Nimbl Arctic Expedition Part 2 – “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong”!
Jun 12, 2023
By Graeme Bell
Our coldest night ever was spent beside the Highway 1 in a rest area between Watson Lake and Whitehorse, with a low of -33F (36C) according to Jon’s digital thermostat. We soon realized that we had made the mistake of camping in a valley where the cold air settled while evading the rising sun. I performed my morning inspection of the Dodge Ram and, despite a crust of ice and snow upon the vehicle, the fluids and oils all seemed to be unfrozen and at healthy levels. I disabled the built in compressor, which automatically initiates upon ignition, and turned the key, hoping that the batteries had not lost all charge and that the oil had retained its’ viscosity. Knowing what I now know, I would have left the engine running all night but, in my defense, we had no idea that it would get quite so cold in the valley. The Dodge labored to turn over initially but, to my surprise, coughed into life within seconds! Impressive. Jon fired up his Ford, which benefited from an engine bay in close proximity to the internal heater, and we let the vehicles warm up as we walked the dogs, prancing uncomfortably in their rubber boots. Them, not us. Occasionally a truck would rumble past against an ice white background and under a clear deep blue sky. The ice and snow crunched hollow under foot and our hair froze on contact with the frigid air. I was in heaven.
We had a 200 mile drive to Whitehorse where, it had been decided, we would take a break and rent a couple hotel rooms for a night. Luisa and I needed to catch up on our writing duties for Expedition Portal and Overland Journal and we all needed a hot shower. With that shower in mind we left the valley and drove up towards Whitehorse, on pulled over to check something and Luisa and I caught a wiff of burning oil, Luisa jumped out to inspect and quickly return with an ominous report, “Oil is pouring out of the engine”! With Jon alerted via the Garmin Group Ride, I turned off the engine and opened the hood, expecting the worse. Luisa has been known to exaggerate and, thankfully, this was one of those occasions, while there was a significant oil leak it was certainly not pouring! Jon and I determined that the oil was escaping via the valve cover gasket and the quick solution was to relieve the pressure by removing one of the valve cover bolts.
With all checks done we headed to Whitehorse with Jon in the lead and Luisa tapping into his Starlink to research possible causes of the leak. I kept my eye on the oil pressure and temperature and we arrived in Whitehorse with a new priority, to fix the Dodge. The next morning I wrested myself from my warm hotel bed (the only time on this journey that Luisa and I stayed in a hotel!), downed a cup of coffee and donned my insulated coveralls before heading down to the frozen parking lot where, to my relief and joy, both Jon and Luisa joined me to work on the Dodge, we were a team indeed.
We removed, cleaned and re-seated the rubber gasket, which did not seem damaged and decided to source a new gasket from a local parts store before retreating to a campsite outside of the city to continue working on the Dodge, arriving there hoping that we had some how miraculously fixed the leak but finding that we had not. Jon did some more research and concluded that the breather must be clogged and found that the simple “bush repair” solution was to remove the breather hose from the top of the valve cover, thereby relieving the pressure from the gasket. A test drive proved that the simple solution was indeed an excellent solution and we returned to the camp to stand in a few feet of snow for four hours to test our cold weather gear and make a campfire upon which we grilled a few steaks, to celebrate.
We were thankful that we had been traveling ahead of schedule and left for Dawson City on the morning of the 8th March, refreshed and with our gear complimented by new mittens and neck gaiters.We anticipated that we would cover the 330 miles to Dawson City by nightfall and were all in an excellent mood when we stopped to top up our diesel tanks at the unmanned North 60 Petro Gas station near Stewarts Crossing. With Jon in the lead, his van had just that day been christened The Pug, we made our way north west towards Dawson City, the sky was white and the air frigid, the road surface covered in ice and baring the scars of thundering cargo trucks.
Coming up over a rise on the Klondike Highway, Luisa let out a scream. Jon’s vehicle had drifted ever so slightly towards the shoulder of the icy road and was immediately sucked in by the deep snow! Within seconds the large black van rolled and somersaulted, landing on its’ roof like a large black beetle, its’ wheel spinning in the air under a cloud of disturbed virgin snow. I brought the Nimbl to a halt, instructed Luisa to remain calm and to call emergency services, before running back to the van, expecting the worst. The snow was a few feet deep and I struggled to Jon’s window, calling his name. A hand pressed against the window, fingers down and covered in a pinkish liquid, Jon’s back then pressed against the glass. I ran back to retrieve the Nimbl and my shovel but, by the time I returned both Jon and Mkat were climbing out of the rear door of the van. Miraculously neither were injured and bore hardly a scratch (the pinkish liquid had been tea but there was also red transmission fluid splattered across the cabs interior)! We opened the Nimbl, deployed the Wagan FRED emergency lights on the road and put the kettle on, Jon appearing completely calm and in total possession of his faculties. After checking him over and establishing that he had no spinal or neck injuries and knew where he was, the current date and his date of birth, at Jon’s insistence, we called the emergency services and reported that there were no injuries and did not require medical services. There was more than just luck to thank for Jon and Mkats survival and recovery after the accident, being a veteran, Jon had undergone extensive training including vehicle roll over training, he had been wearing his seat belt and had followed all the correct procedures in the seconds following the roll over. Cool as a cucumber, with a cup of tea in hand, Jon phoned first his wife Emily and then the insurance company after we removed his most valuable personal possessions, trudging through the deep snow to the open rear door of the van.
It was a great and reassuring relief that every vehicle which came upon us stopped to offer assistance, and a greater relief that we did not need any assistance. A RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer arrived within fifteen minutes of the first call and assessed the situation before giving us the all clear and draping some police tape across the stranded van. He gave us the contact details of a tow truck service and we were able to return to the North 60 gas station within a couple hours to eat a hot meal. With the Nimbl’s engine running we sat and discussed our options, it soon became apparent that none of us wanted to turn back, we had come too far and were too close to our goal. Besides, it is not in our collective nature as explorers and adventurers to turn back at the first sniff of inconvenience, granted this was a larger convenience than most. We had to consider that we had another soul joining the convoy and it had been planned that James would rotate between the Nimbl and the Pug for driving and would sleep in the Nimbl at the end of the day. In consultation with James it was decided that we would continue, Jon, James and Mkat would squeeze into the Dodge for the driving and Jon and James would share a hotel or motel room when possible. Onwards!
That night while we slept the loquacious and iron tough tow truck driver retrieved the van from the deep snow ditch, an action which he performs daily as the roads claims many a victim, and returned it to Pellys Crossing and his yard. We woke and left to visit the van, settle the bill and retrieve more of Jon’s possessions, both Jon and Mkat were pain free the next morning, not even a stiff back! The van itself would likely have been drive-able with a few hours work on the engine and after popping the roof back into line but, it was agreed, it was in no condition to be driven to the Arctic and instead would be repatriated to the US in the summer. Surprisingly, the Flat Starlink and the solar panels seemed unscathed and the only significant damage had been to the body of the vehicle which had been fortunate to land on deep snow and not a boulder (Jon eventually suggested that he might convert the van into a single cab with a box camper mounted on the back, we look forward to seeing the mighty Pug rolling once more).
By mid morning we were back on the road to Dawson City, driving with an extra measure of caution and even more respect for the treacherous road and the thousands of miles of similar, if not more dangerous, roads which lay ahead of us. As Jon likes to say, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong”!
Watch this space for Part 3 and our journey to the Arctic Ocean.