Three Important Things You Should Know About Your Vehicle (But Probably Don’t)

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Following in the tradition of blogs everywhere, I have a classic* three-point post today with some interesting and helpful things I learned about my car recently. The first one nearly stopped me in my tracks.

1. Vapour lock: don’t be a victim!

I was part-way through a road trip on a hot day. I had been driving for a few hours when I stopped to get gas. Much to my surprise, after I was all fuelled up, my car wouldn’t start! It tried really hard, turning over and over, coughing and making sounds I’d never heard it make before (of a sputtering sort). But, try as it might, it just wouldn’t start. So, a lady who had come to fill up her truck drove over to the cardlock owner to get some help. I had to wait a while, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t want to be a pest and go bug the guy who was going to help me, so I just putzed around, checking my oil, picking dead bugs out of the front and whatnot.

After about 15 minutes, Mike (not a mechanic, just a regular guy) drove up and we discussed the problem. He suggested that my fuel injectors might be clogged, and that’s why it wouldn’t start. I decided to turn it over so he could have a listen and see if that sounded like the problem. Right before turning the key, I joked, “maybe it will start, just because you’re here!”

Mechanics across the nation know what’s going to happen next — my car started. It wasn’t pretty, but it coughed to life. And the fuel injectors weren’t to blame. A mechanically-minded friend explained it to me later that night — on a hot day, the gasoline in your engine and fuel line becomes vapour and then when you stop, the liquid gas can’t get to the engine. The fuel pump tries to move it, but it can’t, so it just coughs. It is vapour locked. The only solution is to let the engine cool down a bit (which happened as I waited for Mike) so the vapour condenses, and then it will start.

The rest of the story? After my car started, I went to the local mechanic shop, explained things to the mechanic, and got some fuel injector cleaner (I left the car running the whole time, just in case it decided to die again). After driving another 4 hours or so, I stopped to get gas again. I left the car running (which I NEVER do, not even in winter, so it felt very strange), and as I poured the first litre in, the engine coughed and very nearly died again! I was mystified! I added a little more and again, it nearly stopped. So, I said to myself, forget this! I still have half a tank — enough to get home. Once I heard the explanation, it made sense — the cold gas wasn’t mixing well with the hot, vapourous gas, and the car wasn’t able to compensate for the change. Your vehicle has to mix air and gas at a certain ratio for combustion to occur, otherwise, nada. Or should I say “no va?”

2. Don’t brake over bumps.

I helped my friend Michelle move at the beginning of July, and as we were driving out for a second load, I learned something new about brakes. Two of the other people helping Michelle worked at a mechanic shop, and I was yammering on about how I’m getting pretty good at driving on all sorts of gravel roads — loose gravel, packed gravel, washboardy, pot-holey, whatever. I can just tap the brakes and then cruise over most spots easily.

All of a sudden, Karen said “At least you’re doing it right! You’d think people would know that you shouldn’t brake when you’re going over a bump! It wears your brakes unevenly and causes them to wear quicker overall.”

Well, I quietly sat there nodding, but truth be told, I didn’t know that. It was just instinct to me to brake before a bump and then cruise over it, and luckily for me, I had been doing it right. When you brake, it causes your suspension to compress, which makes the brakes wear much worse.

So, now you know: if you are coming up to a bump in the road you need to slow down for — be it a pot-hole, uneven bridge deck, construction, or whatever — slow down first, but when you get to the bump, let off the brakes.

3. Don’t Pass the Pilot Truck.

It happened last year on Hwy 35 near Steen River, and last week on Hwy 1, well, in the middle of nowhere: pilot trucks were put into effect to guide drivers through areas where forest fires were burning near the road. I thought it was just to make sure no one decided to go joy-riding on a quad trail — someone in danger of being charged and convicted under Darwin’s Law — or to make sure people didn’t speed when passing wildland fire fighters. Well, I was wrong.

Last week, driving back to Fort Simpson, I decided to drive through an area where the Department of Transportation had been using pilot trucks the day before. There were no piloting vehicles or road workers around — it was too early in the morning — and as far as I knew, the road was open. As I went by a small fire burning about five feet into the bushes on one side of the road, I noticed a wide, pink stripe across the highway — the mark left by a tanker aircraft who’d dropped his load of fire-retardant on the fire! Now, that made sense — you wouldn’t want to accidentally drive by when that happened! You’d get red, frothy gunk all over your vehicle! But then again, why not just close the road altogether? Why do we need pilot trucks to drive through areas with forest fires burning?

smoky drive
I was telling my story of driving by the fire to a friend, Mickey, who works for the DoT. He “tusk-tusk-tusked” at me, waggled his finger, and explained. The real reason for pilot trucks, he said, is because if your car ingests an ember from a flame into the air filter and catches on fire, you would be stranded with a burning car in an active fire zone! Aaah… now, that would be bad. The pilot truck is there to make sure everyone gets through okay.

So, if you are tempted to pass a pilot truck, or drive through an area with a lot of ash where a pilot truck hasn’t been established yet, just be aware that besides risking a hefty fine, you’re betting that your vehicle won’t catch on fire! Not sure what the odds are on that bet, but I’m not willing to take the chance!

*Ain’t it concise, informative and story-oriented? 🙂

First Impressions of Wrigley, NWT

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I arrived in Wrigley yesterday afternoon and loved it immediately! I don’t think it had anything to do with the last twenty minutes of the flight being turbulent and my boss and I being gently tossed like la salad-du-jour. We chartered at Cessna 172 to fly us from Fort Simpson to Wrigley, a total flight time of about an hour for a plane of that type, depending on the wind. Yesterday, it was a tail wind for us, but it still tossed us around plenty as we came over the ridge, very much as our pilot, Serge, predicted it would. He let me fly for a while in the middle of the flight, and I had a tiny bit of turbulence, which was fun! We had the plane loaded pretty heavily, although not at its capacity, Serge assured us. I told him as we started to taxi, “if you think we are overweight, say so now and we’ll stop!” But no, he assured me, we were alright. My boss and I are both pretty slim, plus I had packed light — heck, I didn’t even really take all that much to Fort Simpson in the first place — but as it was, I had overestimated the size of a Cessna 172. It had room for 2 in the front, 2 behind, and then a “trunk” space about the size of the foot-well in my car. Serge, however, was not new to this game and really knew how to get the most out of the plane’s overall volume. We had to leave a total of 5 items behind, one being my bag of knitting stuff and another being my cooler, filled with frozen meat.

There is no store in Wrigley. Well, that isn’t entirely true. There is a very small store with limited stock, open for limited hours in the middle of the day (while I am at work). It may or may not only take cash — leave your plastic at home. You can leave your cell at home too, because the nearest cell service is about 120 km away, as the crow flies. I had wondered if there might be a tiny pocket of cell service, from perhaps a single tower, but no. That is the case for Fort Simpson, a village of about 1200 people, so a mini-village of 170 or so doesn’t even have a chance. Cell towers aren’t cheap, so no cell company would put one up in a place where they’d never make that money back. But I digress.

Wrigley, NT (NWT) Terminal buildingI absolutely fell in love with the terminal building the moment I saw it. It is so cute, well-maintained, and the CARS station is raised above ground level. It’s like the world’s smallest air traffic control tower, and I love it! The station itself was neat, tidy, sunny and warm. It had a nice, cheerful feeling to it, and I took to the place like a fish to water. My boss and I only had about an hour to spend before our ride came to get us, so we went through some of the paperwork left out, exclaiming how great it was that the keys we had brought worked perfectly and everything was coming together so smoothly. I didn’t tell him that things always go smoothly for me (but I think he is starting to see that)! I started checking out the radio equipment, wind instruments and altimeter. I was so excited!

The main reason I was there, and indeed the reason we had to fly in, was because the ice road had closed due to spring break up. As I mentioned in my last post, this doesn’t mean the ice was dramatically moving, but simply unsafe for crossing. So, Wrigley became a strictly fly-in community, and as such, it was more important than usual to have someone working in the CARS station to provide current weather observations and information for pilots inbound. The next day, just after I sent my second weather observation out on the internet, the phone rang.

“Wrigley Airport Radio,” I answered the phone. Man, it’s going to take me awhile to get used to saying that.
“You saw my weather, did you?”
Yeah, it’s awesome!” It was a man at Simpson Air, clearly tickled pink.
“Well, I’m glad you appreciate it”
“Oh, Teresa you have no idea!”

That made me smile, on the inside and the outside. I’m not sure I can describe how happy I feel being here. I will be staffing a one-person station. I have full run of the place, can do my own thing, keep the place exactly as I want, and enjoy its cozy, sunny view. The station faces the Mackenzie River, which is down the bank from the flat the airport is on, only about a quarter of a mile away. The runway is really just along the river! The river itself isn’t visible, due to being down the bank, but one day I plan to walk to the edge and enjoy the view. Across the river there is a lovely mountain range, starting about 4 miles away with Table Mountain and stretching off to the southwest to a distance of about 35 miles. The hills are high enough to be bare rock (and snow) at the top, and their white tops make me smile too! I have always enjoyed topography, perhaps because I grew up on the prairies, so mountains and foothills still hold a romantic attraction for me. They speak to my adventurous spirit, and they are so beautiful, my heart can’t help but smile when I see them. So, I am in a lovely spot, pretty close to the middle of nowhere, at 63 degrees North, and I love it. There is a second mountain range to the east as well, and foothills that are only about a mile away. Around my home and the airport, there is a healthy mixed forest, with two types of spruce (from what I can tell) and poplar. Some of the evergreens are so windblown, they have a swoopy look to them at the top. I haven’t seen any birch, but maybe they are there somewhere.
Camsell Range, the edge of the Rocky Mountains, Wrigley, NT
My living quarters are about 3 km south of the airport, which is itself about 1 km south of the village. We flew over the village as we were on approach to land, and wow, it sure is small. Wrigley doesn’t look like many towns and villages where the early settlers cut down every tree to build their house or burn for firewood — they have lots of trees standing. No roads are paved up here, and Wrigley is actually the end of the all-season road that is the Mackenzie Highway. Farther on from Wrigley, winter roads are built to Tulita and Norman Wells, but these have been closed for several weeks. (From Fort Simpson on, the Mackenzie Highway is all gravel, I believe. From the Highway 3 turnoff (to Yellowknife) the road is mostly paved with gravel sections. I think. When I came up, it was basically compact snow, and from what others told me, I have no right complaining about it (remember 2 posts ago?) because it only got worse once it warmed up.) I know, it doesn’t seem like a gravel road should be called a highway, but it is! It’s wider than a typical country road, but yup, it’s gravel.

I have a house trailer all to myself to live in! It is not particularly new, but it’s in very good repair. The last people to stay here, apparently, were women, so when we walked in, it was spic and span! What a nice sight to see! There were only a few coffee cups left in the sink to wash. The kitchen is quite well-supplied — I was worried there wouldn’t be any frying pans or dishes — and I have everything I need. I bought a Brita to filter the water, which is, like so many northern places, stored in a tank in the porch. There is a pump to keep the line pressure up, and the tub faucet leaks a little, so the pump goes on for about a second about every 3 minutes or so. It’s easy to just turn it off at night, though, and then it’s very peaceful here. This morning, my boss ran out of water twice — once because the breaker for the pump kicked off, and once because the pump overheated. So, I skipped the shower. I had one tonight and had the pump kick off right as I was starting to rinse my hair! Gads! But, before I could get out, all soapy and naked and run to the breaker panel, the pump came back on so I knew it had only overheated. Yay! It cut out once more and I had to wait a minute or so, but I managed to rinse off and finish the shower. I think tomorrow, I will try closing opening the window near the pump to vent it better and hopefully it won’t overheat. The furnace and all appliances work good, and the fridge was even spotless! No sticky gross stuff in the bottom of the crisper drawers! I am so impressed.

I live in what the locals call “the highways camp.” It is a fenced-in area where the NWT government keeps the snowplow, grader, a shop and various other equipment. There are three house trailers in the yard, one of which is empty, and then I have one and Albert has one. He is the highway and airport maintainer — the man who runs the grader to keep the road in good shape. As far as I can tell, he does an excellent job! I met him yesterday and he seems very nice. The yard sort of reminds me of home, as it’s a bit like a farm yard with tractors, tires, piles of wood, etc, scattered about. Apparently, there are quite a few bears around, but when my boss and I went for a walk along the highway last night, we didn’t see any. I have bear spray which I will not go walking without. Albert has a dog, too, so I might ask if I can take it with me. 🙂 It looks quite cute but a bit forlorn, so I think it would love to go on a walk. Not tonight, though. It is almost bed time and although I slept awesomely well — it is a talent to be able to sleep almost anywhere? — I am ready for bed. Maybe it’s the Micheal Logozar album I am listening to, getting me all relaxed! It could also be that I’ve been on day shifts for 5 days now, so I’m used to getting up early and going to bed early. Which brings me to my last point, and one thing that makes working in Wrigley so great. It is strictly day shifts, no nights, and it is a short 8 hours, compared to 12 in Fort Simpson. Can you believe it?!? I feel like I have won the lottery! A cozy, sunny place to work, with a great view, in the North, and I don’t even have to work shift work. Monday to Friday, 8 to 4. Wow, I am in heaven!

Oh geez. I thought it was mildly funny that I was going to be saying “Wrigley Airport Radio.” But man, what is someone from Wrigley called? A Wrigley-ite? A Wriglean? A Wrigler? LOL 🙂

Fly in to Fort Simpson

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I would like to take a moment to encourage anyone interested in exploring the Northwest Territories to do so by small airplane! What better way to see the north? You skip over the rough roads and save time while getting a beautiful view! And right now, that’s the only way here! 🙂

Our ice bridge went out yesterday. You see, the village of Fort Simpson is situated on an island in the Mackenzie River, right at the confluence of the Liard River. There is a permanent crossing to the island over the snye, so that’s not a problem — some would argue it’s not a true island then. But our village is on the west side of the Liard, and since the highway comes from the east, a river crossing is necessary. In summer, it’s done with a ferry, the Lafferty.

Image from the GNWT site

In winter, once the ice is thick enough, they build an ice bridge. This means they grade, flood and maintain the crossing to make it as smooth and safe as possible. Last week, it was starting to get very bumpy and it was restricted to 4X4 vehicles only and yesterday, while I was working, it “went out.” This doesn’t mean that the ice was so thin or detached from the banks that it actually “left.” It just means that it wasn’t safe any more and it is likely to start breaking up soon.

What else can I say? This is a very nice area, with lots of tall trees and the two rivers (Liard and Mackenzie). It is so picturesque… There’s a business, Rowe’s Construction, that is just a construction yard like any other, but it’s on the most lovely spot, with a scenic view of the confluence. I swear, ten degrees (hundreds of km) farther south, this would be where the uppity condos or sprawling million-dollar mansions are built!

I’ve sort of become used to living somewhere people go to get things…. High Level, Edmonton, and Sudbury are all “hub” communities, with significant populations of people located on the edges, or for miles around, who come into town to get the things they need. Now, I live somewhere that people live. Does that make sense? It’s a subtle difference. Fort Simpson isn’t a hub, although it’s the only town (village, actually) for hundreds of kilometres (not exaggerating). Everyone just lives together peacefully — First Nations people, English, French, many other nationalities and every possible combination!

There is a different feel in town. Perhaps it’s our removal from mainstream society that brings us together, much as facing common hardships bonds people as friends. Not that we have very many hardships to endure, but our groceries are sometimes lacking (or ridiculously expensive), and our mail service a little slower than major centres, and we live without many conveniences that those of you in urban centres cannot imagine! There is no coffee shop, and I have found myself wishing on days off that I had a place to go, sip a latte and surf the wireless, but alas, I must make my own latte and enjoy our wireless at home! I won’t even go into the speed of the internet, but for those of you geeks out there, let’s just say it’s about a tenth of what the rest of southern Canada has. I’m not sure how the internet gets here, but I’m pretty sure we are all funneled through a common, monster satellite connection (hence at busy times, it slows down even more).

The village has its own power generation on site, as transmission lines long enough to reach us from, well, anywhere, are completely impractical. Once in a while, something gets a little out of whack with the phases of the power, and one day, an alarm went off at the airport because of that. Suddenly, even though the regular power appeared to be unaffected, the runway edge lights and PAPIs stopped working, as did the microwave in the lunch room. Go figure! This power-phase issue might relate to the little-known fact that stove clocks in Fort Simpson run fast. My roommate told me this, and sure enough, we set our stove clock a few weeks ago, and it is now running about 40 minutes fast. It used to only run 10 minutes fast (we had trouble setting the minutes). So, one of my running jokes is that time is weird in Fort Simpson.

And it is weird! I have been here less than a month, and it feels like three! Days pass amazingly slow when there isn’t a lot going on, and at work, if I am busy (one day I had 80 acft movements in my 12-hour shift!), it only speeds up a little. I’ve had second- and third-order deja vu a few times, which I haven’t had in quite a while. I think it’s aliens! Or the northern lights — we get them a lot here, and they are so amazing. Maybe the aliens are using the aurora to control our minds! If that’s the case, the message they are sending here is “what’s the rush? Relax. You have lots of time…”

The preceding post was started last week, on April 26. As of today, I am actually done in Fort Simpson for a month or so. I’m being transferred to Wrigley! But that’s a whole other post (which will have to wait, because I won’t have internet there…)!