Fort Nelson, BC- 4,480 km/ 2784 mi
Today we gained another member of our crew. Lisa flew in from Montreal where she is working for Murray Humphries at McGill University. Along with Lisa herself we also gained Lisa’s belongings and a few odds and ends for camp. So our car is beginning to sit quite low indeed. Unfortunately because of my road test in the morning, the fact that Lisa’s flight was delayed, and wrestling with the Subaru’s Thule rooftop carrier we didn’t leave Edmonton until 3pm. It took Lisa and Hannes sitting on top of the car on top of the Thule before Shannon and I were able to get it to shut and locked. Keep in mind that during this time the temperature is only around -20 C with 30 mph wind gusts- in other words we are freezing our fingers off trying to get this Thule shut and are considering lashing it to the car with whatever we have and calling it good. Luckily that wasn’t necessary, but we did have the ratchet straps in hand. The plan was to make it past Fort St. John to one of the motels near Pink Mountain, a drive that would already take us well into the night…but our actual drive tonight ended up being far longer.
Our troubles started around Pink Mountain, at about mile 147 along the Alaska Highway. I knew that there were a few motels in the area (having spent the time to look up the locations the night before) and we planned to stay at one of them. Given that it was the middle of winter we figured that it wouldn’t be an issue finding at least one room in the three nearby motels. Unfortunately, we were wrong…
We pull into Buffalo Inn around 12:30 am. The small lodges along the Alaska Highway emanate a sense of homey warmth that is much welcome after hours of driving along a dark highway with no more than the tail lights of a passing truck for company in the night. We are greeted by the smells of home-cooked food and the bang of pots and pans to our left where a dining room gives off a warm glow. To our right, stairs run up and disappear into a hallway, we presume to the bedrooms that we so covet. A young woman on the wait staff greets us from the kitchen and after a few minutes on the phone apologetically informs us that she can’t get a hold of any of the managerial staff for the Inn and our best bet would be to continue down the road to Sasquatch Crossing where some of the staff is still awake and can assist us. Sasquatch, like Buffalo Inn, when we reach it is brimming with rumbling semi-trucks and their drivers taking a midnight break. We casually joke about not being able to get a room, but within a few minutes the laughter is quickly drying up and the picture is looking grim. It seems that there are no rooms to be had, although the proprietor’s uncertainty and continual checking of the computer is a bit of cause for concern. Still, it is becoming evident that we need a plan B and we need one quickly. It is 1 am or 12 am, depending on who you ask (we appear to be in an amorphous time zone between Alberta and British Columbia time, which is not helping any of our nerves) and we are all fading fast. At this point we basically have two options: 1) try for Buckinghorse River Lodge about 40 km up the road or 2) press on to fort Nelson which is approximately 245 km away- almost a 3 hr drive in the dark. A quick phone call to Buckinghorse confirms that they, too, are booked. By this time resignation has turned to determination. Armed with sugary drinks and home-baked goods provided by the apologetic proprietor we decide we will rotate through half hour shifts to keep everyone awake. But we aren’t 2 km down the road when we realize we only have a half tank of gas. We debate for a moment about going back to Buffalo Inn where we had last seen a pump- but we know Buckinghorse Lodge was still open and I know from their website that they have gas. Forty kilometers later we are sitting just below half a tank when we pull into Buckinghorse. The pump is there, but after much futile pounding on doors we realize that there is no gas to be had. And as a cleaning maid informs us- there is no gas until Fort Nelson. Now the panic begins to settle, deep and heavy, into the pit of my stomach. What to do? We are on the Alaska Highway at 1:30 in the morning with only the rumbling of semi-trucks for company. It is incredibly dark and cold. The temperature is hovering only around -30 C without wind chill. We can stay here and overnight in the car until the loge opens and we can get gas. We shouldn’t freeze, but the thought isn’t a pleasant one. We can go back to Sasquatch or Buffalo Inn and beg them to allow us to stay in their common room, crash on a couch or even a dining room table. Or we could make a run for Fort Nelson. With 4 people, a trunk load and Thule load of gear, we are not making good mileage. But there is a chance that we can just make it with half a tank. My concern is- what if we don’t? But the choice is made, whether or not I think we can make it is overruled by a majority vote- we are making a run for it.
The next few moments of adrenaline rush are part pure panic and part excitement. Where just a few minutes ago I was nodding off, I am now fully awake, helped no doubt by the Root Beer in one hand and chocolaty-caramel square in the other. Heat is turned down, music is off, and cruise control is set to 90 km/hr (for those of you that just had a heart attack- that’s 55 mph). Shannon is stuck behind the wheel because there is not stopping to switch drivers now. I am somewhere between being giddy enough to bounce out of my seat and wanting to throw up. In the next 40 minutes the fuel gauge appears to drop precipitously and then, just stops and hovers just above a quarter of a tank.
By the time we reach Fort Nelson I am dozing, despite continually jerking myself awake to check the fuel gauge. Amazingly we are not riding on fumes. In fact, our gaslight isn’t even on. The relief of seeing lights and houses and civilization when I spent the last 3 hours in fear of sleeping in a freezing, fuel-less car on the side of the dark Alaska Highway is overwhelming. We pull into a Super 8 Hotel, probably the fanciest place we’ve stayed, but right now I don’t care if I have to sell my soul for a bed. I’ve never considered Super 8 Hotels to be high class, but after the places we’ve stayed on the trip and our wild ride along the Alaska Highway it feels posh indeed- soft beds, deep pillows, silky sheets and a hot soak followed by plush towels. In all reality the hot shower waited until the morning but the soft beds and mound of pillow were just as welcome and with the clock ticking down the minutes until 11am check-out we wasted no time climbing under the covers.