Exploring Squaw Lake from above

It’s still a touch too windy to enjoy a paddle exploration of the area but I’m getting anxious to see what surrounds us.  The thing about these little valley spots we often camp in is what you see of the area is limited.  What’s around that hill?  Where can the water around those reeds take you?  It’s hard to sit around and do nothing, as good as that can feel sometimes.  Contention seeing the same views and ignoring what might be around the bend seems to cheat the ideals or purposes this whole trip was based on – that is to see as much as possible.  I’ve been getting out for morning runs with Jake, mostly following horse trails pounded into the rocky landscape.  Following someone else’s footsteps to see what’s over there.  Without disappointment we are stumbling on small lagoons, filling up when the Colorado runs high, and cut off from draining until it does so again.  From the cliffs above this lagoon, currently barely accessible by boat through a small reed filled inlet which you wouldn’t know you could boat through if you weren’t familiar with the area, I watched and laughed as two men fished below.  The slowly trolled 6-8 meters from shore while casting with great accuracy to the edge of the reeds, never getting hung up.  This isn’t their first time.  It wasn’t the fishes first time either.  No sooner than they passed the shore did dozens of what I call, big enough to eat fish, came out of the reeds to explore where the fishermen had just been.  I couldn’t help but laugh, appreciating the situation I’ve been in myself countless times.  There’s nothing worse fishing than watching them circle you but refusing to bite.  One’s only one consolation.  And that is the clear state of mind achieved while accomplishing nothing, or maybe something if you’re lucky.

Two feet will only get you so far from home base to explore before some sort of mechanical means needs to be called in to get you further.  I was at that point.  We’d run and hiked as far as we comfortable could, already crossing Property of US Government signs with suggestions of no trespassing.  I say suggestion because it was clear I wasn’t the first to bypass them, following a well beaten trail beside with recent horse droppings and bike tire tracks.  But again, that only got us so far.  Eventually the poles with cameras were enough to have us turn back.  I’m not sure what the penalty would have been, and I really didn’t want that badly to find out.  Back to the campsite we go.  Further exploration will require mechanical means.

A quick once over on the bike, and a packed bag with spare tubes, tools and a pump and I was ready to go see further.  I had my sights set on a bigger hill the opposite side of the lake of which I figured would be a pretty good vantage point from which to see the lake and all around it.  I was able to avoid paved road to what I figure would be a trailhead to get me where I wanted to be.  The trailhead was more a rarely used service road carved through the rocky hills, hard sharp gravel mixed with sand.  It was pretty smooth going, with exception of a few sand holes that were total sink holes; nearly stopping me in my tracks and putting me over the bars with my momentum.  The problem with this trail however, was it seemed to be leading me the opposite direction I had intended to go.  Eventually I had to branch off, following was resembled a horse trail, but quickly faded into the natural surroundings with no trail to follow at all.  I was going the right way though.  Just another hill to get over, and maybe a few more after that before I could look down on the lake and valley below that we were camped on.  I felt I was on track, coming up to another road of sorts that ran below power lines coming from the hydro electric dam that separated Squaw Lake from Senator Wash, another lake next door.  The problem arose around the next bend, where they were actually working on the lines, which now hung low, resting on the road I was riding.  Workers ahead, and not wanting to mess with potential high voltage line, I opted out on the next horse trail, heading again in a more direct route to the water.  I think.  I’d lost sight of any visual markers some time ago with which to orient myself.  So long as the sun was behind me though, I assumed I was going the right way.

The current horse trail brought me, to my surprise, another hurdle.  The area I wanted to get to was not blocked off by a 4 foot barbed wire fence.  This fence didn’t have any signs on it, so once I was out of sight from the hydro workers I slipped under it where it ran high above a small gulley.  And to my surprise, another horse trail!  Like the no trespassing signs, I wasn’t the first to cross this fence.  I assume it was for animals, the human variety not included.  Once again though, the horse trail faded to nothing and I found myself pedaling over a gravelly hillside littered with baseball to basketball size rocks.  Full attention was required to navigate the minefield of rock that could quickly put one face first into it.  I soon came upon a hill, the tallest of the rest on the way to the lake I was pursuing, which wasn’t one to be pedaled up.  It was time to set down the bike and summit this one on foot.  It wasn’t a long scramble up, but by the top I could see for miles.  The Colorado river was visible below, with the growth around it barely concealing small creeks that fed surrounding lagoons, bright teal in color.  It was such a contrasting palette from up here; red, brown and black rocky hills give in to bright green grasses and reeds at their base.  Littered with palm trees, the growth surrounding the water stops almost dead, with little to no transition before the teal green water takes over.  From above I could see the floor of these serene little lakes up to 2-3 meters of depth below the surface.  And turning back around I saw movement on the hill behind me.  At first, I thought they were goats.  My experiences to date on mountains would of course lead me to this conclusion.  It’s almost always a goat.  But as they began to move around I recognized the little horns were not horns at all, but big pointy ears.  Donkeys!  Not an animal I’d ever expected to see in the wild.  Four of them.  Watching me with great care, likely wondering what sort of animal I was riding out here.  The area they were in was the other side of the fence I’d crossed.  From there, there was really no fence keeping them, so I can only assume they were wild donkeys.

By this time the sun was starting to creep behind the hills casting shadow over me and our campsite in the distance below.  I was so close, but on the wrong side of the water.  Not wanting to follow my bath back the way I came I figured there must be a trail below me that wrapped the lakes edge and would be an easy pedal back.  That said, and despite the lack of a trail of any sort, I decided to make my way down.  The steepness of the hillside seemed a bit much to go straight down so I began to traverse, thinking a couple switchbacks would be my best bet.  The loose rocks gave way to the pressure of my weight and rolling tires and I found myself on my side hanging on to my bike so not to lose it.  That experience left me with only one, in hindsight, highly illogical solution; to go straight down!  With brakes on near full I hung on for the ride, weight all on the back trying to steer around softball to basketball size rock that I rode through and over.  About halfway down I was just starting to feel pretty good about my decision, and abilities.  But those feelings stopped, in a hurry.  I likely looked up for half a second to admire the view.  In the second half of that second, I was looking at my seat, upside down.  Well the seat was right side up, but I was upside down.  And then I was fully down.  Sliding briefly on my side along these rocks, the friction of my skin on stone brought me to a pretty quick stop.  The anchor of a bicycle behind me, legs pretzeled into the frame, probably helped to.  I picked myself up, dusted myself off, waved to the lone fisherman on shore watching my escapades, turned my handlebars straight again and got back on.  I made it halfway down without falling until then, thanks to a momentary lap in concentration.  I was sure I could make it the rest of the way if I just remained focused.  I was wrong.  Just reaching the base it happened again.  This time I was ready for it and stepped over the bars, smoothly landing on my feet.  Alright!  Now, where is the trail to lead me home?  Good question!

I hiked with bike on back around the shoreline trying to locate my easy route out, encountering only a deep creek canyon that did not invite access or egress from below.  It appeared my fate was set, in the stone hill I just descended, only now I had to climb back up it all, with bike on back.  On the upside, on the way back out I saw my donkey friends again.  They probably watched the whole show, thinking I was the ass.  Sometimes you ride the bike.  And sometimes the bike rides you…

Oasis in the Desert

A lingering neck injury on my part has kept me off the bicycle.  Well that’s not entirely true.  I’ve been getting back on the bike a bit, telling myself I’ll take it easy on the smooth trails and not overdue it.  But that gets boring.  Maybe boring isn’t the right word.  But it quickly becomes apparent that the gentle ride is not as exciting as say the stray trail, likely a horse trail, that forks off to the side and towards sights yet unseen.  I give in of course and the ride gets a lot more fun.  A half mile down a dry creek bed and I find myself in a steep canyon with rock carved smooth rising 10 meters above.  Now this is more like it!  And then two hours later back in the trailer I find myself wincing in pain every time I look to the right.  That was the case at our stop outside Flagstaff.  And that is the reason we have been seeking out bodies of water to camp on or near, for the next while, which starting with Bartlett Reservoir.  Watersports.  Kayaking has provided a great low impact form of exploration and adventure, especially now when biking is on the back burner for a bit.  The problem though, is we are in the desert.

After moving on from Bartlett we set sights on Theodore Roosevelt Reservoir.  It was a bit of a bust.  Not in the sense that it wasn’t a beautiful location.  The “bust” was on us.  Recall a time you were going out for dinner or drinks.  You walk up to the door of a place that has your attention from either curb appeal, reviews, or a peer recommendation.  You barely get far enough inside to see the place.  You don’t give yourself a chance to get to know the place.  You just “nah”, lets go somewhere else.  Well that’s what Roosevelt was.  And I regret it, now, 4 days later and 400 miles away.

After leaving we decided to go to Yuma.  The winter capital of 55+ Canadians.  I’ve never heard it called that and just made it up, so please quote me on it even if it’s wrong.  Before Yuma, we did stop overnight at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, outside Gila Bend.  They should change the sign to read “The Site Where Painted Rock Petroglyphs Used To Be”.  A crumbed pile of rock surrounded with signs erected far to late that read “stay off rocks” is what stood just next to our campsite.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left to see.  We still spent two nights there, roasting ourselves in the hot sun.  We hoped to blend in when we got to Yuma.

Yuma is a unique place.  I’d be curious too see the numbers, but I have a feeling there are more RV park lots here than houses.  And likely less people here that call Yuma home than those that do not.  Some of the RV parks were the size of small towns.  With the amenities to boot.  Tennis courts (as in 3-4), swimming pools that put big city pools to shame, bars, restaurants, even golf courses littered these places.  Resembling all inclusive resorts, but where you bring your own condo, these were the exact opposite of what we seek.  In search of an intimacy with nature, we headed to the brewery in Yuma, Prison Hill Brewing Co., to lubricate our decision making.  Jake and Rubix kept guard in the trailer, however Gus was forced against his will to socialize, joining us on one of their pet friendly patios.  Gus is great stranger bait.  With little effort on our part, when he’s around people just want to come say hi, first for his story, then ours.  When we’re lucky they share a bit of theirs as well.  Being on a strict budget doesn’t allow for much indulgence when it comes to food.  Once in a while though, something is spotted on a menu that must be tried.  We usually reserve these splurges for something we’ve never seen before.  Beer battered deep fried avocado.  That was the splurge at Prison Hill Brewery.  And damn was it good!  After filling up our growlers we were on our way.

Since leaving Roosevelt Reservoir we hadn’t seen water.  We even crossed the Gila River, which had no water in it.  Arizona is desert in the most absolute sense of the word.  It is dry as can be.  Without break.  Our sites were set on the Lower Colorado River.  A series of dams just north of Yuma have created a slew of small lakes interconnected along the river before it crosses the border and empties into the Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez.  Not far from Yuma, on the California side of the river, we snaked through miles of perfectly manicured fields of leafy greens including lettuce, kale, and the occasional date tree plantation.  This was such stark contrast to the bleak desert that surrounds.  Man made irrigation waterways lined the fields in perfect symmetry.  And then, just like that, we were out of it.  Back to lifeless hills of brown and beige.  But that wouldn’t last.  The source of all things green came into sight.  And looked so out of place.  Lakes that look like spilled paint pooling and running out in every directing, surround by thick green reeds, grasses, and more date trees, came seemingly out of nowhere.  Scattered RVs in no designated stalls, perched under hills, behind bushes, and just about anywhere else they could find in the sun littered the surroundings.  But not in such a way to intrude on the beauty.  Solar panels lay out in front of many, and fixed to the roof of many more, these RV’s were boondockers.  Like us, they are not confined to pad with a post with a number on it where you can get mail.  What a difference from the gridwork stacks of Lego back in the RV parks in town!

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Monday, January 15, 2018 – The Battle of Bartlett Flatts

Today was different.  Along with Angela, who left at 7am for Phoenix for a dog agility competition, the rest of the beach seemingly vacated.  I’d like to think they all knew what was coming, but in reality, it was due to the end of the long weekend.  Angela took Rubix and Gus with her.  That left me and Jake alone for the day for some dude bonding which would include some fetch to start our lazy morning around 10am.  It was windier this day than the last six, so instead of relaxing outside in the sun, we headed back inside.  With our recently repaired and functioning water system I opted to wash off the 6 days stink with a hot shower, followed by coffee and bailey’s keeping me hydrated for the next 2 hours while I read a book.  The window next to the bed I sat on was buzzing with small bees.  I didn’t think much of it at first as the window had a screen on it keeping them at bay.  Until one buzzed by my head – inside.  My weapon of choice for this first intruder is a hardcover copy of Wayne Gretzky’s 99 – Stories of the Game.  Being that I was mid-read in this book and roughly half way through, each open side offered a nice balance of mass to which I snapped shut on my attacker, rendering him quite dead.

As this day goes on, I’m beginning to blame the rest of the campers whose mass exodus left me the lone warrior on the miles long beach to fight off all the enemies they’d attracted with BBQ and the sweet smell of beer.  Now the only fresh beer was here.  I’d have not cracked one if I knew this was the fate it would bring.  Whether or not it’s fact, I’ve heard it said that killing a bee draws the attention of his comrades in effort to eliminate the threat.  As far as I’m concerned, it is fact.  The attack started at 1pm.  That’s roughly the time I extinguished the first intruder of my aluminium bunker.  By 3pm I’d closed the pages on at least 30 more, gone through the entire trailer and plugged any pinholes of light with tissue paper around our awning windows that the enemy could tunnel into.  While I fortified our base, Jake stood guard with a watchful eye alerting me to any new intruders.  I’m pretty sure he took down a few himself, thankfully without being stung.  Whoever reads “99” after I’m through it will likely wonder what all the stained pages are from.  Maybe I’ll leave a few notes for them, or one victim pressed between the later pages to close out a mystery spotted with evidence in previous chapters.

With numbers so stacked against us, the wise choice would have been to retreat, but Angela having fled early in the morning left us stranded.  It’s just after 4pm now as I write this, holed up, distracted every few words by a buzz that may be real, or at this point, I’m finding is in my head half the time.  I’ve taped our door shut from the inside, closed all but one window and one ceiling fan (both of which I’ve ensured have no holes).  It’s hot in here without the airflow.  I struggle to get a full sentence typed out without interruption of a real or imagined threat that has me out of my seat and scanning my limited surroundings.  Jake is sleeping in his kennel, the open side covered by a towel to prevent enemy infiltration.  Each time I jump though, so does he.  Every time an enemy combatant draws near the book becomes my weapon again, and as I yield it my page is lost, again.  No sooner do I find it after and get a few paragraphs in does the next wave of attack come.  I’ve given up on reading “99” anymore today.  But it will stay within reach.  When not used as a squashing trap, the book was a plank with which to bat them out of the air, first stunning, then squishing.  A few times my dry hands lost grip and the book flew across the trailer.  I was fortunate not to break a window and open the floodgates.

With a beautiful lake just steps away, calm from the absence of boats that chopped up the water just yesterday, I’d love to go for a paddle with Jake.  But I also want to sleep tonight, free from intruders.  So here I sit defending and documenting the battle, in case I should not survive.  I think tomorrow we’ll find somewhere else to explore.

 

Paddling with Dogs

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Having rented paddleboards in the past, and last year buying one for ourselves, we often get the dogs out with us for a paddle if the water is calm enough.  They are fairly well behaved on the board for the most part, understanding from past experiences that setting things off balance can result in them going for a swim.  Our board is covered front to back with yoga mat material, giving them pretty good grip to hang on through a bit of chop.  Jake wanders a bit on the board, forcing constant adjustments on our behalf to keep dry.  Rubix has a habit of standing at the very nose, sometimes paddling herself, but often biting at the larger waves as they pass.  Occasionally reaching too far to bite a wave, she ends up swimming at least once each time out.

The kayak is a bit different.  One has a large enough seat opening in the hull to allow one dog to sit right in front of you, between your legs.  Ang and I both took Rubix for a few short paddles, and once sure she could handle it, Rubix and I loaded in and started the 3km long journey to the north end of the lake where it is fed by the North Verde River, a stretch of river that winds 8km or so from Horseshoe reservoir into Bartlett Lake (also a dammed reservoir).  Boating activity was at a minimum by this late in the afternoon, so the chop wasn’t too bad, however, we were fighting the current the whole way.  After about 1km she was getting brave, opting to stand, with her front legs out of the kayak and on top of it.  This was to allow her to reach the water with her mouth.  I imagine it was really getting to her, seeing all these waves splashing up the side and not being able to bite them!  The next kilometer was spent with me paddling hard to get through the flow.  Every slowdown or stop meant a loss of momentum and more effort to get it back.  By kilometer two Rubix was getting quite aggressive with the wave biting, barely letting a lone wave pass by without sinking her teeth into it.  Eventually, the waves bit back.  One particular wave rocked the boat enough just as she stretched out to get it.  A mad scramble of claws on plastic briefly ensued, without much luck gaining a grip.  And in she went.  Fortunately for me, the kayak is fairly stable, or I’d have been swimming with her.  She panicked and tried to get back in the boat with no luck of course.  I had to reach over, grab her harness and hoist her in.  Once in the boat again she immediately climbed up to lay on my lap, hugging me with claws gripping my skin like little needles full of gratitude.  I think it scared her a bit.  Her memory obviously short, 10 minutes later she was back to the same wave biting antics, perched precariously out of the kayak once again like nothing happened.  We made the mouth of the Verde, got out for a shoreline bathroom break and stretch and headed back.  It seemed the current had changed, and we were paddling against it on the way back too.  Go figure.

 

Phoenix and Bartlett Lake

We’ve had enough of cold mornings and not using our water system for fear of freezing our holding tanks over night.  This was supposed to be a warm retreat for the winter months after all.  With that in mind, we left Flagstaff, which was still dipping below zero for a few hours each night, for Phoenix.  The forecast was overnight lows of 7-8 Celsius there.  We followed highway 98 South from our campsite to Sedona.  That drive is a real unexpected treat.  After a quick descent of 1000 feet or so, we found ourselves following a snaky canyon floor, lush with green and the first flowing river we’d seen in weeks.  Oak Creek Canyon was beautiful.  Still covered in green growth, the brown canyon walls began to brighten until they became a rich red, littered now with cacti and sparse leafy growth of almost a neon green color.  The contrast is stunning.  Along the hour or so drive through this canyon we spotted numerous campsites and parks we took note of to visit upon our return.  I’m beginning to think 6 months is nowhere near enough time to see all we want to, as everyday our list of places grows.

We stopped briefly in Sedona for wireless service to figure out where we were going next.  A highway side RV campground provided a spot to stop and rest for the night, as well as a nice long hot shower in their facilities, unburdened by limited water supply.  Arriving in Phoenix late in the morning gave us time to do some shopping and errands, empty our tanks, fill up with fresh water, and consult some locals we met while doing so on where to go next.  Bartlett Lake was tagged as a maybe, but after a keen suggestion from another camper at the dump station we opted to give it a go.  It was evening by the time we were getting out of Phoenix, driving through a town called Carefree.  What a fitting name it was as a last greet before entering Tonto National Forest.  Just outside of Carefree we were forced to stop and take in a stunning sunset.  From high over Phoenix area we witnessed a lively orange and pink sky drape the mountains in the distance in layers like you’d see in a painting.

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It was dark when we arrived at Bartlett Flats dispersed campsite.  We stopped on high beach and slept, waking early as the sun rose to explore the nearly vacant beach and pick our spot to set up for the next week.  The miles-long beach had only 3 other campers scattered around it, leaving us with choices galore.  We opted for a sandy little peninsula at the water’s edge that offered a 200-degree view of water out our door with cactus-covered mountains all around.  The first day it rained, as forecasted.  That allowed for some maintenance work on the trailer to get done without feeling like we were missing out on the outdoors.  The second day is when we felt we’d made it to the warm vacation we were in pursuit of.  The near vacant peace of the lake and the endless beach was soon interrupted by a low growl in the air, quickly followed by a roaring flyby directly above us of a fighter jet.  This repeated every couple hours, Monday to Thursday.  The air force training base just outside of Phoenix seemed to take advantage of the lake and river valleys for swooping, high-speed training exercises.

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The next couple of days the beach slowly began to line with campers.  When I say campers, I mean rv’s.  It was the start of a long weekend.

We basked in 25 degree afternoons with Margaritas and Coronas, periodically getting out for a paddle in the kayak or on the board.  One thing we didn’t buy (and I never will) is firewood as I’ll happily collect it from the surrounding dead-fall and keep my $6 in pocket.  However, a cactus covered desert doesn’t provide much for burnable dead-fall.  The opposite side of lake didn’t seem too far away, so I took one of recently acquired, used kayaks out for it’s inaugural paddle to go explore.  I found on the other side, in one of the runoff valleys feeding the lake, a pile of dead-fall hardwood branches and logs that had washed down from higher elevation.  With dreams of an evening fire I loaded up the kayak with enough wood for a couple nights, cautiously climbed in and planted my feet firmly on my find and began to paddle back.  Sound travels quite well across water, so as much as I could hear the comments from nearby boaters as to what the hell I was doing, I’m sure they could hear my expletives as I almost lost my load a few times breaking through the wake of other boats.  Maybe if I put a Canada flag sticker on the kayak next time they’ll understand, or at least not question my actions so much and just acknowledging me as yet another crazy Canuck.  What wood I had gathered would later that evening fuel one of the stinkiest bonfires I’ve ever sat around.  I’m still not sure what it was we were burning, but despite the odor, we burned the rest the following night.  No way was that hard earned haul going to waste.

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Pumphouse Wash campsite, South of Flagstaff

About a 15-minute drive South of Flagstaff, on the highway to Sedona, we found our site for the next couple nights.  Deserted but for us, the squirrels, 1 coyote, and 2 other campers that showed up late and departed early the next day, we had our own private forest it seemed.  This was another great National Forest Service campsite, well laid out with lots of room and privacy.  These were a real kick back and do-nothing couple of days, with a few exceptions…

My previously sore neck felt a bit better.  There are few better ways I can think of to explore an area than by bike, terrain permitting of course.  One thing a lot of the places we’ve gone seem to have in common in horse/hiking trails.  Too rough and narrow for any motorized vehicles, these are often the trails I find myself riding, with a few areas requiring walking through.  This was no different.  The rolling hills full of lodgepole pine we’re hiding secrets.  Behind and between, dry creek beds snaked around.  If one wasn’t careful hiking or biking above you could quickly find yourself tumbling down 80-foot cliffs of stone, washed smooth high above the current day water line, giving a glimpse into the history of what the landscape may have been.

Mine wasn’t the only excitement there.  While Angela had Jake for an off-leash walk a coyote wandered near.  Jake has been experiencing a bit of stimulation overload lately with all the new scenery and wildlife.  And the coyotes here seem much healthier than the scraggly bunch back home.  I’m guessing the fact they don’t have to survive on scraps through a chilly winter contributes.  Fortunately, Angela spotted the wild dog first and was able to quickly grab the attention, and collar of Jake before he spotted it.  I don’t think that would have ended too well had she not.

All this stimulation has more than just Jake on high alert all the time.  Gus was secured to the site post with a 30-foot line made of standard leash material when he spotted something.  I happened across the doorway of the trailer when I noticed a white blur moving quickly away.  I cringed anticipating the violent snap back he was about to experience when he ran out of slack, but only for a brief moment.  I quickly recognized the weathered maroon colored streamer flapping behind him, now at least 50 feet away!  The old line was no match for an 80 lbs Gus, bent on catching – a pine bow, that had fallen from a gust of wind.

Grand Canyon!!!

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The word Grand isn’t enough.  Using 5 letters to describe and name this place, this world within our world, just doesn’t do it justice.  I guess The Greatest Most Massive Ever Upside-Down Mountain Range You Could Never Imagine National Park doesn’t fit on a map very well.  That name doesn’t do it justice either.  In fact, without being there to witness a part of it in person you can never truly understand, and even then, you still won’t be able to describe it accurately.  It simply isn’t possible.  All one can do to describe the Grand Canyon is relate their experiences being there and the emotions experienced when standing on the edge.  And we stood on edges (mostly Angela).  In some cases, I lied down at edges because looking down so far gave me a sensation I hadn’t felt before.  I’m pretty comfortable when it comes to heights, or so I thought.  I love cliff jumping into lakes and rivers and have spent a fair bit of my time working on ladders without fear.  I’ve stood on glass floors of skyscrapers in Asia and looked down without worry.  This was different.

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When I stood on the edge of a point and looked straight down to my left, right, and ahead, I felt my balance was off.  After gingerly stepping back and heading further on the trail one gets the opportunity to look back at where they once stood from another perspective.  What we stood on is no more than a small landing surrounded by 300-500 foot cliffs all around, straight down.  These are proper cliffs.  My lack of wings gives me assurance that these feelings of vertigo are warranted.  Man isn’t meant to be here.  At least not this man.

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Angela, however, seemed unconcerned about the imminent death that lay below if one took a minor misstep.  I noped out of many perilous viewpoints while Angela, who normally questions my behaviour, is the one who needed a sanity check here.  She confidently strode up to each point, surefooted to the edge.  And she made sure to mention I was a chicken.  A few times.

 

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That was the experience.  As for the emotions, small and insignificant are words that come to mind.  Looking down to the canyon floor below, occasionally catching a glimpse of the Colorado River, some 2 miles away makes on feel almost absent.  Seeing the layers upon layers of rock dating back millions of years will do that.  Between the history and the size, over 15km across in points, I can’t help but compare us to two flies buzzing over the truck windshield once at some point on our trip.  And even then, the time of our presence still doesn’t compare.

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We camped 2 nights here, at another free site, just outside of the Nation Park, but only accessed from within the park.  We were alone but for 1 other camper we passed on the way in.  Speaking of passing on the way in, the wood worker in me spotted something incredibly strange.  A towering pine at least 2 feet wide had a low branch coming off with the remnants of a large root mass growing out the end of it.  I still don’t know what could cause this anomaly, but here’s a picture and maybe someone else does?

This site was another gem of the US Forest Service.  Most of these sites are on National Forest land, are user maintained (as in no services, haul out what you bring in) and are free!   The sites we’ve visited are generally quite large with ample room to maneuver and park our home on wheels, seldom having to uncouple the truck.  This particular site sat next to a forest service fire watchtower.  The tower was open for us to climb even!  This was my chance to reclaim my manliness “grunting”.  Many flights of steep metal stairs open to below and we made it as high as we could go.  The trap door into the lookout perch was locked shut.  From there we could see for miles in every direction, including a glimpse of the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Well, we couldn’t actually see the edge.  What we saw was a void where the land we were on disappeared, and never did come back into sight through the hazy air above.  Short of a few odd vehicles driving through we spent an uninterrupted 2 days out there and did a whole lot of nothing.  It was great!

We spent one more day exploring the Grand Canyon, vowing to return on our way back up and explore the North Rim.  There are a couple great campsites along the North Rim but the road to them is seasonal and closed in the winter.  They say the South Rim gives an idea of the depth of the canyon, with the North highlighting the width.  We can’t wait!  On the way out of the park we stopped at the Imax theatre to watch the 1984 National Geographic film on the history and adventures of the canyon.  I had seen this film once before years ago as a child but vividly remembered scenes from it.  I highly recommend anyone who has the chance to view it.  And view it at an Imax theatre.

Wal-Mart Camping

Before we left on our trip I had convinced myself we’d be in the wild every night.  I’m now convinced I was wrong.  When you pull into a town after dark, need to stock up on groceries and water again, and want to sleep, the big blue box is an oasis of sorts.  This wasn’t our first WalMart camp, and I’m certain it won’t be our last.  Most of our sleeping in the wild has been with nobody in sight.  But there is a strange comfort once in a while in having neighbors, even if they are 60 foot diesel tractor trailers that start up every hour through the night as a reminder you’re in a WalMart parking lot.  But one night is enough.  This isn’t a place we’ll be putting a doormat down.

At this point, we have yet to fill our water tank in the trailer.  Most of our stops to date have been 1 or 2 nights, the rest of our time spent driving so why add the extra weight?  We have jugs we fill every couple of days and that’s been working just fine.  It’s not just the weight though.  Until you use something it can’t not work, right?  And so far, we’ve had a couple things not quite work.  I mentioned before I’d do a write up on the solar and electrical systems.  When I do get to that I’ll tell you all about things that didn’t quite work.  That being said, we really did want to get south to warmer weather and find a place to stop and not leave for a week or so.  With weather in mind and the previous pledge to return to Colorado, we decided to scrap our plans of exploring Southern Utah at this time and head further South again.  But not without a quick stop at the iconic Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Page, and West to see the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park!

Pagosa Springs and the burning brakes

Pagosa Springs and the burning brakes

We didn’t end up making it up the Dunes the following day.  Based on weather we opted to hit the road and make for the 4 corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado all meet, pledging to return to Colorado on our way back North.  There is so much more we want to see and explore there.

We fueled up in Alamoso, the last big stop before venturing back into the mountains.  Next stop Pagosa Springs.  On the way there we would climb 3000 feet quickly, and proceed to drop and another 3000 feet in equally short order.  At the summit of that pass, Wolf Creek ski hill, seemed to barely have enough snow to be open, but it was enough to attract hundreds of skiers, boarders, snowshoe hikers and the sled crowd.  Everyone has been saying this is an unseasonable winter, warm and short on snowfall.  And it shows everywhere.   We were at 10,300 feet at the summit of the pass and yet any slope not facing North was dry and free of the winter white.

The majority of our elevation drop came in the first 5 miles from the summit.  As we began our descent we spotted a sign stating that emergency run off lanes were at 3.5 miles down and 5 miles down for the second one.  After the first mile or so and being on the brakes the whole way I made a comment to Angela about the distance to the run-offs.  Imagine being 2 miles down this windy highway bobsled course, being unable to control your speed and somehow having to make it another 1.5 miles!  At about 4 miles we found out a bit what that feeling would be like.  I felt my brakes beginning to fade.  I cranked up the trailer brake controller, geared down, and looked to the sky when we spotted a view point pull-off.  By the time we came to a stop outside the parking lot you could smell the brakes and see the smoke billowing past us.  Yikes!  The overconfident looky-loo in me was too busy taking in the scenery and subsequently quietly panicking to realize I had, in fact, turned the trailer brakes down, not up.  The front brakes on the truck essentially bore the brunt of all 12000lbs of our home and motor.  One thing is for certain, that is a mistake I will NEVER make again.  30 minutes off cool down time for the truck brakes and my nerves later, and following 7-8 brakes checks on the trailer for good measure, we continued our descent into the flat valley below.  Pagosa Springs has a brewery.  You can bet we stopped there after that luge run.  A quick beer, some fries, and free wi-fi was just what we needed.  We found a little RV park just outside of town with laundry (my underwear needed cleaning) and showers.  It was getting to the point we couldn’t just smell each other, but ourselves too; it was time.

Soon the fun begins

This is coming completely out of order but we hadn’t realized it wasn’t posted yet.

With most of the work done behind the walls it was time for carpentry.  This is the task I’m most comfortable with.  Because of that comfort I was willing to challenge myself and do something different.  But before that, we needed a plan.

The original floor plan was awkward and tight.  Speaking of awkward, it has just occurred to me after misspelling the word 3 times that it is an awkward word to spell.  We will be living in this trailer for at least the next 6 months, and maybe longer.  It needs to feel spacious.  It needs to function.  It needs to have kennel space for 4 dogs.  We need to be able to move about comfortably and pass each other without having to reverse into a more open area to do so.  Only 2 of our dogs reverse well.  At the same time, it needs to maximize storage.  So how do we achieve all that in a 190 square foot space?  Some things are sacrificed, that’s how.  Using Google Sketchup we laid out a few different plans that included a small dining table as well as a couch/day bed in addition to a queen size bed, large kitchen and large bathroom.

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With a plan we felt confident with we began.  I didn’t touch on this in the previous post, but it’s work that happened during the demolition stage, prior to the spray foam.  Most of the electrical components for the solar setup had arrived, including 3 massive panels.  38 ¾” by 79” to be precise.  These were selected without much planning.  We wanted to maximize our energy production without it being obvious we are driving a rolling power plant.  I knew we could fit 3 and no way could we fit 4.  As it turns out we couldn’t quite fit 3.  Not without making some changes that is.  The trailer had 3 roof vents on it; one in the bathroom with a broken fan and broken cover, one in the middle with a broken cover and damaged operating hardware, and one at the front with a broken cover.  The only way 3 panels were fitting up there is if we went down to 2 roof vents and moved one of them.  But that wasn’t all there was to do with regards to the roof.  Various brackets, antennas, satellite dish and other random items were fixed to the roof of the years and served no purpose other than to create work removing them.  For 3 days I drilled rivets out, removed screws, removed all the junk, patched holes, replaced damaged sheet aluminum, eliminated two vents, replaced one vent, and cut in a new hole to install a new vent in the kitchen area.  Being the only roof vent outside the bathroom, and without air conditioning, we put a 10 speed, 2 way fan in this location.  By the end of it I had patched 17 different locations on the roof, drilled out at least 300 rivets and installed close to 500.  I purchased a pneumatic rivet gun for this and it has got to be one of the most worthwhile tools I have ever bought.  I couldn’t imagine using a hand operated riveting tool for all of this.  I’d probably still be doing it between stints of physio for all sorts of issues I no doubt would have.

For the solar panel mounting I opted not to use the small brackets that were supplied and went about a bit different route.  I had concerns with the brackets for a few reasons.  The first of which was that they were meant to mount the panels on a wall or roof that isn’t going 120km/h down the road.  Secondly, I didn’t want the panels to be visible chunks on the roof of a fairly Streamline(d) trailer (see what I did there?).  I chose to run 3/16” wall, 3” aluminium angle front to back on either side to act as a sort of saddle for the panels to mount between.  To deal with water shedding, at each point of the shell frame that the trailer was bolted into I used a small piece of ¼” flat bar to act as a stand-off and effectively raise the channel that much from the surface of the roof.  One un-planned benefit of the 3” angle was that it provided some roof-line rigidity that helped to take out some hefty dents at a few bent wall/roof frame members.

Now back to the inside

I’d recently worked with cherry wood for a renovation project and really like the way it looked.  It has some beautiful marbling in it and the natural color demands nothing more than a clear varnish finish.  Having relationships at hardwood wholesalers made it an actual affordable option too.  I did some rough estimating on what would be required and went shopping.  The main ingredients for the build are 8/4 and 4/4 rough sawn cherry wood (mostly 8’-10’ lengths), ¼” cherry mdf core, 5/8” cherry particle core, ½” pre-finished poplar ply, 5/8” fir ply, 1/8” puck or rink board and .040 aluminium sheet.

The ceiling seemed like the logical place to start.  With roughly 38” of flat width before it starts to curve down to the walls we agreed that would be a nice place to run some cherry wood and break up the sea of white puck board that will be the walls.  Now when it comes to woodwork I can be a bit obsessive in the details.  And it started here.  The easy thing would have been to put up 40” wide sheets of cherry, 3 of them, and cover the seams.  But with our open plan in mind you would be able to see from front to back at once, so the ceiling needed to flow.  That is, the pattern of wood had to be consistent.  The sheets of ¼” had a repeating pattern on them which allowed one sheet to cut down into three identical strips.  What we have is 3 strips, a 14” (middle strip) and two 12” outer strips.  With it all cut and dry-fit it was back into the shop to spray it all prior to final installation.  3 coats of a satin finish, water based lacquer and it was time to install!

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With ceiling panels on we could now begin to move down the walls.  We started with puck board butting into our ceiling edge and flexed it into the curved upper portion of the walls, securing it to the framework with rivets.  It remained quite rigid due to being pressed into the curve, so it only required fastening at the edges and maintained shape well.  This is nice because it means no visible rivets after all the seams were covered.  The install of the puck board is a 2-3 person job.  A good friend of mine, Spencer, was happy to help.  Like moving though, I provided the beer.  Piece after painstaking piece, we slowly worked our way back to the spot that the bathroom wall would be and down to the floor.

 

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With the walls done, it was time for the daunting part – the upper cabinet at the front of the trailer.  The old aluminum cabinet that was removed was not suitable for re-use.  Something new had to be made to fit into a curved roof and a curved front wall.  First thing was templating the curves.  I tried to trace out from the old cabinet onto cardboard but without being installed the old aluminum was too flexible and did not provide and accurate template.  A few hours later I had traced and trimmed and marked and trimmed and screwed up and started over, tracing and trimming, until I had tow templates that were a close enough fit to work off.  Another day later I had a cabinet box 80% built, ready to fit.  And fit it did, surprisingly well!  Now we could finish the cabinet (built out of the light ½” poplar ply) by gluing on ¼” cherry to the visible front and bottom, cut open some additional small storage spaces, and spray it.  Of course, mistakes were made, and we cut in the access to additional storage in the bottom of it.  The price of long days.  I still blame Spencer on this one because had he not been helping I wouldn’t have had the extra beer or two that evening prior to cutting holes in the wrong spot.  Fortunately, it was an easy fix.  Upon correction we figured it best to call it a night.

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The balance of the front area cabinetry went without many hiccups.  The bed frame, speaker boxes, and additional storage went together well.  Onto the rest.  The front closet I was dreading.  It was more cabinetry that had to fit into a curved wall.  I had picked up some steel studs that I planned on using for the bathroom wall a few weeks earlier.  After tripping on and knocking them over numerous times I finally had a use for them!  I used them to template the curve (which I should have done for the front cabinet) by cutting relief cuts every two inches from the point at which the wall begins to curve, to the end.  This allowed me to press the now flexible steel stud into the curve of the wall.  With a few pieces of lumber screwed in to brace and hold the curve I now had a very accurate template to trace onto my plywood.  It worked perfectly!

With the front closet built we took a step back and looked at our plans.  What looks great on paper doesn’t always execute the way you’d hope.  There was no way we could fit the kennel space and a day bed/couch.  So goodbye day bed.  The balance of cabinetry went without fuss.  I installed our new water tank centered over the axles and tight to the wheel well, which were insulated using 1” rigid foam insulation, glued down and taped at seams.  The batteries would sit in the same position on the opposite side.  The cabinet boxes were built, lacquered and installed, waiting for countertops to complete.

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On the opposite side we built 2 kennels as one structure with 2” x 2” solid cherry making the frame.  Puck board acted as walls, with vinyl lattice for sliding doors, sitting in track cut into the framework prior to assembly.  More lacquer.  The remaining space would allow for an extra large removable kennel.  We though it would have been nice to have another built in one, but having the flexibility with the space matters more.

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Now for the reading room, er, bathroom…

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This was a challenge.  Our original idea was to have this be what is known as a wet room.  Meaning the entire space can get wet and drains to a central location.  Picture a spa type bathroom or that of your local gym.  We had the idea based on our experiences in Bali, Indonesia where it seemed every bathroom was built in such a way it could simply be blasted with a pressure washer to clean everything.  In a perfect setup you could properly shower while sitting on the toilet, not that you’d ever need to…  Unfortunately, due to the location of the black water holding tank it did not allow for a central drain that was easily sloped to.  This meant the floor drain could only easily be a shower drain offset to one side where the shower was to be.  So, with that in mind, and to maximize our shower space to be comfortable to use, we had a local stainless steel fabrication shop create a custom shower pan with a curb and lip all around it to fit into the rear corner of the trailer.  This allowed us to enclose the remainder of the bathroom walls, as well as the shower walls with .040 aluminium.  More sheet stainless would have been preferred due to its scratch resistant characteristics but cost, and more so workability was a major deterrent and pushed us towards the aluminium walls.  The aluminium was easily scored, cut and bent without the need of a pneumatic shear or hydraulic break.  That’s not to say it was easy.  It was not.  Just when I thought I had things figured out did it become glaringly apparent I didn’t.  Not at all.  The corners were an absolute nightmare.  And I’m still not happy with how they turned out.  The reading room is probably the first place (and was the last place to finish) that I started to say “good enough” as we were getting deeper into Canadian winter and needed to hit the damn road and start this adventure!  There are still a few little finishing details remaining that need attention, but we have yet to hit warm enough temperatures to be able to actually use the water systems.  So in the words of a good friend of mine, “problem for tomorrow!”

Trailer is done enough, time to go! (still some electrical and plumbing details I haven’t covered, but those are a bit more technical and will require a more in depth post that will put all but the most interested readers to sleep)…