by Jim Winterer
I guess I was in his blind spot, but the truck driver never really explained what happened when he made a last-second swerve to take the same freeway exit I was taking early one afternoon in the spring of 1991.
I barely remember seeing the red fender as he veered in from the left. I clearly remember, though, the two quick hits. Wham wham … as fast as you can say it. The first sent the SR500 into a major wobble. Instinct told me to hold the bars straight for all I was worth, but the second hit knocked the bike right out from under me. My only thought as I launched over the windshield at 60 mph: “Oh, oh. This one’s gonna hurt.”
Side by side, we embedded bits of ourselves in the cement as we slid up the ramp. I divided my sliding time between my face, hands and knees and my back. The 50-year-old bomber jacket wore through in spots, but the back of me came out of it a lot better than the front.
The SR should have been wearing a jacket, too. It took a lot of front-end damage, and sliding on its side a couple hundred feet didn’t help the wax job. When we finally came to a stop, darned if the thing wasn’t still running at idle.
My next thought was, “I wonder where my nose is, I can’t feel it.” It was still there, or at least most of it, according to the truck guy who came over to say he was sorry. He was a lot sorrier when the Highway Patrol gave him a reckless-driving ticket.
This isn’t something you can explain to many people, but I think MMM readers can understand how crummy I felt when I looked over and saw the mashed SR lying there on the ramp. It was like the time I saw a Cadillac drive over my golden retriever.
The big single and I had already been through a lot since I bought it new in 1981. A lot of pavement, and a lot of gravel. First was a 90-mile round trip from my home in St. Paul, Minn., down the Mississippi to Red Wing. Next, a 200-miler around the river’s beautiful Lake Pepin; then a 300-miler to Duluth; then 1,500 around Lake Superior; then a couple thousand to as far north as you can go in Manitoba.
By then, the SR and I were starting to get the hang of it, and the 500 took me through Montreal, Quebec, New England and around Nova Scotia. Another summer, we made it around Great Slave Lake to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. And finally – the year before all the freeway festivities – we took a stab at Inuvik, Northwest Territories, a couple hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. We had to turn back near the Yukon-British Columbia border that year because heavy rains had caved in a mountain pass. It would take two weeks to reopen, so we scratched Inuvik and spent a week poking around the mountains of British Columbia. The SR isn’t used to turning back, and I knew one of these summers we’d have to try that Inuvik thing again.
No trips the summer of the accident, except by car to the motorcycle salvage yard. Still in a wrist cast, I wandered through rows and rows of dead bikes. It took a few hours, but I finally found a scrapped SR that donated about half the parts I needed. Some old Yamaha 650s provided the rest. I spent weeks out in the garage rebuilding the bike; it’s amazing what you can do with one hand.
The SR healed a lot faster than my wrist. It took a few years and a few operations before it worked well enough to trust on another Arctic attempt. Over the next couple of years, though, we started taking longer trips. When the SR ripped through the 1,400 miles around Lake Superior in 36 hours one summer weekend, I knew we were finally ready for another stab at Inuvik.
When the final prep work was done on the bike in early July 1995, I was tempted to throw a sheet over the 14-year-old single and retire it to a quiet corner of the garage. After all it had been through, 47,000 miles worth, it stood there on its center stand just as good as new. It had earned a happy retirement. “Nah,” I thought, “It’s time to go beat the snot out of it again.”
For the trip, I rolled my sleeping bag inside a small tent that got strapped to the rear rack. Two stuff bags were filled with soft stuff go in front of the tent and offer a little back support. A pair of soft saddlebags carried the lumpy, heavy stuff. Because there is a 250-mile stretch without a gas pump, a plastic two-gallon gas can got strapped to the very back of the rack. Not counting the gas, I’d guess all the extra gear weighed less than 75 pounds.
I started the 17-day, 7,002-mile Inuvik trip July 6, leaving St. Paul during a full-bore thunder boomer, 40-mph head winds, and frequent thoughts like, “Gee, isn’t it fun to be on the road again.” I hit rain every day but one, but usually managed to punch out of it by tent time. Only stayed in a motel once, though there were nights that I would have gotten a room if one were to be had within a few hundred miles.
The Dempster Highway, the only public road that crosses the Arctic Circle, starts at the Alaskan Highway just south of Dawson, Yukon, and winds its way about 480 miles northeast to Inuvik, a 30-year-old town built on the Mackenzie River. It’s as far north as you can drive on this continent in the summer; in the winter they plow a road on the river and you can drive another 25 miles north to Tuktoyaktuk, located directly on the Beaufort Sea.
The Dempster’s first 250 miles are pretty nice, which means there’s a narrow, packed track in the gravel that lets you clip along between 30 and 45 mph. Shortly after crossing the Arctic Circle the road gets challenging. That means soft, trackless gravel and lots of first-, second- and third-gear thumping. The SR, as you know, was absolutely in heaven in this stuff. We spent hours in third gear, between 1,800 and 2,200 rpm.
Out on the prairie, where even 100 mph seems like you’re standing still, the SR isn’t exactly a dream bike. Still, it’s happy at 65 mph. Once you’re on a road like the Dempster, though, it’s amazing how many comments you hear like: “Well, you sure picked the right bike for this place.”
The scenery is incredible. The Dempster crosses two mountain ranges and picks its way through permafrosted tundra. There were still a few ponds with ice in them. With long stretches with few trees, it can get pretty windy. My guess is that on the way up, head winds were gusting to 50 mph at the Arctic Circle. I noticed that the outhouse at the rest stop there had steel cables running across its roof to keep the thing from blowing away. On my return trip, though, the winds were light. I picked the two warmest weeks of the year up there, so daytime temps were in the 70s.
I met four other bikers on the way up. One crashed in a construction zone before he got to the Dempster, and was nursing a stitched knee and a bent Beemer. At the start of the Dempster, I met a German who tried to make the trip on a big V-twin. He crashed in the gravel about halfway to Inuvik and had to spend a week in a $110-a-night motel before he and his broken ribs could limp back south. He kept showing me his hand. “You think this looks broken?” he’d ask.
At the Inuvik campground, I met a gutsy, 21-year-old Japanese guy who only had his motorcycle license for a month. I asked him about the tape plastered all over the windshield of the 1984 Yamaha 400 twin that some “friends” had just sold him. “Oh … I crash three time,” he said, bowing slightly.
I also met a California couple riding two-up on a BMW. They left just ahead of me at a Dempster gas stop, but I met them out on the road again about an hour later. They were heading back south; a near crash in the soft gravel changed their minds about going all the way to Inuvik, but at least they had crossed the Arctic Circle. When we visited, though, I could tell the guy was pretty disappointed. Like me, they’d been planning the Inuvik trip for a lot of years. “I was shaking pretty bad after just about dumping it,” he said. “I had to stop awhile before we could head back.”
The reason for all that crashing, I’m sure, was simply too much speed. I stuck to my lilly-livered gravel-road theory. Find a nice comfortable pace, and then knock about 5 mph off that. It gives you a little safety margin when you hit an extra rolly rock or an especially soft glob of gravel. I’d knock off even more speed during the middle of the day. When the sun is directly overhead, the stones don’t cast shadows and it’s much harder to read the gravel. Sure I wound up in first and second gear at times, but I’m happy to report that the SR stayed on both wheels the whole way.
Both the dust and the mud are pretty spectacular. Semi trucks use the Dempster and I swear you can see their dust columns more than a mile off. When you see one coming, the best advice is to simply pull off to the side and turn your head. If the truck slows down it’s not too bad, but if it doesn’t you’re guaranteed a shower of dust and stones. You might as well stop, because you can’t see past your tachometer anyway.
After one especially muddy stretch, the bike’s side stand was so packed with grit I couldn’t budge it. One gas stop had an outdoor car wash and after spending a quarter on the bike I popped for another quarter and had some guy turn the spray on me.
Of the 17 days on the road, I spent six of them on the Dempster. I’ve never found friendlier people. When I arrived in one village too late to get gas one evening, an 85-year-old man walked by and we got to talking … till 4:30 a.m. Now considered one of the village elders, old Mr. MacDonald let me stay at the log home he’d built more than 50 years ago, and told me what life was like in Fort McPherson long before the Dempster provided a road connection to the rest of the world.
He took a real liking to the SR. “Looks like a good setup,” he told me. Probably the highest compliment any motorcycle could receive. I think it reminded him of the no-frills, one-lunger, 12-horsepower snowmobile he’s used for the past 25 years on some of the most remote backcountry on the planet.
I did get one close-up view of a caribou. I stopped at another village, Arctic Red River, for gas and water. The gas station at that village was really someone’s home. The guy with the key for the gas was out tending nets on the river, so I skipped the gas. But my water bottles were empty and driving the dusty Dempster is thirsty business. I asked the woman who answered the door if I could get some water. She said sure, and led me through the living room and into the kitchen. Lying on the floor, like a sack of groceries, was a dead caribou with its tongue hanging out. I politely stepped over the animal, filled my bottles at the sink, and thanked the woman for the water. She never mentioned the caribou, and I didn’t want to seem like some rube who’d never seen a caribou in the kitchen, so I didn’t mention it either.
One morning, seeing that I was only a few hundred yards from the edge of a nasty squall line, I stopped at the foot of a mountain to pull on my rain duds. A highway maintenance guy, a native of the Dempster region, stopped to chat and wound up giving me a slug of coffee from his mug and most of his lunch. It was the best banana I’ve ever had. He was out straightening guideposts that help mark the Dempster in the winter. Turns out that caribou migrating across the road tip the marker posts when they use them for back-scratchers
The 24 hours of sun is a real hoot. Each day you drive farther north the nights get shorter until, eventually, there’s no night at all. One night (so to speak) when I pulled into a campground above the Arctic Circle, I looked at my watch to see what time it was. Oh oh, no watch. I figured it must have fallen off while banging along one of the rougher sections of road. There was no one else at the campground, and suddenly I started wondering when I should go to sleep. I worried that if I went to sleep and woke up in a couple of hours, I might think it’s the next day already and hit the road at 1 a.m. Luckily, I found later that I had put my watch in my jeans’ pocket.
I reached Inuvik and headed for the visitor’s center. I when walked in the guy at the desk looked up at this pretty dirty-looking character and said, “Looks like you’ve been on the Dempster.” Gee, how’d he guess. I thought maybe he’d take me out and nail me with a hose, but instead he took a parchment-like certificate from a drawer and signed and dated it. Jim Winterer, it said, was now a member of the Arctic Circle Chapter of the Order of Arctic Adventurers. Well shoot, it seemed a little goofy but I genuinely appreciated that piece of paper. When he handed it to me, I thought back to the freeway accident and ambulance ride when I wondered if there was an Inuvik trip left in either me or the bike.
Every few nights along the way I’d give the bike a good going over, and one night I discovered that the air filter retaining clip had come loose and the filter was uselessly lying at the bottom of the air box. No telling how much dust I sucked, but I’m sure plenty. I used a tad more oil on the way home, and that might be why.
I think I know where the filter might have jarred loose. The Dempster’s Mackenzie River ferry has battered steel ramps at both ends, The pilot sort of rams them into the loose gravel bank so you can drive on or off. On one of my crossings the ramp landed a little too high. “Ya think you can make it off?” the deckhand asked. “We can land again and get the ramp lower if you want.” “Nah,” I said. “That looks like fun.” And it was: a beautiful ya-hoo-ridem-cowboy second-gear launch. We sailed right over a pile of loose rocks and had a near-perfect landing. I suppose it would have been perfect if both ends didn’t bottom out. Oh well, it was time to scrape those bugs off the fork tubes.
So now we’re home and the SR has a new rear tire and fresh oil, we both got a good bath. Shoot, I even scrubbed the chain goo off the rear wheel, scraped the baked bug guts off the forks and put some wax on the tank and fenders. Looking at the bike all spiffed up again got me to thinking. Maybe now, while it’s still in great shape, I should toss a sheet over it and semi-retire it. You know, just a ride around town once in awhile to keep the battery fresh. Nahhhh.
Postscript: Jim’s SR now has 130,000 miles and is resting comfortably in his garage, waiting for some transmission parts. After the Arctic adventure, the author discovered Minnesota’s TeamStrange, the Iron Butt Association and the world of long-distance endurance rallies. The SR’s last trip involved a one-day run from Canada to Mexico and a “personal best” run of 1,610 miles in 24 hours. The SR did make it home, but quit shifting when it pulled into the garage. Can’t beat that.