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!