My friend, Lucy (not her real name – she asked me to call her that), is no stranger to adventure.
The daring Ontario expat, who has called the Yukon home for the last decade, has twice answered the call to cycle the Dempster Highway – a rugged expanse of terrain stretching from Dawson City to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. While she hasn’t succeeded quite yet, she’s ready to give the 740 km journey another go.
When Lucy first arrived to the Yukon in 2006, she took her first drive up the Dempster, and was struck by the boundless beauty of the northern tundra.
“I thought it was one of the most beautiful places,” she says. “I liked the remoteness and everything that offered.”
Inspired by the Dempster’s rugged, untouched beauty – and driven by a boldness that only thrill-seeking opportunists possess – Lucy decided that enjoying the Yukon Highway 5/Northwest Territories Highway 8 by car alone was not enough.
So, naturally, she decided to bike it.
“When biking, I think you see so much more than you would from a car or motorized vehicle; it’s a totally unique experience,” Lucy says.
“I’ve driven these roads many times, but when you’re biking, you’re seeing it, smelling it and hearing it differently.”
The first time Lucy cycled the remote highway, in 2006, she started from the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories, and had a support car that carried her supplies and met her at the end of the day. But a knee injury prevented her from traveling further than a few days.
For the next attempt, in 2008, she was even more prepared. She dehydrated all her food and tried to pack as lightly as she could.
She took a few practice spins with all her gear up Fish Lake Road, equipped herself with bicycle repair and maintenance knowledge, and packed a surplus of extra tubes and tires (the gravel road is well-known for popping tires of vehicles and bikes alike).
She also prepared food for a drop-off at Eagle Plains, located roughly halfway at kilometre 369 of the Dempster Highway: she arranged for these supplies to be dropped off at the Dempster Highway Tourist Office in Dawson City and caravanned to Eagle Plains by other motorists.
The second time Lucy took on the grueling pilgrimage, she set out on her own from Dawson and made it as far as Two Moose Lake, located at kilometre 104 of the Dempster Highway.
“I was all set, but I was way overpacked,” Lucy reminisces. “I remember stopping at the Klondike River Lodge and at the time there was a functioning gas station there. The man who ran the show told me, you have way too much stuff!”
In hindsight, the now-seasoned cyclist did have way too much gear – including loaded rear panniers, a bear canister and a backpack.
To make matters worse, the gravel roads had just been sprayed to keep the dust down, so the roads were tacky with calcium chloride, and aggressive headwinds had Lucy slowly grinding through the mountainous terrain. She had to stop frequently to clean her gears – something she hadn’t anticipated.
“On the first day, I was planning on cycling about 20 kms an hour and I was going about 7 km, so that really wore on my morale.”
As if gummed up gears, strong headwinds and excess baggage wasn’t enough, at kilometre 50 Lucy crossed paths with a couple of bears who were grazing in the ditch.
“The bears didn’t do much, they were just hanging out and eating, but that really freaked me out,” she says.
Paradoxically, what Lucy craved most before her solo Dempster sojourn, was the isolation and independence that a ride like this provides, but companionship turned out to be what she missed the most.
“Being alone was more scary than I thought when I had planned to do it,” Lucy says. “The biggest challenge was my fear of bears.”
Since that second attempt, Lucy went on to complete bicycle tours throughout British Columbia and down the western coast of the United States. But even with a few successful cycling tours under her belt, her desire to complete the Dempster hasn’t diminished.
“It’s something I would like to accomplish, but I certainly don’t feel like I failed,” she says. “I’ve tried it and I know what I would change for next time.”
In the time since her last Dempster attempt, she has spun even bigger dreams.
“Now, I would go all the way to Tuktoyaktuk because, why not?” she laughs. “I just think it’s one of my favourite places in the Yukon so why not try to spend as much time there as I can.”“I love the stillness of it all and the little ptarmigan running around. And I really love the tundra, where you can look down and in a little, two-inch square space there’s a whole world that’s just beautiful, small and amazing.”
Lucy’s advice for other like minded adventurers who might be inclined to take on such a challenge?
“Pack as light as you can. Go in with an open mind and a flexible schedule because you never know.”