Leaving Jacksonville a few days before Christmas, we started our holiday road trip by heading first to Winston-Salem and a visit with Cathy’s family. The next hop started on Christmas day, taking us to visit Dave’s family in Whitehall PA. We were joined by our son and daughter and their families for a busy few days before it was time to head south again. We arrived back in Jacksonville, just in time to enjoy a pig roast thrown by the Spanish congregation and to bring in the New Year in Cuban style.
Christmas in NC
Christmas in PA
New Year's Eve Pig Roast
Our first Nomads Project as leaders was scheduled for the three weeks following Thanksgiving and had an ambitious set of objectives. However, by project-end, the list had changed significantly with some major accomplishments added that we had never anticipated when the team assembled on the Sunday before the work began.
Back in the Dirt
When we finished our plumbing project a year ago, there was one “nest” of valves that we were not able to replace before it ended. These controlled the water flow to the church’s fellowship hall, the residential trailer and the gym. This became Fred and project member Geary’s objective to replace the valves in what had been labeled “Nest 2”. By the end of the first week, they had the valves in place under the new valve box. (Fred noted that it could have been done a day earlier, but we wouldn’t let him turn off the water for a day while the church was having a funeral.)
Over the course of the past year, an inspection revealed the need for a backflow preventer on the church’s main water line. (A backflow preventer ensures the church water system will not flow back into the city water in the event of a loss of pressure.) With some help from the folks at Ferguson’s plumbing (who immediately recognized Dave when he returned to the store after almost a year absence), Fred and Dave were able to understand the requirements for installing it. This turned out to be Fred and Geary’s 2nd week project. Unfortunately, the installation required turning off the water to most of the campus, including the school. Luckily, they were able to make the facilities in the church building available during the outage. With the help of a church member, we moved some wild irises around the installation to camouflage it and make it less appealing to the kids to sit on. Another successful project task.
If only the final plumbing project could have gone so well. The church’s grounds were plumbed with a myriad of irrigation heads that had not been working for some time. However, there was a desire to re-enable them and have them fed from a well that would also need some work to get it pumping again. The work on this was slow-going. Project members Herb and Don spent much of the 3 weeks mapping the system, finding and repairing the myriad sprinkler heads, and testing each loop to determine its “health”. Although a lot was accomplished, there is still much more to have a working system fed from the church’s well. Good thing there is another project in January.
Up Above My Head
While all of the plumbing projects were part of the original project plan, on the project’s 2nd day, we learned of an urgent need that no one had foreseen. The fire safety inspector cited a violation of the drop ceiling in the church’s oldest building, which was currently being used by the youth. This had been the church’s original sanctuary and the large hall and its side rooms all had ceiling panels that were bowed or broken. With the help of project member Jim, we developed a plan to change the grid from 2ft by 4ft tiles to 2ft x 2ft tiles.
This turned out to be a massive project consuming half the team for much of 2 weeks. The old tiles had to be taken out along with the insulation sitting on top of them. If the tiles were in decent shape, they were cut in half and then reduced 1/8” to fit in the smaller opening. At the same time, the support grid had to have short pieces added to split the large openings into 2 smaller openings. To ensure a uniform appearance of the finished panels, all had to be painted white.
That was the plan, but not everything went smoothly. The first obstacle was that the short grid supports we purchased wouldn’t fit the old grid. Since they didn’t make the old style system any more, we had to grind both ends of almost 250 support pieces. Then there was all the stuff that came raining down from the ceiling when the tiles were removed -- large chunks of the old plaster ceiling, thousands of pecan shells and squirrel leavings, and then the rare oddity, such as the pink Jesus statue. Hmmm. . .
But despite the grime, the wearying overhead work and the seemingly endless numbers of tiles, the work progressed from the main hall to each of the side rooms. The odd-sized panels at the edges took more than twice as long as their full-sized counterparts. And then there were the complexities of panels with vents in them. The lowest point of the project came when we were within a few panels of completion when the heating duct separated from the main trunk of the HVAC system. In the process of determining how to re-attach it, we found another room with a drop ceiling. Ugh!
But we finished in good time and still had the energy to clean up the debris and dust we had created. The church has a new youth intern starting in January. We feel much better about the room that will greet her upon her arrival.
Not So Small Extras
The sound was disturbing, but the muzzle flash caused them to wonder. It was gunfire from a car driving by a house across the street from the church. Dave and Fred were checking out the prior week’s progress when they saw the car and heard the shots fired. This began a series of conversations with the police. It wasn’t until the next day that we realized some of the bullets had hit windows in the church. We quickly got into action and measured and replaced the window glass in both rooms. Not something we expected and certainly not something we wanted to have to do again, but it took precedence over most tasks on the project list, so we got it done.
We had two full-time painters on the project. When they weren’t painting ceiling tiles, Bobbi and Pat R. were painting the trim, doors and fences on Wesley Hall, the Office and the Sanctuary. Similarly, Jim, a skilled carpenter was hard at work on other projects when he freed up from the ceiling. He repaired the playground slide by replacing the steps and built 2 stalls in the bunkhouse bathrooms.
When we found time to relax (which of course we did), there was plenty of good-natured ribbing and laughter mixed with project talk. We took a couple of trips to Clara’s at the Cathedral for lunch and met Bob and Shirley at the Deck the Chairs event in Jacksonville Beach. By the end of the third week, we had made new friends and had a renewed appreciation of the ability of the team to accomplish so much more than we could individually. With 8 of us returning for the project in January, it will be interesting to see how much more we can do with a running start.
We can’t leave the cats out of the picture for long since they are everywhere at Faith. This one was sitting on the sill of the office window checking out the coming and going.
Having said goodbye to Steve and Linda, we spent our first night on the road in Emporia in the company of our daughter’s family before heading for Florida. We were returning to Faith UMC in Jacksonville to volunteer as Nomads on 2 different projects over the next few months. We didn’t have to wait long to get to work.
Now We’re Cooking
One thing that Faith is known for is building community around meals. Whether it is a casual get-together over leftovers or a major feast for the congregation, an opportunity for breaking bread together is rarely overlooked. So, we were not completely surprised to find ourselves immersed in meal prep within a few hours of our arrival.
However, the reason we had timed our arrival for early November was to assist with 2 large youth events that required the church to prepare 7 meals for 30 to 50 people over 48 hours on successive weekends. The first weekend began the morning after our arrival. We barely stopped moving for the next 3 days. At some times in the kitchen, we were serving a meal, cleaning up the meal and preparing the next meal at the same time. It was pretty amazing. The standing ovation at the end of each weekend gave us some idea that the effort was appreciated.
With the 2 big weekend events out of the way, we mistakenly thought we could “relax” a bit, having only the church’s big Thanksgiving Sunday dinner to prepare for. On Thursday, we cooked 3 big turkeys for the big meal, just in time for Pat and Fred to arrive to help us sample the three birds. We needed them to help us judge which was the best – breast-side up, breast-side down, or one cooked half and half. (Most said breast-side up surprisingly.) The next day Cathy and Pat made some dressing and we figured we were ready a couple of days early. Great!
That was before we came to fully understand the scope of the wedding plans for the Saturday night before. The chef had the menu and meal preparation for the 90 guests well in hand. So, what more did we need to do?
On Friday evening, we discovered the answer was: quite a bit.
It began with the decorations of Wesley Hall for the reception. Each of the 90 chairs had to have a cover placed on it. Cathy was watching as the mother of the groom struggled to tie a large ribbon around each chair. Her offer to help was enthusiastically accepted. And the results were such that the decision was to have her do all of the chairs. After doing a dozen or so, she gladly welcomed Pat to join her in completing the remaining tables. In gratitude, the busy family served us dinner which we graciously accepted after our protests were politely ignored.
Dave and Fred were not idle during the bow-tying. The tables needed to be set. And the cake needed to be decorated. Wait. That’s right. Who would have thought that Dave would be involved in decorating a wedding cake? Our services didn’t end Friday night. On Saturday, it became apparent that, although the food prep was taken care of, it wasn’t clear how it was going to get served. Ever flexible, we marshaled half a dozen Nomads to serve as chef’s assistants to get 80 meals on plates in record time. The happy couple and guests seemed to have a great time, and we were glad to be a part of it.
Before we could call it a night, we needed to help clean up and transform the room back into a church fellowship hall where the Thanksgiving potluck could take place on Sunday. Three congregations – Philippine, Spanish and English were joining in one service and a common meal. We had a record attendance and Wesley Hall was bursting at the seams. It was a tremendous success, but by mid-afternoon, we were bushed. The actual Thanksgiving meal should be a breeze after this weekend.
RV (and Boat) Stuff
Although the Nomads project for Faith will not start until after Thanksgiving, that doesn’t mean the campground is empty. A project team for another church is here and we’ve had the privilege of spending time with them over the three weeks of their project. (Leftovers make great meals.) So, it wasn’t surprising to see Dave on the top of another RV checking out the AC a few days after our arrival.
To accommodate the influx of rigs, we needed to move the boat and a trailer owned by a church member into the parking lot the Friday after we arrived and just before most of the others were due in. It took a few days to get to it, but we were thrilled with the condition of the boat given our 7 months away. It was dry and clean under the cover, which was in excellent shape. There were no critters taking up residence, no mildew, no smells. Wow! What a relief.
So, now that we are in place for a while, our attention will turn to the projects that are priorities for the church for the next couple of months. And, of course, there will be more meals.
We arrived back in Poquoson almost six months and 15,000 miles after we headed north to start our trip to Alaska. Hurricane Matthew delayed our arrival about a week, but we took advantage of the delay to visit more with the family. It also gave us time to tend to some maintenance on the RV and truck and catch up on some routine business before we head south again.
“Honey, I can’t get the steps to open.” We had finally taken our spot at the dump station on our way to get some warranty work done at the RV dealer. But Cathy’s discovery meant we had one more item to put on the list. With some effort, Dave dropped the steps, but it was obvious they were seriously out of alignment. What next?
We pulled into the dealer just ahead of our scheduled appointment and took the fifth wheel into an open service bay. We had a long list of items to be addressed, but only a few were significant. By day’s end, the list was pretty well taken care of. Our table had a new support and was much more stable than it had been the last 6 months. There was a day/night shade in the rear window and the hot water heater had a new zinc anode and it was no longer dripping. The fridge had been pushed back in and resecured. To our surprise, the slide needed more attention than we realized. We had noticed the slide topper was a little loose and there had been some leaks when we were traveling in really wet weather. However, it turned out that the slide itself was out of alignment. With that fixed, the slide topper just needed a small adjustment. With all the miles driven since our last service appointment, we had the wheel bearings greased again.
However, there were a few items outstanding when we left. The microwave, which had been little more than a fancy storage cabinet with a clock since May, had to be ordered and we couldn’t wait for it to come in. In an amazing display of customer service, Dave’s call to Forest River’s Puma warranty office caused a replacement to appear on our doorstep (actually Cathy’s mom’s doorstep) the following day. It was a simple job to install the replacement and we are once again able to microwave popcorn and reheat leftovers.
Also, the stairs were not able to be fixed. They were pretty seriously out of alignment due to . . . well let’s not go into that. We had an estimate for replacing them which was motivation enough to see if we could do something ourselves. Once at Steve’s house, Dave and Steve used the tractor, some come-alongs and a sledge hammer to return the steps to near perfect alignment. With some strategically-placed bolts to keep them from slipping, we hope this will be a much cheaper long-term solution.
The truck had its own problems that had to wait until we were back in Poquoson. Turning on the AC caused a screeching noise that was a not-so-subtle indication that it had a problem. After replacing the compressor, accumulator and the now-damaged tensioner, we could use the AC again without fear of waking the neighbors or being arrested on violating a noise ordinance. With an oil change, tire rotation, and inspection added in, we hoped to be ready to travel again and done with costly repairs for a good long time.
We were so focused on heading south and meeting up with family and friends that we hadn’t been paying close attention to the weather. By the time we were a day away from Poquoson, we finally checked and saw Hurricane Matthew approaching Haiti. A conversation with Steve gave us pause. The track could take it right over Hampton Roads by week’s end. So, if we came all the way there, we would likely have to turn around and leave shortly after.
With the east coast in a state of flux as storm preparations were underway, we found we needed to find a place to tuck in for about 5 days. We returned to Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield. They were starting to fill up with people escaping the storm further south and on the coast, so we felt good to be locked into a site. This also put us within a short drive of our son’s house. Having met Adam and Droz for dinner (on the RV in the Home Depot parking lot of all places) our first night through Richmond, we took advantage of our proximity to see our son and grandson a few times over the next week.
However, Steve was right about the rising water at his place. Lulled into complacency by Matthew’s initial track, he was stunned to see the water rising quickly as it took a route further north and west and than the predictions only a day before. The good news was that the water only rose so far, so nothing was damaged. We also received good news from Jacksonville, which had largely been spared by the storm. Faith UMC was doing well and Orion Jr looked pretty much the same as we left her. At this point, we just needed to wait to for Steve’s property to dry out, so we took a trip to NC to see Cathy’s mom and sister for a few days.
By week’s end, we were back in VA, this time making a whirlwind trip to visit the grandkids. We met two of our granddaughters and their mom in Emporia in the afternoon and then met our grandson in Richmond for dinner. By 8:30 we had been on the road for 10 hours and just wanted to get home, when we saw the road to the state park blocked by firemen. Luckily our GPS had a solution that got us to the campground. All was well with the RV as we called it a night. But after we lost power around 2am, we learned in the morning that a car had hit a telephone pole minutes before we arrived at the roadblock and the power had been turned off to fix the damage.
The next morning we were on our way – not to Steve’s, but to Kerr Reservoir on the NC-VA border. We were meeting our daughter’s family at North Bend, an Army Corps of Engineers campground on the Virginia side of the lake. We had beautiful weather to play with grandkids and enjoy campfires, good food and family time. By Sunday, we finally headed out to Steve’s house, completing the circle begun in April.
Going to the Chapel . . .
Shortly after arriving in Poquoson, we had to head out again, this time without the RV. We headed north to Reston in time for our annual physical and visit to see our friend Cookie. From there, we traveled south on a beautiful fall weekend to Charlottesville for Steve’s daughter, Stephanie’s wedding to her fiancé, John. Through an incredibly lucky turn of events, we were able to redeem some points for a night’s stay in a cabin on a lake at a resort near Charlottesville. We had only a little time to enjoy it, but we made the most of our visit, when not enjoying the wedding festivities.
The remainder of our time in Poquoson, we managed to catch up with some friends, including a dinner with Sue and Steve and stopped by our old haunts in downtown Hampton and out to Old Point Comfort. Much has changed at Joy’s Marina, which has become a bit of ghost dock. We even caught our first Wallop’s Island rocket launch, watching the craft soar over Steve’s backyard on a clear evening shortly after sunset. After a belated birthday dinner on Halloween night, we prepared to get underway again, this time aiming for Jacksonville.
Going from north to south, we began to reconnect with family and friends after 4 months of travels out west. With stops in New York and Pennsylvania, we were starting to wander in more familiar territory.
Crossing Borders – Again
It came as a bit of a shock.
“We have an appointment for you on Tuesday at 11.” The appointment was for our dentist in Rochester NY. We had been hoping for a cancellation for a couple of weeks and here it was. However, Tuesday was tomorrow and we were still in Michigan. After doing some quick calculations, we decided we could make the 400 mile trip in one day instead of 2. “We’ll take it.” So, we were on our way.
If you look at a map, the straightest line between Michigan and New York goes straight through Canada. No problem, we’d been going in and out of Canada all summer. Cathy had already prepped the kitchen to be free of any prohibited meat and vegetables. This would just be one more routine crossing. Or maybe not.
The first difference was the location of the crossing at Port Huron, MI on a busy bridge on I-69 as it changes to Canada 402. As we waited to pay the toll for the bridge, we noticed some oddities. There were uniformed individuals standing just past the toll booths. They were sending an occasional truck to the side for further examination. One semi was directed to turn around – a process so difficult that all lanes of traffic had to be held up while the truck maneuvered itself back and forth to navigate the sharp turn. When it was our turn, we learned that these were US Border Patrol. (What’s with that? We’re leaving the US.) When they asked the standard questions—where are you from and where are you going? -- we should have known the rest of the crossing would be more difficult. When Dave volunteered that we were crossing the border to go to Rochester for a dentist appointment, let’s just say it required a little more explanation. However, the guy let us through.
On the Canadian side, we weren’t so lucky. Our answers to the questions at the booth were unconventional enough that we were directed to pull to the side for an inspection. As several young men rifled through the truck and RV, we stood to the side. Not surprisingly, they didn’t find anything of concern, and in a few minutes we were allowed to proceed.
By mid-afternoon, we were inching our way through the line of cars trying to cross another border bridge at Lewiston, NY. With only one lane allocated for RV’s, it took over half an hour to get to the border guard. We braced ourselves for the inevitable rathole caused by the most basic questions.
But there was no problem. We answered the questions and were sent on our way. Whew! By evening, we were parked next to the canal in Spencerport in the Tops Supermarket parking lot. However we were thinking that maybe we’ll forego any more border crossings for the next few months.
Our unexpected arrival back in our old haunts made it a little more difficult to see friends in the area. Something further complicated by the fact that we didn’t have a convenient place to stay in the Rochester area where we could disconnect from the RV. With our dentist appointments on two successive days, we made it work. We drove the rig to Pittsford Plaza, which was about a 2 mile walk from the dentist. The first day, our friend Carol met Cathy for lunch, and Dave joined us later for some ice cream at Pittsford Dairy. Good stuff!
We opted to park for the night at a Wal-mart in Macedon, east of Rochester, before returning to the previous day’s location for the dentist appointment and a meeting with a financial rep at M&T across the street. However, the obvious advantage of this location was its proximity to Wegman’s, which allowed Dave to get a fix of his favorite donuts.
By Wednesday afternoon, we had completed our dental visits and were headed out of town, northeast to Massena, NY on the St. Lawrence River. We were going to spend the weekend with our grandson, Jayden, who is living with his mom there. We found a spot to camp at a state park on the river near the Eisenhower lock that is part of the system that connects the St. Lawrence with Lake Ontario. Our campsite was close enough to the lock that we could hear the ships sound their horn as they left the lock. It was also a little intimidating to drive under the lock in a steep tunnel that provided entry to the state park.
But we had a great weekend with our grandson. The beautiful fall weather was perfect for campfires and playing outside around the campground. There was also an event with an amazing assortment of animals for petting at the Power Plant Visitor Center next to the state park. We took a horse-drawn wagon ride and petted an alpaca and watched as a huge snake cuddled up to a an unwitting volunteer. On Sunday, we drove to St. Lawrence College in Canton, where Dave’s cousin Lois was visiting her daughter Alea who is a Senior in school there. While visiting with Lois in Alaska, we had missed meeting Alea, so it was a treat to finally do that and introduce Jayden to more of the family.
Before we left town, we had one more duty as grandparents. We had to assemble Jayden’s bike. Although these projects are never as simple as you hope they would be, we managed to get the bike ready to ride and Jayden was thrilled to put it to use.
Our next destination after leaving Massena was Whitehall, PA where Dave’s mom and sister live. It was a little more than we wanted to travel in a day, so we arrived early on Tuesday. After checking with the police, we were assured we could park the rig on the street in front of their house. Of course, that didn’t prevent someone from complaining and the police showing up a couple hours later. All was well and we were assured we could leave it there for the duration of our stay.
Our few days in Whitehall were busy ones as we caught up with financial records and helped arrange visits with some contractors for work to be done. To our surprise, we helped oversee the installation of a water softener system before we headed out on Saturday, one day longer than planned. However sad it was for us to say goodbye, we speculated that the neighbors were celebrating as they saw the rig disappear.
With our next commitment not until Monday, we stopped to enjoy a buffet meal at Shady Maple Restaurant in PA Dutch country and spent several hours at Gettysburg National Military Park before moving on to Hagerstown in preparation for our appointment to have work done on the RV.
The new generator purchased in August has performed well and made it through the break-in period without problems. There were a couple of days when the generator was barely raising the voltage on the batteries. This made no sense. As the numbers dropped, Dave went out one night to see what was happening. He was disturbed to find a melted fuse. Instead of tripping and severing the circuit, the fuse had overheated. The fuseholder was damaged as well. Dave replaced the fuse, fuseholder and the wires leading to it, which appeared to solve the problem.
We now use the new generator as the primary power source when we are off the grid. Since it sits in the bed of the truck, Dave decided to modify the wiring to the battery charger to make it a simpler connection when it was being used. Also, since the generator had more output potential, he wanted to upgrade to a heavier gauge wire and outlets. Over the course of a few weeks, we managed to get the pieces needed to make this happen. Now the wire connects easily from the bed of the truck and has 20A outlet inside the RV.
However, one of the reasons we purchased the generator was in hopes that it would power our AC when we were not plugged in. With the soaring temperatures in Rochester, we had the perfect opportunity to test it out. Unfortunately, the start-up load was too much for even this heavier-duty generator. We’ll have to look for other ways to stay cool when we are dry camping.
Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan. The states have been passing by as we make our way east toward “home” and family. We pulled out of Yellowstone the day after Labor Day and have moved every day since, bringing us to the port of St. Ignace on Lake Huron’s western shore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We paused here for a few days to look around and catch our breath before heading further east.The miles haven’t passed by uneventfully. With Pat and Fred off pursuing repairs on their motorhome, we found ourselves having to tend to some ourselves.
There were a number of firsts on this leg of the trip. The first time we had the truck and RV towed. Cathy’s first ride in the back of a police car. Our first overnight stay on a residential street with the slide in. And the first time we’ve had so many injectors replaced in so few days. Maybe we should start at the beginning.
Our last day at Yellowstone started with frost on the windshield and ice from last night’s rain falling off the slide topper as it rewound in preparation for our departure. Still the day was beautiful and clear and we had a short day’s run planned to Columbus MT where we had an appointment to get the truck’s oil changed and fuel filters as well. However, we only made it about half that distance to Livingston. Stopping to get fuel before getting on I-90, we saw white smoke drifting across the hood. Unable to determine where it was coming from, we called the mechanic in Columbus at the Ford dealer to help assess how serious it was. He talked us through a number of diagnostics and cautiously suggested we could make it the 60 miles to his shop.
However, once Dave accelerated to enter traffic, the smoke came pouring out of the engine. We weren’t going to risk it. There was no Ford dealer in Livingston, so a call to the Dodge dealer was initially discouraging. It would take a couple of days to look at the truck. Luckily for us, he was quick to suggest we call a local shop called ATS. Ryan at ATS listened to our description of the problem and told us to bring it to the shop, less than a mile away. And yes, they had a place for us to park the fifth wheel.
Shortly after arriving, two mechanics were looking at the truck, but determined we would have to disconnect so they could put it on the lift. Verifying we could leave the fifth wheel parked on the street, we separated the fifth wheel from the truck and waited for their diagnosis. The news was good and bad. Injector 4 had failed, and we were very lucky we hadn’t driven further or we could have damaged the engine irreparably. All that smoke was a mixed blessing. It was due to a cracked “up-pipe” for the exhaust. Given its condition, it had probably been failing for a long time, but the fact that it was broken generated a lot of smoke with the failed injector that got our attention and caused us to stop before more damage was done. There was discussion about replacing the other injectors, however once number 4 was replaced all the even injectors on the same side tested fine and they had been replaced three years ago. The odd injectors on the other side were still original, but they still tested OK. We decided to just replace #4. Although the repairs were not going to be cheap, especially replacing the “up-pipe”, we felt very good about the work being done and the truck should be ready the next day. Since the fifth wheel wasn’t going to move without the truck, we were assured we could stay in it where it sat, but it wasn’t in a good position to open the slide. That was a minor inconvenience considering what could have gone wrong.
While we waited, we explored the town of Livingston. Before Gardiner had its own train station, Livingston was the original gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The historic train depot now houses a museum, but the trains passing through town are very actively moving freight and passengers in the present. The downtown had some interesting eateries, which managed to tempt us with their fare, including a luscious bear claw pastry and one of Mark’s In and Out burgers and a corn dog. And then there was a DQ nearby. . .
By late afternoon on Wednesday, we were hooking up the truck again, which was running great. In addition to the new injector and up-pipes, we had fresh oil, transmission fluid and fuel filters. Our respect for the talent in this small shop had only grown over the couple of days we spent there. Aden, the shop’s owner and head mechanic couldn’t have given better customer service and his knowledge of the engine was encyclopedic. We felt good about the miles left to travel.
So, it was with a sense of disbelief that we found ourselves a thousand miles down the road and were finding the truck stalling at a light in the small resort town of Walker MN. It was all Dave could do to keep it running at the series of red lights in the short downtown street. When he spotted a city park with other RV’s a short distance later, he pulled in to assess the problem. Again, it wasn’t clear what the problem was. The symptom was nothing like what we experienced when injector 4 failed or when we had problems 3 years ago. We found a local Ford dealer, which was less than a mile away. Although it was mid-afternoon, Joel, the service manager, said his diesel mechanic could look at it if we could bring it in. But now, it would no longer start. We needed a tow.
A quick call to Coachnet (the road hazard insurance that accompanied our Puma purchase last October) started the process of locating a tow for the truck and the fifth wheel. While that was happening, Dave walked down to the Ford dealer and Cathy crossed the street to talk to City Hall about the rules for parking overnight in the city park. When we reconnected, Dave felt reassured that there was a place for the fifth wheel to park while Ford worked on the truck. Cathy learned that we could leave the Puma where it was, but we couldn’t stay in it there. Our contact at Coachnet was having trouble finding a local provider who would tow the truck attached to the Puma. By putting her in touch with Ford, we had a solution and the tow truck was dispatched.
However all of the questions to City Hall had prompted a visit by not one, but two police cars. Very friendly, they were there to explain that we could not stay in the RV in the park. We explained we had a tow to Ford and would be staying there. For the next 20-30 minutes, we talked about RV’ing and our travels by boat and RV. When the tow truck arrived, he had us hooked up quickly and professionally. However, it was going to be a tight ride for all 3 of us in the tow truck. No problem, one of the police cars was going to tail us down the road. Cathy could ride with him. That was a backseat ride. A little disconcerting.
At Ford, it was confirmed that the problem was once again an injector – number 7 this time. ( If only it had failed last year, it would have been under warranty.) We were once again lucky that the failure didn’t permanently damage the engine. At any rate, we signed up to have all four of the odd injectors (that sit on the same side) replaced. They were the same age and just as likely to fail. Plus once you were in doing one, the incremental labor for the rest was minimal. With only time on our hands, we offered to drive to pick up the parts at the neighboring town’s Ford dealer. That bought us some goodwill and by the time we returned, the mechanic had most of the job done. By mid-afternoon, we were back underway and making our way further east.
Crossing the Plains
Our truck problems didn’t really slow us down too much and we found the trip through the western plains interesting and scenic. One stop that had eluded twenty-five years ago was a visit to Little Bighorn. This site interprets the battle that was the last attempt of the Plains Indians to recover their way of life after decades of having European settlers take the land and game that had once been theirs. We arrived just in time to hear a park volunteer give an engaging description of the battle, with attention given to the perspectives of both sides in the battle and how events evolved over the course of the few days.
It has only been in the last couple of decades that monuments to the losses of the Native Americans have been erected and the interpretation broadened to understand what was at stake for them.
Moving into North Dakota, we got to visit the southern entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its busy gateway town of Medora, although we visited the day before the end of their season. It was interesting to guess how crazy it would have been at the height of the summer. Driving along I-94, in one day, we had the privilege of seeing several world records – the largest scrap metal sculpture, the largest Holstein cow and the largest Buffalo.
We took another side trip up to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, where we were able to tour a decommissioned Launch Control Center and Missile Silo from the 321st Missile Wing preserved as if its occupants had just left and would be back for the next shift. Site Oscar Zero sits at the edge of a remote 2-lane road surrounded by farmland and a barbed-wire entrance gate. After learning about the context of the times and the evolution of the Minuteman missiles in a film, we were guided through the facility by a very knowledgeable guide. The surface facilities were mostly for living quarters, mess hall and recreation of the staff of security and facilities management. The missile crews spent their 24 hour shifts underground in pods built to theoretically withstand a nuclear strike and survive for 3 weeks. The missiles they controlled were located several miles away. We visited one of the silos, November 33 to get a sense of how they operated and were maintained. It was eerie and facscinating – worth a visit if you can make your way there
Entering Great Lakes Country
We caught sight of our first Great Lake on our eastward journey late afternoon as we made our way from Minnesota to Superior, WI. It was – you guessed it – Lake Superior of the Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald fame. We traveled along and just south of this lake for another couple of days through Wisconsin’s northern border to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After spending a night in Marquette, MI of basketball fame, we followed the lake to Munissing before turning south to Lake Michigan’s northern shore and across to our stop for the night at St. Ignace on Lake Huron. Wow! Three Great Lakes in a day.
The Kewadin Casino at St. Ignace offered an inexpensive hookup to power and water and a free shuttle to the towns on either side of the straits – St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. We decided to use this as a staging point for touring the area, which had to include the famous Mackinac Island. On a beautiful fall day, we took the “slow” ferry across to the island. We spent the day wondering the famous fudge shops and walking the beautiful shore line. In the afternoon, we joined another couple for a horse-drawn carriage tour of the island – automobiles are banned here, with some rare exceptions. The Victorian mansions and the expansive Grand Hotel perch on the hills overlooking the water. Since most of the island is a state park, there are restored forts from the British days and scenic walks and bike rides. We could only take a sample, but along with fudge, it was delicious!
After leaving Banff National Park in Alberta, we made our way south toward the US border, where we were re-joined by Pat and Fred just in time to cross into Montana. As the national park service was in the middle of celebrating its 100th anniversary, we helped them out by visiting two of its more popular parks – Glacier and Yellowstone.
One of the places that often welcomes RV’ers for free overnights is a casino. We found one after leaving Banff on the lands of the Stoney-Nakoda First Nation people, west of Calgary. We had a great stay, enjoyed a good meal and even did some laundry. We did gamble a small amount, but it was fortunate that we kept the amount small.
We took scenic route 22 south toward the border through ranch country, following a line just east of the intersection of the prairies and the Canadian Rockies. This geography creates some amazing winds, including the famous Chinooks in the winter (strong southerly winds). The high wind caution signs along the highway gave us the sense of how minor the 20mph winds we experienced were.
To learn more about the area, we stopped in at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site. A small remnant of the first and most successful of the cattle ranches in western Alberta. The historic site recreates life on the ranch in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Our plans to spend the night at Waterton Lakes National Park (the partner park to Glacier National Park in the US) were scuttled when we arrived to learn that all their campgrounds were full, as were the nearest private campgrounds. Luckily, we were directed to Payne Lake Provincial Park, where we found a beautiful and spacious lakeside campsite. Our only problem with this last-minute change in plans was money. With our imminent return to the US, we had spent down most of our Canadian currency. Unfortunately, Provincial Parks accept only cash. For our first night, we scraped together the last bit of our Canadian cash to come up $1 short of the night’s fee. The camp host graciously accepted it, but told us that we would have to pay in Canadian currency if we stayed another night. Our friendly neighbors graciously swapped some of their Canadian money for our US dollars so we could pay for our second night. With our site secured, we hiked up the hill behind the lake and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and pleasant company, amazed at how lucky we were to find this spot.
Glacier National Park
The knock on the door took us by surprise. Figuring it to be one of our neighbors at Payne Lake, we were surprised to see Pat and Fred. It was Sunday morning and the last communication we had had with them was Friday night over a borrowed cell phone, quickly describing our change of plans. We hadn’t had any way to call or receive an e-mail from them since. We learned that they had spent a night in Lethbridge getting a hose replaced on their engine and another night at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (an interesting stop that we missed) before taking a chance on finding us still at the Provincial Park.
Only a few miles from the US border, we left together and arrived at our campground in northern Montana early afternoon after a short drive. We crossed the border on the scenic road within Waterton Lakes National Park. With Glacier National Park’s campgrounds full, we decided to stay at Chewing Blackbones RV Park, which was on the Blackfoot Reservation a few miles north of Glacier National Park’s east entrance at St. Mary’s. Over the next few days, we explored the park.
Having seen dozens of glaciers on the trip to Alaska and back, we were a little surprised to learn that we would not be seeing any within the park named for them. Climate change has taken its toll. Many of the park’s glaciers have retreated dramatically, some are gone completely, and all the rest are expected to disappear within 15 years. This hasn’t dimmed the park’s popularity at all. The park is bisected by the Going to the Sun road, which was an engineering marvel in its day, winding around and through the mountains, with some sections even suspended above the valley floor far below. We joined a steady stream of cars traveling this road, enjoying the scenery, but speculating how much longer private cars would be allowed on it.
The next day we took a hike around two glacial lakes in the northeast section of the park near Many Glacier Hotel. As we made our way around Lake Josephine at the southernmost edge of the trail, we found ourselves walking through endless raspberry bushes, full of the ripe berries. We had mixed feelings about all this abundance. They are delicious, so we enjoyed our share of them. However, it wasn’t lost on us that the bears in the area were probably enjoying them as well. Sure enough we saw some fresh bear scat full of berry seeds. Since we found ourselves alone on this part of the trail, we began singing every camp song we could remember, making sure any bear knew we were coming. The first rule of bear encounters is don’t surprise the bear. Apparently, our singing was annoying enough it did the trick.
In the evenings, we made our way to the nearby visitor center for some excellent programs. One was an evening of songs by a member of the Blackfoot nation. The other was about the centennial of the National Park Service, which was only a couple of days away.
Thanks to that particular anniversary, we soon discovered that we were not going to be in a National Park on the centennial.
Yellowstone National Park
As the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone figured prominently in the centennial of the National Park Service. There was a concert at the north entrance to the park to celebrate on the 25th that was attracting large crowds to the area. We decided to delay our arrival until the next day. After a stop in Helena at the county fairgrounds and a Bozeman Wal-mart, we arrived at the Mammoth campground at the north entrance early Friday morning and secured a couple of campsites This would be our base to explore the park for the next week.
As one park ranger put it, Yellowstone was created to protect the “weird” geo-thermal features within it. It sits over the site of a “super volcano” that erupted so violently a couple million years ago that instead of blowing up a mountain range, it simply dissolved it. The resulting crater or caldera still bubbles, spews and steams as the water encounters the molten rock below.
The hot springs in this park are not ones for swimming – their temperatures range from merely scalding to boiling hot. However they are fascinating and beautiful. At Mammoth, the springs deposit minerals that grow into terraces, adding height as fast as ¼” inch a day. They are orange, gold, green, grey and white – thanks to the heat-loving bacteria that inhabit them. They are also constantly changing. We had memories from our trip 25 years ago that didn’t match the current layout of the travertines (rock terraces). We learned that springs start and stop flowing regularly, move from one area of the hill to another. We witnessed a spring that was only 2 months old and some that had been flowing for years.
As we traveled further south into the park, there were a variety of other thermal features. There was Roaring mountain, which is covered in fumaroles, steam escaping through numerous fissures in the rock. Grand Prismatic, the mother of all thermal pools and all of its lesser cousins, have a deep blue center that dissolves through a rainbow colored-edge into a fiery orange perimeter. There were also the Artist Paintpots, bubbling pools of mud in various hues that the native American used to paint their tipis. Mud Volcano, Dragon’s breath, the list goes on.
But the stars of the thermal show are the geysers, which includes Old Faithful. Some erupt every few minutes, some every few hours and some, like Steamboat Geyser, haven’t erupted for years. We watched several of them erupt and they didn’t lose their fascination.
Yellowstone was created to protect its unique geology, but the animals within its ecosystem are being protected as well. The understanding of what that means has changed dramatically since the park was created. Bison, which were on the brink of extinction a century ago now create “bison jams” when some of the population of 5000 meander across the highway. A rarer site to see, now that the park no longer allows visitors to feed them, is a grizzly or black bear. We saw some of each, but it was the stack of cars and people on the highway that were the first clue that one was nearby.
Wolves were eliminated early in the 20th century, but have been back in the park for over 20 years, now numbering about 100. They help to keep the elk, bison and bear populations much healthier. Since they actively avoid humans, we felt lucky to catch a glimpse of one in the Lamar Valley one morning. But by far the closest encounters we had were with the numerous elk that have made Mammoth Hot Springs their home. They walked through our campsite, parked themselves on the lawn and even poked their head into the door of Pat and Fred’s coach. We still had to keep our distance, since these are very much wild animals.
The most unique encounter we had was with a fox early one morning on a side road We watched him stalk and pounce on some small animal and then come back to show off as he sat on a rock as we drove by. We saw pronghorn sheep wondering around the stone arch near Gardiner, and a lone bison sleeping under a tree like Ferdinand the bull in the children’s story.
One of the more unique experiences in Yellowstone is a stagecoach ride. One morning, we took one on a ride into Pleasant Valley, getting a sense of the kind of transportation that was the only option available the first 43 years of the park’s existence.
As the month was coming to an end, Pat and Fred made ready to leave for some scheduled appointments to have work done on their coach. We decided to stay behind, so we said goodbyes again. We were less certain that we would see each other until we got to Florida, but it’s been a great summer adventure together.
Although our Honda 1000 generator, which was originally purchased to charge Orion Jr’s batteries, has been doing fine charging the RV’s batteries, we were concerned that it wasn’t up to the challenge if we needed to run the A/C. While we were staying in Helena, Dave saw an ad for a sale at Harbor Freight on a generator that would do the job. We had seen one in Seward being used by someone with the same model fifth wheel. He was able to buy one and Cathy managed to modify a grill cover to keep it dry. After re-arranging the contents of the truck bed, it now has a home and it seems to be doing a good job. However, we haven’t put it to the real test yet, since it hasn’t yet gone through the break-in period. More about that in future updates.
After a couple of weeks on our own, we managed to connect again with Pat and Fred in Prince George, British Columbia before heading onto to Jasper National Park and down the Icefield Parkway to Banff National Park in Alberta. As we made our way further south, we went from traveling virtually alone to being the in middle of the thousands of vacationers in a couple of Canada’s most popular parks.
Over the course of a week, we took a leisurely trip down northwest British Columbia’s Cassiar Highway. Our next stop after Boya Lake was Jade City, a retail outlet for the area’s jade mines. Over 90% of the world’s jade comes from this area of British Columbia. We watched the cutter slice a thin wedge from a large stone, and then polish it to a gleaming shine using a dozen different grades of wet sanding disks. We learned a bit about how to judge the quality of the stone as well.
Moving down the road, we crossed the Arctic-Pacific Continental Divide in Dease Lake, and found another beautiful campsite next to Kinaskan Lake in a provincial park. We were a minor irritant to a black bear eating by the side of the road, who returned to his spot as soon as we passed. And we had to stop and take a picture at Eastman Creek, named for George Eastman of Kodak fame, who had hunted in this part of Canada.
By the time we reached the Bell 2 Lodge (so named because it sits beside the 2nd bridge across the Bell River), we were at least 150 miles or more from a town in any direction. We took advantage of the amenities at the lodge, which included free hot showers, a hot tub and a fitness center. We even splurged and ate an excellent meal in their small restaurant. It was pretty busy for such a remote location.
Our last stop on the highway was at Mediazin Lake. This was the most popular of the provincial campgrounds we tried, and had the luxury of offering electric sites. We even found one right on the water. Mediazin Lake sits at the intersection of the Cassiar Highway and the road to Stewart BC and Hyder, AK on the coast. We knew that Pat and Fred were heading there and might be close behind. But we had no way to communicate. Neither us nor Pat and Fred had cell service since shortly after leaving Whitehorse, and internet was not available since we left Dease Lake, where we had spoken to them briefly using Skype. We hiked up to the only business in Mediazin Lake, a mile from the campground and paid a small fee to get some internet. No word at all from Pat and Fred. Where were they?
With no new information to go by, we decided to disconnect the truck and take a trip to Hyder, AK. A 40-mile side trip would take us down through the Coast Mountains to the Tongass National Forest, where the bears were supposed to gather at Fish Creek and catch salmon. We headed out the next morning on a beautiful day for the drive, arriving at Fish Creek around 10:30 (which was actually 11:30a Alaska time). Apparently most of the bear sightings were early in the morning or in the evening. And there were only three bears likely to come through. There were hundreds of spawning salmon in the crystal clear water. We watched them for a while, as they jockeyed for their spot and fought off any interloper that dared try to take it from them. But we weren’t willing to wait that many hours to see a bear.
Although Stewart and Hyder are close together, compared to Hyder, Stewart is a major metropolis. We returned across the border and spent some time walking the estuary boardwalk and wondering the small business district. We thought it might be possible that Pat and Fred were here, so we toured the 2 RV parks, but didn’t see them. We then headed out of town, and shortly afterward, a black bear scrambled up onto the road, moseyed up a bit and headed off the other side. Maybe he was on his way to Fish Creek . . .
With no new info from Pat and Fred, we headed out the next morning for the last 100 miles of the Cassiar Our next turn would take us east on highway 16, also know as the Yellowhead Highway.
The Yellowhead Highway runs east-west from Prince Rupert on the Pacific Coast to Edmonton Alberta. We were going to join it about 150 east of Prince Rupert and continue east to Jasper Alberta. Our first stop was at the New Hazelton Visitor Center where we managed to get the first communication from Pat and Fred in a week. They had been in Stewart when we were there, but we missed them. They were planning to leave the next day. That settled, we took the advice of the Visitor Center’s recommendation and took a turn up into Old Hazelton and the First Nations’ Ksan Campground and Museum. Sitting on the banks of the Skeena River, Hazelton’s position as the northernmost port on the sternwheeler’s route made it a major hub of activity before the railroads and highways took over as freight carriers.
After parking the rig, we wandered over to the Ksan Museum with its historic buildings, totems and exhibits. Stopping into the café, we sampled the best bannock (a fried dough prepare by First Nations people) we had had on our trip. In talking to the chef, she said the recipe was a family secret that she had just had the privilege to learn from her mother-in-law after 6 years of marriage. We moved over to the historic downtown, exploring the historic exhibits and buildings. After a quick supper at the RV, we returned for a movie night in town. We joined about a dozen other patrons to watch Star Trek – Into Darkness – in 3D. Who would have thought?
After another night on the road at Fraser Lake, we met up with Pat and Fred in Prince George at the Wal-mart. Stocked up for our trip into the national park, we headed out the next morning east toward Mount Robson Provincial Park. An amazing side trip along the way was the Ancient Forest, a rare temperate rain forest in the middle of hundreds of miles of spruce forests. It had just been made a provincial park after years of being lovingly preserved and cared for by a local hiking club. We had our first taste of local raspberries along the hike and were rewarded again at our campsite that night, where the bushes were loaded with them.
The next day, it was a short trip into Jasper National Park, where we quickly realized we were entering one of the most popular parks in Canada -- along with several thousands of others.
Canada’s Oldest National Parks
Sitting on the border between southwestern Alberta and British Columbia are Canada’s first national parks, protecting a large swath of the Canadian Rockies. To the north is Jasper National Park which surrounds a town of the same name and extends south along the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefields – dozens of glaciers radiating out of a central mass. Just south of the Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park begins and extends south to the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. These parks were begun to protect natural resources already heavily promoted as tourist destinations. The intervening century has only increased their popularity and the crush of tourists that come from all over the globe to see them.
We had our first rude awakening when we went to register for a campsite. All of the campgrounds were full, so we were sent to the overflow area. We were told to “park anywhere”. Really? Yes, really. In the sprawling overflow area, campers and tents found sites wherever they could. Twice someone parked within inches of the front of our truck. We made the best of it and spent a few days exploring the park near Jasper. We took some hikes and bike rides, drove down to Maligne Lake and up to the Skytram, and each night we took in the entertaining ranger programs at the firehall in downtown Jasper.
Moving down the highway, we stopped next at the Glacier Discovery Center on a Sunday afternoon. This took the concept of “crowded” to a new level. We found a place to park for the night without too much trouble, but when we entered the center to learn more about what was available there, we couldn’t move for the press of people. Buses were picking up and dropping off hundreds of people. Glacier tours were running over the ice on the nearby Athabasca glacier in a constant flow. With luck, we arrived in time to join a ranger-led hike to the toe of the glacier, which was led with humor and skill by Spencer. One of the more interesting details he shared was the significance of the Snow Dome peak just beyond us. It is the hydrologic center of North America. From its slopes, water flows to three oceans – Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic.
Although we were sitting in a parking lot on a warm, sunny day, the glaciers kept a cool breeze blowing to keep it from getting too hot. However, by late afternoon as the Center was closing and the tourists departing, a violent thunderstorm moved through, as if the mountains were taking control again. By nightfall, all was calm and clear as the moon rose over the nearby mountains.
The next morning, we left Jasper NP and entered Banff NP. It was a beautiful day to drive the rest of the way through the mountains to Lake Louise. Jasper was wide open compared to the press of tourists heading to Lake Louise. Cars are parked for miles approaching the lake. We took a spot at the overflow campground outside of town and decided to wait until evening and head in to see it after dinner. It is beautiful, but is it really worth all the press? Not quite as busy, and equally beautiful was nearby Moraine Lake. However, it didn’t have the same reputation or the same crowds.
We took a trip to Banff the next day to understand what the campground looked like there before we took the rigs there. It was more expensive and more crowded, so we decided to stay another couple of nights at Lake Louise and use that as the base for our sightseeing in Banff. The hot springs in Banff were the impetus to create Canada’s first national park, and although the original springs are no longer used by tourists, there is a very good interpretive sight there. Considering the crowds in town, this was also not nearly as crowded as the other sites in town. We happened to arrive as a tour was beginning that was excellent and saved the day – much more of the experience we had hoped to find in a National Park.
We took a drive on the Bow Valley Parkway, which runs between Banff and Lake Louise paralleling the much busier Trans-Canada 1. Along the way, we saw a bear jam. A black bear cub and its mother were eating in the woods. People were getting frighteningly close – with 30 feet – to take pictures. The ranger finally managed to get them to back off and get back in their cars. Further down the road we took a short walk along Johnston Canyon to its Lower Falls. Billed as “Canada’s most popular hike”, Pat described it as walking at the mall at Christmas. To make the hike easy, catwalks had been installed along the rock wall, suspended over the river below. It was pretty amazing
By Thursday, we were ready to move on. We were only a couple of hundred miles from the US and our next major destination – Glacier National Park.
Cruisers who make a circumnavigation of any kind have a phrase that refers to the point at which they return to their starting point. For our circumnavigation of Alaska, this happened when we entered Tok, Alaska on our way back toward Canada and the lower 48. It was the end of our Alaska visit, but not the end of our journey home. And as we left Tok, we said goodbye to Pat and Fred, who were taking the Taylor Highway up to Chicken and on to Dawson City. It wasn’t clear when we would join up again, but if not before, we would see them in Florida this November.
A Different Kind of Olympic Games
Before leaving Fairbanks, we took in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), a competition between Alaskan natives and other First Nations people in sporting events unique to their culture. Reading through the schedule beforehand, we found the names of the various competitions unusual, to say the least – Alaska Stick Pull, Kneel Jump, Ear Pull, Fish Hook, and Drop the Bomb to name a few. This was not going to be your typical track and field competition.
Despite the unconventional games, these Olympics began like their more traditional counterpart with an Opening Ceremony, which included a parade of competitors and lighting of the Olympic flame. However, this procession was led by four dance groups who entered to the beat of their own pounding drums. And the Olympic flame being lit was a Seal Oil lamp, lit under the watchful eyes of 2 elder Lamp Tenders. The current Miss Alaska and former Miss WEIO presided over the evening’s proceedings, which included dance performances, medal ceremonies, and competitions of the Women’s Blanket Toss, the One-Hand Reach and the Fish-Cutting Contest.
Each WEIO event has historical significance as a way to build the skills necessary for the subsistence living in the arctic. Whether it’s to build strength and agility (such as the one hand reach and the Alaska high kick), hone a specific technique (such as the fish cutting or seal skinning) or increase the tolerance for pain (such as the ear pull or the fish hook), each event can be traced to activities with the Eskimo or Indian communities. We watched as the athletes contorted themselves to make the one hand reach. Then the call came out for volunteers for the blanket toss. The two of us were quick to join about 30 other volunteers that lined the four edges of a walrus skin blanket for the Women’s blanket toss. With several minutes of practice, we developed the rhythm to act together as a unit, pulling together to the Athabascan countdown of the leader. On the final count, we would all pull back and send the competitor hurtling to the rafters. The key was being in the right place to catch her when she came back down. It was exhausting, but we enjoyed being a part of the action. . However, when a similar offer was extended later to recruit additional competitors for the fish cutting contest, we politely opted out.,
Over the course of the night and the next day, we watched the competitions and found the feel of the crowd was as interesting as the events. The dance groups included everyone from small children to the elders. And like the blanket toss, at one point the dance performers invited everyone on to the floor. The athletes often coached their competitors, giving advice to make their reach longer or their balance better. There were two rows of special seating by the floor that were reserved for the handicapped and elders. At one point, we were offered a drink and a plate of fruit since we were also seen as elders – must be that grey hair.
There were also some magnificent displays of native costumes and regalia. All of the dance performers, the Miss WEIO contestants and most adorable of all the baby regalia contestants, were clothed in traditional costumes that included colorful native hooded shirts (kuspuk), fur-lined boots (muktuks), gloves, coats, and hats. But by far the most adorable were the kids. The baby regalia contestants were clothed in the most elaborate dress that showed off the maker’s skill, sometimes in spite of the little one’s discomfort at being so elegantly dressed.
Overall, the WEIO was an event we were glad we managed to be a part of, and worth the extra few days in Fairbanks to take it in. In Pat’s case, it was even more worth it, since she won the 50-50 raffle.
Fairbanks - Golden Days
As much as the rest of Alaska, Fairbanks’ history is entwined with the search for gold. What started as individuals panning the streams on their individual claims evolved into sophisticated dredges that churned up the landscape in a huge noisy operation. These ceased to operate over fifty years ago, but a few have been left behind and restored enough to allow us to understand how they used to work. We learned a lot about this industry through several events focused on gold’s heyday.
The first was a tour of Gold Dredge #8, which sits where it last was used just north of Fairbanks. Riding a train to the site of the dredge, we learned about the evolution of the mining industry and its impact on the community. Then, after a quick lesson in gold panning, we received our materials to do it for ourselves. Between the four of us, we each managed to harvest some small amount of gold. Let’s just say it’s not going to make us rich.
The next day, we attended a premier of a national park film about mining on Coal Creek in the Yukon-Charley National Park northeast of Tok, near the Canadian border. Using archived images, film and interviews, the movie recreated the engineering feat that was behind the first of the big dredges, that was located on Coal Creek within the boundaries of this national park.
Our last day in Fairbanks, we returned to Pioneer Park, where the first of the Golden Days festival events was being held. Golden Days celebrates Fairbanks pioneer history, and the Pioneer Club was having a flower show and tea, complete with some tongue-in-cheek skits depicting their ancestors celebrating holidays throughout the year. After the tea, we took the train ride around the park on the remnants of the Tanana Valley RR, a critical link for the few mining communities in the area.
When the mining industry was thriving, Fairbanks was able to support a home-grown dairy run by the aptly named Creamer family. When the economies of air freight forced an Alaska run dairy out of business, the Creamer’s closed the dairy, but convinced the local population to turn it into a wildlife refuge. Migratory birds cover the fields in the spring and fall, including trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes. We managed to meet some of the Creamer family on Creamer’s Days, when they took us on a tour of the remaining dairy buildings. They even brought their grandfather’s Chalmer’s car, which had the tradition of being the first car over every new bridge in the area. That posed an interesting dilemma, when the Veteran’s Memorial bridge opened in November of one year. The open air car was a little chilly.
Checking the List
We had to make a stop in North Pole before heading south to see what Santa was up to in his off season. We saw his reindeer and visited his house. Mrs. Claus was out that day, but Santa was in good form. David and Fred checked the naughty list to make sure they weren’t on it. There must be some mistake . . .
Retracing Our Steps
So, our trip back to the lower 48 was going to take us back down the Alaska Highway for several hundred miles. We stopped to see a few things we had skipped on the way north. We took a hike in Haines Junction and visited the Village Bakery, which was an amazingly busy place for a small town. In Whitehorse, we took a stroll downtown and stumbled across music in the park, with a bluegrass band playing for a mostly hometown crowd. We were thrilled to see more big animals moving about, with moose cows and calves crossing the road in front of us a couple of times and a hungry grizzly bear grazing by the shoulder of the Alaska Highway.
Before heading out of Whitehorse, we took an excursion on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad over the Gold Rush route to Skagway. It was a beautiful day, and we had some beautiful scenery and dramatic drop-offs right outside the window. As we made our way east on the Alaska Highway out of Whitehorse, we stopped at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Center, an exhibit with history and art of the local First Nation people that settled in the Yukon interior. The highlight for Dave was the bannock (afried bread) and raspberry jelly.
But our trip on the Alaska Highway ended with still another 600 miles to go. We decided to take the Cassiar Highway south just west of Watson Lake. After a side trip to fuel up, get some Canadian money and check e-mail in Watson Lake, we headed south into British Columbia.
Cassiar Highway – Boya Lake Provinical Park
The Cassiar Highway is a less-traveled highway that passes through some remote northern BC towns, many of them populated by First Nations people. The road passes through the Cassiar Mountains, passing many glacial lakes before ending on the Yellowhead Highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George. Our first day’s travel took us a short distance to Boya Lake Provincial Park. This is an absolutely beautiful emerald-green lake. We found a spot on the lake and enjoyed time hiking the trails and then two days of canoeing through the many islands and coves. The beavers are active in the crystal clear water, with lots of lodges and an impressive dam. The weather cooperated for us as well, allowing us to break out the shorts for the first time in a couple of weeks.
After a couple of nights at an RV park in the small town of Cantwell south of Denali, we pulled into Denali National Park's Riley Creek campground on the last day of June. Our reservation was for 11 nights, which would give us some downtime, after traveling every few days for two months. We also would have plenty of time to explore this magnificent park. By the end of our stay, we had hiked many trails and learned much about the park, its history, its mission and the wonderful wildlife and ecosystem it protects. We then moved north to Fairbanks, and for the first time this year, experienced summer weather.
Denali – Both Big and Small
Like many of the national parks in Alaska, Denali National Park is so big that it’s hard to take it all in At 6 million acres, it includes the portion of the Alaska Range that encompasses North America’s highest peak, Denali (which was renamed this year back to its Athabascan name). However, it wasn’t the mountain that caused the park to be created. It was something much smaller – the endangered Dall sheep that live on the steep sides of the mountains in the park. By protecting their ecosystem -- the mountains, the glaciers, the meadows, and glacial rivers -- the wilderness was protected for the caribou, bears, moose, wolves, and many smaller animals that call the park home -- and for the many visitors who visit. But despite the park’s size, the single park road which enters from the northeast side penetrates only 90 miles into the park, and most of it is unpaved and closed to private vehicles. However, it cuts through “animal central”, the primary habitat for most of these animals. Ironically, it is the desire for both the expansive views and the intimacy of animal encounters that draw visitors to the park.
Although Mt. Denali is visible from Anchorage and Fairbanks, hundreds of miles away, it requires the right weather. And, like most of these tall mountains, Denali creates its own weather. Some of the best viewpoints are also from points south of the park on the drive north from Anchorage. But as we made our way north, we passed each viewpoint without seeing anything of the mountain. We would learn that only 30% of visitors actually get a chance to see it clearly. We pinned our hopes on seeing it when we went to the Eielsen Visitor Center at mile 66 on the park road. An expensive bus ride, we would only do this once during our stay. Ironically, despite careful planning for weather, the day of our trip to Eielsen found not only the mountain itself, but the visitor center, shrouded in fog so thick you could see barely a tenth of a mile. That didn’t mean we didn’t get to see something special that day, but more about that later.
One of the things we were looking forward to at the park was getting to hike and bike. There were a number of trails that led out of our campground near the park entrance. We did all of them – exploring Horseshoe lake, historic buildings, glacial streams, suspension foot bridges and the flora and fauna that surrounded them. Our biggest accomplishment was climbing to the Mt. Healy overlook, which rose 1700 ft in 2.5 miles. With that quick a rise, there was little level ground and we could feel it. But we made it to the top to take in some amazing views before the imminent rain clouds caused a much quicker trip down. Our celebratory ice cream cone never tasted so good. Denali’s first 15 miles are accessible by a a free shuttle bus, but we had to limit our hikes to those nearer the entrance. A couple of problem grizzly bears were harassing people near Savage River at the 15 mile mark. So, no hiking was allowed out there. As of this writing, the bears had not been found, but the area was just reopened, having been closed for an unprecedented 3 weeks..
It was becoming a bit of a joke. We had been in Alaska for a month, passing by endless signs on the highway to watch out for moose. Despite endless hours of “watching for moose”, the best we were doing was finding what they were leaving behind – moose poop. We’d seen a lot of that. However, that was about to change. As we approached the park our first day, we saw an adult moose cow walking beside the road. As if that wasn’t good enough, when we made the turn into the park, sitting beside the park road were 2 moose calves. We had hoped that we’d see a lot of wildlife in the park, and it appeared we weren’t going to be disappointed.
The moose encounter was the beginning of a string of close and not-so-close encounters over the length of our stay. We saw beavers busy at their lodges and red squirrels devouring some pine cones they hadn’t stored for the winter. As we made our way further into the park on the paid shuttle, we saw even more – arctic squirrels, ptarmigan, Dall sheep, caribou, and bears. Perhaps our biggest thrill came out of the fog at Eielsen. We had taken a walk along the tundra trail, expecting to only see the flora that was a few feet in front of us, since the view was lost in the mist. Despite the crowds at the visitor center, we were alone as we made our way along the path toward what was a narrow precipice. As we made the turn to head back, a creature emerged out of the fog only a dozen feet ahead of us. It was a wolf heading down the trail we had just left, and certainly unconcerned about us. Wolves are some of the rarest creatures to see in the park, since their numbers are down to less than 50. Our excitement at seeing the wolf was shared, in a different way, by a nearby arctic ground squirrel. This little guy was relentlessly letting his buddies know there was trouble by his persistent cry.
But what was going to happen to those moose calves that had greeted us at the beginning of our trip? Unfortunately, we learned that they were orphans, their mom having been needlessly killed by a park visitor in June. A week into our stay, they had found a new home at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, since it was no longer likely they would survive in the wild. It wasn’t clear what penalty would be paid by the visitor that had killed the mother.
Back at the campground, we spent many evenings enjoying the outdoors around a campfire with Pat and Fred, trying out some dutch oven peach cobbler or maybe some “pies” made over the fire. Or we might take in a ranger talk in the nearby amphitheater or up at the Science Center. We learned about ravens, migratory birds, the lynx, geologic formations in the park, just to name a few subjects. Because of the potential dangers of our interactions with the bigger wildlife, each presentation began with the "BMW" talk – about safety around Bears, Moose and Wolves. By the end of our stay, we could easily have given the talk ourselves.
One day, we took a road trip down the unpaved Denali Highway that runs east off the Parks Highway south of the Alaska Range toward the Richardson Highway across the center of the state. It provides views of the Nenana and Susitna Rivers, along with the Alaska Range and some of the glaciers that feed the rivers. Ironically, it was from this highway that we actually got our best view of the Mt. Denali, putting us in the ranks of the 30%. We drove for about 70 of its 135 miles to the Alpine Creek Lodge, arriving in the pouring rain, but found a warm welcome inside. We settled in for lunch and got to meet the owners and staff of this remote Alaskan roadhouse, learning more about how their life changes in winter. They groom a trail along the road for the 70 miles we had just traveled, enabling travelers by snowmachine or dog sled to reach them. The winter actually makes travel easier.
As the rain cleared, we got a glimpse of the lodge’s commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Then it was time to head back.
By the end of our stay at Denali National Park, we had come to understand the park much better and to appreciate those who had fought to preserve its wilderness and the animals within. By protecting some unique animals, much more had been preserved for those of us visiting nearly 100 years after its founding.
Fairbanks – Summer at Last
While the lower 48 bakes in record summer heat, we have been spending most of our time in jeans and sweatshirts. You’ll get no complaints from us, but as we prepared to move north to Fairbanks, we were taken aback by the forecast. High’s in the upper 80’s. Is that a typo? It’s like jumping from early spring to late summer in the space of a day. As we dug out our shorts and T-shirts, we were reminded that Fairbanks unique geography makes it home to the hottest temperatures in Alaska. The Alaska Range to the south and the Brooks Range to the north block its access to moderating ocean temperatures.
We planned a somewhat longer visit than most visitors plan for Fairbanks, since we wanted to stay long enough for the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. And we found an inexpensive campground with power at the Tanana Valley Fairground RV Park to be our home for the stay. Once settled in, we began exploring with the usual first stop – the Visitor Center. Here we took part in a ranger talk, since the National Park has staff here to guide people into the many remote National Parks in northern Alaska. We picked up info about the Olympics and possible trips north. After one more (and perhaps our last) movie about the Northern Lights, we toured the well-done displays about interior Alaska through the four seasons. Then it was time for lunch at the “Northernmost Southern BBQ”, Big Daddy’s. A great start to our visit.
We moved on to Pioneer Park in the afternoon, which has a mix of historic structures, kids activities, a small historic RR and an air museum. We learned more about the small Tanana Valley RR which predated the Alaska RR from Anchorage, and the Nenana sternwheeler one of many freight boats that formed the lifeline that connected Fairbanks with the small villages north and west of here. The freight runs, especially the sternwheeler’s route along the Tenana and Yukon Rivers provided these remote populations supplies not available any other way. There could be as many as 6 barges being pushed ahead of the ship. From Pioneer Park, we headed north on the Steese Highway to the Alyeska Oil Pipeline viewing site. While we had seen the terminus in Valdez, the origin in Prudhoe Bay was still several hundred miles and one mountain range north of Fairbanks. It sits above ground here and for almost half of its length because of the permafrost. To bury the warm pipe in permafrost would create an instability that would damage the pipe. To prevent any inadvertent heating of the permafrost, heat “fins” are positioned on the support posts periodically to diffuse any heat built up below ground.
The next day, we went back to school. Fairbanks is home to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which is just down the road from our campground. They offer free tours of the campus and some of the individual schools, which have some unique areas of study. From earthquakes and volcanoes to arctic climate, we could learn about a number of topics from the perspective of this northernmost state. We chose to visit the Geophysical Institute to learn more about its study of earthquakes and volcanoes, satellite imagery and unmanned aircraft research. Apparently Alaska has earthquakes all the time. We actually were driving through one as we left Denali, although none of us felt it. The UAF seismologist explained the different faults running through Alaska and tectonic forces acting there. There were banks of monitors keeping track of numerous remote stations that sense the earth’s movement in Alaska and report back to the university. The data is studied and used to put out warnings when one of these earthquakes is more severe. On a completely different topic, we learned about their UAV research. These are used to study sea lions and inspect the pipeline, as some examples. We got to try to pilot one using a simulator, some of us more successful than others at avoiding crashes.
Another afternoon, we toured the Museum of the North on campus with displays of Alaskan art and history, along with movies about the arctic dinosaur fossils and the bowhead whale.
One of the must-do excursions in Fairbanks is the Riverboat Discovery, which takes us to a re-creation of an Inupiaq village, with Alaska native interpreters. It was made even more interesting when we saw Jessie Royer again, this time explaining mushing to a boatload of us and answering questions about her dogs and the Iditarod. Despite the warm temperatures, we had to take time to experience Fairbanks in the winter. We stepped into the “Alaska at 40 below” room for a photo op. When we flubbed the first picture, we had to return a second time. We made sure we didn’t have to do it a third time.
By the end of our first week in Fairbanks, the temperatures in the high 80’s had been replaced by the low 60’s. It seemed like summer was over just as fast as it had begun.
Can you hear me now? We had spent months on the road with Pat and Fred, and a frequent complaint was we couldn’t talk to each other underway. Although both of us had CB’s, both units were old and hadn’t been checked out before getting underway. It turned out we had no range at all, so they were pretty ineffective. Once in Fairbanks, we found someone with the knowledge and testing equipment to help us understand the problems with our units. It turned out both of us needed new antennas. We purchased and installed a new 4 foot antenna which greatly improved our transmit and receive capability. Fred’s antenna was more integrated into his coach and more difficult to replace. After a couple of parts runs and different approaches, he successfully installed the antenna. We were able to talk to each other further away, but the real test will be when we head out on the road again.
We were pleased with the our new batteries’ performance over the long stretch off the grid at Denali. Dave took time while we were there to install a new AC outlet that was powered by the generator directly. Since we prefer to use the new battery charger we installed, instead of plugging in the 30-A cord to the generator, the AC outlets don’t work when the generator is running. Now, we have one that does, without having to run a cord out the window to the generator.