Sunday, August 31, 2014

Busy Days in WashPA

We have been very busy the few days we have been back in WashPA. There are the miles and miles of dirt and dust to be cleaned off both the inside and outside of Opus and the CRV.  We have gotten some of the doctor visits out of the way and have scheduled others.  We have had dinner at many of our favorite local restaurants and of course have gotten to spend time with family and old friends.  Nanc did a girls shopping trip to Pittsburgh, we took in a Pirate game and had dinner with my brother Rick and sister-in-law Denise.
Our first Wednesday we met the retired teachers out to lunch bunch.  Here are Jim, Sandy, Paul, Gail, Ron, Georgie, Tom and Dave.  Check out Gail it was the first day of the new school year and the realization that she was now retired and did not have to go to school really hit home. 
Anna Marie, the only one in the group who is still teaching, Lena, Reg, Pat, Linda, Nanc and Jackie all enjoyed a great lunch at the Southside.
Seems that Sandy has been reading the blog and thinks the only way to get her picture on it is to be a bear with a fish in its jaws.
One of our favorite things to do when we are here is to check out the local music scene.  Dan on the guitar and Josh on the sax are former students who play at Al & Rubens every Wednesday evening.
We attended another music event at nearby Century Inn.  This inn, which dates dates back to 1794, is one of the oldest on the National Road.  It is now a B & B and a restaurant.
A couple of the musicians.
They even had an instrument I could play, all though it does require a bit of balance so you don't fall off the tub.
The wildlife is not as exotic as Alaska but there is still plenty in Western PA.  This family of turkeys walked through our campsite.
Another evening, another dinner out and more friends, Tim and Di.  It was great sharing travel tales with them for there upcoming trip to the Black Hills, Yellowstone and Jackson Hole.  
Sherri, Mike, Tom and Georgie also joined us at the Kopper Kettle, another local eatery.
We are happy that the Pirates have climbed back into the pennant race, so at the last minute we decided to take in an afternoon game at beautiful PNC Park, the best baseball park in America.
Mike, Jim Sherri and Nanc rooted the team to a great win over the Cards.
The bases are full of Buccos.  Nice crowd for a day game.
Great view of the Pittsburgh skyline as the fireworks boom to celebrate the win.  After so many years of bad teams it is wonderful to once again have winners like I remember when I was growing up.
Mary Lou, Sherri, Georgie, Di and Nanc did a girls day of shopping and lunch in Pittsburgh.  We have been having a great time squeezing so much into the short couple months we will be in WashPA.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nevercold Refrigerator and Back to WashPA

While in Winnipeg our original plan of driving three straight days then resting two changed when the fridge, that we had replaced last August, began to act up.  The refrigerator part was not staying cold. Fortunately, the freezer where we had several pounds of halibut stayed below 32.  After doing some checking we learned that the company that made Amish replacement units was 1200 miles away in Shipshewana, IN and not very far out of our way so we drove four 300 mile days to get there.  The news was not good and the Norcold was living up to its reputation of becoming Nevercold, and this time in only one year.  Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.  Last year I had a replacement Norcold installed thinking that after ten years of recalls, fires and failures they would have improved the product.  They obviously have not done anything to make their product better.   

Our travel plans changed on the fly the first day when the casino where we were planning to stay was having a huge anniversary party and there were no RV sites available so we pressed on the Grand Rapids, MN Wally World.  Day two, at the next casino stop all the sites were full but we were able to dry camp.  Day three we stayed at the Isabella Michigan Fairgrounds and were able to wash Opus.  Finally, we spent a night at J C Refrigeration in Shipshewana where we had an appointment to check the cooling unit.
J R, the owner of the company that builds the units, confirmed our worst fears that the Norcold unit was done, (bad news).  The good news, they could install one of their cooling units that they manufacture right there in less than three hours.  As you can see the new unit on the left has double the cooling coils as the Nevercold and is made with heavier tubing.  They also installed a fan to improve airflow and a metal baffle to direct all the air over the fins at the top of the unit.  It has only been a few days but we really do notice a big difference.  The Nevercold was set on six or seven to maintain the proper temp while the new unit is set on four.  It is doing a good job even here in very humid WashPA.  Hopefully, J R was correct when he said he had sold us our last refrigerator.  We can only hope.
In Minnesota we passed through Itasca County near the head waters of the Mississippi River and crossed it several times. 
More roadside oddities.  The Tin Man was in Grand Rapids, MN the birthplace of Judy Garland.
The highway along Lake Michigan is right on the shoreline, very beautiful.
The five mile long Mackinac Bridge connects the UP with the Michigan mitt.  It is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. They say there is a great view of  lakes Huron and Michigan from the bridge, but I could not tell you as my eyes were only on the road.   
A beautiful Michigan sunrise.
We thought we would see a lot of motorcycles in Sturgis.  Then realized we were in Michigan not South Dakota:)
We saw many Amish buggies in Shipshewana. 
A beautiful Amish farm at sunrise.
Another great sunrise.  What are we doing being up that early?
Since our reservation in WashPA did not start until Monday we had three days to get there.  We called our good friends Mike and Sherri and got an invite to spend the weekend at the lake.  What a great way to start our two month stay in PA.
Enjoying the sunshine and doing a bit of fishing.  We caught a couple and had a great time catching up with friends.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Alaska Trip 2014 Summary

Our adventure to Alaska started on May 14 when we crossed the border from Montana into Alberta. Eighty seven days later we returned to the lower 48 in North Dakota having put 6,678 miles on Opus and 2,100 on the CRV.  In that time we spent about $4,600 on fuel for both vehicles, by far our biggest expense.  Prices varied from under $4.00 a gallon (to our surprise) in Fairbanks to a high of $5.95 in Dease Lake, BC where I'm not sure we didn't get ripped off as our mpg's were much lower after that fill up than any other.  There is really no way around the cost of fuel, it is a long, long trip.

We stayed in 33 different places at a total cost of about $2,500. There were times we could have spent less, but opted for a better site with a view or chose a FHU site over dry camping so we could do laundry in the rig rather that use the laundry facilities that cost as much a $6.00 a load.  The most we paid was $43.50 in Watson Lake and we had free nights a half dozen times.  If you are staying in campgrounds, a Good Sam's membership is a must as about a third of the parks offer a 10% discount with it.  Our best deal was at Country Boy in Ninilchik where we stayed for 13 days at the $15.00 a day Passport America rate.  Mike and Terri Church's Traveler's Guide to Alaskan Camping was very helpful in finding places to stay as well as being another source of what to do and see. Of course the other must have guide book is The Milepost, which gives mile by mile info on food, fuel, places to stay, possible animal sightings, attractions and much needed road conditions.

Another big expense, $2,300, was for the dozen excursions we did. We did save over $300 on these using the Alaska Tour Saver that is another must for anyone planning an extended stay in Alaska.  Not knowing if we would ever return, we tried to do as many things as possible and we were not disappointed with any of the experiences.

Food is another thing that is going to be more expensive up north compared to the lower 48.  Nanc had done a thorough inventory of our larder before we headed north so we were able to save a lot on groceries by stocking up before we crossed into Canada.  As a general rule the smaller the town the more you are going to pay. Larger places, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Soldotna, were all less expensive because of having the larger grocery chains, so it was important to buy there.  In Haines we paid $1.99 a pound for bananas, a daily staple for us, and milk could be as high as $6.00 a gallon.  We did not go out to dinner as often as we normally do and, again, because of the higher cost. We found restaurant meals to be at least 25% more than in the lower 48.  Nanc, who eats no meat, was pleasantly surprised at the many offerings to her liking when we did eat out.  A big part of dining out was going to brewpubs and we found most to be very good.  A couple of microbreweries only had beer tastings and no food and I even bought a small growler at one of these.

In addition to food we had to make sure Opus and the CRV were ready for the long trip.  Opus was due for new front tires and we put four new ones on the CRV.  That was a good move when you consider the condition of the roads.  Good rain gear is another must have and plenty of warm clothes including gloves for any boating excursions.  The best investment we made was for a new Canon EOS with a 300mm telephoto lens.  We also had a new point and shoot Canon so we were both able to take pictures. We took nearly 7,000 pictures and in most cases were very happy with the performance of both cameras.

Without a doubt, other than the overall expense that there is no way around, the biggest downside of the whole trip was the condition of the roads.  They tell you the Alaska Highway is paved all the way, but we hit long stretches of major reconstruction and gravel.  There were many time that we were only going 10 mph. The good news, Opus seems to have survived the trip in good shape. We only had one windshield chip and that was on a paved section and a couple of new nicks in the paint.  Our covering on the CRV worked well in protecting it from stone chips. We were surprised both going north and heading south how little traffic there was.  We never worried about tying up others when we slowed down or even stopped to see animals or for a approaching truck.   All the way back to the lower 48 we talked about what we would do and see differently the next time, then we would hit several miles of bad, bad road and we would say we are never bringing Opus north again.  My biggest disappointment was because of road conditions. We did not go to Dawson City and over the Top of the World Highway.  Not doing that road was later reinforced as the right decision when we talked to people who had done the route and had to deal with major reconstruction and costly repairs to their vehicles.  We got reports of at least three RVs that went over the edge on that road, including a $1,000,000 Prevost.  Because of the frost heaves I don't ever see the road getting much better in long stretches of the Yukon.  That said, next year may be a good year to make the trip because so many miles are being rebuilt.

All that said, looking back at our wonderful summer adventure of driving our home to Alaska, now that we have returned to the lower 48, we can say that it exceeded all expectations.  Many times in the last seven years on the road we have been asked what is your favorite place.  We could never really say, but now we will say, Alaska.  We saw so many amazing things and had so many wonderful new experiences.  Here is another look at a few things we felt were the high points of our trip.  
We love to soak our bones and we had a couple of chances on this trip.  Here at Liard and also at Chena Hot Springs.
After reading about the Watson Lake sign forest for so many years it was really neat seeing it.  Finding the names of places and people we know and hanging our own sign was very cool. 
How many people can say they have been to the Arctic Circle? We can.  It was on our must do list for this trip from the very beginning.  And riding on the Dalton Highway to get there was also neat.
 Seeing the Big Five, Dall sheep, wolf, grizzly bear, caribou and moose on our trip into the Denali wilderness was wonderful.
And we became 30%ers when we got to see mount McKinley towering over all the surrounding mountains. That was something we said we were determined see even if it meant spending extra time there.  We not only got glimpses of it several time, we got this fantastic view on our last day there, WOW!!!!!!
The literal high point was taking a flight and getting to land on a glacier on the slopes of Denali in the Alaska Range.  A once in a lifetime experience.
The abundant and diverse wildlife that we were able to get up close to was beyond all expectations.  You never knew what you would see around the next bend.
What can I say, a 71 pound halibut.  And that after catching and releasing at least five smaller ones was a real high point for me.
Another thing that was truly amazing was the number of wildflowers.  Because of the long days of summer daylight there are many beautiful varieties and colors growing all over the state.
So many eagles. There were times and places where they seemed more numerous than robins.
The trip to Columbia Glacier for a close up look at this huge mass of ice that is rapidly disappearing was great.
More fish stories.  I knew we would not be on the Kenai for the major part of the sockeye run and was disappointed that I did not get one despite many hours in the water.  I made up for that in Valdez when I caught my limit of six pinks in about an hour.
What can you say about the scenery, but WOW!!!!!  Forest, waterfalls, mountains, rivers, ocean, glaciers and more.  As we traveled each day we would think that it could not get any better than what we had already seen and then something even more spectacular would come into view.
Another once in a lifetime happening was seeing the humpback whales circling to create a bubble net to hold and capture their prey was unbelievable.
Seeing one fluke is a neat experience, seeing two or more at the same time is another, WOW!!!!!!
Being able to get so close to the bears at Hyder and witnessing them stalking and catching the salmon was another incredible experience.  Especially this black bear, who we had watched miss so many times the day before.
And the grizzlies, being within a few feet of an animal that is at the top of the food chain was fantastic.
As with all our travel experiences these last seven years meeting and making friends is always a high point.  We  crossed paths with old friends and made many new ones.  Top are Larry and Mollie; Lora and John. Bottom are Jerrie and Chuck; Bea, Bennett,Wanda, Nanc and Wallace.  
Top are Marcel and Sonya; Gary and Anita.  Bottom are Nanc, Pat, and Don; Britta and Bjorn.  We had a fun time with all of them and often crossed paths more than once.

The one question we can't answer at this point is, will we return?  The up side is the chance to experience so many wonderful things that you can only do and see in Alaska.  The down sides are the overall expense, which you just have to plan for, and the condition of the roads, which are a toss up.  If we do go back, it will not be for at least a couple of years.  That said, if you have not driven to the North Country we would say you must add Alaska to your to do list.  You will not be disappointed.  And as far as the road conditions, you just have to be prepared to go REALLY SLOW!!!!!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Edmonton - Winnipeg - Lower 48

From Edmonton we needed to decide if we would travel the shortest route back to the lower 48, straight south to Montana, or go through Winnipeg.  Going through Montana added 325 miles to the trip to WashPA, an extra day of driving.  Going through Winnipeg made the trip shorter, but it meant more miles in Canada and one last topping off with more expensive Canadian fuel.  By going through Winnipeg we would also get to see friends, so that option won out.  What's a few more dollars for fuel after a summer of high prices, right?  It was another three day's drive covering the 850 miles to Winnipeg.  On day one we stayed at Wally World in Saskatoon and the second night we found a free community RV park in Russell, Manitoba. These free stops helped ease the pain of the higher fuel costs.
Just outside of Edmonton we saw a few buffalo at Elk Island National Park.  Maybe our last look at big animals along the road.
We drove many miles with rain and threatening weather.  Check it out, they even cut and bale the grass in the median.
The fields were alive with the color of the canola plants in bloom.
We lost track of how many grain elevators we saw.  You can tell when you were approaching a town when an elevator comes into view.
There were thousands of ducks that were enjoying all the water from the record rainfall.  The water was very close to the highway in several places.
More roadside oddities that welcomed us to many small towns.  The bicycle is the world's longest.
There is a large Eastern European population in the prairie.  This old Orthodox church reminded us of ones we had seen in Alaska.  
When traveling in farm country you never know what you will encounter on the road.
While there are no soaring mountains the plains have there own unique beauty.
We met Gary and Anita at Betty's in 2008 and have seen them a few times since on our travels.  We only got to spend a couple of days with them as we were on a mission to get back to WashPA.  We had a fun time as they showed us around Winnipeg.
We went to the Forks, an area along the river with shops, restaurants, and walking trails.  The water taxi was operating even with the high water.
A neat display of several sculptures with each pointing to a different constellations or other celestial event like the equinox and solstice.  Stories about each were carved into the stone. 
When we were here two years ago the new Human Rights Museum was under construction.  The exterior is now complete and it will be opening next month.  Something to add to our to do list for another visit.
We got together for a toddy with Gary and Anita, and Marcel and Sonya, who we met in Alaska and who also live in Winnipeg.  We had a fun time getting caught up with all our travel adventures.  As we say many times, making and seeing friends along the way is the best part of the fulltiming lifestyle.
Back to the lower 48.  87 days after crossing into Canada from Montana we crossed into North Dakota and are still 1350 miles from WashPA.  Unfortunately, they confiscated many of our veggies, even the cherry tomatoes that Gary and Anita gave us that day fresh off the vine.  Such a pity, we were soooo looking forward to those:-(   On the bright side, all in all it was a fantastic experience and we are looking forward to spending time with family and friends before heading off on our next adventure.