Tire Tales from the Dempster

They said to bring two spares. We did.

The first day on the Dempster, about kilometer 168 (mile 105?), the truck's low tire pressure alarm goes off. Damn! No place to pull off, but that's not a problem since traffic on the Dempster is pretty light. And we're in a relatively flat long stretch and, thus, well visible to other travelers.

Pull over, sort of, and turn on four way flashers. My first quick inspection of our 4 tires didn't reveal an obvious problem, but a pressure check said our left rear tire was down to 40 psi, from the 80 I usually run. These are brand new 10 ply tires (load range E), all terrain tires, bought specifically for gravel and non-paved road use. Very discouraging. As I contemplated the situation, I could hear air escaping the tire, from the area of an embedded rock in the fat part of the tread. Hmmm.

Nothing else to do but get into action and change the tire. Dar helped, as we had to remove a lot of gear from the packed back seat in order to get the tire irons, wrenches, and jack from behind the seat. I slipped on my mechanics coveralls (a really smart idea to have along) and crawled under to place the jack. Both of us were learning as we proceeded, never having to do this for real before with this truck... a sort of tire changing tap-dance.

You know the routine: release spare tire from it's mount, emergency brake on, truck chocked in place, start jacking, loosen lug nuts, finish jacking, lug nuts off, pull wheel and flat tire, mount spare, spin on lug nuts, tighten lug nuts, drop jack so new tire makes contact with ground, tighten lug nuts to spec (150 ft. lbs), drop jack the rest of the way, mount flat tire and wheel on spare tire mount, pick up and stow everything. Elapsed time about 50 minutes... including talking to a few passers-by who inquired about our need for help.

One of the couples that stopped were journalists from Germany. They were on their way back from Inuvik, had traveled almost the entire length of the Dempster, and hadn't yet seen anybody with a flat tire. (!!!) They asked if we'd be ok with them taking photos and getting our story... to which we readily agreed. So if you see our mugs in some travel article in Germany, you'll know where it came from.

So, with everything stowed, we were slowly on our way again. At first, gingerly... to make sure everything's turning ok, wheel's mounted straight... gaining confidence and rhythm as we go.

At kilometer 221, Dar wanted to take a pull-off alongside the road, for a photo opp I'm sure, so I checked the pressure in all the tires again. Imagine my dismay when I found the new spare was at only 60 psi! (WTF!!) Closer inspection revealed a leaking valve stem... not the valve inside, the rubber valve stem itself was damaged or sliced or cut... and air was leaking audibly. This spare tire was my new second spare, a brand new wheel with one of my previous tires mounted when we bought the new all terrain tires. The valve stem was either faulty or damaged during installation.

Nothing to do but get to work again. I won't go through the routine again, but you know what they say about "practice makes perfect". We did the entire job this time in only 20 minutes... almost good enough for a NASCAR pit crew.

So, to recap our situation as we pulled back onto the Dempster again: we had to change two tires in the first 140 miles (of 460 miles one way); we now have about 100 miles to go to get to Eagle Plains, the midway point where there's supposed to be a tire repair shop (in addition to a gas station, a motel, restaurant, and campground). We now had NO spare. Considering our experience in the first 140 miles, we were half-expecting yet another tire failure before Eagle Plains... which would leave us with only one option -- getting assistance from somewhere else.

But we made it. And we had two tires repaired for a $40C charge... which I considered reasonable as they could have charged me twice that and I would have paid it. We also got a space in the campground, had dinner in the unexpectedly good restaurant, and settled in for the night.

We talked with a number of guys in the bar at Eagle Plains who said they've driven the Dempster 15, 20 times or more, and have never had a tire problem. But they all say it does happen and it does happen with some regularity... it's called "the Dempster flat.

The rock removed from our tire is now in our trip archives. It's a nearly 1 inch long piece of very sharp and hard shale that actually resembles an arrowhead. It's probable that the front tire ran over this piece, flipped it up, and set it up perfectly so the sharp business end was pointed at the tread of the rear tire just as it contacted the surface of the roadway. Once partially embedded, in this case in a small sipe grove in the thickest part of the tread, it continued to work its way deeper into the tire with each successive rotation, eventually gnawing a hole all the way to the inside of the tire.

The moral to the story is: be prepared for the unexpected. And keep your spirit and sense of adventure high. Early explorers were continually engaging with unexpected problems and having to come up with solutions on the fly. Have a reasonable supply of resources at your disposal and try to anticipate the obvious. If we want to capture even a very small sense of what early exploring was like, savor those small problems, those solvable problems, and be happy they're not worse.

Earlier in the day.
Working on our first "Dempster Flat"
Cleaning up after replacing the faulty spare.
Tire shop in Eagle Plains came in handy.


Grandmac said…
What an adventure. Nice that you had 2 spares.
Anonymous said…
Interesting post. We were supposed to be headed in that direction this summer, but a family situation necessitated postponing our trip until next year. Our truck tires are borderline needing to be replaced; next year we'll definitely replace them prior to our trip. Thanks for the info on both the road and need for more than one spare.

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