Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dawson Peaks...

Google it...

Here's a link to an interactive Google map if you want an idea of where I am and where I'm headed.

View Larger Map

The where is the easy part. The when will be a little more challenging. I'll try to plug in some dates as the days/weeks go by and will reference this map. This will be an easy way to chart progress, but will also serve as a reference point just in case I need some help getting back from a side trip off the main highways and byways.

It's lunchtime on May 31st and I'm having a hard time leaving Dawson Peaks Resort, where I'm posting this blog entry from. The coffee is hot and plentiful and the Yukon-specific information I'm getting from Greg has been over the top. Greg helps out at the resort and publishes a travel mag called Yukon, North of Ordinary. What a great tag line. He's lived in the Yukon for years and is intimately familiar with the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. Like Wolfgang back in Smithers, he helped me shift my focus to the roads less traveled. This is the second time I was reminded of the purpose of this trip. Here's a shot of Greg, head chef Oscar in the middle, and Carolyn. Thanks for a much needed respite from the road. I'm slowing down in a good way. Next stop is Whitehorse. If you zoom in on the map you'll see that Whitehorse is the start and finish to a 5,732 km circle that will take me to Inuvik, over the top of the world highway and through parts of Alaska I've dreamed about most of my life.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bearly Believable...

Goodbye, Smithers

Today is May 28th, and as promised, the alternator is waiting for me at OK Tire and Auto. My short stay in Smithers was perfect for getting some housekeeping items done. Laundry, minor repairs and trips to Canadian Tire for pieces and parts I’ve discovered would be handy to have on the road.

One nagging item I was able to address here involved my XM Satellite Radio antenna. As you know by now this trip is about heading due north to the top of the world. This presents a problem for the XM signal because of where my XM antenna is mounted (inside on the dashboard). Whenever I’m pointed north the signal from the satellite gets blocked by Stella’s metal roof, my cargo rack, spare tire and mountain bike. This would only be mildly irritating; except for the fact that every time the signal cuts out I’m subjected to the unfiltered sounds of Pete Unplugged. This is unacceptable. So I grabbed a roll of duct tape, fished out the coil of antenna wire that was buried in the dash, and ran the antenna out the passenger door to the roof. With the antenna securely tied down with bungee cords I now have a clear, uninterrupted, digital signal. It’s hard to rough it in a Westy.

On to Stella’s repair work. I had just enough juice in the battery for one start, which got me from Riverside Park to the auto shop. So, with Stella being cared for by John and the OK crew, I walked down to the Smithers Chamber of Commerce to get some maps with a little more detail than my trusty AAA maps. Since the next few stops involved a little off roading, I thought it would be nice to know where the hell I was going. Ali and Erica gave me a suitcase full of information and even checked into some road conditions for me online. Much appreciated, ladies!

With Stella running like a well oiled machine, and the day getting late, it was time to continue the northern trek. As I say goodbye to Smithers, and to B.C. over the next few days, let me also say thank you. It was a place filled with natural beauty and a whole lot of very cool people, eh?

Chased by a grizzly…

Let me begin by saying, “I am not making this up.” It was a relatively short drive from Smithers to Terrace, and I soon found myself in the heart of the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park. Within minutes of entering the park I finally had my first bear encounter. Sort of. All along the road I saw Spirit Bear after Spirit Bear (black ones) feeding after the long winter’s hibernation. Naturally I pulled over, grabbed my camera and watched each of them quickly run for cover as I tried to focus. Damn! I owe people pictures! And these bears couldn’t care less! It was getting later by the minute, so I decided to move on and hope for the best. Even though I had daylight until after 11:00 PM, I got a very late start out of Smithers and it was starting to rain.

The drive through the lava beds was amazing, and before I knew it I hit the junction at the northern end of the park. The sign said New Aiyansh right and Laxgalts’ap left. Since my maps were buried somewhere on the passenger seat, I thought I would go from memory and gamble with the one I couldn’t pronounce. I went left. This turned out to be a very exciting mistake.

I’m now on route 113 heading due west to the Pacific Ocean. I learned this about 40 miles down the road when I noticed a body of water the size of a very large lake flowing west. I said, “Wait a minute. Lakes don’t flow. Do they?” Turns out I was enjoying a nice leisurely drive in the pouring rain going in the wrong direction watching the tide empty out of the Portland Inlet. Oops. Had I not noticed this I would have eventually ended up at another place I couldn’t pronounce; Gingolx.

I turned around quickly to try to make up some of the lost time. I still had no idea where I was sleeping this night. As I headed back with the Portland Inlet now on my right I saw three bears down from the road on a grassy stretch leading to the water. Remember, I was still hurting for pictures. I slowed down to get a better look, but by the time Stella rolled to a stop I found myself hastily slamming her back into gear. One of the bears, that was 100 feet away just seconds ago, was now closing in on the Westy. You guessed it - it was the mama bear. The other two were her cubs. Really cute, but I was too busy peeing my pants to get a good look. Now mind you, this was not a mama Kermode Bear, the kind that runs for the hills when they hear your car approaching. I was about to come almost face to face with my first grizzly bear.

Anyway, we’ve all heard the stories. The stories are true. The grizzly charged toward the Westy, just as I slammed it into first gear. I will never forget the scene in the rearview mirror as this 800 lb Terminator bounded after me. Incredible. I don’t want to be overly dramatic here, but if I was outside my vehicle I would be writing this from the hospital. So what’s the take away here? It's simple. Never drive that deep into grizzly territory without wearing a diaper.

An apparition of a ghost of a white Spirit Bear…

After my forty mile drive back to the junction, I thought it would be a good idea to determine what was coming up for campgrounds. Even with over two hours of relative daylight left, I didn’t want to be out here on a dark rainy night. There was nothing in New Aiyansh. Next stop Nass Camp. You’d think a town name with the word camp in it would be able to put you up for the night. Not so. The next “for sure” campground was at Meziadin Lake, 120 miles away. The only problem with this was the first 30 miles was down an unmaintained forest road. You know they’re serious when they come right out and basically tell you, with a road sign, that you’re on your own. I decided to press on and make forward progress. There was no other way to Meziadin Lake that didn’t involve backtracking over 100 miles to Terrace.

So off I set into the rainy darkness. I’ve wished many times along the way that my girlfriend, Cat, could have been by my side on this trip. This is one time when I was glad she was safe at home, holding down the fort! The road was gnarly from the start and my speed was averaging 15 miles per hour. Great, that’s two hours before I see pavement again. I pressed on into what had become rain mixed with snow mixed with a ghostlike ground fog. As my fatigue grew imaginary figures began appearing in the ground fog that began to look more and more like white spirit bears. Suffice it to say it had been a long day. So I drove on, crying like a little girl, hunched over the steering wheel straining to see the next cavernous pothole. The good news? Well, around the time I stopped crying, I magically popped out onto 37 north and made a beeline for Meziadin Lake. I pulled into yet another clean, quiet and virtually empty B.C. campground just before 2 AM, parked the Westy, had a cold beer for dinner and fell fast asleep.

Hyder, Alaska: Grizzlies, Glaciers and Hungry Kermodes…

Hyder was one of Wolfgang’s many recommendations of must see sites in British Columbia. While technically not in B.C. it's considered somewhat of a sister city to Stewart. What few children there are in Hyder actually attend school in Stewart.

After sleeping in until almost 11:00 AM back at Meziadin Lake, I hit the road for the fairly short drive down Highway 37A to Stewart. As I approached the border I saw the Canadian Border Agent Facility and made a mental note to bear to the right and check in with them on my way back.

Now I focused my attention on getting my passport together for the U.S. Border Agents. As I got closer to the border I looked left, right and straight ahead. “Where are these guys hiding,” I asked myself. I went a little further and then realized there were no U.S. Border Agents. Cool. No hippie questions. I passed right through and found myself on Main Street, in downtown Hyder, amongst the hustle and bustle you’d find in any virtual ghost town.

The next step was to find some fruit, or at least some orange juice, to treat a mild case of scurvy that had developed. As I walked up to the Hyder General Store, I passed two gentlemen that were clearly throwbacks from the Klondike gold rush days. I said good morning to both of them and was rewarded with a cold stare. They had a disposition that had nothing to do with lack of coffee or the rain. Great. They must have seen the California plates. As I left the store, the shorter, more bitter looking of the two, yelled, “Hey!” I turned slowly, wondering what was coming next. He asked, “What year is your Westy?” I told him 1987. He said he had an ’83 and an ’85 Westy, both with over 300,000 miles on them. I told him to hang on to them; they last forever. A little Westfalia goodwill, even in a ghost town. Happens to me all the time.

With the rain coming to an end I figured it was safe to hit the road out of town (in the opposite direction of the border) to see what I could see. The shop keep at the general store said I wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to Salmon Glacier, but there was a smaller one about 10 miles up the road. I was hungry to see my first glacier, and he assured me that even a partial drive up the road was worth the trip. He was right. All along the road I saw Kermodes feeding, and got to see a small, no name glacier. Hey, come on, it was my first one! But the highlight of the side trip to Hyder was getting to capture some close up pictures of a grizzly. This was not the first one I saw, but hopefully you remember why I didn’t get any pictures of that one!

At this point the mission was to get to the Yukon ASAP. However, it was still several hundred miles away, the weather was still on and off and the roads were no more familiar. I set my sites on Kinaskan Lake, which I shared with one other camper. It was damn cold but there was no noise, no mosquitoes and I had a nice spot right at the lake edge. And, of course, a clear XM signal to listen to the Lakers spank the poor Nuggets to win the West. Maybe next year Denver.

The next blog update will be coming to you from the Yukon Territory. If Internet access is spotty it might be coming to you from the Northwest Territory instead! Thanks a lot for following the trip progress. The intermediate goal is to celebrate my birthday in Inuvik. All that depends on the road north out of Dawson City. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Breaking news from the Yukon (almost)...

Double Vision…

I met Richard, and his wife Ursula, on their own Northern Adventure. They’re traveling in Stella’s twin from Vancouver. I learned where they were from after Richard said, “we’re from the island.” Like an idiot I asked, “which island?” Naturally the discussion moved to Westy Talk. This is standard protocol for all Westy enthusiasts. I was pleased to see that he had the Michelin version of my Yokohamas. After a few minutes on the topics of our travel plans, reinforced sidewalls and Westy accessories, we wished each other safe travels. It was time, once again, for the rubber to meet the road.

DOA in Smithers, B.C.

First the good news. The dreaded Vanagon Syndrome has apparently been cured. Note the striking differences between the before and after photos. That is if you can tell which one is before and which one is after. I can't.

The bad news? The soldering gun I used to install the famous capacitor indirectly uncovered a weakness in my charging system.

A little background: I began noticing over the last week that the digital readout on Stella’s 1100 Watt power inverter never rose above 11.8 volts. The norm in San Diego was always 12.2 volts. You’re probably thinking, “So what? 0.4 volts? Get over it.” Well, I was thinking the exact same thing. I chocked it up to excessive IPod use, emergency radio charging, and nighttime laptop and lighting use. I figured it would jump right back up to 12.2 volts if I backed off on even one of those activities. Not to be. The issue turned out to be near catastrophic alternator failure. You could literally put your hand on it with the engine running and feel every moving part begging for mercy. Like I’ve always said, better here than in the Yukon. OK, I said it once. To myself.

So here I sit in Smithers waiting for parts to arrive at OK Tire and Auto. But hey, I’m not complaining. Not even a little. Learning this in a town with a reasonable level of service available, as opposed to where I was headed next, is nothing short of damn lucky. Did I mention it was damn lucky?

So, where to next? Well, once John and the OK Crew get the alternator from Vancouver installed (best case May 28th), my original plan was to head to the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park. This particular area is known for numerous bear sightings. For those of you who haven’t given up on the oft promised amazing wildlife pictures, Nisga’a could be the answer. According to Kim from Thyee Lake, and a trucker I ran into while soldering Stella’s capacitor at a rest area, both have spotted the elusive Spirit Bear near the lava beds. The Spirit Bear, or Kermode Bear, is a sub-species of the American Black Bear and is known for 1/10 of its population having pure white coats. The goal is to capture a photo of a white Kermode Bear. You might be asking, “Who cares? That’s just like a polar bear.” Well, I haven’t seen any of those either! So far I’ve seen a chipmunk, a picture of a moose on a sign and a blue jay! I remain hopeful.

The inside scoop on what to see in northwestern B.C…

As I mentioned earlier, my original plan out of Smithers was to see Nisga’a, then continue north directly to Whitehorse in the Yukon. Wolfgang’s recommendations on northwestern B.C. quickly switched me to plan B, which will temporarily postpone Kermode Bear "hunting." He stopped by my Riverside Park site while passing through on his motorcycle to inquire about Stella. He was kind enough to spend 90 minutes with me sharing his Canadian travel adventures, as well as some detailed direction on the must see sights in this part of B.C. One amazing tale spoke of how he and his buddy were swamped by a 2 meter tsunami while paddling through ice floes on their way to Petersburg, Alaska. Their kayak was overturned when a nearby glacier did a little unexpected shedding. They managed to salvage most of their gear, including their tools, repair the damage and continue on to Petersburg. Nothing like laughing in the face of adversity. Nicely done Wolfgang and thanks a million for the info on northwestern British Columbia. I would have missed 2/3 of your recommendations if we hadn’t spoken. Check back for pictures from Prince Rupert, Atlin, Kincolith, Hyder, Warm Bay, Kluane Lake, and more. The Yukon can wait!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bloggin’ from B.C…

The Gig is up…

Kris, also known as my Gig Harbor Electronics Expert, came through big time on Friday. I had the precious capacitors in hand and was sitting down to lunch on the harbor with Kris by 1:00 pm. Of course her daughter thought something sinister was going down and questioned her Mom on what the parts were for, whether I was involved in some international car theft ring, and was I having a master key shipped to someplace other than my own address. Elizabeth thought she had an open and shut case when the UPS guy handed her a small box from a company called DigiKey doing business out of Thief River Falls. Go figure.
Anyway, another fortunate detour. I got to finally meet Kris, drive over the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge and went to the Gig Harbor Post Office to lighten my load by about 40 lbs. Two large boxes on the way to Golden Hill, Cat!

Our Neighbors to the North…

Would you believe that even with all the detours I managed to cross the Canadian border ahead of schedule? Actually, I don’t really have a schedule, but if I did I’d be ahead of it. I crossed at the Sumas border crossing into British Columbia, and as I approached the border I realized I was third in line. Now I’m foolishly thinking this is going to be like driving into Mexico for lobster in Puerto Nuevo. Wrong.

I approached the friendly looking border official with all my forms completed in triplicate, my non-resident insurance ID card, my registration and, of course, my passport. Then the questions started. She asked how long I was going to be in Canada. I told her probably a couple of months. This was not a good answer. Their issue is that hippie freaks in VWs come from California all the time and try to blend into the wilderness. I assured her that I was not yet a hippie freak, so we moved on.

I think that little exercise was just a warm up. More questions:

Do you have any knives? Yes. Three. Two steak knives and a dive knife.
Do you have any restricted firearms? No.
Are you in possession of any child pornography? Holy crap. No!
Is there anything you want to share with me before I search your vehicle? Ummm, no?
Do you plan to perambulate during your visit to Canada? Frequently.
Do you have any alcohol in the vehicle? Yes. Four beers in the fridge. Help yourself.

She seemed satisfied with these answers and told me to have a seat. She then proceeded to thoroughly search Stella from top to bottom. If it hadn’t been for her opening my trash bag full of dirty laundry, I might have been there for another hour. She sent me to the cashier with all my stamped forms to pay the $25 fee. A small price to pay for visiting what is sure to be an amazingly wild place.

My Fave Five…

1. Dave Arbaugh’s Seven Seasons Seasoning.This was a parting gift from my neighbor Dave, and I have to say I’ve used it at least once every single day since I left. A perfect addition to the Westy Kitchen.

2. My Yokohama Y-356 8 ply tires. I bought a set of six (four on the ground and two spares). They may not look pretty but they were made to carry the weight of a Westy.

3. Campgrounds under the purview of the BC Provincial Parks Department. The cleanest campgrounds in North America! It looked like a display at Sears Home & Garden.

4. Listening to the NBA playoffs on XM while sitting outside Stella by the campfire in the middle of freakin’ nowhere.

5. Not having to get a BCS at the BCBC (translation provided upon request).

Last night’s view…

Here’s a snapshot of the view I enjoyed through my windshield last night.

I was camped at the eerily quiet Green Lake campground. As important as Memorial Day is, I have no complaints that it’s not a Canadian holiday. The place was virtually empty! Thanks for all the great comments and for following my northerly progress. Polar bear pictures coming soon. I promise! Next stop Prince George, B.C.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Where's Stella?

A Fortunate Pacific NW Detour - If you remember from a previous post, the original plan was to continue north from Las Vegas and enter Canada after spending some time in Wyoming and Montana. For those of you tracking my progress on Google Latitude you may be wondering what I'm doing in the Pacific Northwest. Well, here's the deal. I left San Diego without some essential camping gear. Knowing my wilderness-focused friends near Bend, Oregon could help me out, I figured I would head their way, borrow some gear, and stay for a short visit. The first thing I saw was this incredible view from their back deck. Welcome to Oregon.

I quickly learned Danielle's boyfriend, Nick, was an expert in the kitchen. Notice the look on his face after I asked him for the tenth time if there was anything I could do to help. I gave up and sat back to watch the magic. Nick whipped up a perfectly dry, very cold martini and a potato risotto and grilled steak that would give Morton's Steakhouse a serious run for its money. After dinner I took a beating on the pool table and retired to a hot shower and a real bed. Many thanks to Nick, Danielle, Brody, and their three very well-behaved dogs!

Kudos to Radio Shack Curt - I mentioned above that the detour to Oregon was a fortunate one. Here's why. While on the way to the Bend area, Stella developed the dreaded Vanagon Syndrome, an intermittent loss of power at full speed that was starting to happen at the most inopportune times. I limped into the Bend area to meet my friends and magically (read: intermittently) the problem stopped. Well, having recently become familiar with the lack of urban sprawl in the Yukon, I figured I would take advantage of my proximity to Portland and Seattle and address this issue. After some much appreciated help from my online "buddies" in the Westfalia community I determined that I could potentially fix the issue with a $2.80 15 volt 22 microFarad tantalum capacitor from Radio Shack. I have no idea what I'm talking about, but I'm really good at following directions. Long story short I was lucky enough to hook up with Curt at the Portland Radio Shack who went above and beyond the call of duty in pointing me in the right direction. Like all things Westfalia-related this capacitor can be tough to find. So I went back to check on Stella who was patiently waiting in an industrial area of Portland. I hopped in and took a gamble on being able to scab onto someone's wi-fi in the area. Success! What a country. I logged onto an electronics supply website and ordered ten of the mysterious capacitors. I needed one, but come on, they're only $0.75 each!

Next stop Seattle - By now you're probably asking, "where's all the pictures of pristine, natural beauty you promised us?" I'm getting there. These are just some intermediate stops to visit friends along the way and to make sure Stella can survive the Yukon. Which brings me to the next stop - Seattle. My good buddy Craig set it up for me to ship the capacitors to his charming sister's house tomorrow. And since I spoke with Kris about a visit as I headed north it works out perfect. Ill be having lunch with Kris tomorrow, waiting for the UPS guy, and then it's on to Canada.

Speaking of Pristine, Natural Beauty - I was able to click off this photo of Sasquatch as he made away with my beef jerky. Bastard.

I'm hoping my investment in is going to start paying dividends. Internet access has been a challenge so far. I'll try to keep you all up to date on how things are going. After four days into this adventure I have to say my only regret is that I'm sans chat. Otherwise, I'm living a dream.

Standby for pristine natural beauty!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Stella: Loaded for Bear...

The tinkering, packing, convenient delays and sad goodbyes are done. Here's a shot of Stella fully packed and raring to go. Right after I publish this entry I'll be hitting the road on the first leg of a journey that will take me through Las Vegas, Yellowstone, British Columbia, then through Alaska, a few degrees north of the Arctic Circle, across Canada to Boston, and finally back home to San Diego. will allow me to stay connected even in Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory (two locations!), so I hope you check in whenever you can and share this adventure with me. For those of you of the gmail persuasion who want to track my exact location, I've set up Google Latitude. Just send an email to using your gmail address and I'll send you a Google Latitude invite.

That's it for now. I'm off to Las Vegas!


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stella Blue and Stella 2...

Well, it was a long day of driving but I made it back to San Diego at midnight last night with our new addition to the family. Here's a picture of Stella Blue and Stella 2 (real name McTavish) getting to know each other. McTavish is the name the previous owners (Anne & Dave) affectionately gave their Westy.

After the paperwork was done Anne sent me on my way with the typical batch of Good Westy Karma. McTavish ran like a top and made it up and over the the Grapevine effortlessly.Thank you Anne, and rest assured, your Westy will be well cared for.

While McTavish gets some rest I need to shift my focus back to Stella and get the last minute repairs done. Will I be on the road Friday, Saturday or Sunday?!?


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Slight Delay Number Two...

We're expecting! It looks like our family is about to grow.

While waiting for parts to be delivered for Stella's repairs I stumbled upon what appears to be a great deal on another Westy Camper Van. So I'm off to Fresno this morning and will hopefully be driving home tonight in the next Westfalia restoration project. These have been almost impossible to find in good condition, so it's hard to pass it up.

I'm still shooting for a Friday/Saturday departure. Stay tuned and thank you all for the great comments! I really appreciate your support, wisdom and wit.

Wish me luck!


Monday, May 11, 2009

The best laid plans...

Well, here it is, Monday morning and I'm still here.

While in the process of doing some routine maintenance this weekend on Stella Blue, I discovered some not so routine issues. So today will be spent in the garage removing the left and right rear axles and repacking all four constant velocity joints with about 400 grams of grease.

I guess it's better to lay here on the garage floor and do it instead of laying in a pile of pine cones somewhere in Montana. New departure date will be a little later this week. Oh, and if you're wondering what my Number Two Girl looks like, I'll be posting pictures right before I leave with Stella fully loaded. That's it for now!


Sunday, May 3, 2009

North to Alaska!

Today is May 3, 2009. It was 30 years ago today that I left my home in Boston for the Air Force. I thought it would be fitting on this day to post the first message to the blog I'll be using to track my next adventure. I'll fill in the background as we go along for anyone following this blog, and will also use it to post pictures and updates from the journey to the top of the world.

In about 2 weeks I'll be loading Stella Blue (my 1987 VW Westfalia camper) for the journey to the Arctic Circle and beyond. Friends and family will be getting an invite to sign on to the San Diego Westy blog, and those that choose to check it out, I look forward to sharing this adventure with you. That's it for now. Much, much more to follow.