Driving north to Alaska, where the bison roam
ANCHORAGE, AK.—It took a herd of bison for the Alaska Highway to show itself properly.
They were walking calmly north in two lines on the sides of the road, heading the same direction as us. Our convoy of Sprinter vans drove slowly between them and we slid down the windows to shoot photos, chilling the cabins with -20 C air.
The bison plodded on like two columns of unhurried soldiers using the road to get somewhere they needed to be. The snow on the highway was thin compared to the fields alongside and it gave them easy passage, as it did us. They looked at us without turning their heads, and we caught their huge eyes as we slipped through.
The Alaska Highway follows many old trails used long before cars and trucks made travel simple for everyone. Perhaps this stretch just below the Yukon border was near an old path that linked pastures, or more likely, it had become just an easy way to travel in the winter. Either way, it served the same purpose for them as it did us: it was a way to get somewhere new.
We were going considerably farther, though — more than 3,000 kilometres up to here in Anchorage — and on a quite different purpose: the Mercedes vans apparently have a good reputation for delivering people and parcels around a city, but are not known for their rugged ability to get the job done in challenging conditions.
There’s little more challenging than the Alaska Highway in January, so Mercedes invited me up here to join a convoy of Sprinter vans out to prove themselves in the sub-arctic winter.
The Alaska Highway is an adventure, though it’s not the gruelling test of machinery it used to be. It’s been completely paved for the last 20 years from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska.
It’s a huge improvement on the original road that was pushed through by U.S. army engineers in 1942, who took just eight months from April to November to lay down a road over the northern mountains and swamp.
That old road was difficult for everything that travelled on it. The army didn’t bother keeping track of the number of vehicles abandoned during construction. Sometimes, when a Jeep or a truck fell into an all-consuming pothole too deep to be easily winched free, they would just leave it there, cover it over with gravel and use it as fill.
At the top of Suicide Hill, once so steep that trucks could barely manage the grade, there was a road sign that warned, “Be prepared to meet thy God.” Beside Muncho Lake, the most costly section of the highway to build because it snakes through the mountains beside the 90-metre-deep lake, the corps used horse-drawn barges to remove the construction rubble.
In the Yukon, local residents at Teslin Lake were told by a Tlingit messenger in the spring of 1942 that the road was coming through but they just didn’t believe him — they lived too far from anywhere else for this to be practical. But just a few days later, U.S. army bulldozers literally crashed through the bush and up to the lake, pushing through with the road.
The Alaska Highway was built in a hurry because the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the year before had shown Americans that their Pacific coast was a target, yet there was nothing in Alaska to protect the northern state and no way to transport supplies reliably to it. The highway was built deep inland to protect it from potential offshore attack, and to provide supplies to a chain of small existing airfields that were the only link by land to Alaska.
The original road was built entirely by the U.S. military with an agreement that it would become a Canadian responsibility as soon as the war ended. Even before then, however, when its completed cost had soared over $135 million and maintenance and improvements were already needed, the U.S. government tried to pass it on to Canada.
The Canadian army took over the Alaska Highway in 1946, but it took many more years before the Yukon and B.C. governments were persuaded to pay for its upkeep. For decades it was a rugged road, with plenty of time to earn its reputation as a romantic highway to the mysterious north.
We found one of those mysteries soon after meeting the bison. The hot springs on the Liard River spawned long-ago stories of a tropical paradise hidden in the arctic mountains, with unfamiliar animals and strange plants. In fact, it’s a couple of naturally heated pools where the water temperature can reach more than 50 C. At least 14 species of orchid grow here among the ice-draped trees.
We arrived long after dark and stripped down on the snow to swim in the shallow pool; the site has wooden changing rooms but is rustic with no services, several hundred metres along a snow-covered boardwalk from the road. On the hike back to the Sprinter, I paused to listen to the silence of the chill air, and a comet flew through the clear, starlit sky.
That’s the thing about the Alaska Highway: It may be a man-made marvel, but it’s still so close to nature that its surroundings are impossible to ignore. There are many sections where the road is wide and efficient, but there are just as many where it is narrow and winding, climbing and dropping.
It’s a dangerous road in the winter when oncoming trucks throw up deep clouds of snow in their trail, too thick to see through to pass. Temperatures are too cold for salt to melt the road’s ice so plows just clear and sand. Winter tires are essential; chains and studs are preferred.
As we drove on toward the Alaska border and the temperature dropped even further, we stayed in a tight convoy so that nobody among us would be left alone on the road. For all their size, however, the Sprinters drove like minivans, corrected by a plethora of electronic nannies that kept the wheels pointed where we wanted to go.
We didn’t plug them in at night when the thermometer showed as cold as -37 C, but instead relied on pre-timed diesel-powered block heaters that warmed the coolant enough to prepare the engine for starting. After 45 minutes of preheat, nobody needed a morning boost.
One Sprinter suffered a flat tire after running over a long spike in the road but the wheel was changed in record time — without gloves for working the tools — and the vans behaved admirably.
We crossed into Alaska on our fourth day out from Edmonton and dropped down from the Alaska Highway to Anchorage, from where others will drive the vans up to the Arctic Circle.
Wheels’ Kathy Renwald took my place at the wheel and headed north then to look for bison of her own. Read here next week about her adventure to the arctic.
REVIEW: THE 2013 MERCEDES-BENZ SPRINTER
I was collected from the airport in Edmonton in a red Sprinter, then I drove it 3,200 kilometres to Alaska, and then I was dropped off with it at the airport in Anchorage.
It’s a very large, very practical van, developed for commercial use but also sought after by RV conversion companies and some drivers with large families. Most versions are the cargo editions with both long and regular wheelbases, but I drove north with the Star’s Pawel Dwulit in one of the passenger vans that seat up to 12 people. No, we didn’t pick up any hitchhikers.
The passenger Sprinters start at $50,100, which is competitive for the small bus it is, while the basic cargo van starts at $42,900, which is getting expensive for a delivery vehicle. My Sprinter came in at $61,250 with its various options of a high roof, big air-conditioner for the people in the back, extra armrests — that sort of thing. It’s easy to option up a Mercedes.
Its biggest challenge among potential buyers comes from being seen as a luxurious German vehicle rather than a hard-working van, which is why Mercedes organized this Arctic drive to demonstrate its toughness.
Is it tough enough? It was for us, and its many electronic safety and driving aids help it feel more like a minivan than a small truck. Those include an advanced ABS braking system and an Adaptive Electronic Stability Program that take care of any spinning wheels and keep the vehicle under control.
At no time on these snow-covered roads did I feel any loss of control, and that included a half-hour drive at speeds well over the suggested limit to catch up to the far-ahead convoy. My fuel consumption dropped then to below the 12 L/100 km I was averaging at regular unladen highway speed.
There are some gripes, though. The cruise control has no indicator to show if it’s activated; that’s downright dangerous at the bottom of a steep hill or an off-ramp when you suddenly realize the cruise is on and you hit the brakes instinctively to slow down. It’s been this way since the van was first sold here in 2010 but the Mercedes reps on this event were unable to explain why this indicator is lacking.
The broad sides of the Sprinter do catch the wind in gusty places, and the van would do well to come with the Crosswind Assist option that Mercedes developed for its new large SUV, the GL. Apparently, it’s in the works.
And the passenger van takes a long time to warm up when it’s really, really cold, but I guess that’s excusable. There’s a pre-timed preliminary heater that uses the diesel power to warm the coolant so the Sprinter doesn’t need to be plugged in, which helps the 3.0L turbodiesel to start and warm up quickly, but the very spacious cabin needs to have the engine running for a half-hour before it’s comfortable at -40 C.
But that’s at -40 C. Most winter days don’t get that cold, especially here in southern Ontario. If you’re considering buying a van for passengers or cargo and you’re thinking about the Sprinter, you should be comparing its value for money, not its winter credentials.
2013 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
ENGINE: 3.0L turbodiesel V6
POWER/TORQUE: 188hp/325 lbs.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION: (L/100 km) Claimed 13.8L City; 9.4L Hwy; 12.0L Observed combined
COMPETITION: All the white vans out there.
WHAT’S BEST: Easy to drive, no problem in winter, great fuel economy.
WHAT’S WORST: Costly for a cargo van, no cruise indicator light, lengthy passenger cabin warm-up.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: Originally built and sold as a Dodge before Chrysler and Mercedes split.
Travel for freelance writer Mark Richardson was provided by the manufacturer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.