Story of the Week Alcan 5000

Every few years, in late summer, dozens of rally drivers gather in the Pacific Northwest to compete in the Alcan 5000. It starts in Bellevue, Washington, and runs more than 4,000 miles through Canada and Alaska, over the region's most rugged terrain. This year, KUOW's Patricia Murphy rode along and now she tells us the story of the Alcan -- and the daredevils that drive it. Let's just say, this road trip also calls for innovation and successful group dynamics.

Patricia Murphy reporting:
It's a clear morning in Quesnel, British Columbia. Team Tekbugs' black 1992 Subaru Legacy Turbo is parked along a dirt forest road near Fraser Lake. I'm crammed in the back of this car with all of our gear: my seat for the next 4,200 miles. Ryan Douthit, a magazine publisher, and Chad Ligot, a machinist, both from Kirkland, Washington, are busy preparing for the day's first timed event. Chad's the team's navigator; it's his job to direct Ryan and keep him on time, according to the route book. But right away, there's a problem. The guys have somehow driven past the start sign. Ryan quickly pulls a U-turn and heads back the other way, where we run into a fellow rallyist who tries to help us get back on track.

Ryan Douthit: That's the sign?

Rallyist: I don't know. I don't know what the sign is.

Ryan: There's no sign up...

Rallyist: Fourteen meters from the hotel here.

Ryan: OK, well, let's do that.

Chad Ligot: Are we...

Rallyist: You're late, I guess.

Ryan: Yeah.

Chad: OK, go.

Patricia: For the next 10 minutes, Ryan drives like a maniac trying to catch up. At day's end, the team scores an 18, meaning they were 18 seconds off the perfect time. Not bad, considering Ryan and Chad have only done four rallies together.

After a long day on the road, Alcaners immediately head to the bar. Call a rally a race in this crowd and you're going to find trouble. See, a rally is not about going fastest over a stretch of road; instead, it's precision, going from one checkpoint to the next closest to an allotted amount of time. Staged sections are called TSDs, or timed speed distance. Rallyist and software engineer Steve Willey says the nearly 5,000-mile Alcan event is like the biathlon, where athletes run or ski and then do precision marksmanship.

Steve Willey: You know, by the ninth day you're pretty ragged, yet you still have to focus tightly on these numbers, on these speeds, on this driving. It's about being on time; it's about driving precisely and covering tons of miles and being exactly where you should be at the exact right time. You often find a lot of accountants, lawyers, people that have a keen focus on detail. It's a geek sport.

Patricia: Eighteen-hundred miles into the rally, we're winding up the Cassiar Highway on our way to Skagway, Alaska. What used to be pavement is now a dirt road running through a vast wilderness with almost no sign of civilization. By the time we reach Skagway, Chad and Ryan are frustrated -- computer problems have plagued them for the past two days.

Ryan: On the way up to White Horse, at some point, the odometer on our rally computer just stopped.

Patricia: Skagway, Alaska, owes its existence to the Klondike Gold Rush. These days, it lives and breathes around the cruise ship industry. Just last week, 34,000 people funneled through here. But today is Saturday, and we've got the town to ourselves.

While the guys work on their technical problems, the rest of us head to the bar. The mood's high and we're bonding over martinis, beer and rally stories. There's the one about the kindly Canadian Mountie who years ago helped a team track down moose antlers to mount on their car, brains attached. Ewww. Then Don Beck chimes in. Don's working on a documentary about the Alcan.

Don Beck: This might be the most classic motorcycle story of all time. One of the riders, he's been having trouble with his motorcycle all week long, so his partner drives up ahead of him and he stops at some out-of-the-way gas station to gas up and fix the electrical problem to his bike. And he takes off his helmet and lays his helmet next to the motorcycle while he's fussing around with it. So, he's fussing around, fussing around, and all of a sudden he hears pssss, and he turns around and some dog is urinating not only on the helmet, but inside the helmet. And so, for the last two days he has gone through, let's see, hairspray, he poured Aqua Velva in it, tried lighter fluid, he's tried baking soda -- he's tried everything. And he's got a helmet basically that has dog urine in it, but he now has to drive another 3,000 miles in it.

Patricia: At 6:30 the next morning, many of the Alcaners, myself included, look as thick and foggy as the cloud cover that's descended on Skagway. The fog remains as we begin the day's first TSD. I'm feeling queasy and a little hung-over as Ryan, Chad and I wind out of town via the Carcross Highway. Ryan speeds past giant RVs as he tries to stay on time. The RV passengers watch us, their faces petrified in fright. I glance in the mirror and realize I look exactly the same.

Thirty minutes later, the TSD is over and Ryan and Chad seem satisfied. I have them pull over, I need to throw up. I return to the car and the guys hand me a tissue and a can of Sprite to settle my stomach. Nice guys.

We soon pass into the Northwest Territory and stop to fill up. A motorcycle pulls in and I chat up the driver, Rob Hughes from Golbern, England. Turns out, he's running in a completely different rally, the Nick Sander's Motorcycle World Challenge: 25,000 miles in three months.

Rob Hughes: We started off on the 6th of August, New York, come up to Niagara, come across Canada, we've been into...

Patricia: Rob's red-rimmed eyes stand out against his face, which looks tanned, but it's actually caked with dust from riding endless dirt roads. They're going around the world.

Rob: From there, we're going over to Istanbul, coming through eastern Europe, over into North Africa before ending up in London, where we finish.

Patricia: On day 6, we totaled the car. We begin the day traveling along the noisy gravel of the old Alaska Highway. We've got a 500-mile drive to Yellowknife, and Ryan's in a hurry. So, after a quick lunch stop at a small Inuit gas station, we leave the group behind. Ryan and Chad are singing as we head out.

I settle in and soon fall asleep, but my rest is fitful. Nightmare visions of lapbelt injuries stream by and I wake up just to reposition my shoulder belt.

What seems like a second later, we hit a berm of dirt in the road and slide, spin out, then completely roll over, landing right side up in a bog. Covered in glass, I carefully crawl out of the car. Chad and I are bruised, but fine. Ryan, on the other hand, is bleeding profusely from his head. Another team pulls up. Ryan gets in and they drive off to the hospital six hours away. Our car is destroyed. The gargantuan highway trucks continue on their way; they don't even stop.

Still in shock, I hop into another rally car and continue on to Yellowknife. There, I learned this road is called the "Highway of Death" because it's so rugged and remote. Over the years, there have been five major wrecks on the Alcan 5000. I'm feeling really lucky.

Rally accidents are not taken lightly; everyone's concerned and more than a little rattled. With Ryan and Chad out, I have to ride with some of the other teams, so on day 7 I head out with Team Subaru. R. Dale Krausharr won this rally in the past. He's an ex-Marine and, to him, rallying is very serious business. But as is often the case in these events, things quickly go awry.

Ken Eklund: We passed it here -- we must be lost.

Patricia: This is the co-driver, Ken Eklund.

Ken: We're on Airport Road. We might have missed the turn onto Old Airport Road.

Patricia: Everyone in the car is incredibly tense as R. Dale guns it through morning traffic in Yellowknife. My heart is in my throat.

Ken: We're a mile off the damn thing.

Crewman: I'm not watching the mileage turns. As the clock ticks, it's continually moving down the road.

Ken: The problem is we're on Airport Road, and the instruction before this was "veer right on Old Airport Road." I think we missed that one. When you go back, you're essentially tripling the amount of penalties.

Crewman: I couldn't see a sign. There wasn't a sign saying Old Airport Road. There wasn't a sign.

R. Dale: Guys, help me out here!

Ken: It was one mile, plus that mile post. I had just misread the number. It was that simple of an error. So, we had been going the right way all along. I'm sorry, I was a mile early. That's a mistake. So, we're on course. I was a mile early.

Patricia: R. Dale 's driving skill is impressive, and soon we're on our way to Grand Prairie. I can breathe again.

That afternoon, I tag along with the other Alcan favorites, Gary Webb and Team Atlantic. Where the morning was organized and all business, Team Atlantic is the opposite. Their rental car is loaded with electronics, our rally computer, CB, ham radio, and a global positioning unit so friends back home can track their progress. During long hauls, Gary plays TV trivia on the radio. He munches on Red Vines and listens to the "1812 Overture."

Gary Webb: You're supposed to be here to run the rally as best as you possibly can to try to stay on time as best as you possibly can, and to have a vacation -- and that's the most important thing. Checkpoint coming up on the left. Checkpoint on the left.

Team member: Yeah, there it is.

Gary: See it? On day one, you've got to come here to be on vacation, you've got to come here to have a good time...

Team member: …have fun.

Gary: …and have fun. If you think that winning the $10 trophy at the end while you're here, then you should have bought the $10 trophy and stayed the hell home. Because, you know, it's way too much work to try to win a $10 trophy.

Patricia: In the end, Gary's strategy pays off: Team Atlantic takes first place. The other Alcaners, including Ryan and Chad, all gather at the finish in Jasper, Alberta, to celebrate.

All together, there are numerous speeding tickets, one totaled car, one motorcycle crash, five stitches in Ryan's head, and one broken wrist. The winners accept framed photographs of sacred rock formations. But in the end, it's not about winning: it's the amazing adventure and the camaraderie.

I hit my 5,000th mile on my way back home. As we cross the international border, I'm struck -- not by the distances we've traveled -- but by how deeply affected I've been by some meaningless road race. I don't know if it was the accident or spending 12 hours a day inside my own head, but I'd made some decisions, some really serious ones, about my life and how I want to live it. The world seems much more vast than it was just 10 days ago.

So, I'll probably never do another rally -- I'm sort of a reckless driver, not to mention the motion sickness. But months after the rally's end, I'm still holding onto it. That intensity is what brings the Alcaners back year after year. It's more than a break from monotony -- the rally gives you a sense of clarity that's hard to find in day-to-day life. You have clear goals, an automatic community, a real sense of control that most of us have a hard time finding.

The Alcan taught me that in order to be happy, really happy, I need to find my own brick. It's like Gary said, it's not about that $10 trophy, whatever that $10 trophy might be -- I need to follow my heart, feed my soul, find adventure each and every day.

Back in Seattle -- for now -- I'm Patricia Murphy for The Savvy Traveler.