Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Trying to burn sludge as winter quickly approaches

The Canadian customs officials asked us about guns, tobacco, alcohol, money, even how our can of bear spray was labeled, but made no mention of the forty gallons of alternative fuel in the trunk. After loading up on some BC produce were on way, not south yet, but east towards Prince George, the industrial hub of northern B.C. Our euphoria was short-lived though, as the car quickly began to surge and lose power intermittently. The problem was obvious: hydrogenated vegetable oil. Every since that gift jug in Oregon my guard had been down. With the warm summer temps I had successfully burned some hydrogenated stuff from the halibut&chips shack, but now the chilly inland climate was causing this stuff to turn opaque and thick. You could feel Flo desperately trying to suck this crap through her lines, the proverbial golf ball through the garden hose. The car would bog down, especially on hills, and I'd have to switch the toggle on the dash. Instantly the problem was fixed as petroleum diesel from the second tank blasted out the lines. The human parallels were telling- here was Flo suffering some serious angina from her diet of hydrogenated oil, in need of angioplasty and a major change in diet. We coaxed her along in this manner for many kilometers, constantly switching between tanks and enduring the heart-wrenching surging. We rolled into the bucolic mountain town of Smithers, and found a partial solution in the dumpster behind Bluefin Sushi. Thankful that the sushi craze had made it all the way to this backwater, we traded fifteen gallons of Ketchikan sludge for the same amount of crystal clear Canadian oil.
We still had the problem of the stuff in the tank, and briefly considered siphoning, but we coaxed it a bit more and rolled into a rest area after dark. We needed to filter our new supply, and to do this we first had to heat it. So, while we slept in the woods the oil stayed cozy in the men's room, atop a waterbed heater plugged into an outlet normally used for truckers' electric razors, and nestled in a wool blanket. Dawn revealed a thick layer of frost on the ground, but the oil was nice and warm and quickly flowed through the filter propped between my bicycle and a picnic table. We were finally heading south, and warmer temperatures as well as this new sushi juice were sure to improve the situation.........

Heading South With the Geese and Whales

What goes up must go down. I'm rolling the dice and trying to drive this Mercedes, thirty years old this month, all the way back to San Diego.......
The Alaska summer was fantastic, with its typical mixture of work, adventure, wildlife, crazy people, and loads of fish. The greasemobile ran like a top, fueled primarily by a halibut&chips shack on the cruise ship dock. Its unbelievable when you think about it, all these tourists spilling off their floating bohemoth, already stuffed with 24 hour buffets, faced with various options for spending their few hours in port. Should we visit the totem pole parks? Go on a flightseeing trip over Misty Fiords National Monument? Hike in the largest contiguous temperate rainforest in the world? Shop for jewelry? Naw, let's go get some fried food. Works for me, the grease taxi was well- fueled all summer. In early October I returned from an 11-day kayak trip and just a few hours later drove onto the ferry bound for Prince Rupert, B.C. and the long road home. Even though the car was over-loaded on the way up, I decided to take on a passenger, my friend and fellow USFS kayak ranger, Ben Houdek. We figured if we barged his stuff and some of mine to Seattle we could make it work. So, after filtering some surplus fish&chip juice in the cold driving rain, we embarked.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

North to Alaska

I know that readers of this blog(both of you) are anxious for an update, so here is a brief account of recent events. After much late-night revelry to mark Garder-Broder nuptials, I left Vermont and made the drive to Providence to catch a flight to Chicago, then Seattle. My mother and Rich happened to be at O'Hare Sunday afternoon, a wonderful coincidence. So, after some great family time and a nap on the plane, I was back in the greasemobile heading north to Bellingham. Waited for me there was no less than 60 gallons of delicious tempura juice from Osaka and Wasabee, two local Japanese restaurants. With one more filtering session and a repacking of the car I bid farewell to Heather and Joe and baby Pearl and pointed Flo north for the 900+ mile epic to Prince Rupert , B.C. Luckily the Canadians officials at the border didn't question my strange cargo. I drove north along the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, gawking and the huge waves and boiling eddy lines. There was still tons of snow in the mountains, that plus the blooming lupine and rushing rivers made for some spectacular views.
I drove and drove, watching the kilometers click away as the little industrial hub of Prince George drew slowly closer. This is always a big landmark on the way to Alaska, a major crossroads where I'd hang a left for the little 750K spur to Prince Rupert and the ferry. The sun refused to set and the grease just kept flowing. Nothing could go wrong.
Within an hour of that foolish thought, I made a wrong turn, darkness fell, big, four-legged creatures started playing chicken with Flo, and a fuel filter began to clog. I wanted to pull over and sleep, but needed to get closer to Rupert. With a Coke, some short naps, a prayer to the deer and elk, and some massaging of the fuel system I made it through the night. At 5:30 AM I found myself changing a filter at a rest area in the Skeena valley, a bit delirious from the drive and the blue sky and snow capped peaks. From here it was a mere 250K victory lap to Rupert and the ferry to AK. Now I just need to figure out how to make this work in the cold, wet hills of Ketchikan......
Trip stats:
3, 520 miles
190 gallons of waste vegetable oil
12 restaurants
$27 total fuel costs

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kayak Legend Nigel Foster Tops Off the Tank

Vancouver Island

I left Flo at a shop in Anacortes and loaded some essential in paniers on my bike. From there a combination of ferries and rainy, beautiful rides, and a chance encounter with Mr. A. Keshoggi, brought me to Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island. My friend Glenn owns a kayak shop there and lives nearby with Caire and their 3.9 kids. This was homebase for some island explorations by bike and kayak. We also made it to the Vancouver Island Whitewater Festival, and I was able to run the swolen Puntledge River a couple times. The return trip was sunnier and fantastic. I just barely caught the only ferry of the day between VI and Anacortes, and was lucky enough to see a big pod of Orcas on the way back.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Have now covered entire west coast of US on veg oil. Arrived at Heather and Joe's in beautiful Bellingham and quickly scored some strategic reserves for the trip to Alaska. Leaving pre-crack to drop off Flo in Anacortes and catch the ferry to Vancouver Island......Turns out the hydrogenated stuff worked fine...

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Across the River and Into Washington

Flo's ass is really hanging low, especially with all that delicious Bend grease in the back. I considered staying in Bend to get her fixed, but found a place in Anacortes, WA instead. That way I can take my bike on the ferry to Vancouver island while she gets her lift and tuck done.
The drive from Bend to Vancouver, Wa was a mix of ugly chain store strips and beautiful mountains and forest. It was nicely broken up by a quick scramble on the Pacific Crest Trail, near Mt. Hood. I then made my way to Aloha, OR to meet up with Brian, a guy who responded to my shameless internet plea for oil. When I turned onto his street I saw a horrific sight in his driveway: three cubies which should have been gleaming in the late day Oregon sun, were filled with cloudy, soupy oil. Apparently Brian uses half hydrogenated oil. He has a heated tank, unlike me, and has run thousands of miles. My post tank heating system should be enough to thin the McJuice, but I've never tried it. A reasonable person would have politely declined rather than experiment on a huge road trip. Not wanting to insult Brian and his generous offer, and overcome with a gambling spirit, I poured ten gallons of the pea soup in
my tank....
Trip stats so far:
2,030 miles
$15.40 fuel costs
1 creature killed (mourning dove)

Smells Like Grease Spirit

Oh Bend. Bend, Oregon. As if sunshine and mountains and rivers and lakes and fantastic beer and happy people is not enough for one town, you also happen to have the most delectable waste vegetable oil in the western US. At least that's how I'll remember you.
With some fishing and the Flaming Lips show on Sunday (thank you again Les Schwab Amphiteater, you really are too kind for your own good), and a hiking/whitewater trip along the Deschutes with the family on Memorial Day, the task of procuring oil was put off 'til the last minute on monday evening. Luckily I had two assistants, David and Jayne's teenagers Sarah and Graham. People have humored me by going along on grease hunting missions (thanks Mom and Mike), but these kids were really excited. Lets go dig around dumpsters!
As it turned out we acheived the grease hunting equivalent of a hole-in one. The very first restaurant we looked at, a Japanese place just a stone's throw from the Mark family's house, was up to their ears in liquid gold. There 55 gallon drum was full, AND they have four cubies (those much coveted 5gal jugs) sitting in the alley. What a great score! You should have seen the kids' faces. Plus, it was crystal clear. And they were happy to give it to us. One stop, 35 gallons, good to go. Sarah and Graham helped me filter after dinner and had to be dragged away from the grease bucket at bedtime. I'm not making this up. Kids today love the used vegetable oil.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bend: it likes Beck, hm?

I've traded Humboldt County and its stoned minions for the uber-outdoor mecca of Bend, Oregon. The eight hour drive was by far the most nerve wracking of the journey thus far. It was quite cold, and when I stopped to "fill up" at a rest area in southern Oregon I noticed my jug of filtered oil, which looked crystal clear a few days prior in San Jose, was now thick and cloudy. Also the car's rear end (henceforth Flo's ass) was hanging particularly low. It had been the whole trip. This is hardly surprising given the thousand or so pounds of oil and miscellaneous crap I'm hauling. But, I was concerned since on this day I didn't have much oil in the trunk and it was still low-ridin'. So, gripped with fear of congealed oil and a beaten-down rear suspension, I entered the Cacade Mountains and was greeted with driving snow(!) as I traversed Crater Lake. Somewhere in the mountains I relented and put 5 gallons of diesel in the reserve tank with an additive recommended by my step-father. I wanted to be able to flip the switch on the dashboard should the oil stop working. All my experience with veg so far has been in sunny so cal and the cold and snow were freaking me out. Everything turned out fine though, and I dropped out of the Cascades and into the high desert of central Oregon. I met up with David and Jayne, British expats living in Bend and great old friends of my brother-in-law's family. At Mike and Eliza's wedding last summer in Wales they had invited me for a visit. One of those"If you ever come to Bend.....". Be warned, people who live in cool places, I WILL come visit. And would it be alright if I filtered a bit of oil in your garage?
David and Jayne's warm hospitality was shared by the promoters of the Bend summer concert series. Than you, Les Schwab Amphiteater for supporting my trip with the free ticket to the Beck concert, a fitting celebration to cap another crazy day.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Sarah and Graham Filtering Bend's Finest

Nearly Shut Out in Eureka

In two days here I've only been able to procur 8 gallons of waste vegetable oil, all of which came from a restaurant that must remain nameless. It's reminiscent of that fine oil from the swanky Chez TJ in Mountain View: clean, clear, and golden. Mostly, though, I've been stymied by an Arcata Outfit called Footprint Recycling. They have provided the restaurants in the area with fancy, locked barrels to dump their oil and are using the waste to make about 7, 500 gallons of Biodiesel/month, which they sell locally at $3.99/gallon. They offered to sell me oil for $2.40/gallon, but I've never paid anything for it, so I passed. I still have plenty of Bay-area oil to make it to Bend, and folks in Portand and Washington have offered filtered oil. I drove to Arcata today and toured the Biodiesel facility with Andrew, the founder. The production of Biodiesel is (to me) a very technical process in which waste vegetable oil is scrubbed and filtered, then reacted chemically to separate the glycerides(soap) from the methyl esters (Biodiesel). The fuel is then further refined until it resembles petroleum diesel. The only by-product of the process is glycerin, which gets sold as industrial-type soap. The benefit of Biodiesel over my system is that no engine modification is needed, and it has a broader viability as a fuel. It's great to see people doing this, even though it means not much oil in Humboldt for me.
Today I was a beauty school guinea pig and then went for a beautiful paddle in Trinity Bay. Tomorrow.... on to snowy Oregon.

My Great, Greasy Road Trip

There I was, hanging out with my mother in an alley behind Castro St. in Mountain View, CA. I was trying to look inconspicuous, at least at much as one can with a 12-volt pump hooked up to a car battery, slurping used vegetable oil from a dumpster, with Mom assisting. She was trying to decide which facet of her California vacation she preferred, helping my sister with newborn Dylan's diaper changes, or me with my grease follies. Technically, I had permission to collect the grease, but as these negotiations often go, there had been a language barrier, and I was not completely sure which of the two restaurants used this dumpster. This alley, at this time, happened to be quite a busy thoroughfare, though most people didn't give us a second look. It's not easy to get noticed in California. Just then, a dapper Chinese octogenarian passed by, and paused for a second look, pointing his cane in my direction. Was he the owner of the chinese restaurant? Was it their bin and not the taco shop's? And how can I not tell the difference between the smell of egg rolls and rolled tacos? A huge smile broke across his face, "Fuel for diesel?" You bet.
Grease, the end bi-product your french fries, your shrimp tempura, your tortilla chips, is what brought me here. I 'm travelling in a 1977 Mercedes Benz 300D, a diesel car that's been slightly modified to run on vegetable oil. As of today, I've driven 1, 400 miles since San Diego, including side trips, and procured and filtered 130 gallons of used vegetable oil. Total fuel costs so far: $0.
I have a sea kayak, a river kayak, and a road bike on the roof, and everything I need for a summer in Alaska in the back seat. I'm also carrying, at any one time, between 300 and 500 pounds of used vegetable oil, in the main fuel tank, an auxillary tank built into the trunk, and plastic cubes holding 5 gallons each.