Stu and John’s Escapade North – Destination Inuvik Part Three

Story by Stu Seaton// Photos by Stu Seaton
May 1 2009

On July 1, 2008, Stu, riding his BMW R1200GS Adventure, and his brother, John, riding Honda Canada’s, then new to Canada, Varadero, left Ontario to head west to Victoria, BC with their final destination of Inuvik, Northwest Territories in their sights.

The pair had made it to the 250 Kilometre marker on the Dempster Highway when the rear tire of the Varadero found a piece of razor sharp shale. With no spare tire and only a tubeless tire repair kit, they did their best at plugging the tire on the deserted highway, far from civilization. Now they had an important decision to make based on the shaky tire repair they knew wouldn’t last; to continue north into the unknown, or to turn around and head back from whence they came.

July 16th at the 250 Kilometre Marker

We had to make a decision, or pitch a tent in the middle of the highway and wait for a bolt of divine intervention. A decision seemed more likely. We knew that at best this tire repair was temporary and that simple thought told both of us that we really mucked up in the planning department. We should have been carrying full spares. Simple as that. Perhaps we just get so used to having bits and pieces at our disposal around the corner that we didn’t think about what would happen if we had more than just a little hole in a tire, in the far north, where nothing is ‘just around the corner’.

I didn’t know if the repair would last a kilometre or ten thousand, but I was putting my money on it lasting about fifteen minutes, which was actually pretty close. We decided to abandon the goal of riding to Inuvik and turn around. This brought on a few more concerns, we were presently at kilometre 250; simple math says 500 kilometres before we are close to refueling. The GS has a monster tank but the Varadero would be empty well before then. All of a sudden the two plastic fuel cans on my bike looked pretty important. The mood was sullen, dark and well past miserable. John felt like it was all his fault, but we both knew that wasn’t the case. Simple truth was that he had hit some shale that you could shave with and I just happened to have missed it. The other part of the equation was going on to Eagle Plains, but knowing that the further north we went the less fuel we’d have; coupled with an unknown tire made the decision a little easier to face. John turned the Varadero around so I could focus on his six.

John was about a hundred metres in front of me when he madly started pointing over his right shoulder. I was focusing on his rear tire and was wondering what he was trying to communicate. I looked off to the right as I thought I saw something flash in the bush. About five seconds later I saw what it was he was pointing at, and what a sight it was.

This is when the whole trip became worth the price.

There she was, about three metres off the roadbed, or about one stride away and standing two and a half metres straight up. Her intent gaze was fixed on me. I slowed to a first gear crawl as I had never seen anything like her before. She was blonde, a colour that I’m sure would be a hit in any salon. Her arms hung straight down and she sported nails that looked as long as my hand. Being somewhat deaf I’m pretty good at reading body language and there was no mistaking hers, she was saying in no uncertain terms: I feel threatened and thus I may kill you. This was the very first Arctic Grizzly that I had ever seen, up close and very personal. My first thought was: Wow, I gotta get a shot of this! My camera was hanging around my neck, but had managed to turn itself around as my left hand fumbled with it, then I thought, ‘You idiot! I may be crunchy on the outside but I’m soft and juicy on the inside.’ I could see her start to make a move and I laid some serious BMW power on the roadbed. John had slowed way down and was looking back as I caught up to him, “Did you see the two cubs?” he yelled. Cubs? I didn’t see them anywhere! “There were two cubs right beside me!” John had this monster grin as he excitedly told me his version of the ‘Family Griz’ encounter. I stopped him in mid-flight, “So you got them just pissed off enough to come after me?” “Well I didn’t throw anything at them.” We laughed and for some reason we felt that this little bit of a grizzly encounter of the ‘real

kind’ was the reason we came north anyway. It made us feel much better even as we watched the rear tire on his Varadero slowly deflate. We just putted for a bit and our moods became downright perky.

Okay, so we weren’t going to make Inuvik. Mayor Lindsay will need to keep the single malt capped for another day. It was all in focus now. I goofed up in the planning department, chalk that one up to experience. Considering all the new mistakes I can make, I’ll never make this one twice. I’ll carry full spares, I’ll know exactly what the next town has to offer, and I’ll never, ever ride that heavy on the Mighty Dempster Highway again. There. Problem solved, now to find some new rubber.

About twenty minutes southbound we run into, of all things, a guy peddling up the Dempster on a bicycle hauling a trailer. Now I don’t know about you, but in my books that takes mighty big cojones. John passed him, big wave, I come chuffing up to him and I really don’t know what made me do it, but I did anyway. I stopped. “Hi how-ya-doin…, oh by the way there’s a big Griz up the road by the 250 marker with a couple of cubs, you may want to keep an eye out.” Damn, I should have kept my trap shut as it was like watching a birthday party balloon get purposefully poked with a pin. All the air just seemed to drain out of the poor guy. He looked so happy until I showed up. I chugged away and watched him slowly lift leaden feet into his peddle stirrups. I can be an ass at times. I feel bad about this so, buddy, if you ever read this, I do apologize, umm, that is if you’re still with us.

Not far after that the rear tire on the Varadero needed help. This time we’re on a wider roadbed that didn’t fall off to one side, so getting to our supplies was easier, one more plug and we were rolling again.

With our lightened mood we cruised the Dempster and took some time to see what we missed the first time around. The first thing that hit us was that there is way more to see on the Dempster than just wacky hills, crooked trees and really big bears. People actually camp up here and they love it. There was even a forty-something woman power-walking with a big golden retriever, in the middle of nowhere. Screw a five-star Caribbean resort; give me the north! Although I’m sure I’d have a different take on things in February.

Around the 100 Kilometre marker, John was watching his fuel count down to levels that meant ‘stop’, so we drained the auxiliary gas cans and he’s good to go. We finally arrived at the Yukon Lodge and walk in like two wounded dogs. Dawn, the desk clerk, said, “I thought you guys were heading for Inuvik?” Sure, rub salt in the wound. We asked if anyone was around the tire shop and Richard, the Lodge manager, told us that it’s locked up, well, not really locked up, it just looks like it. “Go ahead and use whatever you need, just let me know”. The shop was set up for trucks and cages, all we could really do was replace a bunch of plugs and use a much mightier compressor than what we had carried with us.

We sat in the ever-changing lounge and scarfed down a couple of Muskox burgers, which were really quite good. After a couple of ice cold Yukon’s and a chat with Dan, the first nation fellow we met on our way north, we retired to the last room available. It seems there was a music festival planned in Dawson and things were booking up fast.

The next morning we ran into a trucker who told us that the tire shop in Eagle Plains did twenty-five tire repairs on tractor-trailers that seemed to deflate in the same general area as John’s tire did. That little ditty brightened our mood even more, see, misery does love company. For us it was Whitehorse or bust. The Varadero was still losing air, but not as bad as we thought it would be. After a monster breakfast and some compressor time, we hit the trail. We had only three more tire fixes before we finally made the outskirts of Whitehorse and heaved a sigh of relief, someone will have skins here. Whitehorse Honda proved to be our heroes; even though it was past closing time they mounted a new Metzeler on the rear of the Varadero and gave the bike a once over while I made arrangements to have new rubber installed on the GS first thing in the morning. With a tire that was now dependable, the next stop was a cheesy motel and a great pizza shop called Bocelli’s. We ate like pigs, signed their wall of fame, hit the motel and we were out in seconds. That was one long day.

Seven-thirty in the morning rolled around and I had the Touratech bags stripped off the GS and headed back to Whitehorse Honda where a vertically challenged mechanic asked me if I could ride the GS up on the rack, not something they do everyday. John wheeled around town looking for a laundromat only to be directed back to the motel we were staying at, so he played Mom – one quarter at a time. New skins, clean clothes… who could ask for anything more? Where to from here?

Muncho Lake may not sound like much, and we considered Highway 97 was going to be slab, but it was in-fact pretty cool. Every corner and vista was great, plus all of the four-legged critters you can name that live in the Great White North seemed to want to come out and say “hi!” A large coyote loped out on the highway and made about three turns in the middle of the road before it figured out what direction it wanted to go and a few seconds later we saw our first buffalo. Folks, there’s a big difference between the buffalo you see at a zoo and buffalo that roam in the north. First it was, “look-look-look! A buffalo!” Cameras out, click, click, but an hour later we’re saying, “When are these buffalo going to quit?” In Alberta I saw road signs that showed a car crashing into a buffalo and the verbiage was something along the lines of, ‘This is an Alberta speed bump. Beware.’ I could not imagine hitting one of these monsters and they were out by the hundreds. They amble, the road belongs to them and they have no notion of getting out of your way, so patience is the key word of the day. Highway 97 netted us coyotes, sheep, goats, buffalo, elk, moose and a few other critters that we caught out of the corner of our eyes that defied identification. There was a whole herd of sheep lined up licking the roadbed like it was a never ending popsicle.

One side of Highway 97 is cut out of some serious rock forming a solid wall, with the other side being deep water that I understand houses many bulldozers, cars, motor homes and sport bikes. I can see how that can happen because the roadbed is good and the corners are swift. The Highway must be something in the spring when the mountain run-offs occur, as there are huge tracks caused by washouts leading down to the highway from high above. The highway also sported some closed gas stations which gave us a bit of a start when the ‘feed me’ light came on, fortunately there’s lots of fuel available. Even if the sight of a boarded-up gas station gives you a chill, fuel was never far off in this area.

The Northern Rockies Lodge on Muncho Lake came into view and that seemed like a perfect if not sumptuous overnight motorcycle friendly stop. Besides, with this menagerie of beasts out in full daylight, I could only imagine what it would be like at night.

Don Pollock, one of the owners of this fabulous lodge greeted us as we were rolling into the parking lot. Don told me that he often has folks from Europe ride to the lodge for a week or two of remote fly-in fishing and he keeps their bikes in the lodge’s aircraft hangers. This ain’t any ordinary run-of-the-mill lodge folks. I ponder Don’s words, ‘remote fly-in fishing’. I really thought we were remote already.

July 19th, 14 degrees and rain. The good news is that Enviro-Canada tells us that we’re running out of this wet weather front and might even see some dry conditions. Sun, now there’s a pleasant thought.

We continue our run through Toad River and down to Fort Nelson where we meet Jim Steevie and Don Williamson. I looked at Don, he looked at me and we realize there’s some sort of recognition going on. It turns out he lives about twenty kilometres from me in Eastern Ontario and we’ve had a few ‘Timmies’ chats. Jim and Don are just out for a ride, not really too concerned about where they end up and they’re loving every minute of it.

John and I figure Fort Nelson is a good place to hang our hats for the night. As we settle in to a cheap but clean motel, two other riders roll in, Max Durando on a GS and Rob MacLeod on a KTM. Out comes some beer and we swap stories, which were remarkably similar. The next morning Rob and Max were slowly rolling their bikes back and forth through a puddle and muttering, “Yup, one, two, wait a minute, back up, ya, three…” Holes in tires seem to be synonymous with riding in the north.

Weather seems to be smiling on us and we continue on 97 for Fort St. John and on to Grande Prairie. Now things were heating up and I was down to just outer armour and a grin. Once we hit Grande Prairie we had to decide on direct or indirect routing and we weren’t ready to hit slab in any big way yet. We chose Highway 40 south out of Grande Prairie and set our sights on Grande Cache. Highway 40 is something that’s worth talking about with its spectacular views and glass-like smooth pavement. I honestly don’t think that there’s a bump anywhere on that road. This was nirvana! John and I need tons of self-control not to turn on the taps, and it’s a good thing as a couple of wandering moose slowed us down, making us ride a bit more cautiously.

After booking into a brand new Best Western, we found a suitable picnic table to enjoy the mountainous scenery and shot the breeze with Kurt Kruger and Marv Folkerts, both from Iowa on Hogs, who are presumably lost and having a ball somewhere in the Rockies.

The next day would take us down through Jasper, which I was looking forward to until I realized that we were no longer in the North. Way too many people for me. We trudged through throngs of motor homes, which we realized by now that a motor home pilot may do anything at any moment. Much like a buffalo, but not near as pretty. We looked at receding glaciers being stomped over by tourists and generally got the feeling that from what we saw in the far North, this was sheer chaos. Bumper to bumper in Jasper; nature being civilized.

When we finally saw the Highway #1 sign we knew it was time to go home. With a hollow pit in our stomachs we turned east to slab it home as we said goodbye to one of the best rides a pair of brothers could ever take.

John and I pulled off the 401 at my exit, I kicked my sidestand down and he walked over to me and gave me a hug. We didn’t need to say much; the tears said it all. It was a good ride, all 18,400 kilometres.

The chances we take, the memories we make. It’s all about the ride.

 

In closing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank:

My big bro for saying: “yes” to this adventure. I will always carry the memory in a good place.

Honda Canada for letting us abuse such a wonderful machine over such a distance. It’s a winner.

BMW Durham for helping out with some bits and pieces that really added up.

Dr. Ron Twiddy who made my back livable, I’m blessed with medical care that is true care.

The Mojo team, couldn’t have done it without you guys.

And finally my family who said: “Go!”

Ride Safe. Ride (very) Far!

 

 

What worked:

1) The Honda Varadero: What a great machine, suspension (that after we finally had the settings right) was just fabulous, tons of power, great brakes, reasonable fuel economy – around 5.4L/100km (see comments below about fuel consumption), good ergonomics and a great feel for a big dual-purpose machine. The Honda luggage system is tough, deceptively cavernous, absolutely dry and dust free. Go for the optional centre stand and heated grips, both can make life so much better in the boonies.
Possible improvements: The windscreen needs some help in wet weather, the mirrors need to be re-designed to draft air off the riders hands. Other than that, leave it alone and go ride to wherever you feel like riding.

2) The BMW RGS1200 Adventure: Another winner, gobs of power, braking is precise and excellent rider coverage in lousy weather. Fuel economy is reasonable depending on the link between your brain and your right hand. The GS is somewhat like a tool, it does what it’s designed to do, which is to be a smooth mule over anything you can ride on, thus it gets stacked up with all sorts of junk that doesn’t help aerodynamics one bit. To come up with a precise ‘so many kilometres per litre’ statement is very dependent on conditions. In hard running, against the wind the GS would gobble fuel as high as 7L/100 km, easy running and you’re fuel efficiency increases to 4.5L/100 km. Touratech bags were dry, dust free and as big as a barn, they also work well as makeshift patio furniture. Ergonomics are good provided you’re not vertically challenged.
Note: Ergonomics – This is something that affects every long haul rider; don’t think that what you have just taken from the showroom floor is still going to be perfect after 700 kilometres. Take the time to look at bar positioning, including the use of risers and saddle adjustment. Regardless of the bike–a few millimetres of adjustment wherever the body makes contact with the bike can make the ride a good one or a bad one. If something could use improving on the GS, I’d suggest the saddle and the horn.

3) Gears tank bags: Dry, secure and holds much more stuff than it looks like it will.

4) Rok Straps: Take my word for it. Do not buy el-cheapo straps. When you’re long hauling in tough conditions, you want to be sure that your stuff stays where it’s supposed to. We had both typical bungee straps and Rok straps, the only straps that we didn’t need to fool around with were the Rok straps, worth every penny.

5) Garmin Zumo 550: Let me gush about our indignant Garmin ladies who led us faultlessly there and back and were never wrong once. If you’re even thinking about long haul riding, go and shell out the dough for a Zumo 550. It’s waterproof, absolutely accurate, easy to mess about with gloves on, has a large screen that is super easy to read and has a pretty neat securing screw that makes it pretty tough to swipe. Couple the Zumo to your computer and download the whole trip, or play it by ear; it’s super easy either way. We did have problems with power supply on one of the bases, but I’m sure Garmin would have simply exchanged it if we had taken the time to do it.

6) Olympia outerwear: Twenty-six rain days, +3C to +31C and I’m dry; warm when I want and cool when I want, need I say more. Lots of CE labeled armor that fits well and if you wish you can stand out like a bright yellow sore thumb. For me that’s a good thing. When you buy outerwear buy the good stuff, look at sites like www.advrider.com and read what people have to say about gear in general, it will help with choices down the road.

7) Motorrad boots: My feet were dry and warm regardless of the wet and cold weather we encountered. They’re comfy and offer some serious upper protection. My next set of adventure riding boots will be the same.

8) Nolan helmets: We rode with Nolan 102 N-com helmets, which have the flip up face / jaw portion, perfect helmets for good or lousy weather. The helmets come with a three-piece face shield assembly that is not only tough but has an anti-fog shield inside so you can be fully buttoned up and actually breathe in the cold and wet, without fogging up. The helmets have great air movement when you open the vents up.
The communication system worked well with clear communications to about 100 metres once we finally got the Bluetooth paired up between the two helmets. The Nolan also came with removable liners that are washable… which reminds me…

9) Bicycle shorts: Yeah, you may not want to parade around the hotel lobby in them, but they make a huge difference on a long haul, go ‘commando’ and just wear bicycle shorts underneath, they have a chamois crotch liner that absorbs sweat and makes life nice in the butt department, they can be purchased at any bicycle shop for about 30 bucks.

10) Pelican cases: Tough, waterproof and able to take a beating without damaging electronics. Pricey, yup. Worth it? You bet.

 

What didn’t work and stuff that needs some extra thought:

1) ‘Oscar’ outerwear: Wet, wet, and cold. Not fun in lousy weather.

2) Planning, planning, planning. This bit didn’t work well, although I thought I had it nailed down. With all of the information available with the click of a mouse you’d have thought that I would have known a little more about the Dempster than just the history.
We both saw what was left of a set of knobbies off of a KLR that had been up to Inuvik and back. We didn’t clue in. We knew we were riding heavy and we had the opportunity to off-load a ton of stuff. Again, we didn’t clue in. After our trip I read an old blog written by a guy on a GS that had tire failures at just about the same place we did. I must have discounted that obvious blog without a second thought. I should have insisted on tire bead breakers, tubes and full spares. Never again will I make that mistake. When tires go flat, your trip stops, plain and simple.

3) Psychology: If you’re going to ride long haul, prepare both your body and your mind for the good and the bad, remember the word adventure doesn’t always include fairy-tale endings and you may find yourself engaged in something you never expected. Go with the idea that it would be nice to reach a goal, but never make that the sole purpose of the ride. The ride is the goal, you’re doing something that many just dream about so be satisfied with however far you get and enjoy everything in between. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I can guarantee that you’ll have mental ups and downs on a trip so don’t sweat the little stuff and enjoy the moment.

4) Stuff to pack: Go get all the stuff you feel you must take with you. Spread it all out on the floor. Now lose half of it because you probably won’t ever use it and every kilogram counts. Concentrate on real good versatile outerwear, spares, tools and safety gear.
Adventure riding means that you may need more than just the basic St. John first-aid kit. Make some room in your brain too; take a First-Aid course so you know how to use everything before you go.
Be prepared to wash your tiny pile of clothes more often. Remember, you can be butt naked under your outerwear in a laundromat and no one will notice.

5) Money: If you think the trip will cost five grand, it won’t. It’ll cost way more than that. Go prepared in the cash department because you never know what’s going to break or where it’s going to happen.

6) Looking ‘cool’: If you’re going to long haul don’t even think of stuff like ‘beanie’ helmets or jean jackets, leather vests and chaps. You’ll be wet, cold and miserable in no time and won’t stand a chance if something evil happens. Wear proper armour, a full-face helmet and dress like you need to wake up a cage driver. Believe me you will, at some point.

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