Thursday, 16 June 2011

A Winter's Drive--Into The Yukon Night

Past winters involved driving through cold, but nothing like this. The road was clear and not itself a problem. The challenge was internal. I left Anchorage at 6 AM and about three hours into the drive, when the temperature was still reasonable at just -2F, I pulled over for a thirty minute nap. No big deal yet. Then I continued further into the Yukon and things got colder. Minus 5, minus 10, minus 15.  Still not too scary and when it got light at 10 AM, driving along listening to audio books was quite pleasant.  At 200 miles out I made it through the town of Glenallen.  At 300 miles was the equally small town of Tok. I gassed up there and headed toward the Canadian border.

By 4 PM it was dark and getting colder. The car started to creak. The side windows frosted over on the inside. I put on my thermal pants and heavy overcoat over my other warm coat. I already was wearing sorrels and gloves. The audio book about Thomas Pain was still going.  At the last gas station on the US side I topped off the tank just to be safe and chatted with the attendant. I asked him the coldest temp he had ever seen out this way. He said minus 68.  He also said it was cold enough right now. The current temp was minus 31.

There were no vehicles on the road except for an occasional commercial truck. I finally reached the Canadian Customs station and rolled down the window. It was so cold by this time that the electric window moved in slow motion.  I asked the officer what the temperature was and she checked and said minus 40.  That's the temperature at which I had heard trees explode outside Whitehorse three years earlier.  I told her the window in the car was barely working and she replied that everything slowed down at minus 40. I handed her my passport and she ran the usual check. Then she asked whether I had any firearms, tobacco, or alcohol. I said no. She handed me back the passport and was about to continue the interview when she said, "I can't remember what I was going to ask. Just go."  That's what happens to the brain at forty below. 

 I continued down the Alaska Highway toward Whitehorse, still 300 miles away. Until things hit minus 40 I was a bit concerned but not yet panicked.  I have a car thermometer that gives the outside temperature. It requires a flashlight to see it at night. I now started looking at it every five minutes. I was getting nervous. When I went over frost heaves in the road the car's suspension gave out ominous sounding squeaks and groans. I wondered if car parts would crack if things got any colder. I figured it couldn't really get much colder. I kept going. Twenty miles past the Customs station the thermometer showed minus 41.  I got a bit more nervous.  Then minus 42. Minus 43. I was starting to panic and forced myself to take some deep breaths. I almost turned around to drive back to the safety of the Customs station. I was also getting a little sleepy but didn't dare stop the car. What if it wouldn't restart? Instead I pulled over and switched the audio book CD from the Thomas Paine biography to a more adrenalinized John Grisham book.  I also starting sipping the emergency Red Bull drink that I had brought along, for the caffeine. Those maneuvers helped and I was no longer sleepy. Plus I was getting too scared to stay sleepy.  Minus 44. Minus 45.  I thought, "Holy Shit, this can't be real."  These were Jack London temperatures. As I drove along I ran through in my head what I had for emergencies. Two down sleeping bags, each rated to -35. Candle lantern to warm the inside of the car. Propane stove. Vapor barrier bunny boots. Cheese and peanut butter for calories. Flashlights. Snow shoes. Plenty of warm clothes. Should make it no matter what until I could flag down another vehicle if my car stopped running.  Nothing to panic about. Calm down. Minus 46. I was on the outskirts of Kluane National Park when the temperature bottomed out at minus 47 before starting to slowly rise again. 

Mark Newman

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