On ‘The Road’…Again! (Part One)

It’s been quite a while since my last blog entry which was made on September 4th from the Beaver Creek RV Motel in Beaver Creek, Yukon Territories (Canada).  This marked my first overnight on what I have dubbed ‘the R-pod Odyssey’ which became a 26 day endurance run from Talkeetna to Three Forks (MT) to finally pick up the R-pod travel trailer I’d purchased in June of 2016.  A good friend picked the trailer up from the dealer in Hamilton (OH) and hauled it back to SW Michigan where he made numerous upgrades to the unit.  Then, a friend of his (Dave) who was in the process of relocating to Three Forks put the trailer on his flatbed and hauled to his farm just outside Three Forks where it had been awaiting me.  Why did I purchase the unit from a dealer in Ohio?  I couldn’t find a Forest River dealer in Alaska with the R-pod so I had to look in the lower 48.  Every dealer I found in the lower 48 wanted between $16,500 and $21,000 for the 2017 model; however, the dealer I used is located just five miles from the Forest River production facility and I was able to purchase the unit for $12,900.  Having the trailer hauled to Three Forks saved me around 2,200 driving miles (3,543 km) for the round-trip.  All told, I was thinking I’d save money by going this route.

Hah, so much for the best laid plans!  I believe in the final analysis I might have saved four thousand dollars over the most expensive quote but probably broke even on the lowest price I found outside of the dealer in Ohio.  I knew even mediocre rooms on the Alaska Highway would run between $110 and $150 Canadian per night.  I had planned to stay in the R-pod on the return leg of this adventure but the unit had a severe water leak which forced me to lay over a couple of days in Great Falls (MT) while a dealer repaired the problem.  All told I stayed in motel rooms 23 of the 26 days I was on the trip.  I knew my Escape had a non-functional air conditioning unit but I was thinking I might not need it because of the dates I was traveling.  So much for that idea; by September 6th we were driving in sunny and warm conditions with the outdoor temps pushing the lower eighties.  I had decided to bring both my canine companions on the trip and they were real troopers given the schedule upsets and weeks they spent sharing the back seat.  Qanuk, my 86 pound (39.1 kg) male German Shepherd Dog, was very verbal in expressing his dissatisfaction with spending most of every day in the back seat yet every morning all he wanted to do after getting some exercise was jump into the Escape.  Anana, my 112 pound (50.9 kg) female Alaskan malamute, is very easy going and she just ‘went with the flow’.  However, the warm temps I mentioned were just too much for her and my poor ‘little’ angel really struggled with the heat.  By the time I was stopping over in Red Deer (Alberta) I knew I had to get the A/C repaired.  The motel folks recommended ‘Canadian Tire’ and I was able to get an appointment the next day.  I planned to get the unit repaired, recharged and then continue my drive south.

Once again, HAH…so much for my plans!  The A/C had a severe leak in the plumbing and the parts to repair it had to be ordered and wouldn’t be in until the following Tuesday.  It was Friday so I faced either really stressing Anana or losing four more days.  I was very aware of the heat and wildfires in western Montana and I was sure we’d need the A/C.  I also knew my Michelin All Season tires had 67,000 miles (107,890 km) on them but they still had reasonable tread.  I told the Canadian Tire folks my plan to drive to Three Forks (MT) and back to Talkeetna; they felt I could do so safely on the existing tires.  But when I mentioned I’d be pulling an 18’ (5.5 meters) long , 2,200 pound (1,000 kg) travel trailer on the return that all changed.  They highly recommended I get four new tires so I bit the bullet and purchased four new Cooper winter rated tires and scheduled a front end alignment as well.  I was able to get the Escape scheduled for a 09:00 appointment on Tuesday morning.  The folks at Canadian Tire thought everything might require five to six hours so I decided I’d stay yet another night in Red Deer and head out Wednesday morning.  Thankfully, Red Deer had a large, leash-less dog park so I could get ‘the kidz’ lots of exercise across the weekend.  Come Tuesday I turned in the Escape at 08:45 and Anana, Qanuk and I settled into the Canadian Tire waiting room.  The staff loved dogs and just went wild over Anana; they came from all over the store to see her, pet her and encouraged her to howl.  Soon, many of the customers were also stopping in.  I was so proud of both my canine companions as they were models of good behavior and extremely social.  In the end the work on the Escape only required a bit more than three and a half hours.  But it cost me almost $2,200 Canadian for the tires, the A/C parts, the front end alignment and the labor.  While the tires are great and probably saved my butt more than once on the return leg when you figure in the $120/night I paid across the six days I stayed in Red Deer I dropped right around $3,000 to remedy my mistakes and ignorance regarding towing a trailer.

Once we were driving again I was motivated to really make tracks and I did get us from Red Deer (AB) to Great Falls (MT) during the day which is around 420 miles (676 km).  In Montana we hit temps in the middle eighties and I was so happy I had the A/C repaired as Anana was comfortable.  Driving out of Red Deer I hit heavy rains which were causing some ponding on the road (AB-2 south); the Cooper tires had great traction and I began to realize just how worn the Michelin’s must have been before I replaced them.  Just dumb luck things worked out as they did; the Universe was definitely looking out for me!  We overnighted in Great Falls and to my surprise I smelled no smoke from the horrific wildfires burning mainly in the western portion of the state.  The desk clerk told me the previous day there had been a lot of smoke; the most I saw was some obvious high level haze composed of smoke lifted up into the atmosphere.  From Great Falls we made Three Forks by 12:30 MDT; most of the drive was done in rain which the locals were just so happy to see.  I was able to rendezvous with Tony (Dave’s son) who owned the farm where my R-pod was stored and follow him to the farm.

Once there I checked out the R-pod, received a quick tutorial from Tony and prepared to settle in.  It was during this time I discovered the severe water leak just behind the toilet; I couldn’t put water in the R-pod’s tank or run a water hose to the trailer’s inlet without seeing a spray of water from the leak.  Thankfully I had purchased ten one gallon jugs of water in Great Falls just in case so I had water inside the R-pod but couldn’t use the toilet or the sinks.  The rain continued to increase and it rained across Saturday with snow occurring Saturday night into Sunday morning.  The farm land became a morass of mud which ‘the kidz’ picked up like sponges pick up water and then deposited the mud in the R-pod.  I had a broom and dust pan and used them with abandon but even so the trailer definitely received its ‘baptism’.  On Saturday I drove the Escape back into Three Forks to get cell reception and called my dear friend (Kev) back in Kentucky to vent.  During the conversation he was able to locate a RV dealership in Great Falls; after I hung up with him I called the dealership and made the earliest appointment I could which was Wednesday morning although they felt they might be able to get it handled Tuesday afternoon.  By this point I was pretty frazzled and willing to take anything just to get the unit functioning properly.  I decided to leave with the R-pod Monday morning, drive to Great Falls, get a room and drop the R-pod off at the dealership in hopes it would be repaired and ready to go by Wednesday.

As this is getting to be rather lengthy and marks what could be considered to be the halfway point in the journey – at least in terms of mileage – I think this is a good place to end ‘Part One’.  But I’d also like to offer some additional thoughts and observations as well as share a few images.  In hindsight I really didn’t think this entire situation through well enough and it cost me.  I wanted a small trailer so I could take ‘the kidz’ camping with me when I visit Alaskan state and national parks; almost all require a hard sided trailer or similar if camping with dogs due to the bears.  The R-pod was almost the only hard sided trailer light enough to be towed by the Escape with relatively minor wear and tear (more on this assumption in ‘Part Two’) on the transmission and drive train.  I had towed small trailers a few times in the past but nothing larger than a ten foot (3 meter) long enclosed U-Haul trailer and not for more than maybe a hundred miles (161 km).  The R-pod is 18 feet (5.5 meters) in length and has a dry weight of 2,175 pounds (989 kg) which makes it almost twice the length and probably three times the weight of anything I’d previously towed.  Somehow the enormities of these magnitudes escaped me when I decided to make the purchase.

Many of my well-meaning friends shared horror stories of towing trailers and I began to realize just what I was getting myself into in terms of a long, grinding chore.  I was going to have to get my learnings regarding pulling such a trailer while on the road with a pair of canine companions.  In hindsight, I’d liken it to something one should never do:  try to break in a pair of hiking boots on the trail!  But I’d put myself in a situation with no options; the trailer wasn’t going to get up here unless I went down, picked it up and hauled it back here.  Dave had already been gracious enough to store the unit for a full year and I needed to get it.  Therefore, I’d left myself in the onerous position of having no alternatives to driving to Montana, picking up the R-pod and learning to tow it while driving back to Alaska.  Good grief, talk about ‘on the job training’!

And I knew a bit about the roads I’d be traveling; in particular, The Alaska Highway (formerly known as the Alaska-Canada Highway or ‘the Al-Can’) was a major concern.  I’d driven it once in the Escape with the kidz when I relocated to Talkeetna from SE Michigan and that had been an adventure.  On the trip south I was paying very close attention to road conditions, construction and the weather; I even took notes regarding the first two items.  Technically, I didn’t drive the entire length of The Alaska Highway; I drove ‘just’ the 1,257 miles (2,024 km) from Dawson Creek (BC) to Tok (AK) where I then used the Tok Cut-off to reach the Richardson Highway (AK 4) and finally the Glenn Highway (AK 1).  The Alaska Highway extends another 108 miles (173 km) beyond Tok to Delta Junction (AK) where it intersects The Richardson Highway.  However, I drove the worst sections of this fabled road which are almost always the first 140 or so miles (225 km) from the Alaska-Canada border to Destruction Bay (YT).  This section also had the bulk of the construction.  Beyond Destruction Bay the road begins to enter the western foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and becomes very sinuous with many steep inclines and more blind curves than one would ever hope to face.  The road remains in the mountains for another roughly 650 miles (1,047 km) before it begins to wind down through the eastern foothills of the Rockies.  ‘The Road’ was in as bad condition as I remembered from my 2013 trip but then this wasn’t unexpected and I made reasonable time.

For those interested here’s my route:

  • 09/03/17 – Talkeetna (AK) to Beaver Creek (YT): 465 miles (749 km)
  • 09/04/17 – Beaver Creek (YT) to Watson Lake (YT): 548 miles) (882 km)
  • 09/05/17 – Lake Watson (YT) to Fort Nelson (BC): 319 miles (514 km)
  • 09/06/17 – Fort Nelson (BC) to Grande Prairie (AB): 364 miles (586 km)
  • 09/07/17 – Grande Prairie (AB) to Red Deer (AB): 378 miles (609 km)
  • 09/13/17 – Red Deer (AB) to Great Falls (MT): 422 miles (680 km)
  • 09/14/17 – Great Falls (MT) to Three Forks (MT): 156 miles (251 km)

And now some memorable images from the trip south.  Stay tuned for ‘Part Two’…

Entering Western Canadian Rockies

Entering the western foothills of the Canadian Rockies

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Kluane River Basin

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Wind whipped dust and spray around Destruction Bay

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Foothill fog banks

Muncho Lake Sheep

Mountain Sheep at Muncho Lake (YT)

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Anana and Friend at Oxbow Leash-Free Dog Park in Red Deer, Alberta

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Miles and miles of brown Montana!

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R-pod, Escape, Dave’s barn and trailer on his farm

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Driving from Dave’s farm into Three Forks (MT)

17 thoughts on “On ‘The Road’…Again! (Part One)

  1. I was wondering when you would post again. That was quite an undertaking for a first “real ” trip towing a trailer but I imagine at some point you’ll look back and laugh. I’ve been to Alaska twice and your pictures reminded me of the majesty of that great state. Glad you made it home safely…..

    • Hi Gina! Thanks for the kind wishes and, yes, I really did bite off more than I could chew on this one. The initial couple of days towing the trailer became ‘the trip from Hell’ as I didn’t have enough weight in the trailer’s tongue and I was driving southern Alberta (flat plains) with sustained 15 mph to 25 mph cross winds with gust to 40 mph. I was being pushed all over the road and literally had to hang onto the wheel with both hands. I’ll detail this experience in ‘Part Two’ in more detail along with some other funny anecdotes and, of course, more pictures. Glad you’ve visited Alaska a few times; it is like no place on earth!

  2. Having lived five years in my travel trailer with two dogs and a cat, and spending two winters in the south since ten, I really can relate to a lot of this, mostly the RV developing problems on the trip. I have concluded you can’t depend on any kind of RV service place and you are best off looking at a bunch of you tube videos and blogs by fellow bloggers and then doing your own repairs. The only thing I have left to professionals is repairing electric brakes and replacing axles (and I have replaced three in the last eight years). Our most recent repair was replacing the electric/propane hot water heater. I was quoted $1700 for the job. I spent some time looking at you tube videos and chatting up people and, because everything related to RVs costs three times to buy inside Canada, I have ordered it for $350 and it is sitting waiting for me at our first campground over the line when we head south shortly. Looked really hard but really isn’t. We also do a lot of redundancy. Any system on the trailer has to have another way to do it WHEN (not if) that something breaks down. You did have that redundancy by having containers for water. Travel trailers always break down and always at the worst time. Oh and you can catch some of that ahead of time by learning how to do all your own maintenance. I could never afford this travel trailer of mine otherwise. Anyway sounds like job well done for all that and I am looking forward to part 2.

    • Thanks so much for reading my blog and especially for all your great advice! I do need to get a lot more savvy regarding basic travel trailer maintenance and I intend to do so over the winter. I lucked out with the Great Falls (MT) RV service center; they had to remove the toilet to get to the leak, replace a fitting, reseat the toilet and test it. They also diagnosed the lack of power from the battery and repaired that issue. All told it cost me $190 which I thought was pretty reasonable. I learned boatloads driving the unit back to Talkeetna and was actually getting pretty skilled at driving it in heavy traffic around Calgary (that’s a nightmare story I’ll share in ‘Part Two’) and on the winding, narrow one lane roads in Alaska. I still have issues backing the unit but I know with more experience I’ll get there. Whew, you really did just dive in and worked on your unit, eh..? That is so cool; I tend to be a bit timid with mechanical stuff as I’m just about clueless. Electronics and computers are more my thing. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experience and wisdom and good luck replacing electric/propane hot water heater!

      • Oh I never just dive in. I spend far more time researching things than ever actually doing them! I am a total chicken. That’s why those you tube videos and blogs are so great. I have tried to blog about my own repair experiences and share what I could because so many wonderful people have helped me out by sharing.

        • I’m of the firm belief that circumspection is always the better part of valor. To me, what you delineated is one of the real powers of the internet in general and blogging in particular; people assisting others who then ‘pass it along’.

  3. So good to hear from you here again!!!

    • Hey Kris, yes, I was just wasted after my ‘R-pod Odyssey’ and really needed almost a full month to get my act together once again. I did well regarding keeping my blood glucose in line while on the road – just five days out of 26 did I exceed 135 mg/dL – but my exercise really suffered (can’t do 11k+ steps when you’re in the car for eight to eleven hours a day!) and I know my BP was probably through the roof thanks to all the strong coffee I was consuming. And, once I returned to Talkeetna, I was immediately pulled into the Sunshine Community Health Clinic’s (SCHC) board activities. Twenty two messages have appeared in my inbox across the past 80 minutes! We’re in a push to increase our board membership so most involve that topic but they also have resumes to review and interviews to set in motion. I also have a load of emails regarding my most recent blog post; many were extremely favorable and almost all expressed a hunger to see ‘Part Two’. I’m trying to work on the second piece; I’ve organized all my messages which give me some much needed reminders bit I still have to write it out. thankfully, I already have the pictures indexed and ready to add to the final piece.

      • YIKES!!! Am so dang proud of you!!!

        • THANKS Kris! Without question I really bit off way more than I could chew and so had to learn REALLY fast. I had a feeling I would pick up the skills to pull the R-pod pretty fast and given the ‘Calgary nightmare’ I had no choice. Now that we’ve back home, safe and sound, and I’ve put a month between my arrival and now I can look back on so much of the trip and laugh as well as wonder why I did what I did. So many well meaning friends shared frightening experiences involving pulling trailers; they meant well but by the time I arrived in Montana I was really nervous. Outside of the drive from Great Falls to Calgary in the vicious cross-winds I really didn’t have any truly frightening experiences. Sure, a number of times I was really concerned and a few times I was unpleasantly surprised but that was about the extent of my ‘worries’. Hope you are doing a bit better; have you been able to carve out at least an hour for ‘Kris time’..??

  4. Welcome back to the world of writing!
    While reading your first installment of the road trip I could mentally hear powerful music swelling in the background with many quiet ominous sections thrown in. Makes one visualize a man crawling up the steep slope of a mountain, feet slipping and fingers bleeding but with determination showing in his eyes.

    • Love the analogy, Pete! Gotta tell ya, on the drive from Great Falls to Calgary I was ready to just pull off the road, unhook the R-pod and leave it to its fate! And then to end up in the nightmare scenario in downtown Calgary just about did me in. But I managed to rally, mostly because in this situation either I did it or it didn’t get done, and keep on pushing. Getting the trailer’s tongue loaded with enough weight and driving clear of those vicious cross winds really helped. I could then concentrate on learning more like keeping my speed down and driving with the tachometer rather than the speedometer. Even so, it was a tough row to hoe and I’ll never put myself in such a position again! Stay tuned for ‘Part Two’; there’ll be some humorous portions as well as some real nightmare scenarios…

  5. After reading all your posts and posts of the others……a quick thought. You are using sway bars, right? We went from a straight trailer to a fifth wheel because even with the sway bars we would get pushed a lot by wind. The fifth wheel was a breeze to pull. Just curious….waiting for the next installment 🙂

    • Hi Gina – Excellent advice and something I learned about too late to get implemented before I pulled the R-pod back here. Rest assured I will be installing some before I use the trailer much more. I’ve heard fifth wheels are a breeze to use for towing as compared with the more common trailer hitch. I’d love to have a pickup large enough to utilize a fifth wheel but being on a fixed income I’m stuck with the Escape for the next couple of years. At that point I hope to have freed up some monies and the Escape will be pushing ten years of age and be ready to trade in. Pretty sure I’ll be looking at a new – if I’m doing this come the spring of 2020 I’d settle for a very low mileage (<30k miles) 2018, 2019 or 2020 – Toyota Tundra. I see maybe five to eight of these trucks for every Ford pick up I see which is the second most common brand of pickup up here. The locals know what works in Alaska and more importantly, what will last in Alaska. Been swamped the past three days with work coming out of my new board seat on the Sunshine Community Health Center's (SCHC) board so I haven't made much progress on 'Part Two' although it is maybe a quarter written and I've already cataloged all the images I plan to include. Once I finish writing it I can embed the imagery in a jiffy. Really hoping to have it published by this weekend!

    • If you thought ‘Part One’ was wild as the old saying goes; “Ya ain’t seen – or in this case ‘read’ – anything yet!”. I hope to have ‘Part Two’ published sometime this weekend; I’m waiting for the arrival of Pinnacle’s ‘Studio 21 Deluxe’ so I can do frame grabs from my boatload of HD videos taken during the adventure. It was so much easier to use the video camera while driving solo; I think I deleted maybe a third of all my stills due to motion induced blur or just plain poor focus. Stay tuned, ‘Part Two’ has some funny sections as well as at least one nightmare scenario…

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