Somehow I just cannot seem to ‘let go’ of this series; I guess the trip and its fallout made a bigger impact on me than I realized! When I was collating images for the previous four segments I knew I was missing a lot of great scenery but for the life of me I couldn’t locate said pictures. I checked the laptop I used on the trip but the data drive was empty; I thought I’d transferred everything to my network via a USB drive. HAH, then it struck me; check said USB drive, dummy!! Indeed, still ensconced upon said drive were the images I remembered. So now I will share some of them with you as an epilogue of sorts to my ‘R-pod Odyssey’ Remember, I did this trip solo and while my canine companions were great company they couldn’t spell me in terms of driving nor could they take still images. Trying to set up a shot while moving at 50 mph plus (80.5 kph) and accounting for reflections, sun angle, changing depth of field and similar as well as insuring I stayed on the road and didn’t head on an approaching vehicle made still photography much more difficult than video. As such, some images may be a bit blurry and/or out of focus. For this I apologize; I hope to have frame grabs from my video available at a later date. With all this said here’s some additional imagery from my adventure:
When I began this account I envisioned it would be two parts as there was so much to recount. However, after getting just part way through this section I came to understand I’ll need at least three segments and possibly a fourth. Yes, my verbose writing style contributes to the length but as I mentioned earlier there’s a lot to share as this was a 25 day adventure. And, somehow, I find it fitting a tale involving Alaska and things ‘Alaskan’ should be extremely large. Unlike so many video series I’m not going to waste space and the reader’s time recapping ‘Part One’. If you are new to this blog or you missed it please read the previous entry. I’ll pick this up on my departure from Dave’s farm in the middle morning of Monday, September 18th pulling the R-pod for the first time.
The first 22 miles from Dave’s farm were all single lane back road driving and I took it very slow as I tried to get a ‘feel’ for the R-Pod. Thankfully, there was minimal traffic as I was well under the posted 55 mph (88.5 kph) speed limit. I’d never towed anything close to this size and the Escape felt sluggish and unresponsive. Once I made I 90 I headed west until I reached MT 287 and then headed north to Helena. I was having issues even maintaining 65 mph (104.5 kph) on I 90; once I turned north on MT 287 the speed limit dropped to 65 mph (104.5 kph) but the road became mainly a single lane. This tasked me with keeping the R-pod in its lane and allowing upcoming drivers to pass me. When I made Helena I headed north on I 15 for Great Falls. During this stretch I had my first taste of steep, as in 7%+, grades. Many had sweeping turns incorporated into them and while easily navigated in a car or even small truck these produced a bit of angst for me pulling the R-pod. Still, I persevered and we finally pulled into Great Falls in the early afternoon.
We returned to the same Comfort Inn we’d stayed at on the way down and were able to procure the same room. Then we headed out for ‘Pierce’s RV Center’ which I discovered was located right downtown. This was my first experience towing the R-pod in a city with moderate traffic and it was a bit of white knuckle drive. However, we made it; I spoke to the folks at the counter and was able to drop off the trailer in their lot. The return trip with just the Escape really demonstrated the difference pulling such a trailer can make! I spent the remainder of Monday decompressing, exercising the kidz, downloading/cataloging my still and video imagery and writing an email update.
Tuesday was a ‘throw away day’, I exercised the kidz a bit, had the Escape checked out at a Valvoline Service Center, did some shopping and picked up another 2.5 gallon Jerry can. Pierce RV Center called around 16:00 to say the R-pod was ready; since it was so late and I’d already booked Tuesday night I told them I would pick the unit up first thing Wednesday morning. We were up and on our way by 08:30 and made Pierce’s RV Center by 09:00. All my requested repairs were handled (water leak and lack of battery power) so I paid $190 and hooked up the R-pod. It was a sunny day but very windy; I was a bit concerned about the wind but I had no choice as I’d already lost far too many days, not to mentioned dropped WAY too much money, on motel rooms. We headed north on I 15 for the Canadian border and eventually Calgary (AB). It seemed like a good start but ole Murphy has a way of making one eat one’s words!
Within maybe twenty minutes I was hanging onto the steering wheel for dear life and nasty cross-winds (according to NWS they were 15 to 25 mph sustained – 24 to 40 kph – with gusts to 40 mph – 64 kph) were pushing the R-pod all over the road. This, in turn, was pushing the Escape in all sorts of crazy ways. In addition, my lack of experience with trailers caused me to forgo properly loading the R-pod; I had far too little weight on the trailer’s tongue which caused the Escape to gyrate up and down like a pogo stick on steroids. By the time I’d completed 250 miles of the 319 mile (402 km of 514 km) distance my hands were aching from my death grip on the steering wheel and continually clenching my teeth had given me a terrible headache. More than once after a huge gust almost sent me off the road I honestly thought about pulling off the road, unhooking the R-pod and leaving it to its fate. Since this really wasn’t an option all me and the kidz could do was soldier on.
We finally made the outskirts of Calgary around 15:45 and I realized the Comfort Inn at which I’d made reservations the previous night was almost right downtown. A gnawing fear surfaced within my mind; such a location was most unlikely to accept dogs yet I’d included the fact I had two canine companions when I made the reservation on-line. However, it was too late at that point so I followed my Garmin GPS. We were driving on a main thoroughfare (Macleod Trail SE) with three lanes to a side; the traffic was heavy as it was rush hour. I saw portable signs warning of road construction starting that day but really had no other options. We drove onward and as I approached my destination I gingerly worked over into the left lane as the Garmin indicated a left turn to the property. Suddenly the left lane just stopped and the center lane slowed quite a bit. I had no clue but thought maybe an accident..? I started looking to transition to the center lane but no one was going to let me in; typical of city drivers pissed off by traffic congestion. I’d driven in such nonsense while living in Chicago and to be honest I couldn’t blame the other drivers for not wanting this trailer in front of them ‘cause they couldn’t see over or around it.
We inched forward and I suddenly saw the reason for the problem; the damned construction had just closed the left lane with no advanced warning! To say I was livid was a grotesque understatement!! I must’ve sat at the barrier for five minutes before I finally pushed my way into the center lane and crawled along with the remainder of the traffic. But it wasn’t finished yet; in maybe 0.5 miles (0.8 km) the construction had closed the center lane, again with no advanced warning! I was apoplectic with rage; good thing the Escape’s steering wheel is thickly padded! I once again had to fight my way into the left lane and continue into Calgary. All told I needed almost 50 minutes to travel 1.5 miles (2.4 km) in the horrible congestion and miasma of irritated drivers. I finally could see the Comfort Inn in the distance but I had no idea the ‘fun’ was just beginning…
At this point I must say my Garmin Nuvi 2957 GPS had performed flawlessly and did so for the remainder of my trip; however, it did fail me just once and it was in downtown Calgary. The GPS told me to make a left turn onto 63rd Avenue and pull into the Comfort Inn parking lot. I could see the left turn but it appeared to turn into a very small strip mall adjacent the motel. I assumed the mall access street connected to the drive through entrance of the Comfort Inn and made the left turn across Macleod Trail SE and then a right turn onto the small street in front of the stores. The final right was a tight one and the R-pod just cleared a parked car; it was then I realized this road did not go through to the Comfort Inn! I had no experience backing the R-pod and while I knew intellectually how to back up a trailer – ya basically have to do the opposite of what you would do if just driving a vehicle – I’d had no practice. I thought I saw this ‘street’ turn to the left at the end of the parking lot so I proceeded forward and turned…and then panicked as I realized I’d just turned into a dead end alley!
I needed maybe a minute to calm down and assess the situation; the alley was maybe one and a half car widths wide. To my right was a concrete wall maybe seven feet high topped with a cyclone fence. To the left were the rear portions of many buildings; it appeared as though the alley might once have continued but it was barricaded with another concrete wall and a large dumpster was now occupying the alley. I once again freaked out as I was sure I was completely stuck with no way out. For what seemed like a lifetime I just sat there wondering what the Hell I was going to do. Then ole reality took hold and I knew if I was going to extricate myself from this dilemma I had to do it. I noticed to my left was a place for delivery trucks to probably back in to make deliveries as a small dock was visible. Now when I say delivery trucks I mean the types that do small deliveries within cities, not semis. A plan began to form and I acted upon it. I backed up just a bit, cut the wheel hard left and slowly pulled the Escape as far into the dock area as I could. I almost managed to get the R-pod in line with the Escape; I exited the vehicle and walked around to the rear. I had maybe four feet of clearance between the rear of the R-pod and said concrete wall. I jumped back into the Escape, set the steering wheel and slowly backed up until I was almost touching the wall. Then I cut the steering wheel hard left and pulled forward to the dock. I then backed up slowly until I was almost touching the wall which caused the R-pod to slowly angle its rear end to the right. I continued this slow, laborious ‘dance’ until I could just barely clear the dock with the front end of the Escape. This allowed me to timidly pull back into the alleyway with the R-pod just clearing the dock. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, adjusted my seat and slowly drove forward. As I passed a stairwell I noticed two gentlemen sitting on the steps; they applauded as I drove by.
I managed to get the R-pod back onto Macleod Trail SE for just another block and then maneuver the R-pod into the Comfort Inn parking lot. As I looked at the high rise structure I was sure such a motel would not take pets. However, I also felt like I’d endured enough for one day so maybe I’d get a break. HAH, Mr. Murphy must have been rolling on the ground laughing at this point! Sure enough, I checked at the desk and discovered they didn’t allow pets. I briefly considered leaving the R-pod where it was, confining the kidz to it and taking the room. But they’d been such great troopers and so willing to endure the cramped confines of the Escape for weeks on end I just couldn’t do it to them. In addition, I couldn’t be sure they might not awaken at night and vent their dissatisfaction through howling. The desk clerk was very kind in canceling my reservation without charge and calling another motel (South Calgary Travel Lodge) maybe 2 miles back the way I came – I remembered seeing the facility – to see if they would accept pets and had an opening. Thankfully, they were ‘yes’ on both queries so I headed out to the parking lot and once again pulled the R-pod onto Macleod Trail SE but was now heading south. I needed another half hour to make the motel; I was never so pleased to haul all our gear into the room and just collapse on the bed after feeding and watering the kidz. I was almost undergoing a mental meltdown and I wasn’t sure I could take much more.
During the drive into Calgary I had noted my mileage was down to 10.2 mpg (16.4 kpg) and this had added to my stress. The Escape has only an 18 gallon (68 liter) gas tank which meant even with a full tank my range would be 184 miles (296 km). I knew there were two stretches of The Alaskan Highway where services were more than 220 miles (354 km) apart. Sure, I had some Jerry cans and could fill them but even with both 2.5 gallon (9.5 liter) filled I’d only add another 51 miles (82 km) to my range and that might not be enough. The weather had turned much cooler in Alberta with that damned wind continuing along with cold rain; I tried to imagine myself standing on the side of The Alaska Highway with Jerry cans in hand trying to hitch a ride in such conditions or worse. I felt like my world was coming to an end and once again I thought about just finding a parking lot, unhooking the R-pod and beating feet back to Talkeetna. I wasn’t even sure I could face another day of driving like I had just finished. But, once again, mean ole ‘Mr. Reality’ took over and I had to try to figure out my next steps. I knew I could purchase larger Jerry cans for fuel. A couple of friends diagnosed some of the day’s handling issues to improper weight distribution in the R-pod and suggested more weight in the nose of the trailer. I decided to do this so before shutting down for the evening I took the kidz out and then moved the portable generator to the very front of the R-pod and bungee corded the two filled 2.5 gallon (9.5 liter) Jerry cans to the generator. I then called it quits on ‘the day from Hell’ and fell into an uneasy sleep.
I awoke to wind and cold rain and really considered staying another night in hopes the weather conditions would improve. When I started this trip I had intended to spend time in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper national parks on my way back to Talkeetna but that was before the reality of this situation was driven home. In addition, I checked the weather in the parks and they were seeing snow above 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) so that nixed any thought of visiting them. I therefore checked my mapping software and decided a bedroom community of Edmonton (AB) – Leduc – would be my destination. While only 166 miles (267 km) distant after the previous day that sounded like more than enough driving so we loaded up and headed out for Leduc. Within 20 miles (32 km) of Calgary the rain began to transition to sleet and finally wet snow. My decision not to try for the national parks was vindicated as I worked to keep both the Escape and the R-pod on the road. The winds were still there but at much lower speed and were more of a tail wind than cross-winds. Shifting the weight to the nose of the R-pod dramatically improved both the ride of the Escape and the handling of the R-pod. After an additional 70 miles (113 km) we drove out of the snow and the road conditions also improved. I also began to learn that if I kept my speed between 52 mph and 58 mph (84 kph and 93 kph) I saw my mileage increase to 12.1 mpg (19.5 kpg). At this rate I could safely traverse those long distances on The Alaska Highway with just an additional maybe 10 gallons (38 liters) of gas. I decided maybe the future was looking up.
We made Leduc early in the afternoon but were allowed to get into our room. As it was just 13:50 I did exercise the kidz, fed them and gave them water and then we drove into the area to seek out gas cans. I was unable to locate a source but I also knew we’d be driving past Red Deer (AB) the next morning and thanks to spending five days in the town during the trip down I knew right where a Walmart was located. We went back to the motel room and called it an early night.
Friday dawned clear and cool with almost no wind and I was pleased! We managed an early start and by late morning I was gingerly navigating the Red Deer Walmart parking lot looking for an out of the way place to park. I did manage to find two additional five gallon Jerry cans which I purchased. We then found a cheap gas station – cheap is relative in Canada! – and I filled both and bungee corded them in the nose of the R-pod as well. This improved the ride even more. Our destination was Fox Creek (AB) which was again a short throw of just 183 miles (295 km) but was predicated on the fact the next place with lodging would’ve added another 80 miles (129 km) and I just wasn’t ready to try that especially given we lost almost two hours in Red Deer. It was on this leg I made an important discovery; I found I should drive using the tachometer rather than the speedometer. By keeping the tach below 3,500 rpm I was maintaining around 55 mph (89 kph) and I saw my gas mileage improve to 13.3 mpg (21.4 kpg). I was now confidant I could tackle those lengthy expanses almost void of services on The Alaska Highway with ease. The weather was dry and sunny in Fox Creek and made for a great afternoon. There was a large field in back of the Super 8 where we stayed and I ran and played with the kidz for almost half an hour. Then we drove to a small local park where we did a bit of trail walking. We finally returned to the room and enjoyed a restful evening and night.
At this point I’m going to stop as this is already too long (3,122 words, if interested…) and there’s still quite a bit of this ‘odyssey’ left to share. I will tease you a bit by saying the next leg took us onto the fabled ‘Alaska Highway’ where we had some good times, and a few not so good, while traversing 1,257 miles of this road. The scenery was, as expected, majestic and with light traffic and my slowly increasing learnings regarding the R-pod for the first time since I starting towing the trailer I was sure we’d make it back to Talkeetna. Stay tuned for ‘Part Three’; I’ll leave you with a couple of images from this portion of ‘The R-pod Odyssey’:
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’…
As bands of moderate rain showers sweep through this area tattooing a rhythm on my home’s metal roof I’m staring out my office windows while contemplating an upcoming major ‘adventure’ which will likely consume the entire month of September and will almost assuredly tax my endurance, creativity and self-confidence to their limits. It has been a full year in the making and while it is a bit daunting I will be very pleased to get it underway and probably even more pleased to see it through to a (hopefully) successful completion. At this point I feel this undertaking will be on a par with, if not exceed, my relocation from SE Michigan to Talkeetna during the late summer of 2013. In an interesting piece of ‘synchronicity’ this trip will be undertaken in the late summer as well although it will likely extend into the early fall.
I remain somewhat uncertain as to the outcome largely because it is an undertaking of huge proportions replete with more than its fair share of ‘unk-unks’ (unknown unknowns). In June of 2016 I made the decision to purchase a hard sided camping trailer so I could begin to explore more of Alaska with my two canine companions. Anana, my 112 pound female Alaskan malamute, and Qanuk, my 88 pound male German Shepherd Dog, are both seasoned travelers having made the relocation up here in my Escape and are a joy to have as companions. But to safely camp with them in many Alaskan locations a hard sided shelter is required for protection from bears. To this point I’ve been unable to really get out and explore my new home due to this limitation. Therefore, once I decided I needed a hard sided trailer I did a lot of research and based upon my relatively small and low powered Ford Escape I decided upon the 2017 Forest River R-pod 172. The unit is completely hard sided but comes in with a dry weight of around 2,300 pounds which is well within the Escape’s max towing capacity of 3,000 pounds. I had a chance to briefly ‘tour’ a R-pod over Memorial Day of 2016 when one was parked at the Tesoro gas station located at the ‘Y’; while small it had everything I wanted as in a full kitchen, fridge, shower, and bathroom. I found there were no dealers in Alaska so I started perusing the lower 48 and found a wonderful deal at an RV dealer in Hamilton, Ohio. I worked with a dear friend in SW Michigan to make the purchase and had him and a friend pick up the trailer and haul it back to SW Michigan where he made extensive improvements in the basic unit.
Then, a friend of his put the R-pod on his flatbed trailer and hauled the unit to Three Forks, Montana. This was to happen by early September of 2016 but thanks to mechanical issues with his truck he didn’t get the unit to Montana until late October; by this point it was too late for me to make the 5,300+ mile round trip to pick it up. He was able to store the unit in his barn over winter; I had planned to drive down in mid-April of 2017 to pick it up but a leaking heater core in the Escape forced me to postpone the trip while it was repaired. By the time this was finished it was already early May and the tourists were out in force so I elected to wait until early September to make the run. Now I finally find myself preparing to make the 2,650+ mile drive from Talkeetna to Three Forks to finally take possession of my 2017 R-pod.
The very distances involved are a bit intimidating especially as I’ll be the solo driver with only my canine companions as company. While they are wonderful accomplices they cannot spell me behind the wheel so I all the driving will fall upon me. And it is telling the total trip will involve more miles than I drove on the relocation to Alaska. While during that trip I was driving the Escape solo with ‘the kidz’ aboard I also had a friend driving a 26’ U-Haul van in close proximity; we shared overnight motel rooms and having him along meant I wasn’t really alone. On this upcoming trip it will be just me and ‘the kidz’. In addition, I’ve never pulled a trailer longer than ten feet and it probably weighed a thousand pounds fully loaded. My R-pod is eighteen feet in length and when loaded with water, food and supplies it will probably tip the scales at 2,600 pounds. It does have electric brakes which are good but I will have to configure said brakes before I start the long drive back to Talkeetna and I’ve never done so previously. Assuming I can get said brakes properly ‘lined out’ then I will have to learn to tow an extra eighteen feet and 2,500+ pounds on a variety of roads from multi-lane highways to single lane back roads. And then there’s the always ‘interesting’ aspect of backing a trailer into a specific spot…
The drive down to Three Forks will be a ‘speed run’; I intend to make it in a comfortable six days arriving at the farm where the trailer is stored around noon on the sixth day. Doing so will minimize the number of nights I’ll have to pay for a motel room and insure I have plenty of time for a slow, leisurely return trip before the snow starts to fly. I’ll be able to really learn to haul the R-pod across a variety of road conditions and varying degrees of traffic. I’ll also have the time to learn to utilize the R-pod to its fullest extent. I’ve rented pickup trucks with simple campers all the way to 28’ RVs so I do have some experience with using the built-in amenities like fridges that run on electricity or propane. But the very compact nature of the R-pod means some of the gear will be new to me so I will have a definite learning curve. This same ‘compact nature’ means me and ‘the kidz’ will have learnings regarding how we live in such close proximity. Both my canine companions love to stretch out when sleeping and this isn’t something they’ll be able to do very well within the ‘compact’ confines of the trailer. In addition, I’ll need to be able to navigate the narrow center aisle which will almost assuredly mean I’ll be stepping over the kidz. I can put sheets down on the seating areas and the one bed so they can use them but it will still be a very confined lifestyle.
Given the location of Three Forks – a bit southeast of Helena – on the return trip I’ll be entering Alberta (Canada) via I 15 and heading north on Canada Route 4 to Canada Route 2. But just outside Calgary I’ll be making a detour on Canada Route 1 into Banff National Park and visiting this park as well as Lake Louise and then taking Canada Route 93 north into Jasper National Park before taking Canada Route 16 to Canada Route 40 and finally Canada Route 43 to Dawson Creek and the Alaska Highway. I plan to spend at least three days in Banff and Jasper national parks and possibly more depending upon the weather and the tourists. Wildfires are also a concern; British Columbia is seeing very dry conditions and a myriad of wildfires raging across its southern extremes. These fires could easily cross over into southern Alberta and that’s where the aforementioned parks are located. Once on ‘the Highway’ I’ll be stopping at numerous places of which Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park is just one location. I plan to take time to visit so many of the locations I had to speed by on the relocation trip in early August of 2013 due to my buddy’s time constraints. The beauty of a travel trailer – or any RV – is the ability to stop in any acceptable location and spend time be it a few hours or a few days. Of course, it is a requirement to not trespass on private land and this is a tenant I respect with all my being. I’ve seen too many witless tourists just pull onto someone’s property in Alaska to overnight; this is rude and of questionable safety.
Once I make Tok I plan to take ‘the cut-off’ and follow the Alaska Highway to Delta Junction, then head north on the Richardson Highway (AK 4) to Fairbanks and pick up the Parks Highway (AK 3) which I’ll drive back south to Talkeetna. While this looks rather convoluted on a map and isn’t as short as heading onto the Glenn Highway (AK 1) from Tok I’ve driven the Glenn Highway many times and remember all too well the myriad of hairpin turns, narrow single lane roads and difficult driving conditions. I cannot imagine driving that route pulling an eighteen foot trailer! The ‘Fairbanks loop’ adds another 180 miles to the trip but involves much safer roads lacking the tight turns and extremely difficult passing issues encountered on the Glenn Highway. I’d rather take a bit more time and get myself, my canines and my vehicles back to Talkeetna in good shape than risk the shorter but less ‘driver friendly’ Glenn Highway route.
It should be obvious from the aforementioned monologue I’ve already invested a load of time into researching and planning this adventure but I also know so many factors like the weather, road conditions, traffic, wildfires and similar can make chutney of the best laid plans in the blink of an eye. I will have my copy of ‘The Milepost’ with me as well as my Garmin GPS unit and a list of websites offering travel info in Alberta and British Columbia. However, there are a very limited number of routes to get me from The Alaska Highway to Three Forks (MT) so I will have to be very aware of the conditions and also have at least a plan ‘B’ – if not a plan ‘C’, ‘plan ‘D” and similar – in my back pocket. While this is a huge undertaking for a solo sixty four year old man it will offer incredible scenery, amazing wildlife, exceptional experiences and opportunities to meet a bevy of new and interesting folks. Assuming I have internet connectivity at the places I overnight I plan to send out updates on my progress and share some of my best images and experiences. If all goes according to plan I should be pulling out of my driveway fully loaded before 06:00 on Sunday, September 3rd. Let the adventure begin..!!!
Indeed, it was two years ago yesterday that my buddy Sarge and I pulled out of the driveway at the rental dive I’d called ‘home’ for two years and started a 4200 mile plus drive to Talkeetna, Alaska. This marked the culmination of a sixteen year old dream and was one of the most amazing experiences of my – at that time – 59 years. I’d been prepping for this trip from the time we visited Talkeetna in April of 2013 to locate and purchase a house; even with all this time there were still some harrowing events. I ended up with a U-Haul van which was too small for my household and we sacrificed a day swapping it for a 26 footer. Then the local ‘Two Men & A Truck’ outfit sent a team of guys to my place charged only with packing my household but not loading it. I was not pleased and contacted the office; after much grief I managed to get them to confirm they would send out a new team the next day to actually pack the van. However, when the team arrived they’d been told they were just to pack my household and only had three hours before another job. I went ballistic, reamed the outfit and forced them to supply me a team to load the van the next day which was a Saturday but I refused to pay the premium for their efforts. They managed to do a really crappy job and Sarge and I had to repack maybe a third of the van. By Saturday evening I was exhausted and angry but looking forward to getting stated.
We left early Sunday (07/29) morning and started the adventure. I drove my Escape with some stuff, my two canine companions (Anana and Qanuk) and my female Seal Point Siamese (Circe). After weeks of checking routes, reviewing lodging and services and similar we elected to drive north through Michigan and cross into Canada at Sault Ste. Marie; while this ultimately worked out we did lose two hours getting through Canadian customs. We drove for almost 12 hours but made it to Marathon, Ontario on the eastern edge of Lake Superior. From this point onward we averaged around 445 miles/day and needed nine and a half days to finally reach Talkeetna in the early afternoon of day 10. To be honest the days on the Alaska Highway rarely totaled more than 300 miles driving due to road conditions, the U-Haul van’s issues with the Rocky Mountains and traffic. If memory serves I believe we averaged maybe 650 miles a day (11 hours driving time) while in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and portions of Alberta but this really dropped off in British Columbia and The Yukon Territories. The toughest sections were the Alaskan Highway over the Rockies and the last 100 miles of the same road before we crossed into Alaska.
A heartbreaking event occurred during a stop over in Fort St. John, British Columbia which I still feel today. We found a motel, unloaded the four legged companions and were relaxing for the evening. Somehow during trips out the door my Siamese managed to slip out. The next morning I couldn’t find her in the room and was just heartbroken. As it was 06:30 I couldn’t walk the halls calling her name out loud but I did walk all the hallways looking for her. I checked with the front desk but no one had seen her. After spending 90 minutes searching I could do no more mainly because we were on a tight time schedule. I left the front desk with my cell number, Alaskan address, former vet’s phone number and a picture and sadly started driving. I never heard a word and to this day I don’t know what happened to her. I know she hated riding in the car and I’m sure after five days she was fed up and decided to slip out. As she was a beautiful feline with a wonderful personality I can only hope someone found her and gave her a warm, comfortable home. I miss her to this day and just writing this is difficult for me!
I’ve included a few images from this trip of a lifetime. I’d love to do it again but without time constraints and with a trailer or similar for the dogs. Maybe I will make this happen…