Up and ready to roll early on Day Two of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Arctic Drive, I peer out the window into the parking lot to see that blowing snow and morning darkness obscure our fleet of vans as we prepare to depart Fairbanks. Depositing my luggage in the lobby, I open the hotel door and brace myself against the cold wind. The tall, LED sign at the entrance to the parking lot tells me that it's -41 degrees Fahrenheit outside (the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet at -40 degrees), and my unprotected face agrees.
Walking towards the middle of the lot I can hear the pre-heat system in each of the vans already engaged, and I can see a small, clear patch of glass at the bottom of their respective windshields where the defroster has been able to put up at least a bit of a fight against the frost. I pop open the door to my Sprinter's cab and climb in. Sliding the key into the ignition, I crank over the diesel motor, which catches, idles for five seconds, and then dies as soon as I turn on the vehicle's light switch. Concerned, I turn the ignition to the right again but am met with zero crank and a red dashboard display that tells me something is very, very wrong.
As I walk back into the hotel lobby I quickly come to the realization that I am not alone: only two of our Sprinters have managed to start on their own, with the rest requiring the jump-start attentions of one of the Mercedes-Benz SUVs whose own gas engine had been plugged into one of the small block heater posts that dot the parking area. Over the course of the next two hours the support team is able to get all but one of the vans running - a black passenger model that we are forced to abandon in Fairbanks - but we are left with the strong impression of just how formidable the cold weather can be in this part of the world.
In Alaska, over-the-road transport trucks never, ever turn off their diesel engines, idling them 24/7 in order to protect the rigs against freezing up in the face of the bitter temperatures. This would be the strategy that we would employ for the next two days after discovering that the Sprinter's pre-heat system was not up to the task of dealing with the extreme temperatures we had encountered. Later, we would learn that the official recorded low for that night had been -44 C, with some parts of Fairbanks reporting as low as -50 C.
The Dalton Highway
Our second day's journey through the Alaskan interior included the roughest, most difficult road we would encounter on the trip: the Dalton Highway. Starting some 150 km north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway is a patchwork of paved sections, gravel road, and ice that has been immortalized by the television program 'Ice Road Truckers' and which has a reputation for being unforgiving and isolated. The road follows the Alaska Pipeline, which pumps crude down from Prudhoe Bay, and it offers very few services and even fewer chances for human interaction as it stretches past the Arctic Circle.
The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans that we are driving are only offered in rear-wheel drive in North America, which means that lane discipline is immediately forgotten in a bid to find sections of the Dalton that offer the most traction. As our convoy snakes its way from one dry patch of road to another, avoiding the iciest sections as best we can, the lead vehicle calls out oncoming traffic so that we might pull over to the right and slow down for the enormous transport trucks that claim sovereignty over this treacherous stretch of road. Not a single passenger car is spotted on the Dalton Highway - all we see are pickups, SUVs, and eighteen wheelers barrelling down from Deadhorse or Prudhoe Bay.
Cold Weather Idiosyncrasies
The ultra-low temperatures that we encounter along the Dalton Highway on our trek north towards Coldfoot (our final destination for the trip) bring out idiosyncrasies in each of the individual Sprinters we are driving. Some start to display unusual whines from under the hood, while others occasionally lose power on uphill sections and have to be restarted, mid-slope, in order to regain their composure. All of the vehicles in our convoy (including the M-Class and GL-Class) suffer from the effects of the biting wind on their steering systems, which chill down to the point where attempting to turn the wheel at lower speeds is met with fierce resistance.
It's also difficult to get an accurate reading of just how cold the weather really is from inside our vans, as the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter temperature display defaults to 'closed-loop' mode once it drops below -40 degrees C. In fact, at this point the dash reads '+85 C,' which is infinitely amusing given the barren, snow-covered landscape on either side of the road. To keep proper records, I purchase an old-school dial thermometer at a local store and attach it to the windshield of our Sprinter with a lanyard.
Despite its lack of four-wheel drive the Sprinter van we are driving handles the sparse traction on the Dalton quite well. Although wheel spin occasionally occurs when ascending a slow uphill section, the vehicle never comes close to getting stuck out on the highway, and the traction and stability control rarely kick in. The short-wheelbase vans are definitely trickier to pilot than the 170-inch models, which offer better stability and absorb more of the road's inherent roughness, but both vehicles are affected by the sideways push of the wind when we emerge from mountainous passages down into more open valleys.
The Arctic Circle
It's mid-way through the afternoon before we reach the demarcation point that is written on the sides of our vans: the edge of the Arctic Circle. 185 kilometres from the start of the Dalton, the Arctic Circle is located at 66 degrees, 33 minutes, and 44 seconds latitude, and it represents the line where 24 hours of daylight or darkness become possible at least once per year.
We pull off the road into a large parking area and are immediately struck by the cold when stepping out of our vehicles. The air around us is quiet and the atmosphere still, broken only by the sounds of our voices, our quietly idling Sprinters, and the occasional truck blasting down the highway in front of us. The attitude of our group is a mixture of solemnity and mirth, with some quietly contemplating the new frontier before them and others removing various articles of clothing for unlikely photographic poses with the sign that fixes the position of the Circle itself.
Coldfoot's Aurora Charm
Although our trip between Fairbanks and Coldfoot stretches just a bit past 400 kilometres on a map - making the Arctic Circle roughly the halfway point - the low speeds and extreme caution that must be taken while traversing the Dalton mean that it is well past darkness by the time we finally reach the endpoint for the day. Coldfoot is the one and only stop between the start of the Dalton Highway and Deadhorse (the end of the public road system in Alaska) to offer any kind of services, and this truck stop also offers a collection of outbuildings that will serve as our accommodations for the evening.
We leave the Sprinters running in the parking lot - they will chug along all night and provide a welcome respite from the cold of the barracks we have been assigned - and wait for a tanker to show up with diesel fuel so that we can fill our own dangerously-depleted vans. After a group dinner and a few hours of discussing the day's events and tomorrow's plans I retire to my room, completely worn out, and set my alarm at 30 minute intervals so that I can nap between checking on the status of the aurora borealis.
The aurora borealis is a unique natural phenomena that results from charged particles colliding with the Earth's magnetic field high in the atmosphere. The result, which often takes the form of a shimmering curtain hanging and shifting in the sky, is typically best viewed at the planet's two poles. Having seen the aurora twice before in southern Quebec, I am most curious to see how it presents itself above the Arctic Circle.
It is not until 12:30 a.m. that the aurora makes its presence known. I bundle up and head outside to stand as far from the glare of the idling Coldfoot semi-trucks as I can, staring up in rapt wonder at the sections of the night sky that have become filled with a glowing white slipstream of light that flows in from over the mountains of the Brooks Range and dances in front of me. I am joined by Nyuki, a member of a Japanese tour group that has inexplicably booked Coldfoot accommodations at the same time as our Sprinter team, and she takes photographs of the phenomena beside me that reveal a phosphorescent green tint to the aurora that is invisible to the naked eye.
After 40 minutes of standing in rapt wonder, I say goodnight to Nyuki and return to my room. I later learn that it had been -50 C the entire time I had been standing outside in the open under the aurora. This most likely explains why I chose to sleep in all of my clothes, plus my tuque, as my body shut down for the few hours remaining before I would have to wake up and leave the Arctic behind on the long drive south.