A spaceship passed us on the way back from Dawson.
It was gliding silently up the North Klondike Highway, keeping pace with traffic.
Recovering from the initial shock, there was a quick U-turn, a chase and after commandeering a walkie-talkie, we relayed a message to the pilot.
The craft pulled over.
Only a foot or so off the ground, the sleek mirrored shell, reminiscent of a Star Wars A-wing, suddenly levitated, revealing an occupant strapped in the ship’s bowels.
Marcelo Da Luz, undid his thick, red seatbelt and climbed out of the delicate vessel.
He’s a … flight attendant. Or was.
Da Luz, who is currently unemployed, was not green and lacked the signature dewdrop head and enormous oval eyes normally associated with spaceship drivers.
But his craft had extraterrestrial properties.
The XOF1 is powered by the sun’s radiation.
Da Luz built the $1-million solar-powered vehicle on his own dime, mortgaging his house twice in the process.
Then, the Toronto resident decided to drive it 16,000 kilometres along terrestrial roads, to break the world distance record for solar-powered cars.
But Ontario wouldn’t have it.
In 2004, a University of Toronto student died in a crash during Canada’s Solar Car Tour.
The accident report says the driver would have been killed even if he’d been driving a regular vehicle, said Da Luz.
But Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation pulled all solar-car permits anyway.
In 2005, Da Luz contacted the ministry of Transportation to get a permit to drive his high-tech craft across the province.
After waiting a year for a response, he started looking into other alternatives.
That’s when he discovered the 1949 Geneva International Road Treaty.
It overrides local laws, said Da Luz.
And Canada signed it.
Da Luz wrote Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGinty a letter — “I’m going to license my car and there’s nothing you or your government can do about it.”
Two weeks later, Ontario lifted the moratorium on permitting solar cars.
But it threw up roadblocks.
If Da Luz was going to drive his craft, every road he travelled had to have signage warning a solar car was using it, and he had to have a letter from every police municipality assuring the government the road was low traffic.
“But there are more than 3,000 kilometres of road in Ontario, and in Northern Ontario there are only two main roads crossing the province and no police officer in their right mind is going to say they’re low traffic,” he said.
So, after a ceremonial cruise at Seneca College in Toronto, Da Luz put his vehicle on a trailer and drove it to Buffalo, New York.
“I had to drive across seven states to get around Ontario, and was welcome in almost every one of them,” he said.
“But I live in Toronto — Ontario’s home, and it breaks my heart I was not able to drive there.”
Da Luz, tailed by a support van pulling a trailer, is heading to Inuvik on what he thought was the most northern stretch of road in North America.
But, he’d just learned there was a road that stretches even further north in Alaska.
“Inuvik is still a great challenge,” he said.
“It’s a scary road — there’s 750 kilometres of gravel.”
The XOF1 already had its first rocky run-in on a patch of gravel outside Whitehorse.
The delicate vehicle lost one of its aerodynamic fibreglass wheel covers.
“I want people to realize solar cars can be used as regular vehicles,” said Da Luz.
Usually the cars are designed and driven on good roads in warm climates for test events, like the World Solar Challenge.
Da Luz is the first one to drive his solar car at sub-zero temperatures on ice and he hopes to be the first to drive it 16,000 kilometres.
The current record is 15,500.
Inuvik is the halfway mark, then he is turning around and heading all the way back.
It was raining and chilly on the side of the road, and Da Luz was cold.
The car has no heat, no wipers, and condensation kept fogging up the tinted canopy.
He’d hoped to make it to Dawson in time for the music fest, but there hadn’t been enough sun.
Some days, Da Luz and his crew wait until mid-afternoon to get enough of a charge on his car.
Covered in solar panels, the body of the car is designed to tilt toward the sun.
But the further north he gets, the harder it is.
The sun is lower here, he said.
Luckily, the XOF1 uses less power than a toaster.
And on fully charged batteries it can scoot 200 kilometres without any additional charge, cruising up to 120 kilometres an hour.
“Instead of plugging into the wall, I plug into the sun,” said Da Luz.
Most household appliances operate at 68 per cent efficiency, while the XOF1’s motor operates at 98 per cent efficiency.
Da Luz, with the help of designers and scientists, created the car from scratch.
It all started 10 years ago, when Da Luz watched an account of the solar challenge on TV.
“I always saw myself as a part-time tree hugger,” he said.
“And I wanted to build a car that could compete in the solar challenge, but I’m not an engineer and had no resources.”
Da Luz sought sponsors, but never received any monetary support.
Instead he got help with the engineering and design.
“I’m still learning,” he said fiddling with some switches.
When he’s driving, holding onto motorcycle-style handlebars, Da Luz wears a pair of shades with a tiny video screen perched in front of the right lens.
It feeds him battery-charge data and a video image of what’s behind him.
Usually, it’s the familiar sight of his gas-guzzling support vehicle.
Here Da Luz is quick to clarify.
The van has an electrolyzer that uses water to produce hydrogen. The idea is to use the extra energy to produce a hybrid effect and improve its gas mileage.
Breaking the world distance record is only part of this project, he said.
And dreams of entering the World Solar Challenge are long gone.
Instead, Da Luz wants to save the planet, “using clean, sustainable energy.”
It seems like most people are waiting for government to save the planet, he said.
“But they lack political will.”
As he travelled across the US and Canada, Da Luz met with as many people as possible, discussing solar energy — and showering in their houses.
“People are so welcoming,” he said.
And they’re interested in the car.
Any electric car could have solar cells attached, said Da Luz.
“Even if it only gets five or 15 per cent of its charge from the sun, that’s less of an impact on the environment and our pocket.”
There are already lots of spin-offs, he added.
And many governments are supporting solar power — Germany is investing heavily in solar energy; Japan plans to have one million solar homes built by 2010 and Hawaii offers electric cars free parking.
But in Canada, Da Luz has foreign plates on his car, thanks to Ontario’s permitting regulations.
“I’ve spent everything I have on this car,” he said.
“I’m the only guy building a solar car in Canada.
“And they’ve gone out of their way to stop me.”