Saturday, August 23, 2014

Boondocking: Upper Sun River, Montana

     Back in the USA, having crossed the border into Montana and with our next scheduled mail forwarding not due in Great Falls for 8 days we decided to go back off grid for a bit.  We headed to the Upper Sun River Valley about 90 miles west of Great Falls and 26 miles west of the nearest civilization in Augusta via Forest Service gravel road.  This is an area I had elk and deer hunted about 40 years ago.  Although a dozen or so new cabins have been built in some of the surrounding hillsides and gulches it was still very pristine.   
     There are two basic campgrounds in the area, but I had checked with the US Forest Service prior to leaving Augusta and mapped out all the allowable boondocking areas in the valley.  They also clued me onto a local hotel that would let me ‘water up’ the RV for free prior to departure.  We discovered that there are level areas and fire pits adjoining nearly all the forest service trailheads.  This is the main staging/departing point for guides, hunters, and fishermen departing into the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Benchmark Wilderness Areas.  We selected a very nice spot in the trees near the Mortimer Gulch Trailhead to set up.  Cost:  FREE.  There was even a very nice stack of firewood nearby due to downed trees and most was dry and split. I made sure to replenish this for the next campers before I left.  Because of our shaded location there was no opportunity for solar so we used battery bank and generator top off each evening.  It takes about 6 hours of generator to replenish the 20% used nightly.  The Honda generator will run 17-20 hours on just 3 gallons of gas and we had an extra 6 gallon can in reserve.  You just make sure to satisfy all your 120V needs during this time. 
     The first night was uneventful except that I had to re-prime a noisy water pump to remove some stubborn air.  Also, we had an uninvited guest during our sleep, which woke Dharma, and in turn us, immediately.  I have lived in NW Michigan long enough to know that bark and growl from our pup which can only mean…..bear.  Probably just curious cause no damage was done.

     Barb and I explored the area including Gibson Reservoir, which was down quite a bit due mostly to a long summer.  We had some pretty good views of the Front Range of the Rockies, but did not see any Bighorn Sheep.  This area is home to one of the largest wintering herds of Bighorns in the country, but they were probably still all ‘backcountry’ during our visit.  All the trailhead parking lots had several stock trailers as Early Backcountry Elk Season begins in about 2 weeks.  Most guides are setting up ‘spike camps’ and scouting. 

     We stayed in the valley for 5 days, just soaking up the sound of absolutely nothing except Mother Nature.  Dharma loved playing in the river daily.   The best thing about Bodhi the Wondercatt?  He doesn’t give a hoot if he ever leaves the RV once we’re set up.

     I have to tell you one of the best parts about this particular stay was crossing the border and filling up the diesel for only $3.79 compared to what we have been paying for the past 100+ days!  We’ll be in Great Falls for about 6 days now as we get mail, make some phone calls, and I have a growing list of RV maintenance and breakage I need to work on.  There was no cell signal during our stay so this was posted during our arrival in Great Falls, courtesy of our Hot Spot and Verizon! 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Canadian Rockies Part 3: Waterton Lakes National Park

   I must first apologize as this will probably be the 3rd blog entry posted in the past day or two.  It was not intended to be timed this way, but the quality of Wi-Fi has been pretty poor throughout much of the past 2 weeks, causing me to wait till I got a good signal to get everything uploaded. 

     Our last installment to the Canadian Rockies series takes place in Waterton Lakes National Park, which is part of the Glacier Waterton Lakes International Peace Park.  As such we are within about 30 minutes of the Montana border. 

     Waterton Lakes is a small park on the scale of things, but it is nonetheless stunningly beautiful.  It surrounds a series of lakes while nestled between magnificent mountain ranges.  The inside road ends at the village of Waterton Lake on the shore of the biggest lake. 

     As has been our luck the weather was rainy or cloudy much of the time so there will not be much blue sky seen in our pictures.  We arrived to find there were absolutely no camping sites left in the park.  Our ranger advised us to go 10 miles south to Belly River to boondock there, but alas nothing was available there either.  We returned just outside the village of Waterton Lakes to the Waterton Springs RV Park who let us boondock in their back field for $15 @ night.  We even had access to a water spigot, Wi-Fi, and the dump station when we left.  We operated off our generator for the 3 days as there wasn’t enough solar power to charge a pack of ‘D’ cell batteries. 

     Our 2nd day we traveled a road outside the park which led up the Akamina Parkway to Cameron Lake.  This road winds and gains in elevation as you leave the village through a canyon for about 7 miles to the lake.  The area teams with wildlife and we slowed down for a bachelor group of 3 Bighorn Sheep that believed they were the only ones entitled to the right of way. 

     The lake sits in an amphitheater of mountains high in a pass west of the village.  It is a very popular place for canoers, kayakers, and fisherman.  Spectacular ‘thrust upheaval’ geological evidence can be seen in the mountains here.  There is also a very nice waterfall just below the lake. 

   Returning to the village we spent a bit touring the Prince of Wales Hotel.  This is the lodging centerpiece of the park.  It sits on a bluff providing a viewpoint for the mountains, lakes, and the village itself.  We were unable to get a price quote for this lodge, but I'm sure we couldn't afford it.   

Afterwards we did a bit of Barb’s norm (shopping), but I did con her into lunch in town.  The Fish Tacos at the Waterton Lake Village Opera House and Coffee Shop are to die for!  



Monday, August 18, 2014

The Canadian Rockies Part 2: Banff National Park

     Leaving Jasper we headed south once again on Canadian Hwy 93.  About 65 miles south of Jasper you enter Banff National Park.  These parks border each other.  The majesty of the scenery continues as you travel the Icefields Parkway.   Our destination was Lake Louise, about 140 miles south of Jasper.   We wound up and down thru several mountain valleys during our journey.  Amazingly we still averaged 12.3 mpg towing!  Once, when we took a break along the road we discovered a family of Mountain Goats visiting a salt lick on the cliffs above the road.  This did take some stalking. 
      We had reservations at the Lake Louise ‘Hard Sided RV’ park.   There is also a ‘Soft Sided RV/Tent’ park which is surrounded by an electric wire barrier to help deter the resident bear population.  We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the campground.  The daily visitor passes for Canadian National Parks (in addition to camping fees) are pretty steep.  We had already paid $98 for 7 days visitor passes at Jasper, but the attendant at Banff credited us this amount towards a Yearly Pass so we only paid another $15 for the yearly pass.  Unfortunately, due to the increasingly dry weather campfires were not allowed during our stay. 


     The Lake Louise area is probably the most visited area in all of Canada.  The village of Lake Louise is the highest community in elevation in the country and the lake lies still another 700 feet higher.  Parking is limited and fills up quickly, but you can catch the shuttle bus at the village for $5.  We were able to visit and hike along the lake on our 2nd day when we got up at 7:30 a.m. to ensure we got a parking space.   There are also lake cruises, fishing charters, and helicopter tours available.  I was hoping for clearer weather, but it had rained the night before so there were still some lingering clouds in the mountains. 

     There is a very nice trail that extends the length of the lake on the north side and provides for some amazing views and photography.  I had worn my MSU Spartan wind shirt for the day and was surprisingly greeted on the trail with a hearty “GO GREEN GO WHITE” by another retired couple from Michigan.  Spartan fans are everywhere!

      I cannot even describe the color this lake displays.  It seems to change as the sun rises and the light changes.  It is a blend of blue, green, and steel gray.  Potentilla, Lupine, and Fireweed grow along the trail as well.  The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located on the east shore and is the main entrance/exit point to the lake.  This structure is very old as well as a very pricey 5 Star Resort.  The word ‘Chateau’ is a bit understated as this resort is as big as any you will find in Las Vegas.  Hang on to your wallet cause the seasonal rate for a room ranges from $878-$1238 per night!  Although this resort has several fine restaurants we decided this would NOT be our restaurant review for the area.  Yes, I’m loving my RV lifestyle right about now. 


      The village of Banff is located about 45 minutes south of Lake Louise, providing for a day trip.
.   I found the environmentally modified highway overpasses very cool as they are designed to allow the wildlife to pass over the road untroubled.  This project has been a huge success. 

     The village of Banff has it all, and if it doesn’t…..they will import it.  This reminded me very much of Aspen, CO.  It is much larger than either Jasper or Lake Louise.  This village can be described in one word:  UPSCALE.   The surrounding peaks make for a breathtaking backdrop to the main street. 

      There are countless resorts, lodges, inns and other places to stay ranging quite a bit in price.  Of course the centerpiece of town is the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel with seasonal rates a bit cheaper than Lake Louise, ranging from $489-$689!  Although this community is famous for its elk we did not see any during our visit.  The town, however, is littered with numerous piles of evidence left behind. 

     We had our breakfast at McDonalds for its free Wi-Fi and cause I think the sausage Canada uses for its biscuits is phenomally tasty!  After a trip to the visitor center for a map and a SHORT jaunt around town to satisfy my wife’s ‘shopping jones’ we headed out on the side roads to see a bit of the local vistas.  Unfortunately, it had rained much of the morning so the low clouds often obstructed our views.   We returned to Lake Louise via the Bow Valley Parkway which offers access to many of the local sights. 
     We only spent 5 days in Banff, but could have easily stayed longer.  I think Barb and I are both starting to miss the USA….and Verizon, lower gas prices, etc.  We’ll take a couple of days now visiting Waterton Lakes before we cross the border back into Montana.  We have about 10 days of adventures planned there before we begin the inevitable trek east.  We have been out of the ‘Lower 48’ for 90 days now.  
An interesting side note:  we discovered during this trip that our cat Bodhi has learned how to unzip the pet food and snacks bag as well as trip the correct switch to roll down the rear truck windows.  We also diagnosed that our dog Dharma’s occasional bouts with diarrhea and intestinal issues are due to her eating all the cat’s food when we are away.   In other news of the world…….both the cat and dog are still alive.  Mommy and Daddy had no comments permissible for publication. 


The Lake Louise Heritage Railway Station

     There is a wide variety of places to dine when visiting the Lake Louise area.  This ranges from pizza to family dining, to bistros and pubs on up to and including the 5 Star Variety:  The Post Hotel, Deer Lodge, Baker Creek Lodge, Moraine Lake Lodge, and several within Chateau Lake Louise.   We always ‘pre-scout’ the area for possibilities, stopping in and viewing the menus prior to deciding.  Lake Louise is very much a French Canadian village with European styles, meaning their menus were usually posted outside to view and decide. 
     We decided on the Lake Louise Heritage Railway Station Restaurant.  This is the actual train station for Canadian Rail in the village as well as a very nice restaurant.  Located on the north outskirts of town, the entire facility has been renovated to the original log lodge style of old train station d├ęcor.  They offer contemporary Canadian Cuisine and pride themselves on their homemade Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, made from their own Station Garden.  Patio seating is available.  There are also vintage railway dining cars available for private functions.
     The dining rooms have been remodeled to the time.   Everything is wood and the floors even creak. 
     The menu is quite diverse, offering the best in Canadian and Albertan Cuisine as well as daily specials.  You can order off the Ala Carte section or the Daily Pasta Special, the Daily Curry Special, or the Chef’s Special of the Day.  Prices vary accordingly.  Barb ordered the Albertan Pork Rib with Yam Fries and Fresh Asparagus (Ala Carte) and I ordered the Roasted Elk Sausage over Penne Pasta with Creamy Chardonnay Sauce (Daily Pasta). 
     Barb thoroughly enjoyed the Pork Rib.  It was glazed with a Peach Marmalade Sauce that was delicious.  The asparagus was crisp/tender.  I enjoyed the Pasta Special, but have never had an elk dish that I thought was cooked to perfection.  The Penne and sauce were perfect.  It was tasty, nonetheless.  Our waiter was excellent, always back to check on us. 
     I would easily describe our experience as large portions of great food at reasonable prices in a very comfortable, authentic atmosphere.  Our total came to right at $64 Canadian.  This is quite reasonable for the Lake Louise area.  We did not, however, try their famed Strawberry Rhubarb Pie as both Barb and I HATE rhubarb. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

Venison Quesadillas in the Canadian Rockies

      I have prepared dozens of meals for Barb and I over the length of this trip including some new ones as well.  Many were delicious; some not so much.  Crockpot Chicken Cacciatore was a particular favorite.

     We brought two freezers full of meats and produce for our trip.  We whittled it down to one before our halibut fishing trip, but once again empty freezers are not the rule.  We are out of produce and have added some pork and chicken when we felt the need for a change of pace.  We shop for whatever fresh produce is available and plan accordingly.  Amazingly, we still have several pounds of venison left, including a very nice pack of venison tenderloins. 

     I seasoned the tenderloins with Montreal Steak Seasoning (a favorite of mine) and then pounded them out a bit.  Pounding out tenderloin may seem a bit overkill, but I am a creature of habit.  I then soaked them in buttermilk for 12 hours.  This usually results in ‘melt in your mouth’ tenderness. 


     I did not have my Quesadilla pan with me so I used a traditional cast iron frying pan.  First I warmed the corn tortillas (I prefer corn tortillas, less fat).   I place these on plates. 

     Then, I turn the heat up to high, add some extra virgin olive oil, (the only oil I cook with) and braise the venison tenderloins, sliced onions, and red bell pepper.  NOTE:  Venison is a very lean meat and does take long to cook.  I like the vegees crunchy-tender.


     When finished I arrange the meat and veggies on the tortilla and add a garnish of fresh, sliced avocado and tomatoes.  I like to top mine with cheese (either Chevre or Monterey Jack) and some Tabasco Chipotle…….Barb, not so much on the hot sauce, but she does like a dollop of sour cream.  Sometimes when making these for breakfast I even top it off with an over easy egg. 



Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Canadian Rockies Part 1: Jasper National Park

     Heading Southeast from Dawson Creek, B.C. into Alberta, we boondocked our first night just north of Grande Cache, Alberta.  This area is one of two sites located either side of the town for ‘user maintained’ camping.  It took us a bit to find a spot that was easily maneuvered into as well as level.  There was plenty of firewood and our stay was uneventful.  I would choose the site SE of town if I were to do it again.  It is much more suitable to bigger rigs. 

     Continuing our journey we arrived in Jasper National Park.  The entrance and highway here are the main thoroughfare throughout the North-South Jasper/Banff area so they were sure to collect their fees.  We were fortunate enough to time our arrival to the park to coincide with the end of the Canadian National 4-Day Weekend so were found a very nice camping spot in Snaring River Campground within the park.  Jasper National Park has several campgrounds with approximately 1200 campsites, but many of the more modern ones are reservable and therefore full, especially during the peak of summer.  Because of this Jasper created the Snaring River Overflow Camp.  In the event that nearly every campsite is reserved or already filled this are area opens.  The overflow consists of several dozen primitive campsites along the Snaring and Athabasca Rivers with picnic tables only.  There is no water, vault toilets, or firewood (no fires allowed).  Vagabonding campers often use this area till a site opens somewhere.    Campground status boards are regularly maintained throughout most areas of the park.  Again, you can’t beat Canadian Campgrounds, be they Provincial or National.  Snaring River is considered semi-primitive, but comes with a level site, fire pit, free potable water, and unlimited FREE FIREWOOD for $15.70 a night.   We, of course, operated off our boondocking equipment.

      Jasper is Canada’s largest and oldest park.  It is just north of Banff in the Canadian Rockies and truly just as magnificent.   We spent 5 days here enjoying the village, Maligne Lake, the Sky Tram (yes, Rich went up in the Sky Tram), Mount Robson, the Glacier Skywalk (no, Rich wanted no part of this), Athabasca and Sumwapta Falls.  Suffice it so say the Canadian Rockies are incredibly beautiful, but no further alliteration is necessary.  Enjoy the photographs.  For more information:                       


Friday, August 1, 2014

Deja Vu Dawson Creek

     Alas, we have re-arrived at Dawson Creek, Mile 0 of the Alaskan Highway.  It did seem like a much longer haul in return as the seasons have changed as well as traffic and hazards.  We departed Dawson City on July 28th, Day 1, traveling south 300 miles to Whitehorse.  We were stop and go driving most of the day due to road construction.  Little did we know this would not be the last time.  Unfortunately, our trip was a bit marred by tragedy as about 30 miles north of Whitehorse we were stopped in traffic just 12 cars behind a tragedy.  Another driver mistakenly judging distance passed one too many cars and cut the last one off far too short.  That driver braked, the driver behind him plowed into him, and they both careened off the road down a steep embankment near a lake.  We were in line for 2 hours before conditions allowed us through.  Not till the next day did we know that 2 of the 3 people involved in the rollovers perished and the 3rd was taken to the hospital in serious condition.  The driver that cause this entire mess............never stopped.  We spent night #1 in the WalMart parking lot in Whitehorse.
     Days #2 and 3 were fairly uneventful except for more road work.  I was particularly proud to have gassed up prior to Muncho Lake (where I paid a King's Ransom on the way up).  I felt particularly proud of that and did honk and wave at the gas station on the way past......(just honking and waving.  Barb wouldn't let me do any more). 

     We spent the night at the top of Stone Mountain Provincial Park at Summit Lake.  This is a park we saw on our way through the first time, but it was still snowed in and the lake frozen.  We got a beautiful spot by the creek and the lake.  We did see several bands of Stone Sheep, but unfortunately Barb was not fast enough on the camera.  Fast little devils!  Although this campground was no frills I was particularly impressed with the Compostable Toilet they had on site.  Powered by solar, this unit is designed to stimulate bacteriological growth in order to convert human waste into compostable material.  This has a completely ZERO IMPACT on the surrounding ecosystem! 

     Days #4 and 5 resulted in our arrival back at Dawson Creek, MILE ZERO, and a welcome 3 day respite from the rigors of travel to recharge and relax.  The most and lengthiest construction of the entire trip is from Watson Lake to Fort Nelson with 2 sections involving many miles of gravel and 30 minute delays.  This can involve gravel, dust, more dust, more gravel, and some oil (Polyseal) and then even some more dust and gravel. 
     You gotta love irony.  As we headed down the last stretches of the ALCAN into Dawson Creek today a very large dual tanker truck labled Aggressive Energy passed us in (of course) a no passing zone.  We just turned off the cruise control, laughed, and resumed our trip when he sped on, presumably to hell.  Arriving at Mile Zero RV Park in Dawson Creek we opted to dump prior to parking.  When we arrived at the dump station we both looked at each other and laughed out loud at the sign next to the station.   You gotta ask yourself, "Use hoses?.... is this a problem?!?!"

LESSONS LEARNED:  We traveled much shorter distances each day on the way back, 1220 miles in 5 days.  We boondocked at WalMart and stayed at Canadian Provincial Parks.  These parks are a real bargain.  $12-16 a night and they have fire rings, water pumps, and firewood (sometimes free).   We found that on the way up RV parks can be fairly expensive and not necessary unless you need service.  Most are upwards of $35 a night.  Reservations are probably not needed, but $$ is.  Road construction kicks into VERY HIGH GEAR later in the summer so be prepared for delays (some very long).   Be prepared for a dirty vehicle/trailer combination.  I washed my truck/RV 3 times on the highway back, but will still need another one before our departure from here.  Most of the mud is due to the Polyseal they are using to coat and seal the newly laid gravel over the current highway before they build the new highway.  It is a yearly process, I am sure.  DO NOT spare the time to stop and smell the Fire Weed.  When it is in full bloom it is a beautiful light purple grove that carpets the margins of the entire ALCAN Highway.

SUMMARY:  We will depart Dawson Creek in a couple of days after we relax, shop a bit, and thoroughly clean the RV/truck inside and out.  Our itinerary now takes us down the east slope of the Rockies through Alberta as we visit Jasper, Banff, and Lake Louise Provincial Parks.