Extreme Road Test - 2003 Hummer H2: Leg 1, Day 5
Fairbanks, Alaska to Burwash Landing, Yukon, Canada
Another day, another taco.After a late-night Mexican meal, we checked in to modern accommodations for the first time. The Aspen Hotel in Fairbanks was a real treat after staying in overpriced shotgun shacks, offering such amenities as friendly staff, clean bedding, comfortable mattresses, and in-room telephone. Civilization at last!
A few hours into our slumber, the cleaning crew cruelly woke us at 7 am with laugh-tinged banter and incessant vacuuming. Bleary eyed, we logged online with our Apple PowerBook G4, checked e-mail, and uploaded text and images. With two-thirds of our daily editorial coverage handled, we hunted down a PakMail store and shipped a few digital videotapes out for production. With $65 worth of gas in the tank and fresh ice in the cooler, we were ready to hit Taco Bell once again.
Just minutes down Highway 2, we stopped at North Pole for obligatory photos with jolly holiday characters. While parked in front of the Santa Claus House gift store, we were approached by MT Online reader Chris Litton who told us he had been following our rolling adventure and hoped to bump into us. "I really like the idea of testing an SUV on the most aggressive roads in the country," said Chris, as he admired our crusty H2. Before leaving town, we sent postcards to family members emblazoned with the North Pole postmark.
A few miles past the geographically, inaccurately named North Pole, we spotted a nightmare-scale mosquito made of old gnarled wood. Looking like an unfinished prop from a 1950s Japanese creature film, the burled bug was captured on video attacking Kiwi. Confident the roadside attraction wouldn't fly away with our Hummer, we moved along.
As with any travel companion, the H2's personality continued to reveal its many facets as the days marched on, some more endearing than others. Though sharing architecture and many components with other full-size GM trucks, the Hummer has its own character. Applying the original H1 model's core formula, the boxy H2 features outstanding approach/departure angles, flip-forward hood, seven-slot grille, rock-straddling ground clearance, massive tires, and ultra-wide stance. As we become increasingly familiar with this new sport/ute, our respect has also grown.
For such a heavy vehicle, the H2 was surprisingly easy to push through turns. Familiarity breeds confidence, leading us to drive the H2 harder through curves than one would expect. Impromptu off-road excursions for videography have only fueled our appreciation for the rig's stout 4x4 prowess, as we climbed steep sand banks and confidently negotiated river washes.
Our main beef continues to be the fuel economy delivered by the powerful yet thirsty 6.0L Vortec V-8, now averaging 10.7 mpg. Even with a 32-gallon tank, gas stops in remote environs must be strategically timed to ensure uninterrupted late-night driving. The other recurring criticism is the ingress/egress challenge. The high ground clearance means a jump-and-swing maneuver is required for even those with average stature to enter when the removable side steps are not in place. We had ditched the steps to maximize off-road ability and improve appearance, but owners will likely leave the convenient aids in place.
Stereo cranking and munchies flying, we were finally making good time running south to the border when we approached a couple sad-looking vehicles at the road's edge. A trailer-towing Dodge Ram was sitting on its driver's-side rear axle, with the tire nowhere to be seen. Three generations of Williams family were moving from New Hampshire to Alaska when sheared wheel studs sent a drive wheel soaring into the nearby forest. Because Kiwi said he hadn't yet done his traditional mitzvah for the day, we pulled over to aid the troubled family. We had recently passed a garage and general store, so we offered to bring the appliance-laden trailer and patriarch to civilization and hopefully a tow truck. Without a drop-hitch, it proved difficult to lift the trailer tongue high enough to connect to the tall H2's ball hitch, but with a little roadside Rube Goldberg-caliber ingenuity, we were soon connected and ready to evaluate the H2's towing ability. Engaging the Tow/Haul transmission mode, we edged onto the narrow two-lane highway, barely noticing the overstuffed trailer's weight.
A grease-smeared fellow performing some late-evening wrenching at the town's garage directed us to a grungy bar across the street to inquire about tow truck services. We found a small clique of native Alaskans sipping brew and trying their best to be unhelpful, essentially inviting us to call someone else who could give a mukluk. We were eventually able to secure a tow truck via a phone call to the highway patrol. Asked later what he thought of the H2, full-time Yankee and part-time Capt. Obvious, Richard Williams said, "It looks real good for towing."
Sliding ever further behind schedule, we powered down the twisting, well-graded dirt road, racing ever closer to the Canadian border. Forgetting the hive-mind of the voracious mosquitoes, we spent half an hour at the border of Yukon Territory shooting nature photography and vehicle action video. With a fresh collection of itchy bumps deforming our faces and hands, we scratched and cursed the last few minutes to the Alaskan/Canadian border. Being after midnight, the checkpoint was like a deserted drive-thru after hours; sadly, without the tacos. We had a nice conversation with Debbie, the lightly accented customs officer on duty, and then moved on without fuss.
Needing to fuel up, we pulled into the first village with lights. Saddling up to an above-ground tank at Buckshot Betty's, we filled the 32-gallon tank and scraped the insect carnage from the rock-chipped windshield. It was clear from talking with the employees that we had entered another country, as their accent was sharp and their dialogue laced with radically more "yahs" and "ehs" than nouns. Typical speech patterns would flank any statement with colorful "yah" and "eh" syllables, leaving conversation to be almost Pig Latinish.
Energized by caffeine and screeching heavy metal music, we put the hammer down and drove deep into the Canadian night. It became a challenge to remain alert as we desperately sought lodging, with each tiny hamlet (more like Spamlet) already shut down and tucked in for the night. We eventually saw signage around 4 a.m. for a bona fide motel with full services. Rolling in as the dawn light began to rise above an adjacent lake, we found the rustic Burwash Landing Resort to be eerily silent. With no one around and no signs advising on late-night check-ins, we debated just grabbing a key. We repeatedly rang the desk-mounted doorbell and heard no sound or reaction. So we knocked on the office door, which eventually stirred the manager, a bed-headed native Alaskan we called Eskimumu, for her much wrinkled, but dashing tent-like attire.
Settled in to the quite serviceable room, we quickly fell asleep with thoughts of where we would find our next Mexican food fix filling our heads.