Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Fugly

The Good

There is a little town called Deadhorse that borders our final destination, Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska. In reality Deadhorse and Prudhoe are only really separated by the security cordon that partitions the public area from the privately owned oil fields that stretch to the bay itself. From the beginning of the trip's conception this final hurdle had provided a number of conflicting accounts of whether ocean access would be possible, but I'm sure you can understand that driving 25 thousand miles to fall barely 4 miles short would leave a slightly bitter taste in our mouths.

From Fairbanks we headed due north to complete the final 500 mile leg of our north bound journey, a little stupefied by the epic distances we had already covered and slightly bemused by the weather, which was absolutely blistering sunshine. The last section of road is the famous Dalston Highway, about 400 miles in length and completely unpaved. The sign that marks the highway entrance is covered in graffiti and stickers from all the other travelers who have passed through, and we stopped for a moment to read the messages and make our own contributions to what felt like the collective commemoration to the final push.

100 miles later we hit the latitude of 66° 33. This is the southern most point (in the Northern hemisphere) where you can experience 24 hour sunlight or darkness, on the summer and winter solstices respectively. It's common name, is the Arctic Circle. And everything north of it is the Arctic. We crossed the line wearing t-shirts and sandals, happy in the knowledge that if we were there but even a month later, it would be a whole different story!

By midnight we were still driving north and the sky still held enough light to make our headlights redundant. The sun had actually set, we were too late in the season for a true midnight sun, but it was not far enough below the horizon to darken the skies. We finally crawled into Prudhoe Bay around 2am and began to test the security perimeter for weaknesses. We'd arrived in the middle of the "night" with the hope that some of the roads would be unmanned, providing us with the opportunity to make an illegal dash to the sea to complete our trip. Unfortunately the roads were very much guarded and our night time cover was decidedly more sunny than we had envisaged. We tried to befriend and beguile a few of the guards but they, although perfectly friendly, all had clearly encountered the likes of us before and were stoic in their refusal to do anything but point us to the nearby hotel. Tired and defeated we retreated towards the hotel and our slightly anti-climatic plan B, a tourist bus at 7 am laid on by the hotel to take us to the Bay, for the extortionate sum of $40. Each. The tightened security was apparently laid on after 9 11, which is an understandable and fairly rational option to take, but the fee made it feel much more like a tourist tax. We crept into the hotel around 3.30 am and, finding the reception deserted, bunked down in the tour briefing room we were scheduled to arrive at less than 4 hours later. I say scheduled because this really was a plan B, we had booked ourselves onto this tour and sent our passport details 24 hours earlier, so we could be security cleared for the trip. At this point things starting to run in our favour. There are many good reasons to drag yourself out of bed in the morning, but the best of these must clearly be the smell of frying bacon and other fatty fried goodness. And of course everything tastes better when it is free. Not that this was our initial intention, but although we'll happily pay for food, we draw the line at letting it go cold while we actively have to seek out someone to take our money. Particular when we knew we were already being subjected to the unjustifiable high price of the bus ticket. Which we ending up not having to pay for either. Oops. I'm sure it's morally, ethically and socially wrong, and I'm sure this electronic confession will come back to haunt me, but still, it was free.

The bus trundled up to the shore and we all hopped out, slightly peturbed both by the threat of bitterly cold water and the roaming grizzly bears that share this seaside resort. Luckily the bears were clearly off picniking but the water was shockingly cold. No real surprises really, it's the Arctic Ocean after all. High fives and not at all funny splashing (Phil) were followed by frantic drying and dressing as that morning the weather had decided to turn a lot more Arcticy. We shivered back on to the bus and by 9am we were back stealing free coffee from the hotel we weren't staying in. And that was that really. 25000 miles, the tip of South America to the north coast of Alaska. Freezing ocean to ocean with glorious summer and the world's longest road in between. We'd done it, this road lay conquered. We were pretty spectacularly tired, we were stuck in a rapidly freezing, wind swept, barren oil field town 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, and we had really quite a long way to go to reach New York and then Blighty. "Well, best be off then". So we did.

The Bad

New York was admittedly a late addition to the trip. But we had discussed it in detail and decided that we wanted to reach the East coast. Barry, apparently, had missed the memo. Eighty miles south bound, as opposed to the 25000 miles we had very recently completed north bound, we noticed that our temperamental twenty year old was guzzling fuel at over twice the normal rate. And sure enough when we popped the hood we found a glistening, diesel covered engine. It looked very clean, and it was very very bad. We'd twice had problems with our fuel filter, which is why we now didn't have a spare, and we were still well inside the Arctic Circle.

We limped a mile back to the cheerily named Happy Valley, which was little more than a gravelly runway strip and collection of RV's, to take a look at the damage. I may very well be the least mechanically minded individual that the DVLA have ever recklessly issued a driving license to, so I filmed while Tom and Phil pushed, pulled, poked and pondered. In Layman's, or indeed my, terms, the fuel filter stops big chunks of chunky fuel being injected into your engine. It's under pressure, so if it is cracked or incorrectly sealed, fuel will leak out. The fan at the front of the engine (to cool rather than encourage) acts like a hairdryer or, well fan, and sprays the leaked fuel all over the engine. This is bad for fuel consumption, as the fuel is making the engine go shiny not faster. It is bad for the engine itself as the fuel is corrosive. And it presents a fairly significant fire risk as the engine is hot and the fuel is flammable. Luckily diesel is a lot less flammable then petrol so we weren't quiet yet at the "Human Torch" stage. The RV park come airport was home to a few hardy locals who offered plane rides into the wilderness for hunters and semi permanent accommodation for scientists, and several of them had kindly popped over to help. Initially we / an expertly filmed "they" tried to seal the fuel filter with some appropriately sounding sealant but the newly sealed filter continued to leak. Unfortunately this process did seal the fate of our fuel filter, which although still leaking, could no longer be removed from it's housing. (Curiously housing has nothing to do with real estate, but is in fact what the fuel filter is attached to.) So the fuel filter and it's housing were removed, presumably from the housing's housing or street, and the fuel filter and housing conglomerate was coated in liquid metal. The leak had leaked it's last.

The Fugly

The liquid metal needed to be left overnight to set so a few of the locals offered to both feed us and put us up for the night. Exceptionally kind and very welcome at the best of times, let alone in the remote tundra plains of the Alaskan Arctic. On top of food, shelter, beer, poker and even a morning hot shower, Kevin, Ed, Jake and Louanne were great company and we cannot be thankful enough. The next morning our reinforced filter system basked in the glory of it's leak free filtering and we were once again on our way. For about 40 miles. The fuel gage had by then already dropped too far. We popped the hood and stared unbelievingly at our newly leaking filter. Damn.

Our options at this point were limited. Driving while spraying diesel onto your engine is not safe, and if it had been been petrol would almost definitely have resulted in an all consuming fire. We had a length of pipe to bypass the filter altogether, but doing that on the roadside without proper equipment would have probably sent Barry into her death throws. We decided there was no real point in turning back, as we needed the mechanics garage 120 miles south. We also decided that though not recommended, our free spraying diesel was unlikely to ignite, so we could probably limp on. (Diesel is flammable when hot enough, but combusts normally only under pressure, rather than being ignited like petrol in a petrol engine) If however we lost fuel so rapidly that we couldn't reach the garage, road side surgery would be the only option.

We drove slowly, trying to make the engine work as little as possible, and taking every opportunity to coast when the incline allowed. Our luck held. We rolled into the truck loading and refuelling area called Coldfoot. Again there was little more there than a restaurant, motel, garage and camping ground but at least our options were better. Though still very far from good. The mechanics were busy and had no time to give us assistance, and certainly not for free. Attempting to bypass the filter ourselves had every chance of causing Barry's premature death, and limping another 250 miles to Fairbanks with a diesel soaked engine was not particularly promising either. Alaska is spectacularly remote, you can drive 150 miles without passing a building or another car. One advantage of this is that everybody at that station was either going back to Prudhoe or down to Fairbanks. We started to ask truckers if they had enough space to carry us and Barry and eventually we got a hit. The trucker, Jack, had a small but to our eyes Barry shaped space at the end of his rig, and, after double checking with his employer, he agreed to carry us the 250 miles for 250 dollars. If we'd driven it would have cost us $50 in fuel at best, in this state more like $100, so we decided to take the hit.

Barry was strapped into place and the 3 of us jumped into the cab at the front. Big trucks are awesome. They have as many dials as a light aircrafts cockpit, two chairs upfront and a horizontal bed behind that Phil and I sat on. We asked Jack if we could film. "No problem, I've just been filmed for three months filming Ice Road Truckers". How cool is that? It's one of America's many real life, real danger, day in the life of type programs and Jack Jessee was evidently one of the stars. We drove through the night, encountering three prowling wolves along the way, and eventually pulled in to Fairbanks at 4am. By my reckoning the 4th night in 7 without sleep. The local diner opened for breakfast at 5am, that was this morning, about 12 hours ago.

We have spent all of the day talking to every mechanic and dealership in town, who have all offered startlingly different opinions on what "fixes" we can effect. America does not have Toyota diesels. So the parts are well and truly unavailable. And any short term fixes are clearly not going to get us the 5 thousand miles to New York. We're still 2000 miles from Vancouver and there is not a lot in between.

As I wrote this story in my head while sleepily trundling around Fairbanks, things were looking pretty bleak. Skipping the east coast and just trying to get Barry to a port in Vancouver, Portland or Seattle seemed like the only real option left to us. However, there is now a glimmer of hope on our Arctic grey horizon. One recommendation led to another and we found ourselves at the door of the soul-warmingly exuberant, one man mechanic, Adam. His thick southern drawl and Woody Woodpecker laugh were enough in themselves to lift our moods but he attacked our seemingly insurmountable problem with gusto (not to mention a hacksaw) and we are now the proud owners of a completely bastardised fuel filtering system and significantly less piping. Still, it seemed to hold on the way back to our hostel and we will drive around tomorrow to see how we fair before, fingers, toes and eyes crossed, heading down to Vancouver. This Road is completed and we're on our way back home. In sincerely hope we make it. The other two are in bed, and I'm going to go and join then. Not literally, obviously.


chris said...

How cool - Ice Road Truckers is awesome!!

chris said...

Anonymous said...

Hey guys ! While in BC, if you want to ship back the car, have a look at the trains. Many merchandise trains are going to the most important ports on the east coast : Montreal, Boston and NY. It might be easier and cheaper through Mtl because you won't have customs duties.


Sally said...

Congratulations guys on acheiving This Road. Not many people have the opportunity, or the courage to make their dreams come true. I know how much this meant to you all, and you have made it!! Well done. All the blood sweat & tears, (mainly sweat) have been worthwhile.

Try not to beast poor Barry too much on the trip back East.

Lots of love to you all, (some more than others :-D )

Philip I am sooooo glad you are homeward bound at last, am counting the days.

Love Sally X x x

Rowena said...


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