Nimbl Arctic Expedition Part 1 – From the USA to the Yukon
Jun 12, 2023
By Graeme Bell
Setting off from frozen and windswept Reno, Luisa studied her weather app and looked at me with a crease of worry on her brow; Tuktoyaktuk was still a frigid -50F in March.“Remind me, whose idea it was to drive to the Arctic Ocean in winter?” It had been my idea, and I was prepared to take full responsibility for whatever may happen on the 6,000-mile return trip to the far north, but we were making this journey for a good reason. Yes, we could have kept the Nimbl down south, comfortably exploring the jungles and beaches of Mexico and Central America, but that would not stretch the vehicle or ourselves to our full potential. As described in my previous post, the Nimbl had proven itself over the last year to be an exceptional vehicle for both hot and cold weather travel, and my goal was to prove to myself that we were equally up to the task of exploring and surviving the extreme cold. This was more than just an overland journey; it was a test of man, woman, and machine!
With the Nimbl shod with studded General Grabber Arctic tires, we headed confidently northeast towards Boise, ID, a blizzard is blowing us along. Our convoy mate JonTurner, long-time friend and Chief Engineer at Nimbl, had left a couple of days ahead of us and was waiting for us to join him north of Boise. The 95 froze further as the sun set and the snow continued to fall; a rest stop near the Jordan Valley would be our haven for the night, the Nimbl welcoming us into her warm bosom as the mercury continued its plummet. We thought that night was cold; we would soon learn what real cold is.
Meeting up with Jon the following evening in Burbank, WA on the banks of the Columbia River, we settled in for the first of many excellent group meals cooked by Luisa to plan our route north. We agreed that we would alternate convoy lead days and tested the Group Ride function on our matching Garmin Tread (XL Overland Edition), allowing us to communicate via a CB radio-style handset and track each other on the road. Jon’s Starlink, the flat version, which was hard mounted on the roof of his van, would allow internet access when mobile coverage was unavailable. We discussed the modifications and vehicle preparations and made a list of the essentials we should purchase before crossing into Canada. Jon’s Ford van had received much the same preparation as the Nimbl and was shod with studded General Grabber ATX tires, a set of KC Lights, a bank of six Battle Born heated lithium batteries, a Wagan Tech inverter, a Webasto diesel heater and an interior custom made by Jon. It was a beast!
Jon took the lead the following day after a long walk, and we drove north towards the beautiful Soap Lake and surroundings, which begged us to return and explore. Soon we settled into a routine-banter on the Group Ride, occasionally stopping to take photos or video while allowing the dogs (our terrier, Chewy, and Jon’s beautiful Labrador, Mkat) to relieve themselves, grabbing a snack, filling up with diesel, enjoying the sheer beauty of the land through which we drove.
The crossing into Canada on the 2nd of March was effortless, and we soon found ourselves driving through a sublime multi-cultural and prosperous wine-producing region beside the Osoyoos Lake. As the sun set, we climbed up into the Okanagan mountain range and found our camp for the night, the well-equipped Loon Lake rest area a short drive from the highway, where a rowdy trucker enjoyed a very loud and manic phone call with someone equally manic but too invested to hang up.
The snow sat thick on the ground, and where the snow had melted, ice took its place.The scenery was quite dramatic and beautiful as we set off the next morning at 9 am. Our destination was Kamloops and then Prince George, and we made it as far as the picturesque town of Vanderhoof, northwest of Prince George, where we camped outside of the Coach Light Motel. The nights and mornings were becoming progressively colder, with a recorded low of 12F (-11C), and we were relieved that both the Ford van and the Dodge Ram had no problem starting up and warming up in the morning. After a breakfast of British sausage pies and coffee, I withdrew some Canadian currency from the local bank, and we made our way towards the Stewart-Cassier highway, where the real adventure would begin. For those of you who do not know, there are two highways that connect southern Canada to the Yukon and Alaska, namely the Stewart-Cassier and the Alcan, which is the larger and more developed but less picturesque of the two. We had decided to head north via the Stewart-Cassier and return via the Alcan. Stopping at the Kitwanga Junction at the start of the Cassier highway, we filled up with diesel, which was becoming ever more expensive at CAD 1.60 per liter.
Jon was proving to be an excellent convoy partner; we usually do not travel in convoy simply because excellent convoy partners are rare as elusive birds. Dressed in his Night Desert camouflage jacket, beanie, jeans, and brown boots, Jon cut a tall figure against the eternally white background. A man of few well-considered words, Jon could always be relied on to breathe logic into a conversation, and we could tell by the glint in his eye that he was having the time of his life! As were we. After the industrial and agricultural landscape of lower British Columbia, this stretch of road was far more desolate and more challenging to drive; we camped beside the clear blue and partially frozen Bell Irving River and reveled in the beauty and silence of our rest area camp.
Unfortunately, we had to move quickly, as we had a date at the Inuvik airport to collect our good friend and my Explorers Club mentor, James Raffan, on the 12th of March, and we were a mere quarter into our 6,000-mile journey. Within a day, we completed the beautiful Cassier (where I fantasized about driving an all-wheel drive rally car very, very fast). We made it into the infamous Yukon territory ahead of schedule, tiring of the endless driving and unaware of the drama which would soon unfold. Stay tuned for Part2.