Wandering in Montana

After a few days of boondocking it’s nice to hit a full hookup campground for a night just to get everything back in ship-shape.  The Airstream is inevitably full of dirt and gravel tracked in from the campsite, we are perhaps a bit less fresh than we’d like to be (due to careful conservation of water), all the little electronic devices we carry need charging up, the laundry basket is full, it’s time to get some groceries, and maybe dump the tanks if there wasn’t a place to do it before.

Montana Airstream lunch stop Ft Union

The definition of many Airstreamers is “someone who spends $75,000 on a trailer and then looks for free campsites,” and there’s a bit of truth in that. But there’s a good reason.  I personally hate paying the rates commercial campgrounds charge when what we get in return is a lengthy set of rules, a tedious check-in process, an un-level campsite with dodgy electric, street noise, and neighbors so close we can hear them chewing. We look for the state park and federal sites not because they’re cheaper (or free)  but because they are so much less annoying.

But sometimes you need the full hookups.  In this part of eastern Montana there aren’t a lot of choices in campgrounds.  A few nice-sounding Federal and State campgrounds didn’t have the services we needed and were too far off in the boonies for our needs, so we just grabbed the first commercial campground we could along Route 2, “the Hi-Line” road—and resolved to accept whatever fate handed us.

As it turned out we got pretty lucky and found a residential park that had a few transient spaces available, for $25 a night. The site was a lumpy bit of dirt but it was quiet, the utilities worked and the friendly manager even tipped Eleanor off to the best washing machine in the laundry room. The town was too small to have a decent grocery store but we’d find groceries further west in Havre later.

Ft Union to Missoula

Last spring when I was planning this trip I wanted to travel the Hi-Line across Montana to see what the small towns and native reservations looked like, and because it was an appealing alternative to I-94. There really isn’t much to grab the tourist’s attention along this route except for a dinosaur museum in Malta, the Fort Peck area around the reservoir, and a few other small curiosities such as a buffalo jump and some roadside art. The road is reputed to be the most dangerous in Montana, due to a 70 MPH speed limit and few passing lanes. Still, I’m glad we took this path at least once.

At Havre we faced a decision: continue along Rt 2 to the Glacier area, or dive south through Great Falls and back to the Interstate at Missoula?  Bert Gildart told us the crowds around Glacier and the Flathead Lake area were unbearable (by Montana standards) and a look at ReserveAmerica confirmed it: all Glacier-area campgrounds booked solid.  No, thanks.  We’ll come back another time when it’s not peak season and the NPS isn’t driving attendance up with their centennial celebration.

So we are going to press on westward, heading for the northwest corner of Washington around the North Cascades National Park, where hopefully things will be quieter.  This means a lot of driving over the weekend, but that’s fine if it yields a few days of really nice country at the end, and this way we’ll arrive in the park when a lot of working folk are heading back to home. Besides, we need to get to Seattle in less than a week, so we’ve dawdled as much as we can.

Two related observations:

  1. When I tell non-Airstreamers that we are taking “only” a month to cross the country, they always give me a peculiar look. They’re used to the idea that you can only take off a little vacation time and so such a trip must be a rush-rush thing. So I explain to them that having the Airstream means I can work as I travel—relatively little of my time is spent “vacationing”— and slow down to enjoy things more. Usually this gets me a blanker stare.

    This trip has been a relatively quick one.  We will have traveled well over 3,000 miles from Vermont to Washington in 25 days, which is an average of 120 miles per day. There have been so many times we wished we could detour further, stay longer, relax more on this itinerary.  I think the ideal amount of time to cross the USA is about two to three months. Maybe when we’re closer to retirement we can slow down and travel like we did in the 2005-2008 full-timing days.

  2. When thinking about North Cascades National Park, I realized that we have been to 38 of the 58 designated National Parks in the NPS system so far.  We’ll bag two more—Mt Rainier and North Cascades—before this trip is over.  We may never see some of the National Parks (like American Samoa and Virgin Islands) but I do think we’ll continue visiting the 400+ units of the National Park Service for the rest of our lives.  They are an amazing treasure and the best value for an Airstream owner anywhere.

A sunshine lesson in TRNP

The north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is disconnected from the south, separated by 70 miles of rolling terrain near the edges of North Dakota’s current oil boom.  There’s a strange confluence occurring in the area between the yellow hayfields and the gray derricks, trucks, and tanks that represent the rush to plunder the oil reserves below.

The north unit of the park is of course protected from all that, and I am glad to say that it is beautiful and worth the trip.  Still, not many people go there. I suppose this is because there’s less “stuff” to see and do compared to the south unit, and it lacks the convenience of a nearby tourist town (the south unit has the town of Medora).  There’s also no cell phone service in the campground, and no hookups or services, so you have to be self-sustaining and OK with being disconnected for a while.  I didn’t mind.

The weather finally turned on us, soaring up to 95 degrees during our one-night stay in the north unit. Without air conditioning we had to revive some hot-weather countermeasures we haven’t dug out in years.  Mostly the trick is to limit activity, have cold drinks, deploy all the awnings, run fans, and take cold showers.  We lazed around in the trailer for a while reading books, but eventually fled the Airstream to drive the scenic road through the park and soak up some chilled air in the car.

TRNP north CCC building

In the photo you can see Eleanor walking toward a CCC-constructed shelter on a bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River.

Emma picked up another Junior Ranger badge in the morning, and then we moved on to Fort Union National Historic Site, about an hour away on the North Dakota/Montana border.

Fort Union NHP

We parked the Airstream in the Montana parking lot, had lunch, and then walked to the North Dakota side to tour this interesting reconstructed fort and trading post. In the photo above, note the unplanned comparison between the work truck of the 19th century and the work truck of the 21st century.

Airstream Montana sign Fort Union

After all four nights of boondocking I was worried about getting back online to do some work, and getting the batteries re-charged.  We had drained the trailer battery below a certain point and I wanted to get it back up to 100%.  (The following discussion gets technical but those of you who are interested in solar stuff might want to consider this.)

Practically speaking, we can collect a maximum of about 55 amp-hours in a single sunny summer day with our two 115-watt fixed-angle rooftop solar panels.  In theory such a pair of panels could collect 150+ amp-hours in eight hours of full sun, but in the real world it doesn’t happen for various reasons: clouds/haze, sun angle in the morning and afternoon, time of year, wiring losses, efficiency losses in the charge controller, battery resistance, dust on the panels, etc.

We also have a pair of 120-watt GoPower portable solar panels, which I use when we need extra charging capacity or when the Airstream’s rooftop panels are shaded by trees—as they were at TRNP. They can add another 30-35 amp-hours in real world use.  (They are more efficient than the rooftop panels because they can be angled to capture morning and afternoon sun).

It’s not the goal to recharge to 100% every day. If the batteries manage to make it to 100% that’s nice but it indicates either we didn’t need much recharge or the panels are oversized relative to the batteries (or the solar charge meter is inaccurate, which is virtually guaranteed for voltage-based meters).

Since the last 10% of charge takes a disproportionate amount of time, our goal is to get the battery to 85-90% each day, and draw it down it to no lower than half its capacity overnight. Our battery is rated at 255 amp-hours with a rated duty cycle of 50%, which gives us a usable capacity of 127.5 amp-hours.  (We can discharge it lower but if we do we’ll be buying a new battery much sooner.)

On this trip the Tri-Metric amp-hour meter was telling me that we were using a lot of power (due to heavy use of 3 vent fans and watching a movie each night using the inverter), so we had a net loss each day. By the first morning we had used 74 amp-hours (Ah) and regained 51 Ah during the following day, netting out at -23 Ah from full.

The second night we were more cautious with our power use, but still by morning the meter showed that we were down to -93 Ah and we recharged to only -64 Ah.  The third morning it was down to -104.5 Ah and we recharged to -64 Ah again.

This was an unsustainable trend. At this point the battery was well below our theoretical maximum daily charge of 55 Ah and it would take two days of full sun to get back to 100%.

I was disappointed because we have been deploying the portable solar panels in addition to the rooftop panels, to capture morning and afternoon sun.  My calculations suggested we should have gained much more power than the Tri-Metric was telling me.  But I had a theory about why, and it was confirmed the next day when we plugged into city power at a campground in Culbertson MT: the batteries took almost no charge, despite the Tri-Metric showing that they were still at -104 Ah.

The problem stems from the fact that I’ve got two solar charge controllers in the Airstream and they’re fighting each other.  There’s a built-in BlueSky MPPT controller that takes the power from the two roof panels and puts it into the battery, and the portable GoPower panels have their own controller that does the same thing.  Each controller “sees” the other one, by detecting the voltage at the battery.  The GoPower controller gets confused and backs off on charging (thinking the battery is already fully charged) which results in it putting less power into the battery than it should.

Worse, the Tri-Metric gets baffled in this situation.  It uses a calibrated shunt at the battery to measure the current going in and out. For some reason, when I plug in the portable panels it only measures some of the electrical current, resulting in an inaccurate reading.  Thus, each day I was getting an inaccurate state-of-charge report, and I thought we were low on power even when we weren’t.  In actuality we were recharging to nearly full each day!

Fortunately the Tri-Metric is smart enough to know when it is wrong.  It uses an algorithm to sense when the battery is fully charged, and resets to 100% under those specific circumstances, thus compensating for any long-term inaccuracies.  It was interesting to see it “realize” that our battery was not at 50% but rather 100%, and after just a few minutes of being plugged in the Tri-Metric conceded and ‘fessed up.

I’ve got a fix planned for this.  I’m going to install a plug for the portable panels that ties into the existing wiring for the rooftop panels. This plug will go in the refrigerator compartment. I’m also going to disconnect the solar charge controller on the portable panels.  By tying the portables into the existing wiring (rather than having them directly connected to the battery as they are now) all of their energy will go through the Tri-Metric shunt correctly and through the BlueSky charge controller.

This should give us an accurate reading and no more trouble with two solar controllers fighting to charge the battery.  I plan to make this mod when we get to Seattle and settle in for a week or two.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

We’d spent most of a week in Wisconsin, culminating in a few nice days on the shore of Lake Superior in the city of Ashland and near the Apostle Islands in the town of Bayfield, and it finally was time to go.  North Dakota was calling us–the last of the lower 48 states to receive our Airstream.

Yes, with this one we’ve finally hit all 48. (I doubt our Airstream will ever visit Hawaii, and Alaska is somewhere in the distant future.) North Dakota had eluded us all this time because, well, it’s not on the way to anywhere and (sorry) there just wasn’t much to draw us into the state.

TRNP bison herd

Except for T.R.’s legacy: Theodore Roosevelt National Park to be precise, a fine place by reputation that just happens to be located in the western end of a state that is otherwise not known for tourism. Year after year I’ve considered making North Dakota a stop and each year it just hasn’t worked out. But this year we devised a route specifically with the intent of finally giving N.D. some Airstream love.

TRNP wild horses

I can see why Teddy liked the place. It’s wild, open, beautiful, and saturated with adventure. There are wild horses and bison, prairie dog towns, caves and coal veins, badlands and rivers, and all the fresh air you can inhale.  We’re finally back in the west, Teddy. Thanks for saving this place for us.

TRNP bison photography

As you can see, the wildlife is pretty easy to spot.  There’s a nice 34 mile loop drive in the park with many short walking trails that can easily consume your entire day and give you incredible vistas with little effort.  For us, the horses and bison were particularly accommodating and twice blocked the road with a parade.

[I feel obliged to point out that approaching bison is a particularly stupid thing to do. They’ll gore you and toss you fifty feet before you can even start to run away.  My photos were taken with a long lens. We stayed in the car and slowly drove away when it looked like they were roaming too close.]

TRNP prairie dog

On the other hand, you don’t have to fear the prairie dogs, even fierce-looking fellows like this one.  They look a little smug sometimes, probably because they know they are protected creatures living in a national park, and if tourists bug them they might get a ticket from a park ranger.  This particular beast was part of a large lawn-mowing crew that was spanning a couple of acres.

The campground here is exactly what we expect from a good national park. Very few amenities, a nice quiet site in the trees, ranger talks in the evening, and a natural setting that is untrammeled by hordes.  A few dried bison chips scattered in the campsite are a bonus.

No 30 amp power, no dump, and sulfury-tasting water help limit participation by the tenderfeet (or at least, those tenderfeet who don’t have a nice travel trailer to camp in!)  I’ve been mixing the water with powdered drink mix to disguise the flavor, because it has been fairly hot and I’m gulping down about 2 liters a day.


TRNP Eleanor BadlandsWe’re living on solar power here.  I’ve been wondering how we got along before we started carrying a portable solar panel, because lately it seems like we keep hitting campgrounds where trees shade the roof-mounted panels.  Except for a few hours in the morning, the only direct sun we can capture is far away from the Airstream.  I’ve been using every inch of the 45-foot cable to get the panels in a spot where the sun hits them in the early morning and late afternoon.

Even with that we aren’t getting a full recharge each day, so we have gone to our best boondocking practices.  One of my latest tricks for saving electricity is to use the iPad for 95% of my Internet needs.  It uses a fraction of the power of my laptop and recharges off a USB outlet, which means I can skip the inverter.  Plus, I can recharge in the car while we’re driving around.

Since it has been hot, we’re hanging around in the trailer during the morning while it’s cool, and then heading out for the day until sometime past 5 pm.  This cuts down the length of time we need the vent fans, which is also a big power saver.  Each vent fan consumes about 2 DC amps, which means all three of them running for six hours = 36 amp-hours.  That’s a lot of juice, which is put to better use after 7 pm when the temperatures start to drop quickly (thanks to dry western air).

We’ve got another day planned here, and then we’ll relocate to the lesser-visited North Unit of the park, which is about 70 miles away.  I’m told there’s no cellular service up there, so we’ll just do one night and then start heading to Montana.

Our stops from here to Seattle are completely uncharted.  We have no real plan at all.  Weather, campground availability, and our whims will reveal a route at some point, but it’s much like traveling by Ouija board—anything might be spelled out in the next 12 days or so…

Altered reality

As I sit here in the Airstream, writing, a thunderstorm is approaching. I’ve been working at the dinette quietly (so as not to disturb my sleeping fellow travelers) since 8:30, while watching other campers pack up and flee ahead of the approaching storm.

Our plan had been to travel up to Bayfield WI, which sits on a large peninsula in southern Lake Superior and which is an excellent starting point for exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Then we were going to head further around the lake and north to the remote Grand Portage National Monument. During that visit we planned to take a ferry to Isle Royale National Park.  Isle Royale has the distinction of being the least-visited National Park, because it’s hard and expensive to visit, and it was sort of a “bucket list” spot for me.

This is despite some disdainful online reviews of Isle Royale as a gray, forbidding, and unfriendly place.  Any island in the north has the possibility of being grim on a bad weather day, just as they can be delightful on a sunny summer day. It’s that wide range of moods that seems to attract some people. We were prepared to deal with Isle Royale regardless of weather (up to a point; I’m not getting on a boat for hours if the lake is heaving like a roller coaster). It’s an experience no matter what, and we collect experiences. A singularly uniform collection of perfect weather would be boring.

As an aside, I want to share a tangential review of Isle Royale National Park that was pointed out to me by my friend/correspondent Dr C as “probably the best review ever written”:

Everytime, upon returning from that cold, deadly and unforgiving nightmare-paradise that is Isle Royale, I made it a point to head straight in to the welcoming embrace of Zik’s bar. I’ll tell you honestly and straight away: I loved that place. I loved it with all my heart like a sailor loves his woman from afar during a terrible gale, knowing that he’ll never return to her but loving and loving all the same, with a reckless abandon matched only by those terrible waves smashing the ship to bits, driving that sailor to his doom though he loves and loves all the while. But that all came to a devastating end this past June. Yes. It was June. That month that sings to a man’s soul in the sweet tones not unlike those emitted from the golden throat of a decrepit but beautiful Greek bard-master. My favorite bartender, who was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain, had been sacked by his sister for the crime of “keeping it real” and had been replaced by a vindictive lummox who damaged my pride and insulted my intelligence. He did all this before ejecting me from the bar for ordering my favorite drink: a scotch with two egg whites. For some reason he took issue with my request. He must have had a bad association with eggs. —Dylan Seuss-Brakeman


Grand Portage cancellation

But neither Isle Royale nor Zik’s Bar will work out for us now.  There is only one campground within 30 miles of Grand Portage (offered by the Indian casino that seems to be the source of most civilized amenities in that area) and that place is booked solid. No other RV camping exists in the small town of Grand Portage MN, and the outlying national forest sites are all far away and lack cellular service. I hate to admit it but cell service is a serious requirement for me these days.  After hunting for alternatives for an hour, we finally decided the best path was to scratch Grand Portage/Isle Royale off our itinerary.

This sort of thing rarely happens, but when it does there’s always something else to substitute.  We’ll cut 286 miles and about four days off our trip by skipping the Grand Portage side trip. We decided to spend an extra day in the Apostle Islands area and save the other day or two for later out west, when we’ll certainly find something else that makes us want to stay longer than planned.  Heck, we’ve already had that happen twice on this trip and we’ve only been out for 9 days.

To unsettle our plans a bit further, we finally ran into some weather.  We’ve been remarkably lucky so far, with brilliant summer weather all the way from New York to Wisconsin, but now in Ashland WI (our starting point on the shore of Lake Superior) we finally got whacked with thunderstorms this morning and a 100% chance of rain in the Apostle Islands tomorrow.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-1

The photo above is from yesterday. Today it is gray and occasionally rainy, so it looks like we will have a subdued visit to Lake Superior.  We’ve decided to stay in this cozy waterfront city RV park for another day and get some work done.  It’s a nice spot, with a hike/bike trail attached, a cool oceanographic research ship docked nearby, and a huge dock that we can walk out on for an even better view of the lake area. The surrounding town seems pleasant, and there’s really no reason to rush now.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-2

In fact, given the weather I might have passed on the Apostle Islands this time and moved further west but I’m trapped by that bane of all full-timers:  mail drop.  Even in this high-tech payment world, most of my advertisers pay their bills by paper check, and so I’m required to occasionally get a mail drop somewhere or run out of money. Plus I am expecting a few other packages, like copies of the Fall magazine. I’d like to see that.

Yesterday morning I told everyone to ship via FedEx and UPS to the campground further north we thought we’d be at by Tuesday evening, so at some point on Thursday I really need to get over there and pick up my mail. We’ll move tomorrow between storms, if possible.  In the meantime, it’s a working day and plenty of things to do here at my desk by the shore of Lake Superior.

Down the UP, to Door County WI

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Wisconsin always remind me of Vermont.  There are no mountains here, but the abundant scenic byways, small towns, and long stands of forest are comforting. Except for a few minutes of highway construction in Green Bay, the drive from De Tour Village MI to Sturgeon Bay WI was easy and quiet.

Escanaba WI Dobbers PastiesAlong the way we stopped in Escanaba to snag a few pasties for lunch, and before we could get out of the car we were visited by two enthusiastic Airstreamers-to-be, who exclaimed “We’ve been following you for an hour!”  At first I thought this might set a record for aluminum stalking but really they were just heading the same direction along Rt 41.  By the time we all pulled into the parking lot at Dobber’s Pasties they had figured out who we were, and we had a nice chat before going inside to get lunch.

Pasty, by the way, does not rhyme with “tasty” although it should.  They’re like calzones on the outside, but without tomato sauce on the inside. Instead they’re filled with diced potatoes, meats, cheese—all kinds of things depending on which type of pasty you choose.  Unfairly, the name rhymes with “nasty,” but let’s overlook that.

They’ve been beloved by Yoopers for generations. We get them whenever we are up here, and clearly from the sign (above) Dobber’s knows it.

The trip plan I posted in yesterday’s blog shows that this dip down to the Door County peninsula is a pretty big detour. We’re doing it for our kid. These days there’s a lot of fear about the perverts and weirdos who kids might meet online, but our experience has been different. Emma has been videochatting online with some pretty cool kids for a couple of years now, and we vowed that we’d make the necessary side trips so she could meet them in person. We met Hannah in Indianapolis on our way to Alumapalooza, and now we’re here to meet Emily from Sturgeon Bay. Both visits have been spectacular successes.

The parents are always a little skeptical at first, which is natural considering what they’re faced with.  A strange family that lives in a trailer and wanders the country like gypsies is going to drop in for a visit?  Imagine what would go through your head.  Lock the doors, keep an eye on their hands, and make sure the ammo is dry, I expect. But all the parents have been great, quickly seeing that we’re only a little weird, and the girls always have a great time.

Door County Fair rabbits


This time we met them at the Door County Fair and spent a couple of hours on the classic fair rides, and checking out the 4-H exhibits of poultry, rabbits, horses, and an amazing array of baked goods (which inspired me to get back to bread baking when we get home).

While the girls were hanging out, Eleanor and I had a chance to roam up the peninsula to Egg Harbor and walk the town and marina.  We were surprised to see the population listed at merely 201 people.

It’s a small town, kind of like an outpost on Martha’s Vineyard. Tourists outnumber the locals by a fair amount. I was expecting something bigger and more touristy. It’s actually nice to see that much of Door County is quieter and smaller than I expected.

Egg Harbor Marina

OK, having seen more of the countryside I can see that it’s definitely different from Vermont in a lot of ways (we don’t have cherry orchards, for example), but there’s still a nice country vibe.  My one suggestion to Door County:  get rid of the billboards before they take over, like Vermont did in 1968.

We like Door County enough that we have decided to spend another day here, roaming around and picnicking at one of the sandy beaches, before resuming our northern trek through the national parks.  Tomorrow we’ll head back up and spend the next five or six days around Lake Superior.