Alaska In A Hurry

A not-so-fast-and-furious trip.

Earth Date 2012.06.21

Posted by Rich Wheadon | Permalink

Yukon Panorama

Reflecting through a bevy of IM and email messages from my father regarding a trip to Alaska had me concerned. I arranged to meet him on a layover in ATL so that we could talk a little about it. As we sat in Hartsfield Int'l chatting I realized my father was about to attempt a solo drive through Canada and into Alaska in an over-loaded Dodge Dakota that had some unknown mechanical issues causing transmission slip and engine overheating. I don't think panic was reflected in my resolve to join my dad on the trip, but I was rock solid in assuring him I wouldn't let my father take the trip by himself. The problem we had was that all the wheels were in motion, the train wasn't going to stop. I needed to run really hard to catch the train.

The existing plan was for my father to arrive in Great Falls, Montana via Delta on 2012.06.08. He would then drive the truck (pulling a large trailer) through Canada on Hwy 1 to Anchorage, AK flying back home on 2012.06.13. This itinerary should have given him about a day to decompress, help unload the trailer and leave my my brother in pretty good shape. So at 12:30PM or so on the 8th of June, 2012 I called my wife and asked her to find lowest fare to Great Falls and book it for me. The flight was 5:05PM the same day and tickets were purchased. All I needed to do was make a quick drive home, pack and come back to the airport for the flight. Jodi had left work and gone home to start throwing my stuff in a bag in an effort to speed things up. Things had just seemed to click into place and I was feeling pretty good about having pulled it off as I cruised up 85N for Lawrenceville.

I was about 1/2 way home when Jodi called me on the cell. She had my bag packed and everything I would need for the trip including my Passport. It's at this point an important passport detail came to light. "Rich, your passport is expired" she said to me in a panic. I kept cool and told her to make a quick appointment at the post office so I could renew it. About 5 minutes later I got a call back from my now very concerned wife, "They can get you in right now, but it takes a couple months for the passport to come via mail!". It was at this point that my 91 Legend suddenly decelerated and veered into the right emergency lane on 85N. I had to get off the road because there was no way I could drive and manage the unfolding nightmare.

With Jodi being my eyes and hands for internet searching and phone number lookups the two of us spent the better part of 45 minutes searching, calling and pleading for a way to get my passport renewed NOW. Finally we ended up getting through to the passport office in downtown Atlanta and headed that way for an expedited renewal. It seems that since my tickets were already purchased I had a small chance of having my passport renewed by EOD. I won't go into details of hoops and expenses, but in a nutshell Jodi met me downtown, we dumped my bags in the trunk and went to sit for 3.5 hours in the passport office waiting for the verdict on my renewal to unfold. At 4:25 or so we were called to the window and I was presented with my shiny renewed passport!

35 or so minutes before my flight, in downtown Atlanta rush hour traffic I began to see myself coming un-glued. I had confidently and gently sent my dear bride off for home and began working my way to the airport. I wouldn't say that I did anything criminal on my flight path to the airport, but working my way through the pack probably showed my finest offensive driving skills to date. It was about 4:45 PM that I arrived at the ATL airport and parked in daily parking, I simply had no time to hike in from economy lots! None of my bags were checked but I stopped at the counter to get a boarding pass and have them let the gate know I was coming. When I ran from the counter I had 15 minutes to get through security and catch my Alaska Airlines flight 743 on terminal S!

As I rounded the corner into my gate I was greeted by a very hurried attendant who took one of my carry-on bags from me and said she would get it stowed. It was 6 minutes until "take-off" and the door to our plane should have been closed already, things were coming together again! My next stop would be GTF where my brother and father would pick me up and we would get a few hours of sleep before the trek to Alaska. The flight was uneventful and it was great arriving in Montana where my brother and father welcomed me.

After a few hours of sleep my dad took Chris (turned back from passing through Canada because they didn't like his guns) to his early morning flight for Alaska and I prepared things to throw into the truck for our trip. As we loaded up I walked in front of the vehicle and found a trickle of coolant. We couldn't pinpoint a leak and after some time there were no more drips. A garage mechanic couldn't find a leak even with pressure testing. With no other choice but to drive what we had we hit the road to enter into Canada in Alberta. At our last U.S. exit for Gas and supplies I nipped into a parts store and bought a fan clutch, water pump, oil, coolant and a small tool kit. My thought in stocking up with parts is that I had a hunch the water pump was on it's way out and causing us to slowly lose coolant/overheating. I also suspected the transmission needed a cooler on it but nobody in Grand Falls wanted to put one on and the parts store didn't have one.

Entering Alberta

Entering into Alberta was interesting. The patrol there was very concerned about my having something like 5 electronic gadgets in for the ride. I simply told them I was a "gadget guy" and unlocked everything for their inspection. The border guards were VERY thorough, unloading the trailer completely, going through every item and also reading email, tweets, facebook and the whole nine yards. The careful packing we had done to avoid shifting of payload was completely undone and since it was late in the day by that time we decided to just roll with it. I will only briefly mention here that frost-heaves are very common on Hwy 1 to Alaska and if you don't pack your trailer tight and level there will be considerable settling of contents during your travels.

The navigator

Entering British Columbia

We drove for a long time, as a matter of fact the daylight in June is amazing and we completely lost our natural ability to track time by the sun. During the drive we had run the truck out of gas because there were no such things as 24 hour gas stations in any of the small Canadian towns we passed through. Fortunately my brother had 25 gallons of fuel in containers so we filled up in the middle of nowhere. We did have the opportunity to see a bear walking in the distance during our fuel stop and made sure safe retreat into the cab was always an option in case the bear got curious. The mountains, once beautiful, were just beginning to be great big bothersome rocks that put a real strain on the ailing transmission. The whole first day driving experience outlasted my driving capability and after 18 hours of driving I simply could not go any further and gave the wheel to my dad. We had planned on getting a hotel, but there was no vacancy for whatever reason so we just kept going as I eased into the seat for a nap. I am unsure how long I slept, but the uneasy awakening to our truck sitting perfectly still in pre-dawn light snapped me to attention.

BC Moose in the Road

I looked over and was relieved to see my father was wide awake, looking straight ahead and he began to giggle. . . "graceful ain't they?" he said. I looked forward to see some strange brown clumsy beast trotting down the road in front of us. The moose stopped, looked at us and disappeared into his forest home. I began shaking myself awake and my father pointed up to a digital sign stating that the road was closed ahead. Highway One was closed, beautiful. As I was waking up my dad had called highway information and checked the maps. . . all roads to Alaska were closed. . . washed out. We assessed the situation and decided to just proceed until we could go no further. It seems the road had been washed out in Yukon Territory for several days but the Alberta authorities seem to have neglected giving us that important information. We gave them the benefit of the doubt that they assumed it would be open by the time we got there.

BC Bears

BC Bison

BC Dad at Historic Marker 392

BC Rich at Historic Marker 392

BC Mountain Lake

BC Moose in Road

Our path ran to an end in Watson Lake Yukon Territory. There were big rigs lining the two lane road and no where to stay but the floor of a Red Cross emergency shelter in town. People had been there for days, food was running low and the attempt to restore Hwy One had failed 3 attempts due to the massive size and location of a wash-out due to flooding from the spring thaw. The fourth attempt was nearing a close and if it didn't hold then the road would stay closed indefinitely! Since we were stuck in place for at least 18 more hours to wait out the repair I tracked down a mechanic and contracted him to replace the truck's water pump and change the transmission fluid which we had been cooking for a couple days now. It was good that we had a water pump in the bed of the truck because our mechanics' part supplier was on the other side of the US-1 wash out. While working on the vehicle he asked why we didn't have a transmission cooler on the truck and I just laughed out loud telling him what we had gone through back in the states. He had a universal cooler on the shelf and agreed to install it for us which is awesome because when he disconnected the lines to the factory cooler (in the radiator) he found the line completely clogged with burned debris and sludge. No wonder we were slipping so bad, the transmission was probably glowing red due to lack of cooling.

YT Moose in Road

While we were stranded in Watson Lake we also had to call the airline and let them know we would have to move our flights due to being stranded in Canada. We were supposed to fly out tomorrow early but there was no way we could make it to Anchorage in time. Arrangements were made and we settled in waiting for the road to open. Time seemed to mean nothing at this time, I think I was walking around trying to find food at 1AM with the sunless sky bright enough to walk as if it were late afternoon. Of course, my luck nothing was 24-hour in Watson Lake so I retreated to the Red Cross shelter and managed some sleep. I woke up to the sound of trucks moving just past dawn, I have no idea what that meant time-wise but the organized movement of vehicles had begun. Transport trucks were the first to move since without them we wouldn’t find any supplies on the other side of the repaired breach, automobiles would follow second and then mobile homes & vehicles with trailers (that was us).

We couldn’t fall in place because our vehicle was still being repaired so we just watched the town empty out. Eventually the truck was finished and we could tell very quickly that the repair had solved our overheating, leaking and transmission problems. No more was the truck slowing down and creeping backward when we reached severe mountain grades. In addition to being able to press on forward without frequent rests for the weary vehicle we were able to confidently press forward with a more acute awareness of stealth frost heaves(nature’s speed bumps) which had been plaguing us along the way. You see, there are typically little orange warning “tents” sporadically placed along the road. Up to this point of our journey they seemed to be meaningless because there is no rhyme or reason as to their placement in relationship to road hazards. A volunteer at the Red Cross shelter in Watson Lake illuminated us that those little teepees were frost heave warnings. Unfortunately a traveller won’t know what side of the road the heave might be impacting so the rule of thumb is “see a teepee, slow down until you see a heave somewhere”. Sometimes the frost heave might be a half mile further down the road but almost always we did indeed find one somewhere. That being said, there were at least two times where we had floored the accelerator to pass one-to-many motor homes and hit a substantial frost heave at high speed. At every one of these events I would mumble “caution when opening as some contents may have settled during shipping”.

The rest of the trip through Yukon and into Alaska was largely uneventful though at the same time my father and I began the descent into delerium from road weariness and malnutrition. I had begun the trip with lots of protein bars, peanuts and muscle milk not realizing the nutritional requirements of two men on a wilderness highway. The food rations were gone and we were running on processed sugar snacks and junk food from the few general stores we found along the way so neither us was on top of our game. Along with nutritional distress you could throw in the random moose, goat, bear or unknown being sitings and we were completely cooked.

I probably managed the descent to Anchorage with some level of alertness resembling a half crazed go-cart pilot on too much Benadryl but we did manage to find a landing pad at my brother’s apartment complex. As my father opened his door to dismount I heard him say “… and the wheels fall off!”. My brother emerged from his apartment building as my father and I leaned on Chris’ truck and wept in laughter. While my brother braved opening the trailer for inspection of goods I happened to glance at the front of the vehicle. I errupted with the gruffest voice I could muster while squelching a chuckle, “A HITCH HIKER!!! A FOUL FREELOADER FROM CANADA!!!”. There was a prarie chicken or some similar sort of bird wedged between the grille and radiator beyond any hope of a clean extraction. My brother was not amused at all, but my father and I had fallen into rolling laughter which would not be stopped. Welcome to Alaska is about all my brother could muster… though that might have actually been my dad talking to the lodged bird.

A Hitchhiker

After we settled down a bit and were enjoying a very late night meal in Anchorage my father and I really only wanted one thing and that was to get home. We both were behind our original schedule and there would be no quality time with Chris since he needed to go to work soon. I headed for the men’s room to wash up and when I emerged my dad was on the phone with the airlines. When my father got off his phone both of our flights back to home had been changed and we had about three hours to visit with my brother before departure. The journey had ended and we were going home.

I can’t think of a better bonding experience that I’ve had with my father. We hope we will reminisce together over those “days on the road” for many years to come. Perhaps another nostalgia-filled trip will happen in the future where we can actually schedule our drive for a more sane adventure.

Long live the frost heaves!