Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The colder the better

Willy sprints through Alaska in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

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Around here, most folks head south for a winter vacation. Not me. With a week of holidays to burn and an invitation from Mercedes-Benz Canada to participate in the Sprinter Arctic Drive, I headed in the other direction for the work-ation of a lifetime.

North ... to Alaska!

The first leg of the adventure, which offered journalists from across Canada and the U.S. the chance to test the winter abilities of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, departed Edmonton on Jan. 22 for Anchorage, Alaska.

The second leg, the one I opted for, departed Anchorage a few days later and took us through some of the most amazing scenery on earth. We spent a night in Fairbanks, gazed at majestic Mount McKinley, and cruised the legendary Dalton Highway all the way up to the Arctic Circle and a remote truck stop with a population of less than 10, aptly named Coldfoot.

To say it was cold in Coldfoot is a vast understatement. It was minus-48 Fahrenheit the night we spent there, or minus-44 Celsius. Apparently that was balmy for Coldfoot -- it holds the record for the coldest spot in American history, hitting minus-81 Fahrenheit back in 1971.

Normally for a trip like this, I'd prefer to be in my trusty old Chevy Silverado 2500 HD. My truck is nicknamed Snow Drifter. It's a 4x4, has a lifted suspension, big tires that have been grooved with a hot knife for additional traction, a CB radio, GPS, a heater that will burn your face off, and enough provisions aboard to survive a zombie invasion.

The thought of making this harsh drive in a Mercedes-Benz cargo van had me questioning the sanity of the organizers and, as always, my own muddled mind.

My co-driver for the week was Benjamin Hunting, a freelance writer from Montreal who also has a lengthy list of similar adventures under his goofy fur hat, so I wasn't worried about looking after him. But I was more than a tad concerned about how that ultra-tall, rear-wheel-drive Sprinter van would fare when the thermometer hit the blistering lows I'd heard are normal for this time of year in Alaska.

Suffice it to say, we made it, and the fleet of Sprinters performed admirably in deadly harsh conditions that included cold starting in temperatures of nearly minus-50 degrees Celsius, drastic temperature fluctuations, icy, snow-covered and frost-heaved roads, high winds, ice fog, whiteout conditions and steep mountain passes.

Driving on the icy Dalton Highway wasn't a huge concern for me -- Manitobans are used to greasy roads. It was a three-day journey up to Coldfoot, and pretty much all uphill. Sure there was a few mountain passes, but the Sprinter chugged up those steep inclines like a champ.

But the trip back was another story -- all downhill, in conditions as icy as I've ever experienced. Our expedition captain and driving mentor, Danny Kok, a pro racer and instructor, repeatedly told us to use the van's transmission rather than the brakes, and it worked well. The shifter is in a good spot on the Sprinter, and an easy nudge on the lever dropped the automatic down a gear or two, which is much safer than applying the brakes.

I felt the rear end get loose a few times, but never so much that it felt as though we were losing control. But I still had white knuckles for two days, and I now have a whole new level of respect for ice-road truckers. It was also tough on the nerves when those same semis came barreling down the highway and passed us in a cloud of snow. Yikes.

Beyond the Sprinter's advanced traction and stability control, there were a few other features that went a long way to helping us make this epic journey in one piece. Like any diesel, the van's 3.0L BlueTEC turbodiesel V6 engine can be hard to start without proper preparation. But the Sprinter has a powered auxiliary heater that operates separately from the engine. It circulates coolant through the engine block and radiator, and produces a small amount of heat in the passenger compartment.

The cool thing about this heater is that it can be set electronically with the controls on the steering wheel. In our case, the timer was set for 7 a.m. and the auxiliary heater ran for 15 minutes before we headed out and actually fired up the diesel. This system works like a charm -- no need to plug in or keep the diesel engine running all night like big-rig truckers do.

The only setback we had was waking up to a flat tire in Fairbanks. Otherwise, the van's Continental snow tires offered great traction on all that ice and snow. The trip was intended to prove that Sprinters have the utilitarian DNA to deliver the goods, regardless of how remote the destination. And they did that in spades. They may not be speedy, and -- let's be honest here -- they're a bit dorky-looking, but I have a totally newfound respect for the Sprinter because of the confidence it instilled.

As for the hearty folks who call Alaska home, all I can say is WOW. At every stop we were met with a mixture of kindness and curiosity that was truly enlightening.

One of the first Alaskans I spoke with was an elderly U.S. Army veteran. Originally from Idaho, he had the look of a guy who had been there and done that. When I asked him why he lived in Alaska, he told me that once it gets in your blood, you're hooked. It's easy to see why. The air is clean, the people are down-to-earth and the scenery and wildlife are absolutely amazing.

It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure and, although I posed for a photo shirtless at the Arctic Circle, I'll spare you that image. But I will say that despite being 100-per-cent Manitoban and a winter outdoor fanatic, for the first time in my life I actually found myself rushing to get indoors.

We may think we have it rough here in Manitoba, but sleep well in the knowledge that, no matter how cold it is here, it's probably colder in Coldfoot.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2013 A1

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