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Lisa-and-Garry-Go-Round: ALCAN 3100

January 25th, 2013


3,100 kilometres of road through Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska is a fine place to literally get away from it all. Especially when most of that is on the iconic Alaska Highway. This is what we, and a gaggle of automotive journalists, have been into for the past few days.

But we are not all crammed into one Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van, although we could fit into one. We are spread out in a convoy of nine vans heading up to Anchorage, Alaska.

Our unit is a commercial van with the longest wheelbase of the fleet with a bulkhead between the front seats and the gaping cargo area. We feel like a couple of delivery folks plying the snow-packed Alaska Highway.

Over the years people have asked us to recommend a great driving adventure and one of our top recommendations is: Try the Alaska Highway.

No cell service, long deserted stretches of road where the only things our convoy is meeting are 18-wheelers barreling south for another load of fuel, food, furniture, vehicles or other human needs. Everything up there has to get there somehow.

Well that’s except for the magnificent mountains and valleys, the crystalline sky and clouds and the moose, caribou and bison that approach and cross the road at will. Because, of course, we are on their turf.

Maneuvering an empty cargo van on snow- and ice-covered roads is not an ideal driving situation but with winter tires, good stability systems and some winter driving finesse, our ride is getting us down the road just fine. Mercedes-Benz, although a lot of North Americans may not realize it, has been in the van business for a long time. Almost 120 years.

In 1896, Gottlieb Daimler introduced the first truck, the Motor-Lastwagen. Same year, Carl Benz created the first van, in Mannheim, Germany. In 1926, Daimler and Benz merged to form Daimler-Benz AG, began producing trucks and vans under the Mercedes-Benz name. Many truck varieties followed.

The Sprinter has been around in Europe since 1995. In 2003, it came to North America as a Dodge and in 2010, it was branded a Mercedes-Benz.

Highlights of the Sprinter in terms of its functionality and efficiency are:
•GVWR range from 3.88-ton (8,550 lbs) to best-in-class 5.0-ton (11,030lbs)
•Payload range from 1.55-ton (3,426 lbs) to best-in-class 2.45-ton (5,415lbs)
•Cargo volume range from nine cubic metres (318 cu.ft) to best-in-class 17 cubic metres (600 cu.ft) – this is the one we are moving up the Alaska Highway.

Highlights of the drive on Day 2 and Day 3 out here at the top of the world:
•Watching the change on the Alaska Highway from industrial, gritty oil and gas industry to an awesome winter wonderland
•Driving on Summit Pass, at 4,250 feet, the highest pass on the Alaska Highway
•Caribou foraging in the snow on the side of the highway
•A herd of bison joining us on the road for a stretch in the early morning northern light
•Our overnight stay at Northern Rockies Lodge on frozen Muncho Lake. The owners plowed off a ‘runway’ and, in the pre-dawn, we tried out the Sprinter on the ice. The depth of this lake has never actually been measured. #nervewracking
•Lisa’s heart racing as fast as the bunny rabbit that crossed our path. Her brain screamed ‘DO NOT HIT THE BRAKES OR SWERVE’. Her heart sank as she realized she was going to have to kill a rabbit. Luckily that acrobat leaped off to the side. Garry swears he made eye contact with the critter just before it disappeared into the forest. #nervewracking
•Watson Lake Signpost Forest, just inside the Yukon border. A literal forest of more than 61,000 signs, a collection that was started by Carl Lindley, a U.S. soldier who worked on the Alaska Highway in 1942. B.Y.O.S. Bring Your Own Sign.
•The sound of the sand and gravel spraying on the underside of the van in places along the road. This is nice because it means that the slick, glassy surface has some grip, at least for a stretch.
•No RVs, no tourists, just us, the locals, the truckers and the wildlife
•Crossing the Continental Divide which divides two of the largest drainage systems in North America, the Yukon and MacKenzie River watersheds. Rivers that flow into the Yukon River watershed drain to the Bering Sea (Pacific) and rivers that flow into the MacKenzie River watershed drain to the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean).
•The Lost Spike: Air gushing out of our right rear tire makes a most impressive sound. A warning on the IP immediately warns of a tire pressure issue. We pull the convoy into Rancheria Lodge and the support team, aka pit crew, has us on the move again in no time with a spare tire firmly in place and a 4-inch spike as a souvenir.

Whitehorse now. Stay tuned for Day 4 and Day 5.

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