North: The KTM Summer of Adventure – 12: The Dempster

There is only one thing you really need to know about the Dempster Highway – it hates you. If roads have personalities then most are banal, some are workmanlike, a few friendly, and fewer still playful… The Dempster is a cold hearted, fickle, and tempermental highway that never wanted to exist, and would like nothing more than to take it out on you given half a chance.

In stretches the Dempster is built on a heaving buckling platform of perma-frost that resists paving.  That alone ensures the highway is not for public consumption.  At the Dempster’s distal end it has gnashing tire-eating flint teeth ready to puncture your tires and drain them flat.  The Milepost, the Bible of Alaskan Travel, suggests you carry two spares tires.  Finally, the Dempster has a body of clay and is lovingly coated with calcium chloride to reduce the dust.

Just add water for evil.

Water liquefies the top layer of clay and the calcium chloride adds slickness to the vile slippery slurry.  Dear rider, you’d best be sporting proper knobbies on your bike of choice in the wet.  For the record the Pirelli Scorpion A/T’s on the KTM 990 Adventure do not count.

“I want to do the Dempster to the Arctic Circle.”

“No.  Don’t.”   The girl at the Dempster Highway tourism information booth in Dawson, YT couldn’t be clearer.  This is supposed to be one of the highway’s boosters.

“We’ve had a lot of rain.  Right now even 4x4s are having problems.  It’s a mess.”

“I’m on a motorcycle.”

“Don’t do it. My father works on the highway and the rain’s made it really bad right now.  This is not a normal road.  It’s the only one in Canada to cross the Arctic Circle.”

That fact gives the Dempster its appeal.

Never have I been so universally warned against doing a highway.  Let alone doing it solo.  Tourism boards, other riders, passers by on the streets, local drivers, almost to a one have told me not to do it.

My heart and mind have settled on the Arctic Circle, an arbitrary goal with the latitude of 66° 33’ North.

Over the past few days in Dawson, I’ve been periodically pumping locals and fellow travelers for information regarding the Dempster. Every slight break in the weather sees me run back to the hotel room to check the long-range forecast.  The outlook is bleak.

I can’t wait forever, and finally July 24th serves up a morning that is simply overcast with bouts of drizzle.

I ride to the junction of Dempster and fill up at the station there.  I ride the first 20kms of dirt (mud) road, the warnings sliding though my mind and the Pirelli Scorpion A/T’s doing likewise on the road.  This is foolish.

I turn back.

At the junction I turn the 990 Adventure towards Whitehorse and spare no throttle.  Ninety kilometers later I u-turn and return to the junction.  Did I really give it a chance?  Am I being a complete wimp?  Was the front end really sliding out that bad? Wouldn’t it be great to reach the Arctic Circle?

At the gas station I meet three riders who’ve just returned.  The one BMW rider had put his bike off the shoulder, and if it weren’t for the other two would likely still be there.

I ask the rider, “Would you do it again, alone?”


I top the 990 Adventure’s tanks up again, and turn up the Dempster.

Forty kilometers later I turn back.  The Pirellis and my resolve are the weak link in this chain.  Crossing the circle was an audacious thought to begin with, made more so by being solo and attempting to see how much adventure you can safely have being almost totally unprepared.  In this weather prepared means meatier tires than the Pirellis, which have become snakier with every muddy turn.

I’d rather fail than bring the KTM or myself back broken.  I console myself with “Another time.”, “I’ll be back.”, having unfinished business here, and that there are other adventures to be had.

That rings hollow though.

I feel gutted.  I can’t even bring myself to snap proper pics.

Even as I arrive in Whitehorse I wonder if the weather will break? Should I just grab a Starbucks and head back?  Should I have risked more?  In the end I check into the Highcountry Inn.

Exploration and adventure have always been at odds with the weather since well before the Donners partied or Scott found himself longing for a husky steak while having a spot of sock tea.  As an adventure rider there’s nothing more on the line here than a fraction of identity or bit of bragging rights, making me an enthusiast not a pioneer.

The context of adventure riding is exploration on a personal level, and that means we’ve the option to shy away from the foolhardy… this time at least.  That only deepens my respect for those willing to put their equipment and selves on the line to achieve a goal.

In the hotel room I check the weather again. I could still go back, it’s only about 500km back to the junction. There’s no change and no break predicted.  I feel lost.

Thanks to:
Tourism Yukon:


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