Hitching from Tuk, biking BAR-C to Reindeer Station: Poor hitchhiking = amazing cycling - Slightly North of Sanity - CycleBlaze

March 12, 2017

Hitching from Tuk, biking BAR-C to Reindeer Station: Poor hitchhiking = amazing cycling

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Last night's arrival in Tuk was bittersweet. I had made it to Tuktoyaktuk alive and well, but the journey had me doubting my ability to bike the Dempster and I had all but decided against it.

I was just too slow, both on and off the bike. 3.5 hours to break camp in the morning was 1.5 hours too long, and even with a tailwind on a flat, albeit rough, road I wasn't exactly flying along.

I know the Arctic isn't known for its architecture, but Tuktoyaktuk looks really grim in this lighting.
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Sad to see abandoned buildings, possibly because of population decline; I like all the staircases on this one.
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So the Dempster was off the table--and so was biking back to Inuvik, since I didn't manage to drag myself out of the B&B until noon. After an encounter with two not entirely sober men on a snowmobile ("Snowmobile is better than a bicycle!" At that moment, I agreed with them), I posed my bike for a photo at the beginning of the ice road and waited for a vehicle to come by.

The start of the ice road: 184 km to Inuvik in case you can't see the sign.
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"Arctic Ocean." A tour guide told me this sign often gets stolen. Wish I'd thought of that.And is this where I'm supposed to dip my wheel in the ocean? Oh wait, I think I took care of that yesterday when I biked into a crack in the ice. [Update from two weeks post-tour: Just noticed I have now been to all the world's oceans, which is an anti-accomplishment because I get seasick, sunburn too easily to take beach vacations, and don't like what salty coastal air does to my bicycle.]
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After a couple minutes I got cold, so I started walking and riding slowly onto the ocean. The blowing snow became a near-whiteout, so I prudently turned around, put on my warm parka, and went back to town to wait for a lift.

And wait.

Where was all the traffic of the past two days?

A truck with an empty flatbed went by and didn't stop. A taxi went by and didn't stop. The daily food truck went by and didn't stop.

I waited some more. I was very happy the wind was at my back while I watched for traffic.

A road worker stopped and said he wasn't going far, so I decided to wait some more.

A second road worker stopped, told me he was going to BAR-C, said the first road worker was also headed there, helped me load my bike onto the back of his truck, amd drove me across the Arctic Ocean.

On the way, he told me about the fire in Tuk: the unit had been completely destroyed, as well as the one next to it, and a man had been medevaced (depending on the severity of his injuries, he would have been sent to Inuvik, Yellowknife, or even Edmonton).

The cause of the fire? "Drunk cooking." The driver shook his head. "Probably didn't have insurance."

He then confirmed that the weather had been especially challenging this year, with many blizzards and very hard snow. There were also pressure ridges in the ice on either side of the road. Some combination of ice conditions and rock hard snow had necessitated abandoning the first road and building a new one. There could actually be multiple abandoned roads out there, but after enough windblown snow filling them in, you'd never know it.

"How's the ice thickness this year?"

"Good. But we lost a foot of ice making this road."

They lost ice because they have to grade it to make an even road surface. A 12" loss sounds like a lot; presumably the ocean ice is a mess under that even-looking snow cover.

The loss of ice might explain the 25000 kg weight limit I saw on the sign leaving Tuk. Granted, I know nothing about this road, but the limit seemed low to me. In March, the ice should just about be at its thickest. 41-42" of good ice is ideal for heavy haul trucks weighing 60000+ kg. 36-40" should be able to support roughly 30000-40000 kg. So a 25000 kg limit meant the ice wasn't all that thick, or they weren't all that confident in its strength, or possibly just that they weren't finished construction yet. I didn't think to ask if they were planning to flood the ice to make it thicker.

It didn't matter to me, a lowly cyclist. If the government decided 25000 kg could safely traverse the road, then even if they were very wrong (it has happened, but usually if anyone goes through the ice it's during the initial phases of construction), I was highly unlikely to have any problems.

Likewise, the ride to BAR-C was trouble-free, with just three things of note: the first was when the driver pretended to swerve into an oncoming vehicle, thinking it was his mother (coincidentally, the manager of the B&B I stayed at) returning from Inuvik. But Tuktoyaktuk being the small community it is, he knew the driver and all was well.

Then we saw two people on the road, one with a cart and one with a bicycle. They were busy taking pictures of each other, Mark looking just as non-majestic as he had when I first saw him. I offered them the unopened bag of cashews I got yesterday; the Brit naturally refused, but the guy who was walking was happy to take them. But then again, he seemed happy about frostbite, too, so who knows what he really thought.

The last event was all about me: someone said something over the radio, but I only caught the word "biker."

My driver chuckled. "Did you hear that?"


"He said 'That biker must've given up.'"

Hey! My accomplishment lay in tatters. Not really, but as we reached BAR-C I had to confirm something. "So from here on, all the maintenance is done from Inuvik?"


"Good, none of them will I think I gave up."

He laughed, helped me get my bike off the truck, and wished me luck.

I figured I'd bike until a car came along, but it quickly became apparent that that wasn't going to happen.

Not only was there still no southbound traffic, the road was a wide sheet of smooth, glorious ice today. Not only was the ice amazing, I also had a tailwind again. I had never spent so much time on tour with a tailwind, how could I possibly let it go to waste?

Gorgeous ice
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More ice
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Nothing to see when I look up, so I'll keep my eyes on the ice.
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The next few hours made me so happy I hadn't found a ride to Inuvik. The sky and landscape were bleak, but the ice under my wheels was beautiful and went on forever. Shallow cracks, deep cracks, white, blue, black, bubbles--and very few hazards to watch out for. I kept stopping to stare into the depths of the water or admire the colours.

I got to spend hours riding on this stuff. Just have to be careful that I don't wipe out when I stop and put a foot down.
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Eventually, I paid the price for a perfect afternoon as the road became bumpy and snow-covered, with more snow falling. There wasn't enough traffic to make a nice track so the going was slow.

Look at the landscape! Trees!
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I was happy to reach Reindeer Station, which is a strange mix of abandoned buildings and newer cabins with a larger common building. The cabins were well-stocked with firewood and even had electricity (I assume somethig like a diesel generator, but I didn't even try the light switch) There was a small parking area cleared at the edge of the river, and I could still see traces of snowmobile tracks, so it was obviously a well-used site.

Unsure of the etiquette of staying in a cabin here, I eventually decided the leave no trace would be sufficient. I hauled everything up the riverbank and through the snow, brought it inside, set up my stove in the woodstove, and completely failed to cook dinner.

My fuel pump was wasn't working. I couldn't pressurize my fuel container. That meant I couldn't have a hot meal or melt any snow. I was still a bit dehydrated because of the limited water at the B&B and had been counting on being back in Inuvik today, or, failing that, melting a bunch of snow.

I reflected on how lucky I was that this happened in a place with a woodstove. I reflected on how lucky I was that there were plenty of trees around in case I had camped outside tonight. I considered the one litre of water I still had left, the distance to Inuvik, and concluded I wasn't in a dire enough situation to justify using Reindeer Station's firewood.

It was only -10 C in the cabin; the weather had been getting progressively warmer. Tomorrow might be uncomfortable without water, but I was far more concerned about my stove.

The pump had worked at -30 C and at -20 C. Why did it fail at -10 C? The Dempster was definitely not going to happen if I couldn't trust my stove.

This evening was very tame, quite possibly the most convenient time and place for my stove to fail. I had a gulp of water, some trail mix, and went to bed early.

Today's ride: 45 km (28 miles)
Total: 242 km (150 miles)

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