Illywhacker - Alaska by Pickup


A strange name?
Take a Tour
Meet the Crew
How we started
Our first yacht
Our view of the cruising life

Google Maps

Passages we've made
Overland Adventures
Around the world in Dulcinea
Australia to Japan
Japan to Kamchatka
Russia to Alaska
Alaska to Canada
Canada to Australia

Laurence in Alaska
Prince William Sound

Simply the BEST
Huis Ten Bosch
West Coast

Barrier Reef Cruise 2005
Townsville 2006

Port Davey
Antarctica by Ship NEW!

Cruising Quickstep
A Spooky story
Sore-Head Skipper
Gone Fishin'

About boats
About cruising
Passage data

Topics, delivery


The Cruising Yacht SiteRing

Previous |  List |  Random |  Join |  Next

Author Peter Aston
Date April-2002
Map Ref Alaska, British Columbia


Illywhacker winters in Cordova

We borrow a pickup in Oct 2001 and drive to Santa Rosa CA then fly home to Australia.

The return drive in March 2002 is a below-zero challenge after the 40C temps of Australia over Xmas.

Waterfall climbing at the Bridal Veil Falls near Thomson Pass near Valdez - only if it’s below freezing!

An Interesting Drive – California to Alaska April 2002

Does a journey inland qualify for a place in illywhacker ‘s cruising memories? Well, consider it a delivery trip, hauling spare parts, stores and crew under gruelling conditions in order to ensure the safety of our little ship.

After our drive from Cordova, Alaska to Santa Rosa, California in October 2001 over dry roads through Autumn colours and mild temperatures we were quite comfortable with the idea of driving back north the following April. Same road but the other way, this time with Spring colours right? Sounded easy, so we loaded up, kicked the tires, checked the oil and jumped aboard Dolores' old ’84 Ford pickup without a worry. Perhaps we should have realised what was in store when our California host Roy shook his head and the same day, turned south for a trail ride aboard his coach and 4-in-hand.

Our first destination was to visit Dee in Walla Walla in Eastern Washington State. To reach the rolling plains of that area we drove in a NE direction over the mountain ranges of Oregon with peaks at around 5,300 ft. After the sunny California climate we left behind in the morning, to find snow on the road by lunchtime was a bit disconcerting – especially with 7000km of colder country to travel through. There were signs saying - "snow chains must be used from this point on". We had none but since we had winter tread tyres we thought that would do. As we drove higher into the mountains the roads became icy and with light snow falling it was a real picture. At one point we suddenly saw that picture revolve unexpectedly as we lost traction on a thankfully empty road – it was 4wd from then on, forget the fuel economy. We saw several vehicles being towed back on to the road after the same experience, learning later that light snow or rain with warmish temperatures put the roads at their most slippery. In comparison, really cold ice can make a reasonable driving surface! We reached the Oregon town of Klamath Falls after a slow drive, arriving at dusk in steadily falling snow and with a worsening forecast.

Morning saw the pickup under 9" of snow and since we had no overnight engine heating as everyone else seemed to (locals plug their vehicles into a row of power points mounted on a post-and-rail arrangement like horses outside the saloon) we had a bit of trouble starting the beast at –5C. We left before the snow ploughs had begun their work so it was slow going and sometimes hard to find the road. Luckily the highway took us into lower country and we drove north across Oregon all day through areas some wet and icy and some dry and sunny. When we finally arrived at Dee’s in Walla Walla it was dark and cold. She made us so welcome in her wonderfully warm house we were very happy to accept her offer to stay for a few days until the Snoqualmie Pass; our mountain crossing of the Cascade Range, west to Seattle was open.

Dee’s house is situated some 20mins out of town in grassy hillside country and we could spot herds of elk across the valley. She told us of the mountain lions, deer, and bear that also live in the area. There was plenty to do there; best of all was wandering through the "world room" that she and Dana put together with all the memorabilia collected during their travels around the world aboard their yacht "Whistler".

A day’s drive took us to Seattle then 80miles north to Bellingham where we again took up residence with our Alaskan cruising companions PK and Julia. They have a beautiful house perched on the hillside overlooking the San Juan Islands and across to Vancouver Island where we hope to be by year's end. There it was time for shopping and seriously packing the truck with boat bits – much easier to get there than in Cordova. Lyndall was most fortunate to receive a new laptop for her 60th – from then on it came into the motels with us at night for fear of freezing it’s new chips. The pump in the second fuel tank in the pickup had stopped working by then and I confirmed the worst that we’d need to carry spare gas in drums. This was necessary to cover the longer stretches where remote gas stations didn’t open until Summer had started in earnest. It was becoming clear that this was a late Spring and winter conditions were very much in force further north. How much so came as quite a shock and had we known we might have delayed a week or so at least.

We had a quick border crossing into Canada BC at Sumas then a long but safe drive to the major town of Prince George. Canada is metric so converting mpg to Km/litre used up much of the drive time as the fuel consumption in the pickup was appalling, around 9mpg - we were stopping every 100 miles to take on a load of expensive Canadian petrol ("gas"). So far though we were thankful the roads were OK and the truck was still running.

Prince George to Fort St John is not far but that’s where we received our baptism into the hazards of cold weather driving. It was bitterly cold and at our first fuel stop at the McKenzie turnoff we were told the electricity lines were down and with no emergency power, the pumps wouldn’t run. We’d just have to stop until the power was restored. We sat for a while over our first coffee pondering our situation until my mind registered the fact that we had a second tank of fuel albeit inaccessible with a broken pump but this could be siphoned out. Time to use the spare drums and transfer the gas – what a job at below freezing temperatures! We drove through blizzards on and off all day crawling along in 4wd mode absolutely freezing in the cabin of the truck. Even the bottled water we had on the seat between us remained frozen all day. By afternoon the engine started to cough and miles from anywhere in the middle of British Columbia we stopped. Getting out to check the engine was hell, we found out later that with wind chill the outside temperature was –25C, a bit different from +40C at Townsville, 2 months previously! For some reason the engine started again and coughing and spluttering we made the next 90 miles to Ft St John. Turning into the first motel we mistook the road and ran into a snowdrift that even our 4wd couldn’t remove us from. A minute later a hooded figure in a pickup stopped and towed us out; the exercise took only a few minutes but my fingers took quite some warming up before I could sign the motel admission card

Passing civilisation, albeit closed for winter! In a snowdrift outside Ft St John motel at –25C

The helpful motel owner suggested a repair shop and there we received a new thermostat and were told to use gasoline antifreeze – it appears that moisture in the fuel freezes and blocks the carburettor jets – something everyone in cold climates (except us) was aware of!

With some trepidation we left Ft St John in late morning for Ft Nelson to the north. The country in central BC is sure beautiful but looking out from highway 97, it is truly remote. There is some logging and oil/gas exploration in the area and this is carried out in winter only as it is easier to build roads of ice for access across the sometimes swampy but always difficult terrain. Our pickup was now warmer inside but still chose to cough and stop, strangely when the level in our only tank was below half. At a later stop I noticed fuel running from the second tank – it was supposed to be empty, as I’d drained the fuel previously by siphoning. Opening the cap caused fuel to gush out; it was under pressure, indicating a problem with the passage of fuel from the pump in the main tank. Still 3000km to go - what next?

The highway from Ft Nelson winds west to Liard River. We had booked in there because of the famous hot springs. Surprisingly we arrived early without incident, by not allowing the tank to go below half and crossing our gloved fingers. Our treat was a luxurious afternoon in hot spring water surrounded by deep snow. The springs are reached via a 1km boardwalk that meanders through the forest. The sun was out and the snow sparkled - what a photo opportunity! Alas the camera’s chips weren’t up to operating at such temperatures and the sight of Lyndall recumbent and plum-coloured under the snow-covered pine trees will have to remain forever a memory!

A good day’s drive took us then to the town of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and a quick visit to Judy and Ben’s house; Bruce was away in Ottawa on business. They are a great Yukon family; skis on a rack outside the front door indicate their love for the fabulous country about them, which it truly is. We heard of their recent adventures walking the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway following the path of 19th century miners seeking a fortune in the Klondike and of their kayaking adventures across the many magnificent lakes in the area. Snow and cold is not a bother to them, it is their world and they know how to enjoy it.

The weather from Whitehorse to Valdez 2 days away was cool (very) but dry, clear and sunny. The Alcan Highway was icy in parts but easy driving on a hard surface in temperatures well below zero. The pickup behaved itself and the camera worked on and off so we felt privileged to see such remote country under a grand mantel of winter snow. The border crossing from Canada to the USA is made at the very remote Beaver Creek station. The US and Canadian Customs buildings are 25km either side of the border and each is perhaps 100km from the nearest town! Our entry was almost silent, rather in awe of the vast surroundings though it was carried out in a very official manner.

Our arrival at Valdez Alaska, the end of the highway and our transshipment port was a real relief and we were fortunate to spend a rest day with Sherry and Buck Wilson in their snow covered house. The extra time allowed us to wash the grime off the truck and to stock up before the crossing on the car ferry to Cordova next day.

Now, back at home aboard illywhacker, we are warm, comfortable and grateful to have made the trip. Thank you John and Dolores, although the ol’ pickup may never be the same again!

Top of page


email: peter
Stories and Images may be copied with permission of the authors
Google Maps