Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Dipping Our Toes and Paws in the Arctic Circle

OMG! Where to start. Reaching Tuk has been on my list since my first failed attempt in 2011. Although back then, it wasn’t really riding my motorcycle to the top of the planet. It was riding to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada and then catching a small plane to Tuktoyuktuk. You see, back then there was no road to Tuk. It ended in Inuvik, and what existed was an ice road to the native community only in the winter. It is roughly 90 miles beyond Inuvik. The Canadians have been trying to build this road for almost 30 years!

We made it here by motorcycle!

That first failed ride on the Dempster in 2011 lead to a second attempt in 2013. This time we were able to reach Inuvik, the end of the road in (2013), but the cost to fly to Tuk was so crazy expensive to see the pingos ($1,000), that we decided to spend that money on a trip to a beach in Mexico. We didn’t go Tuk. We got back to Anchorage, and it was added to that unfinished business list. Someday…

Then I heard in 2017 that the road would be finished and it officially opened to vehicle traffic in November. That is when the plan started to finish the business. Michael and I are always planning the next adventure. Cleary this was it. Thus begin the dance of arranging the details and securing lodging. In remote places like this, it is better to always have a reservation. The businesses are very accommodating to changing road conditions and allow you to flex your stay if you get delayed. If you aren’t in the reservation group though, it would be a lot more stressful. There just aren’t places to stay. This is the only place I would say the campers and small RVs have it gold. I would not tent camp here because of all the mozzies.

Start of the Tuk section of the Dempster Highway

So here we are the morning of trying to realize this dream with a flat tire. We learned there was a tire shop that would open at 9am. This already put us in a bind. Assuming we could get in first and they could fix it, would take us two hours. This late delay would put us on the road at the earliest around noon. We knew the road was bad in some places, and figured it would take us maybe 3 hours to get to top of planet, and then 3 hours back. Add an hour for screwing around at the top, and we are looking at another long day. If we couldn’t find a tire shop to fix the tire, then Michael would have to do it himself. We had found a local that would open up their garage to us to fix the tire ourselves, but that would take longer without the right equipment to take the tire off the rim. I am running car tires on the back of the motorcycle and side car. This is not as easy as fixing a motorcycle tire. If we ended up doing this ourselves, then it would take much longer. Too long to drive north, but we could at least get back to Anchorage. Plan B – chartering a plane was hatching. After chatting with several folks, we would need to cough up roughly $1800 to take the three of us up to Tuk. No rental cars available. We could get a RT ride, but that was $1500 on account of the bad road. I was hemming and hawing about paying $1800 for the plane when I got word that the tire shop was going to be able to fix it right then and there. Thank goodness! We were on the road by noon!

Road grater damage
We knew there are no services really in Tuk. No cafes or restaurants and no hotels. There is only one gift shop but two small grocery stores. Things close early. The town is just ready for the world to drive in. It has been off the road for a very long time. We stopped by the grocery store in Inuvik and loaded up with pre made sandwiched and apples, and general snacks. I even got Rasta a couple of pieces of cheese as a special treat. Rasta is being such a sport, and seems to be enjoying herself. Aside from a hideous mozzie bite on her snout that makes her look like the wicked witch of the north she is doing great. Her princess carriage is very nice. She does not like to wear her hearing protection.

We also decided to strip down our operation. We left the KLR in town on account of the marble gravel and snotty mud reports. We left all our gear except emergency gear and rain gear in Inuvik. This was going to be day trip. A fast out and back hopefully.

The southern part of the road was like what we have been seeing. The landscape didn’t look much different. Sure enough the road was skittle strewn. There were places of really rough riding; washboard ruts for miles. There was only one pullout on the entire road even though signs said there were. This is a new road and they seem to still be building it. There were no places to stop your camper or motorhome. No places wide enough to turn around. No outhouses. Nothing. This is truly new remote road. It was like a raised gravel strip, maybe 20 feet above the tundra, with soft gravel shoulders on both sides. No one wants to ride too close to either side. Everyone wants to ride in the exact middle. Luckily there was not much traffic. There were about a dozen large belly dump diesel trucks still moving gravel and dirt. Otherwise going up there we saw less than a dozen vehicles both directions included. There were place of grating going on. These areas were extremely difficult to navigate. I imagine this will always be the case. As Michael said “F**king graters suck.” We did have good weather going up to enjoy the view.


This is actually the first pingo I saw.
The road was a strip of gravel winding around the lakes and between them. Water everywhere. The NWT safe to pass sign looked like an alien face from far away.  The sky was amazing and loud. Even in bad weather.

Road winds around the lakes

We stopped at the one pullout on the road. There were tundra flowers everywhere. This was Michael and Rasta’s first time to walk on real tundra (spongy). It was also the furthest North Michael has ever been. I am fortunate enough to have gone to Barrow, now called Utqiagvik, in the past. We needed to use our helmets as mosquito a net.

Michael and Rasta play on the tundra

Flowers grow wild across the tundra

The northern part of the road felt magical! It was truly stunning. I felt like I was looking left and then right and then left to see it all. It was a rolling landscape of vivid greed with bright blue water everywhere. Pingos punctuated the landscape in the distance. The sky was talking. It was just absolutely amazing. This section of the road is truly one of the most incredible drives I have ever done. It’s right up there with the road to Hana in Hawaii.

Screen shot of my GPS. Road through the lakes!
We reached the outskirts of town, which is truly not a good thing to see. We were warned that the new road enters the community by the landfill. They have not used dirt or fill to manage the landfill. Now that they have the road, they have easier access to fill and trucks. There are plans to clean it up, but right now we got to drive past decades of waste piled high. We definitely noticed the smell. One thing that was obviously absent in our trip to the Arctic Ocean – there was no scent of sea water.
We saw driftwood everywhere which confused us on account of there not really being trees in the north (not for hundreds of miles). So why all the driftwood? Ocean currents must be bring it up here? Thousands of driftwood trees all along the coast. Still no ocean smells.

I have the second largest pingo growing out almost out of my head
The road goes right through town. Typical buildings in the arctic, built high on pilings to allow air flow to pass. Houses directly on the tundra cause a heated footprint to melt the permafrost. This eventually causes the buildings to sink. So they raise them above. Dirt roads everywhere, very few business.

Pictures of the town of Tuktoyuktuk (Tuk)

We drive straight through to the very end of the road where it meets the ocean. Still no ocean smell, the water was silver.

We parked at the end of the road, took photos and celebrated the fact that we road motorcycles to the top of the planet. In Alaska, the Dalton does not reach the Arctic Ocean (as a private citizen). Can you do this anywhere else in North America? We made it! Rasta ran around and found a stick (in a treeless environment) and immediately sat down and chewed it.

We made it to the top of the planet!
to weird to eat

Musk ox burger anyone?

At the end of the road, a tent café exists. The only place in town to get something to eat. We tried the Musk ox burger  – icky. We ate the ham sandwich we brought from Inuvik. We then walked to the Arctic Ocean and touched the water. Rasta tried to go swimming, but got surprised by its chill. She settled for walking around in the water. We all dipped our toes (with boots) and paws. It then started to rain.
Rasta is all excited with the water.

She is getting ready to dip her paws.
The ride back was uneventful and fast. It rained most of the way. We were now in a hurry to get cold beer in Inuvik before the liquor store closed. We passed a couple two up on a fully loaded BMW. They were struggling to keep the bike straight. We confirmed it was good to that we didn’t bring the KLR.

We got to the store in time, but they only had horrible beer selections (American piss water – Budweiser, Coors, Miller), the good beer was not in the fridge. We toasted our success to reaching our goal with hot beer.

Then we talked about driving to the furthest tip of the South American continent Tierra del Fuego shared by Chile and Argentina.

We need to get home first!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

This Water Tastes Interesting?

I woke up so sore this morning I didn’t have the strength in my hands to open up a water bottle (from death grip and throttling for hundreds of miles). Michael and I are still chuckling over the “water incident” yesterday. It was such a hot day that we were drinking a ton of water. About 20 miles short of Eagle Plains, we took note were down to only 1 bottle (of easily accessible water – we actually carry a large white PAX of water, but that is the emergency-hard-to-get-too-water). So, on account of not wanting to run out, I pour Rasta’s water back into a small empty bottle. This is the water that was in her dog dish that she didn’t drink. I figured she could have it back later. Well, later I saw Michael sipping off a small water bottle. He passed it to me, and I accepted it as well. Then afterwards I asked him where he got the water. Guess. No worries, we are roughing it. Good chuckle.

1am Eagle Plains moon
It was absolutely horrible in the morning. Rain Rain Rain. We did not want to leave Eagle Plains on account of having been here before two other times. The very worst and most dangerous part of this road is just south of the Arctic Circle and the boundary of the Northwest Territory. If the road is wet, it is black snotty mud that will take a motorcycle down faster than you can say wtf. The mud gets deep near Rock Creek and stops trucks in the middle of the road.  We reluctantly packed. I actually think I saw fear in Michael’s eyes (this is on account of him riding my KLR and not his BMW800 GSA I am sure).

Wet Road
We pulled out and headed the 18 miles to the Arctic Circle. Rasta immediately jumped out and officially pooped in the north! We plugged on through slippery snot. The side car did pretty well, I need to keep it at 30 mph, on account of once it starts slipping, it starts slipping. As expected, there were mud puddles covering the entire width of the road, and Rock Creek had recently been graded! Normally, grading is bad for a motorcycle, but in this case they probably got rid nasty deep ruts. I am sure I was kicking up rooster tails out the back with mud! I slipped and slid up the hills, but kept on moving. Rasta napped.

The Barbie doll mounted to my KLR has seen better days. I picked her up in a small whistle stop town in the Midwest when we bicycled Route 66. She has proudly accompanied on the KLR since 2009. She is losing her hair.

At one point, I noticed the tire pressure alarm was flashing I was down to 33psi. We pulled over and didn’t see anything wrong. I kept going. The tire pressure dropped to 28psi. I pulled over and we looked at tires again. Sometimes the BMW tire sensors give bad readings on account of the sidecar. The sensors were not designed for a three car vehicle. This time when we stopped Michael could hear the fan trying to cool the motor. Mud had completely caked over the air flow screens. My motorbike is air cooled. If the screens are completely blocked, then the motor will overheat. Now we are searching for a river to wash out the mud.

We found a place on the side of the road right next to a river. The mozzies were extremely bad. Michael got the system flushed enough that we didn’t have to worry about overheating. Tire psi is now 26. We decide that I would keep running until it hit 20 psi then we would stop to put more air in. I am okay with this, because it is the rear tire. On a motorcycle, the absolute worst thing in the world is a tire blowout on the front tire. If the front tire goes you lose the steering.  We pressed on.

We climb into the mountain pass and ride straight into the clouds. Visibility drops to 50 feet. Road is slick and wet, no guard rails, can’t see shit. Then the psi drops to 24. This is getting a little stressful! Finally we get out of the clouds and black grease mud appears. The psi drops to 22. More stress. The magic number of 20psi has us pulled over off the road pumping up the tire. We are about 10 miles south of Fort McPherson. This is going to be a long day.

We arrive at the first river crossing, the Peal River, cross on the ferry and roll into Fort McP in search of a garage to repair our tire. The only garage in town with the tools capable of fixing the bike is wide open, but all the mechanics went fishing. No luck.

We press on to the 2nd ferry crossing and Inuvik.
By the time we get to the ferry crossing on the McKenzie River, my psi light is flashing again – down to 30. We load up on the ferry and all the ferry guys are loving Rasta. She is of course enjoying the attention. I confirm the mileage once we land is 70 more miles. The ferry guys offer to top off our psi while we are crossing the river. We are able to refill the air, strip down some gear, give Rasta water all before we get to the other side. They even had restrooms on the ferry! We were ready to go. We rode all the way to Inuvik without a problem. Clear skies and dry road! We arrived in Inuvik with a psi of 28.

We ordered pizza delivered to our cabin with two ice cold cokes. The Canadians might know what bacon is, but their pepperoni is in sheets (not small circles), and they were confused about why we would put black olives on a pizza. Apparently they do not do this on the top of the planet.

We washed the bikes, Rasta amused herself with sniffs of the north, and a load of laundry was accomplished. Michael said our gear is so trashed from the mud on this trip that afterwards we are going to have to get rid of our gear. Tomorrow we will tackle the tire issue.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Skittles vs. Marbles

We woke well rested in the Downtown Hotel, in Dawson. It was Canada Day, so the troops were out early handing out flags and wishing well. Everyone was excited on account of Prime Minster Justin Trudeau coming by to visit.
Michael walks Rasta near the mighty Yukon

Downtown Dawson
I placed my Canadian Pride on the back of my bike.

Breakfast was as expected in the Yukon – large and good. There was only one slip up. We think the kitchen buttered our breakfast toast with garlic butter rather than regular butter! It did not go well with jelly. We said goodbye to single ply toilet paper and an ice machine that sounded like Darth Vadar when he breathed into his mask. The skies were sunny when we headed for the Dempster.
I have never driven the sidecar farther than 200 miles without refueling. This road is a challenge because the next gas station is 256 miles away in Eagle Plains, our destination for the day. The side car gets only about 30 miles to the gallon. We are carrying extra gas. The KLR gets about 60 mpg. I was going to see how close I could get before I ran out of gas;  we made it.

Sunny skies and semi dry road!
Rasta has been enjoying the ride. She naps, then plays with Wookie, pops up and checks out the scenery, then repeats. I try really hard to not hit potholes for comfort. Just before we left, Sharon suggested we buy an outdoor cushion, the kind you put on your lawn furniture for the bottom of Rasta’s floor. It was the best idea! She has added comfort and we don’t have to worry about her bedding getting wet.

The road stretched out for miles. It was mostly smooth, although I hit a patch of thick mud that was challenging in the sidecar. I also found sand! The sand was easier to drive through because it didn’t cover the entire road. So either Rasta’s tire was in the sand, or the motorcycle was in the sand. Whichever was not in the sand brought a little bit of stability to the entire rig. The mud covered the whole road, and it was thick, and the road had recently been graded in that area. The mud would drag Rasta’s tire forcing me to pull hard left on the handlebars to keep the bike from veering to the right. The motorcycle would get caught in a deep rut of mud and the pull to the left requiring the opposite maneuvering. Rest assured I will have arm muscles of steel, especially the triceps after this summer!
We stopped every 50 miles to let Rasta stretch. We were tired and Michael was wishing he had a cold Mountain Dew to help wanting to doze. We stopped at one campground to hit the outhouse and the mosquitoes were so bad we couldn’t stay. Michael had to use a towel to keep the mosquitoes off Rasta while I ran to the outhouse. We got out of there and searched for a large opening, gravel pit for our break. Mozzies be damned.

Avoiding the mozzies in open gravel areas
We stopped about 50 miles from the end of our destination for a break with a very nice overlook. With clear skies and the sun out most of the day, the road was dry and temps were in the 70s. At this pull off, we were joined by a large group dual sport riders. They immediately fell in love with Rasta. We had taken a Rasta break so the guys that were missing their dogs back home got to visit. Rasta enjoyed the attention. These guys were coming from Tok, and they described the roads above Fort McPhereson buried with inches of “skittles.”  Skittles are you guessed it, not marble sized gravel, but skittle size gravel. We will find out when we get there.

Rasta trying to get the harness off her. She isn't interested in the view at all.
We made it to Eagle Plains for dark beer and dinner and headed for the room. The shower felt amazing after a long hard day in the dust, even if the shower was built for little people with the shower head directly blasting you in the face!

We travelled 256 miles today, of which only 28 were paved.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

"If I Could Only See..."

We stayed in our favorite place is Chistochina, the Red Eagle. We have been stopping off here for almost 10 years, staying in the little cabin called the Hermits Roost. It is just the right distance from Anchorage to work for the day, then hop on the bike and get on the road. Plus it is beyond Glennallen, the city of god. We had breakfast, said goodbye to Bob and Sharon, and hit the road.
We knew this day was going to be a raining day, so we left Rasta’s convertible top on the side car. While she is riding with the top on, there is no need for her to wear her RexSpec googles. Without her googles on, she generally curls up and goes to sleep.

Today was Michael’s birthday. We decided to celebrate when we got back from this trip. It is much easier than trying to celebrate on the road, especially when there aren’t any services around. Which reminds me; if you stay at the Red Eagle, make sure you take your own dinner or food to cook.

No sooner did we hit the road when it started raining. It rained all day. The mantra for the day ended up being “If I could just see…” on account of limited visibility. Rain on the visor of the helmets, rain inside the visor on the helmet, rain on the sunglasses, fogged up helmet visor, fogged up sunglasses.
We made it to Tok in no time and had hot chocolate, and a large cinnamon roll to share that made you shudder from the sugar content. We topped off our gas tanks and hit the Taylor highway.  The road just before Tok was more knarly than usual; the state really needs to repave that. The Taylor was okay, but there were definitely some spots to watch out for. The road is paved just outside of Chicken and runs through the end of town on the other side. The shiniest newest blacktop you have ever seen. Too bad it is only for a couple of miles.

Once in Chicken we stopped at the old gold camp and had chicken soup. This is our routine in these parts. The rain started coming down so hard just before we got to chicken, Rasta even got soaked going from the sidecar to go pee, then to the café. For the most part, Rasta was the driest of the three of us. And then it really started to rain. We sat looking at each other. We both knew the road was only going to get worse from there on out. We reluctantly packed up and left in the rain.
Driving a side car is way different than driving a motorcycle, driving a sidecar in the mud and gravel very different than pavement. It was definitely a challenge. I practices going from 30 mph to 0 in mud, in gravel, on dirt with ABS off. I learned that as long as the gravel was not that marble gravel we all hate, I was going to be fine.

We stopped a couple of times when the rain was less and let Rasta romp by the river or have carrot snacks. Soon we were at the border. No issues there. Then we were on the Canadian side and no sooner did we hit the road, when the marble gravel started.

For those of you that have never driven the “Top of the World” highway, it’s called that because you are basically driving on top of a ridge. The road winds up and down and there are some wonderful views (if it’s not raining). Let me also mention, if you haven’t driven a lot in the more remote provinces of Canada, the Canadians do not believe in guardrails.

So here we were, on this road covered in marbles, not really being able to see, with drop offs on both sides (the kind that will kill you if you go off the road) and no guardrails. Then we hit fog or low cloud cover. Let me say again, I wish I could just see. This is when Michael said “I’m going to die.” This is something he does not say often (at least not out loud).

So went the miles between the boarder and Dawson. Most of the time, I could only tell where I was going because the road was a silver glistening river of mud, and everything else was dark. At some point Michael started having clutch problems. We pulled over adjusted, and stood in the rain. Rasta sniffed a lot of flowers and rocks.

It stopped raining just before Dawson. The sky got partly cloudy, we caught the ferry across the Yukon River and parked at the Dawson Hotel. It was a 12 hour day in the rain. We have travelled 503 miles.

This morning, we are off to Eagle Plain, 240 miles up the Dempster.