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’…