|Day 13; Thursday, June 8th, 1999
Start: Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory
End: Eagle Plains, Yukon Territory
I wake up to bright sunlight streaming into my tent, today's the big day, we’re going to Inuvik, and I feel very well rested.... I stretch out in my sleeping bag, bring my watch to my face and.... Whoa!! It's 4:00 AM !! 7:00 AM back home, but since I'm not back home I force myself back to sleep for a few more hours.
Eventually, it really is time to get up and get going. Joe and I have breakfast, pack up and head north.
A couple miles up the road, there's a big sign with words to the effect of "No parking, stopping, or standing; and look out for aircraft". The road is a runway, with windsock at one end. We don't stop to take pictures.
The Arctic Circle is about 30-40 miles to the north, and we take our time getting there. The Dempster is in good condition, there's some wet spots that we easily avoid, and all’s well.
When we arrive at the Arctic Circle, we're all alone. There's a scenic overlook, and a very nice marker delineating the Arctic Circle itself. Joe announces that his GPS is spot on, and that the marker is in the right spot, and then grins.
Then we're back to being tourists. At the overlook, there's a broad valley below us, and in the distance are the Richardson mountains. We can see clouds blanketing the tops of those mountains, and there's a feeling of accomplishment at getting this far, as though getting to the circle itself is a pretty worthy goal.
A green van pulls up, driven by a retired older couple from Quebec. We take each other's pictures, we share lunch together, we talk, and talk, and talk some more, the four of us sitting around a picnic table there at the Circle. They show us the inside of the van they're driving; it’s equipped very nicely, with built-in cupboards, a bed, everything needed for a summer on the road.
It's a very nice day, but a bit cool and breezy. Joe and I are perfectly comfortable wandering around in our riding suits, with some insulating layers underneath, and the breeze is keeping the rumored northern mosquitoes at bay.
Then we say goodbye to the Quebec couple, and Joe and I continue towards the Northwest Territories border. I plug in the vest, dial in just a little heat, turn the heated grips on low, and all's well with the world.
A few miles later, we see our first grizzly bear, out on the tundra. Joe's in the lead, the bear runs across the road in front of Joe, out onto the tundra. At that point, I notice him to our right and I initially mistake him for a small buffalo, as the bear is brown and hunched over. By then we are much closer, he pauses for a minute to look us over as he half stands, and he is big, though not full grown. By now we're going rather slow, we aren't about to stop, and the bear is looking at us, we're looking at him. About that time, I think Joe and I both come to the realization that the grizzly could catch us if he wanted, as we're on loose gravel and are at a bit of a disadvantage to the bear. We accelerate away, the bear runs out onto the tundra in the opposite direction, and that sums up our grizzly bear story from the far north.
The Dempster begins to get a little bit slippery as we continue north, there's mud patches that we successfully negotiate, each time thinking that must be as bad as it's going to get, and that all will be alright now. You really haven't lived until you've had the front tire of a loaded R1100rs - with it’s stubby bars - pushing / sliding in a straight line as you try to get the front and rear tires to agree on the direction of travel...
We head up into the mountains, on the Yukon side of the Yukon Territory-Northwest Territories border. Fog rolls in, heavy fog, and suddenly everything is dripping as the mist accumulates and puddles and flies off various parts on the bike. Shortly after that it begins to rain. Joe motors away and disappears into the fog; he's a better rider than I and I'm not racing, I'm just waiting for things to clear up so that the riding will be as pleasant as it's been for the past week or so.
I cross into the Northwest Territories, Joe's invisible to me somewhere up ahead. There's a very unique marker at the NWT border, we've arrived!! The northernmost, most empty province in Canada! Just another 160 miles to go and we'll arrive in Inuvik; I can almost taste the steak dinner now...
Then I come down out of the fog, and I see Joe standing in the middle of the road, looking down at a big pile of stuff on the left side of the road, with another smaller pile behind him on the right side of the road. The first thoughts that pop into my mind are "Why's Joe standing in the middle of the road? Where'd he get that pile of stuff? And where's his GS?"
I scramble to my feet, run over to the bike and hit the kill switch. I pull my camera out of the right chest pocket of my mud-covered 'Stich, and record the scene for posterity. Joe is in the distance standing over his GS, that second pile is one of his saddlebags that was snapped off the GS, the fog is lifting from the roadway, the road is muck, and we're about 5,000 miles from home. The earplugs are still in, so it's eerily silent - there's nobody else in sight, just the road stretching across the tundra into the fog, curving to the left in the distance.
Joe walks over to me, and says in a monotone "We got a problem - swingarm's cracked on the GS....." I reply "Which one? Are you sure?" Joe looks at me like I'm an idiot, and says, in the same monotone "Yes, I'm sure; the rear....." Oh boy - suddenly we're even further from home than I thought!
We right my bike first, since we're both standing there, and it's not damaged at all. Apparently deep mud is about as soft as deep snow.
Then we walk down to Joe's GS and wrestle it upright. Holy crap!!! Joe's bike high-sided, snapping off both the saddlebags and splitting the rear swingarm open. The rear wheel is cocked about 10-15 degrees away from the vertical plane. Very, very ugly. We can look inside and see the drive shaft and U-joint for the para-lever through the crack. Interesting in an abstract sort of way at the moment. The windshield is gone, and there's a trail of plastic debris marking the final trajectory of the GS, along with little divots in the mud and stone roadway marking the impact points where it tumbled.
Neither of us seems seriously hurt, so we discuss the best direction to go for help. The GS is dead. The weather is crap. Fort Nelson to the north is closer at about 20 miles, while the distance back to Eagle Plains is about 60 miles. But the road north is an unknown quantity, it could be 20 miles of impassable crap for all we know. Since I'm the one who'll be going, I vote to go south because at least I know the condition of that road, even though it is 60+ miles back to Eagle Plains, and because Joe and the GS will have to go south eventually anyway.
I ask Joe for his CO2 cartridges, since he won't be needing them, and I don't want to be stranded on my run for help. Is there anything else that would be helpful from the dead GS? Nope, and I'm on my way, going for help.
I meet up with the French-Canadian couple that we snacked with at the Arctic Circle, and I warn them that the road ahead just past the Northwest Territories border is about as slippery as snow. And then I continue on.
The muddy spots don't seem as bad on the way south, I suspect that the road has good drainage and that it probably dries out quickly.
I get to Eagle Plains safely, and go to the front desk of the motel to see who to contact. The girl at the front desk tells me not to worry, that they've got it handled. They've dispatched a Yukon road crew truck to pick up Joe and the GS. How'd they know?? A semi-truck driver radioed it in. Guess it wasn't as remote as it seemed at the time.
I hang out, waiting for Joe. To pass the time, I talk with the girl at the front desk. I also see that they have “Arctic Circle Crossing” certificates, so I get one for Joe and one for myself, the girl at the front desk fills them out in perfect calligraphy, and I rent us a room and lay Joe's certificate on his bed. We did get above the Arctic Circle, we did ride our motorcycles to the Arctic...
Then the road crew hauls Joe and the GS in, and loads the GS onto a pallet for the trip home.
Joe and I talk, he's pretty sore now. His thumb and his ribs hurt. He has painkillers in the first aid kit, and takes some. And then he starts going through his stuff in the motel room, separating good from bad, two piles, one of things that will be thrown out here at Eagle Plains and the other of stuff that will be go home, somehow. He boots up his notebook computer, and it works !! It goes in the good pile.
We shower and clean up, we feel a little better. All our gear looks like Hell.... there's dry mud caked all over everything.
I get out my BMW Anonymous book, looking for local dealers. Not surprisingly, there's none in the Northwest Territories or even in the Yukon, the nearest dealers are in British Columbia.
We eat supper and discuss some of our options, it's not the cheery dinner in Inuvik we'd imagined this morning. He tells me there's some things he never did find at the crash site, such as our food bag; and that he got to watch a semi-truck make 3 attempts at the hill before getting up it, and that the Quebec couple got very sideways coming down, in spite of my warning.
Later that evening, I head into the bar for some socializing. There's not much to do at Eagle Plains, it's really just a way-station on the road. The bar is a cross between "Cheers" and "Northern Exposure"; the employees at Eagle Plains outnumber the guests, and the truck driver is a regular customer on his twice weekly run up to Inuvik.
The guys on the road crew who picked up Joe and his GS are there, and we get to talking. They're very ticked that the Northwest Territoires road crew patrolling the northern section hadn't notified them that the road was that bad, or they'd have closed it at Eagle Plains. And oh, by the way - the Dempster was closed after your crash. There were cars and semi-trucks having difficulty at the same spot.
I talk to the semi-truck driver in the bar, probably the guy that radioed for help, and explain how Joe and I had hoped to make it up to Inuvik, that in planning the trip we'd looked at the map and we really wanted to ride to the very end of the road, and the end of the road is Inuvik, and that we've failed.
He says not to worry, that we made it above the Arctic Circle, how many can say that? Inuvik will still be there for us for another trip, another year. Gives you an excuse to come back again. Then he explains that we were pretty much screwed when we left Eagle Plains, and tells what he saw coming southbound from Inuvik that day - in addition to the mud we fell in, further north there were extremely high winds in a section of the Dempster that the locals call "Hurricane Alley", and north beyond that the ferry landings were so soft that heavy equipment had to be used to pull some of the RV's out of the mud as they left the ferry.
So if we had made it past the mud, it's extremely doubtful in his opinion that we'd have made it past the other obstacles in our way. He then goes on tell me some very interesting stories about driving semi-trucks on the Dempster in the winter, when it's dark 24 hours, with the northern lights glowing, and bitter cold, and the road crews blade an ice road across the tundra 30 miles past Inuvik up to "Tuk" on the Arctic Ocean, and how his truck was blown over one winter coming through Hurricane Alley, how it slid forever on it's side in the snow, and about survival gear carried in the truck.... He says all of this in such a matter of fact way, no bragging, just simply reporting what he's seen, I'm in awe of this place, and the people, and the truck driver telling me the story. I thought it was a big deal going to the Arctic Circle on a motorcycle, and I'm humbled by this truck driver.
When the bar closes, the sun is going down, just above the horizon as it's been since about 11:00 PM. I go into the lobby, I'm wide awake and wound up, and feel like relaxing. I look for a recent newspaper, and the latest I can find is two weeks old, but it's news to me, so sit down and begin to read. Then Stan, the owner of the motel, comes in, tells me there's no need for me to sit there alone, the employees are having a party in the Atco trailer next door - would I care to join them?
Sure! I head over to the Atco trailer, which is the on-site housing for the college kids that staff the motel through the summer. We have some wine, talk about home, have some more wine, discuss religion, more wine, philosophy... I'm a little bit influenced by the alcohol, and I tell a political joke about doctors and medicine and insurance - am greeted by a roomful of blank stares. Oh yeah, I'm not home - I don't do that again.
Finally at 3:00 AM we're all exhausted. I walk out of the Atco trailer, and the sun is still going down in a beautiful orange and yellow sunset that has lasted over 4 hours so far.
I stumble into the motel room in the dark, Joe mumbles that he wondered when I'd be going to bed. I climb into my own bed and am instantly asleep.
What a day...