On ‘The Road’…Again (the Finale)

A final reminder; unlike so many video series I’m not going to waste space and the reader’s time recapping ‘Part Three’.  If you are new to this blog or you missed it please read the previous entry or entries.  This final entry in my ‘R-pod Odyssey’ begins with our departure from Watson Lake (YT).

A glorious sunrise greeted us as we headed WNW from Watson Lake; the fog I’d watched envelop the town earlier that morning slowly dissipated yielding an overcast day.  While perhaps a bit gloomy I prefer driving in overcast conditions as I don’t have to deal with bright sun and the shadows it can create.  I was feeling very confident as we settled into the now all too familiar routine of trying to put down some serious miles on The Alaska Highway.  My abilities with respect to pulling the R-pod had increased with each day of the return trip and although I remained a bit concerned regarding the last 20 miles inside Canada, the Tok Cut-off and the Glenn Highway I was still sure I could successfully navigate these stretches.  I planned an even longer stretch today targeting Haines Junction (YT) which was 366 miles (589 km) distant.  While services were minimal for the first 272 miles (438 km) I did manage to fill up the Escape’s tank in the Teslin/Teslin Lake area which left me poised to easily make Whitehorse with its abundant services.

About 30 miles (48 km) west of Watson Lake a light rain began and became steadier continuing for the remainder of the trip.  Initially, it was no real problem but once we passed Whitehorse the road conditions worsened quite a bit and I began to see a lot of ponding on the road.  While the new Cooper tires did a yeoman’s job of maintaining traction it was asking too much of them not to ‘float’ a bit in standing water covering five or six car lengths.  This caused me to slow my pace a bit and I was relegated to making no more than 50 mph (81 kph) for the last 80 miles (129 km) of the trip.  I soon learned when approaching a longer area of ponding it was best to enter the water at an angle and try to keep the tires in the shallowest regions.  This could be difficult to discern at even 50 mph (81 kph) but I was getting more and more adept at guessing.  The real plus was an almost complete dearth of traffic; I pretty much had my lane and the oncoming lane to myself which made avoiding the ponding much easier.

We made Haines Junction in one piece and I decided to go with lodging I knew from previous trips and was lucky to snatch up the last available room at the ‘Al-Can Motel’.  I was not impressed with the room’s condition; this motel had definitely gone downhill since I last stayed there in August of 2013.  The seal around the door was almost non-existent – Anana liked this and slept right in front of the door – and the light over the sink was gone.  But it was a room and although I couldn’t access the Internet I was pleased just to be out of the Escape.  Once again, we completed the well-known drill of unloading the Escape, getting the kidz some ‘outside’ time followed by food and water and then settling in for the night.  I slept deeply and dreamed of spending the next night in my beloved Alaska.

After an early evening I awoke very early once again; I dressed and took the kidz out for an extended walk in the misty, damp morning air.  We walked maybe 2 miles (3.2 km) before returning to our room no more than fifteen minutes ahead of light rain.  I went through the ‘ready to depart’ routine as quietly as possible and loaded the Escape in the light rain.  We were on the road by 06:40 in complete darkness.  As such I held my speed to no more than 50 mph (81 kph) and made judicious use of my high beams and moose lights.  As we approached Destruction Bay the morning light was returning, although grudgingly, as there was a thick overcast.  I was targeting Tok (AK) at 290 miles (467 km) but knew we’d arrive early so I was leaving open the option of making Glennallen (AK) which was an additional 139 miles (224 km).  The road was now universally not good with some sections crudely repaired washouts and others a morass of frost heaves.  I refueled in Destruction Bay and now knew I most likely had sufficient gasoline to make Beaver Creek (YT) which was just around 27 miles (44 km) from the Alaska-Canada border.  But I also knew this portion of The Alaska Highway was by far the roughest and had seen the most construction on the trip south.  However, I also knew I had 12.5 gallons of gas in ‘Jerry can reserve’ so I had no fear regarding making Beaver Creek.  There are no services on the 116 miles (187 km) between Destruction Bay (YT) and Beaver Creek (YT); in fact, there’s virtually nothing but wide open albeit gorgeous spaces.  The rain let up on this stretch but the low ceilings remained.

We reached Beaver Creek (YT) in the late morning and I refilled the almost empty Escape and headed for the border.  Within a few miles I was forced to stop and wait for a pilot car – what is it with pilot cars being required in construction in Canada? – which consumed around 15 minutes.  Once on our way I was impressed to see no real road issues and no ongoing construction!  In fact, this newly renovated portion of The Alaska Highway was in better shape than anything I’d driven in the last roughly 750 miles (1,208 km)!!  Still, I dutifully followed the pilot car to the point it turned off just prior to the US Customs checkpoint.  As usual, I opened the windows to allow the kidz some fresh air and to interact with the customs agent and, as expected, the agent took time to pet both dogs and even went into the building to get another agent who obviously was a dog lover.  I could just imagine the people behind me fuming the agents were wasting time with the dogs but I also was pleased I didn’t have to pull out so the R-pod could be inspected.  We were soon on our way and I breathed a sigh of relief to be back in my new home while the kidz crunched away on the treats the agents had given them.

As I continued along The Alaska Highway the skies cleared to partly cloudy conditions; it was as if Alaska was smiling on us!  We made good time and by noon we were in Tok.  Now I faced a choice; I could overnight around Tok or I could drive the really rough Tok Cut-off and a bit of the Richardson Highway (AK 4) and make Glennallen.  Doing this would put me another 138 miles (222 km) closer to home and leave us with only 211 miles (340 km) to Talkeetna; it really was a no-brainer and we struck off SW on the Tok Cut-off.  The road was the worst during the first 70 or so miles (113 km) and I was forced to slow to 35 mph (56 kph) for fear of separating the Escape from the R-pod on the bad portions of the road.  I stopped to get some gorgeous video about half way through the drive and for the first time the kidz scared me by disappearing down the slope into the trees while I was busy with the video camera.  For five minutes I called and called, becoming more and more concerned.  Finally, Qanuk appeared trotting towards me and while angry at his wandering I still praised him no end.  Anana eventually showed up in her slow, “what’s the big deal” manner but I had to praise her as well.  I stuffed both of them into the Escape and we set out once again.

By around 16:00 we made Glennallen and the first thing I did was fill up the Escape with gas, then we hit a small grocery for some minimal food and a treat for the kidz.  I again returned to lodging I knew – in the case ‘The Caribou Motel’ – and was again disappointed at its decaying condition.  While never a ‘premium’ motel it had definitely fallen into dis-repair since my last visit a bit more than four years earlier.  But it was the last night we’d be in a motel and I was tired and worn out so we took a room.  For what was the final time we went through the well-oiled drill of unloading the Escape, getting the kidz water and exercise and then settling into our room.  At least the internet access was solid and I was able to send out my first ‘real time’ update in three days.  A bit later a group of kids knocked on my door and wanted to play with the dogs; they’d met them while I was checking us in.  I said ‘sure’ and accompanied them outside just because I wanted to keep an eye on Qanuk.  While not aggressive or mean he is uncertain around children and I didn’t want any problems.  Thankfully, the kids gravitated to Anana, just like always, and she reveled in the attention.  I finally gathered up the dogs and we headed back inside for an early evening.  I once again slept deeply; it felt so good to be back in Alaska.

Yet again I awoke early and took the kidz outside; as I stood in the shadows of the building I contemplated at the ghostly outline of Mount Drum to the east.  As I stared I thought I was seeing faint clouds emanating from the NE; soon I realized I was witnessing faint aurora!  I remained outside for maybe five minutes watching the show.  While hardly bright or obvious I felt this was a good sign and Alaska was welcoming us home.  I finally gathered up the kidz and we returned to the room where I shaved, showered and packed up our stuff.  However, it was still quite dark at 06:10 and I knew the area I was about to drive was loaded with moose so I decided to send out a brief email update while I awaited more daylight.  I also finished loading the Escape such that we were all ready to head home.

Once it was twilight I could no longer contain my enthusiasm and we headed west on the Glenn Highway (AK 1).  The first 70 miles (113 km) were in good shape and I saw just one moose but the final 40 miles (64 km) are notorious for all the narrow stretches, lack of regular pull-outs, steep grades and blind curves.  I was well amped on coffee and extremely alert; even so this portion was a challenge for us.  I was heartened to see a brief rainbow in the Matanuska Valley as we headed west!  The Escape did very well hauling the R-pod through this section and I was continually monitoring the traffic behind me and pulling off at every opportunity.  Thankfully, traffic was minimal and I was able to make good time under the conditions.  Once we made the Parks Highway (AK 3) I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I am extremely familiar with this portion of the drive but I reminded myself this was no reason to become complacent.  We stopped into Fred Meyer so I could gas up and pick up some groceries.  Then we settled in for the final hour plus drive to home.

This portion passed quickly and my excitement increased as we passed ‘milestones’ I knew all too well.  I finally pulled into our driveway at 11:59, switched off the engine, set the parking brake and let the kidz out.  Then I breathed another huge sigh of relief; we had made it!!  I still had a couple of hours of unpacking to handle but tonight I’d be comfy in my Sleep Number bed and the kidz would have ‘their’ house in which to wander and sleep.  They were obviously delighted to be home; after I unpacked the Escape and the R-pod and managed to back it into its over winter resting location I tried to get them to come back outside so I could get a picture of them alongside the Escape/R-pod.  Both declined the opportunity to come outside; it was almost as though they were saying; “No way Jose, we just came back home and we’re staying!!”.

In homage to my age I required a full week to really decompress; the kidz handled it in less than half that time.  This odyssey consumed a total of 5,892 miles spread across 25 days involving two countries, two American states and three Canadian provinces.  We saw desperate, desolate lows and giddy, soaring highs along with amazing scenery and way more motel rooms than I ever want to see again!  I proved to myself I could undertake such an effort and come away successful although there were many times I was honestly unsure.  I learned to tow a small travel trailer across some challenging landscapes often in less than desirable weather conditions and also surprised myself with how quickly I learned to do so.  Of course, I’d left myself with little or no options!  Once again, I’ve come to learn that it is only when we really push the envelope do we learn of what we’re made.  It was a truly major effort on my part but in the end I triumphed.

And so ends my account of ‘The R-pod Odyssey’.  Hope you enjoyed reading of my trials and tribulations.  As always, I’ll leave you with some images from this last leg.  At some point, hopefully this winter, I’ll get reacquainted with the vastly upgraded version of Pinnacle’s “Studio 21” and will get my video rendered.  At the very least, I should be able to post some good frame grabs.  With that said, here’s some imagery…

Gunsite Mountain

Gunsite Mountain on the Glenn Highway (AK 1); notice the notch in the low point of the gap

Mat Valley Rainbow

Faint rainbow over the Matanuska Valley south of the Glenn Highway (AK 1)

Fog Over Matanuska Glacier

Thick fog marks the Matanuska Glacier

AK 1 & Sheep Mountain

Heading west on the Glenn Highway with Sheep Mountain in the distance

R-pod Settled In

Getting the R-pod settled into its ‘over winter’ resting place

On ‘The Road’…Again (Part Three)

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:

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Heading Into The Canadian Rockies

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Canadian ‘Rocky Mountain High!’

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A Lone Mountain Sheep just north of Muncho Lake (YT)

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Snow in The Canadian Rockies

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A Plaque at a Scenic Overlook Around An Hour South of Watson Lake (YT)

Watson Lake Sunrise

Foggy but Gorgeous Watson Lake (YT) Sunrise

One ‘The Road’ Again… (Part Two)

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’:

Snow North of Calgary

Snow and Sleet North of Calgary

Escape-R-pod-Qanuk

Qanuk Standing in Front of the R-pod & Escape at the Leduc Super 8 Motel

On ‘The Road’…Again! (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those interested here’s my route:

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

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

Entering Western Canadian Rockies

Entering the western foothills of the Canadian Rockies

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Kluane River Basin

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Wind whipped dust and spray around Destruction Bay

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Foothill fog banks

Muncho Lake Sheep

Mountain Sheep at Muncho Lake (YT)

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

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Miles and miles of brown Montana!

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

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

Alaskan Skies & Weather – Part Two

As I prepare for my next great adventure to pick up my R-pod from a rural farm in Three Forks, Montana I thought perhaps I should finish clearing out some of more memorable images from my Alaskan life and visits.  Included in this collage is an image taken on The Alaska Highway in British Columbia during my relocation trip from SE Michigan to Talkeetna.  I mention it only because technically it isn’t Alaskan weather or Alaskan skies but it was tied to moving up here.  I hope to be able to share some amazing images from the majestic provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and The Yukon Territories as well as from Montana and, of course, Alaska.  Here’s to the wonder and majesty of Nature regardless of its location!

Autumn Smoke with Qanuk

Smoke from my burn barrel slowly drifts upward as my German Shepherd Dog – Qanuk – heads out to visit me while I’m burning paper and cardboard which are two items not recycled in the Talkeetna area along with glass.

Cold Afternoon at the 'Y' CU

A cold afternoon at the Tesoro gas station located at ‘the Y’ which is formed by the Spur road intersecting the Parks Highway (AK 3).

101116 Sunrise

An October sunrise from my front porch featuring the very common pastel pinks and oranges.

Cook Inlet Sunset WA

A September sunset over the northern portion of Cook Inlet reveals the Aleutian Range mountains of the west side of Cook Inlet.

Big Sky BC2

The ‘big sky’ effect so common in the plains of Canada and across the provinces pushing up against the Rocky Mountains.

Kenai Mountains Long Shadows

Long shadows etched into the Kenai Peninsula are created by the Kenai Mountains and the setting sun.

Matanuska Glacier Head On

The toe of the mighty Matanuska Glacier as seen from a pull-out along the Glenn Highway (AK 1).

Ice Fog Remnants on Riven

The remnants of ice fog ablaze in the afternoon sun on Riven Street.

Question Lake Sunset

Sunset on Question Lake which is just a few hundred feet from my house and home to a myriad of waterfowl and other Alaskan ‘critters’ year ’round.

Light At The End Of The Clouds

A valley in the far distance – located center right in this image – is visible as a break in the low clouds along the Dalton Highway (AK 11).

Rainbow

A faint rainbow is just visible over a section of tussock tundra just west of Savage River basin on the Denali NP&P road.

AK Mammatus

Although very wimpy by lower 48 standards these are some of the few mammatus clouds I’ve observed in Alaska.

Buried Mailboxes on Spur

These buried mailboxes along the Spur bear witness to the heavy snow Talkeetna sometimes sees as well as the dearth of wind during such occurrences.

Kenai Mts-Homer Spit

The glaciated Kenai Mountains form the backdrop to this image of Homer Spit – in the lower left of the image – thrusting 4.5 miles into gorgeous Kachemak Bay.

The Kidz & Fall Color

A favorite of mine, this image shows Anana and Qanuk wandering East Barge Drive amid the majestic fall color.

Mendenhall Splendor WA

The awesome beauty of the Mendenhall Glacier reflected in Lake Mendenhall.

Split Layer Couds & Denali

Denali and The Alaska Range bisected by split layer clouds as seen from The Alaska Range overlook just a few miles from the village of Talkeetna.

Mt Redoubt-Kalifornsky

Spectacular Mt Redoubt, an active strato-volcano in the Aleutian Range, as viewed from around Kalifornsky on the Kenai Peninsula. If you look very closely there’s a float plane just visible in the air to the right of the volcano’s peak.

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

 

Proud ‘Poppa’..?

Since May of 2014 I’ve been working towards the goal of establishing as much ‘natural’ mosquito control as I can ‘round the ole homestead.  I live within the boreal forest and given the right conditions – a mild winter followed by a wet, warm spring – the mosquitoes can be miserable.  Without question Mother Nature plays a huge part in our mosquito populations so I decided to attempt to enlist some of her handiwork in controlling said populations.  This caused me to do some basic research as to local animals that utilize mosquitoes as part, if not all, of their diets.  I discovered two potential sources of said natural mosquito control; Tree Swallows and Little Brown Bats.

Without question the Tree Swallows looked like the best option; they are voracious mosquito eaters and they are very common in this general area.  These birds migrate to the northern latitudes in middle spring – up here we see the males in early to mid-May with the females a few weeks behind – where they breed and raise their young before heading back south to winter.  I’d seen these gorgeous birds around the village of Talkeetna across summers; their bright, iridescent plumage makes them almost impossible to miss as does their extremely acrobatic flight maneuvers.  The Little Brown Bats are much less common in this area although they have been seen.  Their range includes a large portion of south central Alaska and I was surprised to learn they are year-round residents.

Not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket – pun intended – I researched the nesting and sheltering needs of both animals.  I then constructed three swallow boxes and purchased a recommended bat house.  The swallow houses were then given a tough varnish coating.  Finally, I looked to locate each of the three in places I thought the birds might find attractive regarding nesting.  As mentioned, living in the boreal forest means I lack large, open areas but I do live just 80 to 90 meters from a small lake.  I diligently located what I hoped would be good spots and placed the nesting boxes.  I then had a friend mount my bat home a year later.  And then I began my waiting period.

No Tree Swallows showed interest during the summer of 2014; I thought perhaps the smell of the rather new varnish was putting them off.  The same happened across the summer of 2015 so I assumed my placement of the boxes wasn’t suitable.  In the fall of 2015 I relocated the boxes to what I hoped once again would be attractive locations.  The summer of 2016 came and went with no activity and I was becoming disappointed.  I decided if nothing happened in the spring of 2017 I would once again relocate the boxes.

Come this spring I was just starting to look for some new locations when one morning I saw an iridescent blue flash disappear into one of the boxes!  I froze and held my breath waiting its re-emergence from the box.  Sure enough, in a minute or so a male Tree Swallow flew out of the box and into the trees to the east of my place.  I continued to remain motionless and maybe two to three minutes later I saw him fly back to the box with a twig in his mouth.  I was just ecstatic as he was obviously constructing a nest!  I watched him at work for almost a week marveling at the size of his loads.  As my Alaskan malamute – Anana – had just started blowing her coats I removed handfuls of her fur and spread it around by the tree containing the box so he could incorporate that material in his nest.  Over the next few days something definitely picked at the fur but I couldn’t verify it was the Tree Swallow especially as many other local birds will utilize the fur in their nests.

Then came the time I began to see the male spending a lot of time perched on my wind vane.  From this location he was well above the box and could survey the land all around it.  I began to see him there almost continually and I wondered if he had been evicted by his mate.  If this was the case then she was most likely incubating eggs.  I had never seen her, although to be honest the genders look very much the same unless you can observe them when not in motion, but I’d seen him try to enter the box numerous times only to give up and return to his lofty perch.  I became more and more convinced his mate was caring for eggs/hatchlings and I was thrilled.

Then came the glorious day when I saw both he and his mate perched upon my wind vane; while I watched the pair two more Tree Swallows landed on the instrument and I had my first look at the family!  I was just ecstatic!!  Since that time I’ve seen the female and at least three offspring doing their acrobatic flying around the house.  Indeed, one morning when I was walking with my canine companions – Anana, my 112 female Alaskan malamute and Qanuk, my 88 pond male German Shepherd Dog – down the driveway four Tree Swallows buzzed the dogs.  As the male was perched on the wind vane I knew the nesting pair had reared at least three offspring.

I’m hoping the nesting pair will return next spring and maybe some or all of the young will follow their lead and set up house in the other Tree Swallow boxes.  Heaven knows there is a smorgasbord of flying insects around here and most are the favored mosquitoes.  I am just so proud of that initial pair I feel like a ‘proud poppa’ myself!  Now, if I can just get the attention of some Little Brown Bats I’ll be well on the way to establishing some solid mosquito control around my place.  To this end I’ve applied some bat attractant – which is apparently made from their urine – to the ‘landing area’ of the bat house.  Here’s hoping..!

Male Tree Swallow atop my weather vane

A male Tree Swallow perched atop my weather vane in the back yard

The Kidz in snow outside the house

Anana and Qanuk frolicking in the snow; just above the front porch along the ‘long’ side of the house you can see the bat house tucked under the eves.