We were on the move quite quickly - washing with cold water. The smoke from the fires became thicker as we approached the border. We stopped just before crossing to top up the diesel, while it was marginally cheaper. While stopped at the station we met a lovely Swiss couple (Claudine & Michael) who are spending six months in the Toyota Landcruiser (with ARB bush bar) travelling in Canada. Their vehicle was compact and well kitted out. We would have been keen to camp overnight and spend some time travelling with them, but their pace is slower than ours so we said goodbye and headed to the border post. The crossing was no problem at all and while we were waiting in the queue (line) Claudine came and gave us some Canadian pins, pens and a flag.
The smoke obscured all the great views which were along the Kluane Wildlife Reserve. It was a real pity, but there wasn't much we could do. We passed some fire-fighting crews along he road, but we didn't actually see any flames. The sun was very dim as a result and it gave a dusky feel to the day.
We got as many miles behind us as we could and eventually the smoke cleared a little. At about 21h40 we found a nice little spot to camp in among the forest, not too far from the road. I went for a run (not having been for three days, I was itching to get a bit of exercise - I think I am addicted)! It was later than I would have liked, although sunset was only at 22h20. I ran for about 37 minutes and the latter half was a little speedier than the first. Once I had turned around to come back to camp a car slowed down next to me (they had gone past in the other direction and did a U-turn to tell me that a bear and two cubs had crossed the road not too far behind me), I told them I hadn't far to go and put on the speed a little. I picked up a discarded stake (using for marking alongside the road) and ran with that - not that it would have been any great defence, but it made me feel better. Well - certainly got the heart racing a little faster!
We had very hot basin-showers before crawling into bed, which was great. A nice way to end the day.
I made French toast for breakfast as we hadn't eaten much yesterday. It is nice to have a slightly leisurely start to the day. We stopped off in Whitehorse to buy some fresh food and a few other things. We also got take-aways from A&W as we could eat them on the road and get going, despite a prolonged delay waiting for bridge works.
The smoke came back again a short while after leaving Whitehorse. The wildfires have been a real problem for Northern Canada and the Alaskan interior over the past six weeks. Nevertheless, the scenery was still enjoyable, with green-blue lakes surrounded by rugged hills.
We had a wander around Watson Lake's famous signpost forest. It was started back in 1942 by a lonely GI who stuck his hometown's nameplate below the signposts he was was erecting and has become a tradition ever since. Apparently 2,000 new signposts are put up by travellers each year.
I drove on until just after sunset. It was a fiery red ball in my rear view mirror. We stopped for the night at Whirlpool Canyon and parked as close to the river as was possible (and level). We wandered down to have a quick look at how fast it was flowing and you could see how high it had risen in the past.
We slept really well with the sound of the river crashing next to us, but we both have sore backs from all the driving! We walked along the ridge to get a better view of the rapids. It was incredible to see how powerful the river must be in flood, because it had deposited loads of massive tree trunks high up on the banks and particularly in one big hole where there must be a major whirlpool!
We stopped at Liard Hot Springs, which are set among the forest and surrounded by very rich vegetation. There are two pools one much hotter than the other and the lower pool actually leads down the creek a little to a very cold water inlet. There were quite a few people, but it didn't feel overcrowded. We sat under the weir and let the gushing water massage our backs. I stayed in for an extra hour while Michael (bless him) went and checked and filled Nyathi's oils! It was a wonderful way to spend the morning and I can't wait to come back and experience it in the winter.
I made us salads on the road and we wolfed them down (amazing how hungry hot springs can make you). The smoke was finally starting to dissipate and it was nice to see blue skies again. The lakes en route were beautiful and plentiful!
Today was definitely our day for seeing wild animals en route. We saw (all at close range) a black bear, caribou, buffalo, mountain goat and deer. It is really encouraging to see animals still roaming in the wild.
We drove until about half an hour after dark and arrived in Dawson Creek, where we found Northern Lights RV park and decided to camp the night, particularly because they offer car washing facilities for free. We had a quick hot shower - which was lovely and then fell into bed.
We were up relatively early. I went for a run while Michael did laundry. Then we both spent the best part of two hours giving Nyathi a thorough wash. The RV park owner, Julie, has a hose, brush and stepladders for customers to use and although you're only meant to wash for 30 minutes maximum, there was nobody waiting and they just let us do our thing. We put on Nyathi's new British flags (now people will know where our home is), cut Michael's hair and went for great hot showers.
We stopped off and got some lunch for the road. In Grand Prairie we were able to access an internet signal and an ISP address, so we uploaded the website and downloaded all our emails. That took about two hours, but we've been wanting to do it for ages, but not been able to 'connect' to anyone's network.
While we were parked at the side of the road in the suburbs of Grand Prairie, one of the 'neighbours' came over to chat to us. They were a lovely couple (Stacy an Kathy) who invited us to stay for the night, although we said we couldn't as we wanted to get some mileage behind us. The showed me the damage the recent floods had done to their house and all the work they'd been doing to it. We said our farewells and Stacy wanted to give us money to buy fuel! People's kindness and generosity never fails to amaze us! We told him we couldn't accept, but that the gesture was worth even more. Here I am with them in their street...
We went to the supermarket to buy a few fresh goodies and then Michael drove into the night and we got 450km behind us. Sadly just before we stopped for the night the alarm on the inverter (indicating low battery) went off and we realised how dim the lights seemed all of a sudden. It seems something may not be right with the alternator, but with the forested darkness and the mozzies out in force, we decided it was tomorrow's problem...
The good news is that on inspection, it seems a wire had just worked its way loose from the back of the alternator, so we were very relieved. However, the engine seems to be running roughly, so we are not entirely happy with it. We took off the engine cover and checked the valve spacing (tightening up a few), but Michael said he didn't expect it to make a huge difference. There is a rattling sound coming from the front of the engine compartment, but we cannot trace it. Nyathi seems to be doing fine, she's not overheating or anything so we will just keep a close eye / ear on her.
We spent the day driving through spectacular scenery from Jasper along the Icefields Parkway to just beyond Banff. We were fortunate that the places where we'd chosen to spend more time walking and relaxing were when the weather was still sunny, although still with a cool breeze. We spent quite a while wandering along Maligne Canyon, a deep narrow gorge carved through the mountain by the Maligne River.
The squirrels actually jump across the gorge and we saw quite a few 'squirrel bridges' of fallen trees across the ravine. The water was turquoise and looked spectacular when gushing as rapids. There are also a number of underground rivers which burst into the river. The rivers come all the way from Maligne Lake and Medicine Lake.
We stopped at both lakes. Medicine Lake was not scenic (by normal standards), but interesting. The fluctuation of the water level is vast due to the lakebed's limestone sinkholes which feed underground rivers. In the summer months when water runoff is high it exceeds the level of the sinkholes and forms a lake, but it drains almost entirely in the winter leaving behind a muddy lake bottom.
Maligne Lake was stunning, with turquoise green waters and surrounded by mountains. It is about 25km in length, so we only got to see the one end of it. There is very little commercial development which is nice for a change. We started to head back to the main road when the wind began to pick up and we watched the heavy grey clouds closing in. We stopped to have a quick lunch of delicious clam chowder with fresh bread and shortly afterwards the storm unleashed itself. It was dark and brooding and gave a completely different feel to the mountains and the rains was heavy. It continued for a couple of hours, which sadly obscured our view of all the glaciers somewhat, but it was refreshing. It cleared a little a bit later and we stopped at a small lake with a gushing waterfall at the far end. Lake Louise was incredibly beautiful and the hotel is very impressive towering over the water's edge, but there were loads of tourists and they were making money out of their visitors by charging $32/hour to hire a basic canoe to paddle on the lake!
We drove all the way down past Banff. It must be unbelievably stunning along this route in the winter with all the jagged mountains blanketed in snow. Even with the miserable weather it looked impressive. We found a campsite for the night right above a train line leading to a quarry site. We didn't think it would be too busy, but we heard two trains roaring and rattling past in two hours. I made a tasty dinner of sausages with onions and mushroom gravy, broccoli and rice. We ate in the cabs because there were just too many insects outside to make it pleasant. As we were falling asleep we heard a pack of coyotes howling in the distance.
It wasn't the quietest night, but we both slept well. I went for a run first thing in the morning. It was pretty chilly and the wind was strong. It was great while it was at my back running up the hill, but on the way back to camp, it was blowing straight into me, which wasn't quite as pleasant. I noticed when I got back to camp that the left over rice I'd thrown in the bush was gone - every last grain of it!
Michael made us nice hot water for bathing and then we got on the road. We stopped off in the suburbs of Calgary to connect to the internet and download emails. We spent about three hours doing that, it's amazing how long it can take, especially when you're searching for information like shipping (what a hassle). The scenery was still lovely and changed as we got further south, becoming distinctly prairie-like. There was field upon field of golden wheat blowing in the wind. Lots of old fashioned-looking granaries were dotted en route with long trains parked up next to them to transport their load.
When we were about 5km away from the border town of Coutts an unearthly clanking and grinding came from under the vehicle. I came to a stop as quickly as possible. The engine was still running fine so we guessed it was either the transfer box or the diff. We managed to drive her off the motorway and into a big ditch on the right. It sounded absolutely awful. *!&$*! damn it - what next? We feel completely exasperated and are really worried about what awaits us when we get under Nyathi's belly in the morning. What makes it worse is that we are meeting Ivor and Alison in Toronto on the 4th September, so we have to consider what we are going to do.
Jim (one of the Canadian customs officers) kindly stopped to check we were OK and offered to take us down town to use a phone, but we told him we'd wait and see what was happening in the morning. We decided to watch some West Wing episodes to take our minds off of our problem, which was a great idea as we felt better when we got to bed at about 00h30 and the rain was beginning to pelt down...
What an awful night's sleep. At 01h00 we were stuffing pillows and sleeping bags in between the hand-winch strap and the tent to stop the canvas sides from being buffeted and making a tremendous clapping noise. The vehicle was being rocked from side to side and we both just sat there laughing at our predicament. Then just as we settled down again we heard what we thought was a whelping noise and looked out the tent window with the torch to try and spot the animal, but could see nothing. A little later we heard the hooting of an owl and eventually fell into a fitful sleep.
We got into our overalls first thing and jacked up one front wheel and removed the front prop shaft to start identifying where the problem lay. Immediately we knew that fortunately the problem wasn't with the transfer box as the front wheels were still jamming, whereas the front output shaft of the transfer box turned smoothly - yay! The question was whether the problem was with the front diff or the one of the CV joints. As the problem persisted when we jacked up either front wheel we knew it was the diff.
Removing a front diff is much more complicated than a rear one because the front half shafts must be disengaged from the diff splines which involves removing both front swivel housings completely and pulling the shafts clear. We spent the whole day working on it and took the opportunity to take out the brake pads, springs and shocks for replacement. Here I am doing the brake pads (in a relaxed style)...
When we got the diff out and dismantled we could see two problems. Firstly, the pinion bearing had completely collapsed and secondly all the crown wheel bolts were only finger tight and on had sheered off completely. The broken off bolt head may have caused the bearing failure!
As if there wasn't hard enough to start with, Michael succeeded in breaking the vice mounted on the front of Nyathi in half while trying to remove the damaged bearing from the pinion shaft. We were visited by a friendly farm-owner from Coutts called Rob, who kindly took Michael to a nearby farm to use their big vice, which Michael promptly broke (although Rob assured him it was cracked before). Michael insisted on bragging about being the vice-breaker.
While they were there Michael noticed about a dozen old, ex-army Land Rover Defenders sitting in various states of disrepair out in the field. they belonged to an acquaintance of Rob's and after sniffing about for a bit they discovered a suitable spare diff in a rolled and stripped Range Rover. They took about 45 minutes to remove it which promises to make our work a little easier tomorrow.
We used really hot water to have a good scrub and got the majority of dirt off of us. It was cold with the wind blowing and we jumped into the cab pronto. We treated ourselves to another marathon West Wing session and fell asleep to the sound of rain again, but at least we were parked with the back of the vehicle to the wind now.
We decided to use the Range Rover diff and install the air locker from our diff, rather than transfer the crown wheel and pinion and have to worry about setting the pinion height correctly. It was a real struggle to yap the newly drilled hole in the diff casing for the screw-in air locker fitting (which has an odd thread). Eventually we managed to get it in, albeit cross-threaded.
I cooked up a shrimp and broccoli stirfry with rice and we wolfed that down. Rob came down to keep us company and we also had a visit from a Royal Canadian Mounted Police corporal, Ross Gilmore, who was really impressed with Nyathi and told us if we needed anything to just give him a call. He also presented us with a RCMP badge and a flag pin as souvenirs!
All the locals were quite impressed that we were managing to do such a big job in the ditch alongside the road, particularly when they saw us using the dial gauge and Michael wielding the cutting torch etc.
Erwin Gamble from Canadian customs stopped by in the evening and chatted and helped out. Both he and Rob were great, providing manpower, moral support and valuable light until after 22h00. Michael and I worked really hard the whole day and wanted to get all the really dirty work done by the end of the day so we could just do the clearing up tomorrow. We did have one extra hassle we could have done without and that was the seals on the front left hand brake calliper which had popped out when we removed the pads and didn't want to got back in very easily, but we eventually got it back in and hope it will be OK when we test it tomorrow.
We climbed into the cab just as the rain was beginning in earnest and we (lazily) had crisps and dip for dinner and we watched two episodes of West Wing.