How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Publisher Martin’s trek to Alaska in a C4 ’Vette

Published in October 2003 in SCM magazine.

“Moose! Don’t hit the moose!”

A full-grown moose stands six feet high at the shoulder and weighs over 1,500 pounds. Hitting one at 100 mph in a fiberglass Corvette would be a very bad idea.

Downshifting from sixth to third and nailing the throttle, while swinging the car wide to the right, put the problem behind us.

We were just 10 miles outside of Tok, Alaska, on day five of our road trip up the Alcan Highway, from Portland, Oregon to Anchorage, Alaska.

Gearheads are always looking for an excuse to take off and drive somewhere. Ours came easily enough when high school friend Bjarne Holm and his wife, Robin Chilton Holm, came down from Anchorage to pick up a new GMC ¾-ton extended-cab diesel pickup and drive it home, up the Alcan.

“You should drive the Alcan sometime, in a sports car. You’ve already done nearly every other stupid thing you can do in an old car,” said Bjarne over a glass of wine.

Four months later, on June 23rd, he was in the passenger seat of the ’92 SCM Corvette as we pulled out of our driveway and headed towards Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, the Yukon and eventually Alaska. Our odometer read 67,101, and we planned on a week for the 3,200-mile trip.

I’d never owned a C4 Corvette before and, given the tales I’d heard about the bone-jarring ride and rather crude build quality, I approached the car with some trepidation. My partner in the car, Bill Woodard, had found it as a trade-in at a local Lexus dealer. We paid $11,200 and spent another $2,000 replacing the clutch, getting fresh rubber from Fred Ankeny at T&A Tires, and having a general checkover.

Black with a black leather interior and a targa roof, the Corvette had the breakthrough 300-hp, 350-c.i. LT1 engine (the most powerful small-block production motor ever built by GM) and the desirable six-speed ZF manual gearbox. Loaded, it also had adjustable suspension, power adjustable seats, climate control, CD player and a host of other luxury options that were bewildering to me as an Alfa/MG/Ferrari owner. After all, on most vintage sports cars, you’re happy if the plastic side curtains come anywhere near sealing with the top.

I figured that Bjarne, a professional geologist, would make the perfect co-driver and tour guide. He worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from 1975-77, prospected in the bush for a variety of oil and gas companies (he recalls being chased and caught in the wilds by a brown bear, and smacking it on the head with a rock as it tried to sink its teeth into his calf) and had recently retired from teaching high-school geology in Anchorage. Not only that, he and I had rebuilt Alfa and MG engines and gearboxes together, in my grandmother’s basement in San Francisco, back in the ’60s, so I knew I could count on him to lend a hand if something went wrong with the car.

Bill and his wife, Nita, would take a cruise ship up to Anchorage and pick up the car from long-term parking at the airport, where we planned to leave it, and drive it back to Portland. And just to make things complete, my wife Cindy and daughter Alexandra were going to take the public ferry where, in frontier fashion, you pitch tents on the deck, from Bellingham to Juneau and fly to Anchorage to meet me.

Our preparation for the trip was rudimentary, consisting of fabricating a mesh screen to prevent bugs from clogging the radiator.

And so there we were leaving Portland at 3:14 in the afternoon. I immediately noticed something new, a slight vibration through the steering wheel, which I hoped would heal itself as we had a long ways to go.

Day One

We headed out I-84, our goal Spokane. And were soon lost. You see, Bjarne’s “Milepost” guide didn’t start until just below the Canadian border, and I didn’t think to bring any maps of Oregon, Washington, Idaho or Montana with me. After all, how hard can it be to find Alaska?

Harder than you might think.

After taking a wrong turn and somehow losing the Interstate, we asked a friendly construction worker if we were on the right road to Spokane. “Not if you want to get there this week,” she replied.

Following her directions, we backtracked 30 miles and got on course. It was at this point that we discovered the gas gauge was a little quirky. It would very slowly descend from full to half (“wow, we’re getting amazing mileage”), and then suddenly drop to empty and the warning light would come on.

When the computer told us we had zero miles to go until empty, and the nearest services were 31 miles away, we took the Sprague, Washington, exit. The town’s one station had already closed, so we checked into the Sprague Motel ($36/night).

I had recently stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles and couldn’t help but compare the lodgings. On two counts, the motel was the clear winner. First, it had a microwave oven, sorely lacking at the Four Seasons, and second, the steam whistle, at 2 a.m., of the freight train that was passing through town was something you just don’t get in downtown LA.

Day Two

We managed to find Spokane, and headed north towards Cranbrook, British Columbia. Crossing the border at Eastport was an adventure. The Canadian border guard looked us over and asked, “Are you a part of that gang that tried to run a stolen white Corvette across the border last week?”

Staggered by the stupidity of the question—if we were running stolen Corvettes into Canada, would we say yes to his question?—we just shook our heads, no. After half an hour of opening and closing suitcases and prying off door panels (breaking the attachments for one in the process, without so much as an “I’m sorry about that”), they sent us on our way.

Proving that our earlier navigation error was not a one-time thing, we somehow found ourselves on Highway 3 headed east towards Calgary, Alberta, rather than Highway 95 going north to Golden, British Columbia. Bjarne recalled, “Oh, I made this wrong turn once before, but Robin caught it long before we got this far.”

I enjoyed the drive across the Canadian Rockies from west to east, even if it happened by accident. And I was sure I’d enjoy crossing them again the next day just as much, only going in the opposite direction.

Aside from the front-end vibration, which was getting worse, the car was behaving nicely. It liked to lope along at 80 mph in sixth gear, the ultra-overdrive letting the engine tick over at barely above idle at that speed. We were averaging just over 21 mpg, according to the computer. The car was surprisingly quiet, and the climate control worked perfectly. As the trip rolled on, and we hit a series of 600- and 700-mile days, we would appreciate these comforts.

On the way to Calgary, we stopped to visit “The World’s Largest Truck,” a 1974 Titan 33-19 truck that was used to haul dirt in open pit mining operations, at 350 tons per load (that’s 112 Hummer H2s, or 479 Bug Eye Sprites). With the headlines of the local papers screaming about mad cow disease and Canadian cattle, we cleverly found the only sushi restaurant in Calgary. It was only moderately bad.

Day Three

Our route took us through Banff National Park, and included a brief stop at Banff, which was tourist-alpine cutesy. We were glad to get back on the road. Lake Louise was impressive, but we had to wade our way through the busloads of Japanese tourists, all of whom seemed intent on buying bits of polished purple amber, made in Poland, at the gift shop.

Heading west towards Jasper, we took off the targa top and blasted through the Rockies. Surprisingly, perhaps because you sit so deep in the car and the windshield rake is so extreme, removing the top didn’t provide the same sense of airiness you have when you take off a 914 or 308 top. Also, with the top off, there was tremendous wind noise from the B-pillar, right next to your ear. So after 100 miles or so, we put it back on.

I fiddled with the adjustable suspension and found that the stiffer settings made the car ride more harshly, but really didn’t make it handle any better. The rebound control of the shocks didn’t seem particularly effective, and the car just didn’t bite when you tried to get a set before powering into a turn. And the vibration through the steering wheel was evolving from a minor annoyance to a real distraction.

The scenery changed from majestic mountains to lush greenery as we entered the Fraser Valley. Chetwynd, BC was our stopping point. Bjarne suggested the Chetwynd Court Motel. I pointed out that most of the furniture from the rooms seemed to have been piled up in the middle of the parking lot, and the occupants were all cooking on their $3.95 hibachi grills in front of their rooms—never a good sign.

The Pine Cone Motor Inn was our choice ($59 CND, about $41 US). Once again, the Four Seasons was bested in the microwave category.

Day Four

At 7 a.m., we were at Kal Tires, having the front end looked at. It turned out that the front left wheel had a slight flat spot on it, so we had it put on the right rear, and the balance on all the wheels checked. The technician recommended that we put balance weights on both the inside and outside of the rims, which we did. “Guys like them on the inside only because they don’t want the weight to spoil the look of the wheel,” he said. “But the wider the wheel and tire, the more you want weights in and out.” $28 US and we were on our way.

The vibration disappeared completely, and the car was transformed. All of the niggling handling problems simply disappeared. You could have balanced a glass on the steering wheel, the front end suddenly had bite going into a turn and became easy to set up, and the damping from the shocks felt noticeably improved. For the first time in our trip, the car felt like it was on rails. It’s not often you get to spend less than $30 and come away with a car so vastly improved.

At Fort St. John, British Columbia, with our odometer reading 68,732, (1,631 miles covered so far), we pulled onto the Alcan Highway. A two-lane highway, its surface was excellent. As we sped along, we would come up on herds of huge Class A motorhomes, each towing a Jeep Grand Cherokee or similar-sized car and trundling along at 55 mph. The parade of motorhomes, with their towed cars wagging slightly like tails, made me think of prehistoric mastodons in migration.

As we passed them, I thought about how much longer this trip would take at 55 mph rather than 80 or 100.

Our goal was to get to Liard Hot Springs by the end of the day. For the first time, we encountered hellish stretches of dusty, unpaved road where the old asphalt had been scraped up, in preparation for new being laid down. Gigantic earthmovers were busy on both sides of the highway; it seemed like owning a Caterpillar franchise for this area would be a good thing.

The water temperature, at low speeds, began to climb. We discovered that our custom bug screen was completely clogged. Wiping it clean solved the problem.

We arrived at Liard Hot Springs Lodge, a 12-unit log-cabin structure ($70 CND, $49 US). The springs were a five-minute walk across the highway. There are two pools: one for wading and one that you can swim in. The water in the two pools at Liard remains at close to 105-110 degrees year-round (although there are some hotter spots).

I wish I’d known that there was no beer or wine served at the lodge; somehow kicking back with an apple juice, after driving 500 miles and then soaking in the hot springs, just didn’t cut it.

Day Five

Out early again, we’re making good time, with our goal being Whitehorse, Yukon. We get gas at Swift River Lodge, a hardscrabble place, and accelerate away. Little did I know that we would get to visit Swift River again, an hour later, so that I could retrieve the credit card I had left behind. The gas station didn’t look any better the second time around.

But this wasn’t the only time today that I took us off schedule. After lunch, I discovered that I no longer had the keys to the ’Vette, which was locked. After half an hour of searching fruitlessly, I retraced my steps one more time, and remembered that I had taken some garbage from the car and dumped it into a can when we first arrived. I dug around in the garbage (boy, wasn’t that fun), and suddenly, bingo, there were the keys. I tried to figure out how I would ever get away with acting like a cool professional automotive journalist around Bjarne again.

Day Six

A tough one. It was a relatively straight run of about 300 miles from Whitehorse to Tok, our last stop before Anchorage. The road was half the time good and half the time wretched. We stopped in Burwash to take in the small but first-rate natural-history museum there.

We crossed the border into Alaska at Port Alcan without incident. I think by now the Corvette was so covered with mud that the customs agent thought it was a two-door Cavalier with a custom nose and sectioned top.

We had our moose episode as we neared Tok. I’d seen those Saab safety movies showing how a Saab is designed so that if it hits a moose, the animal will roll over the top of the car. I didn’t think Chevrolet engineers had that in mind with the ’Vette, and I wondered how a moose would look sitting in my lap. We left it behind.

Despite having the world’s worst salmon dinner in Tok (we stupidly fell into a tourist trap—never eat at a place where they call out your name and home town over a loudspeaker when your meal is ready), the motel was decent and cheap at $58 US. It had one thing in common with the Four Seasons: no microwave. It did, however, have a variety of inebriated mature adults in the parking lot, who stood around their rigs and talked.

Day Seven

Our final day, and it was brilliant. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, so we popped off the top, found a place to get a perfectly done latte and headed towards Anchorage.

A few hours later we were at Bjarne’s home, Robin welcoming us with some cold Alaskan beer. Cindy and Alex flew in that night, and we celebrated with a dinner of freshly caught Copper River chinook salmon, expertly barbecued by Robin.

Two days later, we put the Corvette into long-term airport parking. Cindy, Alex and I flew home to Portland that afternoon.

We’d traveled 3,225 miles in six days, an average of 538 miles a day. We didn’t burn a drop of oil, had no mechanical problems and averaged over 21 mpg.

Two weeks later, Bill and Nita arrived back in Portland, having had an uneventful trip back down the Alcan. The ’Vette treated them just as well as it had treated us.

I know that we’ll be selling our Corvette soon, as it’s time to move on to our next car and next learning experience. But it’s with mixed feelings that I will watch it go. On one hand, it’s a mass-produced car, with 14,604 coupes built that year, and 5,487 with the six-speed gearbox. Finding another wouldn’t be impossible. But on the other hand, during the thousands of miles we traveled, this particular car turned out to have a heart of gold.

It fired up eagerly each morning, with a great rumbling sound through the dual exhausts, and never let us down. It had superior handling, copious horsepower and a great gearbox, and it was comfortable beyond my wildest expectations. It just pounded out the miles, day after day, over roads both good and crappy. Not bad for a $13,000 car.

Perhaps you fellow gearheads can help me solve my problem. We’ve got just two spots in our garage for collector cars, and the ceiling is too low to install lifts. To make a space for the blue 308 Cindy’s closing in on, this ’Vette really has to go. But for the small amount of money we’ve got invested, and the terrific ride the car has given us, I’d like to find a way to keep it around. Or am I just being too sentimental about a machine? Your thoughts and suggestions are welcomed; please e-mail them to me at kmartin@sportscarmarket.com.—Keith Martinu

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