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5,000 Frozen Miles in A Jeep: Trail’s End

Posted in Events on March 16, 2016
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When I was only eight years old, on the weekends my father and I would go snowmobiling. We didn’t call it “sledding” or anything cool then, and I actually wasn’t conscious that there was anything cool or uncool about it. We just each had a snowmobile and on the weekends we’d ride them.

I don’t know how other people go - or how they went - snowmobiling, but I know what we did: We started out with full tanks at our rural home near Sherwood Park, Alberta and, never once taking the same route, made our way to the far side of Cooking Lake, about 20 miles away, where the tanks would be almost empty. We crossed frozen farmers’ fields, rode on the carved-out surfaces of little creeks, slipped through some fences and rode drifts over others. There were no trails. We just went where we wanted.

As He Went Along
We’d go through small woods and sunken sections that you don’t realize are actually in the prairies, and somehow my father always knew where to go, more or less. The truth, I know now, is he was figuring it out as he went along. The final stretch was to a gas station on the far side of South Cooking Lake, and both ways we would be wide-open on the sleds across the frozen lake for what felt like an eternity (to an eight year-old boy) with my unsuspended, pull-start 1978 Arctic Cat at full-wail the whole way.

As someone who now has a couple of decades of professional auto racing behind him, I can now admit that I was pretty scared. Terrified, in fact. Despite holding records (and crashing off) at Pikes Peak, winning a medal (and flipping a car) at the X Games, and winning (and losing) my class at the Baja 1000, I can admit I’ve never been as scared as I was on that sled. It would often be -20F or colder, and we were in pretty desolate, windblown places. The lake often had pressure ridges and drifts that were hard to see at speed in the flat light, and I always wondered about the possibility of breaking through, or hitting an unmarked fishing hole. To keep up, I learned to push the throttle through my fear and grit my teeth, handling the sled that was so much heavier than me. My father never bullied me to keep up, but then he didn’t have to. I just kept up. And then, when we got to the gas station, we’d have milkshakes.

The gas station was the end of the developed world. At least for me. I would look across the highway at the farms on the other side and wonder if they were different from what we had just crossed. But we never went there. It was too far, we had to get back home, and anyway, I wasn’t on the front sled.

Even if we started near daybreak, it was invariably dark for the last couple of hours of the return, and often we were quite late, one of us getting stuck in some drift or worse. Once, I remember riding on a seriously off-camber bank, rolling the machine and jumping off out of its path as it went through a barbed-wire fence. It took us more than an hour just to untangle it. But if my father was ever worried, he never let on. We just got about the business of getting untangled and getting home.

The Die Was Cast
I didn’t realize it then, but my die was cast. Thirty-six years later, I’ve just finished a monumental push to the very end of the road. We’ve just wrapped up a vehicle-dependent expedition to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean. We used the best tool made for the job: a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited on BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires. We drove a total of 7,235.5 miles, including 240 miles on the frozen surface of the Mackenzie River and on the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean to reach the last place on earth to which you can continuously drive a wheeled vehicle, and you can only do it four months of the year.

What’s changed for me in 36 years? It’s still cold, we’re still on ice, and we’re still self-dependent. There are still real risks: Above the Arctic Circle at -20F we passed an abandoned dual tractor-trailer tanker that had flipped over in a 72mph crosswind.

The difference is that I’m now on the front sled. I’m figuring out where to go. And when we get to the end of the road – in this case the northernmost settlement on continental North America – I’m still craning my neck, wondering how much farther we can go. Because what I’ve learned is that the end of the road isn’t where the road ends. We’re already long past that. And the end of the road isn’t where you get out of the rig. That’s just where you got to for now.

The end of the road is in your head. And if you’re holding on to your milkshake looking out over the highway to the other side, your work isn’t done. Keep on making new adventures.

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