TUKTOYAKTUK, Alaska – The picture above merely hints at the magic turn the Rubicon Alaska Cannonball took after Port Orford, Oregon. The three dramatis personae are Shelby, on the right, an Inuit and Tuktoyaktuk local with a supernova smile, sitting on the hood of her 2014 Wrangler; Jason, a top Canuck who rode his BMW up from the Lake Louise area, takes the middle; I'm on the left, wearing an Inuit parka lent me by Shelby's father, John Steen. The parka, full of snow goose down and lined with wolverine fur, is the nicest piece of winter gear I've ever put on. Any kind of winter gear. Ever.
We're effectively in John Steen's back yard, the sun setting on the Arctic Ocean behind us, pingos – earth-covered mounds of ice that Tuk is known for – in the background. I took this picture at the beginning of a long night of laughs, learnin', beer, whale, Northern Lights, extraordinary kindness, more laughs, followed by a long sleep in a man cave garage.
But let's pick up right after Oregon. I drove to Seattle to regroup after the Trans-America Trail and visit a Jeep dealer for an oil change, tire rotation and balance, and a thorough inspection. For reasons neither Jeep nor I could understand, the dealer wouldn't do anything more than change the oil. The Jeep rep couldn't make the dealer budge. The punchline: as I left the service department, the service writer I dealt with turned to his colleague and said, "Another happy customer." My head exploded. And then I made an appointment at a Jeep dealer in Fairbanks, Alaska to complete the work.
Google said Fairbanks lies 2,145 miles from Seattle. I wanted to be in Fairbanks in three days, so I hit I-5 north determined to chalk up 715 miles. Instead of taking the Alaska-Canada Highway (the AlCan), I turned left at Prince George to take the Cassiar Mountain route, and clocked about 830 miles before pulling into a rest stop in New Hazelton. That first day would be the only one on schedule. I don't know how Canada has managed to keep this a secret, but the western provinces are shockingly gorgeous.
One of Canada's tricks: California's 163,707 square miles host 39.5 million people; Canada's 3.855 million square miles house 35.2 million people. The country's so sparsely populated, its towns so distant, that once the sun goes down it's like driving in a cave. I'd go to sleep in borehole-like darkness, then wake up to inconceivably idyllic natural landscapes that looked like they'd been programmed on supercomputers for beer commercials. But it was real: B.C. and the Yukon were like driving through 2,000 miles of Bob Ross paintings.
It took forever to get anywhere. I stopped constantly for photos. After waking up the second morning beside Teslin Lake, in the Yukon, I pitched my tent for longer than I should have, filling myself with pierogis, Klondike elk sausage, and gob-stopping views.
I made it to the 9th Avenue Hostel in Fairbanks many days and a postponed dealer visit later, only after forcing myself to strike camp and limit the photo stops. That night, I prepped for a 48-hour Deadhorse rocket ride, leaving the next morning, returning to Fairbanks the following evening. I told Cho, the hostel owner, my plan. First he said he didn't think it advisable. Then he said he didn't think I could do it. Then he said that if I did it, he'd let me stay in the hostel for free.
I was already going to do it for nothing. More importantly, Burt Reynolds had died the week before. I had the chance to do an honorary Cannonball inside my Cannonball, for Burt and my childhood and every screaming chicken everywhere. And I'd get free accommodations. Clearly, the gods had stepped in to guide proceedings.
However, that same evening I met an Englishwoman named Cath. She told tale of her trip from Dawson City, Canada up the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories on the Arctic coast. The Canadian government completed the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway last November, this year being the first full season for vehicle passage. Previously, tourists had to fly from Inuvik to Tuk. Locals would go by boat when the MacKenzie River was running or drive on the MacKenzie when it iced over.
Fork-in-the-road time. I wasn't wedded to the Dalton Highway. Nor was I keen on the hassle of an oilfield town on lockdown: $200 hotel rooms and the necessity of a $70 tour to get near the water.
Tuktoyaktuk, though, promised charm and the whiff of pioneering. I could drive to a civilian town I'd never heard of, to meet people I'd never expected to meet, on a famous highway I'd never heard of, and on a road that hadn't celebrated its first birthday. And I could see the water for free. I considered it. Then Cho told me that if I came back to Fairbanks to do the 48-hour Deadhorse cannonball, he'd give me a free bed as long as I wished to stay.
Tuktoyaktuk, here I come.
While I prepped the new itinerary, I got proper service at Gene's Chrysler Dodge Jeep. Neal took excellent care of me, the techs inspected the Wrangler and restored harmony to four out-of-balance wheels. Before leaving the dealership, I stepped out back with Neal for a walkaround of the 1988 Toyota MR2 he's redoing while he qualifies for the Navy SEAL program and a chat about Alaska in general. I remarked that everyone seemed so nice, and that I'd heard some amazing stories of kindness. Neal said, "You have to understand, everyone's just trying to survive. That levels the playing field."
Then I got some of that amazing kindness: Neal invited me to join him and his girlfriend on a drive of the entire 92-mile Denali Park Road. Normally, park visitors can only do 15 miles of the park road in personal vehicles. Alaska holds a yearly Road Lottery for residents to drive the whole 92-mile road in a private car. Neal won this year and was headed down Friday, offering me a Bucket List ride inside my Bucket List drive. It hurt to decline. Hurt. But I couldn't stay until Friday. I was way behind and getting behinder.
I left the dealer, spent another day in Fairbanks, and headed east. Outside of Tok, I turned north on the Taylor Highway and into a landscape of yellowing tundra. Pickup trucks, quads, and travel trailers occupied every pullout, along with men and women toting scoped rifles. It was a bad time to be a caribou. At the world's northernmost border post – which looks like the security installation for a villain's lair – the light was fading. Darkness had taken over by the time I crossed the ferry into Dawson City. I filled up the tank and aimed for the Dempster. An illuminated sign at the highway's start indicated the two ferries were running, but that there'd been heavy rain and flooding. Giddy up.
The Dempster is 457 miles of ragged road, its mixed surfaces, potholes, and eroded shoulders made worse by the recent rains. Yet I was down the road burning gas in good time, the Northern Lights out again. At mile 229, in the wee hours, I pulled into the gas station at Eagle Plains. The place was all closed up. I had two full jerry cans, enough to reach Inuvik, so I kept going. I wanted to drive through the night all the way to Tuk, figuring that would be the best way to avoid traffic, trucks, flying rocks, and a cracked windshield.
About ten miles past Eagle Plains the TPMS sensor glowed red. Air was quickly evacuating the left rear tire. In couple tenths of a mile, the TPMS read "0" at that corner. It was 3:45 a.m., 19 degrees outside. I'd passed one truck the entire way up and had plenty of fuel.
I figured I'd try the Rubicon's scissor jack. Unsurprisingly, it wouldn't lift the tire off the ground. I grabbed the Hi-Lift jack and discovered that the curved underside of the Mopar rock rails – as great as they look up top – don't allow for a positive connection with the jack. I shoved the jack under the Jeep so the jack's toe lip would hook around the edge of the rock rails. Then I pledged to be gentle while I swapped tires.
During the Easter Jeep Safari I'd heard that Jeep owners were happy Jeep finally put an aperture in the spare tire cover to accommodate the rearview camera. But the mechanism Jeep used to secure that aperture to the camera housing – which I needed to remove to get the spare tire off – gave me conniptions. There are myriad warm, comfortable dugouts where this situation would have been like solving a fun, flabbergasting, puzzle. The Dempster Highway at 4:30 a.m. and 19 degrees was not that warm, comfortable place. I had no fun, only curses.
A bonus: I wasn't cold anymore because I was fuming. This episode was so magnificently frustrating because the Wrangler is so good, but some of its details I cannot comprehend. For the rest of my life I won't forget standing in the middle of the Dempster, a tiny allen wrench in one clenched fist, a Leatherman in the other, screaming at the Northern Lights like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, "Damn you! Damn you all to hell!"
Ah well. At 5:30 a.m. I resumed my journey as dawn commenced behind the mountains. Cresting Wright's Pass, I saw flatland to the end of the world. The dark Arctic tundra pocked with a legion of lakes reflected the morning light like stars. I reached the Peel River ferry early, grabbed a few hours sleep, then rode across the river.
As I approached the MacKenzie River ferry 42 miles later, two trucks that had just disembarked the ferry passed me going the opposite direction. After the second truck blew by me, I heard "TapTAP!" And that, kids, is how you get a cracked windshield. Only the center laminate layer cracked, but the crack grew every kilometer.
After filling up in Inuvik, and trying in vain to get my spare tire repaired (everyone was out hunting), I took off for Tuk. The almost-brand-new, 92-mile rock and gravel Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is still settling and will need heavy upkeep for years. But having to go slow encourages delight in the scenery. Just north of Inuvik the trees disappear, leaving a panorama of rolling tundra with aquamarine pools and lakes throughout. It looked like a BBC Earth documentary. Everywhere I looked, I could imagine a herd of caribou attempting to outrun a wolfpack, Sir David Attenborough narrating.
Around 6:30 Saturday evening, I reached Tuk. I stopped at the gas station to ask if anyone could fix my tire. The attendant gave me two names – of people, not businesses – and pointed out their homes. John Steen was the second name she offered, and he ran Grandma's Kitchen. I figured I'd try that one – begging for help is better when there might be a burger involved.
That's how I came to take the picture at the beginning of this piece. Grandma's Kitchen was closed, but a sign said to knock on the back door of the attached house. There, I met John already in conversation with Jason. John made me some chicken strips and fries, and we all got into it, John answering questions about the town and the Inuit and the new $300-million road, Jason explaining Tim Horton's to me, and me explaining why I was driving so far so fast. Then a lifted Jeep pulled around back, with a windshield sticker reading, "Boss Ass Bitch." That was Shelby, who'd just finished her stint driving a rock truck to service the new road. The Kokanee beer came out, and the party began.
On a Saturday night, in a town of 900 people, at a house known to host tourists, the enclosed patio turned into a rolling party. Various locals dropped in through the evening, lugging their own cases of beer and saying all manner of outrageous and entertaining things. I had a plate of whale. John and his friend Deron tried to patch my tire, but the hole was too large and John's wheel machine couldn't fit a 17-inch rim. I watched the Northern Lights spanning the horizons from John's back porch, glowing over Tuk at one end and over the Arctic Ocean at the other. I laughed, I learned, I met Oomingmak – "The Bearded One."
Then more kindness: when John's friend Kevin came over, John asked him if he could patch my tire. Kevin consented in return for a ride home (due to fatigue, I'd stopped drinking hours earlier). I drove him all of 1.8 miles and left the wheel with him. At 4 a.m., while watching videos of John's favorite contestant on America's Got Talent on his phone, he said the Jeep and I could spend the night in his man-cave garage. I slept like a moose.
The next day I took the obligatory pic at the Arctic Ocean sign. I stopped by Kevin's, and he gave me a perfectly patched tire as well as the nasty shard of rock that had gone all the way through it. Then it was time to go home. I wasn't in Tuk for 24 hours. I'll never forget it.
Remember me saying I wanted to do the MacKenzie Heritage Trail? That's because Jeep told me this trip "would be a good test of the chassis," so I knew I needed to get in over my head (or the Jeep's head) to find out which one of us has the most grit.
Yet after weeks of searching, I couldn't find up-to-date, practical information about running the trail. On a recent trip to YouTube I found a video by an Alberta outfit called MudBudz Wheelin' that mentioned the MacKenzie trail. I wrote to ask if they could fill in the blanks for me, and they did better than that: first, they told me, "Don't do the MacKenzie". Second, they said they'd be happy to take me out for a couple of days of wheeling, and promised Wrangler-testing conditions. So no more MacKenzie Heritage Trail. I'm headed to Alberta for crunchy Jeepin' action.
I picked up a friend in Tuk, a black-haired Inuit memento who's got shotgun for the rest of this ride. Her name is Dynamite. We're going to see if we can make the road back home as awesome as the ride north. MudBudz, we're on our way.