Pushing The Envelope One More Time..!

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.

Mast_Down

My R-pod with a collapsible mast added atop which I’ll place my wireless weather station when overnighting. This work, along with much more, was handled by dear friend, Sarge.

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..!!!

R-pod Door side

Another view of my R-pod this time from the ‘door’ side

R-pod inputs

An image showing the many inputs/outputs of the R-pod

 

A Hopeful Sign..?

The past Sunday (11/08/15) evening the Upper Susitna Valley was treated to a snow event which produced anywhere from 4.0 inches (10.2 cm) to 10 inches (25.4 cm) of accumulating snow.  Although less than expected it was still welcomed by almost all the locals especially given the previous two winters which have set records for both warm temps and lack of moisture.  The main event lasted from around 16:30 AKST to 00:30 AKST but across the next couple of days light snow has appeared in the form of brief albeit random periods of snow showers.  I measured 7.5 inches (19.1 cm) from the main event but have since added another 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) giving the southern portions of Talkeetna around 11 inches (27.9 cm) of snow pack.  this is a good start and most folks are hoping to see a lot more in the coming months.  I would sure love to see another 3 to 4 feet (91.4 cm to 122 cm) )of snow pack by February but if I had to bet sadly I’d say we will probably not see anything near that amount because of the extremely large El Nino and the relative warmth of the northern Pacific Ocean.  But we can always hope!  Here are some images from the most recent snows:

Awakening to 7.5

Awakening to 7.5″ of fresh snow!

The grader heading down East Barge Drive removing snow as it moves

The grader heading down East Barge Drive removing snow as it moves

My front 'yard' Monday morning

My front ‘yard’ Monday morning

The 'kidz' enjoying the fresh snow!

The ‘kidz’ enjoying the fresh snow!

The 'kidz' enjoying unplowed East Barge Drive

The ‘kidz’ enjoying unplowed East Barge Drive

Driving the Spur in a heavy snow band

Driving the Spur in a heavy snow band

Moose lights illuminating the Escape's enclosure in moderate snow

Moose lights illuminating the Escape’s enclosure in moderate snow

The Adventure Began Two Years Ago!

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…

Crossing the Mackinaw Bridge into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Crossing the Mackinaw Bridge into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

Eastern edge of Lake Superior a bit north of Marathon, Ontario

Eastern edge of Lake Superior a bit north of Marathon, Ontario

Amazing distances in Manitoba, Canada

Amazing distances in Manitoba, Canada

Gorgeous views in the Canadian Rockies

Gorgeous views in the Canadian Rockies

Big Sky in British Columbia, Canada!

Big Sky in British Columbia, Canada!

Yukon Territories buffalo taking a sand bath

Yukon Territories buffalo taking a sand bath

Anana looking out the Escape's window in The Yukon Territories, Canada

Anana looking out the Escape’s window in The Yukon Territories, Canada

Awesome peaks in Kluane Provincial Park located in The Yukon Territories

Awesome peaks in Kluane Provincial Park located in The Yukon Territories

Heading into Destruction Bay in The Yukon Territories, Canda

Heading into Destruction Bay in The Yukon Territories, Canada

The Alaska Highway turns ugly in The Yukon Territories, Canada!

The Alaska Highway turns ugly in The Yukon Territories, Canada!

Gorgeous sunrise in Glennallen, Alaska

Gorgeous sunrise in Glennallen, Alaska

Gorgeous scenery on AK 1 (Glenn Highway) west of Glennallen, AK

Gorgeous scenery on AK 1 (Glenn Highway) west of Glennallen, AK

Inevitable delays on the Alaskan Highway!

Inevitable delays on the Alaskan Highway!

My much beloved Circe; I so miss her..!!

My much beloved Circe; I so miss her..!!

‘Sourdough’ Here I Come…

Heading into my second year of living in rural south central Alaska I’m feeling better prepared in terms of my preparations for the pending winter and also much more settled regarding the likelihood of major surprises with respect to living conditions. With this said I also know full well Alaska is nothing if not unpredictable and often full of surprises many of which are downright nasty. I’ve been humbled enough times during my previous 14 months to recognize I need to remain aware of what goes on around me and practice the incredibly important ‘art’ of being prepared. A simple example of this is the now routine practice of rotating the front door handle back and forth a couple of times before venturing outside onto my front porch. Doing this allows any ‘critters’ the chance to recognize something ‘human’ is ongoing and most likely depart from the immediate area. I learned this routine the hard way when I inadvertently surprised a large cow moose early one morning last March when it was still dark outside. I was running a bit late for a Pantry trip and was rushing; as I popped out the door I saw a large dark shape no more than 20 feet in front of me. I froze; it snorted and took off in the opposite direction. I knew it wasn’t a bear as it was still too early in the season but that hardly made me feel any better because an irate moose is just as dangerous!

Yet I do feel this winter will see me much more comfortable with respect to living in my home and correspondingly saving money on fuel oil and electricity. My college buddy Sarge is finishing up a two week visit and we’ve been busy; there’s an additional layer of R30 insulation in the attic and there’s a large hole cut into the second story floor just above the Toyo stove on the main floor. Said hole has a custom built (Thank You Sarge!!!) cluster of four ducted DC fans which are reversible and variable speed; these have dramatically increased the convection loop between the first and second floors. Previously there was virtually no exchange of air which allowed the second floor to become quite cool in the dead of winter and far too warm during the summer. Just since the unit was installed a week back I’ve seen the air temperatures in the master bedroom and one of the two ‘spare’ bedrooms increase from 59 F to 63 F and that’s with no change to the Toyo’s thermostat and no decrease in the air temp on the main floor. We also did a much better job sealing up the two external doors; this has made quite a difference in the mud room. I can now leave it open to the rest of the house as it is just a couple degrees cooler; previous to the sealing work it would be anywhere from six to nine degrees cooler based upon the outside temp. Being able to leave it open to the main floor is important because the dog’s food and water station is in the mud room; last year I had to move it once the snow arrived and given they are not careful eaters and drinkers I had dog food and water all over my bamboo floor. We also assembled a 12’ x 20’ x 8’ ‘ShelterLogic’ steel tube and tarp enclosure for my 2011 Ford Escape. It’ll be great to get it out of the weather especially during the winter months; already I’ve enjoyed not having to scrape frosty windows in the early morning. These are but a few of the myriad of home improvements we’ve made during his visit.

He’s also mounted a set of ‘moose lights’ – folks in the lower 48 often refer to these as ‘driving lights’ – to the front of my Escape. In a stroke of genius he wired them into the bright beams relay for the headlights such that they are operated in tandem with the high beams! This simplified the wiring and negated having to run wiring through the firewall for an independent switch. It’s a given if I’m operating the moose lights I’ll be using the high beams as well so I love this elegant solution! Because I will be making my first series of trips for the Pantry in the dead of winter this year – I started volunteering with them in early March of this year and hence missed making the runs to Anchorage and Palmer in December, January and February – I really do not have a feel for the conditions. But I do know there are moose all along the Parks Highway and the first 40 miles of that road between the ‘Y’ and the outskirts of Wasilla have no lighting of any kind. Using those 130 watt pencil beams to light up the sides of the road far out in front of me could well save me from colliding with a moose during the cold dark of a December or January morning.

With all this said I’m feeling pretty good about improved living this upcoming year. Given this current late summer into middle fall period I’m already seeing just how aberrant last year’s weather was across this same time frame regarding temperatures and precipitation. It has been much drier and cooler which is much more in line with the ‘typical’ conditions for the period. Along with the weather shift I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the much lower density and activity of the local insect population. During the late summer and through early November the mosquitoes were a continual bother requiring long sleeved shirts and ample applications of ‘Deep Woods Off’ if I was to be outdoors for even a few minutes. This year the mosquitoes disappeared by the third week in August; they were replaced by two weeks of black flies but these vanished around the second week in September. After that I’ve only had to deal with gnats which while annoying are much easier to tolerate. And across the past week the weather has been gorgeous with clear to partly sunny days running high temps in the upper thirties to low forties and crystal clear nights with lows in the upper teens to twenties. Consequently I’ve observed the aurora on a nightly basis and really enjoyed the meteorites which have been so prevalent across the last five days. While the auroral displays have been mono-colored – pale blue – and rather subdued I’m not complaining as given the past week I’ve seen more aurora than I did all last winter! We’ve even seen a couple of dustings of snow although most of us are chomping at the bit to see winter really move in and unload.

All told I’m truly looking forward to my second year in this magnificent state; according to the locals once I make it through my second winter I’ll officially be a ‘Sourdough’. Like most ‘Talkeetnans’ I’m hoping for a long, cold winter with more than the average five and three quarters feet of snowfall. Of course Mother Nature will do as she will and we’re just along to observe and participate in her seasonal dance. So in accordance with this observation all I can say is; “Let’s Dance..!!!”

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

Reversible, variable speed ducted fan assembly in office floor

ShelterLogic 20' x 12' x 8' enclosure for Escape

ShelterLogic 20′ x 12′ x 8′ enclosure for Escape

I Be Alaskan!

I Be Alaskan!

I finally managed to get my Alaska driver’s license, plates, tags and voter registration. I will confess to failing the written exam the first time; I was warned it was very difficult but figured since I’ve been driving for 44 years and had licenses in five states I could handle it. Boy, was I wrong!! Without question it was the most difficult driver’s license exam I’d ever taken!! Thankfully I was given a manual and came back the next day and aced it…