Friday, March 27, 2015

Wolf Quest: Part VII - Short Fuse

Beards are popular in the future

So, the last chapter ended with my learning the van had a dead battery near the Manicougan Reservoir in North Eastern Quebec. And upon further investigation, the battery wasn't simply dead, as in discharged, I opened the caps and realized I'd neglected to refill them in my preparations in New England. The electrolyte level was low. Furthermore, because the level was low I could visibly see inside the battery and could tell a battery cell wall had broken. It looked like a row of dominoes tumbling in one direction but not all of them had fallen over. So the battery was finished. If this had happened on the Alaskan Highway I could expect someone to come along to help me, but on 389 N in Quebec there's hardly any traffic. The road itself is not very dangerous, not remotely as dangerous as the roads in Guatemala, but the distance was so far, like traveling from Boston to Miami on a dirt road, and gas cost around $7 a gallon so I didn't see much traffic.

The sad part is that I was all excited because I was going to hike into the Open Country of Mont Groulx, but with this battery problem I knew I would be pondering a solution in the middle of an uninhabited area with no trails or people and a minor lapse in judgement could lead to major problems so I could not responsibly hike above tree line before I fixed the van. A hike like that needed a clear mind. But I couldn't fix the van because the battery was dead. I needed a jump start and there was no one in 300 miles. It was utterly quiet as I pondered a solution.

I waited around, played some guitar, cooked a cheese sandwich on the wood stove. Mosquitoes were quite vicious in this heavily forested and marshy area. These insects had been waiting all spring for someone to come along to eat and they found me. So I could not linger outside without a bug net over my face. Finally, I decided I would use my secondary battery that powered my stereo system and charged my video camera as a starter battery. The alternate battery was a deep cell marine grade battery, suitable for charging and running accessories off of. I didn't know if it would work but it was also 12 volt so I decided I had to experiment. I took the battery down and swapped it out with the starter battery. There was no response again. I checked the battery with a multi-meter and found 12 volts. The other battery was reading something like 4 volts. It's interesting to note that the previous owner had installed a 'smart charger' which monitors the charge of each battery and will always keep the starter battery at 12volts, but will charge the secondary battery when needed. And if the starter battery drains below 12v and I'm trying to start the motor then the smart charger is supposed to draw current from the secondary battery to start the motor. But this didn't happen. That is why I was physically swapping the batteries even though from an electrical standpoint they are already joined, but because there was a smart charger relay switch between then something was preventing the starter from getting 12 volts of love.
So I swapped them out and I still got no power. Arg! I had blown the ignition fuse...Why? Did it blow when I took the battery down? I didn't know what to do because I wasn't sure if I had blown the fuse accidentally or if the use of this deep cell battery was blowing the fuse because the cold cranking amperages of the two batteries were different. I decided I had to try again and hunted and hunted for an additional fuse but I didn't have a spare. I had blown the last bullet style 10A fuse...and the problem is that this 1969 van uses fuses that are no longer manufactured. The size is a very unusually small size and all the larger fuses made today do not fit in the slot. Curses! I hunted and hunted but could not find one that would fit of any amperage. Finally, I opened all my electronic gadgets and found a fuse inside my multi-meter that would fit. It wasn't the right amperage and immediately blew. GOD DAMN IT!
So, now I had lost my critical multi-meter, which I desperately needed to determine the actual voltage of my batteries. AND I still couldn't start the van nor did I know why the fuse blew since it wasn't the right amperage but one that had been right also blew.
This was a desperate puzzle and in all this time I had only heard silent bird chirping and mosquitoes dive bombing the screen windows. No help would come. I had to fix this problem and get to the next town to sort it out, hopefully a battery would be available somewhere between Manicougan Reservoir and Ellesmere Island.

There was nothing left to do but hot jump the fuse contacts by wedging some copper wire over a broken fuse and sticking it in there and hoping there would be no surge of power that might melt my entire wire harness. I did have a fire extinguisher that I got as a Christmas with a card that said, "Don't burn your van up!" So I got that fire extinguisher from where it was stashed next to the wood stove and I got it all ready to put out the fire that I felt would doom the whole trip before I even reached Labrador. Labrador and New Foundland are the last provinces, by the way, that I'd never visited. I've visited all the other Canadian Provinces and 49 of 50 states so the completionist part of me felt it was necessary to visit Labrador and, after I saw the wolf on Ellesmere Island, New Foundland. But I was still a few hundred miles from Labador and if I had to tow my vehicle I was sure it would be towed south rather than north. I'd have to abandon everything, all my work, the wood stove, all my tools. God, to be left stranded in Northern Quebec in a pair of plaid bell bottom jeans, a guitar, a hat made from a shirt sleeve...I'd be eaten alive. There would be no way to explain myself.

But I had to try to start the van...and it didn't start. The battery and the fuse were not the problem. And I couldn't test the battery now since I had blown the fuse for the multi-meter. Physically I could feel the hot wired fuse wire was still cool to the touch. At least it wasn't a short circuit. So then I decided to put both batteries back where they had been originally. I put the deep cell battery back in the camper alcove above the flight deck, and hooked all the cables back up. It still turned on the radio so I knew it had some voltage left. Then I put the dead/broken battery back into its place under the hood and hooked all the wires up. I tried the ignition again and got nothing. So, then I got my jumper cables and hooked them up between both batteries with the cables going through the window. This unleashed the fury of mosquitoes onto me so I had to wear gloves and my bug hat. Even though these two batteries were technically linked, I still had to link them again as though one battery was in a different car. But on my van it's hard to find a good ground to the motor since the motor is under an interior hood. So I hook up negative to negative, even though both batteries are already grounded to the frame...and positive to positive, even though both positive terminals are hooked up through the smart charger. AND THE MOTOR STARTED!

The wire didn't get hot, the engine was running and running normally, so I packed all my crap into the van in a hurry to get on the road to maybe recharge both batteries. I walked once around the van to check for anything I might leave behind...and I heard something odd from by the I got on the ground and gritted my teeth from back pain and angst and sympathetic wolf misery, and the damn section of the exhaust system from the muffler back has broken in half and is DRAGGING ON THE DIRT! The remaining part of the exhaust is blowing superheated hot air directly on the fuel tank. LORD!

So, you see the situation? I had just started the van's motor after hours of trying to solve the problem and I felt I had to get the RPMs up to charge the batteries, which could die any second or else I could get stranded there forever, and now I'm on my fluffy whiskers in the mud and I see that the exhaust system has not only fallen apart, it's perfectly situated to turn my fuel tank into a jacuzzi. So, I wasn't sure if my situation had gotten worse or better. Now the van had a reasonable chance of blowing up, but I could drive further north.

And sadly, when the wolf's plight should've been my highest priority, there I was fumbling around with the stupid fuse and exhaust pipe and I could not embrace the plight of the wolf. Such high ideals had gotten me to that point but I could do nothing right.

I think it's funny how my hair gets caught in the light nob. I can't help thinking that if your hair gets caught in a light nob, at any time in life, then you are probably not going to get to Ellesmere Island. This video reminds me that I also blew a fuse for the lights and that involved more stress.

But I got the lights working with some more hot wiring of the fuses, and I drove North, periodically checking the fuse wires for heat and then reaching for the fire extinguisher is a dry rehearsal of what it would take to put out a fire.

A few hours north on the dirty, muddy, wet, deserted road I found a gas station with prices so high they really made me start to calculate what the van was worth. If I bought the van for $1200 and it was going to cost me $1500 to drive it back to The United States, then wouldn't it be cheaper to simply abandon it and buy a different van?

I wasn't ready to abandon the van yet so I got some more gas and turned the engine off since I was in a inhabited area. They didn't have car batteries but they said I could get one in Labrador City, a few hundred more miles north. The van didn't start again without the help of the jumper cable so the primary battery was officially dead, but I felt confident that with the help of the jumper cables I could start the motor and move forward until I could buy a new battery.

I drove north into the approaching darkness, intent on reaching Labrador City before any more problems befell the van. As with every obstacle I've faced I felt that if I could overcome it then I could reach my goal of Ellesmere Island. I could see the wolf.

Here are links to the installments of the Wolf Quest

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.