Words: Ryan Dunfee
For pro athletes, ski trips to Alaska are the ultimate indulgence in the conveniences of our carbon-based society. Helicopters whisk them to the top of enormous peaks and then hover as the action is captured on film from the door, burning north of 45 gallons of grade-A jet fuel an hour. Or snowmobiles rally them into the untracked Alaskan wilderness, getting anywhere from eight to 15 miles per gallon. And surely the royalties from Alaska's oil fields, sent to every native Alaskan since the North Slope oil fields opened in 1976, have done little to infuse enthusiasm for alternative energy production in Alaskan culture. To counter that, Mark Abma, who has been trying to find ways to reduce his admittedly large carbon footprint for years, saw his annual film trip to the Frontier State as an opportunity to test the practical and cultural limits of an entirely veggie-oil powered journey.
"Doing a road trip to Alaska had always been a dream of mine," Abma said. "So I finally decided to do it because I thought I could." By doing "it," he meant not just driving to and from Alaska from his home outside Whistler, a 5,300-mile round-trip journey, but fueling the entire journey on used vegetable oil. Abma had been running on oil since installing a conversion kit in his 2006 GMC Duramax diesel truck in January, but this adventure would test whether his largely unproven, environmentally-friendly system could weather temperatures of negative 30 centigrade while yanking along up to 8,000 pounds of gear, skis, and camera equipment.
Abma's switchover took months. At first, if the engine's computer detected a change in the amount of air, fuel temperature, or amount of fuel being injected into the engine, which can happen when injecting the veggie oil from an exterior tank, the truck would default to "limp mode," not allowing the engine to exceed 2,000 RPMs. Once the system was tweaked, Abma spent several months prior to the trip collecting waste veggie oil around his Pemberton home.
Surprisingly, Abma and co-pilot Cody Townsend ran into few hiccups along their journey. One day had to be spent hurrying through the auto parts store of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and cold weather wrenching to replace the fuel filter after the engine refused to carry on at full power. A fix that would have taken a trained mechanic five minutes took them three hours of iPhone Google searches and trial and error. And while low on oil in Anchorage, Abma had to track down a man on Craigslist selling used veggie oil out of a 10,000 gallon backyard stockpile: a dugout basement housed a dozen 300-gallon totes and a conversion system— enough infrastructure and veggie oil to heat his own home for several years.
All told, Abma and Townsend spent only a few hundred dollars to fuel a journey that would have cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000 in gas bills on regular diesel, while producing 80 percent less CO2. And compared to their normal routine of flying from Vancouver to Haines, with a stopover in Anchorage, the grease-powered journey emitted 46 percent less CO2, or 1.37 tons versus 2.54 for the pair. Abma felt his ability to complete the marathon journey with an aftermarket conversion kit, some stockpiled oil, and basic handyman skills vindicated his belief in vegetable oil as a ready and realistic option for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint. "I'm not that mechanically inclined," he said. "So when we were able to successfully complete that trip pretty much on our own, it made me believe that anyone could."