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

Stranded

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.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Oh, this is getting interesting

video

 It's late, and I don't know if I can do a whole write-up, but I definitely wanted to post this. This was our last stage of the day, a nighttime TSD up a winding dirt road on a mountain. I'm driving in this, and that's pretty much exactly what I saw. For most of the section I had to maintain 40mph. At one point a dog appeared out of nowhere and I nearly ran into him. I slid around on the dirt and icy bits a little, and there were decent-sized rocks to dodge. It was a blast! I think I can get into this whole rally thing.

We left Kirkland this morning and had a short TSD section just before the border crossing. We were doing great until we missed a turn and went a few miles out of our way. I managed to catch up and even overtake two cars, so maybe it won't be a total wash. Bob seemed happy with my driving, which is always good since it's his car.

The border crossing was a breeze, probably the easiest I've ever had. As soon as we entered, it was time for nature to put on a display. I was pretty impressed when I saw Colorado, but this put it to shame. We passed Mt. Baker and many, many other massive peaks, most of which we couldn't see as they were hidden in the clouds. Sadly, it was pretty overcast all day, with occasional patches of rain and drizzle. It was only late in the day when the sun finally peaked out here and there. Even so, it was mind-blowingly stunning. The pictures can't possibly do it justice. It was difficult to drive because I really wanted to soak in what was around me. I did notice that there was next to no snow, and the river below was nearly dry. Things seem out of whack. After the beauty of the mountains, we entered what looked like scrub land. Bob said it looked a lot like Montana. Low bushes, kind of sandy, and lots of cattle.

Another thing we noticed were lots of cops. The word seems to be out on us, because you never passed just one. It was like they were waiting for a group of us to go by so they could nail us. Fortunately, I was sticking to the speed limit, so there was never an issue. Although Ross said that he was doing the speed limit and a cop pulled side-by-side with him and stayed there for about 8 miles, I guess just to intimidate him. I also heard that maybe one of our cars did something (haven't heard what) that pissed off the truckers. That probably didn't help. My plan is to not annoy the locals, and hopefully we'll avoid any trouble that way.

The odd thing about the TSD stages is that it spreads everyone out. So you can go an hour or more and not see anyone from the group, but then suddenly see a bunch at a gas station or restaurant. It's kind of a bummer, as the experience becomes very singular. And as much fun as we were having driving, we had the start time for the next TSD looming over us, forcing us to move on even when we maybe wanted a break. It's definitely different from our usual MINI winter drives.

I have to say, the people have been super welcoming to us. I'm starting to get to know a few of them, and they're making me feel very comfortable and part of the group. They don't care that we don't know what we're doing in the rallies, and if anything seem kind of impressed at how we're managing. There are a lot of stories going around from past years, and they are fascinating, amusing, and scary. One guy is a driving school instructor and offered to help me on the ice race stages. They're really happy to answer any and every question we may have, and don't make us feel stupid for asking. It certainly makes a trip easier when you feel like you're surrounded by good people.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

We finally meet the others

A whole lot happened today, all of which would have made for interesting pictures. But I didn't remember to take any, so you're getting car porn.

Sarah and I made a run to REI for some last-second supplies. This is their flagship store, and I wanted to move there. They have trails for you to test the mountain bikes and running shoes on, a climbing wall, and there's a constant garage sale. I could have spent all day there. Sorry, no pictures. We managed to find a bus back to our hotel, and I waited for Bob to pick me up. Unfortunately, his GPS let him down, and he wandered aimlessly around Seattle for about an hour. Finally he found me and we were on our way to Kirkland.

We made it just in time for registration and tech inspections. I got my Alcan swag, and our car was deemed road-worthy. I got great satisfaction out of watching the stream of cars pour in and checking out everyone's mods. It became instantly clear who meant business and who was out for a joy ride. And if just looking at the cars didn't clue us in to how out of our league we were, the questions asked during the drivers meeting did. Boy some of these guys take this seriously! Thankfully, there also seems to be a number of us that are just here to have fun, and I think these groups will start to find each other and hang together in the coming days.

One team I want to mention are some cool young guys from British Columbia, Daniel and Ryan. This is their first rally of any kind, and they're raising awareness to become organ donors, as Daniel's dad has been living with kidney failure for 15 years. Please check out their site: gotorgans.com

This is our car, all officially decaled. You know it's official because it has our names and a number!

I totally wish this was my car. That's a sweet ride.

The other MINI, driving by the great Gary Webb. We don't stand a chance against him, but he's nice enough to humor us.

I was honestly surprised by the age of some of the cars. I was worried that our 2002 was a little over the hill, but now I feel much better.

For Paul and Nancy, the only Volvo. This was taken roughly 37 seconds after he parked. Off to a great start!



Dave summed up our feelings during the drivers meeting. Also pictured is Ross, our Rainman of Canadian history.


After the meeting, we ran into town to grab a few more incidentals. I came back just in time to meet up with my friend Eric from school. I seem to see him once every 5 years or so, so it was a nice reunion. Well, until he went to dinner with us. About 5 seconds into trying to figure out where to eat, his comment was "So you're driving to the Arctic with these people? Yeah...." I think he was generally amused, although slightly concerned about our mental capacity. Then he got roped into driving Sarah back to Seattle, so I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't hear from him for at least another 5 years. Again, I forgot to snap a picture.

Tomorrow we shove off for the Great White North. Bob informs me I'll be driving, which should be interesting as there's a TSD stage right from the start. I'm in better shape than Ross, who only knows how to drive stick based on what he's read in books. Maybe that's what Dave was thinking about in that picture. If you would like to follow us, this is the Spot link for the sweep vehicle: Alcan live GPS. I need to sleep now, it's going to be a long day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Some more pictures from yesterday

So here is Dave's car in all its glory, out on the beaches of Washington. Who hasn't watched commercials with cars cruising along the beach, sand and water flying into the air with glee, and though "Man, that looks like fun!"? Well, if you try it, maybe don't do it in a MINI with snow tires.





 

I realized I had forgotten to take a picture of my awesome packing job. This is how I'm living for the next 3 weeks. Don't act like you're not impressed.

In the bar of our hotel, all the bottles where little bowlers and top hats.
Seven different kinds of absinthe!
Dave and Sarah marvel at the dome.
Insert ubiquitous Seattle picture.
These were not the guys that laughed at us.

Oh come on, they're not that bad!
Dave could not believe there was a monorail. Dave couldn't believe a lot of what he saw yesterday. "Oh WOW!"
Dave and Sarah on the steps of our hotel.
"That says what?! How did they do that?"
Enjoying some of the finest mac&cheese Seattle has to offer.