How We Spent Our Winter Vacation

This page loads slowly, but has pretty pictures. Be patient

The Rally of the Lost Patrol

After years of anticipation, months of preparation, days of buying, hours of packing...

We’re departing home at 4:00pm Wednesday, Feb. 18, 1998. The Odometer reads 119,425.

The Canadian border crossing was fun. The agent’s eyes perked right up when we said our destination was Inuvik. I bet she doesn’t hear that one very often. After 20 questions she let us go with a "good luck". Best question: "Will you be speeding?"

Thursday, Feb. 19 - Hope, British Columbia, is a pretty town, tucked between the Coldwater river and the mountains ( that are starting to look "towering" ). AAA comes through again, with a nice quiet hotel. Each room had a shield on the door for a Canadian province. Ours was the Yukon territory room! It’s starting to look like we’re getting out of town. Coming up half way the first day was a great idea. It’s so much more relaxing this way, no rushing through our country style breakfast.

Highway 1 in Canada is spectacular. You travel up the Fraser River Canyon and through Hells Gate. Lots of tunnels on this road (honk, honk). It’s 11:00 before we finally break out of the fog and into the sunshine. There’s no snow to speak of yet, only a light dusting higher up. At Spence’s Bridge we saw some Bighorn sheep. There had been warning signs several km back - guess we should believe the livestock warning signs. Other wildlife to be seen included a bald eagle overlooking the lake at Lac La Hache (I just love that name). After arriving in Quesnel we found the Tower Inn. Most competitors were here and already the stories had started. Cars were all ready so we retired to the reception.

Friday, Feb 20 - It’s finally the first day. Last night's reception was a blast. Trading stories with Henry Joy and Tom Grimshaw, joking with friends like Dave Jensen and Russ ‘Squidboy’ Kraushaar. A fun time was had by all. 8:00 was the FCO. We start with a long transit to Blackwater North. Lots of logging trucks. Got my first windscreen ‘gift’ before even the first regularity. Got to see a Spruce Hen turn into a cloud of feathers under an oncoming log truck, very exciting. During the transit, after Nora had all the instructions in the computer, it went off! Turns out I had forgotten to plug in the power. Glad we found out in the transit. Finally we started the first regularity. Snow at last! We did great. Don’t know the scores yet, but every thing went on without a hitch. Now we can give a sigh of relief and head north to Chetwynd.

Finished WAC Bennet Dam regularity and had a blast doing it. Forty and fifty mph on compact snow and ice. It’s about 25F outside and the ice and soft snow are slick as ______ (fill in with favorite slippery substance). Coming out toward Hudson Hope we saw several deer on the side of the road and watched Henry Joy almost ‘grill’ a couple. We ended up seeing well over 30 of these potential fender munchers along the road and were told that was the fewest seen during any of the previous rallies.

Saturday, Feb 21 - We spent the night at the Pioneer Inn in Fort St. John. This is the nicest motel in town. Actually was a right nice place. As a group we ate dinner at the Greek/Italian place a couple blocks away called the Northern Lights. If you’re ever in town, give them a try. Good food, reasonable price. It also never ceases to amaze me how loud a rally crowd can be while eating. Today we have a long transit up to Fort Nelson and a regularity out to the Liard Hot Springs for a mandatory dip in the pool. Funny that this one hundred mile section is as long as the longest Saturday Nighter is. The scenery has been beautiful. Came through a pass in the mountains yesterday getting into Chetwynd that was surrounded on both sides by bare snow capped peaks. the rivers are just starting to thaw. All this is very different then the Seattle area.

The Alaska-Canadian highway is as beautiful as everyone said. It snowed in the morning, leaving everything freshly white. Not much traffic (fortunately) as passing semi’s through a cloud of powder is one of the scariest things Nora had ever tried. You have to press through complete white out conditions to climb right onto the bumper of the semi. It is only at this 10 foot distance that you can actually see the brake lights. Now you ease your nose out into the oncoming lane and see if it’s clear. Most of the time you don’t meet any oncoming traffic at just this moment, but... Nora was attempting this maneuver of easing left out into the oncoming lane when the truck, as well as the road, went right. Suddenly we're heading for the shoulder at 60 mph! Unfortunately, when you correct and get back into your lane it’s back into the complete white conditions again. Took a couple minutes for Nora to gather herself and take another shot at that truck.

The 100 mile TSD section became a Monte Carlo after the first 39 miles. The weather’s too glorious, the road’s too winding and the hot springs are calling! Did get to see my first ever moose on a hillside during the section. With the promise of a soak in the hot springs ahead, the pressure to get there increased. I dropped in behind Kelly Secrest and had a grand time toddling down the Al-Can. Finally it was the end of the section and time for the mandatory checkpoint in the hot springs. The Liard Hot Springs is a national treasure! The upper end of the Alpha pool had some very hot currents. The sulfurous steam made us think of Yellowstone. It was brisk to be dressed in swim trunks but once in the water you never wanted to get out. The steam rising off the pool was freezing in our hair to remind us of just how cold it was. Of course, it was only 0F or so and not anywhere as cold as the -40F to -50F of previous events. El Nino has left most of Western Canada bare of the usual snow and up in the rather balmy positive degrees F. Climbing out of the hot pool was a hard thing to do and a stunning reminder of just how cold 0F really is. Now we had to start the many hour drive to the Yukon and the town of Watson Lake.

It was Saturday night in Watson Lake and the locals were out in force. We played pool with a local couple and listened to a great band. After several beers Paul DuChene, Russ Kraushaar, and we two went with the locals to the Bonspiel - the local curling ‘rink’ They were having a community tournament with two lines being played. At 1:00AM they were done so we tried our hand at pushing the stones. They’re heavier than they look! The special techniques we learned watching the locals was to end up spread eagle on the ice after releasing the stone. Nora chose this style while Greg used the ever popular ‘don’t want to spill my beer’ upright form. Good thing it was a tropical 20F. We quit to watch the Northern Lights - a curtain of green across the entire sky. Simply gorgeous.

Sunday, Feb 22 - The Campbell Highway. Sure am glad some of us insisted on going up the Campbell. The Campbell Highway has two parts. The upper part connects the town of Ross River with Carmacks; your basic well-plowed highway. The lower Campbell was mostly used to connect the zinc mining to Watson Lake. Last year they closed the mine, so the Yukon Territory will stop maintaining the 230 mile stretch starting this summer. This winter, however, it is still being plowed. Last night we had a little snow of about 1-2". The plows had not been out and we were driving in the tracks of the lead cars. It was a little dicey and still twilight when we started. Our first ‘casualty’ was Car 1 stuffed into the snow bank. No damage to the car, but some Subaru pride will be in the shop for awhile. About half way the altitude went up and the snow got to about 6" deep on the road. By that time we were fourth on the road.

At times, the flat light conditions were such that you couldn’t find the tracks in the road. Matter of fact you couldn’t see the road at all, just a field of gray/white. All very exciting stuff. Scenery was beautiful, except for the constant whining by the rallymaster about how it was under duress that we were even doing the Campbell. Now that we all made it through, he looks like a champ.

Near Carmacks, the Campbell Highway ended and we turned onto the Klondike Highway headed for Dawson City... many miles of pretty country, especially the Yukon river. After checking into the hotel in Dawson (the Eldorado Hotel, of course), we took Mike Cottam’s advice and headed for Dome Road where there’s a 360 degree view above Dawson City and the river. We hoped to get pictures at sunset. Instead we got another story to tell! At the last intersection about one and a half miles from the summit, a little snow was piled on the road. To get through it Mike sped up, thinking the snow on the other side was only a couple inches deep. The result was a yump and a stuff. We were immediately behind him with somewhat the same effect, except we were able to back out of the snow bank. We ventured back in to drag Mike’s Jeep out with our Galant, but didn’t have enough clearance underneath to complete the job. Gary Webb’s Jeep arrived and finished pulling him out. My clutch says ‘Thanks, Gary’. Richard had to take the challenge and did get his Toyota truck through a ways, but used his (or Sharon’s) better judgment and turned around. We all went back into town to share our story with the others.

Dinner at the Jack London Grill was very good, although they were working hard in the kitchen to handle almost 30 of us. Nora skipped the bar after dinner and went to bed (making up for lost sleep from Saturday). However, Greg wanted to see the Northern Lights again and headed down to the Yukon river with the Breazeale’s for an hour or two.

Monday, Feb 23 -

The day begins with the Dempster Highway. This simply must be the longest, coldest and most beautiful highway in the world. It's 500 miles from here to the MacKenzie river and only one gas stop. As a matter of fact, there's only one ANYTHING and that's Eagle Plains (population 8). Outside of that one spot there aren't even any sideroads until Ft. McPherson.

Lots of TSD miles today and the hardware gremlins were testing us. The clock in the computer consistently gained a couple seconds an hour, so we were dueling with the WWV clock. Then the computer got real flaky and started turning off and back on, BY ITSELF! Nothing is more scary than a piece of hardware sitting (where it was tossed) in the back seat turning on and off by itself. We did the last section of Eagle Plain by hand calculating split times every two miles and running true SOP. The first computer totally quit and we couldn’t get the backup computer to power up at all, so we’re looking at true SOP rallying for the duration. Greg finally figured out that the power converter under the seat had gotten switched off, so the computer ran its battery down and quit. By the time we finished lunch we were back in business with a freshly charged battery. Good thing Team Hightower can get along through the stressful troubleshooting moments!

After lunch we arrived at the Arctic Circle. They couldn't have placed this line at a more appropriate place. Bleak and barren and fitting for the images of the Great White North.

The afternoon regularity went much better. The scenery coming through the mountains was great! The sun set about 5:45 on our way to Inuvik; the skies were rich pinks, lavenders and blues all the way around us.

Now that’s a sunset. We stayed at the MacKenzie Hotel in Inuvik. The ‘Halfway Banquet’ was musk ox pot roast, caribou and Arctic char. The mayor stopped and said a few words about having us there. The Mayor is our kind of guy. We noticed that he had patched a hole in his pocket with duct tape. Our Massachusetts State Trooper Kelly also talked with the local RCMP - never hurts to have a little extra info from them. When we got our scores we were relieved to have only single digits. We’re still ahead of Kisela and Jensen, but only by 15 points. All but 3 cars will go to Tuktoyaktuk in the morning. Team Subaru is abstaining from the added adventure.

Team Hightower went for a short walk together that evening. It is a quiet walk in the far north. With a wrap over your mouth and parka hoods over your ears, all you can really do is just rub noses.

Tuesday, Feb 24 - In the winters they make roads out of the rivers. Our trip of thousands of miles wouldn’t have been complete until we got all the way to the end of the road. So it was off to Tuktoyaktuk. One hundred and ten miles of ice road down the MacKenzie River to Kugmallit Bay in the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean. ‘Tuk’ is only accessible by car in the winter because no land roads can exist on the permafrost tundra. Except for Barrow,Alaska, it's as far north as you can drive on a public road. Everybody left at 8:00am and were to the end of the road by about 9:20am. The speeds you can make on ice are incredible!

The road is one lane of bare ice with 2 to 3 lanes of inch deep snow on both sides. No centerline, but they do have "street" signs. Several cars spun out at speeds in excess of the 40mph speed limit. Very interesting to watch. Only one car got all the way to the three-foot high snow bank that edged the road. I believe John Kisela was driving when the Subaru climbed up on top and fortunately there was no damage. So we finally had reached the end of the road. And we got to drive on the Arctic Ocean!

Now it was time to turn around and start the second half of the trip. It was a long drive back to Dawson City. With no regularities today, it was a simple matter of covering the distance as fast as possible and getting to the bar in Dawson. We got to see lots more wildlife including a Northern Hawk Owl protecting its kill from our car and a red fox trotting down the road with us. The red BMW carrying the Miller and Grimshaw show had a close encounter with a moose - wiped the dirt off the navigators side (of course) without leaving a dent. Apparently the moose refused to yield to their on-coming car -- scared it so bad it fell over, but got up and left OK. That was not the extent of the ‘curse’ of being the leader... when they stopped the car for gas at Dempster Crossing the car wouldn’t restart. We left them behind awaiting a fuel pump flown in from Steve Norman’s BMW dealership in Seattle. (They finally arrived in Quesnel late Saturday morning.) No chance for anyone else to beat Subaru now.

We enjoyed the gorgeous scenery again! All was blue and white with soft lines of gray and yours truly could believe you’re in the middle of nowhere. There are more signs of animals than people - prints crisscrossing the snow. ‘Trees’ in the Arctic are obviously challenged by the harsh elements. One of the rallyists said "This is where God practiced making trees. When he got it right he made them for the rest of the country." South of Eagle Plains the sun was setting in an overcast sky with a band of clearing above the horizon. Between us and the sunset was an ice crystal storm. As the sun dropped down from behind the clouds it shown through the ice crystals creating several beautiful and rare lighting effects. The first was a sun dog - a bright spot off to the side of the sun as you would get with a camera lens. That expanded to both sides of the sun forming a rainbow of 270 degrees! As the sun began to set a bright gold scepter of light shown straight up, intersecting the rainbow. All of this amid a sunset of glowing copper. You had to be there to fully appreciate the beauty (that disappeared quickly). Hopefully photos will capture some of the effect, but can’t ever capture the moment. You knew it was something special when Tom Grimshaw said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in the North.

We did have a ‘mandatory’ snowstorm to drive through at night and praised the inventor of the yellow reflectors! The lowest temperature we recorded during the trip to the end of the road was -15F, 30 degrees F higher than expected.

Wednesday, Feb 25 - We only had one TSD section - good thing because Greg was getting very sick. It seems he got a dose of the ‘Yukon Flu’ from Russ, so Nora had to drive all the other miles. The rally was told to slow down after one of our own was seen doing 110 klicks into Carmacks in a 50 kph zone. The local RCMP said they were calling ahead to Whitehorse to tell them to watch for our reckless, rowdy crowd. We didn’t see any sign of them after that.

We got to Watson Lake with good scores despite Greg’s condition. First order of business when we got to town was a trip to the hospital. First time Greg had ever checked himself into one. Actually, we never really checked in. The doctor in town was there for other reasons and saved us the expense of a hospital stay by taking us directly to his clinic at no extra charge. Turned out to only be a very bad flu, but the doctor understood the need for travel the next morning and dished out powerful drugs to help Greg feel better. After the drugs and an hour in the in-room Jacuzzi, Greg slept very well. Nora split her time between checking on Greg and dancing to that same great band and playing pool.

Thursday, Feb. 26 - The day started with a regularity right off the bat. Greg cut the dosage of his pain killers back by half in order to drive this section. It was the Upper Cassiar and a long, 50 mph drive. We just nailed this section and tied for lowest score with 5 points. Greg, however, could barely concentrate during the drive and decided NO pain killers for the rest of the day. There would be no way he could do Telegraph Creek this fuzzy around the edges.

Telegraph Creek road is a prime rally road. Henry Joy really wanted to have his Lancer ProRally car instead of the photographers' Subaru wagon. Really it’s not all that steep or scary. Not worse then some of the logging roads in the Olympic Mountains here locally. Nora found it wasn’t bad at all if you never looked up from the NRI’s! When we got to Dease Lake, Greg went to bed and Nora went to the bar with most of the other rallyists. They played darts and pool and generally kept the volume level high. Greg joined them briefly for dinner (after his medicine took effect). I think we doubled the population of Dease Lake that night. Gary Webb got take-out from the ‘restaurant’ at the gas station and brought it to the bar. This way we could all sit down and eat together.

Friday, Feb 27 - Our day started at the ‘restaurant’ at the gas station. They’d opened early for us which was nice. The food was real basic and you didn’t want to eat the ‘country potatoes’, but it was better than nothing. We ate in shifts because there weren’t enough chairs, especially with the few local patrons.

We had two sections to finish the rally. Lower Cassiar was a pretty section with steep mountains. We saw a ferret chewing on some previous rallyists' bones at mileage 123,725. If you are missing anyone, check there. Greg was feeling a little better and we had the computer, factors and driving style figured out by this time. We tied for lowest score with 5 points. Still not feeling real great, Greg decided his new muskrat hat was perfect for napping -- with the ear flaps down to block out the noise and the face flap down to cover his eyes. After driving 550 miles we got to the start of Blackwater South.

For the first time the road surface played a part in keeping on time - slush over ice! There were close calls for everyone. Greg enjoyed having to add extra wheel spin to gain mileage to account for Peter Linde measuring the course when there was even more snow than this. This last section was the most technical section of the rally - the driver having to stay on speed (and the road) and the navigator working through many speed changes, all after dark. A pair of canines (coyote?) had pre-trotted the course. We followed their paw prints through the entire section. Wish we’d have seen them... After the TSD section was over the ProRally drivers needed to cut loose and have a little fun. Henry, Jim and Greg passed the others, leaving them in the dust.

One funny conversation over the radio was Gene Henderson telling Gary Webb to turn down his headlights. Gary explained that they were already on low. However, Gene insisted they were ‘flooding his whole car with light, making it hard to drive!’ Satch couldn’t resist and suggested that Gary just turn his headlights off! Gene was quiet after that. Roy had told us to look at the stars, so in a clear section we stopped and gazed at the Milky Way. Jack and Kelly stopped, too. We could see the Pleiades - through the binoculars was fantastic. I’m not sure Kelly had ever seen stars like that before. Oh, yea, we got another great score on Blackwater. 14 points tied with Henderson and Kraushaar. Occasionally, when we both agreed, we’d randomly take .01 miles out of the rally box. Seemed to work.

The Awards Banquet -

After acknowledgment and gifts to Subaru, Satch got on with the trophies. Of course, Dan Coughnour couldn’t leave without a Subaru bathrobe, so Satch replaced the one he LEFT at Liard Hot Springs. It was a fun event. Satch made everyone feel good about their scores and trials. Gene Henderson gave Dennis and Kevin a free entry to P.O.R. for finishing the last two days with no clutch and most of the final day with only fourth gear. Story telling really began in earnest then. Everyone remembering the best and worst moments. After closing the banquet room down, 10 or so of us moved up to our hotel room for more stories, I mean that’s why we do this crazy stuff, right?

We placed first in Class 4 and would have been second in Class 2. A fourth overall finish was far better than Team Hightower could have ever hoped for. Endurance and team work really paid off. But mostly we earned the friendship and respect of a very veteran and elite crowd of rallyists.