The Ultimate goal for our Arctic road trip had been to get to Tuk along the ice road. We'd successfully achieved our objective, yet as we reflected on the day back at the hotel, it had all been a weird rushed experience. With the temperature in Tuk down at -45 and the threat of a storm blowing in, it was no place to hang around. We'd been in Tuk less than 30-minutes before we were heading south on the ice road back to the warmth (-27) of Inuvik.
Now we needed to get back down the full length of the Dempster Highway to Dawson in the day. With 500 miles of snow and ice ahead of us it inevitably meant another early start and another parking lot meeting in the dark. We'd filled up the vehicles the previous evening. The Defender's fuel gauge still showed full despite having run all night long. The engine temperature gauge showed stone cold... We rolled out of Inuvik at 7am. The town's temperature gauge read -27. Nevertheless, the weather forecast was good and we knew the Dempster Highway had reopened. Ironically, the ice road to Tuk was closed that day due to blowing snow. We'd timed our trip to Tuk perfectly, although thanks to the delay on the Dempster on the way north, I was still going to have to reschedule my flight back home to the UK and Wes wasn't going to make it back home in time to show up at work in Ontario. Attilla had used up all of the slack in the schedule so couldn't afford any more delays.
Thankfully the journey south couldn't have been better. In contrast to our nightmarish evening drive up the Dempster, the sun was shining and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It wasn't getting any warmer though. When we rolled into Eagle Plains at the halfway point on the Dempster for fuel and something to eat it was still -24. A few days earlier when we'd been snowed in at Eagle Plains, we'd shared the parking lot with 45 trucks. Today the place was deserted.
Around 100 miles shy of Dawson we came upon a lone cyclist towing a trailer. We'd heard about the 'crazy' Japanese cyclist from the truckers when we were stranded at Eagle Plains on the way north. Despite waving us past with an enthusiastic thumbs up we couldn't not stop. Satoru Yamada set off from home in Japan three years ago when he was just 18 determined to hitchhike around the world. Somewhere along the way he was gifted a bike and he's still going strong mixing cycling with hitching relying on the generosity of others. It was a bitterly cold -30 in the gloomy fading light at the tail end of the day when we ran into Satoru. Ice clung to his cheeks, yet in spite of the conditions his face beamed a mile wide grin that was impossible not to admire. We gave him some of our instant heat US military ration ready meals and some proper British expedition food in the shape of a slab of Kendal Mint Cake. The truckers on the Dempster laughed at the 'Crazy Japanese guy' but at the same time told us they all looked out for him and made sure he was OK when they saw him camping alongside the Dempster Highway. Satoru asked us where we were heading that night. 'Dawson' we replied. You? "Antarctica" was his reply. And we thought we were tough braving the elements in our 4x4s with heaters and staying in hotels.... We had to concede he was a hero. Crazy, but still a hero. Next time you question what your X-Box obsessed 18-year old offspring is doing with their life show them Satoru's Facebook page. (Help bicycling world touring Japanese Satoru - san!!)
In Dawson one of the locals steals one of the expedition stickers from Wes's Jeep. He'd been in the bar when we'd arrived and had shown an annoying interest in what we were doing in town. He was drunk. He was a pain in the ass. He threatened us he was going to steal the sticker. Or maybe he already had? We didn't rise to his passive aggressive shtick, but when Wes found out he had stolen the sticker he was all for removing the shotgun from the trunk of his Jeep and administering some Yukon style justice. In the end we settled for an early night. We had an early start the following morning - again. We were used to it by now. From the very start of the trip when I'd met Wes back in Saskatoon, the rhythm of the adventure was set by the wide open spaces in Canada. Every day was eat, fuel, drive, sleep on a permanent loop. Days would often start in the dark and end in the dark. Average daily mileage had been 500/600 miles. Always on snow and ice. In the majority of cases, the days schedule was set simply by the distances between places to stay. In the Yukon there are lots of hotels, cabins and even campgrounds, but almost everything shuts down for the winter. You stay where something is open. That night was Watson Lake. Another 600 mile day. In a Defender. And a soft top Jeep.
The hotel parking in Dawson had been across the street so I didn't fancy leaving the Land Rover running all night even though the temperature overnight was supposed to drop to -27. That morning the temperature gauge on the Jeep indicated -37! Despite being plugged into the mains all night the Land Rover wouldn't start. Of course! It's a Land Rover. The Jeep and Nissan on the other hand fired into life immediately. By now I was sure it was the plug-in coolant heater fooling the ECU into thinking the engine was warmer than it really was since the heater plugs light would only illuminate momentarily. After a tow from Wes's Jeep (again!) to generate some heat in the cylinders the Defender fired into life with all the modern diesel engine finesse of an ancient Thwaites dump truck. I grimaced as each cylinder fired with a bone shaking knock and clatter. Still it was running and we were soon on our way out of Dawson in the dark. The GPS wouldn't fire up. None of the doors would shut properly and the interior of the Defender creaked and groaned as the plastics sounded their disapproval having to function at these temperatures. The heater was nigh on useless, not helped by the non closing doors so I piled on the layers. And then, ten miles out of Dawson the engine warning light came on and the engine went into limp home mode... It had done this once on my Trans America Trail adventure last year so I did what you do with every modern electrical appliance. I turned it off and then turned it back on again. The 'check engine' light stayed on but the engine reset itself and drove completely normally. After a lunch stop later that day the warning lamp extinguished itself too. Problem solved! I'm a genius. Probably.
After an overnight in Watson Lake we said goodbye to Attilla and his XTerra. He's heading east to see a friend in Calgary before heading back to Portland Oregon. Wes and I are continuing south. We'd met Attilla while waiting for the weather to break at Eagle Plains. Were it not for Attilla I wouldn't have my newly acquired extensive knowledge of Hugarian/Romanian history and would never have tasted the finest Hungarian homebrewed Grappa he'd brought along which kind of almost made me a criminal in Canada. We'd finished off the Grappa the previous night so Attilla no longer had to fear the feds finding his stash of liquid contraband. Hungarian tip. Conceal it in water bottles. Never fails!
Wes and I make a detour and stop off in Hyder Alaska on our way south. We discover the town is shut for winter. Five minutes later we're crossing the border back into Canada where it turns out the female border guard once lived an hour from me in the UK and once dated a work colleague of Wes's back in Ontario...
The further south we travel the raise in the temperature becomes more noticeable. I'm constantly messing with the Land Rover heater settings rather than have it on the fastest fan speed and the highest temperature setting. And the snow on the roads is no longer the super sticky snow and ice we've been used to in the north. Now it's a more European grade snow that turns into slush and occasionally unsettles the vehicles when the front wheels get caught in it. The windchill is still fierce enough though to create a set of teeth from the frozen snow and slush that accumulates around the wheelarches.
Directly across the parking lot from the hotel in Williams Lake, BC was a bar called The Overlander which seemed a fitting place to spend the final night of the trip. Wes and I had first met in a motel parking lot in Clinton, Arkansas as we both crossed America on the Trans America Trail. We'd ended up sharing the TAT experience and both talked of wanting to drive the ice road before it closed and here we were raising a glass to another successful adventure and a bunch of memories and a lifetime's friendship. Crucially, we'd done it in two standard vehicles. We'd managed to drive the length and breadth of the North American continent WITHOUT a roof rack, Pelican case, funky aluminium storage box, Snow Peak cooking gear, a pair of $200 boots or a $100 'expedition' shirt. Proof that no matter what overland magazines might tell you, you can still have an overland adventure of a lifetime with nothing more than a stock vehicle, a bunch of maps and sense of wanderlust. Try it. You won't regret it.