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 its 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 Dees 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.
Dees 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 days 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 its new chips. The pump in
the second fuel tank in the pickup had stopped working by
then and I confirmed the worst that wed need to carry
spare gas in drums. This was necessary to cover the longer
stretches where remote gas stations didnt 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 thats
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 wouldnt
run. Wed 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 couldnt 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
albeit closed for winter!
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 Id 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 cameras
chips werent 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 days drive took us then to the town of Whitehorse
in the Yukon Territory and a quick visit to Judy and Bens
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
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!
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