scenery. The forest was replaced by the tundra. I called it a day and gazed at the panorama while recharging my inner batteries with the beautiful sunshine.
I woke up in a dream and rode through this pristine landscape with only my sore legs reminding me it was real. The early sun with few clouds brightened the scenery with that unique intensity that only lasts a moment. Without realizing it, I went over the last pass and started the long 80km journey downhill to the pavement. I slowed down and took the day to fully enjoy the view. My experience told me that my stomach could wait another day before shovelling food into my mouth but that my soul could never get enough of those scenes. Bikepacking, like backpacking, tends to make me focus too much on the objective and the “back to civilization” feast. Learning to drop off and let it go is not an easy job but I succeeded this time and even left the bike to scramble up a small peak to get more of those panoramas. My legs were surprisingly happy to switch discipline.
The majesticness vanished with the last kilometers of gravel that suddenly changed into pavement. Leaving the Dempster got me fairly emotional as it was such a magical and unique experience in all respects. One chapter closes to let another begin. Again, I knew that I’d better take a little extra time to rest and process this experience rather than rushing into the journey's next leg.
With hindsight, I think my bet was totally legit. For me, bikepacking worked exactly like backpacking and the only problem I faced was the difference of exposure to the elements. You get colder more quickly and playing with layers was even more crucial.
I hope this can help others stepping into the amazing world of bikepacking. Now I just have to add packrafting to my belt and be totally polyvalent!
The tech + : 47” tires
The gear - : the 15°C sleeping bag
The orga tip : Dempster mail allows you to ship anything you want from either Dawson or Inuvik visitor centre to Eagle Plains.
Tramping, cycling, running, skiing, travelling, I keep exploring this amazing planet we live on. The following texts give an insight of my various wanderings. From poetry to trip reports or thoughts on particular subjects, this pages try to reflect how I travel through this modern world.