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.

Firsts for May 1st

I’ve been meaning to get this brief piece finished and posted since the first couple of days in May but ‘Mr. Murphy’ and outside commitments conspired to make that a pipe dream.  Given I now have a bit of free time after completing my last 1,355 steps – I try to put down at least 1,150 steps at the top of each hour from 05:00 to 11:00 with a current target of 10,000 plus daily steps – I decided to get this piece done and posted.  My blogging has kinda fallen off across the past four to six months; not sure why other than to observe my creativity just hasn’t been flowing.  Of course, dedicating almost a quarter of each hour during the mornings to stepping does eat into my available time and the fact that I am a morning person and hence do my best work before noon only exacerbates this situation.

Anyway, as we rolled into May I was struck by some ‘firsts’ which I’d observed during this time.  Some are reoccurring while some are just new activities/observations.  One of the former variety involved observing my first American Robin of 2017 on April 24th in the early morning while walking with my Alaskan malamute (Anana) and my German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk).  Actually I heard him – I’m pretty sure it was a male as it was well up in a birch and singing loudly so probably marking territory – first and then was able to visually locate him.  There may well have been other robins around earlier but this was the first I’d heard and then seen in 2017.  For those of us who observe birds in this area the arrival of robins from the lower 48 signals spring is definitely here.

Another reoccurring observation was awakening in the wee hours of the morning of April 27th to the ‘tap-tapping’ sound of rain on my metal roof.  I love that sound but in a normal year one doesn’t hear it from mid-October to mid-November until April because most precipitation that falls during that time period is snow and the roof has a coating of ice and snow.  I look forward to many more upcoming rainy nights as I love to lie in bed and listen to that sound.  It also fascinates me to listen to the ebb and flow of the rain rate; in this area we don’t usually get a steady rain but rather experience rain bands of varying density.  This can produce what is almost a melody if the bands are spaced in a continual pattern which is repetitive.

As to some firsts that are truly ‘firsts’ on April 30th I completed 35 consecutive days of 5,000+ steps per day.  More than half of said 35 days involved putting down more than 8,000 steps and have helped me push my daily steps to their current 10,612 steps/day average.  I’m fighting hypertension and obesity so I had to find some form of exercise which I could, and most importantly ‘would’, do at least six days a week.  As of this writing I’m working on 44 consecutive days of at least 5,000 steps a day.  Much of the daily morning muscle/joint pain and stiffness is now just a distant memory and I just realized I haven’t had a bout of depression since I began this regime.  I saw no weight loss until I reached 9,500 steps per day; now the weight is very slowly beginning to disappear.  My goal is to push myself to 12,500 steps per day; given 10,000 steps is the equivalent of around 4.9 miles for me such a goal would see me putting down at least six miles a day.  I intend to continue walking at least 1,150 steps at the top of each hour between 05:00 and 11:00 in an effort to keep my system ‘energized’.  I’m aware stepping as I do it is not a true aerobic activity but it does ramp up my system and it forces me away from the monitor and into motion once an hour.  With luck as I drop more weight I’ll be able to start bicycling which will help my overall condition.  Of course, my canine companions love my lifestyle change and are now completely expectant of at least one long walk every day.  For anyone interested I use a Garmin Vivofit 2 wrist fitness monitor; the ‘Garmin Connect’ web-page is wonderful for tracking steps, calories burned, hours sleeping and similar!

A final ‘one time first’ for me occurred on April 14th when I sat in with my good friend Randy during his Friday evening classic rock music show at KTNA.  Anyone following this blog knows I spent almost three years doing both newscasts and music shows at KTNA but I decided I’d come to philosophically based parting of the ways with the station at the end of December, 2016.  While I’d done shows with other folks sitting in this was the first time the roles were reversed.  It felt great to be back behind a mic and during Randy’s two hour show we received three calls complimenting us and our performance.  All told it was a lot of fun although given it was a two hour show running until 23:00 it was a bit past my bedtime!

I put together this blog as a kind of celebration of life; not just my own but that of Nature and other folks as well.  I’ve been so blessed to experience a two decade dream of living in semi-rural Alaska but coming up on my fourth full year of such an existence I’ve noticed I’m becoming a bit blasé regarding this situation and that both angers and saddens me.  I know it is human nature to become ‘used’ to situations but I do not ever want to become ‘used’ to the majesty and splendor of my Alaskan home.  If writing this helps me re-energize the awe and wonder I feel almost daily when I walk outside and immerse myself in Alaska’s magic then it has served its purpose.  If it does so for others, regardless of where/how they live, then so much the better!

Tek Robin

An American Robin atop a black pine at Teklanika campground in Denali NP&P

Suggestions of Spring

The sun is not yet above the horizon at 07:51 AKDT on the Vernal Equinox – which arrived in this area at 02:29 this morning – but it is light enough to see the surrounding space which remains cloaked in a 22.0 inch (55.9 cm) snow pack although the incessant winds across March have cleared virtually all the snow from the trees.  Our maximum snow pack was 35.5 inches (90.2 cm) back in middle February but within a week or so of that time all precipitation ceased.  This dry spell, coupled with almost Chinook style winds and the longer, sunny days definitely did a number on the slowly compacting snow pack.  Yesterday we flirted with 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies but at least the winds of March seemed to have weakened to just gentle (8-12 mph or 13-19 kph) breezes.  This morning the air is calm for the first time in over two weeks.

As I stare out my second floor office window I can just recognize some suggestions that spring is not far away even here at sixty two degrees north latitude.  The exhaust from my Toyo stove, which drifts almost directly across my office window when the air is calm, is much less dense and is occurring less frequently than a few weeks earlier.  While we are seeing a -2.2° F (-19° C) air temp I’m also expecting to see an afternoon high around 35° F (1.7° C) under sunny skies.  The boughs of the spruce trees are beginning to ‘perk up’ a bit after bearing heavy amounts of snow from late December through middle February.  And our direct daylight is now up to 12 hours 17 minutes and increasing daily by 6 minutes 1 second!  These longer days are beginning to slowly melt the snow pack even if the air temps remain well below freezing.  Indeed, when working towards my goal of 10,000 steps/day – I’m currently around 7,800 steps/day – I have started taking a collapsible walking staff with me as the icy hard packed snow coverage on the back roads is becoming slippery especially when just a thin layer of water appears atop it.  This lack of traction is emphasized as I watch my male German Shepherd Dog (Qanuk) perform multiple slips and slides along with a few face plants as he revels in our daily walks.  Anana, my female Alaskan Malamute, is more restrained and hence remains upright most of the time.  There is something to be said for the wisdom of age!

I finally was able to experience a ‘real’ south central Alaskan winter after three previous ‘winters that weren’t’.  I did feel the bite of -40° F (-40° C) air temps, wind chills another ten to fifteen degrees below those temps and an almost three foot snow pack that remained for at least two and a half weeks.  I was treated to intense and vibrant auroral displays across much of the late fall when clear skies coincided with the Aurora Borealis.  Having completed my fourth consecutive winter in Alaska I think I can finally claim to be a veteran of ‘The Great Land’ and its kaleidoscope of weather conditions.  But maybe most surprising to me is I’m actually ready for the seasonal change.  During the three previous Vernal Equinoxes I was lamenting the end of winter and not enthusiastic about the oncoming spring with its insects and tourists.  But now I find myself awaiting the warmer weather even if it brings mosquitoes and the inevitable tourist traffic and congestion.  Perhaps I’m finally becoming sanguine with the aforementioned as well as the knowledge that within five to six weeks there will be no dark night skies again until early September?

Before long I’ll be indulging in what has become a ritual involving preparing for spring and summer.  I’ll be swapping tools and equipment between the mud room/front porch and the shed.  The generator will be drained of fuel which will go into the Escape’s gas tank.  The battery conditioner/recharger will be stowed in the shed and I will be getting the ‘Mosquito Magnet’ ready for operation.  I’ll be smearing some ‘bat attractant’ on the entrance to the bat house which my buddy Sarge hung last October; hopefully I’ll attract some Little Brown bats and convince them to set up house and help control the mosquito hordes.  In this same vein I’ll be relocating my tree swallow houses for the third time in the hopes I can attract some nesting pairs to add to my attempts at natural mosquito control.  So many of these actions are now ‘old friends’ and form a kind of seasonal dance or celebration.  For the first time since I relocated I’ll be doing them with joy and the knowledge that regardless of what the upcoming six months may hold for me winter will again return and I will have the opportunity to experience yet another spring, summer and fall in ‘The Great Land’.

Muskeg Under Clouds

The last of the ice on muskeg a bit east of my place on East Barge Drive is disappearing in the image from spring of 2015

Finally…A ‘Real’ Alaskan Winter!

I suppose I’m creating this piece as much to remind me of the winter to this point – one which I’ve thoroughly embraced as my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter – as to share with you some thoughts and images.  Without question this winter has been extreme and, no surprise, I’ve learned quite a bit more about typical Alaskan weather conditions in the winter months (November through mid-March).  As I write this piece I’m seeing overcast skies with an air temp of 34.7° F (1.5° C) after never dropping below 32.8° F (0.4° C) overnight.  Yesterday saw light morning snow become briefly heavy in the early afternoon before mixing with and finally changing over to freezing rain and then just rain.  For a while conditions were very severe in terms of visibility and traction on the Spur.

I’ve talked with long time locals who claim freezing rain used to be very uncommon and when it did occur it happened as fall slipped into winter and again when winter finally released its grip and acceded to spring.  Yet during my four winters up here I’ve seen the dreaded stuff every winter.  But I’m really not complaining as this has been a much more typical south central Alaska winter and in being so we’ve seen extremes.  Just three days back I saw -14° F (-25.6° C) in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna and the next morning my large circular bimetallic outdoor thermometer showed -19.5° F (-28.6° C) which was verified by my Davis Vantage Pro 2 wireless weather station.  But these temps pale next to the string of four days from January 17th through January 20th when we saw lows on January 18th of -32.1° F (-35.6° C) and on January 19th of -41.3° F (-40.7° C); the high on the 18th was -20.1° F (-28.9° C) and on the 19th we saw just -15.5° F (-26.4° C).  Our snow pack was a healthy 32.5″ (82.6 cm) before yesterday’s mess; even though we received 1.5″ (3.8 cm) of heavy, wet snow the warm temps and rain really did a number of the snow depth compressing it to 26.5″ (67.3 cm) which I reported to CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow network) this morning.  Looking out my office window I can see water dripping from the snow and ice atop the roof; given there’s no direct sunlight this is due only to the warm temps.

Here, then, is a collage of recent images reflecting my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter; hope you enjoy:

cool-downtown

A view of my Escape’s dash showing a fairly cool Saturday morning in ‘downtown’ Talkeetna

snowy-village

The Spur heading out of Talkeetna cloaked in heavy snow

20-sunrise

Cool sunrise at my place on Sunday, February 12th

anana-qanuk-in-heavy-snow

Anana and Qanuk enjoying a brief burst of heavy snow outside our place

anana-disappearing-into-snow

A very snowy afternoon on East Barge Drive with Anana (center of image) just disappearing into the snow

anana-by-thermometer

Anana by the thermometer which is reading much milder temps!

Just A Typical Tuesday Morning…

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof!

Woof, woof…howl..!

My eyes snapped open and although I was still mostly asleep I groggily rolled onto my back and once again heard:

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof…woof!

Woof, woof, woof!

Woof, woof…howl..!

I now recognized the warning alert from my male German Shepherd Dog – Qanuk – who immediately ran down the stairs followed closely by my female Alaskan malamute, Anana.  I was now fully awake and could heard the dogs moving around the main floor based on the sound of their toe nails on the hard bamboo floor, the carpeting and then the vinyl flooring in the mud room.

Qanuk’s alert continued although it began to drop in terms of volume and frequency.  As Qanuk spent most of his life with Anana as his canine role model he has incorporated a pretty fair impression of the Malamute’s howl into his audio repertoire.  But when alerting he always delivers that deep, impressive sounding GSD bark.  Funny how we learn the sound, cadence and intensity of our canine companion’s vocalizations so well we can tell what the canine is thinking regarding the nature and severity of the ‘threat’; I had a very good idea from Qanuk’s vocalizations that something had disturbed his sleep and he remained vigilant regarding said disturbance.

My right hand slipped across the .40 caliber Beretta semi-automatic in its holster on the bed stand; I hesitated but given Qanuk’s barking was now decreasing in both volume and repetition I left the handgun where it was sitting.  I rolled to my left side and saw ‘01:44’ on my digital alarm clock.  What the heck was going on..?  I’ve been awakened before by my canine companions; sometimes I cannot locate the source but often it is wildlife like moose.  I arose from my bed into the chilly 54° F bedroom air and flipped on a dim light; at my arising both Qanuk and Anana came back upstairs and into my room.  I looked out a couple of windows but even with the snow being brightly illuminated by an almost full moon riding high in the clear sky I couldn’t see anything.  Given I was up I decided to hit the bathroom; while in that room I chanced to look out the one window.  I saw a large black blob – rather like an oval with flattened ends – where no such shape should be.  It was between a couple of spruce trees on the narrow patch of land between the north side of my house and East Barge Drive.

I finished my business and decided to get a better look at said ‘blob’ so I went back into the bedroom and found a flashlight.  I then walked back into the bathroom, pointed the flashlight outside and hit the power switch.  Sure enough, as I did so I saw the ‘twinkle’ of moose eyes and I also now recognized the snout of said mammal.  At the time it seemed large so I thought it was a bull; however, when I examined the spot later that morning I decided it was a cow.  I quickly deactivated the light as I did not want to disturb the moose.  Its presence meant the kidz were not getting outside for a potty break so I went back to bed.

Once it was light enough come morning I pulled on my break up boots and wandered out to see where the moose had being lying.  Sure enough, there was a depression in the snow as well as a load of moose droppings.  I briefly wondered if this was the equivalent of a human wetting their bed and also wondered if the need to go had forced the moose on to a new bed.  The images at the end of this piece better explain the geometry of this event as well as detail the moose’s bed.  I remain fascinated by how my canine companions, closed up in house, can sense a single moose outside.  In the late spring through early fall when the house is often open I can believe scent is what they detect; however, this was a -5.4° F early morning in a house sealed up against the cold so I have to believe it was sound they detected.

I know Qanuk is hyper alert and true to his breed in needing to identify and warn of any unusual noises or scents.  But it still boggles my mind that he could hear a moose walking through 14” of snow pack and then lying down from inside a sealed up dwelling!  Granted, it was a cold, clear and silent night but still..!?!  Regardless, he was doing exactly as he should and I praised him to high heaven for being so alert and willing to warn me of something unusual.  Anana has done the same thing other times but for some reason she was largely just following Qanuk’s lead this time.  Maybe she was sleeping too soundly..?

Living solo in semi-rural south central Alaska has so many pluses but one negative is if something should happen – say, a burglar tried to gain entry to my house – I’m on my own to handle the situation.  That’s why the loaded Beretta sits holstered by my bed.  My canine companions are my first line of defense; they awaken me when something is ‘different’.  I would never want then to become ‘involved’ with any two or four legged intruder; just alert me and then come back to me.  I will deal with whatever is ongoing.  I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t have my Benelli rifled bore 12 gauge pump shotgun next to the bed as well; it currently rests in my gun rack on the main floor.  If a bear were to break into the house my Beretta would serve only to irritate it; that’s why I purchased the Benelli.  It provides protection for me and my canine companions from bears and moose.  However, I practice solid ‘bear awareness’ and have only seen grizzlies on my property once although their scat and markings are not uncommon in this area from May through October so they are around.  Under such circumstances I think the Benelli is fine where it resides.

Just another early winter morning in semi-rural south central Alaska!

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Moose bed with droppings

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Moose bed and bathroom window (small, square window in upper center of frame)

 

South Central Alaska Seasonal Shuffle

Outside My Office Window 091014

Fall colors in the boreal forest that make up my ‘yard’

After a warm 2016 right through the end of summer, along with a mix of dry late winter and early spring months followed by some very wet summer months, this fall has started off a bit cool which has stoked my hopes for my first ‘real’ Alaskan winter across 2016 – 2017.  I was warned by my neighbors when I first moved up here that winter can, and does, come on quickly and sometimes October sees some serious snow and cold.  In checking the history of October snows in Talkeetna I find the month averages 26.67 cm (10.5”); since relocating in 2013 I’ve seen no more than a dusting of snow in any of the following Octobers.  Maybe this year the weather will revert to more normal temperatures and precipitation..?  One can only hope!

I’ve noticed the gleam in my Alaskan malamute’s (Anana) eyes and the spring in her step with the advent of the repeated hard freezes we experienced last week; she is true to her breed and loves the cooler temperatures of the fall and winter up here.  Five of the last six mornings have seen temps drop to below -2.2° C (28° F); this morning we failed to do so only because of cloud cover and drizzle.  With this said I’d forgotten how cold drizzle/rain can be up here when the air temp is getting close to the freezing mark.  Thanks to said cold rains and some wind 90% of our fall color now carpets the ground; as is typical it was ‘short and sweet’ once again this year.  My male GSD (Qanuk) doesn’t care much about the air temps as long as he can get outside and run; this does become problematic when the air temps drop much below -17.8° C (0° F) but I’ve learned to limit the time he exposes his paw pads to such conditions.  I now have to carry leads for ‘the kidz’ when we take walks because the mushers are out with their teams pulling ATVs.

With the advent of the cooler air I find myself once again preparing for what I’ve come to know as ‘the fall routine’.  This aggregate of necessary activities has been growing each year I’ve lived in semi-rural south central Alaska and has additional items new for the fall of 2016.  There’s the ritual shuffle of items between the unattached shed and the mudroom; my battery charger/starter comes from the shed to the mudroom as does any other equipment I may need to access during the winter since every year thus far the snow pack has been sufficient to block the shed door and require shoveling to access.  The Toyo Monitor furnace checked out just fine and has been running now for six straight days; I do not recall having to do this until early to middle October in the previous falls.  The now almost seven month old gasoline in the two five gallon Jerry cans will be emptied into the gas tank of my Escape and I will refill them, and add a bit of ‘Sta-bil’, within a week.  This ensures that should the power fail I’ll have clean and ready gasoline for the generator.  I’m also trying something new this year; said generator normally sits on the front porch just outside the front door.  Given it is wheeled I plan to unhook the output power line and wheel the unit into my mudroom from November through February when it is really cold.  If I lose power during that time I need only wheel it back out to the front porch, hook up the transfer line and fire it up.  The real plus will involve the latter; it will be at least 12.8° C (55° F) and so should start very easily.  More than once in previous winters I really struggled trying to start the generator when the air temp was well below -17.8° C (0° F).

Time also to lock the windows closed and put up any ‘heat barriers’ in the upstairs ‘spare’ bedroom windows to keep their room temp air from dropping into the single digits Celsius (middle forties Fahrenheit) during cold streaks.  As is common in a house which started as a cabin and grew over time there is no good circulation into any of the second floor rooms although I did open a hole in the master bedroom floor and embedded a fan which I can reverse as needed to either pull the warmer main floor air (said hole is right over the Toyo Monitor) into the bedroom or push the cold air near the floor down into the main room.  I’ve already unhooked and coiled my water hose; it is stored in the shed.  In addition I just removed the last of my window light barriers in the master bedroom; for me this is one of the cardinal signs the fall has arrived.  I’ve pulled together all my cameras and camcorders, cleaned them of the summer’s dust and fully recharged their respective batteries in hopes of being able to catch some auroral shows this winter; I’ve done the same with my headlamp batteries.  I’ve tested the crawl space heater to insure it is functioning; while it runs very little and only when outside temps drop below -26.0° C (-15° F) for a number of consecutive days it is vital to keeping my pipes from freezing.  I’ve also deployed snow shovels to both the front and back porches.

Such chores are really not all that involved but I so enjoy them because they speak to me of the coming snow and cold.  And they also remind me of the rhythms of Mother Nature which are so very predominant in ‘The Great Land’.  Somehow it just feels so ‘right’ to have such activities dictated by the passage of the seasons.  And living in Alaska it is impossible not be aware of the season’s dance…