Ultimate Adventure Heads to Alaska for the 20th Anniversary of the Legendary Event, Part 2
Part 2: More of the Last Frontier
When we left off last month, the Ultimate Adventure was deep in Alaska at the Kennecott Mine, at the dead end of a 40-mile road. If you haven't yet read last month's issue, you might be a little lost. Don't worry, so were we. You see, only Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road Editor Christian Hazel and his route planner, Trent McGee, knew where our gang of invited readers, UA sponsors, and editorial staff were headed next. This is one of the main tenants of the UA. Participants know the starting and ending points of the trip, but they have no idea where we are going in between. Often at gas stations locals will ask, "Where are you headed?" and we reply that we simply don't now. We aren't being rude—that is just the honest truth.
Day 4: Kennecott to Paxson Lake
One unfortunate consequence of covering so much ground in a week is that we rarely have an opportunity to explore any one area. At Kennecott, though, Christian Hazel and Trent McGee ensured that we had several hours to visit the exhibits at the General Store and Post Office, explore the mine, and even hike to the nearby glacier. Sixteen hours of daylight this year gave us the freedom to drive down a 40-mile dead-end road full of potholes and washboard and still backtrack and get to camp by dark.
From Kennecott we returned to Glennallen for fuel and then headed north past Paxon Lake and the Alaskan Pipeline. We left pavement and wound our way along a narrow path lined with blueberry bushes to leave behind the sound of semi-trucks and RVs. One of the great things about camping out of a 4x4 is the ability to get to locations that most people cannot reach. We camped for the night along a small pond without another soul around. The few tire tracks in the area were outnumbered but the tracks of moose and bear on the edge of the pond.
Day 4 took us to the mining town of Kennecott. Despite harsh winters, the town is incredibly well preserved thanks to its remoteness. The area was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, and the National Park Service acquired much of the land within the Kennecott Mill Town in 1998 and absorbed it within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Alaska has some spectacular rivers, and those rivers have some amazing bridges. The single-lane bridge over the Kuskulana River was perhaps the most breathtaking sight along the McCarthy Highway. The road surface varied from frost heave and potholes on the pavement to miles of washboard roads to reach McCarthy and Kennecott.
The summer solstice is June 21, the longest day of the year. Anchorage enjoys over 19 hours of daylight on that day. During our visit at the end of August there was still nearly 15 hours of daylight each day, but the days were starting to get shorter. This made for some spectacular sunsets.
UA participants are on their own for food from the time the trip starts until the final group dinner. Some choose to eat gas station food, while others buy vittles ahead of time and cook at night. In addition to welding vehicles back together with his Premier Power Welder, Chris Durham cooks for most of the cronies each night. We aren't sure when (or if) he sleeps.
Day 5: Paxson Lake to Healy
Day 5 of Ultimate Adventure started with Hazel and McGee telling the group that one of their goals was to be in low range in the morning before the engines even got to operating temperature. As we wheeled out of our seclude campsite near Paxson Lake, we backtracked on the pavement a few miles to Paxson before turning on to the Denali Highway. You would think that once we got back on the road the drive would be easier than wheeling, but the Skyjacker suspensions were working overtime on the frost heaves and potholes that marked the traditional entrance to Denali National Park. Skyjacker was Official Shock & Suspension for UA 2019.
After fueling in Cantwell we joined the Parks Highway and drove through McKinley Park and Denali Park Village, both of which were teaming with tourists visiting Denali National Park. We continued north to Healy, where we set up camp and offloaded gear at a local campground. The improved power-to-weight ratio was appreciated as we headed out to the Stampede Trail, made famous by the book (and later motion picture) Into the Wild. This is the same path that Christopher McCandless took to reach his Magic Bus.
We, too, went into the wild, encountering bottomless mud that was devoid of traction. Our VooDoo ropes and Smittybilt winches were working overtime, with the most stunning background you could imagine looming large behind us. After five hours we reached the Teklanika River, but high water meant that we had to turn around and go back the way we had just come in. After a broken U-joint, a swamped engine, and a broken hub, we returned to the town of Healy at midnight, muddy and exhausted. While there is plenty of daylight in Alaska in the summer, we did find the limits of the sun on Day 5.
Our campsite on the end of Day 4 was in the shadows of the Alaska Pipeline. This 800-mile-long pipeline transports crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. We did notice a helicopter fly overhead while our convoy was driving along the pipeline, generating much debate over the radio about whether it was just a coincidence or a security patrol.
Typically we hold the UA at the end of June, so we definitely aren't accustomed to fall colors. Summer is short in Alaska, though. Even in August the fall colors were already in full glory. This was partially due to the hot temperatures and lack of rain that Alaska experienced during the summer of 2019.
The Susitna River winds its way over 313 miles of Southcentral Alaska; this old railroad bridge crosses the river on the eastern edge of Denali National Park. Dating back to 1921, the bridge today is on the National Register of Historic Places. Also known as the Gold Creek Bridge, it was the longest bridge span on the United States Government Railway in Alaska, at 504 feet.
Few things scream "Alaska!" like a team of sled dogs. For the last decade, the Alpine Creek Lodge in the middle of the Denali Highway has been a mecca for mushers training their dogs, as the road is closed for 135 miles from October through May. With no snow on the ground, this team was pulling an ATV to keep in shape for the winter.
The UA is about wheeling and challenging man and machine, but that is only part of the equation. This trip has also become an annual family reunion, a way to learn about the history of different corners of the country, and an opportunity to witness some absolutely stunning scenery. Alaska did not let us down in this regard.
Chris Durham makes these Gladiator front-end conversions for JKs, but on his latest build he didn't stop at the grille. He boxed in the tub as a cab and handmade a Stepside bed on the back. The chassis is from a JK, which allows Durham to use an off-the-shelf Skyjacker suspension. Just about everything else is custom, but despite that, he didn't have a single mechanical problem all week.
Rick Pewe was fresh off his trip crossing the Simpson Desert in Australia when he joined us on the UA. Trent McGee had towed P w 's CJ-17 from Arizona to Alaska so that P w could once again fulfill his role as one of our cronies. This Jeep, the UACJ, was built for the 2010 trip and has remained relatively unchanged, with an E-ROD engine under the hood and an aluminum tub from Aqualu.
Rather than add a permanent snorkel to his stretched JK, Cooper Rasmussen of Offroad Power Products bought some vent tubing intended for a clothes dryer. Whenever we encountered deep water, he made a temporary intake from the cab. It certainly came in handy here!
Did we mention that the Stampede Trail runs through several water crossings? We lost track of just how many there were on UA 2019, but the number was likely was greater than on the prior 19 UAs combined. Here Keith Bailey crosses one of the shallower creeks in his LJ on the way to yank a stuck Jeep out with his VooDoo Rope.
Rich Fredricks had just finished swapping a new engine into his Bronco days before leaving for the UA. He then drove the old Ford all the way from Virginia, with a three-speed C6 transmission with no overdrive! After that, the UA seemed fairly easy.
Ken Smith was driving Harry Wagner's Ford, and he was hesitant to beat on it too hard in the mud. Unfortunately, the 7,500-pound curb weight meant that the F-150 quickly sank once the tires stopped spinning. Lowering the air pressure seemed to help, but the Ford still struggled to keep up with the lighter vehicles.
Hailing from Louisiana, Lonnie McCurry knows a thing or two about wheeling in the mud. And with 707 hp lurking under the hood of his Gladiator, McCurry had no issue spinning the tires and cleaning them out. The 6.2L Hellcat engine was music to our ears whenever he mashed the gas.
Running 40-inch tires on Dana 44 axles is risky, even when they are G2 CORE 44 axles with 35-spline axleshafts and 3-inch tubes. What we didn't expect to break was the huge 1350 axle U-joint in the front end, and we definitely didn't expect it to break in the mud. Unable to source a replacement, Ryan Kennelly pulled the axleshaft and continued to go everywhere with three wheels pulling. Kennelly was on the event to represent Smittybilt, the Official Winch of UA 2019.
We passed several beaver lodges during our drive across Alaska. This little guy was one of three beavers we saw in this pond. They were shy at first, but it didn't take long before their curiosity got the best of them. Living up to the phrase "busy as a beaver," they were dragging logs back to their lodge as we watched from the shore.
Remember when we said that there is an abundance of daylight in Alaska? Well, even that has its limits, and we found it on the Stampede Trail. We think of Stephen Watson as a rockcrawler, but he demonstrated that he can drive through any terrain, and his Offroad Design Magnum transfer case setup has a gear for every situation.
Day 6: Healy to Wasilla
Typically on the Ultimate Adventure when we go to an off-road park we have trail guides for the day who are far more familiar with the area than we are. Alaska is vast, though, so this year locals Frank and Cole Wininger came along for the entire trip. When they aren't wheeling, the brothers run a drilling company. One of their biggest clients is the Usibelli Coal Mine (Alaska's only coal mine), and they were able to get us a tour of the mine.
Usibelli Coal Mine operates 365 days a year and averages 1.5 million tons of coal per year, way up from the 10,000 tons when the mine opened in 1943. The mine provides very clean-burning low-sulfur-content coal to six state-of-the-art powerplants in Alaska, which generate both electricity and heat. Lisa Herbert led the group on a tour of the mine's facilities and operations, including the huge equipment they use to transport the coal. This is an open pit mine, but it was nearly impossible to tell where they had previously mined thanks to the rehabilitation of the land. Herbert was understandably proud of this fact, and any concerns we had about a coal mine operating so close to a national park were alleviated on our tour.
After the tour, the group hit the road back towards Wasilla, but not without some stops along the way. In addition to fuel and the occasional cheeseburger, Christian Hazel and Trent McGee arranged for us to stop at the Transportation and Industry Museum of Alaska. Much like the Old Rhineback Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York, where the event stopped last year, this museum was a step back in time.
Coal from the Suntrana Formation is mined in an open pit at the Usibelli Coal Mine. Once the operation is complete, the area is restored and they move to a new location. The coal itself was formed over millions of years, after lakebeds filled with organic matter like plants were deposited under other layers of sediment and subjected to heat and pressure, which formed the coal.
The highlight of the mine tour was definitely the huge equipment they had on hand, including the Caterpillar 994K Wheel Loader. The 994K can carry 41 tons per pass, and the Cat 3516E engine produces a net power of 1,739 horses, which is routed through a Cat planetary powershift transmission specifically designed for mining applications.
The Ultimate Adventure covered over 200 miles on Day 6 and over a thousand miles in total for the week. Despite the remote location, bottomless mud, and numerous water crossings, the carnage was relatively low compared to years past.
Outside of Wasilla the group stopped at the Transportation and Industry Museum of Alaska for a short tour. The museum had everything from old fire trucks and helicopters to an impressive collection of chainsaws and outboard boat engines. The favorite though was definitely the Jeep CJ-8 mail truck that was in impressively good condition.
Day 7: Bald Mountain and Hatcher Pass
The last day of Ultimate Adventure 2019 was a great one, full of a variety of terrain from mud to hill climbs to rocks. The group traveled to Bald Mountain, where we explored on our way to the summit to view the wreckage of a B-29 plane crash from 1956. This is one of the most popular trails in Alaska, and it's easy to see why. It is close to Wasilla and offers plenty of challenges, and the views and scenery are outstanding.
The past few years we have had to cut our wheeling short in order to make it to the final dinner, but this year we reached our destination at the top of Bald Mountain with time to spare. This gave Trent McGee the opportunity to lead everyone over Hatcher Pass to Summit Lake. (His original plan had us taking this route into Wasilla on Day 6, but we ran out of time.) This gorgeous drive doesn't require the hubs to be locked, but the spectacular views definitely make it worthwhile. The Fishhook Road rises to 3,886 feet to cross Hatcher Pass at the head of Fishhook and Willow Creeks in the southwestern corner of the Talkeetna Mountains.
Once back to town everyone cleaned up for the dinner finale of the Ultimate Adventure. This is always a bittersweet moment. Sponsors were thanked, awards were handed out, and friends new and old shared stories from the moments they had experienced during the past week. While the week seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, every moment was full of adventure and memories. Which is how it always seems to go on the Ultimate Adventure.
After the wide-open spaces we had enjoyed in Alaska, we found ourselves in tight aspen groves on the last day of the trip. Bald Mountain had steep hill climbs, tight ravines, and even some rocks to crawl over. It was a great way to end a great week in Alaska.
Cory Peterson was our trail guide for the day in his TJ. Peterson is a Wasilla local and knows the trails in the area like the back of his hand. He was critical in not only planning the route for Day 7 but assisting us in navigating the Eureka Trail System as well.
Steven Messer was battling transmission shifting issues all week with his electronically controlled eight-speed automatic. The 8L90 only wanted to be in Third gear when he was in low range, so Messer just left the T-case in high range and let the 525hp LS3 take care of the rest!
Jeff Ismail and IH Parts America (Official IH Truck and Scout Parts for UA 2019) were new on the trip, but he had the right attitude all week long. If he broke something, it was fixed before anyone else even had a chance to pull out their tools. If he got stuck, he didn't let it discourage him from hitting the next mud hole even harder. You can buy the best of everything, but a positive attitude is priceless.
Before there was a JT Gladiator, you had to make your own Wrangler pickup. That is exactly what Frank Wininger did, using parts from American Expedition Vehicles and adding an aluminum tray bed from Australia. Wininger runs Skyjacker dual-rate coils to make room for the 38-inch Falken Wildpeak M/Ts on TrailReady beadlock wheels. Falken was the Official Tire of UA 2019.
Behind his Mega Cab, Keith Bailey towed his own LJ and Chris Durham's Jeep pickup to Alaska on Durham's trailer. They lost the heater core on the way north and the engine got really hot, but they didn't think it was hurt. Well, it was. By the time they nursed the truck home they were adding 1 1/2 gallons of water and 2 quarts of oil to the engine every 150 miles.
We finally found rocks! This year's Ultimate Adventure saw far less rockcrawling than in years past, but we did finally find some rocks on Day 7. Hailing from Phoenix, David Tucker is well accustomed to rockcrawling in his FJ40 Land Cruiser.
Who says leaf springs can't flex? Returning reader Rick Prater's Willys Wagon uses Skyjacker Softride leaf springs that are simple, inexpensive, and stable on the road. They still provide plenty of articulation to keep the tires on the ground regardless of the terrain.
The driest summer on record led to massive wildfires throughout Alaska. This made much of our trip a smoky affair, but the fires were mostly contained by the last day. We finally had sweeping views when crossing over Hatcher Pass on Fishhook Road. With so many switchbacks it is easy to see how the road got its name.