Exploring America’s National Parks

Before I continue with the next post on our trip through Utah, I have to announce something I’m pretty excited about. My next book will be coming out soon—and it’s a topic that is particularly special to me: exploring America’s National Parks.

This book is the culmination of 14 years of working with Bert Gildart, who has been contributing to Airstream Life magazine continuously since 2004. Bert is known for his romantic and inspirational articles about national parks and other American destinations, and for his incredible photography (especially wildlife photography). He also happens to be the only person to contribute to every issue since the magazine began in 2004, other than me.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that my family has visited a lot of national parks over the years. Last time I counted we’d been to over 140 of them, so I’ve got a lot of advice to share. Visiting the parks has been an obsession that started even before we had an Airstream, and over 20 years later we’re still actively seeking out more every time we get in the Airstream. (Flaming Gorge Nat’l Rec Area, in recent posts, is an example.)

National_Parks_book_front_cover For a long time Bert and I have talked about writing a book together, but it was only a couple of years ago that we got serious about it. We decided to write from two perspectives: Bert’s warm & fuzzy style of travel essays about a few selected national parks, and my practical style of “here’s how you do it.” Because we are very different writers, we hoped the contrast would give you a better understanding than any single writer could.

The book is called EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks From Your RV.  We used the term “RV” instead of Airstream because the book can be useful to any RV traveler, but just between you and me, you’ll find photos of Airstreams almost exclusively on the pages.

This is book I’ve wanted to write for many years. I used to do a slide show about visiting America’s National Parks at rallies, and every time I did it the room was always packed full, and people asked lots of good questions. It seems that lots of Airstreamers have figured out that the best of America is tucked away in the national park system—and they want to share in the joy of exploring it.

The book is in layout right now, so I don’t have a final page count but I think it will run about 150-180 pages. [UPDATE: final page count is 184 pages!] We’re going nuts with photos, so it’s extensively illustrated. I’ve put some thumbnails of the first few pages below, just to give you the idea.

Like my other books, I’m going to offer Airstreamers an advance purchase deal.  The book will be shipping in late December 2018 for $29.95,  but if you reserve a copy before December 15 you’ll save $11.95 per copy.  Click here for more info on that.

Like I said, I’m super excited about this. I hope a lot of you will benefit from this book and get going on your own national park adventures. They’re the greatest bargain in America and, in my opinion, the ultimate “bucket list”.

EXPLORE: Enjoying America’s National Parks With Your RV, by Bert Gildart and Rich Luhr, 184 pages, softcover, 10 3/4″ x 10 3/4″ Collectors book format. Available in the Airstream Life Store and Amazon.com in December 2018.

Humboldt Redwoods State Park

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-emmaIt’s hard to drive through the northwest corner of California and not stop to see the Pacific Coast Redwood trees.  I mean, it’s possible to avoid them by sticking resolutely to Interstate 5, or perhaps driving Route 101 with blinders on, but for us the temptation to take a detour to Avenue Of The Giants is overwhelming.

So we don’t fight the call of the majestic trees. We exit the 101 and meander down the winding road that brings us eventually to Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we camp for a couple of days.  It’s rejuvenating to unhitch and explore one of the redwood groves on foot.  There’s a certain peacefulness that comes from being among the great old trees and the mossy ground, deep in the shaded glens.

We’ve seen the Pacific Coast Redwoods (and their relatives, the Giant Sequoias) before but they never fail to impress. Each time we visit the forest we learn something small that makes the experience unique, so it’s not the “same old trees” every time.  Wandering a grove without any goal in mind, just letting inspiration flow, is the key.

Since on this trip we were heading toward Alumafandango, I suppose it was also inevitable that a phone call come in to interrupt our moment.  In this case it was an anxious tour leader wanting to get reassurance from Eleanor.

Wisely, she decided to complete the call before we started our walk, so that she’d be clear of business things while in the redwood grove. That’s a lesson I had to learn early on in our travels as well.  Mental compartmentalization is crucial if you want to work and play on the road. You don’t ever want to embark on a hike or any relaxation until you’ve cleared your head of the cares of the working day, otherwise they will haunt your experience and taint the happy memories you’re working to build.

humboldt-redwoods-eleanor-phone

These were our last two nights before landing in Jackson CA for pre-event prep, so I particularly valued them.  Once we hit the event site, it’s always go-go-go, and we’ll have 12 nights sitting in the same spot. The redwoods were an ideal spot to mentally escape the concerns ahead, and get ourselves psyched to work hard for an extended period.

North Cascades National Park, WA

You can thank the Mercedes GL for this blog because it has had a hiccup that forced us to pause our travel.  We’re currently in Creswell OR, near Eugene, awaiting a part that was ordered yesterday.  I’ll talk about that in a future blog.

First, let me fulfill the promise I made a while back, to talk about our trip to North Cascades National Park.  That lovely visit to Lake Chelan boosted our interest in going further up into North Cascades.  (Technically the town of Chelan is outside the park, but taking the ferry up the lake to Stehekin put us into North Cascades for a day.)

north-cascades-driving-map

If you could fly over the North Cascades with your Airstream from Chelan WA to Newhalem (near the center of the park) the trip would be fairly short, perhaps 70-80 miles.  But since the roads skirt the eastern edge of the mountain range, it’s a 134 mile trip that took us over four hours with a couple of stops.

The reason for the stops should be obvious from the photo below: it’s just gorgeous up there.

north-cascades-airstream-overlook

[Just an aside: virtually every time I pull into a large fuel station someone stares at the Airstream and asks me “does that Mercedes pull that big trailer OK?”  But when I’m at elevation in the mountains at a place like this, nobody asks.]

north-cascades-diablo-lake-overlook

The really prime viewpoint is the Diablo Lake overlook (above).  Diablo is one of three lakes created by hydroelectric dams along the Skagit River that provide power to Seattle.  The amazing color of the water is the result of “glacial flour”, which is basically ground-up dust from the ancient bedrock.  You see the same thing in the rivers and lakes in Alberta.  As stunning as it is in a photo, it’s even nicer in person.

north-cascades-gorge-high-damAlthough we ended up spending four days in the national park, the best way to appreciate this area is to explore the backcountry.  That means dedicating some time to hiking, tenting, fishing, etc.  We didn’t have time for that on this visit, but I made a note to return for a longer visit–and bring my tent and hiking boots.  This is a beautiful, wild, and vast national park and I want to see more of it.

Since we had squeezed North Cascades into our trip itinerary at the last moment, we were obliged to keep the visit short and get on toward Seattle. Eleanor needed to fly back to Tucson for an appointment, and I had at least six or seven days worth of work to catch up on.

So we parked the Airstream at Washington Land Yacht Harbor in Lacey, for an affordable full hookup, and that’s how this trip across the United States ended.

I’ve never bothered to count how many times we have crossed the country, but the number of one-way trips certainly is more than 25 at this point.  It’s not really a point of pride, as I believe that the key to enjoyable Airstreaming is the amount of time you stop rather than the amount of miles you drive.

If I could go back and change the past I would be glad to have spent twice as much time at many places. When you travel slowly it’s amazing how often you trip over some place that’s truly fantastic, while on the way to somewhere else.

Our next trip leg takes us south into California for Alumafandango, but before we get there we’ve got a little time to explore Oregon and northern California. I’ll get into that in the next blog.

Chillin’ in Chelan

You know, America is a big country full of amazing things.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all, we go around a corner and there’s something that adds a new dimension.  This week it was North Cascades National Park in north-central Washington state.

While we were absorbing the sad fact that our Montana trip was going to be considerably abbreviated (mostly due to crowding around the Glacier area) I noticed North Cascades National Park in our road atlas. It’s not one of the “big name” western parks and I never hear anyone talk about it, so I assumed at first it was one of those obscure units of the National Park Service that’s comprised of a lot of forest and few visitor-friendly amenities.

But it was a “National Park”, meaning that it took an act of Congress to gain its status, and that is a rare thing indeed.  Of over 400 units of the National Park Service, only 58 are designated “National Park”. The rest are National Monuments, Historical Sites, Lakeshores, Battlefields, Recreation Areas, etc.  Even some western major sites like Devils Tower, Dinosaur, Organ Pipe Cactus, and Natural Bridges are designated National Monuments, not Parks.  So there had to be something more there than I had suspected.

The atlas showed a long, narrow lake winding its way into North Cascades, called Lake Chelan (pronounced “shell-ANN”) and a ferry service the entire length called “Lady Of The Lake”.  This ferry is one of three ways to reach the town of Stehekin (“stuh-HEE-kin”) at the extreme northern end of the lake. The other ways are on foot through the mountains, and seaplane. This seemed like something worth checking out, so we decided to cut down to I-90 in Montana and zip straight to Washington so we’d have a few days to spend up in the Cascades.

I should mention that the drive over was uneventful by my standards, but then I sometimes forget that I’m used to dealing with a lot of hairy situations while towing. If nothing blows up or fails spectacularly during a tow, I generally write it off as “uneventful.” But Eleanor does some of the driving now, and she caught what I call “a learning opportunity” in the last few miles of our trip.

Washington dust 12 gradeWe were navigating mostly by GPS during this leg and so didn’t notice that there was a 12% downgrade to Chelan Falls.  This by itself would be intimidating enough for a towing-trainee but it was compounded by a strong wind and blowing dust.  When Eleanor spotted this sign she knew she was in for some excitement.

Going down is always harder than going up, at least psychologically.  The sensation of a trailer pushing causes many people to ride the brakes down the hill, which is of course a mistake because on a long grade you’ll have overheated brakes or perhaps no brakes at all.

So I took the opportunity to teach Eleanor the right way to get down a steep hill without melting the brake discs.  She got a little sweaty but she managed and it was—I hope—a confidence-building experience.

In any case, a nice public park awaited us at the bottom of the hill, at Beebe Bridge Park, along a river.  While setting up we found two empty metal cannabis tubes abandoned next to our site.  Hadn’t seen that before.  (It’s legal here.) I don’t care if people want to smoke the stuff, but sheesh, at least throw away your trash!

Beebe Bridge Chelan Falls Airstream

We set the Airstream up a few miles away from the ferry dock and caught the Lady Express at 8:30 am the next morning.  The Lady Express is the “quick” boat, an all-aluminum ferry with twin turbodiesel engines and forty-inch propellers that push it up the lake at 24 MPH.  It’s a fun ride on a sunny day.

Chelan WA Lady of the Lake and Lady Express

The Lady of the Lake is on the left in the photo above. It is larger and slower (about 14 MPH), taking 4 hours to travel the length of Lake Chelan.  The Lady Express is at right.  Because of the way the schedules work, the ideal play for daytrippers (in the summer) is to take the Lady Express north in the morning to arrive at Stehekin by 11:00, then pick up the Lady Of The Lake at 2:00 for the return trip.  That gives you the maximum time in Stehekin.

Lake Chelan jetskiiers

The ferry attracts jetskiiers along the southern portion of the lake, where the vacationer are clustered.  This part of the lake relatively calm (especially compared to the “narrows” section further north) so sometimes the only waves the jetskiiers can find to play on are those created by the ferry boats.  It’s a lot like watching dolphins bow-riding waves in front of ships.

Chelan WA vineyards

The area around Chelan reminded us of Lake Como in Italy, a little.  Add in a few old stone estates, olive trees, and walking trails up into the hills and it would be a lot closer.

Lake Chelan Airstream

Of course, in Italy you probably wouldn’t find an Airstream parked on the hillside …

Stehekin is an unusual outpost.  One person described arriving as being “like summer camp.” The moment you land there are people waiting to greet you, direct you to the Rainbow Falls tour or the NPS Visitor Center or the Lodge, and dusty red buses to haul you around.  There are only a few things to do there, and since the local economy is entirely built on tourism, they want to make sure you have a chance to enjoy everything.

Stehehkin welcome home

Stehehkin Rainbow FallsIt’s a bit funny when you see all the cars parked in Stehekin and reconcile that with the facts: there are only 80 year-round residents, there is only one road, and it’s just 13 miles long.  Of course, the population is quite a bit bigger in summer with tourists in town, including dozens of hikers.

Three hours in a tiny village might seem like a long time but it flew by for us.  We checked out Rainbow Falls, ate lunch at the famous local bakery, walked two miles back to town, and then hit the Visitor Center.  There’s so much to see, photograph, taste … and no distractions. Zero cell service, a feature I’m coming to appreciate because it is so rare.  Most of the time I need to be connected, but when I am taking a day off it’s nice to see the phone enforce it with a “No Service” indicator.

There are other ways to get here.  Next time I want to hike in, taking a couple of days to explore some of the Cascades trails.  You can use the Lady Of The Lake to help with that, either getting dropped off or picked up at a few “flag stops” along the lakeshore.  In places where there is no dock the steel-hulled boat just runs aground lightly, then extends a gangplank to pick up hikers.

We picked up a hiker at one such flag stop on the way back.  He confessed to having missed the boat the night before (thinking it was a smaller boat and not the ferry), so he had to tent-camp an additional night.  That sounded a lot like a fortuitous moment to me. It was a beautiful place to spend a night all alone. Lucky bastard.

Stehehkin Lake Chelan view

Seven hours of cruising on the lake and three hours roaming Stehekin was just about the best use of a sunny day in the summer I could think of.  I highly recommend the trip.

Our next stop was further north in the Cascades, but I’ll talk about that in a future post.

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.