It all seemed pretty straight-forward. Sure, it’s 4,500 miles (7,200 km) over remote parts of Canada and Alaska, but my girlfriend Jan and I love being in our 53-year-old TR4, driving it all over the back-roads and gravel lanes of Ontario. It took us all of about 10 seconds to decide to enter—we had, after all, 16 months to prepare.
We told everyone we knew that we were tackling the 2014 Alcan 5000. Some thought we were mad, some wanted to come with us. Those 16 months vanished in a blink—before we knew it we were standing beside the TR, waiting for our start minute to arrive. The cigars were packed, ready to celebrate wherever the end of our own rally might be.
The Alcan 5000 starts in Kirkland, near Seattle, and heads north through British Columbia, Yukon Territory and on into Alaska over nine days. The Alcan pursues the original idea of rallying as a grand motoring adventure that rewards “experience, good judgement, consistency, reliability and resourcefulness.” We’d cover around 500 miles each day much of which would be untimed “transit” sections. However, every day there would be up to three timed-to-the-second “TSD” sections which each competitor has to start exactly on time. The pace would be pretty relentless for all nine days—even without any reliability issues.
We were entered in the Vintage (pre-1984) Class along with a 1982 Audi Quattro and a 1972 VW Thing. This meant that we could only use period navigation equipment—ours consisted of an accurate rally odometer, mechanical (wind-up) clock and stopwatch, plus a book full of “speed tables” telling us exactly how long it should have taken us to travel 3.2 miles at 48 mph, etc.
Kirkland, WA > Quesnel, BC; 480 mi.
The day started early with all competitors milling around chatting nervously and checking (and re-checking) clocks, pencils, pulses… Finally, 8:05 came up on the clock and we pulled out waving to the Audi crew and friends who had come to see us off. The rally started with a 65-mile run north followed by the first of the day’s two TSD sections. This is Jan’s first rally so we agreed to start gently without worrying too much about our timing. Jan’s job was to ensure we stayed on the right road and zeroing the stopwatch at the appropriate time. My job was to drive at the correct speed.
After 45 seconds, Jan said, “This is too stressful, I don’t like this…” But I then didn’t hear a single murmur of complaint and we largely sailed through the section. Jan was fantastic: calm, organized and clear.
We crossed into Canada along Route 1 to Hope and, with the top down, drove up through the Fraser Canyon Highway, mountains on either side. Beautiful! Many miles (and a much-needed latte) later, we had the day’s second TSD at Williams Lake. This started badly. As soon as we set off the railroad crossing ahead closed. We were immediately four minutes behind. There followed some “spirited” driving through a quick, heavy rain storm as we fought to catch up the time. This is where a TR excels and I was glad that I know the car well. We caught up and got back on our minute, which by day’s end, left us in second place overall with only 13 points lost. A quick final blast to Quesnel, and a very well earned beer.
Unbelievable. Truly. Top down, driving through the mountains. Beautiful. This car was made to be driven. The “timed to the second” bits are STRESSFUL!!! but I did it! My first rally so far is going well. About 20 minutes AFTER the last TSD my heart was still beating hard and I broke into stress tears for about 10 seconds . . . then it was gone. Over. Tim is an amazing driver and I have to admit I am excellent at telling him what to do OVER AND OVER AND OVER. It’s like a dream come true. I get to repeat instructions without getting in trouble. Not once did I hear “I heard you the first time!” Haha, flipping FANTASTIC!!!
Quesnel > Stewart; 508 mi.
Two long, tough gravel/pot-holed roads dominated the day. The tone was set at breakfast where I heard that some rally veterans were genuinely worried for us and our little car; this was NOT passed on to Jan until the end of the day! As it turned out, we have been down rougher roads, but nothing that rough for that long. The first, Blackwater Road, was 100 miles long, the second only 63! Both started open, wide, smooth and fast for the TSD sections, and then became very rough, narrow and, on Blackwater, liberally populated by unpredictable cattle. One I missed by inches. Compared to a TR4, they are BIG!
The pace was relentless all day and we had to miss a short TSD at Fraser Lake because no matter how fast I drove, I couldn’t get there quick enough to make our start time. We had also started the sections off our minute due to a clock problem—this then made us late at every check-point. We lost a total of 260 points for the day which dropped us to 7th overall. On the up-side, Jan was amazing.
The reward for all the hard work was the final run out to Stewart. Breathtaking scenery of mountains and glaciers towering above us with waterfalls, huge pines and a river beside us.
Today was mental. I was unhappy. I was terrified. I was LIVING!!! We encountered a bear. But it was the COWS, the fricking COWS that scared me to death. Just standing there waiting to hit me! I have been completely consumed with dying by way of the following things: cow, moose, ridiculous drop offs, large massive boulders in the road, road graders coming in our direction on OUR SIDE of the road, avalanche, road wash-aways into gorges. You know . . . regular death things. Tonight I hurt. The pain from tensed muscles is bizarre. But I’ll end with this: the VIEW is INCREDIBLE and everyone single person should see it. Time for a glass of wine and bed.
We are starting to get into the routine: Up early, rush through coffee and breakfast while worrying about the start time only to hang around for half an hour because we’re early.
I made three wrong decisions in the first two minutes of the day. Fortunately, Jan had her act together and mostly pulled us through. All seemed to have sorted itself out when we came across three stopped motorcycles admiring a bear. This held us up and, once we got going again, we found a check point around the next corner—so we must have been late! Bah!
We covered a 200-mile transit section and crossed into Yukon at 5pm. We ran the whole day with the top down—the scenery is so spectacular—and even several sharp rain showers didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. At 60mph the rain blows over our heads and we stay almost completely dry.
The TR is gathering fans everywhere it goes, especially with the other competitors. A couple of minor issues today that were quickly fixed: a wire disconnected from the coil and one windshield wiper came adrift…but it was only on the passenger side.
I have to come to grips with a couple of things. I am NOT a thrill seeker, I am NOT a boy and I DO get totally spooked. I am likely doing a disservice to all rallying women who have gone before me. As I rallied along in the passenger seat in our little red tin death trap I couldn’t help imagining the worst possible scenario for 10 hours straight. The six bears on the side of the road in the early morning didn’t help. The long, windy roads with bush right up to the edges did not help. All I could imagine was a moose prancing out in front of us. Someone here told me she hit a moose once and it was like driving into a couch in the middle of the road. NO THANKS! Arrived in Watson Lake . . . and went to bed. Tim . . . poor Tim.
Watson Lake > Whitehorse, Yukon; 560 mi.
There is a 3,000 ft drop in five miles down to Skagway, Alaska. It’s straight down. All the way down, I thought “this will be interesting coming back up…” On Main Street, we fixed a flat tire (how does that happen on smooth asphalt after all those rocky roads?) and headed back up that long hill. It was 30C/90F at the bottom and as we started the climb I had the electric fan on, the heater wide open and still watched the temp gauge steadily rise. We also had some pre-ignition as we climbed—due, I thought, to low-octane fuel but actually to a stripped thread on the distributor clamp which allowed the timing to wander. Unsurprisingly, the TR overheated. We stopped to let it cool, but not enough. After a long wait at the Canadian border, it cried enough! and suddenly blew—steam so thick that I initially thought it was a fire.
The TR wasn’t going anywhere under its own power, so competitors Joanna and Seth towed us the 85 miles to Whitehorse with their Toyota 4Runner. We retired to the bar thinking our rally might be over—I planned to strip off the cylinder head the next morning to see how bad things were, but put out a call on social media for a head gasket in the hope that that’s all we would need.
Today I decided that I have no control over the wildlife and made myself RELAX! It worked. When we almost ran out of gas . . . I was ZEN. When we had to change the fuel pump . . . ZEN. When we got the crack in our windshield . . . not on my side . . . war wound. No problem. When we parked in Skagway only to find out we had a flat tire . . . I sipped my latte (YES LATTE!!) in bliss. Nothing this old car can’t handle. What can we expect? 1800 miles without a flat! No problem. Going back up windy roads and the car smoking on the outside . . . nothing my lovely Tim can’t handle. Smoking on the inside and I hear Tim shout, “Holy $h**! FIRE EXTINGUISHER!!!” What? We HAVE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER IN THIS CAR??? What? Where? Panic. Pull over.
Being towed DOWN those windy roads, alongside cliffs, 7 feet from another vehicle for 85 MILES . . . less Zen. On those windy roads my fate is no longer in Tim’s hands, but complete strangers’. If they decide to drive off the cliff (which I imagined several times) I go with them. I have no choice. Seth and Joanna are my heroes today and I am so very grateful to them. How did I get down the hill without having a stroke? I decided it was better for everyone if I just covered my eyes. So I did. I covered my eyes. Every time I opened them there was a rainbow. No kidding. A rainbow! I’m certain it was lucky. I have been to Yukon, BC, Alaska and back to Yukon today. Not bad for one day. Tomorrow . . . don’t know. Fingers crossed that we can get something shipped here in time.
Whitehorse, Yukon; 0 mi.
As the rest of the rally left Whitehorse and headed to Dawson City, I removed the head to reveal cylinders 3 and 4 full of water—head gasket blown, but everything else seemed ok. While working on it in the hotel parking lot, a guy wandered over and asked if he could help. This is how people are in Yukon. Dennis, “Mr. Pain,” drove us all over town introducing us to travel agents, engineering shops and Air North. By 10:30pm, we had a newly skimmed head and, with the help of Paul Barnes, Duke’s British and others, a new head gasket ready to fit in the morning. If you ever feel down on humanity, call me and I’ll share a story with you that will restore your faith, I guarantee it. I set the alarm for 6am hopeful that I could get the engine back together and running. Either that, or we were done.
Dear God please do not let my daughter grow up to be like me. Working on my blind faith in humankind I got into a VAN, ALONE, with a strange man named “Mr. Pain.”
This man was the loveliest person we could have possibly imagined meeting. It was a lucky day for us . . . our rally ended today and magically starts again tomorrow because people made things happen for us. The gasket will arrive, the cylinder head has been skimmed (btw, I have NO idea what that means), our radiator cap has been replaced, our sparkplugs are new and our tire has been fixed. We were about to leave our hotel room to treat Mr. Pain to a beer and some dinner and Tim says, “Small problem. I seem to have misplaced the key.” WHAT? Room search . . . not here. It’s where it always is . . . in the ignition. We are fine. Just fine. Really. I mean it. Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine.
Whitehorse > Dawson City, Yukon; 400 mi.
8:48am the TR started! We were back in the rally! Having lost a day, we had to choose whether to run direct to Fairbanks, Alaska to rejoin the rally and attempt the run to the Arctic Circle the following day, or follow the original route through Dawson City and over the Top of the World Highway to rejoin the field on their second night in Fairbanks. We were sorry to lose the Arctic, but Dawson City was on our wish list.
What a great drive! We followed the Yukon River for many miles and arrived at the astonishing and, frankly, slightly bizarre Dawson unscathed. The TR was back to its best—especially as I had been able to replace the stripped distributor bolt.
I had only 6 hours to think today. Half the usual time but without any major catastrophic events to interfere with the pure six hours of thinkfulness. (I am creating my own dictionary.) My mind kept going between Lord and Lady Baden-Powell and my mother. The former taught me to “Be Prepared” as is the Girl Scouts’ motto. My mother taught me “ignorance is bliss.” Sadly, I doubt she wanted me to actually practice that.
Today brought Diamond Tooth Gerty and the Sourtoe Cocktail lineup. I could never have imagined such a trip, and if someone had lined it up with all of its quirks and stresses there is a 65% chance I may have declined and opted for a much more normal vacation. I had no idea just how good it could be. I was blissfully ignorant and totally unprepared. However, I make a mean cheese, tomato and avocado pita sandwich with a jackknife, on the move, while navigating. So I’m not a complete loss. Leaving this one-horse town early morning and heading for Fairbanks, Alaska. 11 hours of driving. But . . . we will be driving the TOP OF THE WORLD highway . . . so it will be worth it. That’s how I’m feeling. Top of the World!
Dawson > Fairbanks, Alaska; 380 mi.
We left Dawson in heavy mist, took the ferry across the Yukon River and climbed up onto the Top of the World Highway through thick clouds, bursting out above them into brilliant sunshine. It is a stunning, mostly dirt road only open in the summer and includes the most northerly Canada/USA border crossing. Having no competitive sections to do allowed us the freedom to relax and enjoy the drive—and stop in Chicken, Alaska, perhaps the oddest of all the unusual places we visited on the rally. It was a long drive, although not high mileage, including a stop in Tok, Alaska, to torque the head down. By early evening we made it to Fairbanks and pulled into the hotel parking lot to the cheers of the other competitors. It was good to be back!!! After missing two days of competition, we were lying in 15th place but there were still two days to go…
Top of the World was spectacular. The fluffy bed of white clouds suspended between peaks made you want to dive over the edge. Just too many beautiful places. Can’t keep track anymore. But I had a mission. The mission was Chicken, Alaska. I was very clearly told by an old friend who had lived in Dawson for 10 years “Go to Chicken and shoot yer panties through the canon and buy me a gun while you are there.” No explanation.
So . . . Chicken is crazy. It barely exists. There is a touristy decoy on the main road where you can get gas and a bite and some gold, etc . . . but that is NOT Chicken. You needed to find Crazy Sue and the real Chicken. It has a store, a saloon, and a diner all attached. The Saloon is like nothing I’ve seen before and they really DO fire underwear out of a canon! However, even Chicken Alaska has standards and 11 o’clock on a Sunday is too early to wake people up with canon fire. Over the bar there were pink thongs and all kinds of undies torn to shreds, pinned to the ceiling. Apparently its done in a different kind of spirit . . . like late on a Friday night. Like the 70-year old woman who sat “right there in that chair and almost fell over trying to get her underwear off.” It was a laugh and if you ever go to Chicken make sure you go to the real Chicken. And no, I did not buy a gun, but I suspect I could have.
Fairbanks > Valdez, Alaska; ~600 mi.
After all the excitement, drama and life-affirming happenings over the previous
couple of days, it was oddly normal to be back rallying with everyone else. The day started with a shortish TSD which took us to Cripple Creek. We did well and probably only dropped a few seconds here and there.
Then a two-hour transit to the Denali Highway—a 135-mile, remote, summer-only road. Over 100 miles of this is gravel/dirt—some of it fast and smooth, other parts pot-holed and rough. We spent three hours getting across, which included a stop for coffee at the Slouch Café (these kinds of places are truly the BEST experience!), and a stop to help out a bike group who had suffered a puncture on one of their motorcycles. Others were already helping, so I handed over my 12v air-compressor and we pressed on. The TR took the punishment pretty well, although the banging and shaking was slowly loosening the exhaust joints. Three and a half hours southwards, over Thompson Pass, through the stunning Keystone Canyon and on into Valdez.
At the end of the day, we had squeezed into 14th place. It seemed unlikely we could move up any more but with one day to go, everything was still to play for.
The Denali was astonishing. If you ever decide to do the trip, try to arrange to do it in the sun . . . but even the rain was beautiful. This place is vast, vast, vast. There are many potholes. Actually, not really potholes as much as road CAVES. The first few we flew over but finally, I say “SLOW DOWN PLEASE!” Tim responded, “Dahling, it’s better if we go quickly so we can just ‘nip’ ovah them.” Oddly, for a moment I was totally ok with this simply because of his gorgeous British accent. All was fine. Swoon.
BUMP. CRASH. Swooning over.
Valdez > Anchorage, Alaska and the FINISH!; 310 mi.
We drove the last day top-down in celebration of making it to the finish in an almost 53-year-old sports car. It was brilliantly sunny although only a few degrees above freezing (in August!). After a lunch stop beside a glacier, there were two TSD sections to cover on the final day’s route and we dropped less than 20 seconds, but it wasn’t quite enough to move up from 14th. Having missed two whole days of competition, we were pretty happy with that result. We had the most amazing experiences; some of which only came because we hit trouble, so we felt like we placed better than our standings said. We drove into Anchorage and to the finish weary but happy—and celebrated the end of an epic journey with a bottle of Dom Perignon and a fine cigar.
As we drove the last miles into Anchorage, Jan and I fell quiet as we realised that we were nearly done. We entered the Alcan 5000 looking for an epic drive and an adventure that we could share together. We certainly found more than we could have hoped for.
The TR4 is a wonderful car for the Alcan 5000. Sure it’s small, it’s noisy, it’s smelly and it’s primitive. But it’s just so much fun.
I loved freezing to near death with the top down just because we could. I loved every single stranger who approached us at gas stations, and parking lots, and coffee shops and pretty much anywhere we stopped the car and just wanted to talk about their old cars. I loved watching and listening to people walk down memory lane. I loved that they shared their lives with us. I loved that Chicken, Alaska is an actual place. I loved Dawson City. Nothing seems to have changed there. Each of the places we went to deserves a proper trip. As Tim said several times to me over this trip, “There are no strangers when you’re in a TR.” He was right. I would drive anywhere with Tim. Well . . . anywhere that doesn’t say “watch for livestock.” I’m done with cows.
By Tim Burgess