A great friend and former traveling companion thoughtfully wrote, “Some people think the glass is half empty, some half full. To Nick it’s just full all the time.” Thanks, Bob. What he may not recall is that I know the source of the bottle. A pretty good metaphor for this trip, every day’s been a glass and we’ve filled it—and then some. It’s been a truly remarkable adventure, and today we’re camping alongside the Snake River in Idaho as I write this final post about our epic trip.
Our last dispatch was uploaded shortly after leaving the Yukon Territory and heading into BC (or back into BC since we began our 3-month trip visiting Rick and Julie in Comox, Vancouver Island). Little did we realize that, following our steamy visit to Laird Hot Springs Provincial Park, we’d pretty much drained our allotment of wildlife we’d grown accustomed to revealing itself along the highways and byways. Reports of numerous Black Bears and the Karlin’s Hawk Owl along the Stewart-Cassiar Hwy. had us on the lookout but all we saw were gorgeous fall colors on a canvas of panoramic scenery.
We did, however, have a final fling with a large Alaskan Brown Bear (the coastal variety dines heavily on fatty salmon whereas the smaller inland Grizzly is mostly a vegetarian, pigging out on berries and the occasional mountain biker). The Stewart-Cassiar Hwy. was an alternate route to the more commonly-traveled Alaskan-Canadian (AL/CAN) Hwy., and ostensibly for good reason. It was gravel, narrow, and sparsely populated with travel amenities. That’s all a thing of the past, however, as the road is nicely paved and there was ample fuel throughout. Mind you, that was early September and some of the campgrounds were closed when we drove by. Canada’s Provincial Parks are wonderfully staffed and provide free firewood for weary travelers to have a cocktail around. After overnights camping on the shore of two marvelous lakes (Boya Lake and Kinaskan Provincial Parks), we drove a side route through a spectacular glacier-rich valley to the town of Stewart, BC (on the border with Hyder, AK.) Our return to a marine environment was anticlimactic as it poured! Rather than spend a second night in our water-logged camper, we cozied into the Riley Creek Inn and warmed up in their cottage on the estuary adjacent to the deep-water harbor. The previous day we’d traveled the 35 miles into the US to visit the Salmon Glacier but it was socked in. On our return, we stopped off at the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site to see a bear. We scored within 5 minutes of our arrival (serious photographers camp out there all day). A young Brown Bear showed up and modeled proper bear behavior by scratching his back against some handy willows, snoozing in the sunlight along the creek, and then frolicking in the creek chasing salmon. He even caught a bunch but wasn’t particularly hungry and merely played with his catch before tossing it aside and chasing another. I can’t imagine how those pros are going to deal with the THOUSANDS of click-click-clicks they’ll be editing that night and am pleased with a couple images posted in the gallery for this post.
We had a date with an RV technician (our wet adventures were exacerbated by a broken furnace), and proceeded to Smithers via a route embellished with First Nation totems. Our visit coincided with their weekly farmers’ market (and a visit to a friendly brewery), and the municipal campground, a short bike ride from town and on the shore of the Bulkley River, was a far cry nicer than the rambunctiousness we’d experienced in the Yukon’s Dawson City. (What do you expect from gold country?) The forecast in Jasper was for sun, so we pushed on with wonderful results. As we approached the Rockies, we stopped for a pleasant surprise at Rearguard Falls on the Yellowhead Hwy., that marks the upper-most limit of the 800 mile migration of salmon from the Pacific Ocean. This mini-Niagara must rock in the spring thaw. The lip of the falls was a huge crescent, and we observed interesting air pockets beneath the surface where the Fraser River cascaded over mossy boulders. In addition to the falls was the most over-built pedestrian corral I’ve ever seen; miles of tubing and wire mesh meandered all over the hillside, and in one place actually split into two lanes around a fir tree. Some ambitious safety engineer must have found a few extra “Loonies” in the budget. Or perhaps they’re simply anticipating hundreds of visitors as the tour buses roll through to Jasper. We had the falls to ourselves and felt very safe.
It was a mere 10 miles to the Mt. Robson Visitor Center for the highly recommended hike to Kinney Lake. The 4 km hike follows the Robson River, a glacier-fed beauty that owes its milky color to rock flour, tiny particles scraped from the bedrock by stones embedded in moving glacial ice. American Dippers accompanied us along our walk to a milky turquoise green-colored lake mirroring golden aspens and birch trees on the distant shore. The light was perfect and Sooney captured me posing as I’m secretly fond of doing.
That afternoon we arrived in Jasper National Park looking for a campsite. It turned out the Whistler campground is south of “town” and there we were gassing up in a tourist trap. We headed south, secured a campsite (hardly a problem considering there are 791 sites available), and returned to town for a brew and an adequate WIFI connection to stream Abbie Young’s Doctoral Recital at the Univ. of Florida. Alas, the next morning we were unhappy campers; it was FREEZING (I don’t use all-caps often and this, my second occurrence in this post, is completely legit). It was 15° and we awakened to ice crystals inside our camper. Definitely not Florida. The staff pleasantly moved us to a sunny campground (Wapiti) down the road and it was there we chilled out, dried our wet cushions, and spent the remainder of the day on a 15-mile bike ride in the mid-70’s and under sunny skies and billowy clouds. Combine that with massive peaks wherever you look and you get a gist of how thrilled we were—Jasper was absolutely as wonderful as I’d imagined. There was even wildlife about, and I got a bit of a scare when a goliath bull Elk crossed my path while noodling along on my electric bike. Step one: the photo. Step two: slowly hide behind a tree and pretend he didn’t see me. We’d heard other elk bellowing their rutting calls, and he evidently didn’t see me as competition (was it something about my antlers?).
Cold nights weren’t high on our wish list, however, so we parlayed our daytime highs by heading south hoping to swing around a scenic loop through Calgary recommended by a bar-mate we’d met in McBride, BC. That little town provided us shelter after a long drive from Prince George en-route to Jasper. We arrived late, found a comfy motel, and dined at the local pub. The real surprise was the following morning when Sooney found the RR Cafe hidden behind some traveler who thought their handicapped parking space was an RV park. We walked in, obviously not locals, and got a heavy dose of grouch from Donna, who’d been there since 5:30 stewing about the jerks camped in front of her diner. We had a one-way conversation until she discovered we weren’t the owners of the RV and then became our newest best friend. Then the locals began drifting in. One gal struggled to find the condiments for Donna’s strong coffee, and another regular chided her that “once you try it black, you’ll never look back.” A great breakfast and wise memories of McBride, a cute little just-in-time town. But I digress.
Our Lake Louise experience was underwhelming. Reportedly the most photographed location in Canada, we didn’t quite see it that as we ate a modest lunch sitting in our camper, parked amidst scads of tour busses and rain pelting down on us. We took that as a sign, and aborted the Calgary loop and took Hwy. 93 on a straight shot to Sooney’s brother in Yaak, Montana. That included an overnight in Invermere, BC, a sweet little ski town that offered us our first sushi meal in eons. We enjoyed walking along the shore of Windermere Lake that features the longest skating trail in the world. At over 30 KM in length, this multi-use trail offers ice-skating as well as groomed skate and classic cross-country ski trails. We really liked this town, and spent some time with a local employee whose sole job was maintaining the flowers planted in every available flower bed downtown. In addition, with the season winding down, locals would soon be invited to pick whatever they want. How’s that for civic mindfulness? We’d have enjoyed more time there but were on a mission and crossed our second international border without getting busted for firewood. Restocking our tiny reefer in Eureka, MT, we proceeded on Hwy. 37 to the Yaak, occasionally dodging white-tailed deer on the narrow highway. They’re so cute (as if an Ashlander can isolate the charm in deer) with their foot-long tails bobbing behind them while they played kamikaze with our camper’s headlights.
We spent 5 wonderful days with Jon and Karen at their remote log residence nestled on 22 acres featuring a pond and a lush forest of aspen, cedar, fir, and a hefty cache of lodge-pole pine that may, at some point, be harvested. Karen has 3 motion-activated video cameras attached near popular game trails, and she pulled up some great footage of bears, cougars, white-tailed deer and even a skunk. Oh, yea, and the two of us smooching for the camera one afternoon. Our layover also included visits with Tom and Nancy Oar (one of featured personalities of the History Channel’s “Mountain Men” reality show, an evening tossing darts at the local Tavern, and wonderful family engagement. Something new to me was an introduction to the TV shows “Voice” and “America’s Got Talent”, both of which presented an absolutely stunning variety of entertainment. Sadly, both shows featured my least favorite element of cable syndication: supercilious LA socialites posing as qualified judges of talent ranging from mime to magic, and tossing pithy feedback to dazzled amateurs who’d just given the performance of their lives. We fortunately had a a remote and fast forwarded through the critiques and commercials. America, indeed, has talent, and we got a mega-shot of how Jon & Karen spend their evenings in the Yaak. Sooney’s pitching a new show, “America Lacks Talent,” that features clips of Trump-like buffoons making fools of themselves to everyone’s enjoyment (or not).
After leaving the Yaak we began the final leg of our journey. The only dilemma was we had a date with Alicia in Bend and ten days in-between. So, we did something unusual for us by revisiting a place we’d enjoyed years before. Lake Coeur d’Alene has a former rail line that’s been converted to 72 miles of bike trails, and we camped a couple days at Heyburn State Park that provides access to the trail near its southern terminus, Plummer, ID. Following a day that included ice cream in Harrison, we continued south on a route unfamiliar to us: Highway 95 to Riggins, ID. The Snake River separates Idaho and Oregon, and feeding into it is the Salmon that runs through the recreational town of Riggins. We left the highway for several miles and camped on a rock-covered bar on the river that provided us sublimely warm weather and an absolutely stunning nocturnal display. Somewhere mid-sleep, an unexpected lightning storm blew down the canyon, accompanied by thunderous rain that was amplified inside our aluminum-topped camper. Come morning all was calm and clear, with a cheerful sun illuminating golden-hued peaks and spunky Rock Wrens vocalizing as accompaniment to our morning coffee, black of course.
Riggins (and the Salmon River) was a delightful layover during our long drive to the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, a bit south of Boise. Noted for its breeding birds of prey and numerous petroglyphs from ancient residents, we didn’t know what to expect in early October. What a pleasant surprise to have a private campsite along the Snake, the historic Guffey Bridge across the Snake River to hiking trails and that doubled as nesting habitat for the local pigeon population, and the slightly less compelling chorus of forlorn cattle in a distant beef fattening salon on a bluff. The high-desert terrain resembled familiar landscape common to eastern Oregon and again, mid-sleep, we were awakened by a thunderous sound. Only this time it was our new, aluminum roof being pummeled by powerful gusts of wind ripping through the canyon. This went on for easily a couple hours, and twice I ventured out into the dark, flashlight in hand, to inspect our coach. Nothing appeared out of order as I’d stowed away all loose gear before coming in for grub. We stared wide-eyed up at our noisy roof, 18” from our faces, and after what seemed like hours fell into a fitful slumber. As in Riggins a couple nights earlier, nature presented us a not-so-gentle reminder of who’s got the upper hand. Thankfully, one of the positive features of our pop-up camper is that it pops down when driving, making windy conditions a non-issue. As for the noise, it’s a little like aging—sometimes you just can’t put a finger on the issue and simply move on. And that’s exactly what we did, moving into new territory (for me) toward the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument.
We left Idaho on Interstate 84 but veered off onto Hwy. 26 toward Prairie City, OR. After passing through Vale, traveling through the higher-altitude grasslands was some of the most spectacular country I’d ever driven in Oregon. The weather was grand, the clouds perfect, and we even got lost hiking in Wetmore campground en-route. (We took a delightful 1/2 mile nature trail connected to the Yellow Tree campground a ways up the road.) After finding our truck, we summited at nearly 5,000’ and dropped into Prairie City and the municipally operated Rail Depot RV park downtown. Most of the park’s occupants were hunters, and our neighbor was gutting his game on his truck’s tailgate. It wasn’t the dead buck that bothered us but the two birds—a Ruff and a Blue Grouse—that we was working on. When asked about the birds, he replied there were plenty up there (pointing to nearby Hwy. 62) and he could have easily killed the 6 daily permitted by his hunting license. He’d earlier gotten an elk during archery season, and I congratulated him for that but lost points when Sooney interpreted my comment as a complement for killing those lovely grouse we so enjoyed stalking and photographing throughout our trip. “Killer,” she hissed later, reflecting on a moment earlier when he’d fanned the bird’s tail feathers as if displaying a royal flush. Welcome to Greg Walden country.
Jules Verne wrote “Around the World in Eighty Days” in 1873, and while our trip didn’t cover quite that much territory, 80 is the operative number. Last night we spent our 80th (and final) night camping just outside of Oregon’s Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Bed’s National Monument. About 80 miles from Alicia’s house in Bend, by the way.
Surrounded by beautifully-eroded mounds of colorful mineral deposits showing every one of their 33 million years, we celebrated on a bluff above our campground and reflected on the previous three-and-a-half months. As darkness approached—a bedtime occurrence uncommon to us as we traveled the higher latitudes—our solitude was accompanied by the lovely song of a Townsend’s Solitaire, a member of the Thrush family, and a bird we hadn’t observed on our journey. Shortly after, in star-filled darkness, the Solitaire now quiet, we experienced absolute silence—a rare treasure reserved for our last night in that trusty ol’ camper. Would we travel that extensively again? Emphatically yes, but not in that rig, that’s for sure. 80 unload/uploads, 80 pop-up/pop-downs, crawling over Sooney from our platform bed to start the morning coffee, and thousands of squeezing by each other in our 6’ x 2’ floor space got old. Did we enjoy each other’s company? Enormously, and during the journey we fantasized about our next big trip. For now, we are more than content being back in Oregon, safe and sound, after traveling 7,800 miles. Staying closer to home is appealing, and options for a different camping setup is on our radar. I’ll enjoy seeing how that plays out, but we’re absolutely confident that “Enough is 80 Nights in Our Camper.”
Wildlife view on this (our final) leg of the journey:
Boya Lake, Along Stewart-Cassiar Hwy., BC, Canada
Common Loon, White-crowned Sparrow, Junco, Gray Jay, Raven, Kestrel, American Pipit, Porcupine
Kinaskan Lake, Along Stewart-Cassiar Hwy., BC, Canada
Common Loon, Golden-crowned Kinglet (flock), Yellow-rumped Warbler (flock), Junco
Stewart, BC, Canada Boardwalk
Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Merlin, Stellar’s Jay, Great Blue Heron, Crossbill, flock, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Canada Goose, Mallard, Belted Kingfisher
Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site Hyder, Alaska
Bonaparte’s Gull, Herring Gull, Mew Gull, California Gull , Brown Bear
Smithers, BC, Canada
Rusty Blackbird (large flock), Morning Dove, Eurasian Collard Dove, Red-tailed Hawk, Great Horned Owl, American Kestrel
Nechako Bird Sanctuary, Vanderhoof, BC, Canada
Red-breasted Merganser, Canada Goose, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Black-capped Chickadee, Pine Siskin
Mt. Robson Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada
American Dipper, Red-tailed Hawk, Stellar’s Jay
Jasper National Park and environs, Alberta, Canada
House Sparrows, Crow, Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Savannah Sparrow, Red-necked Grebe, Raven, Dark-eyed Junco, Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee, Common Merganser, Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Bull Elk
Pileated Woodpecker, Harry’s Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Crossbills, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Raven, Red-tailed Hawk, Black Bear
Hawley’s Landing, Heyburn State Park and Bike path, 10 miles to Harrison, WA
Great Horned Owl (in camp), Western Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Mallard, Wood Duck (50+), Osprey, Northern Harrier, Red-winged Blackbird, Black-capped Chickadee
Island Bar Rec. Site on Salmon River east of Riggins, ID
Common Merganser, Rock Wren, several, Canyon Wren, Magpie, Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl
Morley Nelson Snake River Conservation Area, ID
California Quail, Marsh Wren, several, Rock Wren, American Kestrel, Golden Eagle, Red-winged Blackbird, , Magpie 100+, Western Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, Northern Flicker, Coots, Mallard, White-crowned Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument OR
American Goldfinch, flock, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend Solitaire, Western Meadowlark (small flock), Yellow-rumped Warbler, California Quail, Northern Shrike, White-crowned Sparrow, flock, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicke