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September 4th, 2009 - Crossing Dempster Highway

I dedicate the following verse from an Alaskan bumper sticker to this infamous highway:

Dempster Highway

Winding in and winding out

Fills my heart with serious doubt

As to whether the lout, who built this route

Was going to hell, or coming out

The ride from Whitehorse to Dawson City went without a glitch. When I woke up that morning, Jean-Luc was ready to go but I was not. I told him to go ahead and we will meet at The Pit, a local bar in Dawson, in case I did’nt catch up to him on the road. I got to Dawson at 6pm and went straight to The Pit. There was no sign of Jean-Luc there or anywhere in the town. I waited at the bar for a couple hours and he didn’t show up so I figured he stopped somewhere along the way and called it good. He was trying to get out of going up the Dempster after all the horror stories he heard in Whitehorse and I think that was his way. It was raining on and off but nothing too bad, so I headed out of town to look for a camp spot. 15km out of Dawson, I found a small regional airport with a gravel parking lot. I pitched my tent in a corner and crawled into my sleeping bag.

I woke up to a jet landing 50 feet away from me and it was time to go. Dempster Highway starts 40 km before Dawson as Klondike Highway and there are only 3 fuel stations in the 750km stretch of the road. The first is called the Klondike River Lodge at mile zero; the next is at Eagle Plains, 370km deep into the Dempster; and the last is in Inuvik. My tank has a 450km range so reaching Eagle Plains should be easy but with the rain and the road conditions, I carried 3 extra gallons of fuel just in case I need a bailout before reaching Eagle Plains. I filled up at the river lodge and as I was pulling out, a guy from the restaurant ran out and asked me where I was heading. He said his name was Gib and if anything happened, that I should call the lodge and he would come up there to get me. I thought to myself what a nice owner.

The sun came out for a minute and it looked like a good day to go, but I knew it rained non-stop here for the past 7 days so I was expecting some bad sections. The first 5km of the road is paved, the next 5 is packed gravel of decent quality, and after that the road turns into chocolate pudding. Potholes 4-7 inches deep all over the place filled with water, deep tire grooves in the mud also covered with water, and the shiny surface of the road was a bad sign. I started at 110km/h on the paved section and gradually slowed down to a crawl of 30km/h. If I went any slower, I would dig into the mud so deep that I couldn’t get out, and if I went any faster, the bike would go all over the place. Since none of the road hazards were visible due to being filled with water, I couldn’t tell where the holes or the mud grooves were, so every time I hit one, especially the grooves, the bike would start shifting hard to the left and right which was scary as hell. I had my entire load with me and at 1,000 lbs, this bike isn’t exactly a light dirt bike.

I pushed on despite the conditions in hope of better sections to come, but it got worse as the day went by. 55km into the highway, I saw a truck coming toward me at full speed, and since I was riding in the middle of the road (the highest and driest section), I had to get out of the way just in case he slipped, so I slowly inched my way toward the shoulder, but all of the sudden I hit one of the mud grooves and flying into the air I went. I realized I still had hold of the handlebars, so I stood up on the foot pegs, shifting my weight to counter balance and rolled on the throttle hoping more speed would bring the bike upright again. At this point the truck is getting ready to pass me and he was freaking out seeing me out of control and heading straight for him. With all my might, I got the bike out of his way and kept rolling on the throttle till the beast was going in a straight line again. It all took only a few seconds but the bike fish-tailed the whole section of the road maybe 5 times before I barely escaped my death.

I was so shaken that all I wanted was to pull over but the mud was so deep that I knew if I stopped, I would never get out of that mess. With adrenaline so high and shaking uncontrollably, I pushed on and found a somewhat dry spot and stopped. I carry a piece of 1×4 plywood with me to put under my kickstand on soft ground, but even with that, the bike was leaning at a 45º angle with the wood buried in mud. Astonishingly, I decided to go on, and on I went. The road was getting better until the rain started and now I couldn’t see anything out of my goggles and the bike went for another slip. This time there was no other vehicle around and as soon as I got it under control, I found solid ground and stopped. I had to make a call then and there and I made the hard decision. As hard-headed as I am, this ride was suicidal and I had no such death wish. Turning back meant going back over the same road now in rain, but still seemed like a more logical choice than to continue north. The ride back was even scarier, but at least I knew what to expect. After a lot of sliding and slipping I made it back to the pavement and was home free.

I pulled into the parking lot of the River Lodge covered in mud and Gib asked me what happened. I said I stayed upright! I spent the rest of the day working on my World Hunger presentation and ended up doing two shows that night. As I never give up on anything, the next morning, I started planning my second assault on the highway.

The rain eventually stopped and the sun came out. 2 days of sunshine dried out the road somewhat and I unloaded 80 percent of my gear at Gib’s place. On the afternoon of Sep, 2nd, Dempster looked like a different road. There is nothing more beautiful and majestic than seeing the Tombstone Mountains in full sunshine and not worrying about when you are going to hit the ground.

Autumn is the best season to go on Dempster (scenery wise) and locals agree. The whole land starts changing colors and the brisk air of the arctic is refreshing to breath. This road is a perfect practice ground for dirt riding as it changes every 10 miles to a different surface. I ran mud puddles, potholes, loose gravel patches, sharp corners but nothing even came close to the experience that I had on my first attempt. The Pirelli Scorpions held up and gave me the much-needed traction on the road and I averaged 80km/h on the highway. Wildlife is abundant here and rivers and creeks cut through the landscape all along the road. Passes and high plateaus cover much of the area and the road opens up in the boreal forest and the tundra follows. The most beautiful sections of the road are from Tombstone to Eagle Plains and through the Richardson Mountains in the Northwest Territories.

I reached Eagle Plains sometime after 5, fueled up, and headed north again. I passed the Arctic Circle without stopping and made it to Forth McPherson in Northwest Territories on the McKenzie River. That’s as far as I wanted to go and I passed on going to Inuvik so I could do the Top Of The World Highway in Alaska before snowfall instead.

I rode back to the Arctic Circle and pitched my camp right on 66º 33’north. After a dinner of soup and mashed potatoes, I retired for the night under a perfect arctic sky. I crashed like a log.The ride back was a treat on a dry road and I took my time taking in the scenery and taking pictures of everything. (I took 231 pictures on the way back).

If you are thinking of doing the Dempster, there are few things you should know:

  1. Do NOT trust the weather reports and give yourself an ample amount of time to get up and down.
  2. Go as light as possible but take good cold weather gear with you. (There was snow at the NWT border.)
  3. Be sure of your riding abilities; this is not a time to bullshit yourself.
  4. If your instincts are telling you that you shouldn’t go on, don’t go on.
  5. Take a bottle of brandy with you for celebration ( I celebrated with mashed potatoes which sucked)
  6. Don’t attempt the Dempster in torrential rain. No matter who you are and how many years you’ve been riding. Dempster is the most dangerous road in North America when wet. No question about it.
  7. Don’t pass on the ride; it is the most gorgeous ride of your life.

I’m heading for the “Top Of The World Highway” in Alaska tomorrow. Next Stop: Chicken, Alaska. Population: 27.

I’d like to thank Geoffrey Tayner and Kim Geisbecht for their generous donations. I’m not asking you to buy me a beer or pay for my gas; all I’m asking is that if you are enjoying these reports, support me by helping to fulfill the goal of $1500 for the month of September as I’m doing my best, fundraising on the road. This expedition is financed out of my own pocket and with the help of my generous sponsors, NOT from the donations. All donations are directed toward the cause not one penny excluded. Sparing one espresso or a sandwich a week goes a long way. Be mindful of people out there who have nothing to eat, day after day after day. Their story could be your story. Your donations keep me going and make me more enthusiastic about updating the website more regularly.

There are 3 Comments

  1. toejams1
    September 5, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Wow great stuff. I have been reading this thread and looking forward to your posts. Glad you are alright after that near miss. I admire what you are doing (and very jealous). Keep up the good work.

    FYI….He makes it very easy to donate on his web site using Paypal.

  2. September 5, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I love the colors. I hate the misery. You’re paying a high price for your ride, in terms of the miserable weather, roads and mud. I hope the GS will be up to your demands. Do you have a replacement bike for backup?
    Best O’ Luck! Bill

  3. Chris Sorbi
    September 5, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I got my legs for backup:P. She’s been doing great so far and i have enough tools with me to build another one if needed. Misery is a part of adventure, it’s all good. This is still a country that i speak their language, wait till i get to China, that’ll be a story.
    Thanks for the kind words,
    Chris Sorbi

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