I have to admit that my usually supportive wife had a good point when she asked, “Why are you doing this thing?” I’ve done some pretty dumb things with vehicles before, including flipping end-over-end at the X Games, sliding and crashing cars in film and television, and enduring the 24-hour plane crash that is the Baja 1000. I was lucky enough to win my class at Baja, the movies pay pretty well, and the X Games … well it’s the X Games, isn’t it? However, taking a completely stock Jeep on a two-week-long, 5,000-mile expedition to the Arctic Ocean on all-season tires in the middle of winter?
Furthermore, why did two guys nearly jump through the phone lines to come along? I mean, we’re going to places that have seen temperatures below minus 50, where there can be more than 300 miles between any sign of civilization, where the sun never gets more than a few degrees above the horizon, and where the occasional oncoming vehicle is an 80,000-pound ice-road oilfield truck whose driver is seeing ghosts in the tundra and amuses himself by playing chicken with civilians.
Brad Lovell was hooked at “ice roads.” The Colorado Springs, Colorado native and his brother Roger were there when rock racing was born and won the Everyman’s Challenge class at the King of the Hammers earlier this year. He’s also a short-course off-road and Baja 1000 champion. That’s where I met him. In the desert. Where it’s warm.
Chris Komar is one of the lead technicians on the Subaru USA rally team and a long-time instructor at Team O’Neil Rally School. We met while repairing a vehicle in the middle of the night on the side of the road during a rally. Parked off in the background was a Series Land Rover that looked like it had been through a war zone. Turned out it had been racing through the forests of New Hampshire. Same thing.
Both of these guys are intensely competitive. Between the three of us, there are dozens of national racing championships. And now we’re driving to Tuktoyaktuk, the last point of civilization in northern North America. And we’re not driving that fast.
5,000 Miles Of Frozen Tundra
The first two-thirds of our expedition is a rally – the ALCAN 5000. It happens to be the longest winter rally on the planet, and it’s only held once every four years. It’s a time-speed-distance rally, which means we have to compute exactly how fast to go at all times to pass secret checkpoints at exactly the right second, or get penalty points for being too early or too late. It’s like doing calculus. In a moving car. On the ice. With two other guys who have been in the car with you for a week.
From a driver’s perspective, this typically means hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. If you have to average 45mph on a highway, fine. But if you have to average 35mph on an ice-covered secondary road that includes a stop sign you can’t ignore, well, the tone in the car heats up.
This year, the ALCAN 5000 ends in Anchorage, where it will coincide with the start of the Iditarod dogsled race (which, compared to a wheeled machine, is an example of an exceptionally well-designed vehicle for getting around in the frozen North). And because Anchorage sounds far too civilized for us, we’re pushing on, to the end of the road in the native Canadian community of Inuvik. And then we’re pushing on farther, beyond the end of the road, to Tuktoyaktuk, which is only accessible by vehicle in the winter, when the Mackenzie River freezes so you can drive on it, and the Arctic Ocean, to get to “Tuk.” Tuktoyaktuk, by the way, translates in the Inuit language as “resembling a caribou.”
So why are we doing it? Silly question, right? The man who first summited Everest, when asked why said, “Because it’s there.” You get the picture. So we’re off, and running.
Day 1: Toothbrushes
You learn things about people on a 5000-mile rally. Like whether they brush their teeth. And whether they can do math.
The ALCAN 5000 is the most grueling long-distance snow and ice rally in the world. Actually it's the only long-distance snow and ice rally in the world. And we've just completed the first day of it.
The most dramatic revelation is that we're not very good at math. This rally depends on you being at the exact place at exactly the right time, always. In civilian life, I often barely make the breakfast buffet before it closes, so you can imagine how good I am at this. The good news is that I'm a very experienced competition driver. The bad news is that I'm navigating, and even if I were driving, my skill wouldn't matter at all. This rally is about sticking to a schedule, to the fraction of a second.
You laugh? That’s not easy. My teammates have dozens of national championships between them, and both said that driving today was “incredibly stressful.” I'm telling them “faster, faster, faster, faster, SLOWER, SLOWER” to keep on schedule, and they're wigging out. And I thought they were professionals.
We're in the middle of wild British Columbia right now, but we're moving relentlessly northward. Oh, and there are no cell towers in the frozen tundra. We’ll check in every day via satellite to let you know just what happens when you stick three guys in a Jeep for 5,000 miles, while having to do math. Follow the entire adventure here on FourWheeler.com.