Story by Paul Eklund, Photos by Yulia Smolyansky
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee…
…and so starts the quirky poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, by Canadian author Robert Service. It is about the wild North and what happens up in the Yukon and Alaska. There are strange and wonderful things done, even to this day, along the infamous ALCAN HIGHWAY, which runs from Dawson Creek, BC to Delta Junction, AK 1387 miles northwest.
One of them started in 1984 and runs to this day, the ALCAN 5000 Winter Road Rally (and its tamer cousin, the Alcan Summer Rally). Most years the car rally runs right on the edge of Lake Leberge in the Yukon Territory. (yes, Leberge). A rally is a driving event where a driver and navigator team up in a car to drive an unknown route at prescribed speeds and pass hidden way-points exactly when they are supposed to. Penalties accrue if they arrive too early, or too late; to the second.
Brainchild of Rallymaster Jerry Hines, this “bucket-list” driving event covers nearly 5000 miles in 9 days of rally driving, ice racing, and physical endurance, along some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. This driving spectacle starts in Seattle, WA in late February and ends at the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog race (Anchorage to Nome) in early March. It runs every 4 years, just like the Olympics, alternating with the summer Alcan rally, so one or the other occurs every 2 years. And because it typically ends in Anchorage, AK most participants have 2600 to 5000 more miles just to get home again.
The 27 teams that entered in the 2016 Alcan Winter Rally encountered 34 TSD Rally checkpoints, one Ice Slalom (ice race), 100 woodland bison, herds of caribou, glorious glaciers, some ice road truckers, -32 degree F temps, an ice highway, ice museum, the Arctic Circle, a hot spring surrounded by snow, some fox, maybe a wolf, and a few laconic moose chewing willows. Only missing during this running were the fickle Northern Lights, the dazzling can-can dancers in Whitehorse (Yukon) at Fur Rendezvous festival, the sour toe drink in Dawson (look it up), and the ubiquitous blizzard (thankfully).
For some, this rally is merely a bucket list driving adventure. Sure, the rally portion is fun, but getting your old Saab, or new Jeep, up the ice roads out of Yellowknife NWT (Northwest Territory, Canada) or across the Arctic Circle up to Coldfoot, Alaska (which holds the North American low temp record at -82 degrees F) is the real challenge.
Driving across the Arctic in the winter has spectacular views. Pictures cannot do them justice. Words insufficient. The experience is life changing and draws you back like a moth to a flame. Whether the yipping dogs, eager to pull a sled, the clack of Ravens calling to one another, the bellow of an elk, or the frozen view up the long, lonely Dalton Highway, each aspect connects to your inner Walter Mitty.
(More below gallery.)
The start of the event looked like something from Noah’s Ark. Two red outfitted Subaru Foresters, two sleek Porsche 944’s (yes! and they both actually made it), two silver Jeep Wranglers, two Ford Raptors, two Outbacks, two STIs and so forth, all pulling out of a hotel in Kirkland at one minute intervals and starting the first short day of only 457 miles ending in Quesnel, British Columbia.
For logistical reasons, most of the TSD timed sections occur in the first 2 days of the event. Regularities contain up to 10 hidden checkpoints to time competitors along the way. Arrive at a checkpoint 1-second early or 1-second late and you receive a penalty point, so staying exactly on time is essential. And difficult. Because the checkpoints can be placed anywhere along the route, teams must stay on time, ALL the time during a regularity section. Long transit sections follow the regularities to move teams to an overnight endpoint (yes, with a hotel room).
The veteran team of Paul Eklund and navigator R. Dale Kraushaar looked strong out of the box. They “zeroed” the first regularity garnering no penalty points whatsoever but were followed closely by the other two Foresters.
Many teams struggled with the unrelenting accuracy needed past each hidden checkpoint. The rally hits you hard and fast. The next section was more rural Blackwater, with patches of ice and frozen mud. Remember its winter in Canada. That’s when the driving gets interesting.
But the rally is much more than assigned speeds and prescribed routes. The transits each day, often more than 600 grueling miles across uncertain conditions provide time for inner reflection, unbridled beauty, and a time to share stories, whether with your partner or over the short-wave radios.
You see, each car must have a buddy for safety purposes. Those cars run together, in case bad weather or a mechanical problem brings one to a stop. So, radio chatter can provide a break from 10 hours of driving just to get to your next overnight stop. And of course, many more stories are shared each evening around dinner tables and glasses of beer, pictures too. Participants hail from around the world.
After a few days, personalities emerge. Some teams grow closer, bonds tighten. Others fragment, the strain of the rally and treacherous transits pulling at the seams. Towards the end you see people riding in different cars, some just for a change up, others because of a permanent rift. The co-driver of the Mini All4, rode the last half of the rally in Sweep Truck #3. And so it goes. The rally changes you, it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche. Many entrants come from other extreme sports, but they marvel at the intensity at what they thought would be “an easy drive” …
A snowy section of winding transit after the Blackwater regularity caught out the Audi 90 and it slid off the road. Using a fellow competitor’s Jeep and a mighty tug, they pulled it back onto the road, but the front suspension was tweaked and they hobbled toward home.
Also caught out was car #13, the 2WD Ford Focus. They too were tugged back onto the road, and although they left a bit of bumper behind, and the radiator mostly wrapped around the fan shroud, they continued to the finish more than 4000 miles away (and 4th overall).
This was just day one. Visit www.alcan5000.com for links to results and additional stories and a tremendous video created by Nitto Tire.
Audi 90 (shunt on transit, broken suspension, abandoned Quesnel)
Subaru STi (unknown engine issue, abandoned Yellowknife).
Jeep Wrangler (rear differential, abandoned Whitehorse)
Subaru Outback – (massive exhaust leak, repaired and finished)
Jeep Wrangler (dropped driveshaft near Arctic Circle, repaired and finished)
Mini All4 Cooper (unknown engine electrical, resolved and finished)
Porsche 944 (wheel bearing, repaired and finished)
Saab 900 (brake caliper seized, repaired and finished)
Ford truck (sheared fan pulley, repaired, finished)
38 people made it above the Arctic Circle and received “Go Further” awards.
First time participants, Paul Westwick and Yulia Smolyansky won the event overall with a score of 61.1 points, averaging less than one second error across each checkpoint. They drove a Subaru Forester XT shod with studded Cooper WeatherMaster tires and ran in Equipped category with a Timewise odometer and cranking a Curta mechanical calculator (definitely look this up, wild).
The second place car was also a Subaru Forester, also on awesome Cooper tires, running a full Timewise 798 rally computer and finished 6.9 seconds behind. Driven by Paul Eklund with R. Dale Kraushaar navigating, it was their 6th ALCAN and second consecutive time they “snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory” while leading the event.
Third was Jeremiah Jackson and Thomas McNally in a Mitsubishi EVO about 70 seconds further back, using a rally iPad tablet app and GPS to navigate. They ran un-studded Nitto Ice tires and did extremely well in the ice race.
After a final awards banquet at a downtown Anchorage hotel — also full of Iditarod race teams and a parking lot filled with trucks, sleds, and about 500 yipping sled dogs waiting to start that famous event — rally teams exchanged email address, shared last pictures and stories, replete with hand gestures and sound effects. Many re-packed and prepared for a leisurely 2,500 mile drive back to “home”, wherever that may lie.
Sidebar (What kind of cars do people take on this rally?):
Several BMWs took up the challenge, both doing outstanding jobs on the ice race. The X5 did well at the start, drove well on the ice race, but struggled in a few TSD regularities, the overall win out of reach. The team in the BMW 535ix wagon also performed with extreme poise on the ice race, but were never in contention during the timed regularities.
(More below gallery.)
A host of Subaru models have been a staple at the Alcan, mostly performing well, rarely struggling. 7 Subies started and all but one finished. 3 Foresters, 2 Outbacks, an Impreza and an STI (which damaged its motor on the rev limiter at the ice race on “Vee Lake” outside of Yellowknife). The Outbacks were solid performers, with one developing an exhaust leak outside of Fort Nelson. After an initial scare, they bought a new bolt and soldiered on. The pilots of that ’05 OB were Paul Trussell and Brian Carriere, two paramedics from rural northern Alberta. It provided a sense of security having them along, besides being medics, they were cold country veterans, but still stood amazed with the rest of us at the glorious sights we encountered.
Three new Jeep Wranglers made the trek. Two of the Three suffered problems, with one retiring in the Yukon at Whitehorse with a bum rear differential.
Porsche was well represented with three cars, a fully outfitted diesel Cayenne, and two RWD 944’s while Audi had an older one and a newer one representing the marque. The newer one went off on a patch of ice and retired. The classic Quattro finished 5th overall.
Of the 33 vehicles used in the event, three sported Cooper WeatherMaster ST-2 studded tires. Both top placing cars ran these tires. The 3rd Cooper-shod car was a course worker’s sure-footed Impreza. Nitto Tire sponsored the event, and 19 cars ran those tires. The two top ice racing times were set on Hakkapeliitta tires, enough said.
This rally is LONG, like 4,700 miles, and for most a minimum of 2,500 more miles just to get back to Seattle. For one team, the total was just over 12,000 miles by the time they got back to the east coast where they started.
It is cold, real bone chilling, eyelashes freeze to your tears, and ice forms in your beard. We saw -32 degrees Fahrenheit during the ice race in Yellowknife. Bumper skins literally shattered when they hit a snow bank. The dangers of the rally are real, and teams are paired together and with VH Radios to make sure no one slides off the road and is left in the cold. Alone.
Cars carry survival gear like down sleeping bags and some dog food. Why dog food? Because you will only eat it when you get really, really, hungry…
Editor’s note: The next ALCAN 5000 rally is a summer rally and will be held Aug. 20 to 28, 2018. Registration is still open for this 5,000-mile adventure (though without snow). Even though the next rally is in the summer, it still takes months of planning to ensure it goes without a hitch (as you read above).
If you are interested in running rally, it’s recommended that you start small. Rainier Auto Sports Club (RASC) next event is Raindrop Rally 2018 — a tour of Whidbey Island — held Sunday, April 29.
The next winter ALCAN rally will be held in 2020.