Saturday, 14 August 2010

Barry goes bananas

We really should paint some racing stripes and a big black "53" on the Baroness, because she just covered roughly 2200 miles in 66 hours. Canada is one seriously big country. We drove for 35 hours from Vancouver before we managed to leave the state of British Colombia and enter the Yukon. 35 hours, one state, surely that must be some kind of record.

We were back to our starting team having subbed out Steffi for our returning wedding crasher, and immediately we hit the road for the long push to the north coast of Alaska, a drive not far shy of 3000 miles. Having endured the British like weather of Oregon and Seattle, British Colombia's heat wave had been a welcome reminder of our trips "follow the summer" theme. Alaska, on the other hand, was going to get cold. We mentally braced ourselves for the rain and wind, icy roads, snow storms and freezing temperatures with good old British stoic indifference and gallow"s humour. So the fact that our journey north was twice interrupted by fire came as quite a surprise. No more than a few hours outside of Vancouver, on a snaking mountain road encased by tall, green pine trees, we came across a blackened car wrapped in 20ft high flames. There was a queue of 5 or 6 cars in front of us, and we had arrived no more than twenty minutes since the blaze had started. A fire crew had arrived, but were evidently waiting on reinforcements before tackling the inferno.

Luckily no one had been injured. We learned a Russian tourist had been driving his rented 2010 Chevy up the steep hill when a local Canadian frantically flagged him down with, what I can only imagine is slightly disconcerting, "Pull over, your car is on fire". He did and it was. And twenty minutes later it was more coal than car, with a tank, thankfully leaking, full of petrol to keep the flames and the firemen happy. I say thankfully leaking because otherwise there would have probably been an explosion big enough to severely ruin your lovely afternoon drive in the country. The fire fighting reinforcements arrived, huffing and puffing and hosing and posing, and spectacularly failing to put the fire out. British Colombia is on an extreme fire warning, so much so that smoking in parks has been banned, so a car shaped inferno a few feet from the edge of a huge pine forrest is probably on the "things to not to during an extreme fire warning" too. The firefighters, realising that their jet of water was not actually extinguishing the petrol fueled fire, but merely pushing the flames dangerously close to the forest edge, changed tactic and spent a few minutes soaking every tree and bush instead. Oh dear, we thought, we may be stuck here for sometime. Happily this was not to be as some bright spark (sorry) realised that they did in fact have a much bigger hose at their disposal. 20 nanoseconds later the fire hissed into submission and we were all on our way. Well, those of us with fully functioning cars anyway, the poor old Russian was at the mercy of the police, who seemed suspicious that a brand new car would burst into flames. The Canadians suspected the (American made) Chevy, the police clearly suspected vodka.

Phase two of fire fury was going to potentially be a much larger problem. Highway 37 runs north near BC's west coast, connecting us with the AlCan Highway. It's a spectacular drive and probably the shortest route to Alaska from Vancouver, it's also a 1500 mile detour if for any reason it's closed. "Highway 37 is closed" the flashing sign read "Due to a forest fire". We couldn't face a 1500 mile detour, so we decided to press on and see what happened, knowing at least that we were 4 hours from the 37 turnoff so potentially they could have "fixed" the forest fire problem by then. And our luck did hold, because Canada's so ridiculously, spectacularly big. At the turn off we realised that only the northern part of the highway was closed, and that was a further 5 hours away. Yes, we were boxing ourselves into a very tight corner, if we weren't able to get through the detour would be 1500 miles, but we already felt committed and it felt good to be putting, potentially counter-productive, miles on the clock. Also to reach this point we had driven straight through the previous night, and irritable tiredness is a happy bedfellow of irrational dogmatism.

By 8pm, a mere 33 hours since having departed Vancouver, we pulled into a rest area opposite the road blockade and collapsed into our tents, although we did manage time for an invigorating and energising dinner of breakfast cereal. By 8am we were sat in a queue of twenty cars, trucks and RV's, waiting to see if a pilot vehicle would turn us up to lead us through the smoke and flames. And again our luck held out, or in this case fortune favoured the bloody-minded. By 8.15am we were happily convoying along, knowing that both because we had pushed on till 8pm the night before to reach the blockade point to see if we could get through and because we'd been forced to get up early to queue, the forest fire had actually gained us time. Although we saw flames, and huge swathes of blackened pine trees, the visible damage was not that devastating. For large parts of the 60 mile trip, we were completely engulfed in smoke, but the flames had moved so quickly through, that the forest had not been reduced to barren, ash covered wasteland. What was truly impressive though, was the scale. 22000 hectares had been burnt through and the authorities, some 60 firefighters supported by diggers and helicopters, were utterly powerless to stop it. Thankfully the fire is really only a threat to humans, or more accurately their homes, and any such destruction had been avoided. The forest fires (this one caused by a lightning strike) naturally clear space for new grass shoots to sprout through, providing a happy banquet for the wondering moose, dear and caribou, and most of the animals inhabiting the effected area would have long since scarpered towards slightly more fur friendly surroundings.

And speaking of our furry little friends, Highway 37 had provided us with no less than 7 bear sightings. Who in retrospect were probably taking the quickest route away from the fire. We don't normally pick up hitchhikers, and this was certainly going to be no exception.

Since our fiery escapades we have driven continuously through the Yukon and into Alaska, to the central city of Fairbanks. We're pretty tired, but we're oh so very close. Prudhoe Bay is 500 miles north. We set off tomorrow morning. The road may be a little bumpy, and the final part is not even open to private vehicles, but we can almost taste the sea air.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

glad you didn't pick up the bears chaps! sounds like quite a trip so far!


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