Rob's Blog Archive

January 19, 2014

Leavin' Home










Leaving for three months meant that the only reasonable choice was to winterize my house and leave it cold---a hard shut down---then load the dogs and start my drive to Alaska.  The last thing I did was to shut off my main circuit breaker.  In the nine and a half years I had lived at Silly Lake, I had never done that.  Silly Lake was home.  I felt very alone that first night of driving.

The first two drops, letting the dogs out of their compartments in the dog truck to eat, drink, stretch their legs a little, and relieve themselves, went well.  There’s a bit of art to doing these, so the fact that I hadn’t forgotten how helped me feel better.  Still, what probably helped the most was realizing how badly each of my last three drives to Alaska had gone and that that had festered in my subconscious. 

The first drive up, the one during the summer, had gone the best.  It only featured massive sleep deprivation---I would have done okay except that for the first time in my life, mosquitoes kept me awake.  It was early June, swarms clouded the air and their hum was as loud as traffic on a freeway.  After the first night, I set up a tent and shielded myself, but I never caught up on my sleep.  With a hard deadline, I was registering in person for the 2008 Iditarod, I couldn’t take an extra day on the road.

The next drive to Alaska started with my sideswiping a semi—I started that drive as sleep deprived as, up to that point in my life, I had ever been.  Shortly after that ignoble start, a dog chewed through the cable to my oxygen sensor.  Fixing this cost us enough time that what would have been a tough drive—my friend Nic was with me on that trip---turned into a sleep deprived death march---I got six hours sleep as Nic fixed the cable then slept himself, but that would end up being the longest stretch of solid sleep till we got to Alaska.  Once again, I had a hard deadline---I had to make the vet check of my dogs for the Klondike 300. 

The last drive up was the first that didn’t include massive sleep deprivation.  It started, however, with the four wheel drive dropping out---this happened in Shelby, even before Eric and I crossed into Canada.  It featured my nearly running out of gas once, and actually on a second occasion.  It ended with my truck sliding out of control on black ice and into a snowbank from which it had to be pulled out by a tow truck. 

With no hard deadlines this time and my going way out of my way to make sure the car was in good shape, this trip was different. Beyond that, with the realization of the genesis of my dread, that disappeared.  Not that I didn’t feel the normal fear about going off and starting something new and different, just that it had morphed from trepidation to a healthy fear.

It was just past Lethbridge, Alberta, that I started hitting consistent snowcover.  Dropping dogs on snow is much neater and easier to deal with than dropping them on any other surface---as a musher who wants places to remain open to me and my dogs, I make sure I do a good job of cleaning up after the dogs.  I suppose a lawn would work just fine, but most parks won’t let mushers park their rigs on the grass.  Asphalt sucks.

More than 2,000 of the 2,700 miles of my drive passed through Canada.  Canadian signage remains on my shit list.   My favorite, and perhaps the one that best symbolizes, “What were they thinking?” is the one that depicts a truck running into a cinder block---either a very large cinder block or a very small truck. 

I should add that, while I’ve generally found the signage in Canada to suck, they do a great job of maintaining the roads during the winter.  Unfortunately, that near perfection didn’t save me.  On my fourth day, I found myself driving through snow turned to ice by the falling rain---falling rain isn’t actually supposed to happen in the interior during the winter, but it does.  I even did the correct thing and tried to turn into the skid to regain control, but couldn’t and found my truck firmly imbedded in a snowbank. 

Truckers and RCMP pulled me out---I was surprised and impressed.  My experience is that wreckers who know what they’re doing with a tow truck could have extracted me with ease, but that that’s the only real solution.  These gentlemen eventually got a heavy enough chain---the first busted---and within a few minutes, had dislodged my truck completely.  Truly, there is no job so hard it cannot be solved given an adequate supply of brute force.  There was cosmetic damage to the front bumper, but that was it.  The RCMP officer took down my license and proof of insurance, and I suppose that if I had found myself in another snow bank within a day or two, I would have gotten a stern lecture.  Of course, the fact that these folks had all been dealing with a jackknifed truck---I wasn’t the only person caught off guard by the ice---that had blocked the entire Alcan for four hours did put me in the small potatoes class.

In keeping with how good Canadian maintenance of the Alcan is, they had a good layer of gravel down on the road within thirty minutes of my sliding off. 

The bad weather would peak on my last day on the road.  I ended up driving for about forty miles through six inches of new, wet, heavy snow.  I was ready to take the name of Alaska road crews in vain when I got to nicely cleared and sanded road.  Actually, following a plow had preceded this---its 32 mph was certainly no faster than I’d be able to do out in front of it.  I had done this for about 25 miles when I came to fully plowed and sanded road.  For the rest of the day, that’s what I found myself on.  Conditions, particularly as I got closer to Wasilla and then Willow, remained sketchy as the temperature was above freezing and water, a little snow, and some sand covered the road.  Add to this that lots of the curves on the highway into Anchorage/Palmer/Wasilla are 35 mph during the summer, something I had neatly forgotten about.  Still, given everything, I was impressed with how well Alaska had maintained its highways.

By eight Thursday evening, I had started unloading dogs and putting them in their new homes.  It was raining rather than snowing, and the trails remain in very poor condition, but I have a home.

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