Starting day 3 of my 113 day trip exploring Canada and I hear a ping, like a rock hit the bottom of the van while going 50 MPH. I hear another, the steering starts swerving, its raining. Am I fish tailing? It’s the front of the van so no, I start braking. It’s hard to brake, the steering wheel is vibrating like nothing I have experienced. Something knocked loose, but what? Think! I’m drifting left crossing the double yellow, I still can’t steer. Start braking harder, don’t flip the van, keep the steering straight, don’t fight it. Brake harder, why won’t it brake? I’m passing the white line now, I’m in the dirt, there’s a ditch, I’m going to flip it on its side. STOMP ON THE BRAKE! It stopped! Sheesh! I look at my friend Carl and tell him don’t get out yet, we need to slowly exit the van so we don’t send it on its side.
Now that you have properly met Jerry, my 1976 Dodge Street Van, maybe I should tell you a little bit of a back story. I bought this van from the original owner in Idaho back in 2016. He had it garaged since ’86 and I was the only idiot at the time that wanted to bring it back to life. Over the past two and a half years it underwent some frankensteining with a 1984 Dodge Ramcharger to make it 4x4. The 318 carbureted motor and 727 transmission was rebuilt which gave me just enough power to haul all my crap up mountains. Sadly, during the rebuild, no one thought to reinforce the frame near the steering gearbox which is why we went fishing in a ditch on day 3.
Once the exterior was pretty much wrapped up, I focused all my energy on the interior to get it live-able. In the end, I wound up working 8-14 hour days, every single day for 68 days straight. Somehow I still ran out of time completing the interior but it was time to hit the road and see what Canada had to offer.
Eddies Cove, Newfoundland, Canada
Macdonald, Manitoba, Canada
Eagle Plains, Yukon, Canada
I had been traveling for a little over 2 months by now and in that time the frame cracked, engine mount cracked off the cracked frame, I almost flipped the van, the steering gearbox dislocated, headers separated from the engine, all 6 exhaust nuts fell off, neutral safety switch came off, windshield wipers stopped working (again), passenger mirror broke off, driveshaft fell off and was destroyed, transfercase linkage broke, the front shocks were punctured and caving in on themselves. On top of fixing all that, I also ended up replacing the tie rods, gas tank float, fuel filter (twice), fuel pump, fuel sock, valve cover gaskets, electronic control unit and the oil had been changed 3 times. Unless you have a beer for me right now, all of those are stories for another time.
For now, the story I want to tell you about is one of the hikes I did with my girlfriend, Danielle. We slept just on the other side of the boarder atop a cliff near Tagish Lake in the Yukon. After changing our plans a couple of times, we settled on hiking Upper Dewey Lake/Devils Punch Bowl in Skagway, Alaska. Once we got up to the lakes, we would hike the basin towards the ridge line in order to gain views of an entire ice field of glaciers. Our starting elevation would be 20 feet and we would end at 5,740 feet. With a solid plan in mind, we got ready for the hike by eating breakfast and skating at the local skatepark like we were still teenagers. We packed our bags with food, water, rain gear, bear spray, cameras, satellite phone, whistle, ID & credit card, just incase something really major happened. Now that the authorities could properly identify our dead bodies for our families, it was time to start hiking.
Let me interrupt this story for a minute by telling you about the day before when we startled a grizzly bear hiking Mount Decoli. It was 30 feet in front of us on our trail and as it heard us around the bend, it darted off into the woods like a bulldozer. The birds took flight as the tree roots were nearly ripped out of the ground from Sunflower (yes, we named the bear). The grizzly never moved from the trees, sitting and waiting as we decided what to do, advance or turn back? We knew there was a curious/testing bear in the area from the parks department and assumed it was not this one, but we did not want to find out so we turned back. Now you know where our minds were at, thirsty for adventure, but very aware of the potential dangers that could be around each bend of a trail.
The trail starts near the port and you twist and turn, navigating the web of paths that all start here in Skagway. Quickly you are ascending up a steep incline that you soon realize is going to be your fate for the majority of the hike, you are climbing a mountain after all. If you have ever hiked in the Alaskan coast, then you understand how 1 mile can feel like 3. We had gone maybe .2 miles when I stopped and started taking photos. The hike was already so photogenic leading us through the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rainforest. The path was rocky, hard packed dirt with plenty of roots and moss for our feet to dodge. The air had a warm Fall like feel with yellow leaves and copper colored pine needles falling to the forest floor. The trail in general felt open but tucked away. The sound of a raging creek would come and go as if a little kid was playing with the stereo knobs as we walked back and forth up the mountain. I ended up shirtless pretty quickly because there is no need to dirty another shirt with a gallon of sweat when you are living out of a van. We found bark-less branches to use as hiking staffs so the constant hill climb was slightly less punishing on our muscles and knees. As the hours went by, we kept telling ourselves we had to be close to Dewey Lake. Eventually it came true and we were greeted with 1 minute of sunshine and then the clouds started coming in.
We sat and ate linner at the lake and talked about the route up to the ridge. Looking at a topo map will only get you so far and seeing it in person always ends up adjusting the route a little. We figured the river was our best bet to make it into the higher basin where the remnants of a receding glacier had detached from the ice field on the other side of the mountain. As we got closer to reaching our goal, the clouds started blanketing the mountain top and taking away our visibility of the route. There was a section that I was still unsure about because it looked like loose scree with a super exposed drop. I was hoping as we got closer a solution would present itself, but as the clouds kept rolling in we realized that wasn’t a valid option. Danielle said she couldn’t promise much more life out of her legs since she had been stuck studying for the last 2 months and hadn’t spent anytime outside of Ohio’s flat-ish trails in that time. Her exact words were, “I want to get as high as possible as soon as possible as safe as possible.” With all that in mind, I saw a sag in the ridge line that had a decent amount of green covering the rocks which looked like Creeping Juniper. Climbing up this section felt spongey and safe to me, but it did not to Danielle. Quickly the 30 degree inclines turned into a steady 60-80 degrees. I found this convenient because you barley had to look down to see where your next step was. The rocks were hardly moving below us and every time we took a quick break, we had a new perspective on the area we had just climbed. Danielle’s “oh crap, we are gonna die” alarm goes off a little before mine and she ended up freezing at a small patch of Juniper surrounded by scree. If she went right, the 70 degree incline of loose dirt and rocks would send her down the mountain until she grabbed on to something or the boulders at the bottom broke her fall. Going towards the left was a better option, but she needed an anchor so I traversed back down to lend a hand. About 20 feet higher is when my “oh crap, we are gonna die” alarm went off. Danielle was in front of me and there was a big boulder to our right that I knew I would be safe on, but in order to get there I was forced to take a big step up to the right and try my hardest to not disturb the loose rocks that were below both of Danielle’s feet. If I moved these rocks I would most likely come up short to the boulder and Danielle would fall on top of me starting a slide and potentially covering us with rocks and maybe boulders. Luckily I got through the move and both of us were a lot safer in less than 10 seconds of that section.
From there it was all smiles as we crossed the boulder field and took in the views. Well, until the mosquitoes came out and a white sock bit my leg. We were no longer protected by the wind so we were forced to move forward until we caught up with the Devils Punch Bowl trail. Epic views of the neighboring mountain ranges were surrounding us which surely made up for our plans not working out. I will always wonder what Mount Decoli looks like or how epic those ice fields may be on the other side of the mountain range from Upper Dewey, but at least I am alive to wonder about those things.
Before heading down, we took a swig of some moonshine I had brought up and gathered our last views/photos. It was 8 p.m. and we knew it was going to be darker in the woods, but we didn’t know it was going to be as dark as it was. With fear of relying on one headlamp and not seeing our surroundings, we headed down quickly dodging the roots and rocks. During our descent, we were constantly yelling absurd things, making loud whale calls and blowing the whistle in hopes of scaring off any bears that may of been in the area. The last thing we wanted but the first thing that was on our mind was startling a grizzly in the dark. Can they even see in the dark? We can’t see in the dark. Let’s not find out. Just 45 minutes shy of reaching the van, we had to bust out the headlamp and iPhone flash light to make a safer decent. There were a couple of falls that had happened and we could hardly see. The rest of the hike felt like a tumbling sprint towards the finish line that was fueled with hopes of beer, pizza and maybe a shower. Just after 10 p.m. we reached the van, dropped off some gear, grabbed our toiletry bags and found a Mexican street vendor that was next to a bar. We took a bird bath in the bathroom and shoved food and beer down our throats. It wasn’t a dream come true, but it was a happy ending that left us satisfied till our next adventure.