Almost 18 months ago, we boosted our solar generating power by adding two 160-watt panels to our factory installed Zamp Solar system. (You can learn more about how we installed the panels here.) Immediately there was a noticeable improvement in how quickly we were able to fully charge our house batteries, even in cloudy conditions. And during the day, our upgraded system easily met our regular energy demands. But once darkness descended, we were often forced to fire up the generator to augment our power supply, especially in the winter when our furnace was working overtime throughout the night. We decided that new batteries were in order to capitalize on the additional input we were receiving from the 420-watts of intake from our rooftop panels.
When we started researching batteries, we realized there were endless possibilities and much debate about which type of battery is best for RVers. But there seems to be a consensus that a deep cycle battery is preferable, because it is designed for better long-term delivery and has a better capacity to withstand a greater number of discharge cycles. (As opposed to a starting battery that is designed to deliver quick bursts of power). The next decision was between flooded and AGM/gel batteries. Flooded batteries are less expensive, but require more maintenance, i.e., you have to check and refill the water levels periodically. AGM/gel batteries have a better discharge and recharge efficiency, and deliver the best life performance as long as they are recharged before they drop below 50% of their storage capacity. We opted to invest a little more for the maintenance-free AGM batteries for their additional performance, longevity and ease of use.
Our new group 31 deep cycle batteries compared to our stock group 27 batteries. You can see the difference in size, and therefore capacity.
The big decision was choosing between 6 volt and 12 volt batteries, and there are two very divided camps as to which configuration is best. One option is four six-volt, deep-cycle golf cart batteries wired in series. Fans of this option claim that the golf cart batteries are designed for a slow, steady discharge (much like that in an RV) and are better able to withstand repeated discharge/recharge cycles. The second option is two 12-volt, deep-cycle batteries wired in parallel. Proponents of this camp claim that the two 12-volt batteries have the same amp hours and take up less space.
After reading endless articles and watching dozens of videos on the topic, we ultimately concluded that this debate is essentially “six of one, half dozen of another” when it comes to performance. However, when it came down to it there was a factor that made the decision easy for us … space. The six-volt batteries take up quite a bit more area, and we wanted to continue to use our existing battery compartment under the stairs of our View. So, we opted for the 12-volt configuration and increased our capacity by upgrading to two group-31, deep-cycle batteries.
Even with the space-saving option, we still had to modify the battery compartment under the stairs to accommodate the larger 12-volt batteries. When we removed the stock batteries we realized that there are two tabs on the bottom of the battery compartment that keep the group 27 batteries from shifting during travel. We used a grinder to cut away the two vertical tabs that capped the ends of the old group 27 batteries.
After rounding out the sharp edges with the grinding wheel, Peter applied a liberal coating of under-body paint to the fresh cuts to prevent rust. The new batteries were a tight fit, and at first try, seemed too large for the space. However, with a little creative maneuvering, the larger batteries just barely slid into place and filled the entire compartment.
The group 31 batteries are a snug fit, but a welcome modification that practically eliminate the need for a generator for our day-to-day power needs.
Now having this added battery capacity, we (almost never) worry about power usage. This completely takes care of our needs on all but the most cloudy weeks. I think this is a very worthy upgrade for anyone who wants to cut the cord from the RV parks and stay in more out of the way scenic, private or economical locations.
Since we became full-timers, we rely on our Winnie for everything that our home in Boulder, Colorado, used to provide. We often choose the path less traveled, and spend a majority of our time exploring endless dirt roads through public lands and rarely cross the threshold of a campground. We consider this a life well lived, but there are a few limiting factors that force us back into civilization, one of which is power. Fortunately, our View is well-equipped with an Onan diesel generator that feeds off of our fuel tank and keeps us powered-up and operational indefinitely.
But it’s noisy and smelly, and we typically only use it in short bursts to run our microwave. Or to cope with extreme weather conditions, i.e. sub-zero temperatures. Our preferred power source is solar, which we rely on to meet our day-to-day power demands. As long as it is sunny outside, we are constantly charging our house batteries in a clean, silent and environmentally responsible way.
With most of our days spent boondocking in wild places, the ability to replenish our house batteries while off the grid is a must.
Why we added more solar
Our 2016 Winnebago View 24J came from the factory with a 100-watt Zamp Solar system installed. We used this stock system for nearly five months, and it worked. But on cloudy/rainy days we frequently had to supplement solar by running the generator. And inevitably, we would need that extra power boost late at night when the noise and smell of the generator was incredibly obnoxious to anyone within earshot.
Fortunately, our Zamp system has additional capacity, and is pre-wired with a plug, making it effortless to add more panels to the system. There are numerous options for the capacity and shape of the panels. So we spent an afternoon on the roof with homemade cardboard stencils to determine which configuration was best for the space we had available around our rooftop components that were already in place. Ultimately, we determined that we had room for two 160-watt panels, which maxed out the capacity of our system with a total of 420 watts.
The Winnebago Grand National Rally is a gathering of 2,500 RVers in Forest City, IA, each June. We installed our new panels in about an hour during the rally.
Installing the panels
We received the panels and mounts while at the Winnebago Grand National Rally, and installed them in about an hour in a giant field surrounded by 2000 other RVs. The kit came with four mounting feet each that attach to the panels and hold them in place. You can screw the feet directly to the roof, but the thought of putting holes in a perfectly functioning, water-tight roof, was less than appealing. So, we opted to use 3M VHB tape instead. This double sided tape is amazingly strong and resilient and is used for a variety of critical applications, from holding windows in modern skyscrapers to mounting ambulance bodies to their frames.
The panel on the left is the original 100-watt panel that came from the factory with our View. The top and right panels are what we added to the system and are 160 watts each.
To install, we cut the VHB tape to the exact shape of the feet with an Exacto knife and cleaned the mounting feet with soap, water and a final swab of rubbing alcohol before applying one side of the tape to the feet. Next, we carefully cleaned the roof in the same manner, and marked exactly where each foot should be placed. It took two of us to handle the unwieldy panels. We then removed the second layer of backing from the VHB tape and carefully positioned the feet to rest on the pre-marked locations on the roof. We applied pressure to ensure that each foot was securely bonded, and, for good measure, applied a coating of Dicor self-leveling adhesive to protect the VHB tape from the elements.
Here you can see the factory installed 100-watt Zamp panel with the junction box sitting on the left of the panel.
The next step was to connect the wiring of the new panels to the existing system. This was the easiest part of the install, because all of the new Zamp panels plugged directly into a port on the factory installed junction box that came with our original system. We secured the cables running from the panels to the mounting feet with a few zip ties to help eliminate any additional road noise.
The junction box that was installed at the factory makes adding panels a snap. With two extra ports, you simply plug in the new panels and you are up and running.
The entire install took about an hour from start to finish and the panels are still securely attached, fifty thousand miles later. The increase in speed at which our batteries recharge was noticeable from the moment we plugged in the additional panels, and our ability to capture power even on cloudy days has increased. However, the additional input is negated unless you increase your storage capacity.
For our tips on upgrading your battery capacity, read this article that goes over our battery modifications.
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 other 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 176 square feet? How do you cope with so much togetherness? What’s in the trailer? And, of course, what do you eat? So, here are some of our favorite one-pot meals for RVers who are busy like us, to help give you a glimpse into our life in the Winnie.
When we come back from a big adventure, the last thing I want to do is spend hours cooking and cleaning. Over the past three years, I have refined my recipe repertoire to include a few delicious and healthy one-pot meals that are simple to prepare and don’t require much cleanup.
1. Sausage and Veggies
- 1 package Adele’s Chicken Apple Sausage
- 1 bag red white and blue potatoes
- 1 bag brussel sprouts
- Parmesan cheese (as a garnish)
- Avocado Oil (or whatever cooking oil you prefer)
- Slice the potatoes into bite-sized chunks and add them to a hot skillet (med. high) with about a tbsp of oil, stirring occasionally to keep from burning.
- Then clean and cut the brussel sprouts into similar-sized pieces. Add them to the skillet and stir occasionally.
- Slice the sausages into similar-sized pieces and add them to the skillet.
- The dish is done when the potatoes are soft and the brussel sprouts are al dente.
- I garnish with parmesan cheese and occasionally bacon crumbles.
This meal is a Famagogo favorite. Sometimes I top this dish with a fried egg for an additional protein boost. A Caesar salad adds another serving of veggies and is a great compliment to this delectable meal.
2. Chicken Curry:
- 2 lbs. chicken (I prefer organic thigh meat)1 onion, diced
- 2-3 tbsp cooking oil (I prefer avocado oil)
- 1 large sweet potato, cubed
- 1 package frozen peas
- 1 package sliced mushrooms
- 1 container Maya Kaimal Coconut Curry simmer sauce (I get this in a two pack at Costco and freeze one for later)
- Jasmine Rice (I use 1.5 cups for my family of three and we usually have enough left for lunch the next day)
- Garlic salt
- Dice the chicken into bite-sized pieces and sauté along with the onion and sweet potato in your favorite cooking oil.
- Once the chicken is golden brown, add the frozen peas, curry sauce and rice.
- Simmer until the rice is tender and serve with garlic Naan (also available pre-made at Costco. I brush it with butter and garlic salt and heat it directly over the burner on the stove while the rice is cooking.)
This meal can be as simple or as complex as you like. If I am short on time, I skip the sweet potatoes and save the time it takes to peel and dice them. If I have some veggies in the fridge that need to be eaten, I throw them in (cauliflower is a favorite addition).
3. Potsticker Soup:
- 1 bag of frozen potstickers
- 1 bag of pre-washed kale
- 1 box of broth (I prefer ginger broth from Trader Joe’s)
- Bring broth to a boil, add potstickers and kale.
- Follow the directions on the potsticker bag to ensure they are cooked properly, usually about 10 minutes. Optional: Add your favorite hot sauce to taste.
Just weeks ago, after a long day of kayaking, my good friend Emily Jackson whipped up this fabulous meal in less than 10 minutes. It’s great because the ingredients are easy to store making it a great last minute, no hassle option.
4. Shrimp Scampi:
- 1 package Casa Milo squid ink spaghetti
- 2 lbs. shrimp (cooked, shelled and deveined are easiest)
- 1 jar sun dried tomatoes
- 1 jar capers
- 1 jar fresh pesto
- 1 can artichoke hearts
- Parmesan cheese
- Cook the spaghetti according to the directions and drain.
- When there is 5 minutes remaining on the pasta cook time, add the shrimp.
- When the shrimp are pink and the pasta al dente, drain the water keeping the pasta and shrimp in the same pot.
- Add the pesto, sun dried tomatoes, capers and artichoke hearts and heat until warm.
- Serve and garnish with parmesan cheese.
When I need a meal that is guaranteed to impress even the most discerning palate, this is my meal of choice. No one has to know that it takes only one pot and less than 15 minutes to prepare this gourmet delight.
Bonus: Cowboy Caviar
While more of a lunch or snack option than big meal, this is a great one to have on your list of go-to recipes. No pot needed for this one, just a big bag!
- 1 can black eyed peas
- 1 can black beans
- 1 can sweet corn
- 1 can Rotel
- 1 can diced roasted tomatoes
- 1 can sliced black olives
- 1 can diced green chilis
- 1 diced red and green pepper
- 1 diced onion
- 1 bottle Olive Garden Salad dressing (add to taste)
- 1 bag Fritos or tortilla chips
- Mix all canned and fresh ingredients in a gallon-sized zipper bag (or large seal-able container).
- Add the Italian dressing to taste and serve with chips.
- This is a quick and easy lunch or afternoon snack and will keep for up to a week in the fridge.
Cowboy Caviar is perfect for lunch or a just-off-the-river-and-we’re-starving snack. I love it with Fritos Scoops. One batch will last my ravenous crew about a week.
In hopes of achieving a long-time personal goal, Kathy Holcombe walked away from the comforts of her family and RV to set off on a 70-mile solo adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail.
In Part 1 of this series, Kathy shared her travel log from her emotion-filled first day. In Part 2, she reached the half-way point of her journey, but not without having to overcome many physical and mental challenges first. And now, in Part 3, Kathy recounts the final days of her trek – the most eventful yet!
Day 6 – I am only hiking 5 miles today, which by now, I can do before breakfast. So, I take advantage and sleep in … almost until dawn. While I am enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee, a light drizzle starts pattering on the roof of the shelter. The rain pushes me to pick up the pace and I finish loading my pack and head out. The trail is soaked with slippery roots and rocks strewn about, so I have to stay alert. Thankfully, it’s almost all uphill, so my knees aren’t protesting too much.
With only a mile to go I get a message on the Garmin InReach from my mom who has been faithfully (nervously!) watching every step of my journey. She says “You are on the eastern edge of hurricane/tropical storm Nate and conditions are about to get much worse. Hunker down and stay safe!”
A hurricane, REALLY!?! In all my planning and considerations of danger, a hurricane never crossed my mind. I thought of twisted ankles, bears, snakes, being a girl alone in the wild, sickness, crazy people and the list goes on and on. But never in my wildest dreams, did I make a contingency plan for a hurricane.
Ready or not, the wind picks up, snatching at my pack and knocking me off balance. The trees whip wildly overhead, and I become hyper-aware of newly fallen branches lying across the trail. I wonder if there have always been this many downed trees, or if I am just noticing them for the first time because of the wind. I’m edgy, unsure of what this means for the remainder of my adventure.
As I spot the shelter in the distance, sheets of rain sting my bare cheeks. The temperature is dropping, and the path ahead is more like a stream than a trail. I get to the shelter just as the full fury of the storm shows its wrath, and I stand in awe and revel in its power from under the safety of the shelter roof. The wind sends a relentless mist up under the awning and everything in the shelter is damp. Propped up on the ladder to the bunk is a note from the Park Service that reads “The forecast for the next few days calls for high winds and heavy rains as hurricane Nate crosses the Appalachians. The Park Service advises you leave the area immediately.”
Email message from the Park Service about the approach of hurricane Nate.
Great! I change out of my rain-drenched clothes and look at the map. There are no easy options. Common sense dictates that sticking to the ridge (and the AT) is not the safest option. However, with the raging storm and dwindling daylight, it seems better to hunker down in the shelter and see what tomorrow brings. So, for now here I sit, alone, watching the storm rage, more rain falling than I have ever seen. Hoping for a small window of reprieve where I can put my new strength and speed to the test before another wave of weather hits again tomorrow afternoon.
Day 7. This is it, I am in the final stretch…16 miles to go and it’s mission accomplished! Throughout the night sheets of rain pummeled the corrugated roof of the shelter, and the driving wind dusted me with a light mist all night. But thankfully, for the moment, it has stopped raining.
I am up before the sun, ready to take advantage of a break in the weather. Everything I have is dripping wet, except one last pair of clean socks that I stored in a plastic bag to protect my feet on the last trek out. I load my pack, slip on my socks and boots, and immediately feel the water in my soggy boots soak through. So much for dry feet.
I want to get as many miles behind me before the rain returns, so I skip breakfast and head out. I feel like I am flying down the trail. In just a couple of hours I cover 6 miles. I think I have found my 20-year-old legs again, fast and strong, my muscles no longer sore. My knees on the other hand have almost completely seized up. I am thankful for the trekking poles that soften the blow of the never-ending steps I am descending.
Navigating through the Rhododendron tunnels on the final stretch of the AT.
Another hour and I am halfway. I stop for a few minutes and eat some jerky. I am at the base of the last climb, two miles to the top of Mt. Camerer and then it’s all downhill to the finish. Another hour and I’m at the top. Six miles to go.
It seems like the weather is going to hold for the afternoon, so I ease up on my frantic pace. In that instant it hits me like a bulldozer, that this adventure is almost over and I am going to finish it … with style.
With the end it sight, I’m all smiles.
I think about starting out, how nervous I was with every rustle of leaves or snapping twig, and how now those sounds are so familiar and comforting. I think of the people in the shelters who kept me entertained and motivated to press on. And most importantly, I think about the time alone…time to dream, time to recharge, time to grow. Time to rediscover a fierceness that I had forgotten and time to appreciate my incredible family who sent me love notes when they knew I was facing a mountain at the end of a long day.
I finish the last few miles, my mind spinning with ideas and emotions. I am lost in thought when a strange noise catches my attention. I look up to see Peter and Abby standing in the middle of the trail with the biggest smiles I have ever seen. They swarm me with hugs and kisses and accolades of a job well done and I finish the last of my journey with my favorite people.
Rather than an ending, it feels like a brand-new beginning and I can’t wait to see what adventure awaits us down the road.
In hopes of achieving a long-time personal goal, Kathy Holcombe walked away from the comforts of her family and RV to set off on a 70-mile solo adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail.
In Part 1 of this series, Kathy shared her travel log from her emotion-filled first day. Now in Part 2, she reaches the half-way point of her journey, but not without having to overcome many physical and mental challenges first.
Day 2 – I awaken at dawn, just as the sun’s rays begin filtering through the crimson and amber foliage. There is fog nestled in the valley below, and a muted silence around me. I am slow to get started after yesterday’s trek, but eventually I am up and preparing for the hike ahead. I plan to cover eleven miles, mostly uphill, and my legs are already sore. I find myself lingering, taking a little more time than necessary, hesitating. There is an underlying uncertainty that keeps nagging at the corners of my consciousness. Regardless, I am packed up and ready to head out.
I hike the 0.2 of a mile back to the AT and then it’s decision time. Turn right and it’s five downhill miles back to the comfort and safety of my family, or turn left, and the adventure continues. The easy way out is tempting, but is that what I really want? I have dreamed about this journey for so long, a true adventure to test myself, to see what I am capable of. I have no idea if I can do the entire 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and frankly, I’m off to a pretty rocky start. But I’m pretty sure I can do at least eleven more miles. And so … I turn left and continue on, one foot in front of the other.
At first, my legs are stiff, protesting every step. But it doesn’t take long to work out the cobwebs and settle into a rhythm. And, I have to admit, I am proud of myself for continuing on. By 10 a.m., the scorching sun has transformed the foggy, cool morning into a soul-sucking sauna. By lunch-time, I am drenched in sweat and the suffocating heat stretches the miles that lie ahead into an eternity. I stop every fifteen minutes to check my map and GPS and mark my progress. How is it even possible that I have only progressed 0.3 of a mile since my last checkpoint!?! I’m never going to get there!
There are shelters that punctuate the AT approximately every 8 miles. They serve as a refuge and a gathering place for weary hikers.
After eight long hours, I arrive at the shelter and my home for the night. It’s a three-sided rock structure with a corrugated plastic roof. The fourth side of the shelter is an open porch area with a narrow countertop and benches. I get started on the evening chores, gathering water and preparing dinner. A lone woman with a big backpack emerges from the trail. Finally, some company! We stay up late into the evening swapping stories from the trail. She has hiked 75 miles by herself and her enthusiasm is contagious. I fall asleep listening to owls calling in the distance and am excited for what lies ahead.
Day 3 – It was a restless night with achy legs that just wouldn’t stay still, but I’m determined to forge ahead. I have 13 miles between me and the next shelter, and I am up before dawn ready to get going. The trail that stretches out ahead is steep, punctuated with knee-high steps as far as I can see. The relentless gradient, often requiring scrambling on all fours, slows my progress, but at least it’s downhill…until it’s not. The climb on the far side of the valley is just as riddled with awkwardly high steps that seem to go on forever. Over the next five miles, the slope of the trail oscillates up and down, but either way, the steps are brutal.
Eight hours in and at the bottom of the last climb, I am finally through the worst of it. Only three miles lie between me and the shelter. This should be motivating, but I am completely exhausted. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t eaten much all day, and everything on my body hurts. My collar bones and hip bones are bruised and raw from the straps of my pack, and my legs … well, there’s not a single inch that doesn’t radiate pain. Overwhelmed by the mountain stretching above me, I opt to sit down for a quick break before the final push. I look around and notice that the light filtering through the trees has changed, and darkness isn’t far off. I’ve got to get moving. I put my pack back on and try to standup, but my legs fail me, and I collapse into a heap in the middle of the trail. After 8 grueling miles, I have hit the proverbial wall and can’t muster the will or strength to carry on.
Tears spill down my cheeks and I look around helplessly, trying to figure out what to do. I choke down an energy snack as I weigh my options. The forest is thick and there really isn’t a place to pitch my tent except smack in the middle of the trail. While that is an option, it’s certainly not a good one. I could try to make it a little farther and see if there is a better place ahead, or I could just sit here just a little longer…and longer still…I’m just SO tired!
An alert pings on my Garmin InReach. It’s Peter, who says, “You are such a bad ass, and I am so incredibly proud of you. Keep killing it!” I don’t know if it’s divine intervention, serendipity, or if the power snack finally kicked in, but those words give me the strength to pick myself up and start walking. I’m barely creeping along, and the pain in my legs changes my gait to that of a newborn foal, but I press on. One mile becomes two, and eventually, I stumble into the shelter just as the sun dips below the horizon. Day 3 … check!
Day 4 – It’s hump day: the halfway point of my journey in both days and miles. The people in my shelter last night (AT guides and veteran through hikers) assured me that yesterday’s stretch, over Thunder Mountain, was the most difficult terrain I will encounter on my journey. That is a huge relief, because I really can’t face another day like that again … ever! Even with the promise of easier miles ahead, I’m reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. I know that after yesterday, movement will equal pain. But if I’m going to do this, it’s time to go. I gingerly weight my legs, and discover they’re not as bad as I thought … in fact, my muscles aren’t really sore at all. My knees and ankles are protesting, vehemently! But I think they will eventually concede and continue to cooperate, at least for the next 8 miles.
As I approach Clingman’s Dome, I finally make it out of the green tube of foliage that lines the trail and am rewarded with a view of endless wilderness.
There are two big challenges that I am facing today. The first is Clingman’s Dome, the pinnacle of my hike. Fortunately, the incline to the summit is not too great, and from there it’s more or less downhill. And, the best part: Peter and Abby are hiking in to meet me with fresh food, trekking poles and clean clothes – yay! I’m not sure if it’s my excitement to see them that has me moving faster, or if I am actually getting stronger, but I make it to our rendezvous point with an hour to spare.
I sit and wait for them at the apex of my journey and literally at a crossroads. One trail leads to a parking area just 30 minutes away, and the other continues 35 miles across the Smoky Mountains. I am haggard and sore, desperate for a little R&R, and the allure of the parking lot is tempting.
On the other hand, I’m not quite ready for this adventure to end. After all, I am through the worst of it, it’s mainly downhill from here on out, and I am definitely getting stronger. In the midst of my dilemma, my family arrives bearing loving smiles and encouragement and just being around them gives me such comfort. After lunch and hugs and stories, it’s time to decide. They pull me to my feet, help me shoulder my pack and look expectantly in the direction of the AT. I don’t have the heart to look into their encouraging faces and tell them I even considered quitting. So, I give them big hugs and step back onto the AT, tears spilling once again as I turn my back on my family to complete my journey. It’s hard leaving them behind and continuing on alone, but I am starting to believe I can actually do this.
Day 5 – Today is my longest, with over 15 miles ahead and several steep climbs along the way – so much for “it’s all downhill from here”. I am headed to Newfound Gap, the only place in the park where the AT crosses a road. I make my way up a small hill, and can already hear the cars. I arrive at the roadway and it is a blur of commotion. Cars are whizzing by and dozens of people are scattered about – gawking at the views. I am overwhelmed by it all, and struggle to cross the busy highway. I haven’t seen anything move that fast in almost a week.
On a typical day on the trail, I might cross paths with a handful of people. At both Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, the crowds are overwhelming. In both places, I find myself desperate to escape the chaos and retreat back into the wild.
I make it across the road and am swarmed by people asking me about my journey. I can’t seem to reply sensibly, I think all the blood has diverted to my legs and my brain is not able to communicate effectively anymore. As soon as possible, I escape the throng of people, and make a beeline for the woods. I need to escape the chaos.
The trail ahead is jam-packed, with more people on the slope ahead than I’ve seen over the past five days. They keep stopping and starting right in front of me, forcing me to change my pace. It makes me angry and I find myself snarling “excuse me” as I storm by, often being forced into a more difficult path up steep steps. Don’t they know my knees stopped working days ago! I pound up the trail faster than I’ve ever hiked, reveling in my newfound strength and endurance. I can’t wait to escape the crowds.
The people thin out with every step away from the pavement. And while the miles are long, they are no longer as difficult as they were just a few days earlier. Each time the trail changes angle, I rejoice. The uphill gives my aching knees a break and the downhill is easier on the psyche. The rhythm of my steps are a meditation, and each new bend in the trail a confirmation of progress. My thoughts drift from past to future. I am dreaming, planning, reflecting, reveling.
In hopes of achieving a long-time personal goal, Kathy Holcombe walked away from the comforts of her family and RV to set off on a 70-mile solo adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail.
In Part 1 of this series, Kathy shares her travel log from her emotion-filled first day: excitement for what lies ahead, anxiety for the unknown that awaits, doubt and uncertainty as to whether it’s actually feasible, and of course, exhilaration at the thought of actually stepping into the wild.
Day 1 – Just like that, I set off into the wilderness, like I had a thousand times before. Except this time, I’m alone. My pack is heavier than usual, a whopping 45 pounds, because there is no one to help share the load. It’s going to be a long day, with over five miles and a 2,000-foot gain in elevation. It probably would have been a good idea to do some training hikes before I set out on this adventure, but it’s too late for that now.
I settle into a slow trudge, fifty steps and then a quick break to catch my breath. This pack is way heavier than I anticipated, and my body is threatening to boycott this mission: my heart and lungs racing to keep up with my oxygen demands and my burning legs. In my left knee there is just the slightest twinge of pain with every step. I am trying to ignore that, telling myself that it will work itself out if I just keep moving.
Aside from all that, my heart is singing with freedom and my mind moves from one thought to the next like one of those small rubber bouncy balls that you can never seem to catch. One thought ricocheting to the next in a series of indecipherable trajectories. It’s been eons since I’ve spent any time alone with myself, but just like reconnecting with an old friend, it’s fun to rediscover bits of me I had forgotten.
When I was younger, I spent quite a bit of time alone: hiking, climbing, biking, etc. As a mom, I love sharing experiences with my daughter so much, that time by myself has all but completely vanished. Seven days of solo hiking proved to be a wonderful reunion with myself, completely re-igniting my creative fire. I really need to make spending time (unplugged!) alone with myself a priority every. single. day.
I am making progress, one mile becomes two, then three. As I move further from the trailhead, and the last known location of humanity, the sounds of the forest become amplified. A rustle in the leaves sets me on high alert. I laugh at myself when I spot the small finch that triggered my internal alarm. Then I hear something much larger in the underbrush, and it’s close.
Immediately, the sign at the trailhead warning of an abundance of bears springs to the forefront of my memory. The crashing is definitely big enough to be a bear! What do I do? Why, oh why, did I leave the bear spray in the Winnebago?! The thundering footfall moves closer. My eyes strain as I squint through the underbrush trying to lay eyes on the creature that will surely lead to my impending doom. It moves closer. Every muscle in my body is coiled tightly, ready to spring into action, what specifically that action is, I am not sure.
The crashing is much louder now, likely bigger than a bear, possibly a T-rex. I am certain now, this is it, death is imminent. I take one step forward and … a grouse, no bigger than a chicken, bursts out of the bush next to me. My heart stops, and I feel like I’m going to collapse. I take a drink from my water bottle and try to recollect my jittery nerves. But for the entire next mile my brain remains hyper alert: the squirrels now sound like elephants as they rustle through the leaves, and walnuts fall from the sky in an apocalyptic meteor shower. I’ve really got to settle down if I am going to make it the entire 70 miles alone.
As my adrenaline fades, I feel a shift within and the foreign sounds of the forest become more familiar: the buzz of the insects, the whisper of the leaves, the chirping of the birds above, the musky smell of rotting vegetation. The rhythm of my steps are a meditation and compel me to keep moving, to discover what lies ahead. I come to a junction that is not on my map, and there are no signs.
My mountaineering roots entice me to continue upward. Fifteen minutes later, I find myself at a dead end, at the summit of a peak, with a rickety structure looming above me. It’s an old fire lookout station. I can’t resist and clamber up four flights of stairs, to the top of the tower and can see nothing but mountains stretching out before me. It’s gorgeous, but I am worried about being lost. I quickly retreat and retrace my steps back to the junction, opting this time for the downhill trail. It meanders and winds through the woods and eventually I see the familiar white blaze that marks the Appalachian Trail. Just another rolling mile and I make it to the junction to camp.
The Appalachian Trail is known for the 2×6” white, rectangular blazes that mark the route. It is a great comfort to look up and spot the familiar block and know you are moving in the right direction.
I descend into a valley and look for a place to set up my tent. But as soon as I arrive, it is clear that something is wrong. There is trash strewn about everywhere: wrappers, plastic bags, shreds of fabric. Everything lies in tatters except one piece of paper. I pick it up and turn it over.
It’s a notice from the Park Service that reads: “Bear activity in the area. Recent attacks have resulted in serious injury and death.”
RECENT ATTACKS!?!? SERIOUS INJURY AND DEATH!!! I am back on high alert, frantically scanning my surroundings. I gather the scattered trash and try to put in in the metal bear container in hopes of deterring another visit from Yogi, but the storage container is locked. I leave the trash, uncertain of what to do with it, and continue down into camp.
There is another notice from the park service that shows a map of the area with a handful of tent sites and a strong warning to cook and eat only at the fire pit in the center of the camp and to properly store all food suspended high in the trees. I explore the camp, hopeful that there will be other people to help defend against the inevitable attack that will likely happen at night, but there is no one. I am alone. I set up my tent, cook my dinner, hang my pack as instructed, and crawl into my sleeping bag just as dusk arrives.
That is when the symphony begins. It starts with the percussion … thunk-ch-sh-sh, probably hickory nuts falling and rustling through the leaves, that or the T-rex has returned from earlier. Can hickory nuts really make that much noise?!? Then an owl chimes in, just like in a horror movie. I am definitely doomed! The cicadas are so loud it sounds like a raging rapid, and as darkness envelopes the camp, the frenzied energy crescendos to a fever pitch. It’s got to be the full moon.
My emotions oscillate between terror and awe at the incredible commotion around me, one moment reveling in the beauty and power of the creatures outside, and the next cowering with my head under the sleeping bag certain that I will not make it through the night. I am exhausted, from the hike, but it is more likely that my imagination has taken a bigger toll. I desperately need to sleep, but the pandemonium outside is just too much.
I cautiously crawl out of my tent and make my way back to where my pack is suspended, every snapping branch and rustling leaf increasing my pace. I dig through my first aid kit and locate the Benadryl. Hallelujah! I take two, crawl back into my sleeping bag and wait for the inevitable drowsiness to arrive. I may die of a bear attack in the night, but at least I will be well rested. I awaken at some point and am surprised to find the forest completely silent, and can’t help but wonder where all the wild things have gone.
Descending into camp on Day 1, I was oblivious to the chaos that awaited me!
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.