Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gear Review

A quick note: Most of my pictures are now up, save for the drive back from Anchorage and videos. Those are coming, though. In the meantime, go here to see the rest: Alcan photos.

I brought a lot of different things on this trip, and I thought it might be helpful to rate how some of them worked.

First and foremost, my Norrona jackets were fantastic and kept me cozy warm. I was able to wear the lighter one all the way to Dawson, and only broke out the larger one once we were near the Arctic. In the pictures of me at Eagle Plains, the only things I had under that jacket were my Patagonia Cap 4 jersey and R1 fleece. At -30 it was nice to be warm but not bulky. Speaking of the Patagonia layers, those two pieces were amongst my favorites. The Marmot mitts were awesome, and when it was freezing cold, they were the only thing that worked. It didn't take long outside with bare hands for them to start hurting, but slipping my mittens on brought them right back. As silly as it looked, my furry hat was a godsend in the far north. Keeping my ears covered was important, but the fur helped block the wind from my face, adding that extra bit of comfort.

The Jetboil worked so well I'm going to buy my own. Simply put, it was awesome. To have fresh coffee when I wanted was worth it alone, but the speed at which I was able to cook my dehydrated meals was appreciated on those long days when I was tired and hadn't eaten all day. I got pretty good at controlling the flame and maintaining a simmer, and I hear the newer models are easier to control. I will say, it's best for watery foods, as the bottom gets very hot and will cause anything thick to burn to it. Still worth having, and I was amazed at how long the little gas canister lasted.

There wasn't much use for the snowshoes, but I did play with them at Eagle Plains. We took the tails off figuring I wouldn't need them, but I think that was a mistake. While I moved about easier than Bill, who didn't have snowshoes, I still sunk in, just not as deep. If for some reason you needed them, I could definitely see how they would make walking easier.

Another thing that didn't get a lot of use but I was glad to have: the freshette. Bathrooms in the Arctic were hard to find and trees to hide behind even harder. I was beyond thankful to have it with me, especially when it meant not having to expose anything at -40. Worth every penny. But even at home it would be useful for hikes, camping, or avoiding really nasty port-o-potty seats.

My camera impressed me majorly. Lighting conditions were constantly changing with not a lot of daylight to work with, and there was a lot of white to contend with. We were bouncing around on rough roads. The temperatures were extreme. But no matter what, it worked like a champ. I was surprised by how few completely blurry pictures there were out of the thousands taken. The white balance was good, and with a sometimes blank palette to deal with, the autofocus did an excellent job. Most impressive was the complete lack of fogging up despite jumping in and out of cars, from extreme cold to warmth. That saved a lot of time and maybe even allowed me to catch a few pictures I might have missed otherwise.

The compression sacks made a huge difference as far as saving space, but I think I could have brought fewer clothes. Still, it made it easy from an organizational standpoint to know that certain items were in one sack. It was nice at the end of a long day to only have to grab my backpack when I got to the hotel, knowing everything I needed was in there, and that wouldn't have been possible without all my clothes being squished into the sacks.

Overall, I was really pleased with my choices. I could definitely pare things down for any such trips in the future. But the most important thing was that I was comfortable and warm. In those temperatures, warmth is the only thing that matters.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Home sweet home?

Well I'm back, and not quite in the swing of things. After the incredible rush of this trip, I'm finding it difficult to return back to life as I knew it. This trip stirred something inside me and has me pondering some important questions. Am I truly happy? What would I rather be doing? How can I find the happiness I felt the last two weeks every day?

I definitely feel some kind of void in my life. What it is, I can't quite pinpoint, but something is off. I guess you can say I'm not exactly fulfilled by sitting at a desk all day. But could I deal with that if some other part of my life was more complete? I know I work too much. Between my real job, soap, and the occasional side job, I spend too much time working and not enough with my friends doing things I enjoy. That has to change. I also need to travel more. I have a whole new network of friends, and I'm going to make a point of seeing them again. Vacation doesn't have to be a week, it can be a long weekend. If I were to change my job, what would I want to do? As much fun as I had traveling, I did get homesick by the end. There goes my glamorous career as a travel writer. Maybe some kind of outdoor job or something where I get to create. The thing I hate about meetings and discussions is that at the end of the day, there's nothing tangible for me to look at and say I did. That brings me no joy. Do I want to move? At nearly 5 years in my current house, it's the longest I've lived somewhere since college. I do like this town, but is there somewhere better? Is it time to leave Connecticut, as I always swore I'd do? And yet, there's nowhere I've been that's made me say "I could live here". And I doubt there's anywhere that can keep my stomach as happy. In the two days I've been home, I've gorged on every one of my favorite Italian treats that I missed the last two weeks.

Before I left, I knew this would be the trip of a lifetime, but I never expected it to make me question where my life was going. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In the mean time, I know that I miss my friends terribly.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Three timezones in three days

Yes, I did fall off the face of the Earth. Friday night was spent reveling with friends, finally reunited with the group. Just three days later, I'm nearly in Edmonton and am flying home tomorrow. We covered 1657 miles since about 7pm Saturday. There was no phone or internet service. My 25 mile drive to work is going to be a breeze after this.

Steve, Bob, and I spent the night in Tok, AK and woke up ready to finally rejoin the group. After a breakfast stop where I had my first taste of reindeer sausage, we moved into yet more jaw-dropping scenery as we plugged along to Anchorage. As the radio chatter began to pick up, people were happy to finally hear from our two cars. I was a bit concerned about the reception we'd get, as we'd been gone for so long and kind of missed the second half of the event. All worries were gone the second we got to the hotel.

Everyone I saw greeted me with a big hug and congratulations. People truly were impressed by our feat and wanted to hear all about it. While we told our story, we were caught up on what had happened in our absence. Paul blew up his engine on the ice race. Car 4 ran out of gas - again. Colin rolled his car but was able to continue on with minimal damage. Car 17 had continued radiator troubles. The race was taking its toll on the cars.

We made it to Tuk and you didn't! L-R: Bob, Steve, Me, Bill, Steve
Before long we were downtown and having a good time. When it was awards time, our group got the Arctic Award, for actually making it all the way north. Car 13 was additionally honored with the Go Further Award, for making it back to Valdez in time for the ice race, effectively being the only car to complete the entire event. For the big prize, first place went to the other MINI driven by Gary Webb and Marc Goldfarb.

So happy the M3 boys made it safely!

I woke up relatively early considering we went to bed at 3:30. Normally I like to walk around a new city to get a feel for it, so I hit the streets. It was snowing and cold, but I wanted to see what Anchorage had to offer. Apparently about two streets worth of cheesy gift shops and bars. I was unimpressed. However, the Iditarod was starting that morning, and I happened to find myself next to the start line, so I claimed my space and waited with the camera.

People filled in, as did the media. Before long, my nice clear view was completely obscured. Saturday was the ceremonial start, so each team was announced and released 2 minutes apart. After the first two teams went, I was freezing and getting shoved by people. After the 5th team, I'd had enough and headed back to the hotel. There are only so many barking dogs you can watch before getting bored.

I went back to the room where we sat around talking. Steve's girlfriend, Amber, had flown in the night before and we were all having a good time. Lunch was ordered, travel plans were hashed, and we nervously checked the clocks as the minutes slipped away. Us and car 13 would be leaving that night, and the finality of splitting for good was starting to kick in. I had a moment of crisis and nearly booked a flight then and there. The thought of traveling thousands of more miles suddenly horrified me. After much debate, I decided it wasn't right to abandon Bob that far from home. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn't.

In a bit, we headed back downtown to watch the Running of the Reindeer. I thought I was signed up, but I was mistaken, and sort of glad for the mix-up. People had all kinds of stupid outfits on and waited to run several blocks from a pack of reindeer unloosed on them. I have to say, those reindeer weren't messing around, and some where moving at a good clip. I think I even saw a guy get knocked down by one.

The time had finally come to depart. Steve and Amber weren't around, so with much reluctance, our two cars took off into the snowy evening, destination Tok. Not even out of Anchorage, the inevitable happened: I stuffed the car. I stupidly wasn't paying attention on the highway and went to get into the right lane. The right lane which happened to be ending right at that exact spot. I hit a bank of snow, started skidding, tried to correct it, spun around the other way, and eventually did a 180 across the highway and into the median. I think we might have rolled had the snow bank not been so high. I think my first words were "I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY!" followed quickly by "Are you all right?" To his credit, Bob was a picture of calmness and after affirming he was just fine, he said "Ha, you finally stuffed it." There are few people that would be that calm at that moment, but I certainly appreciated it.

We knew the drill well and called out to 13 to come back to help us. We started digging and set out the caution triangles. Just as Steve arrived, a Suburban pulled up. I instantly thought the cops were there, but was relieved to see it was a good samaritan. He had been driving in the other direction and was impressed by the fact we had a shovel and were digging ourselves out. It didn't take long for him to extract us from the snowbank. By this time, the cops had shown up, but oddly never came to the car. They just saw that we had things under control and blocked the lane so we could spin the car around and get moving. No questions asked. Just a few hundred feet up the road, another car was spun off in the median, and just beyond that were two more, one on its side. I felt so fortunate that nothing had happened to us, and grateful for the kindness of a stranger.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, albeit snowy. Very poor visibility and we were all exhausted. I switched to Steve's car while Bill drove the MINI. I instantly fell asleep for the next two hours, only awaking to walk into the hotel and climb into bed with my clothes on. We were back at Fast Eddy's, and like many places we've stayed at, they left the rooms unlocked with the key in the door because we got there after the office was closed. It was unnerving how trusting they were.

Yesterday was a marathon run. We had breakfast at the hotel and started off, happy to add Car 17 to our caravan. There was a lot of radio chatter, and Troy delivered the elephant jokes he'd promised. We again admired the beauty of Destruction Bay. We had our innards jumbled on the single bumpiest stretch of road in North America. It was a good time.

Gettin' silly in the Subaru
Destruction Bay
At Watson Lake, we found the Signpost Forest, home to all the sad signposts that have outlived their useful lives. It was an odd collection from around the world, one of those quirky things you love to see on road trips. From here, we split from Troy and John. They were staying in town, but we were continuing on to Liard to get a little further.

This is where things got interesting. There were caribou in the road. I think we saw a moose. There was the faintest of auroras in the sky. Then we saw the sign. Bison warning. BISON! Just roaming the streets. Camera ready, Steve and I scoured the roadside for any sign of the beasts, all while battling in an epic bubblegum blowing contest. That's right, we're five. Before long, I spotted the first bison, up on a hill in the moonlight. As much as a moose in the dark is scary and imposing, this takes the cake. There are no legs to cut under with these bad boys, you just smash into them. Not much further up we spotted several more in the shoulder. And on from that we came upon a herd walking across the road. It was a wild sight. I especially loved watching them eat by rubbing their faces in the snow to get to the ground underneath. We even saw two playfully butting heads and fighting. It was a neat way to end the day.
A faint aurora
That would wreck your car and your day.
Awaking in Liard, we checked out the hot springs and got on the road. We needed gas and food, having not had a real meal in 24 hours. I spotted a shack on the side of Lake Muncho with gas pumps. Bob commented on their cool old-style diesel pump. When I went inside to pay, I noticed a kitchen. Best discovery of the day. A gruff looking man named Jack came over to take payment for the gas. I asked if he was serving breakfast and he said yes. We piled in and a local trucker warned us about the massive portions. Continuing my fine tradition of french toast breakfasts, I ordered half a portion. It was massive, and apparently Jack makes all the breads right there. So so good! After we chatted a bit, he seemed to slightly soften, and we learned he had been there for 40 years, serving the truckers and once running a touring boat on the lake. Things went downhill in the 80's recession and haven't recovered. For such a gorgeous area, that was sad to hear.

We didn't make it far from Jack's when we were able to repay our car-removal karma. In the ditch was a minivan, and we sprang to action digging him out and hooking up tow straps. Another truck full of sled dogs also stopped, and we attached the hooks to his rig. Rather easily, we pulled out the minivan, its owner very grateful for the help. We continued on in somewhat slippery conditions. Steve began to pull away, racing to get back to his family. At a gas stop several hours later, nerves shattered from too much driving and too little sleep, I had some words with him. I adore Steve and he's like a big, goofy red-headed brother, but sometimes he doesn't pay attention to other people's feelings. We said our goodbyes and continued down the road approaching Fort St. John. I'd decided I'd had enough and needed to get on the next flight feasible.

It was a bit down the road when Steve called on the radio that he'd contacted a friend at a travel agency and was looking into flights for me. Needless to say, one was quickly found, and at a reasonable price. We met up again, and after taking care of the business end of things, we made up. I felt bad for having laid into him so harshly, but knew he understood. We hugged it out, and with a few tears shed, said goodbye for a final time. Suddenly we were alone, the familiar Subaru no longer in sight, no booming voice calling "13 to 15" on the radio. It was truly sad. While we all said we would stay in touch, it's easier said than done. And I know I want to see them all again, but will I? I certainly hope so, this was far too great a bonding experience to let go to waste.

Bob and I made it down to Grande Prairie and were stunned by the size of it. It felt very strange to see bright lights and cars and sprawl. Tomorrow, my grand journey comes to an end. I arrive in New York at 10pm. I'm excited and ready to be home.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Making a run for the border

Anything would have been a let down after yesterday's high, but today tried to deliver a few highlights to let us know this trip isn't quite over yet. We arrived back at Eagle Plains around 11:30 to find Ross and Dave had made their way up. It was a brief reunion as we needed to sleep to be ready for the epic drive today. Of course with my roomies, "need sleep" equated to stay up chatting till 2:30. That was about when we realized we needed to wake up in 2 hours. Crap.

But up we were at 4:45, and ready to go. I took my turn driving down the Dempster in the dark. Clearly the road crews had been busy, as it was MUCH clearer than on our drive up. By this point, I'm starting to get used to driving on ice and snow, and was easily doing 70 around the bends. There were even some snow drifts to plow through that were a lot of fun. As we motored down the road, the sun began its slow rise, arriving as a pink beacon shooting into the sky. We made excellent time back, and continued on to Stewart Crossing.

Sadly, this is where our splinter group got even smaller. Steve and Bill decided they were going to head to Valdez and try to catch up with the group. We had no interest in going that far, nor in participating in the ice races tomorrow, and elected to go as far as Tok, where the group stayed last night. We said our goodbyes and the remaining two cars continued on. It was a bit of a downer after we'd stuck together through so much.

As we made our way further south, it got warmer and the sun was noticeably higher in the sky. At one point, we were a full 50 degrees warmer than when we'd left in the morning. In the winter, the only way to Tok is to wind back south to Whitehorse, then west and north up. It's very roundabout and far longer than the route that's available in the summer. But it takes you through the mountains, and we were once again regaled with spectacular views. The area around Destruction Bay was one of the best we've passed on this trip. The sun began to set, and soft pink light covered the peaks. It was truly beautiful, and Steve and I kept commenting on how grateful we were to have been able to see it.

It was an uneventful border crossing, and we noted that the roads immediately became clear as soon as we were back in the US. Take that, Canada! It was 100 miles to Tok, but it was dark, so we kept a moderate pace. We pulled into town at 9 and got a room. Tomorrow will be a much shorter day and we'll be reunited with the group in time for the banquet. We were pretty quiet tonight, I think the sadness of such an epic journey coming to a close is setting in. It truly was an experience I never wanted to end, especially surrounded by the people I was with.

Tomorrow, Anchorage!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Short and Sweet

Today, in pictures:

First this happened:

Note the duck, which was left there :)
 And then this happened:

Then this happened:

Which was followed by this:

And ended with this:

The end

PS: Best. Day. Ever!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Holding pattern

Screw this, I'm making a break for it!
It almost looks like a massive wave on the ocean.
Today was an interesting one and redefined the trip. We knew the chance was slim to continue north today, but we waited it out. Around noon it was clear the road wouldn't open. This forced people to make some decisions. Four of the seven cars decided that it wasn't worth it and headed back south. There was tremendous debate and agonizing on our part. This is where everyone's desires, motives, goals, and personalities came into play. We're all in this for different reasons and we all have different times we're willing to reach Anchorage at. I was willing to wait it out and I personally didn't care about the rest of the trip or meeting back up with Alcan. I was willing to create my own trip from here on out. One of the remaining two cars felt differently, and then the issue of do we separate our group and let someone travel alone came in. In the end, based on the continued updates from the truckers here and the works crews that kept popping in, we decided that a) safety is paramount and we couldn't let someone travel alone, and b) there was the slightest of shots that we could at least make the Arctic Circle tomorrow. So we agreed to stick together and wait here one more night. We're taking a chance and going for broke.

However, we're not exactly suffering here. Quite frankly, we are having a blast. There's a bizarre quaint charm to this place, with its animal pelts, resident dogs, and friendly people. The truckers are amused by us and seem to be impressed by our determination. I think they like anyone that's willing to come all the way up here in the middle of winter. We've had some nice long chats with them and they've been a wealth of information on the region. It's been really nice to just take a break and do nothing for a day. And frankly, some people needed time away from their co-drivers. This gave us time to mix with other people. I had a blast rooming with Steve and Bill last night, our personalities are meshing perfectly and we're becoming fast friends.

Security isn't really an issue here.
Bill does his best impression of Ralphie's brother.
Don't think we just sat and did nothing today, though. I loaded up the gear and went for a walk. It's frigging cold out there! It was about -20 today with a good wind. Tonight should be about -35. I got to try out the snowshoes and really enjoyed how easy they made walking around. The hotel is at the top of a vista overlooking a massive sweeping plain. It looks like the wind has blown so long here it's made a dune of the land. Other than that, just a whole lot of snow blown into massive drifts. The sun didn't rise until 8:30 today, but it also didn't get completely dark here until about 7. The rises and sunsets are spectacular, the angle is so low and there are always interesting colors around it from the light hitting the crystalline snow blowing in the air. There was a plaque in the back of the hotel that said we were at the latitude that marked the Arctic, but everyone says the Circle is 15 miles or so from here. Just in case we don't make it up the road, I took my picture by the plaque. The hotel also has certificates that say you've been to the Arctic Circle, which is kind of funny.

The sign says I'm in the Arctic, and that's the story I'm sticking with!

At one point boredom set in, and Steve introduced us to "Arctic Punch", although we agreed "Antifreeze" would be an equally appropriate name. Apparently if you mix straight ethanol (a small amount!) with some juice or soda, it's totally drinkable. He owns a brewery, so it's the only reason I trusted him. With orange juice, it tasted a little like anisette. With root beer, slightly Kahlua-ish. We're all alive and not blind, so I guess it was ok.

This has given me time to appreciate some of my gear choices. The hat that looked so silly home is absolutely the only thing I'd want to wear here. It was completely warm and the fur did exactly what it was supposed to. My balaclava is necessary now, as the air hurts my face too much to go without it. My oven mittens are toasty warm, as is the puffy Norrona jacket. I was so comfortable, I didn't even notice how cold it was. The Jetboil is coming in very handy for food and coffee purposes, as well as steam heating cinnamon buns. The camera is rock-solid in this cold, and the lens has performed supremely on this bumpy roads and cloudy days. I can even change my shooting settings with my mittens on, that's how well-designed the camera layout is.

Suddenly the real fur made a lot more sense. It's entirely functional in this environment.
There's still debate as to what will happen tomorrow. Dave is in Dawson, having made up an impressive amount of ground. We've heard we may only make it as far as the Circle and have to turn back. The highway crews agreed to let us follow their plows that far, after that is at our own risk. So we find ourselves back in the bar chatting, drinking, and playing games. Bob is talking to Mervin, a local, who is apparently a Red Sox fan. I've found my hidden talent at shuffleboard. I still suck at pool. The food here has been a pleasant surprise. Everyone's in good spirits and life is pretty good right now.

It's a tough life living at the Arctic Circle.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Now we've got ourselves a true Arctic MINI run! We departed Dawson at 6:15 sharp. It was snowing and slick and there was no word on what conditions up ahead were. Just 12.5 miles from the hotel, Car 16 called out that they were off the road. When we arrived they were well off the road and pretty deep in. MINI to the rescue with the biggest shovel in the group, and along with Car 13, we dug the wheels out. It just so happened a tractor trailer was coming by and he actually stopped to see if we were ok. He said if we were quick, he'd be willing to tow the Yaris out, and that he did! I sadly couldn't get video, as it was too dark. In a few minutes we were on our way again.

At 25 miles, we turned onto the Dempster. This is the big boy, the one leading to the ice road. Immediately, we knew this was going to be much harder than previous day's drives. It was still dark, snowing, there were drifts everywhere, and you couldn't see the edge of the road well. Our pace was certainly slower than previous days, but we weren't exactly crawling. It was going to be difficult because between the rough roads and high elevations, mileage was going to be junk. This is where the MINI shined. The two 2WD cars moved along happily sipping gas. As we got further and further you heard calls from the 4WD people stopping to put in their emergency gas. We made it all the way and still had about a 1/4 tank, same for the Yaris. It was very cool to see the sun "rising" over the mountains. I think it was around 8am before it was actually visible over the horizon. But the views were pretty spectacular. Huge peaks, open plains, and drifting snow. And the trucks. Oh, the trucks. After you've passed a semi on the Dempster, you need to check your pants. There were only a few, but it was very nervous driving when they came.

About 30 miles or so from town, Car 8 went to pass our group and went off the road. Once again, the MINI shovel was called into action. By now most of the group had pulled close together, so Truck 6 stopped as well. A chain was formed with 6 hooked to 13 who was hooked to the rear of 8. The first effort was unsuccessful, but the second try did the job, yanking the beached Subaru, and shredding Steve's snowsuit in the process. And then, just a few hundred feet from Eagle Plains, Car 4 ran out of gas. By this point, many people were way ahead of us, and the word was out that the gates were down barring further progress to Inuvik.

We pulled in, badly needing restrooms, gas, and food. As we'd done some digging for him, Yaris Steve was most generous and bought us breakfast. While we sat and ate, Sweep arrived and used the satellite phone to call the event organizers. There was question as to whether we would be staying here, or turning back around and driving back to Dawson. Well, for some people there was a question, but to our group there was only one answer: we wait. It was declared that we were to turn back and return, but you could choose to stay here at your own risk. No sweeps would be staying with us and we would no longer be supported. Either the thought of being left alone on the ice highway or the highly competitive edge of the ralliers not wanting to miss a TSD caused most of the cars to turn back. Seven of us decided to hold tight and ride it out here. At the very least, we cross the Arctic Circle, at best, we make it to Tuk. Eventually, we may even be able to meet up with the group again. We told them we would stay in contact so they could adjust the boarding accordingly. Yaris Steve lost his navigator, so I am resuming my duties as Arctic MINI carhopper and will be jumping between cars to keep people fresh.

So here we sit at the hotel, plotting our next move. There are a lot of motives, skill levels, car technicalities, and personalities involved. I don't know if a uniform plan can be agreed upon, but we're doing our best. It's cozy enough, there's a restaurant and bar. The rooms are some of the shadiest I've stayed in, I'm kind of glad I'm with the guys, not that there's anyone here to bother us. Time to start drinking!

Monday, February 27, 2012

"I'm drunk, eh?"

Today was kind of different in that we had two TSD's in the same town an hour apart. So I had time to eat a real breakfast at the hotel, go do the first TSD, go back to the hotel and load the car, and then do the second one. While at breakfast, I learned that several cars had their gas cans stolen off their vehicles. Ours was fine, maybe because they couldn't see the can through the muck. The yellow BMW had a flat, but were able to get it fixed. Car 17 had a leaking radiator. Magically, a mechanic in Whitehorse had a junk Subaru, and was able to pull the radiator for them!

The first rally did not go well, and we were super frustrated until we heard several cars announcing that they were quitting it, as they'd botched it so badly. As rookies, we don't understand that when the instructions say "Bear left" it can actually mean "hard left up a road". It's also teaching us what our roles need to be as navigator and driver. Nevertheless, we were bound and determined to find the end of this course and eventually figured it out. As this point, I was booking it down an icy road, came around a bend and saw Gary Webb in the other MINI rapidly approaching me! I jerked the wheel, almost ate the snowbank, pulled it back, almost swung in front of them, and finally corrected it at the last second. Later on I apologized, as I was afraid I had done something that would have caused them to mess up their time. They had a good laugh and said everyone does it at some point and were not bothered in the least. For those of you who don't know the name, Gary is a well-respected rallyist and instructor, one of the best out there. I certainly don't want to do anything to make him upset with us. So far, he has been super gracious and friendly. There's a lot to be learned from talking to people like him.

After screwing up the first TSD, we were not going to let the same happen on the second one. We were going to finish our first stage without messing up! Bob gave good instructions, I knew what questions I needed to ask and when, and once I found the spot that accounted for the speedometer error, we ran a pretty tight leg. We felt pretty good, until Car 16 pulled up right behind us at the end. I started to panic, thinking we'd somehow screwed up again. But tonight when the results were posted, I am proud to say Bob and I manged two zero's at control points! That means our time was exactly on! Overall we did super (for us) on the second TSD. It felt really good, and I know Bob was pleased.

In between the first and second legs of the second TSD, we were stopped at a lake, so we stretched our legs a bit. There was an igloo there, so I checked it out.

Steve, however, could not fit inside:

Cars 12-16 agreed to transit on to Dawson together after the rally, so we met up and started on our way. Not far outside of Whitehorse, we found the Braeburn Lodge. I had read about this before the trip and I wasn't going to miss my chance for their famous massive cinnamon buns. How massive?
Totally got photo-bombed by Steve!
They can easily feed several people, and the owner warmed them for us. Absolutely delicious! There was a sweet old dog there who enjoyed a good pet and followed us outside. He then promptly peed on the South African team's car.

It didn't take long for the road conditions to change. The surface is what we're used to, but there was a layer of snow on top that created a massive dust cloud as the cars drove by. This made it  impossible to spot the car in front of you. Extra spacing was required, but we moved along at a good clip. Still, Car 2 managed to pass us, making it all the more evident the difference between us and the real drivers. Paul later claimed he had his cruise control on the whole time, which I couldn't imagine at the speeds we were going on the ice. These guys are good.

Werd. It's sad when you have to tag snow because there's nothing else around.
We were just a few miles outside Dawson when the car in front of me announced he'd gone off the road. I slowed down and sure enough, he'd lodged himself in good. We stopped, as did the two cars behind us. Car 13 turned around and came back, made a valiant effort at pulling him out, but simply didn't have the equipment to do it. Rally officials were notified and we went on our way. He was pulled out with no damage, except to his pride.
 We pulled into Dawson early, probably around 7. It looks like an old gold rush town, something out of a western movie. Kind of strange. After checking in, I was in my door talking to Paul. Just as I started to close the door, a kid walks in and sits on the bed. You know when you should react to something but your brain simply can't comprehend what's going on? That was me. Here's my best recollection of the conversation:

Kid: "(unintelligible mumble)"
Me: "Um, can I help you?"
K: "I bet you want me to get out, eh?"
M: "Uh, yeah, that'd be good."
K: (staggering to his feet and crashing against the wall) "I'm drunk, eh?"
M: "That you are!"
K: "Welcome to Dawson!"
M: "Uh, thanks."

K: "Don't let me ruin Dawson for you, eh!" (extends hand for a handshake)
M: (humors the kid and shakes his hand) "Yeah, thanks."
K: "I'm 14. Kind of small, eh?"
M: "I suppose so."
K: "It's ok, my parents are small. Don't let me ruin Dawson for you, eh! Gimme a hug!" (collapses onto me and hugs me)
M: "Are you ok? Do you need help?"

And then he was gone. It ranks very high as one of the most bizarre encounters I've had in my life. Apparently, he went and chatted with nearly everyone. The organ donor guys said he told them they'd freeze to death because they didn't have blankets in the car and it gets to 50 below. Then he offered to show them his M3 Ski-doo (they drive an M3). Someone else saw him fall over a fence. Could be a highlight of the trip.

The next two days are going to be long and treacherous, but if it all goes well, I will cross the Arctic Circle and make my way to the Dempster. Gary would like a picture of the MINI's at the Arctic Circle sign, so we're leaving with him at 6:15 tomorrow. We'll drive to Inuvik, following a Subaru that will be clearing the snow drifts for us. I thought they were joking, but the road is in fact paved with arrowheads. We were advised to check our tires any time we stopped to see if any had gotten embedded. Fun. There's no guarantee the Dempster will be open on Tuesday. There's a light in town and if it's red, the ice highway is closed. Travel is forbidden until they say so. I don't even want to think about coming this far and having to turn around there. So pray/cross fingers/sacrifice a goat/whatever you can, and make sure the road is clear for us!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

There's gold in them thar hills

You know it's probably not going to be a bad day when you wake up with that under the door. Some of my new friends took off extra early, but left a nice little message for Nikki and I.

Today was all driving, all the time. This was more like Arctic MINIs of old, just covering vast stretches of land and chatting on the radio. Most of us left the hotel at 6:30am, faced with 733 miles of driving to get to Whitehorse. It was snowing when we left and the roads were a bit slick, plus the sun wasn't up so visibility was extra low. We traveled in a pack and called out whatever obstacles and mile markers they were at to warn anyone around. Eventually, Bob and I caught up with the car we traveled with all of yesterday, so we had a good time hanging out with them again. We even spent a good stretch driving with the remaining MINI :)

Once the sun was up, it didn't take long to enter into mind-blowing scenery. We were running parallel to the Boundary Range, aptly named as it forms the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia. At one point we were about 40 miles from the border. You didn't know where to look, you were surrounded by beauty. Massive peaks shrouded in the clouds, just one after another on both sides of the road. We followed this range all day, and eventually crossed the Continental Divide. You don't mind driving for 13.5 hours when you're looking at this the entire time:

The other MINI, Car 1, as in they won the event last time.

Car 16 (we're car 15), the leavers of the note.

Car 13, always ahead of us on the rallies.

My new buddy, one of the many Steve's at this event.

I wish I could write more, but I'm exhausted and there isn't much more to say. We drove, we got gas, we drove some more. There were moose and caribou, including a fun encounter where one jumped next to Steve's car. The roads were mostly ice, and when you stepped on them you just slipped around. But the car was rock solid and we progressed at a good speed. Tomorrow is two rallies off the bat, then transit to the bright lights of Dawson City. See you there!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A sobering day

While preparing for this event, we knew there were many inherent risks involved. Today we were reminded of all of them.

We started off by showing up to the raceway only to find that there was too much snow for them to clear the course. So right off the bat things were messed up. We agreed to meet at the TSD start in a few hours, at a school they always stop at so the kids can see the cars. I heard that some of these kids travel 30-40 miles per day to get to school. I can't imagine that. On the way to the school, we came upon a horrific accident, a tractor trailer on SUV impact. The entire passenger side of the car was crunched. When we got to the school we heard from people from our group that stopped that it was a fatal accident, possibly decapitated. That was very hard to hear right before we were supposed to start a race stage.

Just as we were getting going, it came over the radio that the stage had been cancelled. Some cars were stuck at the fatality, which had closed the highway just after we passed, and one of the support cars went off the course and rolled onto its side. These people are amazing drivers, and they were saying it was the worst conditions they've driven in. I was pretty uncomfortable on the course, which was the only way out, but I just picked a speed that was comfortable, and stayed on the road. It was a proud driving achievement, but I'd be happy to never do it again.

There was supposed to be a second TSD, but a group of us decided to screw it and just continue on to the next hotel. So we had a nice 6 car caravan that stuck together and kept each other company on the radio. Along the way, we passed another big accident, looked like a pickup versus a minivan. It snowed nearly the whole way, and there were a lot of sections with blowing snow. Visibility sucked. As the day wore on, some more cars caught up with us. They started talking and mentioned the MINI that crashed. After some questioning, we found out that Dave had crashed into a tree on the second TSD stage. Even though it had been cancelled, a few cars decided to check it out, and unfortunately Dave didn't make it. From what I heard, it was a foot of powder they were driving on, and he came down a hill and couldn't slow down before a turn. I called, and all Ross said was they had to go, but they were just fine. Dave has been in touch with MINI, and they're taking his car to Vancouver to get checked out. It's such a bummer to not be continuing on with our friends, especially someone as enthusiastic as Dave. After all the planning and hard work, it's crushing to have to bail on day 2.

 Along the drive we spotted a ton of wildlife. Lots of moose, which has earned me the radio handle "Moose Magnet", as I was seeing them when no one else did. I also spotted a wolf, and some deer. I could swear I saw two bears, but I can't be sure, other people say it's not possible. They said tomorrow we should see lots more.

I'm mentally beat. Today was really tough, and it made us really think about what our gameplan here was. We certainly want to hang with the pack, but I can't keep doing race stages like today's. And all the accidents are messing with my head. Tomorrow is the first 700+ mile day. We're pulling out at 6:30 and it should take about 13 hours. There are no TSD's, so we can take our own pace, but it's still a ton of driving. We're going to be safe and do what we're comfortable with, even if it means we're way behind everyone. As long as we get to the hotel every night, I'm fine with that.