Anyone can drive across North America. Just pick a freeway and drive coast to coast. You can do the whole distance and never leave the sight of food, fuel, and comfortable lodging. So it puzzles me when people make a big deal out of some transcontinental 'donut run' when there are real automotive adventures out there for the taking. If you’re the kind of person who likes to get off the beaten path, you should consider the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally.

The Alcan Rally has a summer and a winter version, and it alternates every two years. The summer rally was last run in 2006, and this year’s winter event started from Seattle and pushed its way north to the end of the road at Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Twenty-four teams took up the challenge of the Arctic in winter, and every one of them had the time of their sweet lives.

The journey lasts ten days and covers the promised 5,000 miles. But in the Arctic, all miles are not equal. The road less travelled includes 220 miles of the Mackenzie Ice Road and about 500 miles (each way) of the unpaved and snowy Dempster Highway from Dawson City, Yukon, through to Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

There and Back Again

If you want to make it to the far north in February, and more importantly make it back, you have to have the right stuff.  That starts with a car as reliable as the sunrise because where you’re going, even the dawn fails in winter.

Teams on the Alcan overwhelmingly choose All Wheel Drive cars, trucks, and SUVs. Subaru, Mitsubishi, BMW and Audi are the most popular marques. One team braved the north country in an elderly Saab 900 Turbo as the sole entry in the rally’s 2WD class.

A good car is necessary, but not by any means sufficient to carry you through to the ends of the Earth. Our team chose a pair of new Mitsubishi Outlander XLS crossover utility vehicles. With limited-slip AWD, heated leather seats, GPS navigation, hard-disk MusicServer, V6 engine and paddle-shifted 6-speed transmission, the Outlander is a solid choice for a civilized adventure.

We made some changes, starting with pulling out the third-row seats and dropping the convenience spare out from under the rear end to lighten the cars and free up some space for gear. We added the required emergency food and water, H3R “clean agent” fire extinguisher, emergency triangles, and tow straps. Then we tossed in our tools and cold weather supplies. Of course we included a complete set of battery, oil pan, and engine block heaters.

Next we traded the stock 18-inch sport wheels on each Outlander for a set and a half of 16-inch alloys and installed studded Hankook Winter iPike tyres.  Debate rages about the effectiveness of studless ice and snow tyres on the Arctic ice, and from the number of studless spins we saw, we’re convinced we made the right choice.

Two full-size spare tyres ended up on the roof of each car, conveniently carried in a “Mule” basket from BajaRack. The required emergency fuel supply also went topside.

With only about six to eight hours of daylight at this time of year, we wanted some serious illumination. We solved that problem with a set of High Intensity Discharge rally lights from KC HiLites. We chose one broad beam and one spotlight to give a good range and scope of light at night. Per rally rules, the extra lights all went off with the car’s high beams, and we installed an extra switch for separate control.

We covered the Outlander’s stock HID headlights with an endurance racer’s secret - thick clear polyurethane “helicopter” tape. This is the same “Clear Shield” material used to deflect rock chips from your car’s paint. Comparing our perfect headlights to our  cracked and pitted windshield, the stuff is worth every penny.

Before you go, don’t forget to outfit yourself as well as the car. We were decked out in everything from furry hats to heavy duty glacier boots, and we were happy to have the right clothes up on the ice.

How To Win An Adventure Rally

Competition on the Alcan Rally is simple. Most of your score is determined by a series of Time-Speed-Distance rally legs. In these segments, teams are given a route to drive and an average speed to maintain. Winning teams are those who pass hidden timing stations at exactly the correct times. Teams that are early or late earn penalty points. This competition is where the rally is won or lost, yet it’s the least taxing element of the rally.

The second challenge is Ice Racing, where raw speed is factored into each team’s score. In this arena a fast car and a steady hand can help make up time lost on the road. On the other hand, many racers find the limits of their skill on the slick race course, and then park their car in a big soft snow bank. Really, it’s hilarious to watch.

Endurance is the third and most intense trial on the Alcan, and it’s the factor that makes this rally unique. Ten days of marathon driving under harsh and often unpredictable conditions tests the constitution of both man and machine. The longest day’s route calls for 770 road miles, while the shortest is a mere 330. But it’s the relentless day-upon-day of driving through ice, wind, gravel and snow that takes each team to the limit of physical and mental health.

“It's the challenge of both competing and completing the rally,” says three-time Alcan veteran Paul Eklund of Portland, Oregon. And before you can ask why people would do this, he answers the question for you. “The Alcan is a magical experience, and it's extremely beautiful to see the Arctic in winter. Not a lot of people get the chance to do that.”

The Alcan rally begins in Seattle and quickly departs the urban skyline, preferring the country byways that lead to the sleepy border crossing between Sumas, Washington, and Abbotsford, British Columbia.

Once across the border, the rally route heads north up the rugged and beautiful Cariboo Highway into the heart of B.C. Just outside the town of Quesnel, the rally turns off on the first breathtaking country road of the journey.

The true attraction of a time-speed-distance rally is the chance to get off the highway and discover the secret paths known only to the locals. The Blackwater road runs down along a lake and through the woods for a full 90 miles, bypassing the city of Prince George in favor of snow-covered curves and one-lane bridges.

At the end of the Blackwater, the route finds the Cassiar Highway and moves north briskly towards the Yukon. The Cassiar runs through rugged country and it was here that we encountered the first herd of wild caribou on the road. After the longest day on the road, the cars pull into Whitehorse, Yukon – home of the northernmost Starbucks in Canada. If anything signals the edge of the known world in this day and age, the last Starbucks has got to be a contender. Several airlines fly into Whitehorse and rental cars are available here, so if you’re time-pressed, you can cut straight to the heart of this adventure.

We'll bring you Part 2 of Jeff's amazing Arctic adventure on Monday.

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