The Alaskan 'Christmas Cat'

24' tandem trailer

Harold Sheaffer, Bob Hake, Harold Hake and Alan Hake with the Cat.

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15190 Kutztown Road, Kutztown, Pennsylvania 19530

It all started with an ad from Gas Engine Magazine last fall, the fall of '94. My friend, Bob Hake, said to me, 'How would you like to take a trip?' The adventurous person that I am, I said, 'Yes.' After pondering over his question, many thoughts started to clutter my mind. You have to know Bob to understand him. He is one of the few no-nonsense persons I know. Straight forward and with unbelievable fortitude, Bob will take almost any task in hand and render positive results. With reservation, I asked him when? Where to? How? And do I have enough time? I learned a long time ago that one should ask questions up front to avoid surprises later down the road. His reply was, 'When the time is right, maybe in the spring or early summer or maybe before that.' I traveled much of the east coast with Bob and know that two or three day trips were not uncommon with him when he went on tractor hunts. Bob has amassed quite a large collection of the old styles and makes of John Deere two-cylinder tractors. When I travel with him it gives me a chance to look for the old horse drawn equipment, steam engines, and Farmalls for a museum collection.

Bob looked at me and said, 'You're not going to believe this! Homer, Alaska, is where we are going! If everything goes alright we should be able to turn the trip in 10 days.' Almost in shock I said, 'Alaska! For what?' He said, 'I found an ad in GEM by Jim Van-Oss of Homer, Alaska. He has a 1931 Caterpillar 25 for sale and my boss, Ken Beamer, would like to have it.'

Ken is an entrepreneur of historical preservation when it comes to old Caterpillars. Over the past three years Ken has acquired 15 Cats. In his collection he has a two-ton, #10, #15, #20, #22, #28, #30 and some others, but not a#25. When it comes to finding, making buying arrangements, hauling, and restoring these almost forgotten pieces of history, Bob Hake is Ken's right-hand man.

After a couple of weeks and several phone calls to Jim in Alaska, Bob stopped by and said, 'The Cat is on a first come, first serve basis. Jim won't take money down and hold it. Ken asked me to go get it ASAP.' I knew Bob was right. I asked, 'What do you have in mind?' He said, 'You have a ten day break over Christmas and New Year's and I can arrange for my vacation, so I think we ought to go at that time.' 'Christmas!' I said. 'That's in the middle of winter and we will probably be up to our eyeballs in snow trying to ward off frostbite in 40 degree below zero weather.' Bob replied, 'Ken thinks if we don't go now when we have the chance we might miss our chance.' The old adage came to mind, 'He who hesitates' is lost.' I knew he was right. I agreed. The next few weeks were spent making more phone calls to Alaska; reading up on Canada and Alaska; studying road maps; inquiring about the legal ramifications on transporting equipment through another country; getting fuel stickers and permits; making lists of maintenance items that should be taken along; making lists of personal items; deciding on the kind of vehicles we would use; deciding on the need for extra drivers; discussing possible problems and solutions; recording and documenting the trip on VCR and camera; doing time studies; being realistic; using common sense; and keeping Mr. Beamer informed constantly. These are just some of the things we had to do. You know how it goes when you plan a trip. You always forget something. It doesn't seem to matter how hard you try. And you take the darn dest stuff along and don't ask why. We were determined to forget as little as possible. I think we were fortunate. With Mr. Beamer's approval and support, the final plans were made. We would leave for Homer, Alaska, Friday evening, December 23, at 8:00 p.m., a journey that would take us about 4600 miles. The mission to bring back a #25 Cat over the Christmas holidays for Ken Beamer!

The party consisted of Bob Hake, his two sons Harold and Alan, and myself, Harold Sheaffer. We would leave Thomasville, York County, Pennsylvania, in two Ford trucks, an F700 straight bed with a 24' tandem trailer and an F150 pickup. We took an old vintage camper along on the trailer and the pickup for emergency purposes. In case of a major breakdown we would have a place to stay and a way to go for help.

Our first major stop was on Christmas Eve in Grand Forks, North Dakota, because of black ice. Christmas Day took us to the Canadian border where we encountered some minor difficulty with customs officials questioning our emergency fuel and the need for four people to pick up a piece of equipment in Alaska. I guessed that border crossings are boring on Christmas Day and they needed some activity. You are allowed a two day fuel supply. We had a one day fuel supply, not even that if we would have to drive a long day with no open filling stations.

The day's drive took us into the province of Saskatchewan to Saskatoon, which is well into Canada. The weather was great. In that part of the country this time of year, four feet of snow is not uncommon. With only eight inches to date and most of it gone, the area was left without a white Christmas the first time in 40 years. The weather was certainly with us. Plenty of sunshine and temperatures ranging from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The next day took us through Saskatchewan, Edmonton, and Grande Prairie in Alberta. By nightfall we reached Dawson Creek, British Columbia. It was here we crossed over the Alaskan Highway, starting at mile post zero (0). This is the beginning of the famous Trail of '42. Fifteen hundred miles of road would cut and wind through some of the most rugged, beautiful, treacherous wilderness in North America.

In 1942, through the joint efforts of the United States and Canada, this road would be built in record time. On March 2, 1942 the first train carrying troops would arrive at Dawson Creek to begin construction. Opening ceremonies of the highway would take place just nine months later at Kluane Lake on November 20, 1942. It was here on this ribbon of highway that the Cat #25 would have purpose. Often called 'Sled Cats,' the Cat #25s would drag supply sleds over the rough terrain and the route during its construction. After the completion of the Alaskan Highway, the Cat #25, along with other equipment, would remain behind and eventually find their way to local usage.

Fort St. John was a place that would offer us rest for the third night. By this time during the trip, daylight hours were considerably shorter, about five hours a day, and the temperature was lower. The next day we passed through Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Teslin, Whitehorse, Kluane and Beaver Creek in the Yukon.

Beaver Creek is where we encountered our first bite of winter minus 30 degrees, snow on the ground, and windy. The motel manager told us not to shut the engines off because they may not start in the morning. It is here where the coldest temperature in the Yukon was recorded 81 degrees below zero. Traveling was good on the pack ice. When the temperature is minus 20 degrees the tires stick to the road, giving excellent traction. This is different than what we are used to in Pennsylvania.

The next day's travel took us to Alaska, through Tok, Beichwood, Eagle River, Anchorage, and Potter where we were held up again because of black ice. We were forced to stay the night in our little Scotty camper we hauled along for emergencies.

In the morning we tried to complete our destination some 240 miles down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. The morning light illuminated a sign along the highway close to Potter just on the outskirts of Anchorage, listing the number of highway moose kills along this 240 mile stretch from fall to Christmas. The total was 214 killed, with a record kill of five at one time by a truck. This averaged to a kill of almost a moose a mile.

It was Thursday, December 29. We made our way down the peninsula through the pass to Homer by early afternoon. After a phone call to Jim to get the exact location of his homestead, it was another 19 miles on East End Road a dirt road that would end about 1 miles beyond our destination. A small Russian settlement of 300 people lived at the end of the road. We were greeted with the first snowfall of the trip. To date they had 90 inches. That is more than they normally have for the year. And the snow season, which comes in February and March, had not yet arrived. Chains had to be put on the truck. The road was bad.

We stopped along the way to help pull a truck out of the ditch. At a bend in the road we finally saw Jim, busy plowing out his lane with a Case dozer. About an eighth of a mile back the snow-covered lane, we finally reached the homestead of Jim and Candy Van-Oss.

Jim gave us a tour of his 160 acre homestead that he started in 1960 when he and his wife moved there from Wisconsin. Jim is quite versatile. He farms, has a sawmill, raises buffalo, and raised wild boar until they gave him a few problems. Then it was butchering time for the wild pigs.

It had taken seven days to travel 4602 miles from Thomasville, York County, Pennsylvania, to the homestead. It wouldn't be long now before we would start to run out of daylight. Our 'Christmas Cat' had to be loaded and we'd have to start on our return trip.

After the Cat #25 was loaded we headed home at the rate of 20 mph with our chains on. Three miles down the road the pick-up slid off the ice-packed road into the ditch. The temperature was rising a few degrees and that made the ice-packed roads slippery. The next couple of hundred miles seemed to take forever, averaging around twenty miles per hour at times. It was a grueling day of driving. We spent the night at Anchorage. New Year's Eve would see us back at Beaver Creek in the Yukon. The temperature was a little warmer minus 20 degrees below zero.

New Year's Day we got off to a great start. However, we did notice that the few filling stations along the route were closed. This was no major concern because an emergency fuel supply was brought along. But when the emergency fuel was needed, there was a major surprise. One of the two drums of fuel we brought along for a time like this was empty! A hole was rubbed in the bottom of the drum and the gasoline was gone. We were saved by careful driving and a filling station which we came upon that was closing in the next five minutes.

Straight through driving for 1900 miles took us to Saskatoon where we stayed the night. The next morning we headed for Minot, North Dakota. I had suffered a slight back injury on ice and found it necessary to fly home. We spent the night at Minot. I left on the plane at 4:45 the next morning for Allen-town, Pennsylvania. Bob and his two sons left with the two trucks in minus 3 degree weather and headed for warmer country, York, Pennsylvania. The last leg of the trip was completed Friday afternoon, January 6, 1996fourteen days after departure.

The trip resulted in new friendships, lots of pictures, sightings of two lynx, two timber wolves, two fox, two small herds of caribou, three small herds of elk, dozens of moose, one bald eagle, 9204 miles of driving experience, souvenirs, and a 'Christmas Cat #25' for Ken Beamer of Mechanicsburg, who made it all possible.

Oh! By the way, when Ken saw the size of the buffalo on the VCR tape, he took a liking to them and asked Bob if he would like to go back for a pair of them.

I thank Ken for this once-in-a-life-time experience which he gave us. May he enjoy his fine Cat collection for many years to come and his special Alaska 'Christmas Cat.'