Friday, April 19, 2013

Al-Can Adventure Part 3: Ice, Ice, Baby

It always seems to surprise people the most when I tell them that what I've missed most on the trips up and down the Alaska Highway is water.  Sometimes it's just frozen water that I miss; sometimes it's water in general.

First thing: there are a lot of Canadians who, like many Europeans, don't think drinks should have ice in them.  In the cities in Canada I never had a problem getting ice for my drinks, but at many, if not most, of the rural stops I had to specifically ask for ice, and sometimes I got glared at for it.  I suppose one could ask someone in Canada why so many Canadians don't put ice in their drinks, but that would probably (and legitimately) just be answered with the question of why so many Americans do.

It goes beyond ice, though.  Sometimes water is hard to be had.

That observation, by the way, comes from the times I've done the trip in the eight or ten months that are considered "off season."  Yes, you can drive the Alaska Highway in the dead of winter.  Some people I know, in fact, prefer it then because there's far less traffic at that time of year, and because the snow pack evens the road out around the accursed orange flags.  Those who drive it in the chillier months, though, have a whole new level of self-reliance to get used to.  Probably half of the service stations/cafes/gift shops/convenience stores/postal offices/etc. north of Edmonton close for the winter.  I don't blame them; they probably do what I'd do--head someplace souther and warmer (like Calgary) for the "holidays" (specifically, September through May).

The ones that stay open?  They "winterize."

What's winterization?  Well, look, if your house is built to modern environmental standards by a competent contractor, you probably don't need to think of it.  Many of the houses up north, though, have to do something to prevent the fluid water in their pipes under (or beside) the house from becoming cold enough to phase-shift into solid water--ice, ice, baby.

Ice is bad.

Specifically, ice in the water pipes is bad.  Not only does it obstruct the flow of water, but water also has a curiously destructive property.  It's one of the few molecular substances that, because of its covalent structure, actually gets bigger when it freezes.  Don't believe me?  Stick a 6-pack of generic soda in the top storage cabinet of your cabover camper for the winter.

No, don't do that.  I, um, have experience at that, and if you're so inclined you can just use my experience to teach your own that the result is messy, messy, messy.  The water in the soda freezes and expands, wanting to take up more space than is available in the confines of the cans.  The cans, meanwhile, are constructed to delicate tolerances designed to hold in anything up to but not including the internal pressure inflicted by frozen soda.  Each can, then, expands till it can't any more and then explodes, thus launching a torrent of quasi-frozen (because the water freezes, but the soda syrup does not) goop all over the insides of the lucky cabinet.  Then, when warm weather happens, the water runs out of the bottom of the cabinet, getting everything beneath sticky and wet, while the soda syrup coagulates and dries in place, sealing the can shards onto the cabinet floor for all eternity.

Yeah, it's ugly.  But what do I know?  Try it for yourself if you're feeling lucky.

So, anyway, yeah, I also know from experience how bad it is to deal with a frozen water line.  One of the apartments in Anchorage I lived in had one freeze up, in fact--and yes, that was quasi-modern construction, too.  I actually didn't have to deal with it, personally, but the plumber was in and out of my apartment for hours, working the frozen spot from both ends trying to melt the clog gently enough to not melt the pipe or set the water boiling, which would then create a steam cannon.

Because of the difficulty of dealing with this, then, the smarter folks way up north turn off and drain any non-essential water flows.  I can't blame them.  Can't blame them until, anyway, we pass through (as we did) the part of the Yukon closest to Alaska (and, therefore, the farthest north) in early June and are told that the restrooms aren't open for "business" yet.  Yes, I said June.  There was still snow on the ground.  Streams were still frozen over.  Yes, June, a part of spring when Texas is already turning into an inferno.  That June.  Up near the Arctic Circle, it can still be awfully chilly that time of year, and it certainly was that year.

They made me feel better, though, by making me a cup of coffee (from water out of a barrel they kept full inside).  It was actually, primarily, anyway, a rock shop, which was why we stopped, and the guy, who must've been about 150 years old, filled up one of those old tin percolators and brewed us a pot of coffee to sit and chat with.

You really can't get life better than that, honestly--sitting and chatting about rocks and gems with somebody you've never met, and will probably never see again, over a cup of well-percolated coffee.  Black, no sugar, just like I like it.

On second thought, I guess life can get a little better, but only if you add working flush toilets.  We had to go down the road to the next roadside hole-in-the-ground potties.

"Roughing it," indeed.



  1. I had to laugh at your comment about no ice in drinks because I being Canadian do not like ice in my drinks - not sure why just don't. I always as for no ice unless it is warm soda pop then I need ice.

    1. Since when do you say "soda pop" unless you're referring to the dog?

      Mr King, I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. Making me laugh and reminisce at the same time of our years living in Yellowknife and the occasional drives in and out of there. They aren't quite as epic, but as you say, Canadians do like to drive through construction zones. I remember driving back to YK in the pouring rain through a section of the Mackenzie Highway under construction. It was an absolute mud bog, being built through the muskeg as it was. It was a brand spanking new car, front wheel drive, just traded in a 4x4 pick up. I was shaking my head. What a nightmare.

  2. You're lucky you got away with coffee. I blew a water hose north of Wawa and the guy in White River who owned both the gas station and the motel kept us there for 3 days, waiting for the part to come. Finally the RCMP told us to insist on the repair being done or we could report him. What some people will do for company and business. :) loved your story about the frozen pipes. I'm sure everyone in the North has one!