It's a dull slog up through North Dakota to reach the deserted Canadian Border at Oungre, Saskatchewan.
The polite border guard asks how long I'm staying in Canada and whether I'll be leaving anything of any value behind. When I explain that I plan on leaving my Land Rover in Canada for a couple of months after this trip is complete, he tells me he needs to speak to his superior about how that works with the paperwork. 10 minutes later he returns. "So explain to me again exactly what your plan is with the vehicle?" I explain I'm leaving the truck with a friend in Chilliwack, British Columbia
"Would that be with Ray Hyland?"
Of all the border posts along the Canadian/US border I find the guy who knows my friend Ray! Unbelievable! Ray Hyland might be a name familiar to some. A couple of years ago he restored a 1954 Series One and drove it from London to Singapore with his Wife and two small children. It makes my Arctic adventure look rather tame...
Ray organises Overland events in Canada and ironically was part of the Land Rover crew who completed the Trans-America-Trail when Land Rover launched the LR4 in North America that provided the inspiration for me wanting to do the TAT myself last year. It turned out the border guard, Nick McKay, had attended a couple of Ray's Overland events. When I asked Nick if it was OK to take a photograph of the Land Rover at the border post, his reply was a cheery "Of course you can. You're not in America now!"
Other noticeable changes on entering Canada were my mobile phone suddenly had a signal within yards of the Canadian border and Canadian fuel pumps would accept my credit card at the machine without having to pre-pay as every American pump still relies upon zip codes rather than PIN numbers.
That night I rendezvous with my travelling companion Wes Branson and his Jeep Wrangler whom I first met when completing the TAT. Wes had travelled across Canada for three days to join me. A reminder of how large a continent Canada is is when Wes tells me it took him two days just to cross his home province of Ontario!
Over beer that night Wes recounts a story about a friend who was attacked by polar bear whilst camping in the Arctic. He survived to tell the tale, thanks to the shotgun he slept with in his tent. Then there was another story about the friend of a friend who wasn't so lucky when he came face to face with a Polar Bear. He too had a shotgun but had it loaded with the 'wrong cartridges'... Thankfully Wes was carrying a shotgun for the trip. And hopefully the 'right' Polar Bear specification cartridges! If that failed, I had my Leatherman...
Our Arctic adventure starts with a 620 mile schlep across dull featureless landscape of Alberta. We overnight in Grand Prairie where the drop in temperature is noticeable. Grand Prairie is an oil town. It's a town full of filthy pick-ups and tough looking men in thermal Carrhart outdoor gear. At the hotel check-in a South African guy shows a keen interest in the Defender. He tells me his dad had one as a kid and how he fondly remembers riding on it sat in the spare wheel on the hood!
We're heading for Watson Lake today in the Yukon. It's a 700 mile drive up the Alaskan Highway that was built during WW2 as a way of connecting the United States with Alaska across Canada. It was built to plug America's gap in its coastal defences following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Today it's the main highway travelling north and the vital transport line that services the oil and gas industry.
It's a long tiring drive and the external temperature gauge in Wes's Jeep reads -14. The road conditions alternate between blacktop, blacktop with a light dusting of snow and then the further north we travel it turns to hard packed ice. The vehicles are now getting covered in a layer of Alaskan Highway grime that's a distinctive feature of anything in the north. The long empty stretches of road means we're still able to maintain a steady 60mph. We both pick up the first stone chips in our respective windshields from the passing big rigs. They certainly won't be our last!
The sun goes down behind the mountains around 30 miles outside of Watson Lake. We've tried to avoid driving in the dark but our timing is out. With the disappearance of the sun, the glistening icy sheen on the road is picked out by our headlights. Wes calls up over the CB to say he almost lost it on one long sweeping bend with the stability control on his Jeep kicking in to save the day. Weirdly I hadn't noticed anything on the same bend. We put this down to the Defenders permanent 4x4 as opposed to the Wranglers part time 4x4 system and its more twitchy short wheel base. Nevertheless, the last 30 mile run into town in the dark were taking at a decidedly slower pace than we'd been previously travelling.
The forecast was for -20 tonight. We took advantage of the Big Horn hotel's car-park power points for the engine heaters. I'd added mine especially for the trip. Wes's Canadian spec' Jeep came with one as standard equipment and he'd even added a heated jacket for the battery. It was time to dig out the cold weather gear for ourselves too. We’re heading further north tomorrow and it certainly isn’t going to get any warmer!
Total Mileage 2,506
Defender Count: 0