Breakdown on the Icefields Parkway (Canada)

Update: The RV is fixed and back in our hands. Check out the rest of the story at the bottom.

A few years ago, our Subaru broke down at the tail end of a long road trip. We were on our drive back from Jackson, Wyoming to Denver- a 9 hour drive. We had driven through some remote areas, like the Wind River Indian Reservation, which not only had no cell service, but was so far out there that they had an AED on a pole on the side of the highway. As in, if you were to call 911 from there, they couldn’t get an ambulance to you quick enough and would just tell you to go to the roadside AED. Comforting.

The Subaru, though, broke down in Laramie, Wyoming. While Laramie is no bustling metropolis by any means, they do have cell service and auto repair shops and tow trucks (not to mention ambulances, should you need one). We were still a couple hours out from Denver, but we were pretty glad to have broken down there instead of the remote places we had driven through earlier in the day.

This weekend, though, the RV broke down. And this time, it was the equivalent of breaking down in the Wind River Indian Reservation, not Laramie.

We were driving the Icefields Parkway, which is the remote and jaw-droppingly beautiful section of highway between Banff and Jasper (technically, it’s part of the park system and you need a pass to drive the road). There are a lot of people traveling the parkway, but there is next to nothing in the way of services. Travel guides advised us to pack food and fill up with gas before starting out since there is only one gas station in the entire 144 mile (232 km) stretch. None of this area has any cell service, and I’m pretty sure this is one of the few places in North America that maintains working pay phones.

We were enjoying the drive, albeit sort of disappointed that the visibility was poor due to rain. We were headed north to Jasper, where we had a campground reservation that night. We passed the lone outpost, Saskatchewan River Crossing, which has gas and a motel and food. Shortly thereafter, we came to a pass. We climbed up and up and near the top, there were several turnouts to stop and admire the scenery. It was gorgeous, so we stopped.

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
View from the Pass

The engine (transmission? something? I know nothing about cars.) smelled hot when we got to the top, but that wasn’t unexpected after that big of a climb. We figured we would give it a chance to cool off a bit and all would be well.

We walked around for a couple minutes and looked at the view and the waterfalls.

Breakdown on the Icefields Parkway Canada
Bridal Veil Falls

When we got back, the engine was steaming. We ran up to check it out and there was coolant flooding out the bottom. (Car people, don’t give me too hard of a time about terminology, ok? I don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s be real.) Nik is kicking himself that he should have let the engine idle for a couple minutes before turning it off, but we didn’t know any better. We will chalk this one up to “Lessons Learned the Hard Way.”

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
See the huge puddle of bright green fluid? That’s usually not a great sign.

From here, we didn’t know if it had just boiled over and needed to be topped off, if we had cracked a hose, or something else. After a long and boring time of trouble shooting, we determined that it was probably the coolant pump or maybe a gasket. Basically, not a difficult fix, but it meant we were stranded. We were well off of the road in what was basically a parking lot, so we were perfectly safe leaving the rig where it was.

Luckily, way back when we were planning what set-up to get, we thought, “Ya know, it might be nice to have two engines so we don’t get stuck if one vehicle breaks down or is in the shop.” We chose to do a Class C motorhome towing a car instead of a van or truck towing a travel trailer partially for this reason. Way to go, past selves! So once we figured out we were stuck, we unhooked the car and headed back to the pay phone at Saskatchewan River Crossing (maybe 30 minutes south).

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
On hold with Good Sam

Nik got Good Sam on the phone, they agreed to tow us, but nowhere was open and we couldn’t figure out if there were any shops in Jasper. We ate dinner at the pub, drank some much-needed beers, walked Cheat, and headed back up to the rig.

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
“Portrait of Tired Man with Bison”

We had originally planned on spending Saturday night at the campground, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. We just needed to get there by 11am to avoid forfeiting our entire weeks’ reservation, which we did not want to do, since all the hotels (especially that accept dogs) likely booked long ago. We settled on spending Saturday in the disabled RV, packing everything for a week Sunday morning, and abandoning ship. Monday (which is of course today) we would find a shop and arrange the tow with Good Sam.

Leaving Sunday morning was tough. I love camping, and thankfully we still have our tent, but camping because you have to kind of has a different feel to it. Packing everything for a week in an hour: also hard.

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
“You guys… what’s going on?”

Thankfully, we felt much more settled once we made it the last hour and a half to Jasper and got set up. We were warm and cozy in the tent last night. This morning we found a shop (yay!), Good Sam agreed to tow there (yay!), and the tow company met us in Jasper to get the keys so we didn’t have to drive all the way back out there (yay!).

Breakdown on Icefields Parkway Canada
We did use this as an excuse to pick up some new air mattresses, which we can use for backpacking later on.

If all goes well, they are picking up the RV any time now and bringing it up here. Fingers crossed they will be able to fix it quickly!

Breakdown on the Icefields Parkway Canada
Camp, RV-free for now

Nik’s mom Sarah says Nik has something called “luck of the Nik.” Basically, he is quite lucky and, more than that, people just like helping him! (Side note: some of this can be explained by good preparation, some by virtue of his being a privileged white male.) We have decided that luck of the Nik does not really apply to cars, but I think it does apply to everything else in this situation. Basically, this could have been an awful or even dangerous situation. But we rolled with the punches and, with a good deal of luck, we have made the best of the situation. Fingers crossed we are up and running again in no time!

Update:

Everything went much smoother than expected and the RV is now fixed and back in our hands. When we left off, the towing company had just met us in Jasper to get the keys so that we didn’t need to drive all the way back out to the rig. They ended up having a few other jobs to do that day but ended up getting our rig back to the shop sometime between 5pm and 8:30am the next morning. They did a great job and turned the propane off for the drive and took all of the hitch equipment off so that it wouldn’t drag.

We were pretty stoked when Nik stopped by the shop at 8:30 the next morning and saw the rig in their yard. He turned on the propane and the fridge so we didn’t lose any food and picked up a few things we had forgotten inside. While there, he had a conversation with one of the mechanics who said that water pumps on these vehicles were usually terrible jobs. They had had some where they needed to cut the pump out with a sawzall because the bolts were seized up. We could just see the dollar signs spinning while listening.

So we left it there all day expecting it to take at least a day to diagnose and another day or two to get the parts shipped to the shop. We were so surprised then when we got a voicemail at 1pm saying it was all ready to go!!! Nik ran over to the shop as a lunch break to pick it up.

Turned out that we had cracked a plastic T-junction that a few hoses connected to. There is no way we could have diagnosed it correctly ourselves on the side of the road because of where it was located, but talk about lucky. Total for the new part, fresh coolant, and two hours of shop labor: $272 (Canadian).

Cracked part
It looks like just a hairline crack at the corner, but coolant was gushing out of it almost as fast as we could add it back in.

Lesson learned, if you have an older big block engine, let it idle for a minute or two to remove some built up heat before shutting down, especially after a big hill. Otherwise the coolant that stops in the transmission or engine can boil when it stops circulating and break things. Newer engines will run the coolant pump electrically for a few minutes after you shut the engine off to prevent this problem.

If you happen to get stuck in the same area, searching the internet with Google and Google Maps are both supremely unhelpful. We went to Jasper Tire at #18 Industrial Crescent (The shop doesn’t have a website and Google Maps doesn’t know where Industrial Crescent is, it’s near the pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks off of Hazel Ave). They do cars and trucks primarily but they didn’t bat an eye at our Class C. It sounded like a class A might have been too big for them but there is a truck repair shop on Google Maps that sounded like they’d work on Class As.

For towing, we ended up needing to tell Good Sam about the towing company we used (Block Towing, right next door to Jasper Tire) because they only knew about towing outfits in Lake Louise which would have been ridiculously out of the way and thus cost much more. We’ll add phone numbers for both shops when we find the paper we wrote them down on. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Breakdown on the Icefields Parkway (Canada)

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