YEARS ago, West Vancouverite Daniel Merkins was flipping through the pages of a car magazine when he found an article about an 8,000-kilometre car rally that began near Seattle, Wash., and ended in Alaska.
In the years following his discovery he dreamt about one day driving to the Arctic.
On Feb. 23, Merkins, 21, along with his close friend Ryan Smiley realized a very long dream. They are currently participating in the 2012 Alcan 5000 Winter Rally in an effort to shed light on British Columbia's organ donor registry.
"I want to do this to raise awareness for organ donations," Merkins said, before embarking on the journey. "If one more person signs up to become an organ donor then it's all worth it."
Daniel's father, Elias, has been awaiting a kidney transplant for more than five years and currently undergoes six hours of dialysis five times a week.
Merkins and Smiley, former Sentinel secondary students, founded Team Got Organs? and have teamed up with the Kidney Foundation of Canada's B.C.
branch to help raise awareness about the importance of becoming a registered organ donor.
"When was the last time you saw an advertisement on television for organ donors?" Merkins asked. "It's kind of taboo."
"It's about doing something to better society," Smiley added. "There are so many things that you can choose from, but given the personal connection here it just makes sense that we are doing this."
The Alcan 5000 began in Kirkland, Wash., and will finish in Anchorage, Alaska. Merkins and Smiley will first drive to the remote settlement of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. In order to get there they will have to travel across the Mackenzie River on ice roads.
The pair will then head south through Dawson City, Yukon before reaching their final destination March 3. When the rally is over, they will have driven more than 16,000 kilometres, the equivalent to two and half trips across Canada.
Merkins and Smiley are driving a 1995 BMW E36 M3, a car known for its performance on the racetrack, not in the grueling weather conditions of the Arctic.
"We want to prove that a sports car can handle the elements of the North," Merkins said. "It's just to prove everyone wrong who thinks that BMWs are not good in the snow."
News of Merkins' campaign has attracted attention as far south as Atlanta, Ga., where a local company called The Retrofit Source decided to donate a pair of brand new headlamps to the team.
Throughout the Arctic journey, Merkins and Smiley will be filming, tweeting and using social media to communicate their message.
"It's a really great adventure," Smiley said. "I think it should be a great experience."
According to the Kidney Foundation of Canada there are an estimated 200,000 British Columbians suffering from kidney disease.
Since becoming involved in the campaign, Smiley discovered that he has a much closer connection to organ donation than he originally thought.
"I found out kidney disease runs in my family," he said. "My grandfather had it and I think even his father did too."
As of December 2011 there were 819,703 registered organ donors in British Columbia.
According to the foundation, while 85 per cent of British Columbians surveyed said they were in favour of organ donation, only 17 per cent have registered to be organ donors.
Prior to 1997, registered organ donors were identified with a decal that was placed on a driver's licence or CareCard.
The province then switched to a computerized registry to legally record registered organ donors and replaced the previous way of identifying donors.
According to Transplant B.C.'s website, the province switched to a new system because the old process didn't provide individuals with a choice as to what organs they wanted to donate and only allowed those who held a driver's licence to donate.
Merkins said people who used to be registered donors under the old system have to re-register under the new system.
"A lot of people think they are donors but they aren't," he said.
Merkins hopes to one day see a system where everyone is automatically registered as an organ donor but people are allowed to opt out.
Despite undergoing countless hours of treatment each week, Elias continues to teach Spanish at the West Vancouver Community Centre.
"You cannot let this win," he said.
Elias hopes to receive a new kidney soon but knows it could be another three years before he does. During the rally he will be at his West Vancouver home cheering on his son and Smiley.
"(He) and Ryan are good kids," he said. "I am really proud of them."
The rally is just the beginning of Merkins' and Smiley's personal campaign to raise organ donation awareness. They are hoping to speak at schools and at various events across the Lower Mainland upon their return.
To become a registered organ donor, visit transplant. bc.ca and for more information on Team Got Organs?, visit www.gotorgans.com.
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