The story continues of our trip down the Alaska Highway. After Day 1 drama, today’s post is the story of even more drama that came on Day 2. At the end of our first day, my sister and I made it to Tok, Alaska, where we overnighted.
The plan was to wake up before dawn. That time of year and that far north, before dawn is not an unreasonable time. Official sunrise was about 8 a.m. and the plan was to be on the road at 7:30, at first light. We wanted to get as far as possible each day without driving in the dark. It was a bust the day before because of the wrong turn that led us off course for two hours.
But Day 2 was a whole new day. Every day was a whole new day.
I don’t want to keep you in suspense. So let me say here that getting up early, leaving in pre-dawn and not driving in the dark at the end of the day was the plan every single day of the trip.
It happened exactly zero times.
Despite our intentions, we usually woke with the sun and got on the road 90 minutes after that. And every day ended in the black of night. If you drive the Alaska Highway off-season, I advise you to do as we planned, not as we did.
Crossing the Border
A hundred or so miles after we left, we arrived at the Canadian border. I wanted to jump out and take photos but was too scared to do anything except act proper. We’d be warned by people, by the Milepost and by the internet that, when crossing the border, it was imperative to be all business. Don’t answer more than you are asked. Have your documents ready. Respect the job border security is doing. Don’t joke. Don’t engage in conversation.
Border security is on the lookout for people with ill intentions so you don’t want to do anything to raise a red flag. Visions of getting searched floated through my brain, including unloading the entire U-Haul, a task that would result in a loss of more hours than the wrong turn had the day before.
My sister was driving so when we pulled up to the window, I let her do the talking. We handed over our passports. Answered questions about how much alcohol we were bringing over the border. Not much. Did we have any guns or did we ever have a gun registered in our name. No. And no. Pets? Two. I handed over their health certificates.
With all the warnings, I was nervous and flustered by the whole experience. When asked for the license plate number of the van, I grabbed licenses plates from a box behind my seat and read it to her. She typed the number into her computer. I explained I hadn’t put them on yet but that the temporary tags were valid because I just purchased the van 10 days earlier.
Then I immediately worried I was over explaining. Had I said anything that would trigger a search? I was so flustered it wasn’t until much later that I realized the plates I had in the van weren’t for the van at all. They were for the trailer.
The last question she asked was how long we expected to be in Canada.
My sister, the geography genius, answered, “A day or two.” Remember, from Anchorage to Wyoming it is 3,000 miles.
Red flags, my mind screamed. I hoped the woman knew that was almost physically impossible. But just in case, and against advice of everyone since the question wasn’t directed at me, I jumped in with the correct answer. Four or five days.
The woman handed us back all the documents and welcomed us to her country. It was unbelievably unnerving. All of this and we were 100% on the up and up. Completely legal. Right down to the number of pounds of pet food allowed into the country.
Seriously, I don’t know how bad guys do it.
Encounter with Canadian Law Enforcement
Thirty minutes later, a cop standing in the highway stopped us.
My sister rolled down her window and he asked for her driver’s license. I asked if he wanted to see mine but he said no.
Later we’d learned the full story. He was there because an RV, pulled off to the side of the road, blew a tire. The RV waited for four hours for assistance. By the time we arrived on the scene road side assistance had it almost fixed.
My guess is that the officer was doing double duty. Instead of merely assisting with traffic, he used the time to check that the people on his road were legal drivers.
We ended up parked in the middle of the highway, talking to him for a few minutes. That’s how little traffic there was. My sister told him I bought an RV and I was on my way to live in it full-time. My sister also said I was supposed to be getting towing experience but I hadn’t taken my turn yet behind the wheel.
Before we said goodbye, my sister told him to tell me to practice driving. In a faux stern cop voice he told me to pull over and take my turn driving.
Thirty minutes later, my sister asked, “Is the tire smoking?” She stretched to get a better angle in my side mirror. She was looking at the U-Haul. I looked and wondered aloud if it was just a little water spatter coming off the tire. I thought things were fine.
She kept leaning to get a better look. A minute later, she exclaimed, “The tire just flew off.”
Interestingly, between the tire smoking, then blowing and her pulling off to the side of the road, I never felt a thing. There wasn’t swaying or jerking. It must be due to the U-Haul having two tires on each side. The other tire must’ve made it so the tireless rim wasn’t hitting pavement. We never saw sparks.
Because of the narrow Alaska Highway, she couldn’t get us very far off the road. But she managed to get us on the other side of the white line. Barely.
We both checked our phone. No service. We got out of the van to assess our situation. Yep, the tire was completely gone.
Luckily, we weren’t on the side of the road but a minute before we saw a vehicle heading toward us. My sister said, “I’m flagging them down.”
They stopped next to us. We asked if they had cell service. They didn’t.
It turned out that they were the couple in a truck and trailer who the officer was assisting. That’s how we learned the story of how long he waited for help and why the cop was there. They summered in Alaska and wintered in Florida.
The man started to brainstorm with us and then he said, “Wait. Let me pull over.” He pulled off in front of us and got out of his truck while his wife stayed in.
Another car with a younger couple stopped. They didn’t have cell service either. There wasn’t any way for them to help further, so they went on their way.
The three of us decided that, without cell service, the best option was to unhook the van from the U-Haul, drive to the next town and get help. Or at least drive until we can use the phone to call for help.
After the fiasco of getting the U-Haul hooked to the van to begin with, I was dreading everything about what was to come. But I retrieved the black bag with the jack’s rods from the van then went back for the base of the jack.
You might remember from the aforementioned fiasco, my sister and I could not figure out how the jack worked so it took us a very long time to get the trailer jacked up and attached to the van the morning we left Anchorage.
While we could clearly see the steel rods hooked together, we were not able to make them do anything to make the jack rise. It just never made sense to us.
It’s amazing, truly amazing, how much faster something is when you do it right. Duh.
The man deftly put together the rods. The rod with the hook was the last piece which he connected to a loop in the base. Then he cranked made the rods spin around and—I’m not kidding—minutes later the U-Haul’s tongue was supported by the jack. Two nights before, it had taken my sister and me nearly an hour to get that far.
Once we unhooked from the van, the flashers on the U-Haul were no longer connected. I pulled out my emergency roadside kit and found an orange vest. We tied it to the back of the U-Haul in hopes it would help other drivers see it.
We thanked the man profusely and wished him safe travels to sunny Florida.
The Telephone Game
Did you ever play the telephone game as a kid? You line up. The person on the end whispers something into the next person’s ear. That person whispers it to the next. And so on and so on. When the last person hears the message, she/he says it aloud. The first person tells the original message. Big belly laughs usually follow because the messages are so utterly different.
While the man was jacking up the U-Haul and we stood by mesmerized of how efficient a properly put together jack worked, a guy coming from the opposite direction stopped. He tells us that back the way he came, there’s a horse trailer getting assistance. And when Charlie, the mechanic, is done, he’ll be down to help us.
Apparently the young couple, who had stopped to offer assistance to us, saw the mechanic helping the horse trailer. They pulled over and told him about us. How the guy got involved, I do not know. After he passed on the message, he was on his way.
Since there was nothing behind us except the border crossing and the mechanic was in front of us, so we drove onward. I’m not sure how long we drove, maybe 30 minutes, when we saw the horse trailer. Three horses tied to stakes stood eating hay nearby.
I got out. “Are you Charlie,” I asked the man sitting on the ground at the trailer’s tire. He told me Charlie went home sick but he worked for Charlie. Then he asked, “Are you the one with the U-Haul?” He said when finished, he’d be down to help us. He also told me to call U-Haul because we’d need a reference number so he could invoice U-Haul.
We decided to stay put until the mechanic was ready to go with us to the U-Haul. Plus we had cell service, weak as it was. I found the U-Haul paperwork and called customer service.
The reason U-Haul doesn’t include a spare tire with their trailers is that people steal them. How ridiculous is that? It costs them less to contract with roadside assistance to deal with legitimate tire problems than it does to stock the trailers with spare tires.
We had been waiting more than an hour when the guy came back to tell us that Charlie was on his way. I think the horse trailer was giving him a lot of trouble. A white truck soon stopped in the highway. Charlie rolled down his window asked if we were the ones with the U-Haul. He had a new U-Haul tire and rim.
We made our way back to the trailer.
The short version of the rest of the story: the tire and rim were replaced. Charlie hooked the U-Haul back to the van and we were on our way.
He was a lovely and kind man who explained U-Haul tires were cheap so he made a good living doing exactly what he was doing for us. He inspected the other three tires and said those all looked okay. I wish I’d gotten a photo of him.
Day 2’s drama resulted in a loss of four hours. We ended the day, in the dark, at Haines Junction having gone less than 300 miles.
More drama was still to come, but nothing compared to the first two day. Our most challenging days were behind us. I’ll relay the final legs of the road trip in a post next month.