Fall 2004 Forward to a Friend

The Alcan Winter Rally has been run every four years or so for the last 20 years. Last February, 16 teams of vehicles entered in the 2004 event went north from Kirkland, Washington, crossed the Arctic Circle to the town of Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories, Canada and finished in Anchorage, Alaska. Nine people forming the Subaru Challenge Driving Team traveled in three vehicles: a WRX STi, a Forester XT and a Baja Turbo, all equipped with the vigorous, turbocharged, 2.5-liter boxer engine.

The Alcan Rally consisted of traveling long transit stages between Time-Speed-Distance (TSD) stages and ice racing. The TSD “regularity” stages that punctuated the transits had penalties for earliness or lateness measured to the second. The ice racing courses allowed teams to go flat out – on ice.

For two days in the middle of the rally, the competition paused. That was when our real adventure took place – a round-trip journey from Dawson City to Tuktoyaktuk via Canada’s Dempster Highway and Mackenzie ice highway.

The Dempster Highway is one of the most treacherous and breathtaking roads in the world, and even more so in winter. When we set out from Dawson City early on the morning of February 22nd, the outside temperature was an unseasonably warm -8° F.

Built between 1958 and 1980, the Dempster Highway is an 8- to 12-foot-high causeway of gravel and crushed stone set atop the permafrost. The height of the highway itself presents considerable danger. Running off the road in summer would be perilous, and in winter it would be even worse. The soft snow accumulates to the same height as the road. So if you were to run off the road, you might not be found until the snow melts.

There is no cell phone coverage, and winter traffic is infrequent. For these reasons, our vehicles were equipped with VHF radios and bright roof-mounted taillights. The lights also improved our visibility to the few large trucks on the road, which could have trouble seeing a small car in drifting snow.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin used the words magnificent desolation to describe the lunar surface, and this phrase jumped into my mind as we entered each new valley. We felt like we were the first humans there.

While a few marker poles delineate the road in the mountain passes, the edge of the road was very difficult to discern. The blowing snow in the passes conspired with the terrain to produce white-out conditions. But after we drove through the mountains, we were rewarded by an amazing spectacle of snowy peaks casting shadows the color of blueprints.

After 230 harrowing and exhilarating miles, we reached our first gas stop, Eagle Plains. The half-way point on the Dempster, Eagle Plains is located just south of the Arctic Circle. It is an outpost consisting of a few buildings nestled together that feature a gas station, auto and truck repair shop, hotel, restaurant, souvenir shop and bar. With its own water tanks and electrical generators, the facility is self-sufficient.

That night, after reaching the Mackenzie Hotel in Inuvik, we banqueted on Arctic char, caribou and musk ox.

Early the next morning, we drove down a small ramp onto the frozen Mackenzie River. In winter, this ice highway is the only way to reach Tuktoyaktuk (“Tuk” to the locals).

The Mackenzie ice highway is well-marked and regularly plowed. The “road” surface had some very rough patches where ice fissures refroze and formed razor-edged potholes. One car destroyed two tires on these fissures. The team fitted their two spares and headed back to the relative safety of Inuvik.

Semitrailers pose another danger. They can create bow waves – undulations of the ice road’s surface – when they drive across the ice. Posted signs warn not to drive too close to large vehicles because the undulations they cause may upset the handling of your vehicle.

After 80 miles, we reached the mouth of the river, and the shorelines disappeared. As we turned eastward at the sign for Tuk, we kept the coastline on our right. The vast expanse of the Beaufort Sea lay to our left, accentuating the feelings of barrenness and isolation.

During the final 40 miles to Tuk, we encountered the Arctic phenomena of “pingos” and “sundogs.” Pingos are Arctic geophysical oddities – elevated mounds of tundra that sometimes feature a central crater. These are formed by underground water forcing up the ground from under the permafrost, and some grow to the size of small volcanoes.

The Arctic sundog phenomenon is caused by light shining through ice crystals in the atmosphere. As we approached Tuk in the morning, two bright sundogs appeared – one on either side of the sun. If conditions are just right, these sundogs form a rainbow that circles the sun.

We drove to the end of the road at Tuk, the farthest north you can drive in Canada. Beyond us was the Arctic Ocean. I felt like we were at the top of the world.

Back in Inuvik, we met the local Inuit shaman at the gas station. He proclaimed solemnly that we would win the Alcan Rally. He proved to be correct, but in ways that we did not expect.

Everyone was a winner in February’s Alcan because we had all experienced something very rare, and it wasn’t the rally itself. We had shared the adventure of a lifetime, the remoteness and grandeur of the far north and the closeness of good friends on a long journey.