Dan and I were heading west out of Whitehorse last evening when a message popped up on our Kenwood radio that said "Welcome Back!" It was from Eric and Steve miles away in Haines Junction. They had seen APRS* packets from Car 11 showing that we were once again underway....
... it just goes to show that sometimes all of that technology can have its warm and fuzzy side, too. Dan and I were touched. We started sobbing....then weeping....
OK, OK, none of that sobbing and weeping but we *were* touched.
Fantastic drive today up the Alaska Highway with the St. Elias Range on our left and with Denali ultimately looming ahead (I hope weather is good in AM as we pass!). Along the way we got to sample a great halibut burger at Fast Eddie's in Tok Junction (boy, did they crank out a bunch of burgers in quick time) and we got to gander the occasional moose.
Once in Fairbanks I got to meet Doug, a well-known Internet acquaintance ("tanstaafl" from the Empeg BBS) and got a taste of what may be the nicest-sounding car stereo in the world. Later I bumped into chief of scoring Pete Soper in the hallway and he waved a scoresheet at me that suggested that all of Dan's hard-fought AM battles with multiplication and division had been worth the effort. Boy, if we kept after this we could become half decent!.
Internet access has been sketchy for the past few days. What other random bits to say? Sisters, my call to the Captain (Our Father Who Art in Hyannis) was a bit scratchy as it came from Alcan organizer Jerry Hines' Iridium satellite phone. (Apparently the satellites have period bouts of depression related to sub-orbital self-esteem issues and the voice quality drops temporarily.) I just gave him lat and lon so that he's have his "Where's Waldo"-type navigation puzzle of the day. But yes I was standiing in Tuk, yes my right hand was freezing as I tried to keep from dropping the phone and yes (I swear!) there was a guy standing way out on the Beaufort ice with a Russian hat!
*APRS = Automatic Position Reporting System - a way to use radios (like our ham radio sets) in conjunction with GPS to send and receive position update messages.
What a great morning! We rolled out of Dawson City, topped off fuel at "The Corner" then pulled out in convoy of Cars 6, 7, and 11 up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. At just about Mile 12, I noticed the "Check Engine" light for which Subarus are sometimes famous and said "Dan, did you forget to put the gas cap back on?". Then I saw the red battery icon. Oops.
A quick "We got trouble!" call on the business band radio brought our 3-car convoy to a halt....
.... Before I popped the hood, I revved the engine and could see that adding RPM did nothing to increase the volts showing on our new built-in voltmeter. Under the hood? Everything looked fine. Belts belting, pulleys pulling, fuses fusing, and all electrical devices working as designed. The one obvious problem? Not charging. I looked at all of the connections to our new alternator and couldn't see anything out of order, but our voltage was dropping...12.6....12.5....12.4...... It didn't take but about 13 TeamD seconds and a short consultation with the sweep trucks before we turned off all lights, radios and accessories and high-tailed it back down to Dawson City.
We pulled the WRX in behind the Eldorado Hotel, plugged in the block heater, grabbed our toothbrushes from the boot and went to chat with the Matron D'Hotel. I sauntered up to the front desk and said "Ummmm. We're with the Alcan Rally and our car sorta died. Can we leave it plugged in behind the hotel...and can we leave you my car keys in case we want to call a tow truck from Inuvik? Oh, and is it OK if we drop-ship an alternator here?" The matron took my keys, dropped them in an envelope, and promised "I'll just drop them in the safe, dear." with a nonchalance that suggested she had just finished arranging tea service for little grey men from Alpha Centauri
Cars 6 and 7 sat on Dawson's Third Avenue gunning their engines. Eric, Steve, Rob and Nick (all very handsome and sexy men), literally grabbed me, Dan, and our toothbrushes, pulled us (one each!) into the GTX and IX and shouted "Dudes, you are going to Inuvik!"
. Over the next few hours the 2 remaining cars of TeamD clawed up the Dempster, eventually catching the Alcan sweep trucks at Eagle Plains (mile 270) and reaching Inuvik (mile 561) in time for the marvelous banquet sponsored by the BMW Car Club of America.
So, what happened with the WRX? Our 90 percent guess is that the voltage regulator in the new super-duper alternator is kaput. Another less likely guess is that the alternator sense wire lost connection. Bottom line, though, is that we (meaning I) made changes and "improvements" to the WRX too late in the game and didn't allow adequate time for "burn-in" and shakedown. I can only blame myself.
We were really bummed at not getting the WRX to Inuvik, and I was even a little more depressed at the prospect of a $500 flatbed transport of the WRX to the Subaru dealer in Whitehorse when a few aspects of this rally rose to brighten the skies as it were. First was the uplifting encouragement of Eric, Steve, Rob and Nick who simply pushed considerations of comfort aside and yelled "Jump in, damnit!" to make sure we got here. Cameraderie R Us. Second in that vein were the kind considerations of the Subaru Challenge Driving team who have noted "Oh, you know we have a spare alternator?" -- perhaps saving us that expensive flatbed trip to Whitehorse and maybe allowing us to rejoin the rally on Tuesday.
In the meantime, Inuvik is a bit cold but very nice. Our BMW dinner included a mixed grill of artic char, caribou and musk ox and a lively post-prandial discussion has ensued as to which was which. We are off in the morning to drive the frozen river to Tuk... Tuk.... Tuktoyaktuk. Dan has even arranged to help drive the Barons Richtofens' Audi S4 up to Tuk. What could be more fun?
Eric, Dan and Steve do a much more effective job of posting updates from the road than Jim ... thinks Jim. It would help if Jim knew how to type. You should see Dan banging away on the keyboard as we cruise down the Alaska Highway at 130kph. It is a sight to behold. My two-finger typing technique whilst in the passenger seat is nowhere near as effective and trying to type while underway can give me *just* a touch of motion sickness, something to which I am usually quite immune. Ooh, I am getting a bit woozy!
We trade off driving the long transits so that we can each rest our eyeballs and get some distraction -- type notes, fiddle with radios, rummage through the snack bag, snap photos. During the scored sections we stick with Dan navigating and me driving, Dan's is definitely the harder job. My job? I simply try to follow the "speed up" and "slow down" instructions that Dan has told the Timewise to give me and I try to respond positively and appropriately to the more-than-occasional, vigorous "Noooo! Straight! Straight!" corrective reminders (with the requisite pointing of fingers) that Dan is obliged to deliver to keep Jim from going astray.
The TSDs on the Alcan have been great fun. Certainly there have been more than a few cases where I struggled to keep a certain speed `through a twisty uphill section or maybe didn't think ahead enough, only to come over a rise or around a corner a find (no surprise) a checkpoint that definitely was going to give us points for being late. But it's usually a lot of fun trying to catch or keep up, and I have really been impressed with the checkpoint locations. And did I hear right that Ken and Sue Lingbloom (sitting together in one car) were timing us both at the bottom and top of that hill yesterday? Cruel, true, but I have to love that!
What can I say about today specifically? Well, OK the weather was pretty amazing and the drive up the Alaska Highway has been fantastic, but you've probably already heard that. What can I contribute in the way of unique knowledge? How about this: British Columbia is *huge*. Really, really huge, I had no idea. This discovery suggests that the Yukon, NWT, and Alaska are probably pretty big, too, I really had no idea,
On the business end of things, I can report that we may just have a few choice spots left for last-minute sponsorships. I know that Car 7 would be pleased to receive expressions of interest from manufacturers of automotive lighting equipment, and Car 11 would be more than delighted to entertain communications from enterprises engaged in the business of automotive glass replacement. I am quite pleased that I cultivated a certain degree of fatal resignation before departing Kirkland vis-a-vis my windshield. The first crack same before Cache Creek and was unavoidable -- a rock from a truck moving in the opposite direction. A three-inch evening crack stretched across the windshield by morning (but was nice enough to stay low and out if sight). The second was completely avoidable, It's what I get for following the Challenge Driving Forester too closely at the moment that Paul Eklund starts throwing rocks out the window. The crack? Presently about 6 inches. We are monitoring its progress.
Only about 10 miles to Whitehorse now. Time just flies somehow when I try to type. We are following Eric and Steve in Car 7 and I am gazing with great complacency at the custom high-intensity LED auxiliary tail lights that Steve fabricated and which are mounted on the BMW's Yakima rack. They are truly a work of art. I managed to cook up something of the sort with some LED trailer lights from West Marine, but they pale in comparison. Next time I need lights for the Winter Alcan, I'm heading to Steveco!
As the February 18 jump off approached, we started to get a *little* nervous about the number of electron-consuming doodads that we were stuffing into the WRX. The stock battery was only about two years old, but it never inspired confidence never mind awe. The stock alternator? Rated at 75 amps, so even with a conservative rating, we were skeptical of it keeping up with the the demands of dual Ham radios, stereo, rally computer, laptop, driving lights, and more.
The first part of the equation was pretty easy to address. Battery? The obvious answer was a deep cycle Optima. We were reassured by the fact that the battery was guaranteed to operate within design specifications when inverted. The marine "blue top" version fit nicely into the Subaru battery tray and offered dual terminals that made it much easier to attach accessory power.....
We fabricated a little plate to hold a Blue Sea Systems 80 Amp Maxi-Fuse that serves 4 accessory circuits for stereo, rally computer, Ham radio and driving lights.
Addressing the issue of the stock alternator was a bit more complicated. The engine compartment is a *very* cramped place! We hadn't heard of anyone offering a higher-output alternator for the WRX until we caught sight of Wrangler Northwest on a Subaru bulletin board. Stan Hackathorn at Wrangler responded to our cry for more amps and furnished the Comden/Hogan WRX with a 110-amp alternator, This arrived with all required bolts and adaptors.
Time was tight. We wished we had installed this alternator two months ago, but that was not the case. It took us two months to find Wrangler.... Where to turn to get this unit installed? Based on past experience, we made a bee line to Smart Service in Shoreline. As usual, Mike Corbin and crew at Smart Service did a great job on this install. Beyond simply installing the alternator, Mike put in an extraordinary amount of effort in benchmarking the new alternator under load so we could drive north with confidence.
Mike Corbin testing the new alternator under load...
The resulting installation was clean and hard to tell from stock save for some beefy 2-gauge charging cables running back to the Optima battery (and a 175 amp fusible link which I hope we never blow!!)
The alternator in place...
As long as we were messing with electrons, I could not resist the temptation to add some new horns. The previously added Hella Supertones were a great improvement over the anemic Subaru horns, but I was concened about the ability to get somebody's attention in the wind-swept environs we would traverse. The answer (from eBay) were some compact Fiamm air horns which instantly raised the combines horn sound output from 122 to 125 dB.
Not a lot of space under the WRX hood. I hope my positioning of the horns in the vicinity of the exhaust manifold won't cause them to get out of tune!
I peered out the small starboard-side port on the Herc and it hit me: "Whoa! Are those Viggens? Or MIGs???? Did Willey forget to file the paperwork? And just how far off course *are* we???? And in what direction?" Järvi 17 sits inside an inactive artillery range, but very close to the border east of Lammasjärvi. The people at the Ministry are a bit touchy and you *gotta* do your paperwork!
I was about to have a stroke and was turning my local chart in just about every direction to figure out where we went astray when the two boy-racer fighter jocks waved their wings, passed about 500 feet below us, and disappeared.
Did I overreact? Sure, I was in a bad mood, had overslept, and wasn't having the best trip so far, but we wouldn't have been the *first* rally team to get blown out of the sky over some stupid paperwork snafu. Ten minutes later, though, we could all relax. As promised, our hosts Simo and Jukka had raised a windsock on a snowbank and Terry, our pilot for the past 7 years, threw the LC-130F in for an absolute greaser in a mild crossbreeze on the clear, arrow-straight eastern shore of the lake. Thanks to my sleep habits we were about an hour late, but we made the best of the circumstances and popped the tie-downs from the BMW and WRX in record time.
What can I say about the next 5 hours? Our search for the perfect frozen lake was worth it. Yes, some locals had laid in a race course -- with a horse-drawn plow from the looks of the occasional dropping along the lake shore -- but the course was nearly perfect and there wasn't another person or car in sight. Save a few minor rough spots, the lake surface was wonderfully smooth, groomed and solid as a rock. For 5 hours we could throw our cars down the lake with fairly complete abandon. Snow cover was pretty shallow, but just enough to help "guide" us back on track when we overshot.
(Eric obsesses over BMW tire pressures as WRX zooms by)
We all took turns driving the two cars. On Winter Alcan, the rules for the 4 planned slaloms dictate that both drivers must take turns -- 2 runs per driver for each of the 4 events with the best 2 of 4 counting -- so this training trip was essential. Dan and I spent most of our time taking laps in the WRX, but we each took some turns in the BMW 325ix. We both agreed with Eric up to a point. The Bimmer felt lighter and a bit more sure-footed -- more deliberate with its somewhat stiffer steering touch. The WRX waggin was, in contrast, a bit more tail-happy on the ice, especially as things warmed up and conditions got slicker. That being said, I'm not sure I would trade the WRX for anything. For 0-70 on ice, the WRX+studded Hakka combination is pretty tight, and the mild tail-happiness became a predictable, absolute joy in an esses on the backstretch.
Maybe it goes without saying. We had a blast. About 2 hours into our laps I think we all said: "I know what we're doing next year on this holiday! Back to Jarvi 17!"
We all took some reluctant last laps and prepared for the long trip back to Seattle. Simo commiserated and Jukka offered to put us up in the guest house if we wanted to stay, but Terry's time doesn't come cheap and the four of us - dedicated public employees all - knew that duty called.
As much as we would have loved to stay with Jukka and enjoy some of his wife's famous stew once again, we came away pretty happy knowing that some serious ice time lies ahead in February on the Alcan!