Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Arctic Circle

With the sun coming up so early, it's impossible not to wake up at a reasonable time without feeling like you've wasted all morning. I've also found I don't really feel cold until I need to pack everything up the next morning, lots of exposed digits and sub zero temperatures don't mix well. After getting the car packed Yogi and me were on the road towards Dawson, a small mining town.

Along the way, there were some really nice views of the Yukon, but I didn't see any wildlife except for these really neat falcons. I tried to stop at a few trails, but they're still all snowed in. I feel bad for Yogi, he's going to be fairly un-exercised for a few days while I make it North. After a few more disappointing trailheads I decided to make an attempt to book it north and then head back South so I can get back to Mountain biking in warmer temperatures.

Once at Dawson, I refuel, get some cash, and then fruitlessly try to find some wifi before I decide to get out of dodge and get on the Dempster highway. This is the highway I've been looking forward to/fearing the entire trip. I mentioned it to one of the brewers at Wheelhouse in Prince Rupert, and his reaction was "that'll destroy your car". I took the lonely road to the start of it, and set off, only to immediately see a sign stating that the next gas stop was 370 km away. Under my normal driving habits, this is longer than the range of my car. There was a gas station at the start of the highway, so I topped my tank off to the brim, and hoped that the road's surface wouldn't degrade my milage by too much. I'd be a filthy hypermiler if it meant I make it to my goal.

This is probably a bad idea...

A photo posted by Byron Young (@byron.a.young) on

I set off and was immediately disappointed at the road surface, in that it was exactly what I was expecting. It was a rough dirt road, with many exposed rocks and sand, I could barely maintain 40 mph. At this rate, it would take me roughly 5 hours to get to the Arctic Circle, my loafty likely unrealistic goal. Not only that, my tires aren't exactly new after several track days, so any sharp rock could puncture the tire. I was also thinking back to when I first packed the car, I knew I had a spare, but I didn't know whether I had a jack and the right tire iron size.

Nevertheless I pressed on, hoping that the weather would clear and the road would improve. Magically, it did temporarily. The weather cleared just before Tombstone Park, which turned out to be incredible. The road took me far above tree line, and I was quickly driving among snow capped peaks. Because of the low tree line the peaks are shorter than they seem, but they still looked large an imposing especially compared to a pitifully small Miata.

I decided to put the top down, which ended up being the correct choice. The air was cold but felt good while properly bundled up. It would be the best part of the Dempster, by a long shot.

A photo posted by Byron Young (@byron.a.young) on

The car's rattles and squeaks kept getting worse, so I finally put a concerted effort into fixing some of them. Turns out 90% of the noise was coming from two sources. The first was solved by rolling up my Buff and shoving it into one of the convertible top's hinges. The second was solved by shoving a sock in between the roll bar padding and the convertible top. Suddenly my car seemed quiet and composed in comparison, but it still complained loudly whenever I hit a large bump.

A photo posted by Byron Young (@byron.a.young) on

Suddenly the road darkened as I drove under a layer of clouds, and the road started gaining in altitude. The road surface itself started degrading to the point that I couldn't go much faster than 30 mph or I felt the car would fall apart Blues Brother's style. I found that if I drove on the far extreme right and left sides of the roads, there were less rocks and pot holes, but you run the risk of getting carried off the road by a large rut if you're not careful. I decided to call this method "edging".
After over 5 hours of traveling, with an average speed of just about 40 mph, I finally reached the next fuel stop with some margin. The hotel/gas station/bar/restaurant/shop was currently being run by a solitary gruff German woman, and after a beer and some gas I kept going north, enough light at 11 PM to keep me going for at least a couple more hours.

As I approached the arctic circle, more and more things on the car seemed to be complaining. It was probably my heightened awareness, fearing that something would go wrong just miles from my goal. But as the miles went by it became less and less likely. 8 miles to go... that oil temperature seems strangely warm... 7 miles... oh that wheel bearing is making that funny sound again.... 6 miles... huh is the left bearing making the same sound now? 5 miles... it suddenly occurs to me why people travel to Hawaii so much, it's awesome there... 4 miles... I can't believe there's still dusk remaining at midnight...

Suddenly, I'm at the arctic circle. There isn't a huge monument, just a small wooden sign. It was still very cloudy, very windy, and very cold, so I decided against putting up my tent and instead decided to sleep in my car, my first time doing so on the trip. Pictures could wait until the next morning. I celebrated with a beer Kristina and Ryan gave me in Seattle, and it was worth saving until now. I had a slight hope that the clouds would clear up so that I could see the Northern Lights for the 2:30-4 AM period when it's actually completely dark, but with the last clear pockets closing up I decided to get a few hours of sleep before heading back south.

I woke up surprised by about an inch of snow on the ground. What this meant, in the short term, was that I needed to do some doughnuts. In the more long-term, it meant I was driving back on the Dempster in the snow. It was also my first time driving the Miata in snow, maybe any rear wheel drive car actually. Just an inch of snow, rather than closing up bumps or pot-holes, ends up just concealing them. The drive back would be even slower than the pitiful 40 mph I was able to average yesterday.

Made it! Somehow!

A photo posted by Byron Young (@byron.a.young) on

After a crawl I was able to make it back to Eagle Plains, the refueling station. And that's where I am now! Waiting on everything opening up so I can get some fuel. The tentative plan is to stay in Dawson tonight in a real bed, and get a good night's rest before heading down to Haines, Alaska via the Top of the World highway. If I can survive the Dempster (maybe I shouldn't speak so soon) I can survive that highway right?

A photo posted by Byron Young (@byron.a.young) on


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