BY: Kristen Arendt
Two wrong turns don’t make a right, but they do make for a whole lot of driving adventure.
Sitting in our ‘04 Lexus GX470 stuck in a snowdrift on the side of the Dempster Highway in a
whiteout blizzard and a balmy -15 degrees in Tombstone, no joke, Tombstone Territorial Park
somewhere in the Yukon is a place I never thought I would be spending my hard-earned vacation
hours. Never in a million years.
Life is funny like that though. You think you have your vacation all planned, preferably to
somewhere with palm trees and pina coladas. Then your husband gives you puppy dog eyes and,
next thing you know, you’re obsessively checking the temperatures in remote northern Canadian
villages and brushing up on your navigation skills when you learn you’ll be the human version of
Google Maps for this driving challenge. At least that’s where I found myself at the end of 2019
when Garrett and I secured the final entry into the 2020 Alcan 5000.
The Alcan 5000 is a long-standing rally, hosted by Jerry Hines and his outstanding family, who
have put on the event since 1984. Part epic road trip, part scored time-speed-distance (TSD)
regularity rally, and part ice race, the 2020 event covered over 5,000 miles in 10 days. Garrett
had been dreaming of driving this rally since high school. I, on the other hand, was trying to
comprehend how many layers I was going to need for -40 degrees.
But if I think back to how I ended up in that snowdrift on the side of the Dempster Highway, the real scapegoat here, husband aside, is the BMW CCA Rocky Mountain Chapter.
Now, if you think that’s a bit of a stretch, let me explain. As with any sizable avalanche, there is always a snowball that starts it all. That snowball for me was the 2018 Rocky Mountain Chapter Spring TSD, my first ever time-speed-distance rally. I left the event that day with a few key takeaways that, in retrospect, had me intrigued and made me brave enough to give the mother-of-all TSDs, the Alcan, a try.
1. TSDs welcome all makes and models, of both vehicles and drivers.
The fleet that assembled in Washington at the start of the Alcan included a diverse set of
characters ranging from the yellow ‘73 Ford Capri that won the event to an ‘88 BMW 325ix to a ‘91 left-hand drive Mitsubishi Pajero that ran valiantly to keep up with the decked-out Ford Raptors, Jeep Gladiators, and assorted Toyotas and Subarus. The experience level of drivers and navigators was also across the board, from multi-time regulation rally champions to newbies, like myself.
2. TSDs require top-notch communication skills and conflict resolution.
At some point, someone will get something wrong. The who and what doesn’t matter—it will be
wrong, and you’ll be off course. Someone will forget to start the timer. Someone’s math will be
wrong. Distinguishing between lefts and rights will become weirdly tricky and may cause you to
break into a sweat. Driving at a constant rate of speed becomes ridiculously hard. And somehow
this is all part of the fun.
At Alcan, I thought I was an old pro at the whole left/right distinction—right up until I missed a right-hander off the main highway, a critical turn that put us way off the pace. There’s nothing like a missed turn to pump up the adrenaline on a stage, as we later found ourselves effectively bob-sledding at a good clip down a barely plowed back road to try to make up time. Slightly nerve-wracking? Yes. Memorable? Definitely.
3. TSDs deliver a strange amount of adrenaline at ridiculously low speeds.
As I overheard one fellow navigator say, “I’ve never been so stressed driving that slow.” It’s true. When you first glance at the navigation notes, you might be inclined to scoff at the sections marked ludicrous things like 12 mph. But you’ll be thanking your lucky stars when you finally hit that section and get a breather.
Most touring TSD rallies are not high-adrenaline sports by any means, but there are certainly ways to make it more so. (How ‘bout a pitch dark night-time stage on a winding dirt/mud/ice/snow road with a drop-off? Thanks, Jerry, that did the trick.) TSD stages reward smooth, precise drivers and navigators who can master a succinct, clear communication style. It’s an adrenaline rush of a different kind to hit your target times.
4. TSDs are a balancing act of extreme precision and totally flying by the seat of your pants.
As the navigator, you are the human compass and calculator. As the driver, you are the human
speedometer and accelerometer. You both need to be excellent guestimators (unless you have a
couple grand to blow on a rally computer). But if you’re just out there with pen, paper, calculator, and the ol’ seat of your pants, you’ll be doing a bit of calculating, guessing, and adjusting as you go. Sometimes you nail it, and sometimes you get it all wrong.
5. TSDs are weirdly addictive—and only slightly like a middle school math problem.
I’m not much of a numbers person. For me, cars and driving provide a more visual, tactile, and
kinesthetic kind of pleasure. Garrett loves nerding out on numbers, parts, and modifications. My
brain still short-circuits when he tries to explain tire sizes to me. So I was apprehensive that a TSD was going to feel like a bad grade school math problem: If a car leaves point A going X miles per hour, how long will it take to reach point B?
And though I did have to get comfortable with a bit of basic math (rate x time = distance), with a little bit of help from Garrett, I was able to translate what I love about driving to being a navigator for a TSD. Just don’t ask me to do the math on the spot, please.
For a moment, let’s go back to that snowdrift, where you might think I was cursing out puppy-dog-eyed husbands and well-meaning BMW CCA events, the slippery slope to the slippery highway in
the middle-of-Yukon-nowhere. But that wasn’t the case—throughout the entire freezing cold, crazy
wild adventure, I had an absolute blast.
The TSDs were fantastic, and the road trip legs were jaw-dropping, full of the great northern nothing of deep winter in the Arctic. We hustled the GX, which is about as nimble as a snowplow, around an ice course on the frozen Yukon River. And in one of the highlights of the trip, I got to speed along the frozen Mackenzie River on a wide swath of grooved ice road.
The Alcan 5000 was an event that was completely out of my comfort zone. And if I hadn’t had the one BMW CCA TSD I had under my belt, I’m not sure if I would have had the guts to go for it. But I am sure glad that I did.
In the coming year, if you have the opportunity to drive at a different type of event or sign up for an out-of-your-comfort-zone adventure, give it a try. And don’t be ashamed to run what you brung. After all, our 16-year-old mall crawler held her own with all the decked-out overland rigs all the way to the Arctic Ocean—we made it out of the snowdrift—and back, with only a few wrong turns along the way.