It’s cold—really cold. Minus-45-Celsius cold. You’ve just driven more than 8,000 kilometres over nine days, over ice, through snow, and against winds that can knock over a fully-loaded tractor-trailer. And when you reach the finish, what do you do?
If you’re Andrew Comrie-Picard, well, you fill up the tank and then keep driving.
Comrie-Picard, a native of Edmonton who now lives in Los Angeles, believes that life is lived behind the wheel. A professional racer and stunt driver, he moved to California in 2010 for the Discovery Channel’s Ultimate Car Build-Off. He’s also worked on Top Gear USA and the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Sabotage, among others.
But he was far away from Hollywood earlier this year, when he and co-drivers Brad Lovell and Chris Komar loaded their gear into a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon and contested the Alcan 5000 Rally. Inaugurated in 1984 and held every two years, the rally alternates between a summer and winter route. This year, it went from Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle, and finished in Anchorage, Alaska.
“I’m a rally racer,” Comrie-Picard says. “I won my class in the Baja 1000 and this is a logical extension of doing that, of taking vehicles to the most extreme places on the ends of the earth.”
Outside of the jerry can mounts and off-road tires, the team’s Jeep was pretty much stock
A normal Jeep (on a not-so-normal route)
Although some entrants build vehicles specifically for the event, Comrie-Picard’s trio essentially started right off the showroom floor. Other than extra fuel cans strapped to the side, and a set of BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A KO2 tires, their Jeep was completely stock. That was also part of the challenge they set out for themselves: to finish this gruelling race in something any consumer could buy.
The rally is about endurance, not speed. That turned out to be one of the toughest aspects for three guys who are used to barrelling toward the finish line as fast as possible. Teams are penalized not just if they’re late at the checkpoints, but if they’re early too.
“I had to do a lot of math to figure out where we were at every moment,” he says. “You’re watching the vehicle odometer and GPS, and you make sure you make the correct turns through these rural roads. We won on a couple of days and were way ahead, but on other days we made huge errors.”
The Alcan 5000 Rally route for 2016; you can see Tuktoyaktuk just east of the Yukon-N.W.T. border along the Arctic Ocean’s shore
It wasn’t an easy drive, but it was uneventful, with no mechanical issues or even the need to be pushed out of a snowbank. When it all wrapped up, the three placed third in their class and finished eleventh overall.
But as all the other teams went home, Comrie-Picard, Lovell and Komar got back in the Jeep. Their destination: Tuktoyaktuk in Yukon Territory at the shore of the Arctic Ocean, an additional 4,800 kilometres. And this time, they were all by themselves.
Pressing on to Tuktoyaktuk
“You don’t realize this place is so vast,” Comrie-Picard says. “I’ve driven from sea to sea and thought I knew Canada in terms of size, but you drive to the third ocean and you don’t realize how far north it is, and how beautiful and vast and unpopulated some of the North is. You find pockets of people and it’s just amazing that they live up there.”
They initially drove from Anchorage to Whitehorse along the Alcan Rally route they’d recently traversed in the opposite direction. From there they turned north, going through Eagle Plains, Inuvik, and Reindeer Depot on their way to Tuktoyaktuk.
“The big challenge is that you need a good long fuel range,” he says. “There are stretches of 250 miles (400 km) with no towns, no cell phone service, just a gravel road on the Dempster Highway. There’s a saying in the North, ‘Never pass gas.’ You have to be sure you’re full of gas. We took extra fuel and only had to use it one occasion.”
And even if there is a gas station—this is a route for ice truckers, so there are facilities even if they’re spaced very far apart—you still can’t be guaranteed fuel, Comrie-Picard says. “Maybe the tanker didn’t get there, or the pumps are frozen solid.”
“We were going through an area in the Arctic Circle called Hurricane Alley, and (the winds) often close the highway. The day before, a 144,000-pound tanker had been flipped over in crosswinds and it was abandoned there. We got there and there was nobody for hundreds of miles. Psychologically, when you’re sitting there with half a tank of gas, night has fallen, and you’re looking at a flipped-over tanker, it’s interesting.”
The three were prepared to camp if necessary, but were able to plan their route so they could stay in rooms along the way. “In Eagle Plains there are sixteen rooms in the hotel at the truck stop, set up for the miners and tanker truck drivers,” he says. “You have to book ahead and they’re expensive. It was the probably the most rustic place we stayed, and our room was $179 a night.”
The Alcan 5000 Rally team: Andrew Comrie-Picard in the foreground; Brad Lovell just behind him; and Chris Komar in the back
Getting dog-food desperate
As with the Alcan Rally, the extra trek to the Arctic Ocean was completely trouble-free. Their supplies held out as well, and so they didn’t have to dig down to their emergency rations: cans of dog food.
Dog food? Yes indeed, and apparently it’s a common thing for adventurers. As Comrie-Picard explained, if you take granola bars you’ll eat them when you’re hungry, but if you take dog food, you’ll save it until you’re desperate. “It can also stave off wolves, too, if you throw it in the right direction,” he laughs. And if they run out of the dog food as well? “That’s why I pick meaty co-drivers,” he adds.
At Tuktoyaktuk they drove the Jeep up onto a snowbank for photos, and then began the long drive back to Whitehorse, flying home from there. That would be enough of an accomplishment for most people, but for the three, it was just a trial run.
Prepping for the pole-to-pole
Comrie-Picard, Lovell and Komar are planning to drive from one end of the globe to the other, starting at the South Pole and driving to the magnetic North Pole. The schedule has yet to be determined, but they’re hoping to do it sometime within the next two years.
“This was a test for our pole-to-pole, to bring in people with the right combination of skills, and see if we can live together in a vehicle for four months,” Comrie-Picard says. “We’ll go completely overland where land exists.”
“We’ll go the length of South America, and the Darién Gap, which is the jungle between Panama and Columbia that’s only been crossed by vehicles three times, and the last time was thirty years ago. Then we’ll continue through North America to the Arctic Ocean, and then drive on the frozen ocean to the (magnetic) North Pole.
“We haven’t officially announced it, but this is a teaser,” he says. “It will be the longest, most difficult vehicle expedition ever attempted. We’re real car guys, and this will go beyond the end of the road.”