The Alcan 5000 includes hot springs, severed toes, 40 below temperatures, killer snowbanks, and Bison – but if you’re up to the challenge, it’s among the greatest adventures in the world!
Anyone can get into a car and drive to the beach. But it’s a little different if the beach is located 300 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada’s remote Northwest Territories. That’s the challenge of the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally. This extreme adventure rally takes place every four years, and it’s one of the most intense motorsports events you can find anywhere on Earth.
The Alcan Rally takes off from Seattle, Washington and heads north into Canada through British Columbia. It takes about 5 days of solid driving to hit the Arctic Circle, and you reach that beach at the town of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, on Day 6. But along the way, participating teams get to live through a range of adventures that few people ever get the chance to experience.
Liard Hot Springs
The first two days of the rally are spent climbing your way north. When you reach northern British Columbia, you’re in an area of majestic mountains and abundant wildlife. Stone Sheep and American Bison dot the roadside, while the snow’s been getting thicker every day. On the third day, near the border with the Yukon gold rush country, you can stop at Liard Hot Springs.
This natural hot spring has been developed by the provincial government with a nice (but unheated) building where you can change into your swimsuit and get back into your dry clothes after your dip. The spring pours hot water into a gravel-floor pool about 4 feet deep. The water smells of sulfur, and snow persists right up to the edge of the pool. You can lounge here as long as you want, but you have to make it to Whitehorse by nightfall.
Dawson, Yukon and the Sour Toe Cocktail
The town of Dawson was the heart of the Yukon Gold Rush, and it is located a long day’s drive north of Whitehorse. The old town center still looks like something out of the wild west, with board sidewalks and old-fashioned saloon bars that are packed with locals and travelers alike on winter nights.
At the Downtown Hotel’s Sourdough Saloon, you can join an exclusive club. All you have to do is drink a shot of whiskey – with a mummified human toe dropped in the glass. As the barman says, “you can drink it fast, or you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the gnarly toe.” The ritual of the Sourtoe Cocktail is not to be missed. Many who come in swearing they’ll never do such a thing nevertheless find themselves caught up in the fervor.
High Adventure on the Dempster Highway
Just south of Dawson, the Dempster Highway branches off to the northeast and heads for the true Arctic. It’s about 225 miles from Dawson to the next settlement of Eagle Plains, YT. Eagle Plains is little more than a huddle of buildings perched on a ridge, but it’s got food and fuel, and it’s 20 scant miles from the Arctic Circle monument.
The Dempster Highway is a gravel road in summertime, but in the winter it’s a treacherous path of packed snow and ice, with loose snowbanks that can grab your vehicle and drag it into the sizable ditches on either side of the road. Those who have experienced the Dempster come prepared. We chose a new GMC Sierra AT4 pickup, with the Duramax diesel engine, capable four-wheel-drive system, and a set of Finnish Nokian Hakkapeliitta LT3 tires, ready to bite into that frozen surface.
On the Dempster, you’ll see hot springs that send steaming water up through iced-over pools, bringing warmth that helps small trees cling to life. You’ll crest ridges where you can see for 100 miles in every direction, if you can see at all. On the way up, we encountered some of the worst weather anyone in the rally had ever experienced there, and several vehicles had to turn back. We soldiered on, and virtually everyone had at least one moment of excitement going off the plowed road. But we were rewarded as the weather cleared and gave us a beautiful minute at the Arctic Circle.
Hit the Beach
Past the circle, you cross into the Northwest Territories and go by Fort McPherson on your way to Inuvik, NWT. This is the capital city of the province, and the largest town located north of the Arctic Circle. When we got up the next morning, temperatures had dropped to 40 degrees below zero. Or at least, that’s as low as most thermometers can register.
It’s 100 miles due north to Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean. There’s a sign when you reach the beach, but you have to trust the locals, because there’s nothing but flat ice as far as you can see. But if you made it this far, you reached the end of every road in North America. Past this point, there’s nothing but ice until you reach the north pole.
And then you turn around and head south again. This year, the rally ended in Anchorage, Alaska after a trip through Fairbanks and another chance to cross the Arctic Circle. There are more adventures on the southward trip, but those can be told another day.
Check out my interview below with Pickup Truck & SUV Talk for more about this year’s Alcan 5000, and how the GMC Sierra AT4 performed:
More of my content from the Alcan 5000 :