The anticipation was palpable as we jockeyed for position in the Ottawa City airport boarding area, waiting for our flight to Colorado. Typically we are more sit-back-and-take-it-as-it-comes passengers, but that day we had four large bags of fragile photography equipment to fit in the overhead bins. The large crowd surrounding us was glaring at us, sizing up the competition for storage as we all swarmed impatiently around the ticket handler. Once on board, we crammed our bags in the last available compartment and wedged ourselves into our seats. The simple, meandering pace of RV living for the past three years had spoiled us, but the top-secret mission awaiting us in the mountains of Colorado far outweighed the hassle of air travel. The miles flew by (literally), and a few hours later we found ourselves 1,700 miles from where we began, standing in a parking lot in downtown Denver reveling at … well, the Revel.
Colorado proved to be the perfect environment to put the new 4×4 Revel through its paces.
One of our favorite features of the Revel is the mechanized bed. Here it is in the upright position which is ideal for hauling bikes.
Our mission was simple, we had 10 days to photograph and field test the brand-new 4×4 Winnebago Revel, pushing its capabilities in the rugged Colorado mountains. We swung open the back doors and were immediately impressed with the innovative design. There is a mechanized bed that spans the back third of the rig. With the press of a button, it lifts and cinches up against the ceiling creating a large, multi-functional cargo area with infinite combinations of storage configurations. We loaded up seven huge bags of gear, and even with the bed in the down position, only utilized a fraction of the available space. I slid into the driver’s seat and felt at home in a cockpit essentially identical to our sprinter-based Winnebago View. I pulled out into the 5 o’clock Denver traffic and noticed right away that the 144″ wheelbase made weaving through downtown city streets a breeze. I did’t even need the full acceleration capacity when we merged onto the freeway to head up into the mountains.
We loved the fold-down table out the side door. It blurred the line between outside and inside which greatly expanded the living area of the Revel.
The back bed has all the comforts of home and we loved opening the back doors and bringing the outside in. The sunset was pretty spectacular at 12,500 ft, just outside Buena Vista, CO.
The first true test of the Revel began where Colorado’s Front Range ends, as we headed up toward the Eisenhower tunnel: a 70-mile stretch of road with a 6% grade and 6,000 ft of elevation gain. My initial thought was to see just how fast the Revel could go, but at 78 mph on a particularly steep and curvy stretch, I conceded to the Revel and backed my foot off the accelerator.
Our destination was Buena Vista, CO, a small mountain town nestled along the banks of the Arkansas River where we could venture deep into the Collegiate Peaks and test out the 4×4 handling. The next morning, we pulled off the pavement onto a fairly well-maintained dirt road, increasingly pushing the 4×4 capabilities as conditions steadily deteriorated with elevation gain. By the time we reached 12,500 ft, we were navigating a rutted and narrow two-track trail with an occasional boulder or rock ledge thrown in for fun. The Revel performed beautifully and proved to be a warm refuge during an unexpected snow storm that enveloped us just as we reached the top of the pass.
Peter and Kathy enjoying an evening under the stars near Moab, UT.
The 200 watts of solar on the roof and abundant power outlets strategically placed throughout the Revel kept our cameras and computers running smoothly throughout the week.
The rest of the week flew by in a flurry of chaos as we photograph from dawn until dusk, hauling kayaks and bikes, people and photography equipment to rugged and remote locations to create images that illustrate the true essence of the Revel. The Revel shined in every environment we explored, but for a true test, we headed to the mecca of 4×4 adventure: Moab, UT.
Pulling into town, we were surrounded by a myriad of 4×4 marvels, from tricked-out Jeeps and rock crawlers, to modified Unimogs and one-of-a-kind overland vehicles. We joined the unofficial parade of custom 4x4s that migrate up and down the main drag, and couldn’t resist waving at a handful of gaping onlookers that were doing double-takes as we rolled by. We resupplied in town before heading out into the desert for a night under the stars – where mother nature delivered an extraordinary electrical display as a massive storm approached.
While Peter was photographing the Milky Way, a wicked storm started brewing in the distance. This image captured the juxtaposition of the clear sky in the foreground and lightening striking in the background.
As the storm drew near, we were treated to an extraordinary electrical dance around the nearby desert towers.
Kathy taking in the calm morning after the storm.
After a day exploring the rugged landscape around Moab, we ventured into the San Juan mountains of southwestern Colorado and over Ophir pass. The base of the pass was under construction, forcing us through axle-deep mud bogs that our beefy BFGs all-terrain tires handled with ease. As we made our way further up the pass, I spotted a narrow track ahead carving across a precarious slope strewn with boulders. A glint of sunlight caught my eye from deep in the valley and I was horrified to realize there was a rocky tomb 1,000 ft below of mangled vehicles that failed the 4×4 test just ahead. Apprehension overwhelmed me and I elected to walk the remaining mile to the top of the 12,000-ft pass, leaving Peter without a co-pilot to test the limits of the Revel.
I hiked ahead and watched with my breath caught in my throat as Peter and the Revel crept up and over steep rock ledges. He slowly, steadily climbed through loose rocks up a serpentine path with only inches separating terra firma and a drop into the oblivion below. Once off the ledges, I rejoined Peter in the Revel and breathed a huge sigh of relief that the worst was behind us. The last few switchbacks to the summit of the pass were a piece of cake, and it was literally all down hill the rest of the way into the quaint town of Silverton, where we stopped for dinner and a celebratory pint.
Looking down the narrow trail near the summit of Ophir Pass.
Heading down the Silverton side of Ophir Pass was smooth sailing.
Long before we were ready, we found ourselves with only one day remaining before we had to return to Ottawa. On our way to Kebler Pass for our final evening in the Revel, we noticed an overgrown track leading deep into a meadow thick with aspen trees, and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to explore one last 4×4 trail in the mountains. Ten minutes later, we were surrounded by giant aspens and agreed that this was the perfect spot for the last night of our adventure. With the push of a button we unfurled the awning, then we set up the hammock and let the whisper of the leaves lull us into a peaceful afternoon nap.
Discovering the perfect campsite after an impromptu detour is one of our favorite things.
The awning deploys with the push of a button, but the best part is the wind sensor that automatically retracts in gusty conditions.
The induction cooktop makes cooking a snap.
We spent the early evening sorting and re-packing our bags, trying to mentally prepare for our re-entry to civilization. As we dropped off the Revel at the airport and braced ourselves for pat-downs and the race to the overhead storage compartments, Peter turned to me and said, “Would it be too weird for us to be a two Winnebago family? The Revel would be the perfect mobile photography studio.” We both laughed, but I have to admit I can’t quit thinking about the Revel. It would make a great shuttle vehicle for kayaking and could get Peter across rugged terrain as he chases his vision to create the perfect image. It would also work well for short bursts of cross-country adventures, or forays into the city and other places where we can’t take our View/trailer combo. After a month of Revel ideas swirling through my dreams, I’m beginning to wonder how crazy it would actually be to be a two Winnebago family.
The best part of the Revel is where it can take you, and I have to admit … I loved driving it.
A little over a year ago, we were in the midst of planning a massive undertaking: Visit 40 of the 59 National Parks in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service. When planning out our route, the hardest part was deciding which parks to visit and which to skip. Some were simply not an option, like the ones in Hawaii, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. And of course, we had to return to some old favorites: Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Dry Tortugas and Zion. As for the rest, a lot of the fun was in researching and discovering the incredible diversity of wild places that make up our National Park System.
The craggy cliffs of Santa Cruz Island with Anacapa Island appearing through the fog in the background.
Now, 40,000 miles and 40 parks later, we found ourselves at the end of an incredible journey, wondering what would lie over the horizon for Famagogo. For over a year, everything had been beautifully choreographed, one adventure flowing into the next as we checked park after park off of our list. But the funny thing about great adventures is, once you get started, it’s really hard to stop. And really, 40 parks was just an arbitrary number that we thought we could pull off in a year – there are still 19 of the best wild places on earth that we have yet to discover. So, in lieu of throwing in the towel and patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we packed up the Winnebago and headed west to National Park #41 – Channel Islands.
Abby sits amongst all the gear as we wait to board the ferry in Ventura Harbor.
The Channel Islands are composed of a chain of eight islands (five of which make up the national park) off the coast of California, stretching from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. After a little research, we set our sights on a three-day backcountry adventure on Santa Cruz Island, just off the coast of Ventura with ferry service via www.IslandPackers.com.
We woke before dawn, for an early morning departure on the ferry, and loaded our backpacks, kayaks and dive gear aboard the Island Adventure and then hustled up to the top deck for a bird’s-eye view during our hour and a half voyage to the park. We pulled away from the docks of Ventura Harbor and within minutes, we spotted three sea lions draped across a bobbing buoy. Our captain took us in for a closer look, and as we approached, the largest of the trio let out a booming, guttural bellow letting us know that we were encroaching on his territory. Just past the entrance to the harbor, a pod of dolphins appeared in our bow wake and served as escorts from the harbor.
The journey to the island passed in a blur as we spotted whales and dolphins, one after the next punctuating the smooth surface of the expansive horizon. As we made our final approach, a mega-pod (1000+ individuals) of dolphins welcomed us to the island with an impressive display of aerial acrobatics that enveloped our vessel on all sides and kept us racing from port to starboard and back, taking in the incredible grand finale of our voyage. As the captain shut down the engines, the dolphins took their cue and return to the deeper waters surrounding the island and we set out to explore Santa Cruz.
The ferry boat Island Adventure making its final approach to the harbor on Santa Cruz Island.
Peter explores one of a multitude of sea caves via kayak along the shoreline of Santa Cruz.
From the instant we arrived, we were taken with the rugged scenery of the island. Flanking the harbor, crumbling cliffs stretch up to the heavens. Nestled in between the precipices, a deep valley lies with a well-maintained group of cabins surrounded by lush gardens that hail from days long ago when the island was occupied by a working sheep ranch. As we pressed on, the path meandered through a eucalyptus grove where we spotted a few scattered picnic tables and fire rings that indicated we had arrived at our campsite. Surprisingly, there were no other campers in sight giving the impression that we had the entire island to ourselves. We made quick work of setting up our tents and then donned our snorkel gear and headed back down to the water to explore the kelp forests that flank the harbor.
Even clad in thick neoprene, the frigid water took my breath away as I made the transition from land to sea. Pushing away from the shore, I was no longer concerned with the temperature, as I was consumed with wonder entering the surreal kingdom of the kelp forest. I swam with my arms outstretched in front of me, to protect my exposed face from the serrated tendrils of kelp that constantly tugged at my mask and scratched at my cheeks. As I pushed away from the dense foliage, I discover open caverns scattered throughout the forest that were teeming with exotic creatures: colorful fish, a leopard shark, an octopus, and countless abalone. I dove deep and peer into a crevice below a boulder and spot two lobsters that are each almost as long as my arm. After more than an hour of exploration, the cold water again had my attention and I returned to the beach to thaw.
Peter making his way through the thick foliage of the kelp forest that flanks the harbor.
Occasionally the kelp would part to reveal a multitude of colorful sea life.
Back at camp, we threw together a quick lunch and then headed out for an afternoon paddle along the craggy cliffs. The sea was calm and the wind light, so we made our way into the open water that surrounds the island to see what we could see. The cliffs were punctuated periodically by sea caves. We paddled into one of the larger caves and discover a labyrinth of tunnels that appeared as the waves receded. We spent the afternoon refining our timing to ride the waves through the maze of tunnels. It feels much like riding a waterslide leading from one rumbly cavern to the next. As we made our way around the south side of the island where we discovered a perfect surf wave that occupied our attention until the late afternoon tidal shift.
Kathy punching through the small break after a blissful surf.
Abby leading Peter through one of the tunnels that connect the multitude of sea caves on the island.
Kathy thinking kelp is cool and Abby thinking it’s gross. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Abby discovered just how cool the kelp really is.
Tired and hungry, we returned to camp just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The first order of business was dinner. As we prepared our dehydrated meals, we discovered. . . the eyes! Abby spotted them first reflecting in her headlamp, and once we noticed they are there, it doesn’t take long to realize that we were completely surrounded by almost a dozen creatures hiding in the darkness around us. We watched in horror as the first pair of peepers began to descend the hill just beyond the perimeter of light cast by our lantern, followed in short order by the rest of the concealed demons. We held our breath as the most-certainly menacing, and likely human-consuming beasts crossed the threshold of light around us and discovered a … miniature fox that is endemic to the island and about the size of a house cat. Abby squealed with delight and declared the island fox the “cutest thing EVER!” That is until the rest of the pack arrived and it become an all-out war to see who would actually get to eat the dinner we were preparing. The instant one of us stepped a few feet away from our post, a mini-fox was there, ready to abscond with any morsel it could get its adorable muzzle on. Famagogo eventually prevailed in the Battle of Dinner with full bellies. Weary from a great day on the water, we retreated to our tents and quickly drifted off to sleep.
One of the notorious island foxes that waged war on Famagogo at dinnertime.
Abby deemed it safer to hang in the hammock above her tent after an epic battle with the island fox.
We spent the next morning kayaking and snorkeling, and after lunch decided that it was time for a hike. We followed a nearby trail that led us up, up, up to the top of the sea cliffs. Even from our high vantage point, we could still see the giant Garibaldi Goldfish that we had snorkeled with in the kelp forest earlier. The miles passed quickly and we were escorted by an island fox almost the entire way. Eventually, we came to a harbor and as we took in the view from up above, a cacophony of guttural barking caught our attention as the sea lions in the caves below us bantered back and forth across the bay with their resounding bellows. We listened for a while as they serenaded us and then headed back to camp spurred on by a quickly setting sun.
Kathy and Abby hiking along the perimeter of the island.
Kathy and Abby taking in the concerto of the boisterous sea lions in the sea caves below.
Kathy and Abby all geared up and ready to explore the kelp forest one last time before the ferry arrives. Even the 7mm neoprene could only ward off the cold for a couple of hours.
On our last day, we packed up camp and brought our gear to the dock so that it was ready when the ferry arrived. We squeezed in a couple of hours of snorkeling followed by an afternoon of kayaking. Right on schedule, the boat arrived and we headed back to Ventura Harbor for a celebratory Italian feast at Milano’s. As we noshed on seafood pasta, Abby declared Channel Islands her absolute FAVORITE national park (as frequently happens after exploring a new park) and we happily bantered back and forth about where our next adventure would take us. With heavy eyelids, we stumbled back to Winnie the View and reveled in the comfort of crawling back into our own comfy beds. Home sweet home always feels so good!
It’s funny…what we find most interesting about life on the road is definitely skewed toward our adventures in the wild, but more often than not, we find that people really want to know about the ordinary day to day stuff: what is it really like living as a family of three, full-time, in a 176 square feet? how do you cope with so much togetherness? what do you eat? how does Abby do school? how do you fit everything you need in such a small space? what’s in the trailer? where do you camp? what do you do for a living? So let me open the door to the View and give you a glimpse into our life in the Winnie, starting with where we camp.
noun: bivouac, bivi, bivy, bivvy –any variety of improvised campsite or shelter that is usually of a temporary nature.
verb: bivi, bivy, bivvy – to camp unexpectedly in an improvised location
In Alaska, extraordinary bivvy sites are plentiful. This boat ramp just outside of Fairbanks was the perfect location to take in the aurora borealis.
While we are meticulous planners of great adventures in the wild, we rarely consider our nightly accommodations as worthy of much forethought until the sun is well into its daily descent. With that kind lackadaisical approach to selecting a location to call home, you might think that we are content to while away our evenings harbored under the halide glow of the Walmart parking lot. And while we occasionally cave to the convenience of the home of the smiley faced-rollback leviathan on a cross-country dash, we hold that strictly as a last resort. With over a thousand nights of experience bivouacking over the past three years, we have learned quite a lot about where (and where not) to pull up the parking brake for the night.
The perfect bivvy – in the National Forest just outside of Grand Teton National Park.
Our ideal bivvy is usually off the beaten path, but not too far out of the way. The roads must be navigable in our low clearance, two-wheel-drive Winnebago View (although we definitely push the limits on our off-road capability from time to time). Give us a spot with a view, a river and no one else in sight, and we’ve found paradise. Here are a few tips that we’ve learned over the years to help locate the ideal bivvy.
#1 Get out of the city! Honestly, after about 24 hours in a metroplex we are ready to retreat to the sanctity of the wilderness. There are WAY more options once you escape the street lights and sidewalks of civilization. If for some reason you do find yourself in an inescapable urban conundrum, we use the AllStays app to locate a Walmart, CrackerBarrel, Sam’s Club or church parking lot to hunker down until we can get the heck out of Dodge. Park and Ride lots or other public transit parking lots often work in a pinch, although they sometimes require an overnight fee. Regardless of where you stay in the city, blackout blinds are paramount to keep out light pollution and to remain inconspicuous if you are uncertain whether or not overnight parking is allowable in a given location.
When we visit the city, we typically park in the outskirts and use public transportation to check out the sights. Here we are at the ferry terminal in Liberty Park, New Jersey with the Big Apple in the background.
#2 It’s best in the West! There are copious amounts of public lands scattered across the western United States that are peppered with inconspicuous campsites for the savvy road warrior in the know. Here, Google Earth is our best friend. Using the satellite view, we scour desolate desert roads in search of a pullout to call home. It also helps us get a feel for the ruggedness of the terrain and if there is adequate space to turn our 44 foot Casa de Bago around. Don’t get me wrong, we spend a good chunk of time in the East, but the land east of the Mississippi River is almost completely developed and privately owned, which makes it tricky (but not impossible) to bivvy outside of a campground.
Camping in the Florida Keys is one of the most difficult places to bivvy. The state parks are a great alternative if you can get a reservation. Here we are in Bahia Honda State Park.
A roadside pullout near Great Basin National Park, NV.
#3 Don’t be afraid to use a pullout on the side of the road. There are amazing places to stay on many scenic highways and byways across America. Just make sure that the pullout you choose is large enough that you can stay a safe distance from the road and never stay on the outside of a bend. That way you can rest assured that a drowsy or impaired driver won’t take you out in the middle of the night.
You never know what you are going to see while in a roadside pullout in Alaska. Here Abby keeps a watchful eye on a grizzly bear and her cubs from the safety of the View.
#4 For interstate travel, truck stops and rest areas are a possibility, but are often crowded and noisy. Walmart can be better, but often have noisy shoppers coming and going at all hours of the night. Smaller communities often have municipal parks that allow overnight camping. We use the AllStays app to help us locate both free and paid camping options and other RV services (such as propane and dump stations) when we find ourselves in a pickle.
#5 Go big or go home – ok going home isn’t really an option for us since we sold our house in 2014, but we have certainly become bolder over the past three years about where we pull up the parking brake. And honestly, we have only been asked to move twice in over a thousand bivouacs. When boondocking in a questionable location, it is best to arrive late and leave early so as not to overstay your welcome. Keep the slide in and the blackout blinds pulled tight so that you remain as inconspicuous as possible. And most importantly, always proceed with confidence. If you look like you know what you’re doing, most people won’t even think twice about whether or not you are supposed to park in any given location.
When all else fails, just pretend like you know what you’re doing.
So there you have it, the secret is out. The preceding 5 tips have allowed us to boondock over 1,000 nights in 49 states and six provinces: from coast to coast and border to border. While it may take a little more effort than pulling into that crowded KOA, but it allows us to travel more economically and has forced us down the less beaten path which, not surprisingly, has led to the discovery of some truly incredible places.
One of our favorite free BLM camping areas in the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona.
Do you ever wish you could go on an Alaskan Cruise and explore the coastal regions of one the wildest places on the planet?
Seems like it was just yesterday when we drove across the Canadian border full of anticipation for all the adventures that awaited us in Alaska, and excited for the opportunities to explore vast expanses of untouched wilderness. For over a month now we have ventured repeatedly into the wild and learned first hand about the dramatic tides and creatures of the sea, and have witnessed the power of the shift from ice to flow as glaciers melt and create turbulent whitewater playgrounds down the mountain sides. We have become acquaintances with magnificent creatures with which we have crossed paths in the woods and have been caught off guard on more than one occasion by the sheer magnitude of the landscape. Our time spent experiencing the extremes of the Alaskan backcountry have proven transformational for our small trio: morphing our apprehension of the unknown into an appreciation for discovery, and magnifying our hunger to return and explore new rugged and remote places.
What if you could bring your RV with you and spend a day or two at your favorite port towns? The Alaska Marine Highway System allows RVs aboard their fleet of ferry boats and accesses three separate regions of Alaska: Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, South-central Alaska’s Heartland and Southwestern Alaska’s Aleutian Chain.
We still have a couple of weeks before our appointment in Seattle, so rather than backtracking down the deserted roads of northern Canada, we decide to check out the Alaska Marine Highway System and explore the coastal region of Alaska that are only accessible by boat or plane. Our first hop is from Skagway to Haines, about an hour and a half jaunt. As the M/V LeConte (ferry boat) approaches, it seems unlikely that our 44’ RV/trailer combo could possibly fit aboard. Once docked, a uniformed master of ceremonies waltzes into the parking lot and initiates a parade of vehicles down the ramp to the dock and through the massive ship doors. When all the other cars are safely aboard, the conductor motions to me that it is my turn to join in the procession. As I turn onto the ramp and get my first glimpse of the loading zone, I realize that if I follow the vehicles ahead of me, around the 90 degree bend at the bottom of the ramp, that my trailer will certainly careen into the sea. Reluctant to continue down the ramp of doom, I stop in the middle of the ramp, uncertain how to proceed. The loadmaster approaches my window and informs me that the only way to make this work will be to BACK the Winnebago and trailer onto the ferry. My jaw hits the dash and my stomach turns rancid. While I am significantly better at maneuvering the trailer than I was just a year ago, the thought of negotiating the trailer through two 90 degree turns over an expanse of water is beyond comprehension.
As I start down the ramp, I can see clearly that there is no way I am going to be able to swing my trailer wide enough to make the turn onto the ship.
Sensing my rising panic, the loadmaster steps up and begins a monologue of very specific, and simple instructions, leaving me no time to contemplate the impossible task ahead. “Turn the wheel one inch to the right…slowly give it some gas…now two inches to the left…that’s it, you’re doing great”. I focus my attention on his calm and confident voice and before I know it, I am across the ramp, around two impossibly tight turns and safely aboard the M/V LeConte – perfectly positioned in a narrow lane between a dump truck and an SUV. I breathe a huge sigh of relief, launch out of the drivers seat, and before he has a chance to object, bear hug the blushing loadmaster.
The loadmaster stays right by my side as I negotiate two 90 degree turns as I back our trailer onto the M/V LaConte.
It’s a tight squeeze, but there is just enough room for Winnie the View to take some time off on the car deck aboard the ferry.
Now that we have survived the loading process it is time to explore the ship. Abby leads the way up, up, up: through a maze of corridors and stairwells, to a window lined room filled with comfy chairs. We select three next to a plate glass window with a 360 degree view. Our noses press to the glass as we pull away from the dock, and almost immediately Abby spots two humpback whales surfacing in the distance…and then a sea lion lounging on a buoy… then a waterfall…then a… In the blink of an eye, we find ourselves arriving in Haines. We return to Winnie the View, this time leading the parade of vehicles off the ship and spend three glorious days in grizzly country. (You can read about our adventures in Haines here.)
Abby settled into the big comfy chairs on our quick hop from Skagway to Haines.
The road out to Chilicoot State Park was spectacular for bear watching.
The next leg of our journey south is from Haines to Juneau. This time we are mentally prepared for the precarious loading process, but discover that our new ship, the V/S Matanuska, is substantially larger and we are able to pull in nose first. We locate the aft stairwell and climb up several flights until we find ourselves on the top of the ship. We step outside, round a corner and find ourselves smack in the middle of an Alaskan beach party. Strewn about on every available inch of the open air patio is an assortment of pool furniture, sleeping pads, tents, and tables. And there are people everywhere; some reading quietly, others are sitting on the deck in a circle around a display of tupperware filled with delicacies. There are people talking in hushed voices in the corner, while others boisterously demand the attention of the entire deck. There is a guy playing the mandolin off to one side and a girls track team returning from a meet in Haines. The pandemonium is alluring, so we scramble over to three vacant lounge chairs and settled in for some spectacular people watching. Once again our four hour journey is over in a flash and we off-load and head into the outskirts of Juneau for a few days of exploration in the coastal rainforest.
An Alaskan beach party on the solarium deck of the V/S Matanuska.
There are no roads to Juneau, the only way to access this coastal rainforest is by plane or boat (specifically the ferry that is part of the Alaska Marine Highway System). Here the Mendenhall Glacier stands sentry above Juneau.
As we push further south, the duration of each successive cruise increases: Juneau to Sitka-9 hours, Sitka to Ketchikan-30 and Ketchikan to Bellingham-41. But now we drive aboard as seasoned passengers, as excited about the journey as we are the destination. We have designated ferry bags packed with all the essentials: sleeping bag, pillow and a Thermarest sleeping pad to keep us warm and comfortable as we lounge on the plastic pool furniture on the solarium deck and binoculars to help identify the abundance of marine life. We have snacks, water, pajamas, playing cards and books. We discover the cafeteria menu includes halibut and salmon at a reasonable price, so we opt for convenience and skip packing our own meals. We eagerly await the car deck calls that happen every 6-8 hours, to check in on Tucker the Dog who is otherwise quarantined to the RV, and shower him with attention and let him stretch his legs. Other than seeming a bit lonely, he appears to be taking the entire experience in stride.
By the time we head to Sitka, Abby is a pro and is completely equipped for an incredible 9 hour journey.
The Inside passage is extraordinarily beautiful, especially from the Solarium Deck.
We spend our first night aboard the ferry, and in the moments as dusk turns to darkness the magic of the ferry reveals itself. In lieu of renting a cabin, we opt to spend the night in the chaise lounges on the solarium under an endless blanket of stars. We wage a desperate battle against the gentle rocking of the ship, relentlessly lulling us off to dreamland to savor just a few more moments of the extraordinary celestial display unfolding above us. It proves futile. I awaken in the night and through heavy eyelids am rewarded with a glimpse of a green glow dancing across the horizon: the aurora borealis. The next thing I know the rosy rays of dawn rouse us from our slumber and set us in motion in preparation to disembark.
Our campsite aboard the ferry: warm, dry and wonderful!
Far too soon our Alaskan RV cruise is over. As we arrive in Bellingham, I realize that some of my favorite memories of our time in Alaska were in those last two weeks exploring the Inside Passage. Our time aboard the ferry had all the elements of a cruise ship that I appreciate: the freedom to wander about while en route to a new destination, time to sit in the sun and take in the scenery around us, and of course great food and interesting people. But what really sold us on RV cruising was that we could go at our own pace and spend as much time as we wanted in the port towns along the way. If we wanted to explore the islands of Sitka in our kayaks for a few days, we could. If we just wanted a taste of a port, we could do that too. And the low-key, utilitarian atmosphere was much more our style than the glitz and glam of a cruise ship. The best part is that Winnie the View was just a few decks away, standing at the ready to shuttle us wherever we wanted to go once we arrived at our destination. During our six short weeks in Alaska, we have checked a dozen items off the old bucket list, but as with most things, each successful adventure leads to a handful of new dreams. With an ever expanding itinerary stretching out before us, we head down the highway once again loving every glorious moment of this life on the road.
On Our last day in Alaska, just as we are headed back to the docks at the Clover Pass RV Resort in Ketchikan, a humpback whale surfaces near our kayaks.
You can learn more about the Alaskan Marine Highway system at their web site. Depending on your rig size and accommodations, it can get expensive ($4,000+). You are not allowed to stay in your RV so either plan on staying in the general areas above deck or purchase a stateroom. During peak season reservations can be hard to get, so it’s best to plan ahead figuring a 4-6 months lead time to get the dates and accommodations you want. Reservations and payment can all be done on-line.
A great deal of our planning conversations leading up to our Alaskan adventures involved at least some talk of bears. This in itself is pretty funny because over the past twenty years we have spent a great deal of time in bear country and have had dozens of personal encounters with black bears in the backcountry. In fact, we have always considered it to be a great privilege to happen across a bear. But for whatever reason, in our minds, Alaskan bears were a completely different animal – literally!
Bears have always held a special place in our hearts, but as we planned our adventures deep into the Alaskan wilderness, they became a life-threatening hazard to be avoided at all costs.
As we traversed Canada and entered Alaska, we asked every local we came across about their experience with bears and what they recommended we do to protect ourselves in the off chance that we encountered a bear. We kept looking for a nonchalant response along the lines of “Yeah there are bears, but it is unlikely you will see them and if you do, it’s really not that big of a deal. You just…” We assumed that all the hype about bears was exaggerated and that someone out there had the same attitude we have always had toward black bears. We couldn’t have been more mistaken. Everyone we asked had some horror story about a personal bear encounter that ended up in a gory attack. EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON!
Peter is armed and ready for a blueberry picking expedition outside of Denali National Park.
Needless to say that by the time we arrived in Alaska, we wouldn’t even step out of the RV without a can of bear spray and a firearm. We would cautiously open the door to the RV, slowly look around and then start talking loudly announcing our presence to any bears in the vicinity. City streets or remote wilderness, it didn’t make any difference – we exited our View armed and ready for…well, bear! Tucker the Dog had his walks curtailed because we were afraid to wander too far away from the safety from the rig, and we were on high alert the entire time we were out on an adventure. We nervously made fun of ourselves for our paranoia, but bears were always in our thoughts, and even our dreams. As we drove down the road, we meticulously scanned the roadside for the army of bears we knew were lurking just out of sight ready to attack without any provocation.
Each time we arrived in a new location we would inquire about the imminent bear hazards in the area and would once again be besieged with a new tale of terror indicating our untimely demise from the menacing and predatory Alaskan grizzly. But after three weeks in Alaska without ever laying eyes a single bear, it occurred to us that there, in fact, may NOT be a bear behind every tree waiting for the opportunity to ambush us, and that perhaps by this point we had actually heard of every single bear incident that had ever occurred in all of human history. Suddenly, our own ridiculousness was apparent. While we continued to carry bear spray when we ventured into the woods, we began exploring farther away from the Winnie and actually started enjoying our time in the wilds of Alaska.
Two weeks later, we still had not laid eyes on a living grizzly bear, and our confidence in the wilderness was back up to pre-Alaskan levels – that is until we visited Haines. We arrived by ferryboat, well after midnight, and as we exited the ferry terminal came to a T in the road and had to make a decision. We knew there was a state park with camping in either direction. We elected to go right and made our way through the darkness out to Chilkoot State Park. We entered the campground to find large reflective warning signs that while not prohibited, tent camping was strongly discouraged due to recent bear activity. Exhausted from a long day of travel and cynical that any bears actually still existed in AK, we pulled into the first empty campsite and collapsed without a second thought.
When the salmon are plentiful, the bears will elect to eat the brains and eggs, leaving a trail of carcasses in their wake which are quickly devoured by other scavengers.
The next morning we packed up the rig early and headed back toward Haines to see what the town had to offer, and not a mile from the campground I noticed three dark silhouettes meandering along the shore on the far side of the river. I squinted through the morning fog, and low and behold spotted my first grizzly bear(s): a mom and two adolescent cubs fishing for salmon less than 50 yards from the road. All of the fear and apprehension of a wild bear encounter that had consumed me for weeks was immediately replaced with awe and wonder as I watched the family of three slowly feast their way upstream alongside a salmon buffet. Sometimes one bear would dip a massive head deep in the water, emerging moments later with a writhing fish locked tight in its powerful jaws. The next moment, one cub would become overwhelmed by an ornery streak and tackle its sibling resulting in a mass of fur and feet tumbling about the riverbank. All the while, momma bear kept watch of the comings and goings along the river road. Eventually, they made their way across to our side of the river, both the bear family and the Holcombes keeping a watchful eye on each other. As they drew closer, we retreated to the safety of the RV, trembling with nervous delight as we watched them march single file right below our window. They were so close, we could smell the stench of salmon on their fur.
Abby watches the three bears from the safety of Winnie the View.
We spent most of that first day in Haines in an intricate ballet with the bears, venturing out at times from the safety of the RV, wanting nothing obstructing our connection with the magnificent creatures before us, and then retreating back into our sanctuary of safety the instant we detected a change in their body language: a shift of the ears or change of expression.
Bears are incredibly expressive. When they feel threatened they will pucker their lips or lay their ears back, similar to a cat.
We returned to our campsite at dusk and as I was cooking dinner, I noticed a shadow bolting through our campsite out of the corner of my eye. I poked my head out the door to witness the shadow launch in a single bound onto the massive dumpster at the edge of our site. It was an adolescent Grizz running amok in the campground. From the dumpster, it bolted through three sites in a flash and was gone, but you could hear shouts of fear and the clattering of dishes as the bear tore through one site after the next wrecking havoc on anything that dared cross its path. Our romance with bears developed as we watched the family calmly feeding along the riverbank was shattered in an instant as we witnessed just how destructive a grizzly could be. The next morning as we walked Tucker we heard countless stories of the renegade bear stealing dinner and destroying property throughout the campground.
It is likely that this is the adolescent bear running amok in the campground, destroying anything in it’s path. We spotted him the next morning just downstream from where we camped.
Undeterred, we returned to the river bank the next four days straight and watched the mom and her cubs fish and frolic along the river’s edge. I could have spent a lifetime there taking it all in – the savage feasting upon the salmon who had the misfortune to share an eddy with the bears, the playful shenanigans of the cubs, the multitude of expressions that shifted like the wind, but most of all the interactions of the small family of three that we spent so many days with that were not so different from my own. Ironically, my impression of bears had come full circle during my time spent in Alaska: my overwhelming fearfulness replaced with a healthy respect, appreciation, and admiration for the notorious Grizz – a true privilege to behold.
The notorious Grizz is a privilege to behold, and one that I am looking forward to crossing paths with again, preferably while comfortably inside Winnie the View.
Homer definitely ranks in the top 5 places we visited in AK. The scenery is phenomenal and the ocean is an endless playground. From kayaking to fishing to watching the sunset from the beach, Homer has something for everyone.
After five days of record rainfall in Valdez, we finally reached our breaking point. In general, we are pretty hearty souls and a little rain doesn’t usually phase us, but this was unlike any weather pattern I had ever experienced. During the peak of the deluge, you couldn’t even open your eyes under the brim of a ball cap without a full scale, OSHA-approved eye flush. When the torrent abated, from the pounding pummel of a sizable waterfall to a mere deluge, we would venture out, completely clad in GoreTex and explore the incredible wilderness surrounding Valdez. I am certain that outside of the window of the perfect storm, Valdez would have been one of our favorite places in Alaska. However, after being cooped up inside the Winnie for what was surely the longest week of my life, patience was in short supply on the Famagogo homefront. I mean we just aren’t used to being quarantined inside for that long of a stretch. But with the rainfall pattern holding steady in the forecast, we reeled in the awning, threw in the towel and set out in search of blue skies (or at least a downgrade to an intermittent drizzle).
The turquoise waters of the Kenai river were reason enough to travel the Sterling Highway the entire length of the Kenai Peninsula. And of course, we had to spend a day kayaking on the Kenai!
We decided to head west down the Kenai Peninsula with nothing more on the agenda than to dry out and explore a new part of Alaska. We drove along the Sterling Highway that braided alongside the turquoise waters of the Kenai River through a deep valley lined with snow-capped peaks. As we reached the end of the road in Homer, the clouds parted scattering golden beams of sunlight across the narrow swath of land stretching out into Kachemak Bay. Like a beacon, the allure of the sun led us straight to the Mariner Park Campground at the mouth of the Homer Spit. We selected a site right on the waterfront and stepped out of Winnie the View into the glorious sunlight. And I can’t be certain, but I think I heard a chorus of angels singing praises to the heavens as the blessed warmth of the sun shone down on us for the first time in over a week.
Anna can fillet a halibut in about a minute with the precision of a surgeon. It’s an impressive sight to behold.
With a hankering for fresh air and exercise, we set out on foot to explore the Homer Spit. We discovered a boardwalk lined with souvenir shops, art galleries, and restaurants, but what ultimately caught my attention was the flurry of activity taking place right outside the unassuming headquarters of Central Charters and Tours. A fishing charter had just returned from a day at sea and the crew was busy filleting the eclectic harvest of halibut that were bigger than Abby, rock fish with their bulbous eyes and crimson flesh, sleek silvery salmon and a variety of other unidentifiable creatures of the deep. Instantaneously, a day of deep sea fishing shot straight to the top of my Alaskan bucket list.
The Homer Harbor is an eclectic mix of watercraft. From the massive Coast Guard and Crab vessels to the water taxis and fishing boats, there is always something happening around the docks.
Two days later it was our turn to test our fishing prowess in the expansive waters of the Cook Inlet. We awoke well before dawn and headed to the harbor. As we descended the ramp leading to the docks, I spotted our boat, the Patriot, lit up in the early morning light and ready to depart. With a quick hello to our soft-spoken and down to business Captain, Drew, and our joyful first-mate, Anna, we hopped aboard and greeted a family from Rhode Island that would be joining us for our day at sea. We settled in and scarfed down our breakfast as we exited the harbor and headed out into the Kachemak Bay. Anna enthusiastically answered our ten million questions about fishing and life in Alaska and kept us entertained with incredible tales of huge fish and high seas adventures. Occasionally, our whale-whisperer captain would spot something in the distance and kill the engines, and as if on cue, a pod of whales would magically appear on the horizon heading straight for us. We sat mesmerized, as they drew closer, periodically punctuating the topaz surface with their water spouts until they were close enough that we could feel the mist of their breath on our faces. They would continue on, under and around us, their journey completely unfazed by our presence. As they disappeared in the distance, we would continue on our journey to the fishing grounds until we were interrupted once again by another magnificent species traversing the massive expanse of water.
The pod of orca whales that Captain Drew spotted off in the distance, just as they resurfaced after passing under our boat.
Eventually, Drew silenced the engines and everyone set about the business of fishing. Anna led us to the back deck of the boat and showed us how to rig our lines with fresh cut baitfish and we slowly let our lines drift out behind the boat, one at a time until we felt the distinct bump of the bottom. I cranked my reel a couple of times to lift the bait of the bottom (about a foot) and then waited…for about a minute…until I felt a different kind of tug on the line. Seriously, a minute into my fishing, I had a bite. I reeled in the 300+ feet of line for what seemed like and eternity, my arm muscles screaming under the weight of my catch. After what seemed like five minutes, I caught sight of a flash of white through the inky blue water confirming that I indeed had a halibut on my line. It was by far the biggest fish I have ever caught – a whopping 45 lbs, and over three feet long. Anna helped me hoist it onto the deck and sequestered it into the hold of the boat. Meanwhile, Abby was in the midst of reeling in her first catch, a flounder that we returned to the sea, and then a shark… and so the day progressed, one fish after another until we had each caught our two halibut limit.
Captain Drew had literally 5000 fishing points marked on his GPS for any imaginable conditions. No wonder he landed us on great fishing within minutes!
Abby and I had quite a time wrestling our massive halibut!
Halibut have an unusual anatomy. They are born with eyes on either side of their head, but as they grow, one eye migrates so that they are both on the same side, so that when they lie on their side on the ocean floor they can spot their prey better. Here, Peter shows us the side of the halibut with both eyes.
Completely content and exhausted after several hours of non-stop fishing, we came about and began our return trip to Homer. Captain Drew, never content with anything less than extraordinary, took us home through a spectacularly scenic side channel. He once again wielded his magnificent mammal location super powers, but this time, instead of a pod of whales, Drew pointed out a colony of sea otters. Abby squealed in delight as she discovered a multitude of pups interspersed throughout the group frolicking about and climbing up on their mother’s bellies for a rest. Her excitement was amplified when she noticed the adults were holding hands, or rafting up, to stay in close proximity to each other.
A raft of sea otters and their pups kept us endlessly entertained with their playful antics. Abby describes them holding hands as “the cutest thing on earth!.”
As we approached the mouth of the harbor, a somber silence enveloped us, knowing that our adventure was drawing to a close, each of us reflecting on all that had transpired over the past 10 hours. While we had expected a great day of fishing, we were completely surprised by the wonder of being surrounded by humpback and orca whales as they journeyed to destinations unknown, by the delight of spotting the often shy and elusive minke whale appearing right of the rail of the boat, and by the joyful exuberance that Abby expressed when watching the playful antics of the sea otters and their pups. Experiencing these remarkable creatures in their natural environment was an experience of a lifetime and one that will have a lasting impact on all of us. That, coupled with the sixty-five pounds of halibut we shipped back to the lower 48, made our time with Captain Drew aboard the Patriot, one of our favorite days of our entire Alaskan experience. With big hugs, we said our goodbyes to our fabulous crew and stepped back onto terra firma. We made our way back to the boardwalk on the Homer Spit and stood in front of Central Charters and Tours once again, but this time we stood to the side with pride as it was our catch that was on display.
Staring out at the early morning flurry of activity moving about in the harbor in Homer, AK, I couldn’t help but reflect on the strange series of events that had led us to this moment. Just two days ago, a curly headed stranger bounded up to us in a laundry mat in Homer and introduced himself as a fellow kayaker and asked if we wanted to accompany him on a remote and somewhat obscure adventure. After a brief conversation, some online research about the logistics of our planned route, and a few followup emails, we agreed to accompany our new acquaintance, Randy, into the wilds of Alaska.
The view above Halibut Cove was worth the journey in it’s own right, but was just the launching point of our adventure.
Two days later, just as the sun peeked over the horizon, we found ourselves in Randy’s company once again as we loaded our kayaks and gear onto a water taxi, a small cargo boat, that would take us across Katchemak Bay to the starting point of our adventure. Before the sun even cleared the horizon we were all aboard and moving through the maze of boats lining the harbor docks. We passed by vessels of all shapes and sizes, mostly working boats for fishing or cargo transport. The crab boats (from the TV show Deadliest Catch) and Coast Guard ships stood sentry at the mouth of the harbor and marked our transition from the comforts of Homer into the wild that awaited us on the far side of Katchemak Bay.
The Ramblin’ Rose, one of the crab boats in the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch, stands sentry at the mouth of the harbor in Homer, AK.
As we left the safety of the harbor, the water sparkled like diamonds in the early morning light, and we frequently spotted the water spouts of humpback whales rising in the distance. The crisp morning air, while brisk, wasn’t enough to keep us quarantined inside the cabin of the boat. Instead we rode on the front deck alongside our kayaks, the cold morning air air tinting our cheeks a rosy shade of red. After about 45 minutes, we arrived in Halibut Cove where our captain skillfully ran us aground on the sandy beach, pausing only long enough for us to scramble ashore and offload our gear before returning to the harbor to pick up another load of cargo. As I watched our lifeline to civilization disappear over the horizon, I realized that ready or not, we had just been deposited smack into the middle of yet another incredible adventure.
Abby and Randy enjoying the brisk morning air as we cross the Katchemak Bay en route to Halibut Cove.
The initial leg of our journey was simple enough: a two mile hike, with kayaks in tow, up a rough trail with an 800 foot gain in elevation. We exited the beach by climbing several flights of stairs that led to a steep trail up seemingly endless switchbacks. We picked our way over and around gnarled roots that twisted across the trail and at times forced us through the thick underbrush that lined our path. Randy kept us entertained with one fascinating story after another of his incredible experiences as a guide in the arctic tundra in Alaska. After hearing a tale of a close encounter with a bear, I kept a watchful eye on the dense thickets of blackberry bushes that lined the trail. After a steady mile and a half uphill we made it to the apex of the trail and began our descent into a valley filled with the golden foliage of fall. We clambered another half mile over a broad, rocky trail to the edge of a glacial fed lake and the second phase of our adventure.
The trail was rugged and steep, but we persevered over two miles and up 800 feet of elevation gain to reach Grewingk Glacier Lake.
With a quick wardrobe change, we morphed from hikers to kayakers and set out into the arctic waters of the Grewingk Glacier Lake. While the paddling was familiar, weaving through icebergs strewn across the lake by a calving glacier, was a first. We proceeded with caution, giving the larger ice sculptures a wide berth, but couldn’t resist nudging the smaller ones with our kayaks. We estimated it would take about 20 minutes to traverse the lake and reach the toe of the Grewingk Glacier, but after an hour and a half of paddling we realized we had grossly underestimated the magnitude of our surroundings. We picked up the pace and eventually made it to the massive river of ice, cascading down from the mountains above. We had finally reached the source of our adventure: the headwaters of Grewingk Creek. Although we were tired from trudging uphill carrying our kayaks, and the battle against the wind and current as we crossed the lake, we had only covered 1/3 of our planned route. After taking in the intricate detail of the glacier as it spilled into the lake, we retraced our route back through the icebergs across the lake, carefully scanning the perimeter on the right shoreline for a small break in the the trees that marked the entrance to the final phase of our adventure, a six mile stretch of whitewater that would lead us all the way back down to the saline waters of the Katchemak Bay.
Setting out on the lake, we never imagined that it would take over an hour and a half to reach the glacier.
Although it was well camouflaged by the golden foliage lining the shore, the tiny gap in the trees became more and more pronounced as we approached the outlet of the lake. Amid whoops of joy, we transitioned from flat to flow, dropping into the roller coaster of whitewater that would lead us back to civilization. We leapfrogged our way down the frothy ribbon of pewter colored water, splashing and laughing our way around rocks and waves. Long before we were ready, the character of the water transitioned from a raucous flume into a meandering delta signifying the end of our adventure. As we paddled out into the bay, sea otters served as pilot ships leading us to the location where we were scheduled to rendezvous with our water taxi. We arrived with almost a half hour to spare and set about exploring the abundant sea life that inhabited the tidal pools at our extraction point.
The water was filled with glacial till giving it the appearance of molten pewter streaming down the riverbed.
Out of the fog that had settled across the Homer Spit, our water taxi emerged: first as a tiny black speck in an endless sea of gray but growing larger by the minute. As the boat approached our beach, the adrenaline of adventure was replaced with the fatigue that often accompanies a long day well-spent in the wild. We scrambled aboard the small boat and once again took our positions in the open air of the cargo hold. This time instead of the excited chatter of anticipation echoing above the roar of the engine, a silent blanket of contentment enveloped us. We each sat in silence reflecting on our day and all the marvels we had experienced.
The Homer harbor was blanketed with a thick fog leaving us wondering if our water taxi would make it out to pick us up. Thankfully our chariot arrived right on time.
As we unloaded our kayaks onto the docks of the harbor, I couldn’t help but think about all the changes we had experienced over the past 48 hours: the dramatic shift of environments as we moved from one ecosystem to the next; the diversity of experiences we encountered along the trail, the river and the sea; and in our increased confidence and comfort in the backcountry of Alaska. As for the curly headed stranger that wandered into our lives and inspired us to set out on this incredible adventure, well that is my favorite part of our life on the road. The transition from acquaintance to friend that has happened so frequently along our journey as road warriors, becomes yet another critical fiber that when woven together over time creates the brilliant tapestry of our lives.
Our first destination in Alaska was Valdez, and was purely exploratory in nature – in fact the only thing I actually knew about Valdez was that there was a massive oil spill there when I was in elementary school. Other than that, we had no idea what to expect. But backed with the iron-clad promise of a friend who guaranteed that it would be a favorite stop on our Alaskan tour, we headed south to see what adventures awaited us in Valdez. En route, we perused our 2016 edition of The Milepost, and found there was a great pullout for camping about 7 miles outside of town at the junction of Dayville Road. This particular junction turned out to be the gateway to the notorious Allison Point – famous for salmon fishing and grizzly bears. With that irresistible combination so close, we took a detour before settling in for the night to see what we might discover.
It was here that we caught our first glimpse of the ocean. It was overcast and rainy with glassy smooth water stretching across the bay. I rolled down the windows to take in the familiar salty scent of the sea, that always brings back fond memories of some of my earliest adventures with my dad. Instead of the nostalgic trip down memory lane that I was anticipating, I was jolted back to reality by the putrid stench of decaying flesh. I scanned the roadside to identify the culprit and noticed a writhing, churning disturbance in the tidal pool running alongside the road. The water was akin to river rapids, except there wasn’t enough current to justify the turbulence that disrupted the otherwise calm pool of water.
The source of the stench – a river of salmon stretching off into the distance as far as the eye can see.
It was then that I heard Peter whispered under his breath “SALMON!” It wasn’t rapids at all that I was witnessing, rather millions of salmon clamoring their way upstream to the headwaters of their homeland. The shear magnitude of the biomass of salmon that ran for miles along the waterfront was incomprehensibly vast. As we continued further down the road, we discovered the source of all the commotion – a fish hatchery positioned at the outlet of a small creek that flowed into the bay. Adjacent to the hatchery was a weir (a metal sieve of sorts) that blocked the entrance into the freshwater creek and impeded the salmon’s ability to return to their birthplace. Instead it funneled them into an artificial fish ladder leading into a series of concrete pools where they would eventually deposit their eggs as their final act on this earth.
The weir that funneled the salmon into the adjacent fish ladder and up into the hatchery pools.
While we explored the happenings at the fish hatchery, we couldn’t help but notice the increasing presence of fisherman that punctuated the rocky shoreline on either side of the weir. We watched in awe as they reeled in one hefty salmon after another. With the allure of an seemingly guaranteed fresh salmon feast, we headed into Valdez to purchase the required fishing license before testing our own prowess in the salty waters of the Prince William Sound. In no time we were back at Allison Point with a bagful of new tackle hopeful to land our first ever Alaskan salmon. Using the hot pink spoon recommended by the local tackle shop, I was pleasantly surprised when I experienced a firm tug on my line on my third cast. After a short but exciting fight I landed my first salmon – silver, with a hump on it’s back reminiscent of a camel and a sinister and somewhat threatening jawline. It was what the locals identified as a “humpy” or pink salmon. An instant later, Abby was yelling “FISH-ON!!” from a short distance up the bank, and Peter followed suit moments later. After an exhilarating afternoon of catch and release fishing, we kept a beautiful pink that had not yet transitioned from it’s ocean phase to it’s spawning phase. A ocean phase pink salmon is beautiful and sleek with a bluish-green back and big oval shaped spots running along it’s entire length. It was a perfect specimen for dinner. We filleted it and threw in on the grill drenched in lemon butter and dill, thrilled to be eating fresh Alaskan salmon right out of the water. Unfortunately, the pink salmon’s flesh turned and unappetizing shade of grey when we cooked it. I’m not sure if it was the color or the actual taste of the fish, but our much anticipated meal wasn’t exactly the culinary delight we were expecting. (NOTE: A few days later we learned that pink salmon are best canned and the locals turn their noses up at the thought of eating them – another Alaskan lesson learned the hard way.)
Abby holding her prized first pink salmon.
As we finished up the dishes that night, we witnessed an unlikely scenario unfold right outside our windows. A young couple pulled up next to our RV. The man hoped out first and quickly suited up in waders before readying his fly rod. The woman who followed was dressed as if she had just left the office – clad in a skirt, tights and a nice sweater. I couldn’t help but giggle as I watched her don a bright orange rubber rain coat over her work clothes and swap out her high heels for rubber boots. The final accessory to her eclectic ensemble was the shotgun she hoisted over her shoulder before joining her beau at the back of their pickup. It was an entertaining turn of events leaving us wondering what they were up to. They took off down the trail leading to a small creek that babbled alongside our pullout and returned 20 minutes later with a beautiful king salmon that was at least 30” long – clearly they had done this before.
The crimson bodies of the sockeye salmon were unmistakable in milky blue glacial fed rivers.
Peter and I decided to follow suit and, emulating the locals, set out the next morning armed with fly-rods, firearms and a more selective salmon palate. As I crossed over the slightly raised berm that separated the pullout from the river, I followed a faint trail of sorts, lined with numerous shredded salmon remains, two large piles of scat and an abundance of very large bear tracks. I watched Peter tromp off downstream and standing by myself in the narrow creek, suddenly felt very alone and vulnerable. In an instant I understood the team fishing strategy of the couple from the night before – one to fish and one to stand guard against the bears. I inadvertently reached up to cling to the shoulder strap of my firearm as I scanned my surroundings – hyper aware of every crackle and rustle in the thick brush that lined the riverbed. After an extensive survey of the perimeter, I deemed myself relatively safe and settled into the familiar rhythm of fly fishing, with one notable exception. In lieu of silently stalking my sockeye prey, I opted for a less traditional and more raucous, bear-aware approach. Each time I moved to a new area of the river, I loudly serenaded the fish with a steady concerto of boisterous tunes that complimented the rhythm of my fly-rod. The idea was that a bear would hear my singing and run for the hills. Unfortunately the salmon seemed as unfazed by my fly as they were by my melodic approach. While I was fishing, hundreds of crimson bodied sockeyes made their way upstream, all around and through my legs, but after three hours of casting and wading through arctic water in the steady drizzle with nary a bite, I threw in the towel and headed back to the Winnie. An hour later, Peter returned cold and empty-handed as well, his only catch too far into it’s spawning phase to be edible. At least the restaurant in Valdez had a salmon special on the menu.
A discouraged Peter with a sockeye that was a bit too far into it’s spawning phase.
Our first two rounds with the salmon were huge learning experiences, and for now, the sockeye have won. But as we head over to the Kenai Peninsula, we can’t wait for another opportunity for a rematch. As we drive along the teal blue waters of the Kenai River, we are watching, searching for the illusive flash of red as the sockeye make their way upstream toward their native spawning grounds. We will return again with more knowledge and experience, ever hopeful that our next salmon feast will be one that we catch ourselves.
Deciding to drive to Alaska was almost a no-brainer, but figuring out the logistics of what was actually involved in getting there and what to do once we arrived was quite a bit more complicated than either of us bargained for. In addition to an exhausting list of things we absolutely HAD to do, everyone we spoke with who had actually driven to Alaska, also cautioned us that what we were planning was no small undertaking, and typically shared a horror story or two about fearsome road conditions, flat tires, broken axels and/or near death experiences with large mammals. Overwhelmed by the number of incredible options of things to do coupled with an overbooked work schedule in the months leading up to our departure date, we found ourselves at the Chief Mountain Border Station just outside of Glacier National Park with nothing planned other than a roughed out road map of how we planned to drive across Canada. The rest, we were just going to have to figure out along the way.
We found the wilds of Canada to be quite conducive to winging it. Almost immediately we settled into a rhythm of short periods of driving, punctuated by frequent stops to take in one impressive sight after another that we discovered along the way. As dusk approached at the end of each day, we pulled out our comprehensive guidebook, The Milepost, to help us find a suitable pullout or campground where we could park for the night. For the most part we opted to boon-dock in one of the many fantastic pullouts that lined the highway to Alaska. One noteworthy exception was the night we spent at the Laird Hot Springs Provencial Park. Our camping fee included access to the hot springs and we took full advantage with both an evening and morning soak in the soothing waters.
The Laird Hot Springs is a mandatory stop on the Alaskan Highway. There are two pools that start at 125℉ at the source of the spring and that cool to around 70℉ as you make your way downstream. While at the park, it was berry season and the park was overrun with black bears. At dawn we saw a mother and her cub right outside the RV, and Abby and I spotted a moose on our early morning walk to the springs.
We caught a glimpse of Athabasca Falls as we rounded a bend and had to stop and check it out. There is a labyrinth of trails that flank the river on each side where you can peer over the lip of the box canyon and feel the pounding of the water reverberate in your chest. It’s an extraordinary place to stop and stretch your legs.
One of the most striking differences between travel in the lower forty-eight and that in the great white north, is the complete lack of any obvious development (other than the road of course). It is the most remote roadway we have ever experienced with endless miles of nothing but us, the road stretching off into the distance and a plethora of wildlife. Along the way we spotted an abundance of wildlife, all of which were fascinating to watch, but presented a notable hazard while driving. From the wolf we noticed loping along the tree line to the bison that lined, and sometimes lounged in the road to the numerous caribou, moose, elk, stone sheep and bear crossings, we sometimes felt like we had inadvertently stepped into a high-stakes game of large mammal dodgeball. As a safety precaution, we opted to forego driving at dawn and dusk in an effort to avoid a collision as we traveled through the more desolate areas of Canada.
Bison lined the road for hundreds of miles starting around Dawson Creek. These beautiful and impressive creatures made for a sizable speed bump as they lounged in the road. Fortunately we took it easy through this stretch of highway and were able to avoid several near misses.
A definite highlight of our trip was visiting the Sign Forest in Watson Lake, Yukon. We thought it would be cool, but were shocked at the massive scale of this ever expanding sculpture.
As we crossed the physical border into the Yukon, we noticed that quite suddenly we had also transitioned from summer into fall. The foliage changed from varying shades of green to vibrant hues of reds, oranges and yellows and crisp nighttime temperatures that suddenly yielded frost on our windshield. The road conditions for the final 200 mile push to the Alaskan border deteriorated to such an extent that we were forced to creep along at 45 MPH, doing our best to spot frost heaves in the road with enough warning to slow down enough to avoid seriously damaging Winnie the View.
After seven days and 2035 miles, we finally reached the US border. Our journey across Canada was one for the memory books and something we look forward to tackling again sometime. With little more planned than a rough outline of the regions we want to visit, we are crossing into the wilds of Alaska, eager to explore the unknown and discover the adventures that await us. Onward…
You can follow our adventures in realtime on Facebook @Peter.Holcombe, @Kathy.Holcombe or @AdventurousMissAbby or on Instagram @PeterHolcombe or @Adventurous.Miss.
In our experience, the unknown is far more terrifying than that which we understand. For example, when I first experienced a great white shark up close and in person, I was completely terrified and quite certain that it was intent on coming to gobble me up. However when I shared my story with a surfer from California, who has spent a lot of time around these colossal, menacing creatures, he simply laughed and said, “Oh, they’ll just give you a good bump trying to figure out if you are food or not. Once they realize you are not in their food chain, they will leave you alone.” He then shared countless tales of close encounters with sharks that involved a bump and sometimes, what he describes as a nip, before heading off into the deep blue ocean in search of other prey. His knowledge of shark behavior allowed him to enter their environment with confidence on a daily basis for years and survive unscathed. Me on the other hand, I think I’ll stick to the safety of the mountains.
In our decades of experience in the back country, Peter and I have had many, many encounters with bears. We have had them come into our camp while cooking dinner, found paw prints on the side of our truck, and have watched in awe as they have lumbered by us in the woods. Over the years we’ve developed a certain level of cautious comfort in their presence, and can’t help but smile when we pass parties in the back country jingle-jangling their way through the woods adorned with bells and an over-exaggerated phobia of a near-death encounter with the curious and easily frightened black bear. As well versed as we are in black bear behavior, we have absolutely zero experience in brown bear territory.
When we decided to embark on a last minute hike to explore just a little more of the extraordinary landscape of Glacier National Park, we really weren’t overly concerned about encountering a grizzly bear. In all honesty, the odds of actually seeing a grizz on our 5 mile foray into the wilderness were pretty low, and we thought the buzz about grizzlies was probably as over-exaggerated as that of black bears. Regardless, we headed into Apgar Village to buy bear spray, just in case, only the find that everything was closed for the night. The next morning, we caught the early express bus that took us from the Visitor Center, up over the pass to the Jackson Glacier Overlook. On the ride up, through the spectacularly rugged alpine terrain, we befriended a couple who had spent the past six years working as naturalists in the park. We swapped stories of adventures past and they shared beta on some of their favorite places in the park.
Already regretting our lack of bear deterrent, I casually asked what, if anything, these experienced climbers carried in their packs for bear defense. I expected them to laugh, roll their eyes and say that the whole bear encounter was completely over-hyped. Instead, they shared a story of a friend (with bear spray) who was charged, batted around a bit, and left bleeding and extremely grateful to be alive. The attack occurred because he inadvertently crossed between a sow and her cubs – normal bear behavior but certainly an easy mistake to make in the dense undergrowth of the forrest. Unsettled, I took a deep breath and reassured myself that we would be fine, we just needed to remain hyper-aware of our surroundings while hiking.
At Logan Pass, we had to transfer to a second bus that would take us the rest of the way to the trailhead. Peter, while waiting for the next bus and somewhat anxious from the conversation with the naturalists, ran up to purchase some bear spray at the visitor center only to find it didn’t open for several hours. As we boarded the next bus, we were welcomed aboard by a boisterous driver whose first question was “You have your Grizz-Be-Gone spray right?” and proceeded to tell us about every bear attack in the history of Glacier National Park. Not wanting to fall victim to the hysteria, I asked if he knew how effective bear spray was in warding off an attack and his response was that only one in seven bears tested even responded to the spray. This confirmed for me that, as I suspected, there is a good bit of marketing behind the over-dramatization of the need for bear spray. It left me wondering how many bear attacks had been actually been thwarted by bear spray. As we stepped off the bus with more questions that answers, that inner voice in my head was second guessing my judgement in heading out into the wilderness unarmed.
There was another party of eight ahead of us and we fell back on the old adage of safety in numbers and kept them within sight just ahead of us. Obviously if anyone was going to cross that invisible threshold of bear tolerance, it would be the people in the front. A fourth of the way through our hike we came to a fork in the trail and the other party continued down the well worn trail while we, unfortunately, took the path less traveled. In fact, there was so little traffic on our route that we found ourselves alone wading up to our armpits through dense undergrowth – a perfect scenario to inadvertently stumble upon a bear. Our senses escalated to high alert and we started talking, clapping, whistling, yelling – anything to alert a bear to our presence and prevent a surprise encounter.
We self consciously laughed at our ridiculous behavior, and anxiously continued with our raucous parade deeper into the forrest. Suddenly, Peter stopped, frozen in his tracks, frantically scanning in every direction. I could see his body tense as he searched the area around us. As Abby and I caught up to him, I saw at his feet the largest pile of bear scat I had ever seen. The circumference of the mound was larger than a basketball and the diameter of each feces wider a rolling pin. There was steam radiating off of the massive pile indicated it was incredibly fresh. So much for the notion that we were unlikely to see a bear.
We redoubled our efforts to make noise and exited the area with as much calm as we could muster. We continued to frantically scan our surroundings for any sign of trouble. Within minutes I noticed a large silhouette moving slowly through the woods off in the distance. My heart leaped out of my chest and my adrenaline surged in preparation for battle. I alerted Peter and Abby to the peril that awaited us. Peter doubled over in laughter as Abby triumphantly announced that my bear was in fact two hikers on an adjacent trail. Slightly embarrassed and incredibly relived, I waded through the last of the dense undergrowth and stepped onto the well worn path leading the St. Mary’s Falls, comforted once again by the blanket of safety in numbers.
Looking back, I have no idea if we would have been any safer armed with bear spray, but I can tell you that our first stop, after ice cream of course, when we returned to civilization was to the gear shop to purchase a can of Grizz-Be-Gone. Effective or not, at least I would have a can of hope to cling to for my next grizzly encounter.
NOTE: According to a ranger who specializes in bear mitigation for the Canadian Provencial Parks, we learned that when used correctly, bear spray is 70% effective in warding off an attack. Of special note is that once a bear is successfully sprayed, it will be incapacitated for a few minutes. That is the only time it is ok to run from a bear, because it is likely to charge again with full fury once it recovers.
Each July there is a pilgrimage to Iowa, where a thousand road pros converge to celebrate Winnebago’s biggest event of the year – the Grand National Rally. Last year we were first timers to this event, wide-eyed neophytes, uncertain about what to expect. We wandered awestruck at the shear magnitude of row upon endless row of coaches ranging from the largest and most luxurious Class A’s to the compact and efficient vans, and even some classic rigs dating back to the early sixties. Within each RV resided a veteran of the road, a kindred spirit, with a passion for overland exploration much like our own. We met people from all across the globe swapping stories of adventures past.
This year we returned again, eager to reconnect with the friends we had met the year before and a game plan to take full advantage of everything GNR has to offer. We arrived in Forest City a couple of days early for Puckerbrush Days, a wonderful small town celebration, complete with an impressive parade of floats, fire engines, tractors and of course Winnebagos, and a grand finale of fireworks that night. With a couple of days to kill before the rally started, we entertained ourselves with a bike ride (14 miles round trip from the rally grounds) up to Pilot Knob State Park – a beautiful gem nestled in the hardwoods with a lookout tower that is the second highest point in Iowa.
Each year almost a thousand RVs converge on Forest City, Iowa for the Winnebago Grand National Rally. Here you can see the expansive rally grounds with the Winnebago manufacturing facility in the background.
Before we knew it, opening ceremonies began and GNR launched into full swing. We attended seminars on RV cooking, servicing our engine, taking dogs across the border into Canada, and even taught our own workshop about our adventures in over 23 National Parks this year. We were able to talk to technicians about some of the questions we had about our new rig, and there were vendors selling everything from awnings to lightbulbs. We also found a few organizers that we now wonder how we ever lived without.
The evenings flew by as we shared drinks and dinner with friends, followed by top notch entertainment from big bands to country music. On the last evening was something that’s called “row parties” which is a tour where all the Winnebago International Travelers (WIT) chapters from each state host a party and showcase something special that is uniquely them – we sampled ham sandwiches from the Virginia club and smoked ribs from the Winnie Bs (B-vans), wine from California, and so much more. It was a great finale to mingle with folks we hadn’t yet met and of course to try something new.
Long before we were ready, closing ceremonies wound down the party and the slow exodus of a thousand rigs began. As we pulled out of town, we felt as if we were in our own parade as we followed 10 other Winnebagos down the two lane road leading to the interstate. As we pulled away from the parade, we gave them the road warrior salute knowing that we would be back again next summer to do it all again. Until next time…
As I peer over the guard rail that quarantines the tourist in the parking lot from the spectacular wilderness around us, the solitude of the dark abyss of the slot canyon below me beckons. With a steady drone of undecipherable languages buzzing all around us, I help Abby don layers of fleece beneath her watertight drysuit in an effort to protect her from the frigid temperatures that await us, deep in the bowels of Zion National Park. We accessorize our ensemble with climbing harnesses and helmets and step over the guardrail onto precariously perched boulders that mark the entrance to the slot canyon. As we continue our downward scramble, we find ourselves funneled into a deep and continuously narrowing gorge. By the time we reach the bottom, I can touch the walls on either side of me with outreached arms, and the serpentine cliffs that rise almost a hundred feet above completely obscure my view of the sky. I notice a small group of people, perched securely behind the safety rail at an overlook high above, keeping a careful watch on our progress until we round another bend in the canyon and are completely out of sight. In just five short minutes we find ourselves completely alone in one of the world’s most famous and busy National Parks, isolated in the dark, dank and spectacularly surreal world of Pine Creek Slot Canyon.
The first challenge we encounter as we work our way down through the tight canyon is minor, but not negligible. It is a 6 foot drop into a deep, cold pool of water that is best navigated with a jump. I offer to go first and manage, just barely, to suppress my gasp reflex as I plunge into the icy water and make a mad dash swim to the warmth of the dry land on the far side of the drop. Abby and Peter follow in quick succession and we press onward through the meandering chambers.
Our next obstacle is two-tiered, sixty foot drop that requires two rappels. We remove the rope from our packs and rig the first anchor. Peter leads the way down the first drop followed by Abby, with me bringing up the rear. Even with over 1000 rappels under my belt, my heart still stops, just for an instant, the moment I shift my body weight from the safety of my perch on the cliffside onto the rope. My brain overpowers my innate adrenaline infused reaction and relays to my body that I am in fact safely suspended from a 9 mm strand of nylon, dangling out in space. My breathing and heart rate return to normal, and my experience takes over and I slowly lower myself down the rope. On my way down, I have to remind myself to shift my focus from the rope feeding through the belay device in front of me and take in all of the grandeur of the cavern I am entering. The light reflecting off of the pool below me dances around chamber that surrounds me giving the impression that the walls are alive. I stare in wonder at the surreal environment that has consumed me until I am jolted back to reality by the cold water that nips first at my feet as I lower myself into the terminus pool and struggle to release my harness from the rope while trying to keep my hands warm and dry. Once free, I grab the rope and swim to the far end of the pool where Abby and Peter are doing jumping jacks trying to warm cold appendages.
We forge on through the canyon, sometimes scrambling through narrow passages, while other times swimming through arctic pools. There is a fair smattering of perilous drops that require a rappel (or two) to navigate that frequently impede our progress, but the technical nature of Pine Creek Canyon is what drew us here in the first place. Each drop or bend in the canyon brings us a new vantage point to experience the magical and extraordinary inner chambers of the massive sandstone walls that make up Zion National Park. Long before we are ready we reach the end of the slot canyon and step out into desert sunlight for the first time in hours. Almost instantly, it warms our chilled bodies. We follow a faint path along a steep hillside back to the road and are once again immersed in the cacophony of spring break pilgrims who are each experiencing the park in their own way.