A Winter Postcard From Alaska

Anyone who has read even just a bit of this blog over the years knows I love winter’s cold and snow and, since moving to semi-rural south central Alaska in 2013, I’ve been very disappointed with the winter weather.  In general, the temps have been above to well above historical averages resulting in rain/freezing rain in January and February – according to long time locals something unheard of just five years back – and often we’ve seen a dearth of precipitation.  The winter of 2017-2018 was shaping up to be the driest winter since I moved up here; this was frustrating because we’ve seen plenty of cool temps.  But we just couldn’t seem to buy any precipitation, at least until this past Sunday (02/11) afternoon…

NWS correctly predicted the snow event and posted a ‘Winter Weather Advisory’ for this area calling for 6″ (15.24 cm) to 12″ (30.48 cm) with localized amounts to 16″ (40.64 cm) but these were expected well north of Talkeetna and in the Hatcher Pass area.  We saw significant snowfall from Sunday afternoon through Monday evening; when all was said and done I measured a total of 14.75″ (37.47 cm).  That was the largest amount of snow I’ve seen from a single snow event since I moved up here and it raised our snow pack from a well below average 25.5″ (64.77 cm) to a respectable 39.0″ (99.06 cm).  Kudos to NWS for a timely and accurate forecast!

To me, this area is at its most beautiful after a sizable snow fall as we generally do not see much wind with such events and hence the trees are shrouded in a thick coat of pristine white.  So I thought I’d share a few images from this most welcome winter snow event:

Ole Home From Sat Dishes

The S and W sides of my humble abode as seen from the the location of one of my sat dishes

South Boreal Forest

The boreal forest just to the south of my driveway with the bottom of my wind chimes just visible

This Is How Ya Plow Snow!

This is how ya clear snow! My neighbor (Roland) at work with is front end loader

Doggie Snow Depth Indicators

Doggie snow depth indicators; my male GSD (Qanuk) is 86 pounds and my female Alaskan Mal (Anana) is 112 pounds

Qanuk on Unplowed EBD

Qanuk deciding there’s too much snow to try romping down East Barge Drive

After the Storm

The day after the snow event…

 

Desperate to Defeat Depression

It has been almost two months since I last added something to my blog and that bothers me.  Of course, said ‘two months’ were spread across the ‘holidaze’ and it is always easy to get caught up in ancillary activities which usurp time from blogging.  However, this was not the case for me as I enjoyed a fairly low key and relaxed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.  No, for me my blogging has suffered, as have so many other activities, from the return of an old nemesis from my not so distant past – depression.  Given this occurred with the advent of winter here in the higher latitudes a number of folks suggested it might be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and while SAD might be a contributor I do not believe this is the case.  In the first place I love the winter in this area, it is my favorite season.  I live for the cold temperatures and snow events which have, sadly, been rather sparse again this winter.  The longer periods of darkness do not bother me in the least.  In fact, I struggle much more with the absence of a night sky and any real darkness from early May through late August than the deep darkness we see from mid-September through early March.  And, too, I continue to take my daily Vitamin D3 supplement to help ameliorate any SAD symptoms.  So, no, I do not see SAD as the root cause for my lack of interest in anything.

As more and more information has come to light regarding depression and its symptoms, causes and prevalence I’ve come to recognize I’ve dealt with depression since I was in junior high school.  Not continually but rather in sporadic episodes which often lasted for months to even years.  In hindsight, I didn’t even know my lack of interest and seemingly anti-social behavior weren’t ‘normal’ for me until one late summer in south central Wisconsin when I was in my middle thirties.  I’d always suffered from hay fever and the late summer was one of my least favorite times as that’s when the ragweed pollinates and I was doomed to a totally stuffed up head, continually runny nose and sneezing fits until the first hard freeze.  But that late August I never felt the onset of these symptoms and marveled that I saw the first frost without experiencing any hay fever symptoms.  Within another few months I began to notice my overall mood was much brighter and I felt more alive and just ‘lighter’.  It took another few months for me to realize I had been living with depression for decades and suddenly the depression had lifted.  Given this happened at the same time my hay fever disappeared I’m betting my body went through some biochemical shift in my middle thirties and whatever caused my sudden lack of sensitivity to ragweed pollen also caused my depression to disappear.  Since that time depression has often returned – unlike the hay fever which has never again plagued me – but I recognized its beginning and began to learn methods to mitigate its effects.  Across my forties and fifties I was involved in a tug of war with depression; sometimes it would hit me for a week or two but I always won out in the end.

But then came the end of 2017.  In hindsight, I could feel its return in November of 2017 and I prepared to once again do battle.  And it did come on and I tried all my old tricks to minimize its effects and banish it once again.  But this time nothing has worked and, indeed, I’m experiencing what I believe to be serious depression.  Without question, this is as bad as any bouts I can recall and seems to be worse.  Twenty seventeen was a tough year for me with diagnoses of severe hypertension and late onset Type 2 diabetes; because of these conditions I’ve been taking a single med for the diabetes but three meds for the hypertension.  It is possible one or more of these drugs are ‘enhancing’ the effects of this recent re-occurrence of depression.  But said diagnoses also prompted me to begin a much healthier lifestyle; I currently do between 11,500 and 14,000 daily steps (around 5.0 to 6.3 miles) spread across my day to try to keep me in motion at least once an hour.  I do this exercise seven days a week and try to supplement it with some additional exercise like using my fluid resistance indoor bicycling rig.  The diabetes forced me to assume a ‘low carb lifestyle’ which has allowed me to manage the condition (I’m currently working on 78 consecutive days with a blood glucose level at or below 135 mg/dL) through diet and exercise.  In addition, I’ve dropped fifty pounds across the past year with another twenty to twenty five to go.  Both these positive shifts should help mitigate my depression.  But with this latest onset nothing seems able to dispel the dark helplessness that’s settled over my awareness.

Given all this I’ve elected to visit the local clinic and talk with the behavioral health specialist regarding this sudden and intense bout of depression.  Despite having dealt with depression for much of my life I’ve never seen a medical professional regarding the condition.  Early on, as in back in the sixties and early seventies, I knew nothing about the condition and assumed dealing with the ‘dark times’ and lack of interest in anything along with shunning socialization was just part of ‘being me’.  Later, I just soldiered on and began to learn some techniques which often helped like fasting and rigorous exercise.  During my later forties and fifties depression would ‘come and go’ but never felt bad enough nor lasted long enough to seek medical advice.  But this has all changed across the past couple of months.  I’ve never seriously considered suicide but of late there have been numerous times I have wished I’d just go to bed and not awaken.  But when I feel this way I quickly remember my canine companions; I made a commitment when I brought them into my pack and I will fulfill those commitments. 

Mostly I’m just tired of struggling with health issues and associated financial concerns.  But I’ve dealt with both in the past and never felt so overwhelmed or bereft of hope.  I’m so hoping western medicine can offer me a means to battle back against this seemingly impenetrable veil of empty darkness!  I really don’t want to take any more pills and I sure do not want a ‘treatment’ which brings new negatives into my existence via the dreaded ‘side effects’ but if I can get a prescription for something which allows me to rise above the daily feelings of isolation, desolation and frustration it could well be a God Send.  I know depression is often stronger and more prevalent in older folks and at sixty four and a half years of age I’m definitely getting up there so perhaps this is part of what’s driving the severity and resolute nature of this latest onslaught?  I just know I have to do something as for the first time in decades I feel utterly powerless to escape depression’s grip and it is slowly wearing me down at a time when I’m not feeling a surfeit of inner strength. 

Do We Really ‘Need’ to ‘Want’..?

As the Christmas holiday approaches and Thanksgiving is in our collective rear view mirrors one cannot turn on any device attached to the web, or any TV or radio, and not be bombarded by a myriad of commercials for all manner of materialistic items and services.  Sadly, this has become the norm for these holidaze and we even have names for highlighted days involving supposed great sales such as ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’.  More and more brick and mortar operations drag their employees in on Thanksgiving Eve, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve to insure they can make every possible sale.  This is sad and is really an issue ‘we the People’ not only created but accelerated in scope by participating in such sale days.  At the heart of all this is our perceived need to have things or services.  Madison Avenue has done a yeoman’s job of convincing us we ‘need’ that new cell phone, new car, new clothes or similar even though we already have perfectly acceptable versions of all of the aforementioned and so many more items.  And here is what I see as the crux of this entire conundrum; are we really purchasing things we ‘need’ or things we are told we ‘want’..?

By all reports this holiday season will be a record setter in terms of merchandise/services sold and I suppose this is good in terms of reflecting a much more robust economy after eight years of stagnant economic growth.  But I also really wonder just how much of the goods and services purchased were truly needed as versed with just being wanted.  Let’s start by defining these terms; I’ll use as my source for these definitions ‘Dictionary.com’.  ‘Need’ is defined as; “a requirement, necessary duty or obligation”.  ‘Want’ is defined as; “to feel a need or desire for; to wish for”.  Hmmm, it appears the two terms are very closely related in terms of definitions even to the point that the definition of “want” employs the term “need”.  But if one looks closer ‘want’ is more of an emotionally based tendency while ‘need’ seems to be more of a desire to fulfill a void or a gap in one’s existence.  If we assume this is correct then it is easy to see why advertising seeks to create within all of us the ‘need’ to purchase goods and services.  If we can be made to feel that by purchasing that new iPhone or wearable electronic device we are filling a perceived gap in our life we are much more likely to part with our hard earned cash.

A very simple means of helping us to decide whether we truly need an item or service or we just want it is to kill the ‘impulse purchase’ reaction.  Before making any purchase one should stand back, try to be as objective as possible and ask one’s self; “Do I really need item X or service Y or am I just responding to the fact I like what I’m seeing and want to own it?”.  Even better would be to take a full day to consider the pros and cons of making said purchase.  Ancillary to this pause is another pertinent question one should ask; “Do I want/need item X or service Y or am I just considering the purchase to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ or to somehow reaffirm my social status?”.  Asking these simple questions and being brutally honest with our answers would probably stop a majority of ‘impulse purchases’.  And this is a large part of why so many sales tout a ‘limited time only’ window of opportunity or claim ‘purchase now while supplies last’.  The provider doesn’t want you to think rationally and without a time constraint about making a purchase; they want you to ‘go with the feeling’.

If I were a conspiracy advocate, which I’m not, I could probably make a case for the cultural and social shift we’ve seen across the last fifty years in which everything – be it materialistic items, services and/or information – has to be available ‘right now’ is being fostered by large corporations intent upon selling their wares regardless of one’s needs or ability to finance.  While I do believe this questionable change in our attitudes towards obtaining things ASAP is real I don’t think there’s any global conspiracy behind it.  Rather, I see it as an outgrowth of our rapidly growing reliance on technology and the need it drives to be aware of as much as possible as soon as possible.  Be this as it may, we the People are definitely being manipulated by Madison Avenue and similar; sadly most of us aren’t even aware this is ongoing.  And that is just the way big business prefers to have it.  As with so many other facets of our existence people who do not question the status quo and who lack basic training in thinking critically – a virtually epidemic now that our educational system is overrun with progressive idealism – remain blissfully unaware of the aforementioned manipulation.

At a time when personal debt is through the roof being very circumspect regarding making any purchase, regardless of size, would seem to be the order of the day.  But if we fail to recognize our culture is ‘rigged’ to encourage us to buy, buy, buy whether we truly ‘need’ these items and services or not we are doomed to continue this path.  It has taken me sixty plus years to finally recognize the difference between my wants and my needs on a personal level.  And it was necessary, for me, to leave behind the frenetic pace of life in and around the lower 48 population centers and move to semi-rural south central Alaska before I really began to understand my wants verses my needs.  Once my lifestyle slowed down and I began to focus on what I found to be the really important things in my life – family, friends, health, spiritual nourishment and giving back – I began to realize just how much stuff I had accumulated based upon me confusing my ‘wants’ for my ‘needs’.  I suppose this is the classic case of ‘better late than never’..?!  So as I embrace the ‘holidaze’ I find myself doing so from the perspective of ‘what can I do to help’ as versed with ‘what can I purchase for me’.  This is very new and something I find I truly enjoy.  Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all..!!

Materialistic Xmas

Merry Christmas..??

Winter Wakening’s

Although we are really just two thirds of the way through the calendar ‘fall’ it certainly feels like winter outside with highs struggling to reach 25° F (-4° C) even on sunny days while bottoming out in the low single digits and a paltry 3.5” (8.9 cm) of ‘snow pack’.  Paradoxically, I’ve been becoming more and more active regarding projects and have completed a number which had been ‘hanging around’ for the better part of a year or more.  Many of said ‘projects’ involve preparing for the oncoming winter; I’ve written of these in previous postings.  In Alaska, there is a regular cycle to living semi-rural and it is strongly tied to the seasons.  Most long time Alaskans do not give these much thought; such cycles have been a part of their annual existence since they can remember.  But, as a relative ‘newbie’ just now preparing for his fifth winter, I always find myself reflecting on these cycles and what they entail.

Just today I swapped my bedding and, before I completed the swap I took time to disconnect the air line from the pump to the connector on the air bladder of my Sleep Number bed, apply a thin layer of Vaseline to said connector, reconnect and then proceed with changing the bedding.  I learned a while back that as my Sleep Number bed has aged it tends to slowly leak air from this connection and when the bedroom air temp varies by more than fifteen degrees this leakage is exacerbated.  It is very noticeable in the winter when the air temps in the master bedroom can vary from 50° F to 65° F (10° C to 18° C).  The Vaseline helps form a good seal which holds the pressure in the bed’s air bladder.

In ‘tune’ with doing the aforementioned once finished I first put on an electric sheet I purchased a few years back followed by the regular sheets, blankets and quilts.  If the air temp in the master bedroom is allowed to drop into the middle fifties or lower for any period of time the bed chills right down to that temp as well.  This makes climbing into it for the first time come evening a most ‘invigorating’ experience!  Being able to activate the electric sheet maybe ten minutes before I actually plan to lie down warms the bedding quite nicely and makes it ‘oh so comfortable’ to climb in.  I rarely sleep with the sheet turned on as I find it too warm even at a very low setting but if we see another cold spell like we saw last January when we bottomed out at -40° F (-40° C) a couple of mornings and never rose above -16° F (-26.6° C) for three consecutive days I will no doubt sleep with it on as I did during those cold days and nights.  During this extreme cold spell the air temp in the master bedroom dropped to 46° F (7.8° C) by the early morning and that was darned cold!

A while back I removed the last of my light blocking barriers from the south and west windows in the master bedroom.  I used to have such barriers up in most of the second floor windows but last spring I applied a clear layer of IR blocking film to most of the east, south and west facing windows in the house which dramatically reduced the heat generated by the almost continual summer sun.  In addition, I’ve been trying to wean myself away from needing a very dark room in which to sleep and thus far I’ve had some success.  This summer I discovered thanks to the aforementioned film the second floor is much cooler in the summer.  Prior to applying it I used much of my light blocking materials to reflect back the incoming light and hence the heat.  I’m slowly learning what works and what doesn’t north of 62 degrees north latitude…

Come this fall I’m dealing with a brand new paradigm involving my ongoing exercise routine which currently consists of taking at minimum 11,000 daily steps – for me the rough equivalent of walking 4.3 miles (6.9 km) – every day.  I began this routine with just 4,000 daily steps back in March so I had no real experience with doing so in the extreme cold but more importantly in the darkness.  From the time I arise, generally between 05:30 and 06:30, I try to do a minimum of 1,200 steps every hour.  The purpose is to force me to abandon my network and get up and move!  As such, I am generally stepping every hour – and my Garmin vivosmart 3 PFM makes sure I do so – until 14:00 if not later.  But this means the first four to five cycles are done when it is still very dark outside.  I have donned my headlamp and taken the kidz out for a few morning walks but I’m always concerned about surprising a moose.  Even with the headlamp I cannot see very well and could easily surprise some of the local wildlife; I count on the kidz to scent out such animals long before I can see them but they are not infallible.  Therefore, since October I’ve been doing a majority of my morning stepping indoors.  While this does work it is much more boring and it puts more stress on my legs and associated joints as I do quite a bit of stopping/starting and making 180 degree turns as I navigate my ‘track’ around the second floor.  Not doing my stepping is simply not an option; I have to do so daily to help manage my hypertension and late onset Type 2 diabetes and it is instrumental in my current 43 pound (19.5 kg) weight loss.  Because of this I’ve sucked it up and done virtually all my steps indoors but as I mentioned this gets to be very boring. 

The darkness is a tough barrier but so is the lack of real stable footing in the great outdoors.  We currently have just 3.5” (8.9 cm) of ‘snow pack’ and the bottom 1.5” (3.8 cm) of that depth is hard frozen ice.  This makes footing questionable at best even using walking staffs.  If we’d get an additional 6” plus (15.2 cm plus) snow atop this icy snow layer the traction issue would be negated; in this case the more snow atop that darned ice the better!  However, until this happens I’m forced to deal with potentially slippery conditions and I cannot forget what the fall I took on March 27, 2015 did to my life and to my bank account!  But having lived this long in semi-rural south central Alaska I know I just have to adapt to what Mother Nature gives me and ‘keep on keepin’ on’.

In keeping with ‘new paradigms’ regarding winter preparations I now have a travel trailer (Forest River R-pod) so for the first time I went through the ‘winterization’ process a few weeks back.  There really wasn’t much to it; first I went through the interior and removed anything which wouldn’t do well in below zero temps like water jugs, low carb salad dressing and similar.  Then I splashed small amounts of non-toxic antifreeze into the kitchen sink, bathroom sink and toilet.  Finally, I spent an hour figuring out how to drape a 16’ by 20’ tarp over the unit.  I did so on a calm day but even so it was a struggle and a learning experience.  I finally ‘un-nested’ an eight foot nesting aluminum pole, inserted the pointed end into a corner grommet on the tarp and carefully worked it over the top of the R-pod.  I then began to tie down each of the four corners using some nylon rope, the grommets and any available weights like stones or large pieces of tree trunks.  Once completed the tarp protects the roof and a portion of the sides.  While not particularly pleasing to one’s eye it should help prevent any freezing rain or similar from penetrating into the unit.

So goes the ‘song of the seasons’ and with these efforts along with a host of others I’m now ready for winter.  This is a good thing as we bottomed out a few days back at -1.3° F (-18.5° C), the first below zero reading of this season, and I’m sure there will be many more to come.  Now we just need to pick up a few feet of snow and we’ll be looking good.  I’m sanguine with settling in for another cold, dark and (hopefully) snowy and cold winter.  But I also know that come late March into mid-April I’ll once again be hearing the seasonal shift’s song and organizing my preparations for the upcoming spring.  Maybe it is age but I must admit, I do take comfort and pleasure in these Nature driven routines…

 

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 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.