ALCAN Highway in Winter

In February of the first winter Chris and I were in Alaska, we drove down the Al-Can highway to take care of the sale of our house–2,200 miles 1,000 of which was gravel–. Mom agreed to take care of the kids and since my VW minibus with it’s air-cooled engine did not do well at 50 below zero we had purchased a new diesel Peugeot which we thought would make a great car to drive down and back. I was out of work since it was winter and the construction business pretty much stops, so we decided that we would take a month and drive. it was cheaper than flying. The car had fully reclining front seats so we planned to sleep in shifts and drive continuously and thereby make it a three day trip to Seattle.  There was a short period of the wee hours of the morning when neither of us could stay awake so we pulled over and slept until one of us decided we could drive and we would resume the journey. Since the car was diesel we could leave it idling to keep warm.

During the trip we had eight, count them 8 flat tires. To add insult to injury the Peugeot wheels had no hole in the center like a typical American wheel so the service stations would not repair the tires — they wouldn’t fit on their tire machine — but they did loan me their hand tools with which I had no trouble removing the tube. In the extreme cold tubeless tires do not do well so everyone puts tubes in their tubeless tires. The tubes have to be made of natural rubber because synthetic rubber gets too hard in the cold. When I returned to Fairbanks the tubes in all the tires were replaced under warranty. It turned out that they were defective so if it weren’t for the defect I would not have had any flats. The tires were not actually punctured but rather the tubes were spontaneously developing leaks because of a defect in the material.

If you have no tubes in your tires when it gets cold, the tire shrinks so much it pulls away from the rim, the air leaks out and the tire goes flat but the tire is so stiff that it breaks when it collapses from the weight of the car.  At 40 below zero the tires are so stiff that the flat spot on a tire stays in the same place so when you drive, the car bumps along like you are driving over a uniformly spaced set of bumps.

In February Alaska is continuously dark so most of our driving was in darkness. As we drove periodically a semi would pass us going in the opposite direction. As it did it would kick up a cloud of snow that would create a complete white-out for a few seconds so as a truck approached I had to memorize the situation in front of me so I could drive from memory. The big fear that I never got over was that a car might decide to pass a truck and we would meet unexpectedly in the white-out. The road was narrow. It had no shoulder. In the summer you could see where the road ended and the bar pit started but in the winter the snowplows, going at high speed, would fill the bar pit with snow level with the roadway so it appeared that the road was wider than it actually was. Every time a truck went by we had to fight the urge to move over to give the truck a little more room. One time when Chris was driving she gave in the the urge and the front tire went over the edge of the roadway, this caused the car to go completely into the bar pit and we were stuck. The first truck that came by stopped to pull use out but he expected to do it without getting out of his cab and he expected us to have a tow rope of our own which, luckily we had. We got back onto the road quickly but the car would only idle. When I opened the hood to see if I could fix the problem I discovered that as we plowed into the snow the powdery snow completely filled the engine compartment and then as it warmed from the heat of the engine it became clumpy and compact and it did not want to leave its new warm home. The reason the engine would only idle was the snow was blocking the air intake so only a small amount of air could get in. We spent several minutes removing snow from the engine compartment with a stick.

We had a cassette player in the car and a box of music tapes but as we completed our 6 days of driving we were painfully aware that we didn’t really have a large enough selection for such a long trip. To this day I can still hear those John Denver songs we played over and over again.

In those days there was no temple in Washington or Alaska so we decided to drive out of our way to visit the temple in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, which added almost 700 miles to our trip. When we called the temple to check on the schedule they told us that they were so far behind in doing the work for men that women were not allowed to do temple work until they were caught up, but when we explained where we were from they said the rule didn’t apply to travelers so we did get to attend the temple after all.

On the way back we stopped at a hot spring in Canada near the Alaska border. It is a beautiful spring that comes out of the ground, clear and very hot. There are a series of rock dams that have been built to make several pools of different temperatures. The spring is about an eighth of a mile from the parking lot with a board walk to it. When we arrived it was 10 below zero and not surprisingly we were the only visitors. As is typical for Alaskans we had 2 keys to the car so we could lock it up while leaving it idling. we walked to the spring through the snow then, being alone we disrobed at the edge of the pool on the board walk and jumped into the water. It was so refreshing after 3+ days of continuous driving. The setting was dreamlike with the steam from the spring turning to a fog and then thickly frosting the trees. As we adjusted to the heat we moved closer and closer to the source of the spring. When we were very hot we climbed out of the water and rolled about in the snow which felt wonderful until our body temperature dropped to near normal and then we jumped back in. This was all fun and we saw no problem with our adventure until it came time to return to the car. Our exit strategy was to get as hot as we could stand then quickly get out, dry off and dress quickly so we could return to our warm car. When we started dressing we discovered that our clothes were frozen stiff and our body heat was quickly dissipating. When we finally got back to the car, our teeth were chattering and it took us a while to warm up even in a nice warm car.

When we finally returned to Fairbanks after about a month, I think Mom was even happier to see us than the kids were.

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One Response to ALCAN Highway in Winter

  1. Lara Updike says:

    These Alaska stories make me laugh. I can understand why you didn’t stay there!

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