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:
Once again a reminder; unlike so many video series I’m not going to waste space and the reader’s time recapping ‘Part Two’. If you are new to this blog or you missed it please read the previous entry. I’ll pick this up on our departure from The Super 8 motel in Fox Creek, Alberta.
I awoke early on Saturday morning (09/23) to a deep rumbling sound; I staggered to my feet and peered out the window to see thick fog and the ghostly silhouettes of numerous semis parked on the access road in front of the motel. One of these was the source of the noise; had I known I might have tried for a different motel but Fox Creek is not large at a bit less than 2,000 people and most of the motels face the aforementioned access road. Deciding I was up for the day I figured it was good to get an early start and we hustled across the next ninety minutes to get our morning routines handled and everything collected, packed up and loaded into the Escape. I gave the kidz one last chance to take care of business, stopped in the lobby to grab some coffee and we were off.
My goal was Fort St. John (BC) which was 248 miles (399 km) distant. While not a long drive staying there was based upon the next town with any real lodging being Fort Nelson and that was another 237 miles (382 km) or almost double the distance. In addition, I would pass through Dawson Creek in 201 miles (324 km) and thus start my 1,264 miles (2,034 km) on the fabled Alaska Highway. Although the eastern two thirds of this road had been ‘okay’ on the trip down, at least by Alaska Highway standards, I hadn’t been pulling an 18 foot (5.5 meter) travel trailer. Therefore, I decided discretion is indeed the better part of valor and elected to reserve a room in the Fort St. John Super 8.
At this point many of you are probably wondering why I wasn’t using the R-pod to overnight. I could have done so as the water and battery issues had been repaired but this late in the season I was finding many RV/trailer parks were closed and most of those still open were offering limited services as in just electricity. Under such conditions I elected to continue to spend money and stay in motel rooms. In addition, my canine companions were spending most of each day confined to the back seat of the Escape. To then confine them to the almost as small floor area of the R-pod overnight just seemed unfair; while motel rooms are hardly palatial they offered much more room than the R-pod. Finally, my poor ‘little’ angel – Anana – is really struggling with arthritis so giving her a warm place to sleep with at least a rug to sleep upon was the least she deserved.
The fog was with us for the first hour or so and then the sun burned it off and we saw partly cloudy conditions. The Garmin led me on some very ‘back’ roads through northern Alberta and when we finally popped out onto a larger road we were crossing into British Columbia. I dutifully shifted my clocks to from MDT to PDT, stopped to fill up the Escape’s tank and we continued onward. We reached Dawson Creek around 11:00 and, as usual, the town was bustling with traffic. I never cared for Dawson Creek; the place reeks of being a ‘tourist trap’ and I just wanted to get through it ASAP. We did navigate it fairly swiftly and were soon heading WNW on The Alaska Highway with minimal traffic.
I had my first real scare regarding taking the R-pod downhill as we approached the Taylor River and the town of Taylor. The incline is 9% plus and it has a couple of sweeping turns before crossing the bridge over the Taylor River which uses that open steel mesh surface. I HATE such surfaces as it makes the vehicle feel as though it is shifting back and forth far more than it actually is which is disconcerting to say the least. I knew of this portion as I’d driven it while relocating and on the way to Montana but somehow I managed to space out regarding its approach. By the time I saw the Taylor Bridge in the distance and realized I was on the steep decline I was already doing 77 mph! In this moment I had another key learning; when driving downhill one must switch from driving with the tachometer to driving with the speedometer!! I shifted out of overdrive, checked my rear view mirrors and began to apply the brakes. Thankfully the descent covers a long distance and with no traffic behind me – at least in my lane – I was able to get our velocity back under 50 mph (81 kph) before the final sharp turn onto the bridge. I really berated myself for not paying more attention to my surroundings!! I knew this situation was coming up yet I allowed my attention to wander and almost ended up in a very bad situation. I’d like to blame it on fatigue but that would be a lie; I just became complacent and almost paid a nasty price.
We made Fort St. John in the early afternoon but the kind staff at the Comfort Inn gave us our room even though it wasn’t even 14:00 local time. I unloaded, gave the kidz water and then loaded ‘em into the Escape and drove to a small park on the west end of town. There we played, ran around and generally reveled in the sunny weather and cool temps. I then hit the local grocery for some food and we returned to the room for any early evening.
Sunday dawned partly cloudy and cool; we were on the road by 07:30 which was pretty early considering we were ‘only’ going as far as Fort Nelson which was just 237 miles (382 km). However, once again this choice was predicated on the knowledge the next lodging beyond Fort Nelson was just a single facility in Toad Creek which was another 117 miles (188 km) distant. This is ‘life’ when traversing The Alaska Highway; one must balance the distances with the weather, road conditions, vehicle capabilities, traffic and especially the availability of lodging. I also knew that road conditions were going to deteriorate once I was west of Fort Nelson and we’d be heading into the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. The weather remained partly cloudy and seasonal with limited traffic so I was able to make good time with a stop for gas. A bit further I found a small pull-out and I stopped so the kidz could stretch their legs, take care of business and drink water. We were entertained by a flock of ravens who are the equal of any Mockingbird I’ve ever heard with regards to a huge vocal repertoire. We made Fort Nelson in the early afternoon but the great folks at the Super 8 recognized me – actually, they recognized the dogs whom they adored – and allowed us to get into our room just a bit after 13:00.
I was able to do a couple loads of wash, get the kidz to a park for exercise and hit the grocery store. I also spent a few hours downloading my still and video files, organizing and cataloging them and creating yet another email update. A couple of the housekeepers stopped by to see Anana; she reveled in the attention and proceeded to get both of them covered in dog fur but they didn’t mind. We settled in for the evening and I decided Monday’s goal would be Watson Lake.
We were up and off Monday morning at 07:00 after I grabbed a cup of coffee in the lobby; I wanted an early start as Watson Lake was 319 miles (514 km) distant and portions of the road had been in rather poor shape on the trip down. Additionally, this portion would take us into the Canadian Rockies with all the steep inclines and the narrow sections around Muncho Lake (YT) were exacerbated by numerous blind curves. I also knew this was the first of two long throws of driving with very limited services. I knew I purchased fuel in Muncho Lake while heading to Montana but that was about the only open gas station on this leg. Thankfully there was almost no traffic and the weather held up although we did hit rain around Muncho Lake (YT), where I gratefully filled up with gas and we saw a rainbow, but we quickly drove out of it. The trip was quickened by the gorgeous scenery but I remembered my Taylor River experience and didn’t allow myself to become too enthralled! By mid-afternoon I found a scenic pull-out maybe 60 miles south of Watson Lake so we availed ourselves of the chance to stretch our legs and savor the view. The kidz took care of business and drank copious quantities of water. I was looking at the gas level as we turned into this pull-out and noted I might not make Watson Lake; as there’s no services in that stretch I elected to empty one of the 2.5 gallon Jerry cans into the Escape’s tank.
In another 75 minutes we made Watson Lake and began to look for lodging. The facilities were very limited but I found a motel (Andrea’s Hotel) which accepted pets. They had metered internet service but I was never able to get my laptop to connect. We went through the now well-oiled routine of unloading our stuff, getting the kidz water and exercise and settling in. The room wasn’t much even by Alaska Highway standards but it was serviceable. Having driven such a long distance in good stead and needing just one 2.5 gallon Jerry can of fuel to finish the leg I was feeling very good about making the remainder of the trip in fine shape. I’d been very careful to hold my rpm’s below 3,500 even when it meant slowing my speed to 40 mph (64 kph) or less on the inclines. I’d dealt with a couple of 8% plus declines and hadn’t had to brake much at all by planning ahead and kicking the transmission out of overdrive on such descents. I awoke very early, as in 04:00 early, the next morning and decided to take the kidz out for some solid exercise. We walked around 1.5 miles (2.4 km) and I watched the fog roll across the town. I was very annoyed to see a car with Quebec plates had pulled in front of the Escape leaving no more than maybe two feet (0.61 meters) of space. I’d parked away from the hotel along a sidewalk in an effort to leave the single vehicle spaces available but apparently they had filled up later in the evening. A large pickup had pulled in behind the R-pod but left almost 4 feet (1.2 meters) of clearance. I hoped the car would be gone by the time I needed to depart; sadly, this was not the case so I spent a frustrating fifteen minutes jacking the Escape/R-pod combination back and forth until I could finally clear the offending car. As it was very frosty that morning I left a: “Thanks for NOTHING!” note on the windshield frost and we departed.
Well, I guess this tale is going to require yet another installment as I’ve reached well over 1,900 words and there’s still almost three days remaining. Once again, I’ll leave you with some images from this portion of our adventure:
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’…