We have been looking forward to the drive up to Jasper from Banff ever since we visited Banff for the first time 2 years ago. What we hoped to be a casual and scenic drive turned out to be a little more than that.
We got some recommendations from the visitor center on places we should take scenic stops along the drive and the first one on the list was Bow Glacier.
In all of the Canadian Rockies, this stretch of road has some of the largest ice fields. Most of this water will eventually flow down the Columbia River and into the Pacific.
Our next stop was a short hike to see Peyto Lake. Our kids usually squeal in delight at the sight of snow. In this case, dirty ice. We put on some of our warmest clothes and took the short walk up the trail to the overlook.
The view from here is amazing.
We could have stayed here forever but it was definitely a little chillier than us warm weather folks are use to.
Well, had I known what was to come shortly up the road, we probably might have stayed here a lot longer.
A few miles after we left Peyto Lake, we heard a loud pop proceeded by the sounds of an air horn. At first, we thought maybe we had blown a tire so we immediately pulled to the side of the road for a quick look. I ran around the rig at least half a dozen times to find what might be the problem but was unable to see anything abnormal.
I got back in the driver seat and can hear that the engine is idling perfectly normally and nothing out of the ordinary was visible under the hood. We knew something was wrong but couldn’t yet make an intelligent diagnosis. At this point, we are about 50 miles down the Ice Fields Parkway and nearly 100 miles from the closest city. I shifted into gear and eased on the accelerator. The van pulled the Airstream fairy normally at first. As the RPM of the engine increased, a notable sound of a fan blowing behind the dash was heard. A harder press on the gas pedal, that same air horn sound reemerged but goes away as soon as I eased off the pedal to let the RPMs drop.
We pulled over once again to reassess our options and to try to diagnose just what might be the problem we are experiencing. What I concluded is that the turbo unit on the engine has either blown a seal or cracked under pressure. It would explain why the engine performed normally under a modest load but as the turbo pressure started to wind up, it would expel the excess exhaust through the newly developed crack or gap.
Being in the middle of nowhere, we opted to continue driving to get us to Jasper which was still over 100 miles away. On the flats we were able to do 40-50 mph without any problems. On some of the steeper climbs we had to slow down to as little as 15 mph with puffs of black smoke billowing out the tailpipe as we pulled our home up with hazards blinking.
We knew this drive had the potential to be a life changing experience but had no idea that it would happen this way. We are still in awe of the amazing scenery but along the rest of the drive our minds were racing a million miles a second with all kinds of scary scenarios running through them.
What will we do if the van stopped running?
How will we fix it if we make it to Jasper?
Is this the last time we will ever ride in the van?
How long will we be stuck in Canada?
Will this ruin our chances to make it to Alaska?
As we continue to inch towards Jasper we didn’t notice any further deterioration of the van’s running gear. As we reached the top of the last hill before descending into Jasper, our confidence grew slightly in knowing that we will at least be able to settle into a safe camp site.
For a moment, we stopped and peered in awe at the nature that surrounded us. The Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Ice Field and this road side black bear gave us a much needed distraction to relieve our minds of the tough roads that still laid ahead.
We only initially planned to be in Jasper for 2 nights over the weekend. Because of all of the unknowns, we paid through the next weekend to make sure that if we indeed were stuck here for awhile, we didn’t have to move campsites with new visitors coming each day.
Jasper is a very small tourism town with hardly any automobile repair services. We knew that our options are either to fix the van or to somehow find a new tow vehicle. Living on the road in a foreign country is probably one of the more difficult places to have to have a break down like this. On top of all that, we are about 200 miles away from Edmonton which is the only realistic place to be able to find a mechanic that might be able to fix the vehicle. Knowing that it is the turbo unit, I knew that I was looking at at least several thousands of dollars worth of repairs if I was dealing with this in the United States. If I went that route, I would still be dealing with a tow vehicle that has nearly 125,000 miles at the end of that road.
Option two was to find a dealership that will let me trade the van in for a new tow vehicle. As a U.S. citizen in Canada, that is another difficult proposition. To buy a car in Canada, I will not qualify for financing so the only option is to pay cash. That alone is a deal breaker not to mention having to import it back into the U.S. once our visit here is through.
Being caught in this position we had to make a painful choice. In an ideal situation I would drive it to Alaska in the van and only replace it once we get back to California in the fall if necessary. I had hoped to be able to keep the van around as a second vehicle while searching a suitable replacement for our family’s future adventures with the Airstream. Now that timeline to make a choice has been compressed down to just the next 2 days.
What we decided to do is for the rest of the family to stay here in Jasper while I take the van 430 miles each way back into Montana to trade it in for a new truck and back. It was a hard decision for me as this van has been such a big part of our adventures we were not mentally ready to see it go.
Ava was especially hit hard by the news that she would not see the van again once I drive away this last time.
She has always been the sentimental one but I had no idea how much this van meant to her young life.
I left Jasper and began my drive back into Montana after lunch on Saturday. Even though the van made it the last 100 miles into Jasper, I really didn’t know how it would do for the next 430 miles. Many of the miles between here and Whitefish could potentially have left me stranded. This time without my home in tow and all alone without my family and no cell reception along much of the road.
While I was on the mission for a new truck, the kids tried their best to resume their explorations.
Everything in the van had to be removed and found temporary homes inside or under the Airstream.
Fortunately I made the drive safely back into Montana after a grueling 8 hour journey. I found myself spending one last night in the back of the van in the parking lot of the Whitefish Moose Lodge where we had just left 2 weeks ago.
I had made a call to the Ford dealership we saw near the Moose Lodge to see if they had something suitable before I drove down. Even though they are usually closed on Sundays, these guys agreed to meet me here on their day off to help me with my situation.
They knew I had little options and could have taken advantage of the situation but they did not. They gave me what I thought was a fair trade for the van in its condition and sold me a new truck at a great, no-haggle price.
This is my last picture of the van. It was bittersweet to drive away in a new and capable vehicle at the expense of leaving an old friend behind. I don’t know if I will ever see her again but I do hope she ends up with someone who will make her whole once more and go adventuring.
Just like the previous day, I got back on the road for another 8-hour day back into Canada to reunite with the family and the Airstream.
This time up the Jasper Ice Fields Parkway, I no longer had the knot in my stomach as I drove. We are still by no means out of the water with this ordeal but we have definitely turned the corner. We still need to find a camper shell, roof racks and a 2 inch drop hitch bar from Hensley Arrow before we can leave Jasper.
I made the drive past Athabasca Glacier once again and this time I took the time to take a little walk up to see it closer.
With just a few miles to go, the drive back to Jasper was nearly complete.
Back at the camp site, we still did not have any room to sit inside with all of our gear spread all over the inside. We basically just had the sleeping spaces available so until we are able to locate a camper shell for the truck, we will need to keep living like this for awhile.
For the last 2 days, I have driven nearly 900 miles to trade the van in for this new truck. When I arrived back on Sunday, I went to sleep just to wake up the next morning for another 200 mile drive to Edmonton to catch a flight to San Francisco for a conference that I planned to attend months ago. Part of my decision to drive down to Montana in such a haste is an attempt to not have this incident affect our plans too much.
As a remote employee working for a company, I also try my hardest to not let my lifestyle affect my performance and attendance. It was important to me that I had everything squared away for Marlene and the kids before I left for San Francisco.
Since we still didn’t have a way to lock up our belongings in the truck, while I was gone, they ate outside when it was not raining.
When it rained, they went out for meals.
The kids got to earn their second Xplorer dog tag at Jasper National Park.
They got to hike through Maligne Canyon.
And get hailed on at Pyramid Lake.
While I was away, they even got to relax a bit at Miette Hot Springs.
Jasper is a beautiful area full of wildlife. I wish I had more time to spend there.
The day before I flew back, I booked a room at a nearby hotel for them to spend the night since my flight doesn’t arrive until after midnight.
It makes me feel good that they didn’t have to remember the van breaking down as a terribly negative experience other than having to say good bye to an old friend.
I made sure the hotel had their favorite feature: a swimming pool with a slide.
While I was away at the conference in San Francisco, I made all of the arrangements to have a shell painted to match and ready for install in Edmonton and contacted Hensley Arrow for a replacement hitch bar to be shipped to me.
If you know about Hensley Arrow hitches, you might understand that their hitch bars are not available anywhere but directly through them. They are located in the state of Michigan and to have this 45 lb hunk of metal shipped to Edmonton was going to cost a pretty penny. That is before customs even gets their hands on any additional duty charges.
Rather than taking the chance of it getting lost with international shipping, I had the part shipped to me at the hotel in San Francisco. It arrived the day I was leaving to fly back. It just barely qualifies as carry-on luggage both in size and weight and off I flew back to Edmonton.
We made it back to Jasper with a new shell, roof rack parts that still needed to be installed and a yet untested hitch bar.
Luckily it all went together as planned. I might be tired but I am happy to see us underway again with hardly a missed step.
It was a long journey and one that I will always remember. Not necessarily for the hardship but it will definitely be a special moment in our full-timing life.
With the Al-Can Highway and Alaska in our sights, we are off!
over and out,