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