If you don’t know who Lawrence Welk is, you are a cottonheaded ninny muggins.
We ended up getting into the Homestead area about 3 in the morning. Not really the best time to visit the place, but we didn’t have the time to dick around until the sun came up.
So we meandered around the grounds, checking out any placards or information that we could read on our own. Kind of amazing this dude came from such humble beginnings.
Welk went from barnyard babes to champagne ladies. Oooh la la.
Glendive was the last stop on our 2018 trip during daylight hours.
On one of our previous WVO road trips, we visited this “Dinosaur” Museum. It’s a creationist museum where they try to merge the Jurassic and Bronze Age eras. The staff was rather rude, and because we didn’t spout off the usual creationist talking points, they proceeded to follow us around as if we were going to steal their Noah’s Ark Diorama. News flash: we didn’t.
Everything was shutting down, so the only food we could find was at the Gust Hoff bar. Not a bad place actually.
Off to Wisconsin!
Right around here, a bee flew into the driver’s side window and jammed into the crease between my glasses and my cheek. It stung me right away. It was a bit of a ‘crisis,’ because when I was a kid, I was allergic. And I didn’t have any medicine with me.
Thankfully, my good friend Glenn had some Benedril and I survived.
If we would have been on the show “Ice Road Truckers,” this ‘crisis’ would have been a season finale cliff hanger.
It was getting hotter and hotter, so we stopped at a tiny general store in Montana. We were hoping to find a ice-chest full of popsicles or ice cream to devour. As we turned off the van, we heard a tire hissing. This isn’t atypical; most of our trips are tens of thousands of miles long, and a popped tires is to be periodically expected. However, no matter how much we stroked the tire, we couldn’t find the leak. For an audible leak, we should be able to find it easily.
After a few minutes and several locals inquiring about us crouching near the van, we found the problem: the rear AC line had a hole rubbed in the line. SHIT! If it was loud enough to hear, then it’s a TERRIBLE leak.
We figured at this point, it was too much effort to access this metal line on a roadside repair, so we’ll just have to rough it until we get back to Wisconsin. Then we could take the tire off, front shock and mounting bushings out of the way, so we could access this framerail-mounted AC line better.
Glenn has a thing for Ghost Towns and Petrified Forests. So we drove into the abyss…
We stopped in at a bar and asked the locals for suggestions on things to see. Some women suggested we get ass-raped in a nearby ghost town, named Giltedge. Jumping to the opportunity, Glenn insisted we investigate this area. I still don’t know if he genuinely wanted to see the old buildings or if he wanted to felch his haunted cum out his butthole.
Anyway, we drove to where the maps suggested this Ghost Town existed, and we found some abandoned buildings. IDK. It was interesting, but not really worth the drive.
Lewistown is a pleasant place along highway 87.
The downtown looks like something out of an old west movie.
We visited the Central Montana Museum to get out of the heat. Our AC was busted and it was getting annoying driving around in a 100-degree van in July.
I’m 99% sure I had that exact same map on my wall in my room when I was a kid.
Now that we were stateside, we could get some fresh fruit and vegetables without worrying about the border patrol getting their panties in a bunch. I was long overdue for some fresh fruit. I was constipated since the massive meat meals we ate in Tuktoyaktuk.
The Judith Basin Country Sign.
“The Judith Basin occupies a central place in Montana’s history. For centuries, the lush grasses of the region attracted large numbers of buffalo, antelope, and deer. The abundant game, in turn, drew Indian hunting parties to this area. By the late 1870’s, the Indians had been confined to reservations outside the basin and most of the buffalo were gone. Montana cattlemen moved into the area in 1880. By 1885 cattle grazed in this valley. Outfits active in the area were the Judith Cattle Company, the renowned Davis – Houser – Stuart (DHS) Ranch, and Conrad Kohrs and Nick Bielenberg. Artist Charlie Russell, who gained much of his early experience as a cowboy here during the 1880’s, later captured the area’s rich and colorful history in some of his most famous paintings. After the cattlemen came the homesteaders, many of them drawn to this agricultural fertile area by the marketing of the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road Railroads.”
To summarize, the native people were displaced, wealthy people moved in, the indigenous wildlife was exterminated, and let’s stop worrying about what happened prior to 1900.
Heading south back to the States. Haven’t had a rest since our breakdown in Fort Nelson British Columbia.
On our southbound trip in 2018, we had a transmission problem that forced us to limp the van back to Fort Nelson for repairs.
We got into Fort Nelson in the middle of the night. Since it’s not very safe to drive at night on the Alaska Hwy, we found a section of road on the south side of town to park and rest until sunrise. When the sun risen, we fixed the windshield and took some drone shots of the city from the side of the town. Then we filled up the tank and headed south, hoping to make it to southern Alberta by the next day.
However, about 80 miles south of Fort Nelson, we started getting overdrive surging as we slowed the van down. Eventually, it started surging all the time. We turned off the GVOD and hoped to find a spot where we could fix it on the side of the road. Perhaps the fluid was low or a wire is loose. We didn’t know.
Gearvender overdrives are finicky items. We needed to find a wayside that would allow us to drive up and out without reverse. If the GVOD binds, it won’d allow reverse, so we had to wait for the perfect turnout. Eventually, we found a two-exit turnout on the side of the road. We parked the van and chocked the wheels, just in case the overdrive slips.
We checked the OD. Bad news. The tailshaft seal had been compressed (by the driveshaft pounding the anus of the tailshaft) on the 800-mile washboard trip on the Dempster. That constant tapping wore the seal and it allowed most of the GVOD oil to leak out.
We drained the OD to assess the existing oil. It was dirty and low. We collected every ounce we could and tried to crudely filter it.
I always pack extra gear oil and a spare tailshaft seal, but this is a job that will take a lot of finesse. That means working on it in a place that isn’t gravel and bear country. We replaced the filtered oil and used the rest of our synthetic Lucas oil just to get it back to Fort Nelson. We booked a hotel and got all the extra supplies would could get before the night arrived.
The next morning we replaced the tailshaft seal and glow plug fusable links. Also, we found the grounding out that occurred on the GP wires, and put new insulation on those wires as well.
Since we couldn’t find Lucas oil (Gearvender INSISTS on Lucas oil, even though if you read their instructions from the 80’s, it just calls for non-slip oil), we found some NAPA-brand oil that claimed to be non-slip. Or maybe it was limited slip… IDK. I gotta find that documentation.
We bought all the oil we could find, just in case we ended up having another GVOD problem later on the journey. In hindsight, we were extremely fortunate we broke down where we did. If we had broke down just 12 hours earlier, we would have been stuck right in that stretch of the Alaska highway where there were three dozen bears in 50 miles.
On our southbound journey from Tuktoyaktuk, we pulled into Dawson right around 7am. We were sick of eating microwaved food in our van, so we elected to get some grub from Dawson’s Triple J Hotel. Not bad food. I could have used some spicier salsa on my breakfast burrito, but it’s Canada. Their specialty is syrup, not salsa.
We’ve only driven to the NWT twice. There are only a handful of roads that allow this.
Along the Dempster, there is a monument denoting the border.
It’s basically on a pass in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t see another soul for hours.
On the way back south, this the sign you see. There as snow on the ground everywhere, and it was raining. I suspect there are places around here that the snow never fully melts all year.
The Dempster is so bumpy, that it literally rattled our bumper off our van. It rattled the Grade-8 mounting hardware off the top bumper mount, and that allowed the bumper to hang forward. It allowed more pressure to rest on the opposite frame rail, and that created a torque to rip the frame mount apart. Due to metal fatigue, that ripped completely through, and the bumper hung down just above the gravel roadway. We caught it before it got even worse, when we stopped for the ferry on the Dempster. As we waited for the ferry to arrive, we made a temporary fix to ratchet strap the bumper until we could get it more permanently secured.
This town is not really set up for tourists yet. There are only a few tour guides and places to stay, and there are no restaurants. However, there is one entrepreneurial family selling muskox burgers, muffins, and granola bars out of a tent. IIRC, it’s called “Tyson’s Burgers” and he’s grilling up around lunch time. A woman in the tent sells the best granola and muffins with local berries she’s collected on the landscape.
We ended up buying something like 20 granola bars from her and plenty of burgers and muffins. She was confounded on someone could request so much food. I think their culture has a different consumption standard than what we are used to.
Muskox burgers were tasty. They definitely tasted oilier and different, but still good with cheese and toppings. I put a bunch of veggies on my burger and after visiting the general store, I probably ended up eating $10 worth of lettuce. Prices for vegetables up there is EXPENSIVE.
We took the rest of the food from Tyson’s Burgers with us for the trip back to Inuvik and Dawson City. We fought over those granola bars.
After we made it up to Tuk, and completed our touring, we had to fix things for the return trip.
While we were in Inuvik, the glowplug harness shorted out. We didn’t know why (yet), but we tried to fix the fusable links with fuses. It didn’t work, but we tried anyway. We didn’t have much to lose.
Also, we had to figure out how to get the beast started in such cold temps without GP’s. We ended up warming it up with a heat gun and also used some starting fluid. Until we were able to get some fusable links (the closest town to have any in stock was Whitehorse, a thousand miles south), we used this starting fluid to get it going for the duration of our trip in the NWT and Yukon.
Also, we fixed other issues and fueled up the beast with WVO. Roger and Winnie wanted us to stay for lunch, but we had to hit the road ASAP. The ferries in Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic close late in the evening, and considering we have a several-hour drive ahead of us, we had to go.
We’d like to thank Roger and Winnie at Arctic Tour Company in Tuktoyaktuk for a great time, good food, wonderful company, and an exciting tour during our stay. Glenn and I said that if it had not been for their hospitality, we don’t think the rough drive of the Dempster was worth the trip. They are the main reason why we look back at this journey as a success.
When to you get the chance to swim in the Arctic Ocean?
They have a neato monument designated at the end of the road.
Unlike our trip to Prudhoe Bay Alaska, we didn’t need an escort to the Arctic Ocean. Here in Tuk, Canada, they let you drive your POS van right up to the shore line. Kinda cool.
We scoped out a spot to take a dip. Our tour guide, Roger, told us to make sure to swim on the left side of the peninsula. Other tourists were dipping their toes in the right side, which was the fresh water bay, not the ocean. We didn’t drive this far just to dip our toes in the wrong water. We are GOING SWIMMING.
So… it was 29 degree water. There was ice in the water that day. And oddly, it wasn’t as cold at I thought it would be. We got in for a few moments, and then my legs started stiffening up. I pulled my arms and legs out of the water to see them purply and discolored. Glenn remarked, “Dude, we are literally freezing.” We got out after a minute or two, and rushed to the van to change into dry clothes.
Our Arctic Ocean tour culminated with a stop on a distant sandbar. This would be the furthest north we would be on this journey, and the 2nd furthest north ever on these WVO trips.
Hard to believe, but we arrived on this island about 11pm at night. Since we are so far north in July, the sun never sets. It felt like it was 4pm on a regular day in Wisconsin.
Roger’s nephew worked on the boat motor while we ventured out on the sandbar.
The ground was littered with smooth rocks, sand, driftwood, and various whale and animal bones.
It was really surreal and special. And cold. That day, it was 38 deg F at its hottest point.
At a certain point that day, I pondered why we were wearing the life jackets. If we went into the drink, we’d die within a few minutes of hypothermia, so we might as well just toss the jackets. But then Glenn said that they were there so the coast guard could recover our bodies. LOL.
After visiting the Pingos, we continued our Arctic Tour Company adventure out on the open sea.
Roger’s nephew drove us out along the shoreline of Tuk. He pointed out a lot of sites along the way.
He spoke about how he goes whale hunting. We were kind of amazed. Glenn asked him where is he whaling boat. He said he does all the catching in that 15-foot aluminum boat we were in. Crazy! He was really comfortable being that far out to sea.
He took us pretty far out.
Eventually, the town of Tuk disappeared off the horizon.
Pingos are rare permafrost land formations that can get over hundreds of feet tall.
The only way to get to the Pingo Canadian Landmark is by boat. We connected with Roger and Winnie at Arctic Tour Company, and they hooked us up with a tour and place to stay. We got to stay with him and his wife personally. It was really nice.
His nephew took us on the tour of the pingos. Once you dock on the neighboring peninsula, you take some newly constructed walkways to get a great vantage point of the pingos.
Tuk is one of the few places in the world where there are many large scale pingos. They only grew a few centimeters per year, so these are exceptional.
Hooray! We made it up to Tuk!
As we drove in, more buildings appeared. Nearly all the roads and dwellings are bounded by bogs, ponds, lakes, and rivers. And ocean.
All the buildings are on stilts. If they are rested on a foundation in the soil, the heat of the dwelling will melt the permafrost underneath it, and it will sink like quicksand.
The red building (above) is the general store. It’s filled with some sparse groceries, and some EXPENSIVE fruits and vegetables. A bunch of grapes was $15 Canadian.
At the end of the peninsula is the access to the Arctic Ocean.
It was getting exciting as we approached the tiny town of Tuk. There were these bogs all along the path that made for an odd landscape.
Also, as we drove into town, there was a city dump to the left. From what I learned, every tourist to this town used to fly in prior to the completion of the Dempster highway extension. So now, this is the welcome sign. Poor city planning I guess. Something tells me they’ll fix this in the next few years if they are anticipating more driving tourists.
This section of road was finished just six month before, but due to the elements, it has been quite damaged.
It rattled our van to pieces. At a certain point, the bumper rattled loose and due to metal fatigue, the frame mounts even sheered off.
The tundra is an odd place. I read that the frozen ground is ice for meters and meters underground. So in the summer, it’s basically a bog with slush on top of icy dirt.
This makes driving very dangerous. For the most part, the ground it flat (thank Zeus) but in some places there is a slope. So in a lot of ways, it’s like driving on thick mud, water, slush, and ice.
On the day we drove in, it was 34 degree F in July. It even snowed and rained.
It was white-knuckle driving the whole way up and whole way back to Inuvik.
Even though it was a gamble to drive up to Tuk, it was worth it. However, unless the roadway is improved, I probably won’t voluntarily drive this again.
As we left Inuvik, we were excited to finish the last stretch to the town of Tuktoyaktuk. However, as we drove a few miles up the road, there was a sign claiming the highway was closed. We knew the road was closed for repairs up until a few days ago, so maybe the sign was old. We didn’t know, so we drove back to Inuvik to ask the authorities on if it was safe.
They called the NWT travel authorities and the RCMP, who both couldn’t confirm if the road was open, but they thought it might be ok. Another person with some knowledge of the area claimed “I think I saw a truck on it the other day.” They were calling the road construction contracting company to see if they approved, and didn’t get a solid answer.
In the end, we elected to give it a shot. We figured we drove over 4000 miles to get here, and it would a shame to give up now. If we brake down, then we’d have to walk back to Inuvik or Tuk (whichever is closer) and hope we don’t get eaten by polar or grizzly bears in the process.
Inuvik is a fairly large town considering how far north it is. It has a few thousand inhabitants. As you drive into town, there is this interesting domed church on the right, and also, they have a nice visitor center/museum nearby.
When were were preparing for the trip, we learned that the Dempster incurred severe wash-out damage. We were gambling that all the damage would be repaired by the time we got up there in the summer. Turned out we were cutting it very close. Here was a crew working south of Inuvik on a section of road that only allowed one-lane of cars to pass. As you can see, there isn’t a guard rail.
Just a few dozen miles up the road is the next Dempster Ferry near the town of Tsiigehtchic.
We didn’t get a chance to investigate the town while we waited for the ferry. There isn’t a road to the town. Instead, the ferry performs a triangular transfer path, stopping the southbound dock, northbound dock, and eventually the city. We didn’t want to drive to town, just to see their 6 buildings and then wait for the 1-hour roundtrip for the ferry to return.
As we drove further north, the topography starts to level out more, and the trees are more sparse. In the middle of nowhere, there is a functioning ferry that is open something like 12 hours per day. It’s odd to see fellow humans this far north.
After we crossed the river on the ferry, we stopped in at the tiny town of Fort McPherson. The town has a small population of First Nation people, and we saw lots of kids running around.
After a some time in town, we headed further north to Tsiigehtchic.
Surprisingly, there were a handful of people camped out at the wayside near the Arctic Circle sign. For the majority of the drive, we didn’t see a single automobile, except for a semi or two.
We are getting to the point now where no tree can survive at this latitude. It’s all basically just scrubby brush and grass. It’s like being on a green moon.
Eagle Plains is the closest thing to the “Old West” that I’ve ever seen. There are no services on the Dempster, except here. They have a lodge and some amenities, and for a hefty fee, you can stay here if you were passing through. It is not a town by any stretch of the imagination; only a few buildings atop a hill.
The Dempster is hardly a highway. It’s basically a 1- or 2-lane gravel road that goes on for hundreds of miles. The roadway is riddled with pits, potholes, and washboard bumps. The first hundred miles is some amazing scenery. Since this is right around the Arctic Circle, the tundra restricts the growth of the trees and it’s really an alien landscape.
Dawson is a fun town. They try to keep the style of the place like the ol’ Klondike gold rush days.
Ain’t nothing like waiting 5 minutes at a stoplight with no opposite traffic for 250 miles to make your day.
We have some great friends up in the Yukon that are biofuel advocates. They have helped us on all three of our trips through the Yukon Territory, in 2008, 2013, and 2018. We are very appreciative of their generosity.
While driving up to Whitehorse, we saw these Mastodon sculptures on the hill.
Now that I compare the photos, you can really tell 2013 was a hot year with lots of forest fires. There were some major fires in Alaska and the Yukon that year that made the air all smokey. Sunsets were remarkably red that trip.
We’ve been to Watson Lake a half dozen times now. The first time was in 2008 when we cruised through with the Jetta after a hail storm.
The next time was in 2013 with the Veggie Van. Here’s a pic from the good ol’ days:
I miss that shirt. Back on that day in 2013, we put a Greaser Nuts bumper sticker on one of the signs. Anyway, back on topic.
The latest time we visited this town was the 2018 trip up to Tuktoyaktuk. We snapped even more photos because this place is growing exponentially.
Watson Lake has this folk art “forest” of signs from all the people who drove the Alaska Highway.
On the way back down to the States in 2018, we found our bumper sticker we put there in 2013. Pretty cool.
Time to fill up again. One of the problems with these northern Canada trips the rain storm and no place to fill up under a canopy. So we have to fill up whenever it’s dry.
We needed to get to Whitehorse before the end of the day, so we elected to do the standard Laird Hot Springs visit on the way back down. Sadly, we ran into problems on the way down, and didn’t have time to visit the springs. Bummer. It’s a great place to relax on the Alaska Hwy.
Since we’ve taken the Alcan Highway something like five times now, we have lots of pictures of this bridge and river.
Almost exactly 5 years ago to the day, we took this road (the MacKenzie Hwy) to Fort Laird and Yellowknife. It was pretty sketchy. Many places were gravel and mud, and if it had rained harder, I’m sure our two-wheel-drive van wouldn’t have made it. And we didn’t see a car or truck for the duration of our drive.
While I slept in the back, Glenn put down some major miles in the dark. As we keep getting further and further north this summer, the nights only last for a few hours at best. By the time I woke up, Glenn drove for hours and we needed another grease fill up.
For the fifth or sixth time, we’ve passed the infamous “Alaska Highway” roundabout. Also, in downtown, you can see the original signpost.
Everyone knows the start of the Alaska Highway is Dawson Creek. So seeing this on the horizon is a welcome sign.
Just by sheer chance, we pulled into this town Vegreville on some Polish or Ukrainian heritage festival. There were lots of people celebrating in town and at this park that has a rotating decorated egg.
We got some poutine and ice cream to eat from some of the local stands in the park. Overall, pretty eventful for such a small town.
Nice little museum in the middle of nowhere. I was kind of surprised how much there was to do in this town of Vegreville. The day was hot as hell, so we opened the hood to let the engine and coolant cool off a bit while we spent an afternoon in the museum.
We’ve visited several of these wonderful Western Expansion Museums over the years, but this year, we had an urgent schedule to make. Until next time…
We’ve stayed here before. Not this time though… on the way to the Yukon!
After catching some Z’s, and Glenn finally washing his body, we decided to reenter our fart-riddled van for the next three days. But since we were still kinda out of it, we forgot to close the back door. After a mile of driving down Saskatoon’s main drag, some kid hung out the window of a neighboring car and told us our shit was falling out. Thank god. We had a few tools in the back and thankfully he told us before they all crashed on the pavement.
We got in really late. I was able to recharge the AC that night. After all those hours on the road, we felt ok with sleeping in a few hours. After all, we knew we’d be on the road basically until we got to the Yukon, so this would be our last chance to get some real sleep and a shower.
It was getting dark, so we booked it through Regina to get to our hotel in Saskatoon. After driving for two days straight with some brief van camping in between and lots of days of loading, we were beat.
We’ve been doing these trips for years and years, and we’ve finally wised up to combat the incessant onslaught of bugs on the windshield. We got our own heavy duty sprayer and squeegee.
Still running behind schedule. Thankfully, the border patrol didn’t detain us for too long, and we were able to get a recommendation from the tourism center that George’s Burgers was a good local place to eat. It was ok. Not much of a selection. But it’s a small town, so beggars can’t be choosers.
We ran short on time, so we skipped our planned trip to the Missile Silos. Bummer.
Heading north, trying to make up some ground for sleeping so much.
Because we are getting old, we decided to catch a few Z’s in northern Minnesota before moving on to the border. What started as a simple hour catnap, ended up being hours long until the sun rose. Like I said, we are getting old.
Tried running thicker oil this trip, and only a few hours from home, we had to unclog and clean the pre-filter on the veg pump. Minor delay, and back on the road in an hour.
After driving throughout the night and staying up loading the van the night before, we needed to get some decent rest. The next few days of our trip would be heading up to Flin Flon and Fort McMurray, so it would be a while before we got a real bed and shower. So we stayed at the Super 8 on the west side of Winnipeg, because our plan was to get some sleep and get an early start the next day heading north west.
However, after we unloaded our gear, I noticed the van was sitting odd. The suspension was old, and it appeared our latest drive did take a toll on it. The coils seemed bottomed out and we needed a solution.
After brainstorming for a bit, Glenn thought of a brilliant solution. Instead of waiting a week for a set of new coil springs, he suggested we install a solid rubber hockey puck between the i-beam and coil. Since the next day was Canada Day, we knew all the stores would be closed. So we rushed off to the nearest general store and found hockey pucks. Good thing we were in Canada; they had a VAST selection of pucks.
Anyway, we burned the middle of Canada Day pulling off the i-beams and coils, and installing hockey puck spacers. But once it was done, it worked beautifully. We used them for the duration of the entire 2017 WVO roadtrip, and they didn’t even show any damage or wear when we replaced the coils back in Wisconsin.
We drove down to Iowa to pick up the Frankenvan (a Chrysler minivan with a TDI engine in it.)
The Wisconsin River, north of Taliesin.
Like every good Frank Lloyd Wright fan should always do, they should stop by the FLW Visitors Center to clog their toilet. Usually it takes us tagteaming a bowl to get ‘er done, but this time Glenn went in and singlehandedly destroyed that bathroom.
After that, we proceeded to the Taliesin grounds. By the time we got to the entrance, the guards wouldn’t let us in. They wanted Glenn to pay for the damage he caused. I pleaded with the guards that Glenn has no money, but they didn’t care. The janitor chimed in and said he had never seen such a smelly pile of feces and the toilet was permanently damaged.
We headed back to the van. I told him I could lend him the money, but once he got behind the wheel of the Passat, he just drove off. He stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Fuck you Franklyn Wright! See ya later, chumps!”
Glenn couldn’t resist.
We were driving across Minnesota when we stumbled upon this rootbeer stand. Glenn nearly creamed his jeans. He insisted we pull over and get some food. I skeptically asked, “Seriously, are we doing this,” because we had literally just eaten a huge $5 Chinese buffet (also Glenn’s idea) only an hour before that.
He was giddy. “Let’s get some food,” he bellowed.
Overall, the food was pretty decent and the root beer was spot on. However, from then on, I told Glenn that we need to compromise sometimes. He exclaimed, “FUCK that. I’m eating.” As we pulled out of the driveway, he squeezed out the van door and ran to order a second hamburger “for the road,” as he called it. It was sickening, seeing his gelatinous belly and sweaty fingers polish off that burger by the time we hit the St Croix. For the duration of the drive to central Wisconsin, he begged me to pull over at various A&W’s and other restaurants to satisfy his gluttonous desires.
Glenn, if you are reading this, please visit.
Check out this historical trading post and First Nation museum.
Decades ago, this building stood to enable trading between the native tribes and others passing through. It now is part of a bigger complex, including a massive First Nation museum. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the interior of the native museum. Maybe I was sick of taking photos after driving for 18 days straight… But maybe they had a rule about outside photography. I can’t recall.
However, the museum had some elaborate rooms depicting all the aspects of northern Minnesota native indian lifestyles. The harvesting of rice was really interesting. They also had experts come in and explain the details. Like they would submerge their canoes underwater when they migrated to different parts of the country.
Also, Lac Mills had this spiffy fish statue. I caught a fish this big once, but I let it go.
We stopped at the Paul Bunyan “Land” to see what all the fuss was about. It was kind of like Knotts Berry Farm minus all the fun. If you have young kids, they’d be pretty excited, but for two 29-ish-year-old guys… it was a hard pass.
We drove through the night, only to encounter massive fog all through Minnesota.
This is deer country, so fog + deer usually means terribly slow driving. The last thing we needed on the last day of our 2017 WVO Road Trip was a deer accident.
We pulled into Bemindji in the morning while it was drizzling out. Of course we had to visit the infamous Paul Bunyon and Blue Ox statues.
This place had a museum showcasing the local oddities and specialties. Basically, if you like logjams and axes, this place would totally lumberjack you off.
Before sunset, we passed through Rugby, North Dakota. This little town holds the title of the literal geographic center of the entire continent.
Sort of weird, but there is only three flags, for Canada, Mexico and the USA. But I always thought Greenland, Central America, and the islands of the Caribbean were technically all nations residing under the aegis of “North America.” Maybe if they include the geography of those nations, it puts the “center” somewhere in southern Canada, and this little town will lose their title. LOL. Something to chew on.
There is a lot to see in Minot, North Dakota.
We cruised into town right around dinner time. Things were shutting down (this is North Dakota, so places don’t really stay open passed 6pm), so rushed to downtown and the visitor’s center for suggestions.
Minot has a really expansive Scandinavian museum. The inside and gift shop were closing, so we got a chance to chat with the staff before they headed home for the night.
Naturally, Glenn never misses an opportunity to have his genitals groped by a trollish looking geriatric.
They shut the place down, so we meandered the Scandinavian Heritage Museum grounds.
They have a legit old wood temple from the old country. Pretty astonishing.
Before the staff left, we asked them for something to eat that is different than anywhere else in the world. They said to go to Ebeneezer’s and eat some sort of Frog Burger. Intrigued, we tracked down the bar and grill, and ordered a few things. Turns out the frog burger wasn’t made out of actual frogs. Bummer.
This National Parks run fort is a great glimpse of the past.
Along our path, we noticed a fort on the horizon. We pulled off and it was a great place to stretch our legs and fill up the tank. Little did we know, it was much more expansive and comprehensive than expected.
The staff was really friendly. They had some people in character, so we got to ask a lot of questions and see them working on their stuff. They let you walk along the perimeter canopy to oversee the landscape. On the horizon, there was a train passing through.
The fort was situated on the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. So I assume Louis and Clark passed through this area before the inception of the fort. A lot of history at these two rivers.
“Montana’s native people revere this boulder that once perched high atop a wind-swept ridge overlooking the Cree Crossing on the Milk River. The ancient, weather-worn effigy resembled the leader of a herd of reclining buffalo in an outcrop of gray granite. Ancient markings define its horn, eyes, backbone and ribs. Since late prehistoric times, native peoples of the Northern Plains have honored the Sleeping Buffalo’s spiritual power. Oral traditions passed down among the Cree, Chippewa, Sioux, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre as well as the more distant Blackfeet, Crow and Norther Cheyenne tell how the ‘herd’ fooled buffalo-hunting parties. While each tribe has its own culture and beliefs, all Montana tribes share worldviews. A Chippewa-Cree elder explained, ‘These rocks are sacred, just like our old people.’ Locals claim the Sleeping Buffalo, relocated to Malta’s City Park in 1932, was restless, changing positions and bellowing in the night. The Sleeping Buffalo found this final resting place in 1967 where the smaller ‘Medicine Rock,’ also collected near Cree Crossing, rejoined it in 1987. These timeless objects continue to figure prominently in traditional ceremonies, linking the present with the past when the power of the prairie was the buffalo.”
We finally made it back to the States!
Thankfully, the border agent didn’t make us endure a long investigation on when we crossed the border. He recognized we were having trouble (blown tires, vac pump issues, weak brakes, oil pressure) and gave us some advice. He suggested we go to Malta Montana and get some spare tires there.
This shop was able to get us a spare used tire same day. That was crucial because we weren’t about to hang out in remote Montana waiting for a low-quality spare tire.
Also, another shop was able to charge our AC after we found that the low-side nozzle was leaking. Glenn and I replaced the valve, and then went to the shop. The guy was really friendly and helped us out right away, since we were traveling through.
At the end of the day, we stopped at the nearby Great Plains Dinosaur Museum which was small, but good.
Just our luck, we got a second flat tire.
Driving south, we were hoping to make the border in the U.S. middle of the night. Everything was going according to plan.
On a completely standard road, the spare tire exploded. It even damaged my rear fender, bending the metal up into the wheel well. Great. Just my luck.
We put the two shredded tires on the top of the van and hoped we don’t have another flat. We don’t have any more spares, and we have over 1500 miles to go.
As the sun set on the Saskatchewan horizon, we approached the international border crossing. The people at the North Battleford Western Expansion Museum assured us that our rural crossing would be open after 8pm. As we drove up, we could tell that was totally wrong. Since we had no where else to go, we parked the van at the empty station and slept in the vehicle until the agent arrived.
At 8am, the American crossing opened, and the guy was thankfully really decent about things. We’ve crossed back into the U.S. in the passed and gotten hassled by pissy agents. But the guy kind of took pity on us, noticing our shredded tires on the top of the van, listening to our stories about the oil pressure failing and the vacuum pump going to hell, and having gotten shitty advice on when the border was open, forcing us to sleep on the side of the road. He told us to head to Malta for some decent American Ford service.
We had a swift visit to Swift Current Saskatchewan.
After we drove around the city (it was too late in the day to find a museum or site to see), we stopped off at the Boston Pizza to get some grub. The veg pump was running a bit light, so we elected to change out the veg filter while waiting for our food to be prepared.
Overall, the new filter didn’t really help much. The veg pump was weakening. It wasn’t the worst, it just proved to not supply enough grease to the IP on steep inclines or heavy loads. We had to slow down if we wanted to get over the passes, so it wasn’t until I got to Los Angeles before I could install a good 11.5psi Duralift E-pump to replace the 4-7psi one.
Hotel prices in Canada have dramatically increased over the last decade. Now you can’t find a decent hotel under a hundred bucks. Usually they exceed $150. Our hotel in North Battleford was really …. special. They had some interesting amenities, like hot soup for dinner and a burned out double-decker bus on the grounds. Spiffy.
What a terrible time to get a flat.
Heading back to North Battleford after visiting the Crooked Bush, we were enjoying the sunset when the rear driver’s side tire blew.
The funny thing was, this trip was by far our least dangerous journey. On all of our other WVO road trips, we ended up driving on crazy remote gravel and slate roadways into the bush, and the authorities always recommend bringing two extra full-size spares. To play it safe, we usually bring three spares. But since we knew this trip to Fort McMurray would result in some of the safest and paved roads in the history of our WVO trips, I thought two spares would be enough.
Well, not that this tire blew up, we only had one spare left on the upcoming 2000 miles of driving. We thought that should be good, for now…
A mutant grove of trees makes for a unique WVO roadtrip site.
A few dozen miles east of North Battleford in the heart of the Saskatchewan farmlands, there is a small local treasure. It’s called the Crooked Bush and we learned about it from an online conversation with a random person on the internet.
In my conversation, I was hoping the “Crooked Bush” was some sort of euphemism for something overtly sexual. Or maybe the long-lost mutant relative of George W Bush. But the more I researched it, the more I learned that it would be a good diversion on the trek.
It truly is an odd place. Since it’s such a remote place, I suspect not a lot of people make it up here. If you do happen to be in the area, can’t hurt to stop in.
In the middle of Saskatchewan, which is landlocked by the way, there is a lighthouse. Don’t even ask my why.
We visited a museum and ice cream stand while passing through.
We drove through the night from Fort McMurray and needed a place to stretch our legs. Glaslyn’s museum was open early and we got a chance to roam their grounds.
They have an old-timey water tower that you can enter on a tour.
Also, like most towns across Canada, they have a clusterfuck of stuff from the last hundred years of the town.
We met some old guys that were back in town for their 50th high school reunion. They remarked on a lot of the ancient equipment and helped us figure out what a lot of the stuff was designed to do.
The “Giants of Mining” is a park with the biggest mining shit I’ve every seen.
At the end of the road north of Fort McMurray, there is a turn-around loop. Only people working for the mining operations can go further. The rest of us have to head back to town.
Inside that massive loop, they have a special lot reserved for these massive mining machines. It’s extremely impressive.
On the northern horizon, you can see the mining and refining operations. The stacks were quite tall.
On one of the Oil Sands Discovery Center tours, we learned that most of the oil sands mining operations have discontinued the use of these huge diggers in favor of a more agile and mobile dump-truck method. I guess it takes too much money and time to set up these massive diggers.
Fort McMurray was the northernmost city of the 2017 WVO Road Trip
We had been driving for days, and we needed to find a hotel asap. We cruised the town for a bit to find a good hotel and get some more road trip supplies.
About half the town burned down in last year’s fires. So the GPS was hit or miss. Regardless, we found a place to stay, and the place was suffuse with contractors and laborers. Most were fascinated with the Veggie Van. Since a lot of them had been cooped up in Fort McMurray for too long, they were really chatty.
The next day, we visited the Oil Sands Discovery Center Museum. Pretty cool stuff.
It had an interior museum and also a huge lot with all sorts of mining machines scattered all over the place.
Overall, the Discovery Center was worth the visit.
In 2016, Fort McMurray was the setting of massive wild fires.
As we got closer and closer to the town, we saw acres and acres of burn areas. It was really disconcerting. Originally, we had planned on going to Fort McMurray in 2016, but due to the cracked block issue on the IDI engine, we had to cut the WVO trip short at Churchill Manitoba.
After seeing the aftermath of the devastation, we were really lucky things turned out the way they did.
We got into Cold Lake Alberta really late and parked at the Walmart to catch some Z’s.
The next morning, we checked out the Cold Lake Museum(s).
That place was expansive. It was an endless labyrinth.
The bugs up here are horrendous. We cleaned that windshield every 100 miles.
We passed through Meadow Lake Saskatchewan. Nice little town.
As we kept going northwest, we could see the northern lights on the horizon. Pretty cool. I’ve been living in Los Angeles too long… Never get to see that anymore.
We pushed on to Cold Lake. We wanted to get there to crash out for a few hours before the next big drive.
The NCMF is a hippy folk music festival in northern Saskatchewan.
We found a flyer for the festival in Big River. In order to get to Ness Creek, we had to drive more mud and gravel roads in the middle of nowhere.
The area was really pretty. Lots of trees and fresh air.
Eventually, we arrived. I expected the “festival” to be flooded with people. Instead, it had maybe about a hundred or so in the main music hall, while all their kids had to fend for themselves against the Canadian monster mosquitoes.
Overall, the music truly was good. And driving a veggie van to the hippy festival gave us instant street cred, however, I didn’t really feel like a part of the vibe.
We hung out for an hour or so, and then meandered the grounds.
There were several stands throughout the campus, and they had a lot of art stuff going on. It was getting dark, so we decided to keep on moving toward Cold Lake.
The day was slipping away from us, so we pulled into the tiny town of Big River.
Our GPS suggested we check out the “Big River Memorial Museum,” but it was clearly abandoned.
Near the “downtown,” there is a nice boat landing and beach to hang out. Since it’s now a few days from the Canada Day holiday, most people have left town to go back to work.
While we were here shitting, we saw a sign talking about a folk music festival in the restroom. That particular festival was literally starting in an hour. We talked to one of the locals about the festival and asked for directions. They said the “Ness Creek Music Festival” is pretty good, and if we had nothing to do, we should check it out.
Since it’s extremely rare to find things to do on these trips after 5pm, we jumped at the opportunity. Well, I jumped. Glenn sounded skeptical that it would be some hippy or hipster bullshit. Once we got there, he was proven right. Regardless, the music was really good.
After enduring some mechanical issues, we limped the van to Prince Albert.
We got into town really late, but just in time to get a bite to eat at Boston Pizza.
We ate our food and got back in the van to go our hotel room. Glenn drove from La Ronge to Prince Albert, and this was the first time I drove the van since the arduous trek across Highway 165. I immediately noticed the brakes were really soggy. I asked Glenn if he knew the brakes were busted. He said they started going limp a few hundred kilometers ago. WOW! We limped it to the hotel and knew right away the problem: Vacuum pump.
The next day, we had many fixes necessary. We added a mechanical oil pressure gauge, we replaced the IDI vacuum pump, and we checked everything over.
We had to spend an extra day in Prince Albert because our Vacuum Pump needed to be ordered from Edmonton. While we were there, we strolled around town and visited the local museum.
It doesn’t take long to walk around this town. Everything is relatively close together.
Once we finished all the repairs, we took off westward to make up some time. We heard some rattling on the roof rack, where we keep our spare scooters in case we break down too far from civilization to walk.
Turns out on one of the nights we stayed in Prince Albert, some dumbshit cut all our ratchet straps in order to try and steal our scoots. But the numbskull didn’t realize we had a thick bicycle lock on the scooters, so cutting our straps is just a waste of time. Wherever you are dumb-dumb, I hope you are not doing well.
We got to La Ronge hoping to find an autoparts store, however, none were open for business. That left us with a hard decision. We were planning on driving further north to see some of the various mining and First Nation towns, but with the rain and our oil pressure issues, we decided to hang out for a while and head south to Prince Albert. Prince Albert is a major town, and would have a lot more opportunities for us to repair the van.
In order to go from Flin Flon to La Ronge in a reasonable amount of time, we decided to gamble and take SK Highway 165. What we didn’t know, was this road was mostly mud, not gravel. Also, it had just rained. So, we spent the majority of our drive hoping we don’t get stuck or slide into the ditch. There was only one other truck on the road coming from the other direction when we drove it.
We were driving up to La Ronge, when our oil pressure gauge started acting funny.
We pulled over to check the fluid. There was some oil in the beast, so we figured it was the gauge. However, we never really could tell, so we limped it up to La Ronge in the hopes to make it to the NAPA before they closed.
The town of Creighton and the Saskatchewan border is just a mile west of Flin Flon.
Having been enamored with the splendor of Flin Flon, we pulled over to gyrate in Creighton.
Back to a more serious note, we continued on the highway, to find some more very interesting landscapes on the central Canadian tundra.
Flin Flon is one of the northernmost towns in Manitoba.
As you drive in, there is a museum about the history of Flin Flon.
Overall, it was a nice place to stretch our legs. All these Canadian towns have museums where they collect all the stuff from their 54-year history and call it historical.
Apparently Flin Flon’s biggest tourist attraction is a staircase. It’s called the “Hundred Stairs” or something. When you get there, you are completely underwhelmed, and you give it the ol’ “Hundred Yard Stare,” hence the name “Hundred Stairs.”
We spent the rest of the day getting lunch at some underwhelming sandwich restaurant and looking for a pair of pants. Everything was expensive.
As we drove further north, the trees started getting small, and the rock outcroppings became more prevalent.
It was a pristine wilderness, but lots of douchebags took the liberty to spray paint their lame names and graduation years on the rocks. If people want to leave their presence on the landscape, they should make an inukshuk.
After driving through the night, we found a park in The Pas for some gravel camping.
Wasagaming (in the Riding Mountain National Park) is a resort town on Clear Lake in central Manitoba.
As we pulled in, we found hundreds of Manitoba residents enjoying their Canada Day holiday.
But the main reason why we are here, is because Tubby Charles Manson wanted to have his BeaverTails.
Some backstory: During our suspension fixes in Winnipeg the day before, we took a few breaks and watched all the national news coverage for Canada Day. Apparently out east, there is this franchise that sells flatbread with sugary crap on it. The news was obsessed with BeaverTails, so of course Glenn had to beg for one. I googled the locations and the closest one to Winnipeg was at Clear Lake, which coincidentally was directly on our path.
So, we pulled over here to see what all the fuss was about. Overall, it wasn’t bad, if you don’t need any protein in your diet.
We took our BeaverTails to the marina and watched all the Canadians have summer fun.
Apparently “summer fun” also included “Swimmer’s Itch.” Where I come from, that’s called Chlamydia.
One other thing, this town has the largest log cabin theater in 17,000 miles or something. They let us in for a moment to see the inside. Pretty neato. Probably is much more interesting in the winter, but still, kinda interesting.
We were heading west on the THC, and much to our surprise, someone had vandalized the “Welcome to Neepawa” sign. They apparently are not a fan of Asians or something. Also, they had a hard time spelling the word “of” which we all know is a tough word to handle.
We have a tendency to plan our WVO road trips to coincide with Canada Day.
Canadians go all out for Canada Day. Which usually means lots of drinking. And this year (2017) was special because it was the 150th anniversary of their confederation. Coincidentally, we learned from our visit to Charlottetown that basically the confederation was a drunken party where the western province representatives crashed. They all got drunk and made a country. So it’s only apt that the contemporary Canadians follow their founding fathers.
There was a mediocre fireworks show, considering this was supposed to be a major metropolis. There was a big free concert, which for us Americans is pretty unique.
We took the bus to downtown, but they stopped running (stupidly) for the trip back after the fireworks and concert. So we walked about five miles back to our hotel. On the way, we saw some of the sites of Winnipeg. As long as you avoid the meth- and crackheads, it’s a pretty nice walk.
Canada has the best tourism centers in the world.
Every town has a tourist center, and every provincial and international boundary has a center. And, all these centers have free maps, advice, and booklets on what to do in the area. Once we were crossing into the Northwest Territories on the way to Yellowknife in 2013, and the border is literally as far from anything as you can imagine. But every border crossing has a center, and this remote location even had a center.
Back to this WVO road trip… We crossed the border, and got some advice on some good hotels and restaurants for our trip up to Winnipeg. And this is the farmland between the border and the Peg.
The KVLY-TV mast is the fourth tallest structure in the world, and the former world record holder.
It’s pretty impressive. The beast is so tall, it disappears into the clouds. On the day we visited it, we honestly couldn’t tell where it ended.
One of the most unique museums in the Midwest is the PWG.
This artist makes sculptures and landscapes completely out of flakes of petrified wood.
They also have polished cuts of wood and other historical items of significance.
On the trip back from Churchill, we stopped in Winnipeg for a day. We got a hotel on the west side of town and crashed out. This was the first shower we had since before we got on the train up to Churchill.
The next morning, we checked out the Winnipeg Grist Mill. Pretty cool place, but it’s basically a replica. The waterwheel doesn’t really work, and it is powered by an electric motor now. They can grind grain, but don’t sell it. Glenn thought it was a missed marketing opportunity to sell hipster flour.
Then we scooted over to the Royal Canadian Air Museum. This has been a place that we’ve been trying to go to for years, but things never really worked out in our favor. Since we had a whole day to kill, we could take our time and check out some great Canadian aircrafts and tours. The highlight of the tour was seeing a real life AvroCar, which if you don’t know, it’s a flying saucer shaped aircraft. It actually flew too, but not much.
Lastly, we toured the Reil House in Winnipeg. Canada is kind of funny. Basically anything older than 75 years is considered “historical,” and the Reil family had a lot to do with the settling of Winnipeg in the early 1900’s. We toured their house, and they had a bunch of college students dressed up in character. We love jibber jabbering with these people, cuz it’s just fun. Once on a tour of Lower Fort Gary in the late 2000’s, we basically get asked to tagteam some “wench.” Glenn politely declined.
The Reil House was good. The college student who was our guide probably knew more about Canadian history than the average American college professor. The Canadians are really educated about their history and academics. Once on a trip across the Trans Canadian Highway, we listened to a CBC interview (the Canadian equivalent of NPR in the U.S.) with some educated guy. After about 30 minutes of enlightened conversation, the host of the show ended the topic by thanking the man for calling in. It turned out, that guy wasn’t being interviewed, he was just a dude who called in and sounded really educated. Pretty crazy.
The tour guide at the Reil House asked us about out politics, since the 2016 race between Trump, Hillary, and Bernie was heating up. Right around this time, the DNC was screwing Bernie Sanders, but we were on the road so much, it was hard to keep track of American topics. I told the tour guide, “Look at that van, and the Bernie Sanders sticker on the bumper. That should tell you about my politics.”
The drive down from Thompson was pretty uneventful. We took the drone out to shoot some footage of the forests, but there aren’t many mountains up here so it’s kind of all the same. Once you get down to Lundar and Ashern, it’s mostly farmland up here. There was a restaurant in Ashern that we stopped at for ice cream to cool off. It was a welcome treat to have some warmer temps after the frigid climate of Churchill and Thompson.
We pushed on to Winnipeg.
The train returned us to Thompson in the morning and our van was unmolested. We wanted to put some miles on before it gets too late, so we headed south. Several miles south of Thompson is a Thai Restaurant. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. I saw it on the way up to Thompson, and unfortunately it was closed at that time. But now we were driving in the day, so I had to check this place out. Most of northern Canada doesn’t have any restaurants, let alone any good or exotic restaurants. So the prospect of thai food above the 55th parallel is really cool.
The food was pretty good. The ingredients weren’t that fresh, and there wasn’t much protein for vegetarians, but overall, it was better than most restaurants up there.
Churchill was the main destination for the 2016 WVO Roadrip. It was truly an exotic and special place.
As we approached the town, the train started to bustle with conversation and activity. Several of the occupants had been on the train for over three days, travelling the entire distance from Winnipeg. Everyone was pretty excited to get off this train. Even Glenn and I (who cheated by getting on in Thompson) who had a measly 18-hour journey was ready to depart.
Glenn and I attempted a rather risky gamble on this trip. You see, the trains from Winnipeg to Churchill travels every 3 days. One is going northbound while the other is going southbound. That means you have to stay in Churchill for a minimum of 3 days to proceed back south. There is one workaround: take the same train back south that you took north. The train rests in Churchill for several hours before heading back south. This is a huge gamble because if the train had arrived late into Churchill, the southbound departure time DOES NOT change. So, if it was 8 hours late (not unlikely in the summer after a rain), that means the train will basically depart right after it arrived. We had already purchased our return tickets, so we were really wishing for an early or on-time arrival in Churchill. Thankfully, our arrival was nearly on time, maybe an hour late at most.
Since we didn’t know when we would have arrived in Churchill, we literally didn’t plan anything. We knew what was available to see in Churchill (Polar bear tours, beluga whale tours, Hudson Bay boating, Prince of Wales Fort Historical Site, etc) but we never booked anything because we worried that we would miss our reservation with a delayed train or mechanical failure on the van.
So we plopped off the train and asked the train station clerk for suggestions on rapid service for tours. She introduced us to the good people at Lazy Bear Lodge who got us hooked up right away.
I think time is handled a little more relaxed in this town. Since the train dictates the schedule of the town, no one is really hampered with strict reservations and whatnot. It’s pretty easy going.
So the man from Lazy Bear Lodge took us over to his place to set up our site-seeing. He was very accommodating. He literally took us from the station to his lodge without us having any reservation or anything. On the drive, he asked us where we are staying, and we just said we are leaving on the train that evening. He was surprised, and encouraged us to stay for several days, because it’s hard to see everything in Churchill in such a short time. But he didn’t argue much (Canadian niceness) and got us on the next tour in the Hudson asap.
He told us the boat ride will be frigid so we needed to get our winter gear on fast. The boat left in less than hour. He also sold us some nice breakfast buffet from their lodge, so we could get some breaky before the day. If we did need a place to stay, we would have definitely stayed there. It was a nice place.
Out on the boat, he drove us passed icebergs and beluga whales. It was wild!
The boat ride took us out to the neighboring peninsula where the Prince of Wales Fort Historical Site resided. This was a blast from the past. This fort dated back to the 1710’s! Amazing this little frozen area had such old artifacts.
Our guide and the National Park ranger had high powered rifles with them. They constantly talked about the danger of polar bears. They said that if a polar bear came on the horizon, they would have to kill it for the safety of the tourists. It was serious.
After the boat ride, our guide let us venture out into the town, with the understanding that if a bear sees you, you MUST find a nearby car or house to escape into. By Churchill law, no cars or houses can be locked, so humans can find refuge. I was starting to think they residents here are overly protective or playing me. Then something proved me how serious this place is.
We of course wanted to visit the Hudson Bay and possibly go swimming. It was way too cold, probably in the 30’s that day and the water still had ice in it. As we walked along the shore, we saw a monument. I thought it was some kind of thing talking about the Hudson Bay. Nope. It was a literal monument to all the people who died in that bay, from boating accidents, polar bear attacks, and other things. I guess the locals were right about the risks in this area. We tossed some rocks in the water and decided to stay indoors for the remainder of the stay. No sense in risking our lives if a polar bear spotted us from the horizon.
Churchill has a nice community center, as most of these northern towns have. There isn’t much to do in these places for the 22-hour darkness of the winter months, so interiority is important. Also, they have a great Eskimo / Itsanitaq Museum with dozens of artifacts and mounted animals from the north.
After all of that, we needed to get on the train back to the south. Even though they said we wouldn’t be able to do everything in Churchill in 8 hours, we did do a lot. We didn’t do one of the famed Polar Bear Tours, but I think we risked our lives enough for one day.
It was another 18-hour ride back to Thompson, so we elected to sleep the remainder of the train ride. It was a good day.
(Update 2017: While we were in Flin Flon on the 2017 WVO roadtrip to Fort McMurray AB, we learned from some of the locals that the train to Churchill was shut down due to railway damage. The government and corporation that handles the railway are fighting to see who will fix it. I hope they fix it soon, but if not, things will look bleak for the tourist industry in Churchill as well as for the farmers that rely on the grain transports up to the Hudson Bay for shipping across Canada and worldwide. )
The further north the train took us, the more foreign this place got. Most of this area was completely uninhabited. Miles and miles of swamps and bogs. Very few bushes and trees survived at this latitude.
Sometimes you’d see a cropping of trees and some wildlife, but I doubt it is a pleasant place to survive. The ground is so waterlogged and spongy, it must be really hard to merely walk from place to place.
At one point, the train stopped for a minor stop. I looked around. No buildings, no station, just a sign saying the name of this stop. I didn’t see anything for miles. If anyone was getting off here, I’d seriously worry for their safety.
It was getting really cold as we got closer and closer to Hudson Bay. I suspect that if it wasn’t for the bitter July cold, there would be trillions of mosquitoes chasing this slow train as it plodded its way northward.
Gillam is a tiny town in Northern Manitoba. It is the furthest north one can drive in this province. All further transport must be conducted via train or plane.
We took the train from Thompson to Churchill, which involve many minor stops in tiny First Nation towns across the north. A minor stop means the train halts for a moment, and you have to be ready to depart or board immediately. They won’t linger. Gillam is the exception. This time, the train stopped for several minutes, so we took the opportunity to stretch our legs outside in the Canadian North near-darkness.
The station was bustling even though it was passed midnight. There are a lot of mining, forestry, and waterway projects up here, so there was a mix of workers, indigenous, tourists, hunters, and other peoples.
Then the conductor hollered to board and we were on the 10-hour remainder of the journey.
As we watched the Veggie Van disappear on the horizon from the comfort of our train seats, we began to realize this wasn’t just any plain old ride on the light rail in a major city. This was more like what it was like in the old days of the Trans-Continental Railroad in the 1800’s.
We were tired, and we figured the 18-hour drive would be boring. Little did we know it would be very exotic and different.
For the first part of the ride, it looked a lot like the typical forests of Canada and northern U.S.
But it completely transformed into vast swathes of tundra. The trees have a hard life here. Since there is very little growing season and little-to-no nutrients in the soil, they grow at an astonishingly slow rate. It looks like something out of a Star Trek movie.
Also, since the train is the only means for First Nations people to travel back and forth to the grid, there are a batch of First Nation hamlets scattered along the path. When you pull up to their respective stations, local people file off and on the train like it’s a subway car. It really does feel like we have warped back to 1875 and we are travelling from St Louis to San Francisco. That’s not an insult; it’s actually a really rewarding experience. It must be very special to live in this type of environment. (It’s a shame that in 2017, the train tracks had a catastrophic failure, and the corporate entity that controls the train system and the Canadian government cannot find an agreement to fix and reinstate this valuable transportation service.)
As mentioned in the previous article, the train to Churchill goes from Winnipeg to the Hudson Bay. The only workaround to the 3-day train ride is to drive up to Thompson or Gillam and hop on the train there. Since we were having both van engine and Canadian weather problems, we elected to buy some tickets in Thompson instead of Gillam and get on the train there.
The Manitoba “highway” #6 is all paved, thank Zeus, but it’s still a long and remote journey. We ended up passing through the Pisew Falls area and pushed on to Thompson right before midnight.
We got a hotel (we needed a nice place because we were smelly, beat up, and thrashed from the long drive and roadside mechanical repairs), and got some much needed rest. The next morning, we ventured off to the train station right when they opened to buy some train tickets. The clerk was exceptionally helpful, and he explained all the nuances about traveling by train in the tundra.
Some things we learned:
First, the train is exceptionally reliable in the winter, but not so reliable in the summer. The frost keeps the tracks parallel and straight in the cold months, but once the soil thaws, it heaves the soil around messing up the tracks. It’s not uncommon for the train to have to say under 20 mph for the 1063-mile trek, which makes it a lot longer than the projected three days on the ticket.
Second, even with the advance of being in Thompson, it is still an 18-hour ride up to Churchill. This part of the train is especially susceptible to frost heaves, so the journey is very slow. Also, once we boarded the train, I was surprised how many railway “turn-arounds” there are by Thompson, Gillam, and Churchill. You think you are close to the destination, but there are several tertiary tracks that force the conductor to meander around to get the overall train into the right directionality and location for the station. It’s not just a hop on the train and straight shot to the destination.
Third, it’s not uncommon for the train to derail, leaving the occupants stranded for days, both on the tracks and in Churchill. There is only one track up to Churchill, so the “rescue” and repair train utilities have to trudge up to the location of the derailment, and meticulously realign and reinstall the train on the tracks. For those stranded in Churchill, there are flights back to civilization, but they are costly.
Fourth, the passenger train is only one small component to the transport system up there. Most of the train activity on the tracks is related to grain and agricultural transport, because the Hudson and James Bays are the main waterway for all Saskatchewan and Manitoba international shipping. Any of these heavily-loaded commercial trains could also derail, further postponing any public transport train activity for days.
The train station clerk took our money for the tickets and told us that the train is expected later that day. So we ventured off to the “metropolis” of Thompson. It’s a rather large town for the area, but relative to the rest of North America, it’s quaint and tiny.
South of town, there is a great museum called the “Heritage North,” which showcases a lot of local artifacts. We spent several hours there in their building and on the grounds.
After we ate a quick meal there on their picnic tables, we headed over to the train station. When we were at the station in the morning, it was pretty dead. But now that the train was on the horizon, the place was bustling with travelers and all sorts of commotion. It was pretty cool.
We parked the van next to the other vehicles in long-term parking, and boarded the train. We watched the veggie van disappear in the distance as we ventured off into the great northern wild tundra.
While Glenn and I have never had issues with any First Nation people ever (except one drunk dude that was perturbed about his picture being taken in Lac La Biche), we were constantly inundated with southern white Canadians that were quite critical of their fellow northern neighbors. They would say things like “Thompson is a shithole,” or “I wouldn’t leave your van parked in Thompson,” or “They [the Indians] will steal all your shit.” It was a constant refrain. So we didn’t know what to think. As far as we could tell, the place looked like a nice town with nice people. So when we left the van at the station, we didn’t know if it would still be there when we returned. (Spoiler alert: not only was the van still there unmolested, no “Indians” stole our scooters or supplies on top. Take that, racists.)
As you drive further north, the wilderness transforms into tundra. Gradually, what starts are pockets of swampy bog turn into wide swaths of treeless permafrost. Here was a section of that south of Ponton.
Also, as we got further north, the sky never really got too dark. It was getting quite late in the evening, and this was the view north from our van.
At the junction of “Highways” 6 and 39, there is a general store and gas station called the Ponton Service Station. We stopped in to check it out, but didn’t really need anything. From what I hear in 2019, they have permanently closed now. Bummer. That area really needed some kind of business substructure.
When we did this WVO roadtrip in 2016, there are two ways to Churchill MB: Plane or Train. Now, since the train tracks got washed out in 2017, the train is no longer an option. Even back in 2016, the tracks looked in rather shabby shape, as you can see in the photo above and below. This was located near Warren MB, which is a small town on the trip up to the Churchill.
You might be wondering, why the hell are we driving up to Churchill if there are only two (now one) ways to get to the town, located on the Hudson Bay? Well, we are extraordinarily cheap with money and time. The train travels from Winnipeg to Churchill every three days. It’s a 6 day roundtrip, because it takes 1.5-2 days to travel there and back. Also, it costs something like $500 per person to travel from the Peg to Churchill, so with that kind of impact on our schedule and pocketbook, we elected to do the next best thing: Drive up to Thompson or Gillam in the north of Manitoba and hop on the northbound train.
While this is moderately cheaper (I think it was $300 or so to take the train, crazy expensive), this presented some serious considerations. First off, if we missed our train, we were SOL. If we drove all the way up to Gillam and Thompson, and the train had already stopped on through, we would be left behind. Since the train is notoriously late in the summer (no fault of their own, because the frost heaves contort the tracks, forcing the engineer to slow to a crawl), we figured missing the train wouldn’t be a problem. Second, the stops in Gillam and Thompson are VERY remote, and the station is not always open. While it’s easy to buy tickets online and in Winnipeg, it’s hard to make sure we arrive in Thompson and Gillam at a time where we can buy tickets when the ticket office is open. Thirdly, there is always the risk that the train will be booked up, leaving us high and dry in Gillam and Thompson. The train is the main transportation service for all the First Nation hamlets scattered in the Manitoban tundra, so it is frequented by many northern indigenous people. Also, this is the heart of the Canadian summer, so there are several tourists chomping at the bit to go up to Churchill for a Beluga Whale tour or Polar Bear siteseeing adventure. So things were tight.
Lucky for us, we did manage to get up to Thompson. Unlucky for us, our van had that pesky oil-in-coolant problem, forcing us to cut our drive up to Gillam short. Thompson was our second choice, but after reviewing the road conditions up to Gillam, it was probably a wise choice even with a tip-top van. The roads are mostly mud and gravel, and this particular week had been especially rainy.
Anyway, I took this picture of the railroad, because it just struck my interest. I couldn’t believe that people were taking this rickety old track up to Churchill. Soon, we would be on those rickety tracks ourselves.
As we trekked northward, we encountered the small First Nation town of Grand Rapids. Nice little place, and it’s cool how different the culture it gets as you drive further and further north.
It was getting increasingly rainy as we progressed on this trip. For a July, it was rather cold and wet. I bet it was probably in the 50’s maximum in the day, and close to freezing at night.
After driving for hours without seeing much, suddenly signs started appearing on the horizon.
Eventually, we crossed the Saskatchewan River which connects the huge lakes Winnipeg and Cedar. That puts us into the heart of Grand Rapids.
We’ve been all over northern Canada, and one thing I’ve noticed in the northern First Nation culture is their love of free range kids. Kids are always roaming around, playing, investigating, and so on. It’s really cool. I kind of wish more southern towns allowed kids to be kids like this.
Interestingly though, as we drove through Grand Rapids, we found a cadre of kiddos literally climbing the top of their amphitheater! Talk about a wild time!
So, last year, we drove to Newfoundland and had a debilitating oil-in-coolant issue unrelated to our veggie oil system. I thought I had fixed the problem in the off-season, by installing new heads and head gaskets, but by the time we reached Kenora, it was apparent we still had the leak.
So we pulled over at an A&W and investigated the issue. Sure enough, the problem was still there, and it only arose once we put down some major miles.
In order to better assess the issue, without opening the radiator when it’s hot, we decided to use some of our wire to make a temporary dipstick, which would reside in the coolant reservoir. Since we were already this far, we figured, we should keep driving the 2016 roadtrip and see if the problem gets worse.
Here’s me building the dipstick:
Kokoms restaurant makes some delicious food with a native delicacy called Bannock.
Back in 2010 or 2012 (I can’t remember, getting old), we ate our first bite of Bannock. We were driving through Smithers British Columbia, and there was a food stand on the side of the THC. Never missing an opportunity to eat food, we pulled over. It’s basically a sweet bread, and you pour on honey or corn syrup to give it a little oomph. The closest analog in the American southwest would be sopapillas or in the midwest would be a light and airy biscuit.
When we entered Dryden Ontario, we stopped at their delightful Tourism Center. We always ask, what’s something we can eat here, that is like no where else in the world. They immediately said we should eat a Kokom’s Bannock Shack, where they make burgers and fries with Bannock buns. What a delightful fusion: greasy delicious hamburger smooshed between a couple sweetened bread buns.
Overall, the place was pretty damn good. They even had a vegetarian menu (you have to ask for it), and their veggie-bannock-burger was even better than their actual bannock meat hamburger.
After driving cross country with three kids, we needed a break. The Antique Car Museum of Iowa, in Iowa City, is a great place to stretch the legs. The kids liked all the oddball cars and vehicles. They also had this crazy organ and jukebox from the olden days.
Cool dinosaur museum with animatronic monsters!
The kids loved it, but one of the little ones skirted the walls avoiding the t-rex.
Our guide from Lazy Bear Lodge took us on a boat ride into the Hudson Bay. We got to follow a group of beluga whales and see some icebergs floating around. But the highlight of the trip was a tour of the Prince of Wales Fort National Historical Site.
Visiting the site is very dangerous. There is always a threat of polar bears, so our guide and the National Park ranger had high powered rifles to protect the group. Created in the 1710’s, this site is really really old. This is so far back into the past, that it was constructed around the same time that Peter the Great moved the capital of Russia!
Honestly, I don’t know why Cleveland gets a bad wrap. It’s a delight!
First we asked some locals for a good place to eat, so they suggested the infamous Melt Bar and Grill. They had something like 12 types of grilled cheese.
Then we drove to the university area to visit the History Museum. Glenn saw that dinosaur suppository and got a little excited for insertion.
Then we circumambulated the Frank Gehry building on the campus.
And checked out the famous Ronald McDonald House.
And cruised through downtown.
Cleveland was actually an amazing town.
After visiting PEI, we elected to drive through the night to get to Avon, NY. A man named James had contacted us and wanted to meet up. He is a fellow greaser and offered to help us get back to Wisconsin.
So off to Avon it is. On the way there, we saw a bunch of ancient Painted Lady houses.
Next we got a burger at Tom Wahl’s. This is a local institution.
Then we met up with James. He was a great guy. Thanks for giving us a tour of your grease vehicles and topping us off with a full tank of VO. 🙂
It was getting late so we decided to stay at the historical Avon Inn. It is totally haunted.
It had this cool 19th century interior with all sorts of creaking and other spooky sounds. Glenn totally got scared throughout the night, and said some ghost raped him.
Cruising around Crapaud.
Some huge inukshuk in the heart of PEI.
A bunch of churches near Carleton.
Shingled siding near Sackville Nova Scotia
This place is like a time warp. There must have been buildings here from the 19th and possibly the 18th centuries.
Charlottetown is kind of like the Philadelphia of the U.S. It was where Canada declared it’s quasi-independence. We went on this tour of the Founder’s Hall, where they described how they established their confederacy. Basically, the eastern colony governors met up to have a shindig in 1860-something, and the western territory reps crashed the party. They all got drunk and decided to draft up some kind of union. They didn’t have the balls to declare independence like their big brother America, so they basically stayed the proverbial basement of Great Britain until their 30’s.
Anyways, enough joking about Canada’s history. Instead, let’s focus on the delicious poutine served up by the hot woman at the Chip Shop in Charlottestown.
After crossing the biggest bridge in history, we stopped at their nifty visitors center in PEI. They suggested we stop in Victoria on the way to Charlottestown, the capital.
Victoria was a nice place to stop. Kinda touristy and kinda boomer-targeted. The natives told us to try “cold lobster,” which is just boiled lobster that is chilled. You still eat it with butter and whatnot, it’s just cold. I didn’t really get how this was so good. Anyway, I’m a crab guy anyway.
Victoria has a long pier where old couples go to make out. We ruined their fun by smelling like farts.
Apparently Glenn’s butt was so smelly, this couple tried to kayak up wind.
Nearby, there was a decorative lighthouse. Quaint. On to the capital.
After resting in New Glasgow, we drove for a bit through Nova Scotia. There was this nice rest area near the shore that was interesting. Nova Scotia is kinda like northern Wisconsin. Lots of farms and churches.
Eventually we approached the MASSIVE bridge which seemed to go on forever.
Prince Edward Island (PEI) resides in the St Lawrence Seaway and is separated from the mainland by the Northumberland Strait. Here is a picture of a bird on the strait.
After 129 hours of driving, we finally crossed the bridge onto PEI.
Glenn was looking a little ragged, so we crashed out for the night in New Glasgow. It was about time. The last time we had a shower was 3.5 days ago.
Some pictures of scenic Nova Scotia.
Hawkesbury bridge above. Canso Causeway below.
Baddeck NS below.
Some mountains near Skye River in the Nova Scotia Smokey Mountains.
The ferry from Sydney Nova Scotia to Channel-Port Aux Basques connects the Canadian mainland to Newfoundland. It takes about six hours to cross.
The particular day we set sail was exceptionally cold, windy, and stormy. Even though we were loving these plush seats, we were in for a Nor’easter.
The top level had some nice amenities but few opted to pay for the extra cost to get into the business class. There was an even better premium class above, but god knows how expensive that must have been.
The wind created some decent swells. Even though we were on the third floor, water would crash onto the deck and splash our windows. The waves made walking around the boat really difficult and sickening. At one point I went out to take some pictures, but it made me seasick to stagger around. I elected to stay seated for the duration of the ferry ride.
Channel Port Aux Basques is a tiny town on the southern tip of Newfoundland that has a major ferry port back to the Canadian mainland. We drove through the night from St John’s only to arrive in CPAB at around 4am. Naturally, like most typical Canadian small towns, there is nothing open at that hour, except for the trusty Tim Hortons. So we hung out at the TH for a few hours.
We used the Tim Hortons wifi to book our tickets. Unlike the small ferry from Blanc Sablon to St Barbe, the CPAB ferry is massive like a cruise ship. A standard ticket for the ferry is cheap, but you don’t get a dedicated seat. So we elected to reserve some business class seats in the upper deck, so we could relax for the 6-hour boat ride. We never had a hotel room since the stay at Lans Aux Meadows, so maybe a recliner would be the next best thing.
After a few hours of Tim Hortons breakfast sandwiches, we trekked down to the ferry. pretty spiffy.
The auto bay was massive. They strapped the wheels down to the deck and we headed up stairs.
We got some good seats with a great view of the town.
An now, we can finally get some sleep.
We had to drive throughout the night in order to make our morning ferry at Port Aux Basques.
St Johns is the furthest point on the 2015 WVO Roadtrip. It also constitutes the furthest east we ever drove on alternative fuel on any of our journeys. Also, this is the furthest east we drove on the Trans Canadian Hwy (THC), which is colloquial known as Mile One.
We parked the veggie van and took a long walk around the city.
This confirms it. We have officially driven every mile of the THC over 8 years of Vegetable Oil Roadtrips.
St Johns is really nice. We got to eat some Canadian Fish Sushi at a spiffy Asian fusion joint.
The bay is pretty scenic.
Up on the Battery Hill, you can see the vast expanse of the city. It’s rather large. This is no hamlet in the fjord.
The GEO Science Center has some educational exhibits. They showcase both scientific and indigenous artifacts. Their Titanic showcase is exceptional, because this town was the closest reasonably large settlement that could aide the victims of the sunken vessel.
The Canuks are thrilled about their “Canada Arm.” I call it the “Canadian Handy.”
We had to go after only one day of venturing around the town. We knew we would have to drive through the night to catch the ferry at Port Aux Basques in the morning. However, we contemplated taking a day trip to the French territory of St Pierre and Miquelon. Very few realize that there is a French island in the heart of the Canadian east. It would have proved to be a difficult trip, because we could only afford one day there, and with no plans or reservations established, it was prohibitive. Also, we were having some van problems, so we gave up on the project. Oh well, maybe next time.
Glenn put on some major miles really fast, so we got to the St Johns area too early. We pulled off in a gas station out of town so we could catch some Z’s before the sun rose.
Newfoundland has a portion of the THC (Trans Canadian Highway) that cuts through it. Even though the island doesn’t look that big, it is actually rather huge and it has massive fjords that cut deep into the coastline. That means what is merely a 400-km distance as the crow flies, ends up being a 1000-km drive one-way. We wanted to get to St Johns to limp the van back to Wisconsin and Los Angeles due to the oil-in-coolant problem. So Glenn elected to drive from Deer Lake to St Johns so we can finish the THC once and for all.
We also drove thru Springdale where the hills and forest start to get really thick.
Driving the coast of Newfoundland is fun!
Newfoundland is scattered with tiny towns all over the island. Each has their own little charm.
Hardy har har. Someone on the ferry to St Barbe said that all the locals love to eat this crap called “Cod Tongue.” So we found a restaurant in St Anthony that served this so-called “delicacy.” Upon trying this, we immediately wondered if we were being punked and looked for the hidden cameras. It’s basically like a gelatinous and tendony tongue that is battered, fried, and served to human beings to make them gag or induce vomiting. It’s a suitable substitute for ipecac, if necessary.
Wow! First time in Newfoundland! After we departed the St Barbe ferry, we headed north to the Lans Aux Meadows World Heritage Site. We didn’t have a definitive plan. We just wanted to get up as far north as possible and find a hotel in the area. As we drove northbound, we saw more and more signs talking about Norse culture.
We didn’t realize just how big Newfoundland is. Not only that, the northern part is VERY remote. There wasn’t much for hotels and motels up there. After driving around some, we found a hamlet with a general store that discussed a family that rents out a cottage. Considering this was the first time in a while we could catch some Z’s before the upcoming 1000-km drive to St Johns after visiting the world heritage site tomorrow, the moderately-priced cottage was not too big of a deal.
The cottage was nice and cozy, and it even had two bedrooms so I didn’t have to hear Glenn crap his pants all night. That night, it got below freezing. We even brought the cans of soda into the cottage so that they wouldn’t freeze and explode in the vehicle. I simply cannot believe that in the middle of July, it could be below 32 degrees in the day and evening.
Before we went to bed, we found a small upscale restaurant on the tip of the peninsula. It was called The Norseman, and we were severely underdressed. The food was probably the nicest and elite stuff we had eaten in a decade. Much better than the microwavable meals we usually eat on these trips. We headed back to the cabin for the night.
After a good night’s rest, we came outside to check over the van. It had been running for about 8 days straight, so it was overdue for a thorough lookover. Upon inspecting the radiator, we had a catastrophic realization: the oil cooler repair we conducted in Wisconsin at the beginning of the trip did NOT work. There was a substantial quantity of grey oil in the radiator. We spent the majority of our morning trying to siphon out a lot of the oil out of the coolant. Most of it was floating on the coolant, because oil floats on water, but that meant our whole coolant system had been compromised. We had to decide what to do next: keep on going (carefully), or abort the mission. Since we are basically at the halfway point of the entire 2015 WVO roadtrip, it seemed foolish to abort now. In a way, the halfway point is already the de facto abort point, so we elected to keep on going, and make a procedure to pump out the oil as it accumulates in the coolant over the next few days.
We got to the Lans Aux Meadows site and it’s a truly impressive place. I think this was the first World Heritage Site I had ever visited, and it’s on par with the best of the best national parks facilities. It was FREEZING out, in the low 30’s and with gusts of 30-40mph. I wore literally all the clothes and jackets I packed, because I was not expecting wintery conditions.
As we entered the Lans Aux Meadows visitors centers, there was a bunch of rangers and tourists on the inside. As we struggled to open and close the front door against the gusts of rainy and snowy wind, we got inside to declare, “We should come back here in the summer when it’s warm.” The rangers and tourists got a good laugh out of our joke.
The visitors museums has all sorts of multimedia displays and actual artifacts from the Vikings that lived here in the middle ages. It was an impressive museum.
The site has a series of trails for tourists to explore the grounds. The site is situated directly on the Atlantic coast.
There are little creeks and streams all over the place. There are not a lot of trees. It’s kind of like permafrost or tundra-like terrain, yet the soil didn’t seem too solid. Maybe the growing season is just so small, that trees don’t fair well in this climate.
The Vikings that settled here built sod houses in lieu of timbers. They apparently went down to places like Maine because they found wood artifacts on this site that couldn’t have possibly been obtained in eastern and northern Canada or Europe. No known Viking site had been found in that area, yet.
In addition to the Heritage Site and its museum, there are also reinactors that interact with the tourists to show the life and times of the typical Norseman. It was cozy and warm in these sod houses near the fire, especially after the long tour of the grounds by the Heritage Site Tour Guide.
The major thing that piqued my interest was a comment by one of these actors. They said the records show one of Liev Eriksons decedents eventually lead a Viking evacuation of the New World. He had a scuffle with the native population, that led to deaths on both sides. The Indians lead a revolt against the Norsemen, and forced them to egress Newfoundland. When they got back to Scandinavia, they told the Old World not to bother going back, because the native population was such an intimidating military power. That is an astonishing statement, because this was the heyday of Viking supremacy, and if the greatest fighting and pillaging force of that era was afraid of the Newfoundland tribes, that was a testament to the strength and resilience of their tribe.
We got on the ferry in Blanc Sablon, and headed out to sea…. Arg!
There were whales and dolphins swimming in the frigid waters.
The body of the ferry was full of cars, trucks, semis, and other vehicles. This boat got a lot of usage.
The waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence were rather calm and enjoyable. Later this week though, we would take the Port aux Basques ferry during a storm, and the swaying was unbearable.
It wasn’t uncommon to see icebergs floating around in the water. Pretty spiffy.
The Atlantic coastal drive was kind of fun on the 2015 WVO Roadtrip. Near Blanc Sablon, we got to see actual icebergs floating passed us as we drove to our ferry.
Much to Glenn’s dismay, we were not done with Quebec when we left the Barrage Daniel Johnson. For a few miles, we’ll be in Quebec for a few minutes while we wait for our ferry. Thankfully for him, very few people in this remote area only spoke French.
The ferry from Blanc Sablon to Newfoundland is pretty small. It’s only a one-hour ride and you can see the island across the gulf.
The wildcard is getting a ticket. Priority goes to other people, since we hadn’t bought our tickets in advance. We managed to get in line, and had to wait and see if the ferry would have room for our van and us. With one extra person after us, we were included in this particular fare.
As we take a leisurely summer drive in the snowy hills of Labrador, we got closer and closer to the coast.
Finally we happened upon the town of Red Bay, which couldn’t be more than a few dozen buildings. I wonder if the town was just for show, because it was rather picturesque.
Eventually we meandered our way down the main road to the Atlantic Ocean and the core buildings of the town.
At the end of the peninsula, there was a contemporary structure housing the Red Bay National Historical Site. We made a quick visit because we had to keep moving south to catch our ferry to Newfoundland in a few hours.
A river north of Pinware NL.
We left Happy Valley Goose Bay after dinner and tried to drive through the night to get to the Newfoundland Ferry before afternoon the next day.
This area is still really cold, even in the summer. There is ice in Lake Melville. Some history: This is the place where Clarence Birdseye got his idea to flash-freeze food to keep its freshness, and it seemed like for every mile we drove on this gravel nightmare, we were getting flash-frozen.
I tried to catch some Z’s while Glenn proceeded into the short night. I would wake up to the van rattling to pieces. The potholes and washboards were horrendous.
Early in the morning, the sky was covered in clouds and the temps kept dropping. It was in the 40’s and sporadic rain.
Then in the middle of nowhere, there is a sign explaining something called “Atlantic Time.” Turns out they have an additional time zone that is 30 minutes earlier than Eastern Time. Well that should be confusing.
As we got closer to the coast, the landscape really transforms into what it looks like on the North Slope of the Dalton Hwy or up near Tuktoyaktuk.
It’s really an alien landscape, and really cool. I wouldn’t say it was worth the drive, but it was the highlight of the lead up to the coast.
Just to show you how cold it was at the coast, there were still patches of snow on the hills in July. It was easily in the low 40’s and possibly in the high 30’s.
Onward to the Newfoundland Ferry.
The oddly-named Happy Valley Goose Bay is a village on the Atlantic Coast. This 2015 WVO Roadtrip would allow us to visit the watersheds of three different oceans, and by getting to HVGB, that means we could physically touch a saltwater bay to the Atlantic Ocean. HVGB was named so strangely because it had some sort of US Military background. There are monuments to the American influence. Kind of odd to see U.S. artifacts in a foreign country, but there they are.
As I said in the previous articles, we had a few roadtripping motorcyclists near us on the Labrador Hwy. We even got to meet the famed Philip Funnell! Since we tended to meet all the same guys on these cycles, we decided to formally get to know each other.
So at the Labrador North visitor’s center, we all went to eat at an actual restaurant!! Woah, money bags!
HVGB only has a handful of food options. The El Greco (run by a local family) clearly got the endorsement of the visitor’s center, so we all went out to dinner. It was a nice time talking to fellow travelers. It was this particular group that told me about the Canadian plans to finish the Dempster Hwy in November of 2017! We then drove that highway in July of 2018.
While in HVGB, we stopped off at their shops and hardware stores. We bought up dozens of Grade 8 locking nuts, washers, loctite, and other tricks to keeping our van in one piece! The roads up here are like putting your vehicle in a paint shaker for 500-miles.
Glenn was partial to the “Glenn Plaza” for some reason. He’s such a narcissist.
After a few hours of fun, we decided to drive through the night from HVGB to the ocean shoreline. It’s a 620-km drive to Blanc Sablon. If we make good time, we can get on the ferry to Newfoundland by the afternoon.
Thankfully, they paved the road between Labrador and Happy Valley Goose Bay. This transformed our previous maximum speed of 25mph up to a reasonable 60mph.
This area is completely under construction, and it’s not uncommon to see whole houses and trailers driving on the majority of the lanes.
Basically, around every corner is a picturesque lake or shoreline. I suspect all of these lakes are suffuse with fish and other wildlife. It would be a great place for fishing and hunting, however, the drive up would not be worth the trip.
Eventually we met the massive Churchill River which means we are almost at the halfway point of the paved section: Churchill Falls.
Churchill Falls is a rather small town, which I assume services the massive hydro electrical project to the east.
The power lines are massive. The network must have gone on for miles and miles. All this gets plugged into the grid further south to the more populated areas of Canada.
We have finally made it to Labrador City, and not a moment too soon. All the way from Thunder Bay, this had been a long drive since the last time we got a shower and bed. I hope we didn’t smell too bad.
While driving the infamous Highway 389 (Labrador Hwy), we saw some nice sites like this bog near Fire Lake Quebec.
Also, as you approach Labrador City, there are massive mining operations and other forestry & hydro projects scattered on the landscape. We could tell recreational drivers never really travel up this way.
As we drove into town, we found a reasonable hotel called the Carol Inn to take us in. Thank goodness. We needed to refresh and reload. The next morning, we set off into the city to check out the sights and sounds. We got some souvenirs at the Labrador Rose and meandered the “downtown” area.
After a little bit of cruising, we noticed the van wasn’t running right. There was a fuel leak from the diesel side. With some quick repairs, all was good.
Onward to Churchill Falls and Happy Valley Goose Bay.
As a kid, I would look at a map of North America and notice interesting geographies. One place that captured my attention was the crater of Lac Manicouagan. From space, the classic crater circle is easily recognizable. The Labrador Highway runs along this massive crater (over 30-miles across) but due to the heavy forest and the lake’s enormous size, it’s almost impossible to see this lake in person.
Thankfully, there is a spot where the topography puts the highway high enough to see one edge of the crater. Pretty cool.
While driving up the Labrador Hwy, we noticed a handful of motorcyclists along side us every once in a while. They tended to go a bit faster than us, but not by much. One motorcyclist had this odd bicycle trailer. He appeared to have some mechanical issues and was limping along. Right after sightseeing the crater, we pulled off at a remote gas station where the motorcyclist happened to be parked. He appeared to be struggling with something on his bike.
We walked up to offer some help. It turned out to be Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Famer Philip Funnell! What are the odds!?
We talked to him for almost an hour. He discussed a bunch of stuff, and wasn’t shy about jibber-jabbering. I guess if you are on the road as long as him, you get the gift of gab. He talked about his sleeper trailer and all his modifications for his cycle. It was a pretty spiffy deal. We talked about our veggie van and our mods as well. He suggested we put locking washers, locking nylon nuts, and duct tape on all our loose bolts if we want to make it the rest of the way on the Labrador. ( In hindsight, he was RIGHT ON, because we often had to stop in each town to get new bolts from the ones that fell on the washboard gravel roads).
After a good talk, we took off. That was the last and only time we met him. It was 2015, and I think he said he as 80 years old at the time of our discussion. As we drove down the Labrador, Glenn remarked how spooky it would be to sleep in that fiberglass “coffin,” as he put it. He joked, Phil was getting up in age, and hopefully he can get that cycle back to B.C. without someone finding his corpse in the “coffin.”
Wherever he is, I wish him well. If he did croak, I suspect for a diehard motorcyclist and roadtripper like Philip Funnell, dying on the open road would be the way to go.
As we drove up the Labrador Hwy, our GPS was telling us to barrage Daniel Johnson in a few hundred miles. Kind of funny, because I know a guy named Daniel Johnson. He (as well as Glenn) went to my wedding. So we were truly intrigued how we were going to barrage him.
Just before we got to see how we’ll barrage him, we stopped in on one of the very few places along the Labrador Hwy: the Motel De L’Energie. This is an outpost for anyone who wants to take a break on this roadway, or if they brake down and need a place to stay. There is also a small restaurant and gift shop. We weren’t hungry, so we pressed on.
Then soon after, we found out about the barrage. I guess “barrage” is the French word for “dam.” LOL. Once we got to Labrador City, I posted a picture of our GPS to the real Daniel Johnson.
This was getting to be a long drive. The last place we had a hotel room was Thunder Bay, and we drove up to Wemindji, Matagami, and now Baie Comeau. Aside from a few lousy thunderstorming hours of rest in the van in Relais checkpoint, we hadn’t gotten much decent rest.
We drove through Saguenay and got to the St Lawrence Seaway.
While it was a little dark, we pulled off in an abandoned lot to fill up our grease in the early morning, and rested for an hour or so.
As the sun rose, we entered the tiny town of Baie Comeau on the coast of Quebec. This is the start of the Labrador highway, which is a gravel road that is hundreds and hundreds of miles long to Labrador City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
As with all French signs, we had to chuckle.
When you get to the Labrador Hwy entrance, they have a sign explaining where the roadway is closed. There is no guarantee the gravel road will be open. In fact, it commonly is closed due to washouts and other bad conditions.
Ever since our first trip to Quebec in 2009, we have always sought out poutine. It’s the best Canadian food ever. Back in those days, I worked with a group of Quebecois that recommended I try the stuff out. Ever since, we’ve been addicted.
Thankfully, the rest of Canada has caught on to this delicious food, and the more I travel around the continent, the more I find this treat on menus across the country.
I distinctly remember this particular meal, because of the circumstances. We had been driving since our visit to Wemindji, and couldn’t find any decent food in the remote parts of northern Quebec. As we pulled into St Felicien, it was approaching 10pm, which means most restaurants were already closed.
On the main drag, we could this small poutine stand with a tiny interior dining space. They were cleaning up, so they probably didn’t want to see us pulling up. I got to use some of my piss-poor French, and I asked for two entrees of poutine. She said something, that I took as ” Want to eat inside or take it to go?” I knew the words for “eat inside” and “to go” so I said we would eat inside. She looked a little perturbed, but since she didn’t know English and I didn’t know French that well, she let us in.
After a short wait, this arrived. YUM!
Only after we finished our meal and headed out on the road, did I re-review what the woman had said. Then it dawned on my she was saying we “couldn’t eat inside because it’s close at 9pm, and it would have to be ‘to-go.'” Ha! I just picked up on the words I knew and tried to piece it together from my experiences in Paris. We ate pretty fast, so I hope we weren’t too much of a burden.
We continued on passed Saguenay to the St Lawrence Seaway.
Northern Quebec sure is a perdy place. Seemed like around every corner, there was a rainbow or sunset or forest that was gorgeous.
But the James Bay Road and the northern logging roads had done a number on our van. As we were driving, the bumper began to squeak. The roads had rattled the bolts free all over the van, but the bumper was getting precarious.
We pulled off just before it got dark to tighten everything up. The mosquitoes were horrendous.
This bolt loosening problem became one of our biggest concerns, as we took the several hundred mile drive on washboard gravel throughout all of Labrador.
After the storm near Relais and Eastmain on the James Bay Road, we decided to park the van at the Relais checkpoint until the storm cleared up. After a rough night sleeping in the van in a thunder and hail storm, we hit the road. We got down to the checkpoint at Matagami to tell the ranger that we made it back alive. In the checkpoint office, we got a picture of a logging road map that could be a good shortcut to Waswanipi that is the route we are taking across northern Quebec.
What we didn’t realize was, just how REMOTE this road system was. No signs, no lanes, no nothing. Just a one-lane gravel road system that the loggers use to ship their products down south.
If we encountered a logging truck, it took up most of the gravel road.
At one point, we were driving on some random road in the bush, and we came across a grouping of workers near a pickup. They looked at us as if we were aliens. I suspect they almost never get any public traffic on these roads.
While Glenn drove, I cooked up some microwavable meals since it was getting late for lunchtime, and we don’t expect any restaurants in the next dozen hours.
Eventually we found our way to Waswanipi Quebec. We ended up having an overdrive problem, but it was fixed with some simple wiring fixes on the side of the road.
We also kept on trucking through the town of Chapais. No time to hang out… we were behind schedule, and we still need to get to Labrador and Newfoundland asap!
If we keep going, we plan to make it up to Lac Saint-Jean by late dinner. Our goal is to get on the Labrador Highway by tomorrow.
We wanted to use Wemindji’s location on the James Bay to “cheat” a trip to Nunavut. For the longest time, we were trying to figure out how to get to the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It’s the only place in Canada that cannot be driven to, except by ice road. We are not prepared to drive this veggie van through an ice road, so our only option is to fly up to Nunavut.
Except, I found a loop hole. After reviewing several maps, I found an interesting fact: Any island in the Arctic Ocean that is disconnected to the mainland at low tide is considered part of Nunavut. That rule also applies to any island in the Hudson Bay, as well as the James Bay. So even a tiny island off the coast of Wemindji is considered part of Nunavut.
Knowing this, we wanted to go out on a boat into the James Bay and find an island, and officially visit Nunavut. We had contacted a woman representing the burgeoning tourism “industry” in this town, and she said she would set us up. But just in case she flaked out, we also brought a small raft and outboard motor to get us out in the bay.
But before we could inflate our boat, we were stopped by our tourism agent and a local fisherman who was willing to give us a ride into the James Bay.
He took us out several miles into the bay, and to a small island out in the middle. He said the space was a holy island, and I can understand why. It was like no other place I had been. The ground was mysteriously colored with red rocks and there was a carpet of magenta jade-like plants covering the ground. When you walked, it was like walking on sponges. It was such an alien environment.
We circumambulated the island while our guide hung out on the east side. After an hour of adventuring, we wrapped up our visit. It proved to be a worthy trek.
Out on the bay, we could see icebergs. The locals said that just a few weeks ago, the bay was full of ice. It had just recently melted and floated up to the Hudson Bay. Also, a thick fog had rolled in. In hindsight, we were really glad the man took us out in his professional fishing boat, instead of us trying our hand with an inflatable raft and underpowered motor.
One of the first major destinations for our 2015 WVO Roadtrip was Wemindji Quebec. Wemindji is a wonderful town. Canadians are nice, but Wemindji residents are even nicer.
Our goals for the Wemindji visit were two-fold. One part was seeing this northern First Nation town. We had researched a lot of this, and found some interesting history here.
The second part, we wanted to use Wemindji’s location on the James Bay to “cheat” a trip to Nunavut. For the longest time, we were trying to figure out how to get to the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It’s the only place in Canada that cannot be driven to, except by ice road. We are not prepared to drive this veggie van through an ice road, so our only option is to fly up to Nunavut.
Except, I found a loop hole. After reviewing several maps, I found an interesting fact: Any island in the Arctic Ocean that is disconnected to the mainland at low tide is considered part of Nunavut. That rule also applies to any island in the Hudson Bay, as well as the James Bay. So even a tiny island off the coast of Wemindji is considered part of Nunavut.
Knowing this, we wanted to go out on a boat into the James Bay and find an island, and officially visit Nunavut. We had contacted a woman representing the burgeoning tourism “industry” in this town, and she said she would set us up. But just in case she flaked out, we also brought a small raft and outboard motor to get us out in the bay.
As we drove into town, the local police pulled us over. They were really cool about it, and said that we didn’t violate any law, they just wanted to talk to the people in the van with California plates. They must have spread the word about our arrival, because once we got to the shoreline, people were coming out of the woodwork. Eventually our tourism agent appeared with a man willing to give us a tour of the James Bay. Awesome!
After our tour, we ate at the Wemindji cafeteria. Most of these northern towns are subsidized by the Canadian government, and have some great food. The assistant mayor heard of our arrival and sat with us. He gave us a book about the history of Wemindji and some other souvenirs. The town was really special.
They wanted us to stay for the night and join in a tribal celebration. They were going to harvest some exotic meats for us, but unfortunately we had a lot of miles to go tonight.
There is about a 100-mile gravel road that gets you from the James Bay Road to Wemindji. Here is the monument erected when you turn off from the JBR.
We drove a few dozen miles and saw a car rolled in the ditch. We were concerned, because we didn’t see a single other car on the road, so we approached with caution. For all we knew, we might have been the only vehicle on the road for days. There might have been a dead body in there.
Upon closer inspection, this car must have rolled months ago. No one was inside, so we continued on. I suspect this area does not have a lot of wrecking services that is affordable, so if you lose your car in this bog, you better have a lot of moolah to fish it out of the drink.
In the middle of nowhere, there is a small camp with a few trailers, buildings, and cafeteria called the Relais Routier. It’s an outpost between Matagami and Radisson on the James Bay Road that has some very basic services, so if you have a problem, this is your only hope for help. It is only open certain times of the day, so if you need fuel or mechanical help after hours, you are screwed. So plan your trip on the JBR carefully.
We pulled into the area in the morning to check it out. We didn’t need to stop, because we packed all our fuel and food with us, but since we drove 381 kilometers without seeing much, we figured it why not. It has a similar vibe as Eagle Plaines on the Dempster Hwy or Coldfoot on the Dalton Hwy, where it’s basically just bare-bones services.
The cafeteria was open 24 hours. There was a Quebecois chef taking orders in French, and I mumbled my best attempt at ordering a vegetarian omelet. Overall, the food was pretty good, but the ingredients were kind of old. Not bad, just not fresh. Considering where we were, this was acceptable.
The cafeteria has a seating area with televisions connected to satellite stations. You can catch up on the news and weather while heading north. Also, there are land line pay phones that work. I tried one.
After a hot breakfast, we filled up and headed up to Wemidji.
On the return trip back south, we stopped in Relais again. This time, we were driving in the rain, and the storm was getting exceptionally bad. We wanted to get to the station, so we could see the TV’s and ascertain the severity of the storm. However, we quickly learned that this area is so remote, that most doppler radar stations are nowhere near this area. It wasn’t even showing any rain or radar signatures.
I decided to call my dad and see if he could use weather radar on the internet. He couldn’t find any radar stations in our area. It was about to hail, so we tried to park the van in a safe-ish area, but we were still rather exposed. The few rooms the station had were all booked up, so we just elected to sleep in the van for the night until the storm subsided.
When we woke up, this doge was sitting outside the driver’s door of our van. He was a good boy.
After a few hours of driving, we pulled off at a roadside “park” to see the rapids.
The interesting thing about the James Bay Road, is that it’s paved. We thought maybe this would mean the trip wouldn’t be so hard on the van, like all the gravel roads in the past. Turns out no. The James Bay is paved, and that makes the pavement all heaved up and buckled from decades of weather. In fact, I suspect it would be better if the road had been gravel, because at least they could have grated it every now and then.
The constant banging on the suspension caused us to slow way down to around 30 mph, so that the van wouldn’t fall apart on us.
The rapids was very nice. After not sleeping much (Glenn drove, but I stayed up to watch for moose, bison, or other animals in the road), it was good to stretch our legs.
For those who don’t know, The James Bay Road is the longest road in North America (and one of the longest in the world) without services. The only places to get fuel is in the end town of Radisson and the camp known as Relais, which is 237 miles from Matagami. That’s 237 miles of no services. No homes, ranches, utilities… no nothing.
We have traveled all over the continent and been on some rather remote roadways. The Dalton in Alaska, the MacKenzie in NWT, the Cassair in BC and Yukon, and the Labrador Hwy. But the James Bay is by far the most remote and uninhabited.
So when you start the James Bay Road north of Matagami, there is a checkpoint restricting access. All drivers MUST log in and put their return date. If you don’t turn up, they send in a search party for you. We didn’t know this, and we figured since we’d be driving for hours on end anyway, we thought we it would be prudent to drive through the night to Wemindji. Instead, we drove to the start of the James Bay Road, and encountered this late-night outpost and a closed gate.
The man chattered in French through a loud speaker. We told him we spoke English and he asked why we were driving up here. He made me come inside and proceeded to lecture me on the danger of this road. Also, he said leaving right now would be a terrible idea, because we would be driving this remote road at night, and would be arriving in Relais when the gas pumps will be closed. Then we would be bear food while we waited for the pumps to reopen the following day. I told him we brought our own fuel and don’t need any from that station. He insisted we turn back to Matagami, but since it’s a public road, he wasn’t going to stop us.
Off we went.
The odd thing about going to Wemindji is, you have to make a rather lengthy drive due to the limitations of services. One cannot just drive to Relais and drive to Wemindji and back. There are too many miles between Relais-Wemindji-Relais to do it one tank. If you have a conventional vehicle without spare tanks of fuel, you have to drive to Relais, then fill up, then drive to Radisson, then fill up, then drive back down to Wemindji, then drive to Radisson, fill up, then drive to Relais then fill up, then drive back to Matagami. Wow. Thank goodness we have a veggie van with lots of fuel in the back. Whenever we need to fill up, we just fill up. No extra miles needed.
Glenn and I decided to take a mild risk once we got to Cochrane ON. Instead of detouring around a few hundred kilometers to the south, we elected to take a “shortcut” through some logging roads near Highway 652. At first, it seemed to be ok.
Then the signs and markers started getting pretty small and infrequent. It wasn’t a good place to get lost. There wasn’t anyone on this roadway for the duration of our travel.
Then the road and bridges started getting VERY sketchy. In fact, we got to some bridges where we had to stop, calculate our veggie oil load + vehicle weight, and cross our fingers that the bridge wouldn’t collapse into the ravine.
After what felt like an eternity, we got to the Quebec border, near La Reine. Yippie. I get to use my French finally!
We didn’t really do much here other than eat and cruise on by. We were running out of time and had to make it up to Quebec.
Smooth Rock Falls:
We are chuggin along and come along the first decent town in a thousand kilometers, Hearst Ontario. We are still several hundred clicks from the Quebec border, and we figured we should pull off to get some supplies at the Canadian Tire. As we wait to talk to the staff, we begin to notice a pattern.
Every customer is speaking French. And the staff is speaking French. In fact, NO ONE is speaking English. Maybe we fell asleep on the THC and got to Quebec faster than expected. Once we got to the front of the line, I asked the staff if we were in Quebec. They laughed. They said Hearst is so remotely situated that their French heritage has been preserved. So the majority of inhabitants speak French or Cree. Wild!
We pulled off at the Hearst Visitor’s Center to ask what else is good to see here.
She suggested the Hearst Motorcycle Museum that is attached to the Visitors Center. They have some kind of renegade motorcycle culture up there, so they are showcasing some of the old bikes. Canadians are funny; they consider anything older than 40 years to be “historical.”
All these towns in northern Ontario are basically tiny little First Nation hamlets, that have all sorts of different names for food. We were going to cruise on passed Longlac, but there was a sign selling something called “Wedgies.” Intrigued, we pulled off to check it out. In the Woodcrest Confectionary, they were selling the mystery wedgies. We asked for a large set of whatevertheyare, and it turned out they were just potato wedges.
Now that we got our daily supply of sodium and carbs, we were free to continue on….
So we are driving this remote roadway in northern Ontario, and out of the blue is this crazy looking building which has a sign for a museum. We do a u-turn and check it out.
It was a historical museum for the area. Pretty cool. They also had a walking path to stretch the legs.
This is the first post for the 2015 WVO Roadtrip, which skips over a few hundred miles from Wisconsin Rapids to Thunder Bay. We had an oil cooler repair that delayed our departure a full day in Wisconsin, so we were running behind schedule. Instead of sightseeing and photographing and filming a bunch of places that we’ve already visited a 1000 times in our lives (we grew up in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota), we just pushed on to Thunder Bay and got a hotel.
The next morning, we hit the road across the northern “highways” of Ontario. Here is the turn off for HWY 11, which is the northernmost corridor of the THC (our name for the Trans Canadian Highway).
When turning off, the first major town is Nipigon. It resides on the shore of Lake Nipigon, and there are lots of rivers and lakes around here. Consequently, there are lots of beautiful bridges and parkways in the area.
We have a love-hate relationship with Mesquite. It seemed like we always had a breakdown in Mesquite. So we usually ended up spending some time in that town fixing something. It is located about a veggie oil tank distance from Los Angeles, so either I am pulling off here to fill up one last time, or limping the van/car to this location to find a parts store and repair the issue.
On this trip in 2014, we pulled off here to utilize the extraordinarily low priced hotel rooms in the Virgin River Casino. Much much much better than getting a room in St George Utah, which can run over a hundred dollars easy.
We got a room late in the evening, and finally got some rest. We filled up the WVO tanks, conducted the last minute engine checks, and got the Veggie Van ready for the last drive through the Mojave tomorrow. Almost done.
We got home in the middle of the day. Overall, it was a good trip. Shorter than usual years, for obvious reasons, but still rewarding.
After resting in Vernal and visiting Dinosaur National Park, we passed through Price Utah and moved further south through the desert.
We stopped in Helper Utah to get some food, walk around, and visit a local museum.
The Western Mining and Railroad Museum was good. It was located in this old timey building on the main drag, and had an upstairs and downstairs full of all sorts of stuff.
Eventually, we had to make up some ground from the backtracking to Dinosaur National Park in the morning. We had to make it all the way through Utah and Arizona before dark, because we had reservations in Mesquite.
On the 2014 WVO Roadtrip, we woke up early to see the infamous Dinosaur National Park. It lived up to the expectations. The national park is surrounding a huge deposit of Jurassic and Triassic fossils embedding in the stone mountain. Back in the 50’s, they commissioned a building to encase the largest concentrations of artifacts, which in itself is an impressive structure. It’s a living archaeological site, and scientists are actively excavating the items as you peruse the national park.
The national park was so impressive, that we came back to the place in 2018.
Well, we didn’t make it to Dinosaur National Park before the close. This park isn’t open later hours during the summer, like other national parks. So we elected to find a hotel near Vernal Utah and head back to the park in the morning. The local reviews of this park are pretty extraordinary, so it must be good…
We ended up staying the night in a hotel in Casper. The previous day was a long drive, because we drove through the night to get passed Minnesota and South Dakota before sunrise. And we went sightseeing all across northern and western Nebraska. A storm loomed over Casper, so we found the nearest hotel and caught some Z’s.
The next morning, we hit the highway again, and stopped off in Rawlins at their Penitentiary Museum. Interesting place. They gave tours of the whole place and grounds. They even had a demonstration of the hanging apparatus.
Eventually we headed to Craig, Colorado. Instead of staying on the interstate, we wanted to take the county and state roads.
Eventually, our destination is to see the Dinosaur National Park, but the way time was slipping away from us, we might not make it before close.
Whenever we conduct these WVO Roadtrips, we always ask the locals about cool things to see in the neighborhood. While in Chadron, a woman said we MUST see “Carhenge.”
Apparently, some dude put a bunch of old cars in the same configuration of the actual Stonehenge. It’s pretty impressive.
So if you are bored driving across western Nebraska, definitely consider pulling over to check this out. They let you walk around the site and there is a gift shop/stand to buy some knick knacks.
Speaking of a hidden gem, this museum is really amazing. Considering there isn’t anything around this town for a hundred miles, this museum goes above and beyond. So feel free to check it out.
Random buffalo pic:
In the back of the museum, there is a small picnic area. We had some snacks after meandering the museum and grounds for a while. Then it was time to hit the road.
Every one of our cross-country trips is designed to take a different route, so we can see the remote and often overlooked spots of the country.
We left Wisconsin VERY early in the morning to get a few hundred miles down the road before the kid woke up.
This roadtrip, we elected to drive across northern Nebraska on classic Highway 20. It has a lot of farms and small towns, which seems like there isn’t much to do and see, but even these faraway destinations have their hidden gems.
Granted, Highway 20 is half as fast as taking the interstate, but we hope to find something interesting to see along the way.
After many years of driving from Los Angeles to Wisconsin, we have passed through “The Archway” many many times. It’s an indication that was are over 2/3rd’s of the way home.
The ol’ van made it up the pass! Not bad for a 30-year old engine.
We hammered down to make Denver before dinner. But we still needed to make one more quick stop before Valerie took her nap.
So we pulled off I-70 at Glenwood Springs. At the time, we didn’t know about the wonderful donut shop named “Coloradough,” so we decided to pull off by the rest area which allows you access to the Colorado River. We skipped rocks on the shoreline for an hour and released some energy.
Eventually, we had to go. But Valerie didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t blame her. She was 3 and didn’t want to get back in the van for a few hours. She threw a fit, but after sitting with her for a few minutes, she decided to move on.
In 2014, we visited the Museum of Western Colorado for the first time. My daughter was 3 years old, so Glenn and I thought she would love a dinosaur museum. As we walked in, we paid for our tickets, and saw a quick movie in their lobby. Then entered the museum…. What we didn’t know about this museum, is there are dozens of animatronic dinosaurs all over the place. They are full scale, and look very real. My 3-year-old walked in, and the T-rex made eye contact with her, and she instantly got scared. She climbed into my arms, and we walked directly to the gift shop.
LOL. Glenn was a little annoyed that we gave up that quickly, but I knew it would have been a losing battle. We hung out in the Gift Shop for an hour, and took off down the road.
Then in 2015 and 2016, we returned when the girls were much older and mature. They really liked the museum, but Lauren would often skirt the edges of the building as far as she could get from the robotic beasts.
As we entered Colorado, the storms were getting much worse. We pulled into Grand Junction to find out there was a “Mini Cooper” convention, and all the hotels were booked up. We found a lower end motel that had a spare room on the first floor. As we unloaded the van, the storms let loose. After a massive downpour, the hail started. We ran out to cover the brand new solar panels I put on the van. My daughter, who was 3 at the time, had never seen hail before. She grew up in Southern California, so lightning, thunder, hail, and massive rain is really foreign to her.
Today got cloudy as we entered the Utah mountains, which made for some cooler driving. Late July in the American desert can be brutal, so this was a welcome sight. On the horizon near Richfield, we saw a few storm cells dropping much needed summer rain.
It was getting close to lunch time, and we decided to check the map for a place to stretch our legs and have a picnic. We can nuke anything we want in the van’s microwave, so we cooked up some mac and cheese and noodles at the Silver Reef Ghost Town. It was a hot day, so we took refuge under a large tree. Sadly, the museum was closed that day. We decided to take a walk down the town’s nearby hiking trails instead.
The 2014 WVO Roadtrip was a short trip across America. We got an early start and took off in the hopes to get passed Las Vegas before the morning rush. Leaving from Los Angeles, everything went according to plan, and we were already through the Moapa River Indian Reservation by sunrise.
When we left Watson Lake, a storm was brewing. As we reached the outskirts of town, there was a guy standing by side of the road. Feeling kind of bad for the guy, we pulled over and asked him if he needed a ride. He wanted a trip up to Whitehorse, and we let him. We figured with all the cameras and other equipment, we shouldn’t have too much trouble from him.
For several hours, we talked about everything. Politics, health care, labor, and much more. He said he worked in the road construction industry, and he just hitchhikes his way up to these remote northern towns to find work in the summers. He said that he’s never had to wait more than an hour for a free ride up the Alcan highway.
The only thing that he was probably bummed about, was when we got about ten miles down the road, he asked if we had any weed or beer. I think it would be a safe bet that if you saw an antique vegetable oil powered van driving down a Canadian road, the occupants would likely have weed or beer. But Glenn and I are tee-totallers, so we only could offer him a soda. He was visibly disappointed. That was a long drive for him. Probably should have waited for the next van. LOL.
We drove all through the afternoon to late in the evening with the guy. Eventually the rain subsided, the sun began to set on the horizon. Due to all the forest fires in the Yukon and Alaska from the drought, the skies were exceptionally red.
We’ve been to Laird Hot Springs in 2008 and 2013. We could have stopped in 2018, but both our drives north and south put us at a time that meant the springs was closed.
Laird Hot Springs is a MUST stop on the Alcan Highway. After sitting in a car for a few thousand kilometers, you need some time to relax, stretch the muscles, warm the body, and get comfortable.
When we did the first Alaska WVO Roadtrip in 2008, my aunt informed me about this wonderful place. She and her husband used to come up here when they were dogsledders in the 80’s. They would drive up with their dogs and stop here to take a break.
So we pulled off, and got in the hot spring. It’s great. Back in 2008, it wasn’t much. Just a wooden walkway and some dock.
Contrast that to the 2013 WVO roadtrip, and the Canadian government has made some plush improvements. Changing rooms, wooden patios, and all sorts of spiffy stuff.
We blew an afternoon relaxing here. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had to make some miles as soon as possible, we’d probably still be there.
Here’s an outpost where people can camp out, get some supplies, and stretch their legs. The guy who owned the place was rather eccentric.
After driving a LONG time through the night on the Mackenzie Highway, we got closer to the tiny First Nation hamlet of Fort Laird. It was still really early in the morning, so nothing was going on. We didn’t really see anyone walking around and no businesses were open.
There is a gravel road that connects Yellowknife to the Alcan Hwy. It’s called the MacKenzie Highway. Canadians have this odd ability to name one-lane gravel paths in the forest a “highway,” even though they are hardly a trail. Given a decent rain, these “highways” are no more traversible than a bog. But hey, who am I to judge.
By taking the MacKenzie shortcut, it allows us to save two days of driving to the south. The problem is, the 720-kilometer drive is rather nerve-racking. Take a look of the condition of the road when we started:
Thankfully, it about half bad and half good. When we weren’t avoiding roaming bison and moose, we were finding the optimal path in the washboard gravel and dirt so that the van didn’t rattle to pieces.
Taking the MacKenzie can be a major risk, not just if it were to rain, but also if you need to buy fuel. Thankfully the Veggie Van runs on grease and we can always bring our fuel with us, but for the conventional truck, they need to schedule their drives carefully. The only fuel is at Fort Simpson, and that town is on the other side of a ferry. And that ferry is only open a few hours of the day.
So don’t leave at an odd time. You might end up bear food.
After a few hundred kilometers, the MacKenzie changes into the Laird Highway, not that it really matters. It’s still a dilapidated gravel road in the tundra and there is no other place to turn off. It’s not like there were a lot of options. Either keep driving the Laird Hwy to the Alcan junction, or turn back to Yellowknife.
The ranger at the NWT Visitors Center suggested we see this modest waterfall in the Northwest Territories. Holy balls, it was far from modest. If these were in the U.S., this would be a national park, but since it’s up here in the middle of nowhere, it’s just another river.
Things are so remote up here, that I’m genuinely surprised there was a sign, let alone such a massive monument to the crossing of the 60th parallel.
What’s even more astonishing is, there was a visitor’s center up here. Now it’s common knowledge that every Canadian town and provincial border crossing has a well stocked visitor center. What I didn’t expect is one way the hell up here. After the border sign, there is a tiny house and plot of land. There is a playground (for the nonexistent kids traveling around here), and the house has a visitors center and tiny museum. And even more astonishing is there was a human working there. I think we were the first to stop in there in days. He talked our ears off.
He also recommended we visit the nearby Alexandria Falls. He mentioned it was a moderate waterfall, but holy balls. It was massive.
Also, we asked the ranger about the condition of the severely-remote MacKenzie Hwy. By driving the MacKenzie from Yellowknife to the Alcan Hwy, it is a short-cut that will save us two full days of driving. However, it is a one-lane gravel (and dirt) road. We asked the ranger if our van could make it. Since 2013 happened to be exceptionally dry, he figured our tires would make it. It would be a huge gamble, and hopefully his advice would pay off.
After encountering some surly drunkards on a remote part of the highway, we continued north into the afternoon.
The area south of High Level is really flat and open.
At some point, we needed to fill up on the side of the road. We pulled off on a gravel side road, and set up the cameras.
After a few minutes, a car pulled up, and checked us out. The driver asked us what were were doing. When she realized we had a biofuel van, she was really intrigued. She hung out for a while and even inspected the inside of the van. Her name was Evania and we kept in touch in the future.
Later that year, I contacted her on Facebook and she said she had been tempted to join us on our adventure to the Arctic. We had space, so she would have been welcome to join us. But she had a kid to watch over, so she made the right choice.
Just like Whitehorse, we really like the town of Yellowknife. It’s up in the middle of nowhere, has a lot of good places to visit, good food, good lifestyle, and plenty of culture. You would think a place this remote would be kind of backwards, but instead, just like Whitehorse, Yellowknife has a lot of forward thinking.
We pulled into town just before rush hour.
Eventually we stopped in to the local visitor’s center, and we asked about the best unique restaurant in town. They all agreed that Bollucks Bistro was the coolest joint in town.
So we went there. Pulled up a couple spot at the counter. The staff is hilarious and won’t serve you unless you are cool. Since Glenn and I were in no rush, we just hung out for a while till we could get our order in. New customers kept trying to get a seat, and after a while, they would get pissy because the staff was ignoring them. It was wild. After about an hour of us chilling out, Glenn noticed the phone ringing off the hook. Since he’s a chef, he knows the business, and he hollered to the cook if he could man the phone. Elated, the woman let him. So now Glenn was taking phone calls for a while.
Eventually, they got up to us, and took our orders. We ate THE BEST fish fry I have ever eaten. Skewered and marinated on a long stick, the fish was cooked in a couple pounds of butter on a frying pan. Then sprinkled with herbs and drizzled with sweet sauce, the fish is laid on a bed of salad and fries. Amazing.
After dinner, we cruised around the city. Yellowknife is situated on a peninsula on the Slave Lake, and there are all sorts of cool lake houses and houseboats scattered on the shoreline.
After filling up on an alleyway hill, we decided to hit the road before it got too dark. Not that it would get very dark anyway… when you are up at this latitude, the evenings in the summer only lasts a couple of hours.
We headed back to the Deh Cho Bridge and saw some bison on the left side of the road. Lastly, we took the advice of the Northwest Territories Visitors Center and began the drive of the infamous MacKenzie Highway.
After several days of driving north from Los Angeles, we got to Peace River and decided to find a hotel. It was probably the last major town on the way up to Yellowknife, so it was a good opportunity to get some rest and a shower.
We elected to stay at a place on the west end of town, so we could continue early in the morning on the way up to the Northwest Territories.
We got up super early and headed north. These provinces are extraordinarily large, especially going north-south. It was almost 500 kilometers to our border, then a bunch more to the town of Yellowknife.
When we got to around the Manning Alberta area, there was a house on the right side of the road. As we drove up, some First Nation guy was pulling a motorcycle out of a bog much like the one in the picture below. An overweight woman and another man were arguing over the man in the drink, and they all were drunk and hangry.
Since we hadn’t seen another car or person in several hundred miles, we slowed down to ask if they needed help. Before we could say anything, the man angrily asked, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
We drove off. Must have been some kind of domestic issue. I suspect they had a party, the first guy tried to drive off but was too drunk, and he put ‘er in the pond. The others ran out to help him, but none were aware enough to help anyone. Kinda surreal.
Crossing the MacKenzie River in Canada can be tough. But the newly constructed Deh Cho Bridge makes short work of the waterway. What an elegant structure in the middle of nowhere. Makes you wonder how many Canadians will never get up this far to experience this beauty.
It appears the major rains were only south of us. Once we got above Red Deer and Edmonton, the flooding was minimal.
Through a crazy series of events, we ended up driving through Calgary during some MASSIVE flooding. The highway was getting shut down just as we got through the city. The radio was “flooded” with news alerts and evacuations and all sorts of madness.
Just by coincidence, a friend of ours happened to be driving through Canada from west to east. Our plan was to meet up in Calgary this night, but after spending a long time playing phone tag, she told us they had avoided the area. Unlike us, she had been paying attention to the news and she intelligently elected to avoid this evacuation area.
But since we were already in the thick of it, we just pushed on. We figured as long as we could get passed Calgary, then we could rest at a Walmart parking lot in Red Deer.
We crossed the border with few issues. Unlike the American border agents, the Canadians are usually pretty cool with the veggie oil in the back.
The 2013 WVO Roadtrip was the first long-scale journey with the Veggie Van. This van is a 1988 full-size Ford 3/4-ton Diesel Clubwagon, which means massive size and weight. That equates to lesser fuel economy than our usual trips in the Jetta, Passat, and Mercedes wagon.
In order to make this journey to the Arctic Ocean and back, we needed more oil than I could pack from Los Angeles. So, we contacted our friends in the Yukon (Skeeter and Mike) to see if they could help, and they offered to load us up. And even with that supplementary biofuel, we calculated that we needed another few dozen cubes.
So, a month prior to this trip to Alaska, Glenn took the time to tow out several cubes and stash them in a storage locker in Shelby Montana. He also left a few scooters that he rebuilt at his house. These scooters would be our backup vehicles if the van had a catastrophic breakdown somewhere on the Alcan, Dalton, Mackenzie, Laird, or Top of the World Highways.
Here’s a picture of Glenn showing me his awesome scoots by Ghost riding the whip.
Almost up to Shelby. Then we cross the border. Keep on keepin’ on.
On the way up to Shelby, where Glenn had previously stowed several cubes and scooters in a storage locker.
Near the Idaho – Montana border…
No time to stop in SLC. We need to make up for lost ground doing repairs in Mesquite. Onward to northern Montana.
It seems like every time we pass through Mesquite, we have some kind of mechanical failure. It’s really awful luck. This 2013 WVO Roadtrip is no different.
This time we were driving through the desert and the veggie tank was getting full.
We pulled over on a semi wayside, and filled up the grease. While waiting for the oil to flow down the funnel, we noticed a fluid dripping from the Overdrive unit. Turned out the rear seal was totally obliterated, and the fluid level was severely low.
We quickly got back in the van asap to limp it to Mesquite NV. We figured what little fluid we had left would drain out if we didn’t get it to civilization quickly. We left the wayside and headed down the road.
Eventually we got to Mesquite which was a few dozen miles from our breakdown. We used the GPS to find a Carquest on the east side of town and they luckily had a replacement tailshaft seal in St George. While we waited for the part to arrive, we parked the van in the back lot and walked around the town to kill some time.
After a few hours of dinking around, we headed back to the auto parts store who had our part in hand. Thank god. IF they couldn’t get the part on this day, we would be stuck in Mesquite for 2 days.
The parts store was really nice, and they let us swap out the tailshaft housing seal in their parking lot. While we were working on our veggie van, another old man was wrenching on his RV next to us. We often jibber jabbered while the other was working. He was a cool guy, but his engine problems were severe. I hope he got it running.
After we got the veggie van all sealed up, we headed north. The section of Arizona on the I-15 is exceptional, and one of the best parts of the entire American highway system.
We got up at 1am to start the massive 2013 WVO Roadtrip to Prudhoe Bay. We hoped to get an early start to the trip, and put some major miles on. Maybe if things go well, we can hit the Canadian border in a day or two.
However, on our first veggie oil fill up after Vegas, we had Gearvendor leak, and a complete tailshaft seal failure. We needed to limp the van to Mesquite ASAP to buy a new seal, new fluid, and extra parts.
We took a weekend trip to the lowest point on the Western Hemisphere.