North to Alaska: Stalking Denali

If there was one word that I’ve overused these first few days in Alaska, it’s been “wow.” I’ve uttered it at so many turns, at scenes that change with the closing and the parting of the clouds.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an AvGeek, but honestly at this point my first flight since October 2019 pales in excitement compared to the past few days. Summary: 757 EWR-DEN was good, and I certainly appreciate these aircraft more than ever now as they are starting to vanish. Denver layover good, quick duck into the United Club for a beer then on to Anchorage. DEN-ANC good, amazing views over BC and the Yukon. Then we got to Anchorage. Twelve hours in a face mask wasn’t the most fun thing, but worth it to have adventures. All in all not bad, and after five months of mostly isolation and ten months since my last flight, this view was sorely missed.

I rented a car through Midnight Sun Car Rental, an indie outfit which has fewer restrictions on gravel roads than the multinationals. I decided that their rates, openness towards adventure, and small business nature all appealed to me on this trip, and in these times. I ended up with a Subaru Outback, which turned out to be a great choice. It’s good on fuel at around 30 miles per gallon, fits my giant ExPed MegaMat in the back without moving the seats (the only other car I’ve done that in perfectly is an LR3), and it’s a pretty fun drive quite frankly…even with the moderately dire CVT transmission. I mean, I’d totally rather have my Land Rovers, or any Land Rover, but I’d also rather…be here.

After some stops in Anchorage (REI for gear I couldn’t fly with, supermarket for food), it was north up the Parks Highway. Honestly, it was so foggy on the way up here, I didn’t really get the scope of the place. The mountains were clouded in, and all I could see was spruce trees. Still pretty, but it reminded me more of the subtle beauty of Northern Maine. It’s a beauty I love back east, but I was having mild feelings of “what’s the big deal about this place?”

Then, about an hour before I got to Denali, the clouds broke. Suddenly, massive mountain ranges started to appear on either side of the highway. The fog rolled away…like usually happens in the morning, but the midnight sun makes everything a bit wonky here. And then, for the first of what’s already been many times this trip, I slammed the brakes and stopped the Subaru short to get photos with my jaw dropped.

With tepid first impressions fully dismissed, it was off to Denali National Park and the Riley Creek Campground. This was one of the places up there that have had their business decimated by the cutback in tourism with Covid-19. Usually, it’s a campground that’s entirely sold out for the whole summer at the beginning of the year. This time, I made my reservations just a few weeks ago. I was there too late to register, so I just picked a site and set up for the night. It’d been a long day — I’d gotten up almost 24 hours ago, at 5:30 AM New Jersey time. I rolled out the mattress in the back of the Subie, set up the sleeping bag, and put on one of my smartest items packed — my United Polaris eye mask from my 747 upper deck trip a few years ago. Yay useful souvenirs!

The next morning (morning being a deeply relative concept as regards sleep under the midnight sun) I had a 10:00 AM reservation on the Transit Bus into Denali National Park. I’d been hoping to get one of the special self-drive permits that were issued on select weekends as part of the park’s Covid mitigation plan, but they sold out faster than Adele tickets when I tried to buy one the second they released. So I decided to do the next best thing, and go for the transit bus. Since they reduced the numbers on each bus for social distancing, I figured it probably wouldn’t be a bad experience, even though I hate bus tours.

I headed over to the visitor’s center to get the all-important National Parks Passport stamp, then to the bus station to board the bus. The buses are more or less Blue Bird school buses, right down to the slide-up windows that never stay up…just like my Blue Bird school buses decades ago. But it’s been an intrinsic part of the Denali experience for decades, ever since the buses were introduced to mitigate the vehicles driving on the narrow, rough, and fragile Denali Park Road.

While it’s called a “Transit Bus,” and while there are narrated “Tour Buses” as well, the experience was certainly not just an out-and-back shuttle. We stopped for wildlife, and with only a dozen people maximum onboard at any time, we got the chance to photograph it out both sides of the bus. The first sighting was just a few miles down the road, with a big cow moose grazing by the side of the road. The only other time I’d ever seen a moose was one that was running through the Canadian Shield from afar on the Sudbury-White River train a few years ago. So, mark one for the Alaska Wildlife Photo Bingo card.

We continued on, over the Savage River, where the road turns to gravel. It’s also where the scenery really started to open up, with the mountain views I expected. There was still some low cloud cover, but by the time we reached the Polychrome Overlook, it opened up, leading to some excellent vistas over the colorful rocks of the mountains and the glaciers.

As the bus wound through the park, we made a number of wildlife sightings. A lot of them were pretty far away, too far for any kind of decent photo, even with my 400mm lens. We saw a number of caribou, some Dall sheep on the tops of mountains, a grizzly bear chasing after ground squirrel holes, and a few birds (though not as many birds as expected, honestly.)

This year, the transit bus ends its run at the Eielson Visitor’s Center, at Mile 66 of 92. The park is operating on reduced staff in the Covid times, so they can’t justify opening beyond here, and it’s a good turnaround point. They have an outdoor visitor center set up with brochures, maps, and passport stamps, and the bathrooms are open, but the exhibits aren’t. The transit bus gives you an hour here, though, which is much more than normal, so  I was able to go do a bit of a hike down towards the river flats. It was then that I realized that the past few months had not been kind to my hiking stamina, and as I struggled back up the mountain to the parking lot, I decided that I’d scrap my backpacking element of the trip in the Kennicott area of Wrangell-St Elias National Park, saving it for the future. It’s one part of the trip that’s not normally crowded, anyway, and the goal of this trip is to see the usually-crowded without crowds.

The return bus journey was much the same as the outbound, with a few more wildlife sightings. Overall, even though I’d been hoping for a self-drive Denali Park Road permit, the transit bus was a decent way to ease my way in here. After all, yesterday had been pretty tiring, and it was nice to have someone else drive and give me some narration. I’m not usually a fan at all of bus tours, but this was a nice in-between…a bit of a shuttle, a bit of a tour. I’d like to drive the road myself one day, and I’m planning to apply for the road lottery every year in the future with the hopes to get it eventually. But I already know there’s so much more to explore here so it wasn’t a big deal — there will be more trips, that I already know.

With that theory in mind…I still had some unfinished business here. The namesake, The Great One, Denali. I hadn’t seen her yet, at all. The fog, the perspectives in the park, it had all conspired against me. I had two more nights planned at Riley Creek, which meant I had a full day to burn. I decided over my dinner of dehyrated Kathmandu Curry…I’d spend Sunday in the Subaru, driving to other locations on the Parks Highway, “Stalking Denali.”

My bad luck so far was not exactly abnormal. Denali is so huge, it creates its own weather system. This 2008 CBS News article describes it better than I can, but basically it’s due to the position of the Alaska Range and how it influences the climate. The top is often ensconced in clouds of the mountain’s own making; even when the peak is visible, the middle may be wrapped in clouds, like the Empire State Building’s mast sticking above low clouds. When I woke up on Sunday there were blue patches in the sky, though, and I was going to give it a try.

My first attempt was to drive south to Denali State Park, which occupies much of the land south of the National Park and Preserve. Though the NPS “owns” the mountain itself, the State Park encompasses much of the range to its southeast. Two overlooks off the Parks Highway give commanding views out the mountain, and it was from here I would make my first assaults. I began with the northern viewpoint, about 90 minutes south of the campsite and National Park. No luck, though. The other mountains nearby were fully visible, but Denali’s peaks — there are actually two, the South Peak being the absolute tallest — were still hidden in clouds.

I lingered for a bit seeing if the clouds were moving, but no dice. I decided that my next shot would be the South viewpoint, about 20 miles away. There were clouds there, too, but they were starting to thin, at least.

I decided to head down to Talkeetna, a small town a few miles off the Parks Highway to the south of where I was. I had heard about it, but didn’t know too much about it, but it did seem like a decent place to grab lunch and regroup. Located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers, it was originally a district headquarters for the Alaska Railroad, and became a typical Alaskan small town. Today it’s a bit of a touristy town and a gateway to various adventure activities in the Denali area like rafting and flightseeing. It’s got a bit of a “Handmade Fudge Town” vibe, but the Denali Brewpub offered a nice location to grab lunch and a nice Kölsch beer.

After lunch I headed back north, figuring I’d make my way back to the campground via a few more attempts at the two wayside viewpoints. This plan worked out pretty well as I found myself at the South wayside with the peak showing, just barely, behind clouds. A total view of the mountain? No…but a definite and clear view of the most prominent South Peak! I’ll take it…I got the scale of the thing!

A few of us hardcore photographers ended up talking cameras, and one of them, Karilyn, I ended up talking to for a few hours. She and her husband were driving back to Fairbanks from a sports tournament down south, and he desperately needed a nap, so he stayed in their RV while she took photos. We have very similar interests in nature and landscape photography and spent hours talking about where we’ve been and where I should go in Alaska. It was the kind of chance encounter I really love when I travel…meeting other people who love the same things you do! We swapped Instagrams and contact info before parting ways to head north and plan to keep in touch.

I had about an hour and a half of driving north to get back to Riley Creek for my last night. Once again, with the midnight sun, the sun didn’t really “set” at any time, but it did start to linger low on the horizon. While the “golden hour” lasts a few minutes in more southerly latitudes, up here it really hangs on for a while. There were about five times I stopped short on the side of the Parks Highway, overcome by what I was seeing. One particular thing that was neat to photograph in the low light — the Denali Igloo, a tragic folly of a building whose story is, again, best explained by someone else in this Vice article.

And then it was back to camp, Goal #1 of the trip accomplished: see the peak of the tallest mountain in North America. Time for bed, and then onward to a new place and new horizons.

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Driving Up the James Bay Road

After discussing this trip for a decade or so, it was strange to wake up and realize that this was the day we’d do it. The roads of Matagami were covered in a few inches of crunchy snow, and since we knew it’d be the same the whole way up, our winter James Bay Road dreams seemed fulfilled. The weather was chilly, in the negative teens Fahrenheit, but we weren’t looking at any blizzards or heavy winds. A Great Day for James Bay…

(We rejoin the James Bay Road trip log several months later, in July 2020, with the rest being written in retrospect. What have I learned? Day-by-day live blogs are too hard to keep on the road. Future trips on this site will be written up in thematic posts like this one, instead of blow-by-blow daily journals.)

We rolled out of Matagami early, just before sunrise. Since we were within but a few days of the shortest day of the year, we were already pressed for daylight; it’d be dark before 5:00 pm. We’d heard the conditions were decent on the JBR heading north, but we wanted to leave as little to chance as possible.

The Hotel Matagami was just a few kilometers south of the beginning of the JBR, so the first thing was to get a group shot by the entrance sign, creating whatever kind of fill lighting we could taking advantage of everyone’s high beams, without burning our corneas too much.

The first thing to do on a journey up the James Bay Road is to check-in at the booth a few kilometers up the road from the KM 0 sign. On such a remote road, there’s reason to take an interest in who’s on the road, where they’re going, and when they’re due back. The attendant took our information in a large ledger book, with prior returnees stricken out when they check in on the way south. The attendant also goes over safety and regulations and points out some of the more interesting spots to stop along the way.

The signs at the beginning of the JBR are intimidating, and really convey the scope of this journey. 375km — that’s 233 miles — to the first and only interim fuel stop, at the “KM 381” rest area. There would be no services in between. No food, no fuel, nothing but a hell of a lot of trees and some remote seasonal camps.

The topography actually changes quite a bit along the 385-mile stretch of the James Bay Road. As you move further north, you get deeper and deeper into true taiga territory. The trees spread out from each other, become shorter; there’s far less of a growing season up here. By the time we got to Radisson at the end of the day, the day would itself be a good bit shorter than it was in Matagami. Sunrise wouldn’t come until 8:30 AM, and the sun would be well down by 4:00 PM.

For how long we’d been waiting to come up here, I actually found myself zoning out on the scenery. It was certainly stunning, but it was also stunning in its monotony. The scenery was repetitive; Bogie, Ewa and I tried rough counting trees, before we decided there were millions of them and we were happy with that fact.

There aren’t many individual highlights along the JBR; the route itself is more a collective destination than anything specific. But the one natural feature that stands out above all the others is certainly the Rupert River, one of the great rivers of northern Quebec that has now been drained and redirected to power the massive James Bay Project to power the province. The JBR crosses the Rupert at the Oatmeal Rapids, once a massive, raging torrent of water. Now, redirected towards other uses, it’s somewhat more placid than it once was. This place had raged wild for millennia, but now instead its immense power is turned into electricity for Montreal and New York.

The Rupert is crossed by one of the larger public works projects of the entire road, a large suspension bridge. Simple in design, it’s no Golden Gate or Brooklyn Bridge, but still impressive in this otherwise stark landscape, and offering an interesting shot on Tri-X black and white film.

The drive from the security shed to KM 381 was about five hours, leaving us there right in time for lunch. I spent a lot of the drive in the backseat dozing in and out of sleep, the monotonous, peaceful scenery relaxing me and calming me after a hectic holiday season.

The JBR is plowed constantly, so a lot of our concerns on snowpack were pretty unfounded. This was something we really saw throughout our entire Canadian trip — plows everywhere. Following behind them was a dream…being in front of them in proper 4x4s could be fun. This road is so remote, but what we really realized was that the communities we were visiting were still pretty connected to the world. We thought of this as an expedition, and we had hoodies made up with the trip logo. One guy at a gas station laughed at the idea that we thought like this — to him, the JBR was just his commute. It really did hammer in that what a lot of us consider an “epic overland expedition” is just daily life to people with vehicles far less built than ours.

When you haven’t encountered much in the way of man-made attractions on a drive like this, a big rest area is pretty exciting. I mean, you can get gas!

And food!

And there’s a cafeteria!

And POUTINE, the great Canadian treat!

Katie made some new friends, too.

After KM 381, the remainder of the road was a relatively quick 239 kilometers/148 miles. At this point, the scenery was becoming much more stark and barren, as we marched on further and further north. One diversion we took was to the entrance to the Trans-Taiga Road, another road in the network up here and technically even more remote than the JBR.

There would be no time for the Trans-Taiga this trip. It’s even longer than the JBR, and there’s almost no services along it. It’s all gravel, as opposed to the paved James Bay Road. The last 84 kilometers are very rugged and rough, with a 4×4 vehicle recommended. It’s a good adventure for a summertime return one year — something we were all already talking about doing. For now, some photos at the entrance and dreams to return would have to suffice.

The sun got lower and lower, not that it had ever gotten all that high to begin with. The golden hour was a stunning, stark panorama of golden snow upon trees, silently beautiful and transfixing in a way I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, that also meant that darkness, and further cold, was coming. There was no time to dither to take photos; we had to get to Radisson and find our hotel for the night.

By 4:15 PM, the character of the road was starting to change. All day, we’d marched north in a pod of the two Land Rovers and the Jeep. Now we saw other vehicles, and the edges of civilization that made up the town of Radisson, where we’d be staying the next two days so we could explore the northern reaches of the Quebecois road network here. Then, with a bit of anticlimax, we turned left into the Radisson access road, and soon the town was in front of us, a collection of simple buildings that could more or less be any industrial village in the world.

We’d conquered the James Bay Road, after years of discussing it, and now here we were — Radisson, Quebec, a town that had taken on almost a mythical character in our late-night campfire talks. It was hard to believe we’d finally pulled it off.

Now, we needed somewhere to stay…

North to Alaska, Pre-Trip Part 1

Well, 2020 hasn’t gone as expected, has it?

I started this year off back in Montréal, thinking we had the fantastic new Roaring ’20s to look forward to. I had plans lining up for a great year…a week in Death Valley in late March, the Mendo_Recce Land Rover rally in late April, lighthouse trips across America, and maybe a trip to England to see Liverpool FC’s Premier League champions parade as that started looking more and more inevitable. The annual Maine Winter Romp was a smash hit and had me looking forward to a great Land Rover events season, especially with the iconic Series I 86″ Oxford travelling around America this year.

Then, on March 12th, it all collapsed. That was the last day I would work in a Manhattan office. My colleague thought he had COVID-19, and we shut everything down and sent everyone home. I got COVID-19; my mother did too. It was two weeks of what felt like a really crappy flu. We recovered, though, and then in the middle of all the physical distancing and turmoil, somehow, I got a bit of clarity.

Our company suddenly started working just as efficiently without an office as with one. Working from home agreed with all of us, most of all me — a natural night owl who was sick of short-sleeping and three-hour commutes. By May, the decision was made: we were moving out of New York City and going fully remote for the long haul. One month of working from home turned into a summer, and a summer turned into the rest of my life…because no matter what company I work for, I’m never going back to commuting. As much as I love being out and about travelling, I actually really enjoy a low-key home life, and this has more than given me that.

As I cancelled trip after trip this spring, refunds and United Airlines flight credits piling on, there was one trip that was still hanging in limbo. My lighthouse friend Fran and I had been planning a trip to Alaska this summer to take a helicopter to two lights offshore from the roadless city of Cordova. They’re some of the hardest lights to see in America, and vital for our quests to each see every one of the 715 or so lighthouses in America. The trip came together in the fall of 2019, before things fell apart, and since it was planned for August 2020, we held on tight to our reservations, figuring that there was no reason to cancel them months ahead of time.

As I continued cancelling or wondering about other trips in 2020, the Alaska trip remained out there as a question mark. It was far enough out, and things were somewhat calming down, at least in the New York area. Alaska was using the benefit of its exclave status to control entry and the virus in the state. Even more, with the cruise industry shut down for the summer and taking the coach tour industry with it, it’s looking like 2020 is going to be a quiet summer in the North — perhaps on par much more with 1979 than 2019.

So with a pile of time off having accumulated, cancellation credits from trips all year, and a feeling that if I’m going to sit on an airplane with a mask on for hours at end, I better make the trip damn worth it, I decided to extend my existing trip to Cordova to include an 11-day roadtrip from Anchorage to visit the three road system-connected national parks in Alaska: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. These are all places that usually take on a heavy tourist load, and my goal was to take advantage of the quiet summer to maximize my visits to them.

Certainly, going to Alaska in the middle of a global pandemic is not without complications. First and foremost, the state has a strict, and somewhat complex, COVID-19 testing requirement to even get in. Access is only by air or the Alaska Marine Highway from Washington right now, with the Canadian border closed. You need to come with a negative COVID-19 test in hand, or take a test at the airport and prepare to quarantine. After a week in-state, you have to test again, just to make sure you’ve remained clear of the virus. That means that on top of everything else prepping for a relatively complex trip, I also have to figure out how to get a test turned around within 72 hours of my departure for Alaska.

It’s all rather complex, but I also have come to realize that I have aspirations for complex, international overland trips in the future. If I can’t handle the logistics of travelling domestically in these times, I can’t handle driving London to Cape Town, or across Central Asia, or the Pan-American Highway. This is nothing compared to the logistics that those trips will require, spending hours in consulates across New York City and the world, dealing with paperwork in sextuplicate, and the dozens or hundreds of bribes that I’ll have to stave off.

But that’s all long in the future. For now, I have my priorities. Preparing for this trip, with its complications. The usual pre-trip chaos of organizing the photography gear, the camping gear, the clothing choices, and the luggage choices. The shopping, which seems eternally unavoidable before a trip. The reservations, the permits, the route planning and the fuel and food planning in a remote land. Figuring out what I want to photograph, scoping it out on Flickr and Instagram and deciding what lenses and bodies to take. Figuring out where I can get food, and what I have to bring with me. Dealing with a round-trip flight from Anchorage to Cordova in the middle of it all. Dealing with United constantly changing my flights to and from Anchorage as they realign their service to retain a semblance of profit in this period of record-low demand.

It’s not easy. But then again, is any trip truly worth doing easy?

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Gatineau to Matagami

Today would be the first day of new territory on the trip – heading north from Gatineau to Matagami, the town in the Baie-James region of Quebec that’s the southern terminus of the James Bay Road. The plan was to roll out of the hotel at 7:00 AM, with about eight hours and 400 miles of driving ahead of us.

The plan was to make it to Val d’Or around mid-day, to get lunch and provisions. The drive is about five hours, including a remote 157-mile leg through the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. We killed most of the bottle of Fireball the night before, so the alcohol stores had to be replenished, and we needed to get some snacks. Of course, the night before, I couldn’t wait for some of my Canadian favorites – when we went to fuel up the trucks, I picked up a bag of All-Dressed Ruffles and another of Ketchup Lay’s. Canada comes second only to the United Kingdom when it comes to glorious potato chip/crisp flavors.

I rolled out of bed about 6:20 AM, jumped in the shower, put my stuff in the LR3, and walked the few hundred meters down the road to the Tim Hortons for a coffee, maple glazed donut, and Sausage B.E.L.T. Down here in Gatineau, there’s probably more English spoken due to the proximity to Ottawa, so I haven’t had the courage to totally go full-bore French. I have enough pidgin French to get by – I’ve done it in France and Quebec before – but down here “parlez-vous Anglais?” still nets me an Anglophone staffer to place an order with. The goal for today was to get more into speaking French as we head north, without falling back on my native tongue.

We headed west a bit on QC-5 and then north on QC-105, which winds along the Gatineau River’s western shore. The road was full of twisties, passing a vista reminiscent of some parts of upstate New York or Vermont. (Makes sense, I guess, since we’re topographically nearby.) The view changed from ravines to small villages as we wound north, with a smattering of trailer parks and farms in the mix. If it wasn’t so cold and potentially icy, and we didn’t have a chunky LR3 that was close to its maximum GVWR, this road could be seriously fun. The sun started to rise, slowly over a gloomy, grey sky. The snow cover built up as we headed further north. The first snow we saw sticking was a dusting at Syracuse, but here we were closing in on a foot of snowpack. Cows wandered past picturesque rustic barns hoof-deep in it.

At Kazabazua, a sort of misty rain came down. A decent-sized town, it had a few bars, a Benjamin Moore paint store, and a few signs for a horse pull competition. Just south of Maniwaki, we drove past the burnt-out remains of a house or barn, a few cops sitting in the driveway with some police tape. Instantly, my overactive brain started wondering what’s going on, and I got a bit of a vibe of a scene in Louise Penny’s Three Pines mystery novels.

 

 

We stopped at Maniwaki to re-Timmy, and change seats. Milosz and I swapped, with me taking some time with Jarek and Konrad and him hanging out with Bogdan and Ewa a bit. The ridiculous plushiness of the Rangie was a nice change, though honestly as the LR3 has heated rear seat bottoms, it’s not like it was much of a struggle.

We headed into the La Vendredye refuge around 10:00 AM, fog starting to close in as a cold drizzle fell on the windscreen of the Rangie. A sign on the roadside signaled 56km to fuel, with what looked like just four waysides on the road to Val d’Or. The various rest areas were shut tight for winter, the parking lots piled in snow. Moose-aware signs (“prudence!”) showed up on the side of the road. A tractor-trailer started riding our rear bumper, a risky move in the weather – and we had nowhere to go with a line of cars ahead of us. Roadside rock walls had turned into waterfalls of ice.

 

 

The road to Val d’Or got snowier and snowier, with a flurry reducing visibility. Val d’Or was a veritable oasis after a long stretch of nothingness. The first introduction was a line of car dealerships, followed by a centre-ville, where we stopped at the IGA for provisions.

I have a thing for foreign supermarkets, as do a few others in the expedition party, so this was an experience. The beer section was particularly interesting. It was packed with craft brews, but almost none of them were familiar – at that scale, breweries just can’t deal with exporting, I guess. Instead, there were hundreds of unknown Canadian beers, many in 330mL cans.

 

As a Tragically Hip fan, this amused me.

 

 

After about a half hour of provisioning, we headed to get gas, where the pump attendant was fascinated by our American-ness and was excited to buy an American $5, $10, and $20 bill off of us for his currency collection. We filled up with a snow flurry surrounding us and the bells of the Catholic church echoing through town.

 

The gas attendant shows Bogdan some of his foreign currency collection.

 

From here, the highway cut through the outskirts of Amos, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Amos (which serves this Northern Quebec region), with the Cathédrale Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila dominating the skyline. The road north cut through flat farmland, before turning into the seemingly-uninhabited thick forest. The road started getting slick, and Jarek did a brake test on the Rangie, with minimal impact. Smooth motions and spacing became the name of the game.

All of the rest areas on the road are closed this time of year, so it seems like the way to handle this function is in the classical outdoors manner; easier, of course, for guys. All day, we’ve passed people pulled over at the roadside taking care of business. It’s kind of funny to see people relatively cavalier about it, by requirement. We pulled over the convoy a few times for a pee break and to check the trucks. While I’m used to these kinds of inspection pauses driving an almost-26-year-old Discovery 1, at this point neither the LR3 or L322 are brand-new either.

 

 

The road is actively plowed, and we passed a number of trucks plowing and laying down salt. There are also lots of tractor-trailers carrying fuel and other supplies to the communities on the JBR. Also, considering we were convinced we needed full-tilt-boogie overland trucks for this trip, there’s a lot of Ford Focuses and Mazdas up here. (Mazdas seem significantly more popular in Canada than the USA.)

It got dark in the 4:00 PM hour, but the temperatures so far haven’t been as cold as we’d expected…they’re hovering around freezing, -2 Centigrade at the lowest so far. I’m hoping it’s colder when we hit the JBR tomorrow because I have a lot of cold-weather gear I bought for this trip. (Though, it’ll get plenty of use at the Maine Winter Romp in February.)

We got to Matagami around 5:30 PM, checked into the hotel, and found out that all of the restaurants in town are closed until January 6th. The options: snacks from the Esso, or snacks from Shell. Katie and I went to Shell, then Esso. Here are some things we found.

 

Back at the hotel, we made dinner on the camp stoves in lieu of a restaurant, or some of us just ate prepacked things. I had a very sad salad kit from Val d’Or, eaten with a titanium Snow Peak fork for some class. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz went for soup in a can, while Bodgan went for Unibroue beer and cheese.

 

We ended the night with a driver’s meeting in Carl’s and my room, planning our assault on the JBR tomorrow. Tomorrow’s the big day: THE James Bay Road. We saw the big sign at the start today at the turnoff to Matagami, and it’s already hard to believe — it’s time! It’ll be 387 miles to Radisson, with a whole lotta nada in between. I can’t wait!

 

 

 

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Onward to Ottawa!

Sleep didn’t come easy; it never does when you’re excited about a trip. By 6:00 AM I was awake and getting ready for the day. The last things went in the bag as I finished using them, and then I paced the house waiting for the expedition party to arrive.

Bogdan and Ewa came first, and we started loading my stuff in the LR3. Jarek, Konrad, and Milosz pulled in a few minutes later, and we caught up while I showed Jarek my latest projects in the garage. Will and Katie showed up in the Jeep to fill out the expedition party, and after a lot of rearranging of luggage to insert Carl and me into the vehicles, we took some pre-departure photos and rolled out.

 

The expedition party prepares for departure.

 

We went to grab a Starbucks, but apparently I don’t know what stores are in which strip mall in the town I’ve lived in for thirty years, so we just got on I-78 west towards Pennsylvania. We messed around testing the radios as we headed west across the farmlands of Hunterdon County. We were across the Delaware by 9:15 AM and hooked north on PA-33 to I-80 and I-380.

The drive north was pretty quick. We burned some time on an extended tour of one exit’s various gas stations and restaurants, but other than that we kept a solid pace. After a bit more of that cheap American fuel, we crossed the border around 3:30 PM at the Thousand Islands Bridge. The line was only a few cars deep, the procedures were relatively simple, and then we were headed east on ON-401 and north on ON-417 towards Ottawa.

 

 

We came into Ottawa in the dark, and at some point, Will and Katie separated from us; we took a scenic (but not really, because darkness) tour of Ottawa while they took the fast roads to Gatineau. We met up at the front desk of the motel, where they were in the process of checking us in. Keys in hand, we unloaded the trucks, that sense of excitement in the air that comes with the first day of an adventure.

 

 

We headed to dinner at The Prescott, a landmark in Ottawa since 1934. It’s been the home of the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers’ monthly social for decades, so I wanted to see what it was like. Our friend Dixon Kenner, a long-time OVLR member who spends a lot of time in New Jersey, joined us for dinner. We spent a few hours over drinks and food discussing everything under the sun.

 

 

Back at the hotel, we spent a while planning the day ahead, before solving the problems of the world over a bottle of Fireball.

 

 

Tomorrow it’s off to Matagami, the southern end of the James Bay Road, via Val d’Or. It’s another 400 miles or so, via remote roads through La Verendrye Wildlife Reserve. Morning comes early ’round here.

NJLR James Bay Road Expedition: Pre-Trip Thoughts

There are certain trips that loom large in off-roaders’ collective dreams. Maybe it’s that trip to Moab, or that Pan-American expedition, or that African safari you saw in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom decades ago. They’re the trips that linger over campfires and long days in the garage, fermented over beers and scotches across the years.

For my New Jersey Land Rovers group, that trip is the James Bay Road. A thread running north in Quebec, it serves the hydro-electric projects that provide power to a large swath of eastern North America. Built in the 1970s across ancestral Cree land, today it links the town of Matagami to the village of Radisson, 620 kilometers/385 miles to the north. It is one of the most remote places you can drive to in eastern North America.

Many have dreamed of the James Bay Road, or JBR. Our dreams had an extra layer, though: winter. Winter in Northern Quebec is unforgiving — temperatures in Fahrenheit start with a negative symbol and are usually double digits. A handful of Land Rover acquaintances have driven the JBR in summer; a select few have done it in winter.

Wikimedia Commons photo of the old sign at the start of the JBR. By P199 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=615154

Thus, winter on the JBR has haunted our conversations for over a decade. We’ve almost pulled the trigger on this trip a few times, but never completely. In 2016, my friends Barbara and Jarek moved from New Jersey to Florida. We almost drove it on the way to their last northern residents’ Maine Winter Romp. Then Jarek and I discussed it this year as part of our “Mark IV Grand Tour,” when he delivered a 2015 Range Rover from New Jersey to Florida via the Eastern Seaboard. But it never happened.

This year, Barb and Jarek are coming north to visit family in New Jersey for Christmas, and from that seed, our date with destiny on the JBR grew. Jarek’s overlanding vehicle of choice right now is a 2011 Range Rover Supercharged, a 510-horsepower beast of a thing that’s already done three round-trips up the Eastern Seaboard this year. The JBR is paved, and even so it’s proven itself in an off-road jaunt we took to Uwharrie National Forest in September. The dreams always involved his “Medium Duty Expedition Vehicle” 1995 Discovery, but dreams adapt. He and his son Milosz would make this pilgrimage north in the Range Rover.

Next to sign up was our friends Bogdan and Ewa in their 2005 LR3, a veteran of many cross-country trips. I met up with them far away once already this year, in fact; I was in Moab with my friend Max and some of his friends from Atlanta, and we rendezvoused. Bogdan also has extensive winter travel experience, another benefit.

We made concessions to purity with Will and Kate, who are the life of the party at many NJLR events. Will’s ex-military Series III, a paintless wonder dubbed “the Battlewagon,” was not in shape for this trip, in that a 74-horsepower 2.25-liter engine could not keep up the pace with the modern V8s in the Range Rover and LR3. So, in the interest of having their excellent company in the party, while maintaining pace, we conceded for them to take Katie’s daily driver, a 2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It may well be the impure beast that saves us all at some point.

Shotgunning we are three more. Myself, because Duncan is in no state for this trip on this notice, and Butler is still…well, horribly behind schedule. (Who knew restoring a complex mid-1990s luxury SUV would take so long when you have other things going on in life?) Carl’s Discovery 1 needed work, and life got in the way with such short notice. No matter, his good humor and skills as a professional medic were valuable. Jarek’s friend Konrad from Florida rounded out the expedition party, adding new blood and experience with modern vehicles via his career as a BMW technician.

The Route

Over the next week, we will traverse 13 degrees of latitude and 2,500 miles. We will go from New Jersey to Ottawa, then to the northern town of Matagami. From there, we take the James Bay Road, a 385-mile journey with one stop at the halfway point — the creatively-named “Km 381.” We will spend some time at the northern terminus of Radisson, exploring the Cree communities up there and the Hydro projects. Then we reverse the route, coming to America again via Montreal for the New Year on the St. Lawrence.

The JBR is fully-paved, though it’s also snowy and icy. Hydro is the main reason for its existence, but there’s also plenty of truckers to be aware of. There’s just one fuel stop — the aforementioned Km 381.

Logistics

Wikimedia Commons photo of the JBR in winter.By Zulborg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8320715

Usually, this is a camping crowd, but not at these temperatures. We’re getting hotels in every town along the way. None of them are the Four Seasons, but they’ll all do.

The three vehicles have all been serviced in the past few weeks. We’re running mud+snow or snow tires on all of them. The Jeep has a block heater; the two Land Rovers don’t since it’s extremely complex to install them in an AJ-V8. We’ll see how we do; temperatures are not as cold as we thought they’d be in the current forecast.

As for food, all of the villages we’re visiting have restaurants, and we’ll probably do dinner there. Breakfasts will be at the hotels; lunch on the road. With a bit over eight hours of daylight every day, we have to keep pace.

Preparations

I’ve been keeping our UPS and FedEx delivery crew even busier than usual this time of year. The weather in Northern Quebec is cold. The only question is how cold. I expect to have temps below -10F at some point in the trip, either day or night.

I’ll be taking photos on three cameras on this trip, using digital and film. Digital will be my usual Nikon D800. With film, I’ll have my Nikon N8008, my standby for the past year as I got into film. I also acquired an N90s last week, for the steep sum of $34. As my friend Quentin put it, the N8008 is “the best manual focus camera Nikon ever made,” because its primitive autofocus is very loud and largely useless. The N90s will offer a second body, better AF (it’s very snappy), and the ability to shoot two film stocks at once. I’ve been shooting Ektachrome E100 lately, but the landscapes here and low light beg experimentation. I’ll be using Portra 400 in the N90s and Tri-X 400 in the N8008.

Other than that, I’ve done a lot of shopping for warm weather gear. Extreme cold is one of the few circumstances my outdoors wardrobe isn’t equipped for. I’m hoping this is one of the last trips where I have a big gear spend beforehand that nears the cost of the trip itself!

We ride at dawn on Boxing Day, destination: Canada. I’ll try to keep the live blog up as much as I can along the way.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day 1: Go West, and Grow Up with the Country

Map of Day 1 of the Mother Country Trail Roadtrip

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
-Horace Greeley, 1865 (alleged)

Day 1: 21 April 2018
Begin: Warren Township, New Jersey
End: Moline, Illinois
Mileage: 925 miles

Yes, these blogs are coming over a year after this trip ended. But as time marched on, I realized how much of an influence this journey had on me. I still think about it daily, in detail, and it ended up changing my life in many ways. It changed my confidence, my goals, and my direction in the Land Rover community. Since I think about these details so much, I can almost wholly recreate the trip from memory in the summer of 2019, as much as a writing exercise as anything. So here we are, a year later, heading across America in the spring of 2018 in a 24-year-old Land Rover Discovery.

***

Long story short, I ended up leaving New Jersey a day later than planned (Saturday 21 April at sunrise, not Friday 20 April after work) and was doing things on the Discovery until the very last minute, buttoning up what had been a down-to-the-wire rebuild. I had put the transfer box back in just a few days prior; the interior still wasn’t fully reassembled. I still hadn’t replaced the rear turn signal that had melted off the bumper when I improperly installed my new Magnaflow exhaust, but I didn’t have time to find one, either. My friend Randy from the Mendo list ended up grabbing me one from a Pick and Pull in Southern California, where Discovery 1s still live and die with some regularity.

The dash was strung with wires: CB radio, GPS (my Garmin GPSMAP 62st that I use for geocaching), cell phone dock, XM radio. Everything was powered through a series of USB hubs and cables, with 12V extension lines where needed. I’d like to get a more elegant setup put together at some point, but it seems that something always comes up that prevents me from getting to the “fun stuff” with the truck.

 

Disco 1 Dash

 

It was time to go.

After a frenzy of packing and throwing anything I thought I might need in the truck (including just about every jacket I own), I pulled out of the driveway at 6:00 AM on Saturday. I was still a bit nervous that I’d done some repair wrong, or missed some issue, or that the things I cobbled together half-assed would fail. I had thousands of miles and a continent ahead. The first goal was to transit New Jersey and cross the Delaware, hoping that the 35 miles or so of I-78 would shake down any major issues.

 

D1 ready to leave!

 

At 6:53 AM, I crossed the first hurdle; the brand-new Pennsylvania welcome sign loomed over heavy construction on the Interstate 78 Toll Bridge. Now to just make it to Ohio, and perhaps I’d be home free. My dad figured that I’d have any catastrophic breakdowns between New Jersey and Ohio. Either I’d be on a tow truck home from Pennsylvania, or I’d make it to the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

After an early morning Wawa sandwich — my last grasp at the East Coast for two weeks — I headed west with the new day. I had one ear to any issues that might crop up as I wound through the Alleghenies. A few bon voyage phone calls along the way from friends helped with my anxiety, as I listened for every potential catastrophic failure. The copy of the promotional CD The Rhythm of the Road: Freelander Road Music I found on eBay that came with Land Rover Freelanders as a stereo test disc helped, too. It’s a wonderfully period collection of 2000s era music — basic pop and indie music that fit that vehicle and that time. I checked the oil, coolant, and transmission fluid every hundred miles or so, just to make sure it was all tickety-boo. Overall, the truck seemed to hold. My anxiety began to melt away.

 

The Rhythm of the Road: Freelander Road Music CD

 

I-80 wound west and became the Ohio Turnpike around 1:15 PM. By 6:00 PM I’d hit the Indiana state line. not bad for twelve cautious hours in an untested vehicle. At 7:15 PM, I was gazing out at the Discovery from a Burger King in a rest area on the Indiana Turnpike. Somehow, I’d already covered over 700 miles without even really noticing it. I looked at a map. I was feeling pretty good, considering how long I’d been on the road. The Disco was settling into a nice, smooth highway mode, and I was easily pulling 70-80mph. And…I’d gain an hour in Chicagoland when I crossed into Central Time. The Mississippi River was a little over 200 miles away. Well, that’d be a tidy and symbolic distance to cover in a day.

 

Burger King dinner, Indiana rest area

 

I got on the Hilton Honors app, booked the Hampton Inn at the Moline, Illinois airport, filled up the Disco, and headed west.

9:00 PM EDT became 8:00 PM CDT at the edge of The Region, the Chicago suburbs of Indiana which are the only parts of the state on Central Time, as they’re so tied to the Chicago economy. I crossed into Illinois at 8:30 PM CDT. Blaring the music of the just-deceased Avicii on the radio, I wove the Disco through late-night traffic. I-80 turned into the Tri-State Tollway, the western reaches of the EZPass system, and then at Joliet I was spit out into the Illinois countryside.

 

 

At 11:00 PM, I arrived at the Hampton Inn in Moline. I had 925 miles under my belt since I had left New Jersey 18 hours earlier. I peeked out the window at a quiet Quad Cities Airport, a lonely American Airlines CRJ-200 waiting on the apron for the morning flight, and konked out on the bed.

 

Disco at hotel parking lot in Moline

Bringing Home Butler: My New 1994 Range Rover Classic County LWB

My Land Rover friends have been wrapped in the drama of Spenny, my rusty 1993 Range Rover County LWB, for the past five years. Spenny was my first car, a de facto replacement for the 1994 Discovery my parents bought new and planned to give me when I turned 16 in 2006. In late 2005, it got totalled in a Nor’Easter by a massive tree limb. I bought Spenny from another Land Rover enthusiast in Arlington, Virginia, towed him back to New Jersey, and put 50,000 miles of adventures on him from 2007 to 2015. Then like all Land Rovers of that era, he got quite rusty.

So, I sourced Duncan, my 1994 Discovery, as a “stopgap” car so I could take time to fix Spenny. A project himself, I spent months changing head gaskets, replacing bushings, and rewiring. Then I learned that buying cars that had been off the road for five years took a lot of work to drive again. So I spent a lot of time and money making it a pretty nice driver. Then I really liked the Discovery. I daily drove it. I drove it to rallies. I drove it to California. And Spenny sat.

Earlier this summer I tried to revive Spenny, but the rust was really, really bad. So I decided to source a rust-free body in the South to do a body swap. My friend Max Thomason found me one at his Land Rover shop in Atlanta, a 1994 County LWB. Black on the outside (sprayed over the original Montpelier red), with a rare-ish black leather interior, it was actually a pretty decent truck. It was supposed to have engine issues, but nobody was that sure. It had been sold to the shop in 2013 or so and used as a parts truck, but 98% of it was there. We struck a deal, I bought it for $500 with a title, and I booked a flight to Atlanta.

At some point, I realized that this rust-free body I planned to swap onto Spenny’s chassis…would also have a rust-free chassis. So, I decided that I’d just fix up the new one and make it the Spenny replacement second truck. Of course, for this new project, I could have probably picked a better base vehicle, but I was locked into this one at this point, and besides, I do love me a good Land Rover Reborn project. So here I am again…fixing up a truck that has been off the road for five years.

I stopped stripping out Spenny’s interior with the old plans to rebuild him and decided instead that I would transfer what was needed to the new truck, then strip Spenny down to a rolling chassis to be slowly tinkered with for some sort of future hybrid trail truck project. Duncan will need some work after the new Rangie is revived since I never totally finished that rebuild, so that was also a goal of the project. It’s tough when the truck is your daily driver; you can’t just let a project sit in the driveway and tinker with it when you feel like it, or you are never going anywhere. For example, I need to repair or replace all the door latches and lock actuators, but I can’t really drive without a latch!

Friday 7 September came, and my dad drove me to Newark Airport after work. I flew a Delta MD-88 down to Atlanta, fulfilling one of my AvGeek bucket list items. (More on that in a separate aviation-focused post.)

 

MD88 N932DL at Gate at EWR

 

Well, a quick video. The cool thing about the MD-88 is the old school low-bypass Pratt & Whitney JT8D engines, with a distinct sound you rarely hear these days. For AvGeeks, this is a cool thing, and we actually WANT to be in seat 33E next to the engines. Delta plans to retire the MD-88 fleet around 2020. Since I fly United most of the time out of EWR, this trip to Delta’s Atlanta superhub and MD-88 base was a good time to get this trip in. (It gets good around 1:50.)

 

 

It was a pretty quick flight down to ATL, and I passed it reading Chris Scott’s Desert Travels: Motorcycle Travels in the Sahara and West Africa. Scott’s various works on West Africa are favorites right now, since I have a bit of a dream to ship Duncan to England and replicate the Paris-Dakar Rally route. (This must include an early-morning run through Paris along the route of C’etait un Rendezvous.)

Max picked me up in his LR3, and we picked up burgers and beers at Grindhouse Killer Burgers. It’s a local chain, mostly in Atlanta with a few other Georgia locations, and the double Apache Style and a pitcher hit the spot. Terminal B at EWR has almost no food (compared to the cornucopia that is Terminal C), and all I had on the plane was a few of Delta’s iconic Biscoff cookies, so I was about to pass out.

 

Exterior View of Killer Burgers in Atlanta, Georgia

 

We headed back to Max’s house, kibitzed a bit, and checked out his Series III 109″, which he’s had since 1999. It’s an ex-MOD left-hand-drive vehicle. It may have also been used in one of the Reverend Billy Graham’s Crusades, according to previous owner lore. He and I have been looking into it a bit, and apparently, the Reverend broadcast a 1989 sermon from London to Africa via satellite, after which recordings were brought to remote villages. It’s possible this truck was one of those used to transport these recordings across Africa in “Mission 89.” More research is needed.

 

My friend Max's Series 3 Land Rover 109 Inch Station Wagon

 

I slept for a few hours, then we were up early to start the day. First off, though, a proper Southern brekkie at Home Grown, an Atlanta restaurant near Max’s house with some of the best chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Okay, actually, the only chicken and biscuits I’ve ever had. Still, it was one of the most epic breakfasts I’ve ever had, and I’m from New Jersey, home of Taylor Ham/Pork Roll.

 

Chicken and Biscuits at Home Grown restaurant in Atlanta

 

We picked the Penske truck and trailer up, which took about a half hour, and then headed across the center of Atlanta to the place where I was picking the truck up. Max had dealt with the paperwork, and the shop was closed, so it was already hauled outside the fence yesterday. I had him drive the Penske across the city’s notorious Downtown Connector, the stretch of I-75/85 that has some of the worst traffic in the country. It wasn’t bad early on Saturday morning, but I still took the chance to try out his LR3 in chase, briefly rethinking my choices in second vehicles.

And there it was: my glorious new truck. My third Rover of my own, fifth in my family. All there in its revived parts truck glory.

 

The first view of Butler, my new Range Rover Classic, before we load him on the trailer

 

Time was short, so we hooked the Rangie up to the LR3 and hauled it on, since the truck doesn’t run. This involved shackles, confusion, and using cell phones on speakerphone as walkie-talkies. Then, with a few test drives around the block, I was off, driving a box truck AND a trailer for the first time ever.

 

Picture of Butler loaded on the trailer

 

I didn’t have much time for social calls, but my timing was such that I could stop off to see my friends Jen and Greg, former members of my curling club who had just moved to the Atlanta area, without messing up my timeline (because a man’s gotta eat anyway!). We had a blast catching up — I really, really miss having them back at Plainfield.

 

Picture of me with my friends Greg and Jen with Butler

 

And so began…the schlep. First, South Carolina hit, and so Butler left Georgia, one seriously lucky former parts truck.

 

Picture of Butler with the South Carolina welcome sign

 

I had to swing by the BMW factory in Spartanburg, to get a picture with the sign. There was a cop protecting a DOT worker doing some lawn mowing, but he was nonplussed that I parked my giant truck right in front of the entrance.

 

Picture of Butler with the entrance sign to the BMW factory in South Carolina

 

I made it to Gastonia, North Carolina that night, after a lot of slow driving — I’m just not used to how wide a box truck is, the slow speed hauling a car behind it, and tracking the whole package together. It’s even tougher at night! I parked across six spots and crashed in my room until it was time to hit the road again.

 

Picture of Butler on trailer at Hampton Inn in Gastonia, North Carolina

 

The next day was a slog home. I had to get from Charlotte to New Jersey in time to sleep and go to work tomorrow. On paper, it’s not a bad drive, a bit over 600 miles. But the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon were coming over Virginia and Pennsylvania, and after a calm ride through North Carolina, the rains started to pour somewhere around Roanoke, Virginia. Most of the day was a slog, going slow with the heavy, unwieldy load. As I got closer to Pennsylvania, it just got worse. The one highlight was crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, officially making Butler a Northern Truck.

 

Screenshot of my weather app on my phone showing remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon

 

Picture of Butler at a rainy rest area in Virginia

 

 

Pennsylvania was a slog, with rough roads — as I say, “Under Construction Since 1776.” Every joint in the road clattered the entire assembly, and I was sure I was either going to break the trailer in half or lose the Rangie.

Finally, around 10 PM, I pulled into the driveway. Too wiped to deal with anything, I left the whole Penske assembly (which I had through Thursday anyway) to deal with later and headed off to bed to go to work. Of course, with my luck, I ended up with strep throat when I woke up, so I spent most of the week working from home, feeling too crappy to work on the truck.

And so now, I have a fleet of three. It is only going briefly look like this, though. The old RRC LWB, Spenny, goes to a friend’s house soon, where I’m going to cut it down to a rolling chassis for a Range Rover Classic-styled off-road trail rig project. But I have to admit it’s pretty swank having three classic British luxury cars…all built between 22 February 1993 and 6 May 1994.

 

My full Land Rover fleet in my driveway. Duncan, my Discovery 1; Spenny, my 1993 Range Rover; and Butler, my 1994 Range Rover.

 

By the way, where’s the name Butler come from? Well, of course, that famous fictitious Georgian, Rhett Butler. I figured that Gone with the Wind was a good source for a name, especially as I’ve enjoyed visiting the Margaret Mitchell House several times over the years going to Atlanta for book industry conferences. My trucks tend to be male, contrary to the norm, and it was between Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. Rhett is a bit rough around the edges, Ashley meant saying “Ashley, but it’s a guy” too much, and Wilkes has too much reference to the Wilks Brothers who created the Land Rover — Spenny was already named after Range Rover designer Spen King, and I wanted to go another way. So I figured Butler was a good name, and went well with the classy black-on-black color scheme and general Range Rover swankiness.

Now it’s the project of reviving a parts truck with unknown issues. I will be going through every inch of this truck the next few months, refining and improving and rebuilding. If getting the Discovery ready for the California trip was the Bachelor’s in Rovers, this is the Masters. As for the Ph.D., that’ll be whatever I do with Spenny! Keep an eye out for future blogs here on all these projects for sure.

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-30: Sealing the Deal, Part 1

Snow fell on New Jersey again, but this time it didn’t seem to match the forecast in a good way, not a bad one. A few inches certainly accumulated, but it hasn’t matched the fury of a few weeks ago. So, with electricity powering the lights, heater and stereo in the garage, it was time to dive back into the case.

First I sealed the rear housing with The Right Stuff. I got it in a 5 oz. caulk gun package, which makes it a lot easier to dispense. Then the bolts were torqued and I attached the front housing.

Once I had the front housing attached, I continued through the order of operations in the manual. Now, the manual is designed for use in a dealer service bay setting, I assume with a full set of factory tools, parts, and components on hand. One of these components is a core plug that goes in the end of the differential lock shaft. I’m pretty OCD about this stuff, but even that is a bit beyond my level of detail. I smacked and torqued the front housing on only to see the error of doing things “in order.”

So, off the front housing came, and I rebuilt the diff lock selector fork to spec. At this point, the old Right Stuff, which now had to be cleaned off to re-attach the housing, hadn’t even dried yet, so I decided to wrap for the night and deal with it tomorrow when it would be easier to clean off.

This is how I felt after all this.

The good thing is, at this point, if I have no further issues, I think this can be sealed up tomorrow, and I can turn to the transmission fixes over the next few days. On the one hand, I’m stressing the timeline; on the other, I’m looking at the list, and this is the biggest chunk. There’s a lot of transmission work as part of this, which is new territory for me, but after that’s done and the bottom of the truck is buttoned up, what should be left is a lot less dirty and a lot less intense. At some point, I’ll also get into interior prep for the journey, which is the fun part! I have to start thinking up what to do there so my dad and I can fire up the Walker-Turner in a few weeks and fab up a sleeping/storage setup. At some point I want to fab up a really nice semi-permanent setup, but before I make that investment I think it’s a good idea to experiment with a few ideas and see what works in the field.

We’re just over four weeks, but everything is fine.

Soundtrack: Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms; Green Day, American Idiot

Mother Country Trail 2018, Day T-31: I Think I Can

With no curling this weekend, I really dove into the Disco. Today is a month even to go, and it’s starting to feel a bit real.  I’m leaving on the 20th, and it was the 20th today.

Thus the pace quickens. I’d like to do some kind of test run at least two weekends before. I’m considering two Rover events — one in Quebec, one in Virginia — and a few more likely ~600 mile weekend runs. I may tinker with the National Park Service unit map and see if I can plot out how to knock off a few new ones in a weekend trip, especially because doing things like that regularly in this truck is part of the goal of this project.

I decided the primary goal this weekend was to remove the old transfer case, transfer the necessary items to the new transfer case, and get the new transfer case fully assembled and sealed with the combined components. This was partially accomplished within the traditional bounds of “the weekend.” So, into the garage Duncan went again, for at least a week of driveline surgery.

First, it was time to drop the exhaust, and this is where I found out that my exhaust patch from a few weeks ago was, in fact, the snake oil I thought it was. I figured this had probably happened when I drove on the Interstate for the first time and it got very noticably louder, but a visual confirmed it.

And so disassembly began. First I dropped the swaybar to allow the Y-pipe to come out, then once the exhaust was down (easy as I’d already undone all the problem fasteners a few weeks ago), it was on to one of my least favourite jobs on a Rover, disconnecting propshafts. Thanks to the one tool that every Land Rover owner should have, it was way easier than it could be, but still took almost an hour to do both. Finally, they were both down, the necessary bolts retained, and it was onward.

Thanks to the modification I did last year to the centre console, replacing the rivets holding the covers for the transmission and transfer case shifters in place with rivnuts and screws, I made quick work of exposing the shift linkage. I was happy to see the lithium grease in the shifter pivot assembly somewhat holding up after a year, though I will renew it when I put this all back together, and pack in a bit more overflow!

Next was the centre removable crossmember under the transmission. This can be a notorious right royal PITA. It took me about 45 minutes to get the eight bolts off, and I had to cut one off with the die grinder, so I guess I should figure out what size that was and call up McMaster Carr. Then it was some smacks with the sledgehammer, spread the frame with the Big Red hydraulic ram, and it came off, to expose this horrifying sight underneath. Certainly the truck will already require some welding when I get home, but since this is covered with the crossmember, which bridges this hole and inherently stabilises it, I’m going to pretend it isn’t there until the Summer of Bodywork commences on arrival at home.

The final act of Saturday was pulling the handbrake drum off the back and removing the rear output flange; it’s quite frankly nicer than the one on the Q box, so I’ll probably reuse it (especially as it has nice zinc coated Grade 8 bolts that I put on!). At this point, I started to see just how grimy thousands of miles of gear oil spraying everywhere can be. On the plus side, this must have helped to mitigate some rust that otherwise might have been. After everything’s together (by which time the string of Nor’Easters hitting us “should” have stopped), I’ll powerwash it all heavily.

I tucked it in for Saturday, got to bed at midnight, and planned a continuation of activities for Sunday. The Fitzgerald family had tacos for dinner on St. Patrick’s Day, having realised after decades that we don’t really love corned beef and cabbage.

Sunday it was back to work, and time to disconnect the box. I undid the shifter linkage completely, removed the input gears, loosened all of the bolts securing the transfer box to the transmission, and detached the transfer case mount bracket from the chassis. At this point, I looked at all of this and decided that I am a man of little upper body strength, and perhaps it might be worth it to pony up for a transmission jack, instead of using what my friend Rob called “the sea otter procedure.” So, it was off to Harbor Freight, land of cheap tools that might kill you, but you’re only using them once so you’ll take the risk to save a few bucks. Forty-five minutes later, I returned from Harbor Freight (the former Saturn of Green Brook, with the service department hours still posted on the side door) with a lighter wallet and the relative guarantee I wouldn’t be tapping my ER deductible for caving my chest in.

I detached everything, and had my dad come and supervise from the top while I wiggled the case off the bolts. This went great until I hung up on the stud on the top right. In retrospect, I should have removed the rubber transfer case mount and its bracket from the case, as I ended up wedging it against the chassis. But it was getting late, I was wiped, and I had laid waste to my body today, so I washed up and left it for later.

Monday I went to the office, and had a bit of discomfort with some more repetitive copy-paste coding things, having wrecked my hand over the weekend. I got home late and couldn’t get too much on the truck, unfortunately.

But I was pretty excited, because my bulk pack of Powerspark Red distriutor rotors came from England. The current crop of Genuine Land Rover distributor rotors is, in a word, crap, so this company has stepped in with an aftermarket replacement. I personally don’t need them right now, but I’ll carry them with me across, as a few Mendonites are looking to tinker with ignition issues and have called dibs. They have had some good reviews with their earlier products for other British marques.

Tuesday, I decided that I needed to motivate myself more to get this done, so into the garage again. I decided that part of my alignment issue was that I was trying to drag the case out with the rubber mount and bracket dragging on the chassis. But…I was in a Catch-22, because the nuts for the mount had been on there for a while, and were attached to a very flexible bit of rubber, keeping me from being able to apply the necessary torque to liberate them.

The transmission jack was helpful, but the transfer box is mounted at an angle, so it didn’t totally fit on the flat jack plate. The service manual directed the dealership to fabricate an elaborate, angeled bracket to remove them, but I can’t weld yet, and I don’t think it’d mate to my jack, so my dad and I fabbed something up on his pre-WWII Walker-Turner table saw.

I took this outside, but it didn’t help. Finally, I felt the energy of despair and rage build me and I gave a Herculian shove as my dad stood above through the hatch prising the case from the transmission. And then, we were free of the input shaft, and I lowered the old case in glory!

With the driveshafts, transfer case, and exhaust gone, there’s so much space for activities!

Now to the next step: finishing the build of the new Q box. I now have the old box down and can pillage everyhing I need from it. I started tidying the mating surfaces with 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper and brake cleaner. Tomorrow, assuming the latest Nor’Easter doesn’t send us back into refuge across town at our friend’s house, I’ll start sealing it up.

 

Soundtrack:

Saturday, 17 March: Donna the Buffalo, Live from the American Ballroom; Skinny Lister, Forge & Flagon; N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton.

Sunday, 18 March: Culture Club, Colour by Numbers; Elton John, Too Low for Zero.

Tuesday, 20 March: Billy Joel, The Stranger