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Autoblog drives to the Arctic Circle

Fri, 22 Mar 2013 In Which Mercedes' Sprinter Becomes A Long-Distance Sherpa

In the wintery wilds of northern Alaska, even the cute little critters want to kill you.

As I am about to nod off on my long leg flight from Minneapolis to Anchorage ahead of driving to the Arctic Circle, the friendly twenty-something Alaskan knitting furiously in the seat next to me pauses and says, "When you're driving up there, don't open your windows." In the dead of winter? I hadn't planned on cruising alfresco, but her warning to keep the glazing snugged against the weatherstripping is one I would take to heart. She continues: "If you leave 'em open, a fox is liable to jump right in. There are lots of rabid foxes up there, and they leap into your car and just Go. To. Town." And here I was, thinking that a curious bear or maybe an ill-placed moose in the road was going to be my biggest potential four-legged threat. In the wintery wilds of northern Alaska, even the cute little critters want to kill you.

Bedraggled after two flights and a long layover, I reach my hotel room nursing a toothache and a suddenly metastasizing cold. I manage to down half a reindeer burger from room service and a sleeping pill, and with a cute red fox taking the place of the killer rabbit in that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail stuck on mental replay, I hit the pillow, wondering what in the hell I've gotten myself into.

The next morning starts early, and I meet my fellow adventurers-to-be at the morning briefing. We're assembled at the Anchorage Sheraton at the behest of Mercedes-Benz Canada, and our plan is to drive from Anchorage to the former mining camp of Coldfoot, which lies north of the Arctic Circle. In Sprinter commercial vans. At 1,264 miles, it's the last leg of a longer endurance run that started out in Edmonton. We'll stop for the night in Fairbanks, then run alongside the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaskan Pipeline before saying hello to the Arctic Circle. From there, we'll venture up to Coldfoot Camp, where we'll hopefully stand directly underneath the Northern Lights. Then we'll do the whole thing in reverse, ending up in this very hotel five days from now.

As fate would have it, my team, composed of Yours Truly and the film crew from our video series, The List, are just about the only Americans along for the schlep. Everyone else is from Canada – many of them from its upper reaches where they are, shall we say, more acclimatized to sustained subzero temperatures.

We have been warned of biting temperatures and urged to bring serious subzero attire.

It being the dead of winter, we have been warned of biting temperatures and urged to bring serious subzero attire. I'm the type of guy that winces a little at spending more than $50 on a shirt or jeans, yet consulting the foreboding forecasts had me eagerly shelling out over $500 for a weapons-grade parka, hat, gloves and base layer the week before my trip. It will come to be perhaps the best $500 I have ever spent. Years of being an itinerant car journalist have taught me how to pack a week's worth of clothing into a rollaboard bag, but on this trip, I pack more layers than an onion, necessitating a larger suitcase and a duffle just for my boots and jacket. Both are overstuffed until I fear for their zippers, yet even so, I have the nagging feeling I've forgotten something. A vial of rabies vaccine and a bouquet of syringes, perhaps.

We're as far south as we're going to get and it's already below freezing as our expedition packs its bags into ten 2500-series Sprinter vans in both cargo and passenger configurations with one of two wheelbases – 144 or 177 inches. With five people to pack into one vehicle (myself, List hosts Jessi Combs and Patrick McIntyre, director Graham Suorsa and cameraman extraordinaire Chris Otwell), we are mercifully given the keys to one of a pair of five-row long-wheelbase vans.

It is at this point that you might be reasonably asking, why on earth is Mercedes taking Sprinters – rear-wheel drive, largely unloaded commercial vehicles – to the Arctic Circle? Why not import a phalanx of Unimogs, or a fleet of Gelaendewagens... or at least a suite of four-wheel drive GL-Class SUVs? Apparently they like a challenge.

We'll be so far north that we'll be in earth's own shadow, giving us about six or so hours of light.

More to the point, Mercedes is proud of the fact that it has tested the Sprinter's systems in Northern Sweden to -22 degrees Fahrenheit, and is keen to eviscerate any lingering questions about the van's durability and diesel performance in the coldest of climes. Only one potential problem with that – Ye Old Weather Channel says we're in for temperatures a lot lower than the negative double deuce. This will be a true test.

On paper, 1,200 miles over five days doesn't sound particularly daunting, but factor in uncertain roads, ever-changing weather conditions and an acute lack of sun – we'll be so far north that we'll be in earth's own shadow, giving us about six or so hours of light – and, well... things start to look more challenging.

We leave snowy Anchorage in a procession at around 10:00 AM just before the sun finally catches fire, and I'm at the wheel, allowing The List crew time to get all of their camera rigging set up in the Sprinter's cavernous interior. For the moment, at least, we have plenty of warmth thanks to an auxiliary heater kicking out 17,000 extra British Thermals. Having ventured up from Edmonton with another team before we arrived, our windshield already sports a patina of cracks and chips from stone-throwing trucks. We will add a few more of our own along the journey, as will every other Sprinter on the trip.

Fuel and food is in similarly short supply the further north we go.

Having the first stint allows me to get reacclimated to Sprinter driving – I've had a couple of occasions to drive them before and found them to be great travel partners, with surprisingly comfy rides even when unladen and friendly driving dynamics. I've had them out on the open freeway, I've done the urban schlep loaded down with all and sundry, and I've even had a hilariously good time on a specially prepared obstacle course that included the so-called moose test. That last bit might finally be useful, come to think of it.

As we venture northward, we quickly leave the civility of greater Anchorage and are enveloped by forests and elevation changes. Traffic on the Elliot Highway thins, leaving us to share the road primarily with big rigs and the occasional pickup-piloting local. Despite driving ever closer to the Alaskan Pipeline, fuel and food is in similarly short supply the further north we go, so we stop at the Trapper Creek Trading Post, an offbeat gas station and restaurant, to top up our biological and mechanical tanks. Aside from our posse, the potbelly-heated place is pretty quiet, giving us time to check out old photos of bears on the picnic tables up front and hand-written signs indicating that using an electrical outlet without buying anything will result in a $2.00 charge (which makes the dollar surcharge for using the bathroom seem like a small bargain).

The men brave Alaska's humbling temps to unzip and paint a few trees and the women cross their legs a little tighter.

Fully fueled, I retire to the back seat as we drive along the edge of Denali National Park, home to Mt. McKinley, whose 20,000-foot peak is the highest in North America. It's an awe-inspiring sight – one of thousands on this journey. It is here that Otwell – an avid landscape photographer – begins visibly crawling out of his skin, wanting to stop and get a lens on every inch of the scenery. Scenery, I might add, seemingly permanently suspended in the sort of golden hour sun that artists crave. Alaska may not get much light at this time of year, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. But we're burning daylight and our caravan really, really does not want to be sharing a pitch-black road with bleary-eyed truckers and nocturnal animals... foaming at the mouth or otherwise. We press on, with Jessi and Patrick sitting up front shooting driving segments for the show, stopping only briefly for quick photo snaps and driver swaps, the men braving Alaska's humbling temps to unzip and paint a few trees and the women crossing their legs a little tighter.

A pair of support vehicles – an M-Class up front and a GL-Class hanging out back – bracket our Sprinter convoy. The vehicles are packed with survival provisions in case we have to spend the night in them, and we hear one of the Sprinter cargo vans is outfitted with tools, towropes and spare parts including windshields. One of them also has a satellite phone for emergencies, as cell phones don't work this far north. Of course, if things go truly pear-shaped, we're hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital, so the latter is probably academic.

Each Sprinter is outfitted with two walkie-talkies – one a reserved line to the support vehicles and the other is apparently for journalists' off-color jokes, word games and wildlife spotting, in that order. As we trundle northward, vehicles coming in the opposite direction are so few and far between that an organizer in the M-Class begins calling them out, also providing advance warning of dicier corners when the road inevitably turns even slicker than it already is.

With darkness closing in as we work our way toward Fairbanks, the temperature plummets below where the mercury registers on most civilian thermometers. It doesn't take a glance at the gauge cluster's ambient temperature readout to know it's death-rattle cold even before even opening the door. Despite pegging the heaters for the entire trip, we're having real trouble keeping the side and rear windows of the Sprinter defrosted and the onboard heaters just aren't keeping up with our vehicle's Manhattan efficiency-sized interior. Things are rougher the further back in the cabin you get. A half-consumed bottle of pop is found frozen solid on the last row of seats. With the blessing of Mercedes reps, we periodically manually drop down a gear or three to stoke the fires within the cool-running 3.0-liter V6, trying to make more heat. Others follow suit. We have to be mindful of the diesel we consume, however, as we have the heaviest, least aerodynamic rig of the bunch packed with the most people and gear.

I shudder to think at how quickly a Nissan Leaf would brick up here.

In a frozen nowhere in the middle of other frozen nowheres, we disembark at a USA Gasoline truck stop with a small store and sandwich shop. It is -36 degrees outside, and the air is so cold it not only takes your breath away, it claims everything else, too. Jessi and Graham spray water into the air and it turns to vapor, never hitting the ground. I try recording the proceedings with my iPhone, but am only momentarily successful – the cold kills my battery stone dead. I watch the battery readout go from 80% to 14% to 1% in under a minute, unceremoniously turning off and failing to turn back on until an hour later when its internals finally warm. It's just as well that my phone dies – having to momentarily remove my gloves to hit record on my phone's touchscreen isn't a fun experience – after fumbling around without a glove on for maybe a minute, I begin to feel genuine pain and hurry inside.

(After the day's journey, I will come to realize that my laptop's battery has suffered the same fate as my phone, plummeting to zero percent. Unlike my phone, it will refuse to charge ever again. The List crew's considerably costlier video equipment suffers similar failures. I shudder to think at how quickly a Nissan Leaf would brick up here. How do northern Alaskans keep their electronics alive?)

We top off our tanks with diesel anti-gel to prevent the fuel from turning to petroleum Jell-O.

Inside USA Gasoline, there are a few bins of fresh produce, which seem comically out of place. A community bulletin board in the back is surprisingly chock-full of the sorts of items and services hearty Alaskans need in these parts. Beater pickups. Ski-dos. Gun cleaning. Deer Processing. A boarded-up erstwhile bed and breakfast. An ambitiously priced $39,000 open-air ice rink ("previously the indoor ice rink at the BIG DIPPER in Fairbanks!" the ad brags). We fill up our tanks, topping them off with diesel anti-gel to prevent our fuel from turning to petroleum Jell-O.

Arriving in Fairbanks under cover of night, we stop to refuel before we head to our nearby hotel, which sits adjacent to the airport. Our convoy of Sprinters must provide a level of activity that the city isn't used to, because no sooner are we stopped than the station is filled with patrol cars and officers checking out our vans. City police. Airport police. I think the Postmaster shows up. Only momentarily encumbered, we fuel up and head to the hotel.

Despite a hotel parking lot filled with electrical outlets for block warmers, we are instructed to activate our truck's timer-based pre-heaters, which require cycling through the menus on the in-cluster screen using the steering wheel buttons. Perhaps we're too tired and cold, but setting it strikes us as a Byzantine process.

We stay the night at Pike's Waterfront Lodge, which is simultaneously the nicest and strangest place we'll stay. The cabin-themed lobby displays a forest of taxidermied animals, bizarre local artwork and a coin-operated fortune-telling duck. Cheery desk attendants unironically offer tokens for free ice cream. We enjoy a civil dinner next door and retire quickly.

A game of strip poker is floated. With as many layers as we're wearing, we could be here all day.

The next morning gets off to a slow start – another team didn't manage to set their pre-heater correctly, rendering their van frozen solid. In addition to the pre-heaters, our Sprinters are wisely fitted with a brace of cold-weather combatants, including an auxiliary warmer for the engine as well as a heated fuel filter and Bluetec emissions system, but none of that matters if the timer isn't set up to do its thing in the now -41-degree cold. Some of our vehicles fail to start until coaxed to life via jumpstart (diesels really don't like cold weather), and the one that wasn't pre-heated refuses to start at all.

After a couple of hours of the support team trying to get it going, a game of strip poker is floated. With as many layers as we're wearing, we could be here all day. Before the cards are dealt, it's decided that the van will need to be taken to a heated garage and left to thaw. We leave it, absorbing its occupants into other vans, and get on with our drive to the Arctic Circle.

I start the morning in another vehicle, a white cargo Sprinter, with co-driver Allyson Harwood, editor of Truck Trend. Our tires thump a little until they warm and find some pliancy, having flat-spotted from the cold. With a smaller cabin to keep up to temp, the cargo Sprinter is much toastier, but even then, we still have to downshift on descents to keep the engine temp gauge above 150 degrees, the threshold at which the HVAC system seems able to throw off heat. This is a welcome shifting strategy, because we're enduring the coldest moments we'll see on the trip. So cold, in fact, that the Sprinter's digital temperature readout goes apoplectic at 40 below, displaying +185F. Other teams report the same phenomenon. When the temperature lifts to -40, the sensor recovers and starts reading normally again.

The Sprinter's digital temperature readout goes apoplectic at 40 below, displaying +185F.

About 100 miles north of Fairbanks, we veer onto Dalton Highway, at which point the road surface immediately deteriorates into a crazy quilt of asphalt and ice, with the occasional paved section thrown in. Through it all, the Sprinter is genuinely, shockingly good. Our convoy is rolling on a mix of Continental and Michelin snow tires – no studs or chains – and even through the countless precipitous descents and knife-sharp icy crusts, we're plowing along at frankly surprising velocities. Temperature fluctuations and heavy pipeline trucks have led to sizable frost heaves in the surface, and when taken at speed, the few hardcases of camera equipment in the back of our cargo rig go momentarily airborne, only to slam down in spectacularly expensive-sounding fashion. No matter, with the Arctic Circle drawing near, we keep up the heady pace.

Whatever civilian traffic there was before has long since evaporated, and we are left alone with television's Ice Road Truckers and some of the most beautiful vistas anywhere on earth. Uninterrupted, 360-degree views, with amazing purple skies and Dr. Seussian forests of conifers heaving with snow that looks to have been applied with God's clogged airbrush.

After the amazing views, reaching the Arctic Circle actually proves to be somewhat anticlimactic. There's a large sign and a few historical plaques overlooking a landscape that would be incredible anywhere else but is a dime-a-dozen here. There are no flags from various nations, no jaunty hand-painted totem poles declaring that we are 4,300 miles to Paris and 10,000 miles to Cape Town, no bronze tributes to fallen explorers in lesser cargo vans. We snap a few pictures with our rapidly icing beards, and one particularly large, hirsute and jovial Canadian journo goes shirtless for a photo op, putting a jiggly exclamation point on the proceedings. Then with daylight already waning, we clamber back into our vans and drive the remaining 60 miles to Coldfoot, our base camp for the night. A Thousand Miles From Nowhere by Dwight Yoakam crackles across the walkie-talkie – one of the other vans has found a sliver of FM. After the honky-tonk man's song ends, we scroll across our own radio dial and immediately find Take The Long Way Home by Supertramp. Serendipity.

Reaching the Arctic Circle actually proves to be somewhat anticlimactic.

Our low fuel light aglow, we arrive in Coldfoot in utter darkness. As the story goes, this outpost was founded by a champion Iditarod musher who decided to sell burgers out of a converted school bus to truckers. It has since evolved into an unlikely oasis, with a humble café and bar, a couple of gas pumps, a gravel airstrip, a sled dog kennel and a one-story hotel resembling a network of trailers that plays hosts to truck drivers and wayward tourists such as ourselves.

Upon our arrival, we begin lining up at the fuel pumps, only to learn that the diesel trucks haven't arrived and the pumps are dry. Despite our Sprinter's low fuel, we are told to leave our trucks running, lest we encounter a repeat of the morning's troubles. (Sorry, AutoblogGreen). We repair to the modest bar/restaurant area, where we chat and drink with truckers, as well as one of Coldfoot's approximately ten locals, a friendly guy lined head to toe in a handmade fur suit that makes him look like a zippered Sasquatch.

Upon wandering across the lot to the hotel, we are greeted by an unexpected sight – dozens of elderly Japanese tourists apparently here to see the Aurora Borealis. Most are tiny women and all are clad in identical purpose-bought parkas. It's a surreal moment. As I'm half-Japanese, it's like suddenly being surrounded by dozens of doppelgangers for my long-dead grandmother. Apparently the Japanese take this Northern Lights thing very seriously – thousands of them inundate Alaska each winter, even going so far as to charter full-size jets from the motherland.

The Northern Lights show themselves just before we are about to give up for the night.

Our Northern Lights tour guide, a member of the tiny off-the-grid community of Wiseman (Population: 14), will later lament that Japanese tourists constantly grenade the area's solar-generated power reserves with their high-wattage rice cookers. More interestingly, he turns out to be one of the most enterprising, thoughtful, well-read and well-spoken people I've ever encountered. His depth of knowledge and the ease with which he explains complex matters of astronomy is astounding. At age 55, he's got a six-month old son, hunts for his family's meat, built his own septic, electrical, and FM phone systems, taught himself to fly a plane and sits on several state government committees in Fairbanks aimed at protecting the land and wildlife. He also roasts his own coffee beans and is the town's mailman. Coming across him is a bit like finding out that Copernicus, Plato and Bear Grylls are the same person – as it turns out, the true Most Interesting Man In The World is alive and well a few miles down the road from the truck stop at the end of the world. It'd be impossible not to feel both lazy and emasculated in his presence, if only he weren't so soft-spoken and self-effacing.

The Northern Lights show themselves just before we are about to give up for the night. It's impossible to predict when they'll be at their most vibrant, but unfortunately, tonight isn't it. We can see a few greenish streaks across the sky, but they're best captured with still cameras, when their long exposures really make them look spectacular.

Having reached the zenith of our journey and accomplishing what we came here to do, we retire to our tiny fiberboard-lined Coldfoot hotel rooms. A welcome respite from the wind and cold, we do our best to ignore the large rattraps placed around what passes for a lobby.

"It once went from 40 below to 40 above in 20 minutes. That's a record."

It's only been a few hours when the alarm goes off, and it's still pitch black out, but we have to get moving. After a phonebooth-sized shower, I grab a quick bite and rejoin my compatriots from The List for the long drive home.

The weather warms dramatically as we backtrack south, and the drive is every bit as awe-inspiring. On the return leg between Fairbanks and Anchorage, the temperatures vary wildly from valley to valley – a local at a gas station in the town of Healy tells me that's because of the area's Chinook winds. "It once went from 40 below to 40 above in 20 minutes. That's a record."

Those rapidly changing temperatures may have contributed to a scary accident that gave me the time to chat up Healy's locals. As we were passing through town, a northbound big rig locked 'em up to avoid a stopped vehicle ahead, and its second trailer jackknifed across the road, collecting an oncoming Ford Econoline van, pushing it backwards into one of our expedition's Sprinters. With the exception of the Ford driver having a cut on his head, everyone escapes injury, our compatriot's Sprinter surviving with an unwelcome front-end restyling.

The long drive home gives me time to reconsider this immense journey. I must admit I didn't picture it being like this at all. Having never been any further north than Iceland, I envisioned the Arctic Circle to be mercilessly flat and windy, a vacant, permafrost hellhole. I'm not much for Star Wars, but that scene with Luke Skywalker on the ice planet Hoth? That's what I had in my head.

I had expected the Sprinter to be a handful, but instead found it to be a docile beast of burden.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Where I expected desolation, I instead encountered majestic Bob Ross landscapes carpeted in impossibly expansive forests. I endured darkness, but also saw the most incredible light. I met amazing people living rich existences in incredibly harsh conditions. I had expected the Sprinter to be a handful in these conditions, but instead found it to be a docile beast of burden.

And I learned one very important thing about myself. Clevelanders like me tend to think we're of pretty sturdy stock – we've outlasted lake-effect squalls, a formerly on-fire lake, a serially battered economy and perennial sports team heartbreaks. We laugh at coastal cities with their expensive cost-of-livings, real estate value and... sunlight. At best it's a source of misguided pride, and at worst, it's some sort of defense mechanism that hardens our skins like the comfort food that hardens our arteries. Yet after spending less than a week in the Arctic, I've come to an uncomfortable conclusion. We haven't seen weather, desolation, or even beauty like northern Alaskans know intimately enough to take for granted. We Clevelanders – hell, we Midwesterners – are a bunch of knock-kneed pansies.

I'm already planning a return trip.


By Chris Paukert

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