YuKonstruct’s Van Slam features skookum designs
Alex Jegier is converting a retired ambulance into a car-camper he can live in. Jegier and other camper-van enthusiasts showed off their projects at YuKonstruct's Van Slam last weekend. Above: Andrew Kalek installed solar panels to help power electronics in the Firebus.
Over the last few months, you might have seen an ambulance hanging around Whitehorse that doesn’t look quite right.
It’s got the same white body and orange stripes as a Yukon ambulance. But it’s missing the “AMBULANCE” and “EMS” decals that make our emergency vehicles stand out. Also, you’re unlikely to hear its siren wailing.
That’s because it isn’t actually an ambulance. It’s Alex Jegier’s future home.
Jegier was one of about 10 people showing off their unique car-campers at Whitehorse’s second annual Van Slam at YuKonstruct last weekend.
This year’s vans ranged from a Dodge Caravan to a monstrous overland vehicle with an enormous lift kit.
But Jegier’s, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the only ambulance.
At first blush, an ambulance might not seem like an ideal car-camper. But Jegier will tell you otherwise.
They’re well-maintained, he pointed out. The back of the truck is already wired to a deep-cycle battery, so you’ve got a power source all ready to go. They’re well-insulated, too, and the medical cabinets make for great storage space.
For instance, that little cubby at the back where the spinal boards were once stored? Perfect for cross-country skis, Jegier said.
This ambulance is the realization of a plan Jegier’s had for years.
“I feel like my dream since high school was to always get a road trip going across the States, across Canada,” he said. He didn’t always have an ambulance in mind, though. When he was younger, he envisioned one of those old Volkswagen “hippie vans.”
Ironically, however, those vans aren’t exactly cheap anymore. So Jegier had to get creative.
Last year, he attended Whitehorse’s first Van Slam and was inspired by some people who’d converted old cargo vans into campers. He started looking into getting his own cargo van, and quickly discovered that provincial governments sometimes auction off their old vehicles, including ambulances, to anyone who cares to place a bid.
One thing led to another, and after he found someone in Toronto who wanted to make a road trip up to the Yukon and needed a vehicle to drive, Jegier became the proud owner of a brand-spanking well-used ex-Ontario ambulance.
Andrew Kalek installed solar panels to help power electronics in the Firebus.
“As long as (the decals) are taken off and the lights are disconnected, then you’re good to go,” he said.
Still, it’ll be a little while before the ambulance is fit to live in. Over the winter, Jegier’s been busy gutting the inside so that he can build his own pullout bed and a little kitchenette in the back. He’s hoping it’ll be ready to go by next summer, though he’s thinking of doing the Yukon festival circuit - the Atlin and Dawson music festivals, mainly - this year.
And then? Well, Jegier has no shortage of ideas.
He’d like to host acoustic performances by local artists in the back of the ambulance, maybe, or dress it up and change out the lights for the Pride or Canada Day parades.
And, of course, he’d live in it and get out of paying rent for a while. That’s one of the big draws in a city where renters can easily pay $700 or more for a room in a house.
But the important thing to understand about these vans is that they’re not just vans - they’re a lifestyle.
“You keep simplicity,” said Emily Madill, who attended Van Slam on Sunday with her husband, Dave. “You can only have so much stuff and so it just makes life simple when you’ve only got a few things to take care of.”
The Madills went to Van Slam looking for some new, creative ideas. They’re about to move into a basement apartment at the moment, but they’ve previously lived in a camper and on a 40-foot fishing trawler.
They now have a baby on the way, but they’re still interested in getting back into the camper lifestyle. They’re thinking about something a little bigger this time, though, to make room for the new addition to their family.
“We thought about maybe getting a school bus and converting it for fun,” Dave said. “But then we thought maybe we’ll just hold off and wait and see what it’s like having a kid first.”
Certainly, there are some features of car-camper living that might deter some. Storing food and cooking extravagant meals is no easy feat. There are toilet-related challenges best not discussed here. And then there are the close quarters.
“A lot of people are like ‘How do you do it? How do you not kill each other?’” said Andrew Kalek, who’s spent two and a half years living and travelling with his wife in his bright-orange 1975 van, dubbed the “Firebus.”
Based on his experience, the key is to make sure everything has its place and stays there. “Otherwise, it’s super insane,” he said.
Kalek and his wife decided to get a camper-van back in 2010.
“We both were working from home, sitting at home, spending the evenings at home, and we were like, ‘Wow, we spend a whole lot of time at home and we could be anywhere in the world.’”
Since they bought the Firebus, they’ve made three trips across Canada, and they’ve travelled down the East Coast of the United States. They’ve spent Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Saint Patrick’s Day in Georgia. They’ve even travelled up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, without a single flat tire or a cracked windshield.
In that time, they’ve made a number of upgrades to the van. Kalek bought a deep-cycle battery to provide power for laptops, lights and a heater in the back. He’s got some solar panels to charge the battery and a back-up generator. He’s got an antenna and a router that let him rebroadcast wireless signals - from a nearby McDonald’s, say - into the van.
And the couple has learned a lot about repairing vehicles over the years. Together, they changed their alternator in the parking lot of the parts store after the original broke. Right after they bought the vehicle, they had to fix all the seals after they woke up one rainy morning to discover a river flowing through the van.
But all of that is part of the experience. The camper-van lifestyle is about learning to do it yourself, and learning to be content with less. It’s about going where you want, when you want, and maybe gaming the system a little. And, of course, it’s all about creativity.
That’s why Van Slam is important, Jegier said. “It’s to showcase that ingenuity, showcase that do-it-yourself passion.”
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