Monday, October 27, 2008

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge – New Mexico

Our trip from Clovis to Socorro, New Mexico was along US 60, a road that could qualify as one of the “loneliest” roads in America. There are only a very few towns and most of them have more buildings boarded up than occupied. The trip is 250 miles of mostly flat arid land. 

Just before meeting I-25 the road drops into the Rio Grande Valley of Central New Mexico. It is still arid just not quite as flat. Our destination was the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park. How cool is that: an Rv Park that actually has Bird Watching as part of its name. In reality it is just a very large gravel lot with hookups. However, after our trip to Alaska we consider anywhere where the power stays on and the water works all day as good. The owners are real friendly and give you choices of sites to stay depending on which direction is your preference. Full hookups at $20 a night is a good deal! Plus it is so quiet. After being near the highways at the previous campgrounds, this was a very welcomed amenity!

The area around the RV Park is miles off of the main highway and very quiet. The area around the RV Park is typical of rural New Mexico, mostly arid land with an occasional farm. The real beauty of the RV Park is that it is just a few miles from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is as their website says “One of the Premier Birding and Wildlife Refuges in the World” Friends of the Bosque. The wildlife refuge was established in 1939 and is over 57,000 acres. It is the winter home to 25,000 Sandhill Cranes and over 20,000 Ross’s and Snow Geese. Every November they have a Festival of the Cranes. This major birding event attracts 8,000 to 9,000 birders each year and has had just about ever famous birder for the last 20 years as the keynote speaker at one time or another. As usual for us our timing is off and we won’t be here for the festival and most of the Sandhill Cranes and Ross’s and Snow Geese have yet to arrive. However, they have started to arrive so that although we haven’t seen cranes and geese in the thousands or tens of thousands we have seen them in the hundreds. We have seen waves of cranes and geese flying over in huge V formations. As with all wildlife refuges there are many other species of birds than just the species that the refuge was setup to protect. In our first two days of birding we saw 38 species on the refuge. The largest number of “other” species was various ducks. Our year list is now up to 244 species.

Western Grebe

Snow Geese

Sandhill Cranes

New Mexico is also noted for their very dark skies. There are few cities nearby and therefore there is little or no night time light pollution. We took advantage of this and did some star gazing. It is the first time we have had an opportunity to use our telescopes since we have been on the road. Since it had been so long since we used our astronomy equipment pretty much everything that uses a battery needed a new one and we had forgotten how to use some of it. Also we were very rusty at finding our way around the night sky. All that being said we had a nice time tracking down star clusters and a few galaxies. (Sorry but we don’t have any pictures from our astronomy session)

One final picture of fall in New Mexico

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Texas Panhandle and Palo Duro Canyon

Our trip across the rest of Missouri and Oklahoma was very nice and uneventful. The weather was warm and clear. The scenery was mostly farms with either flat or rolling fields. In Oklahoma the roads from the Missouri border to just past Oklahoma City are toll roads. It is always fun trying to get close enough to the toll booth to pay the outrageous fare ($8.50 at 2 toll booths and $2 at 2 others), but in Oklahoma City the booths are not manned. You need exact change, as in coins and you throw it in a basket. This can be a problem if you don’t know in advance that you need exact change or how much they are going to charge you for the truck and the trailer. Also the length between toll booths and number of toll booths has no reason to them. From the Missouri border to Tulsa there is only one toll booth, but the much smaller bypass around Oklahoma City had 4 toll booths! We didn’t have any change, nor did their change machine work, for the last unmanned toll booth, so we had to just drive through and will wait for a bill or a ticket in the mail.

Our route since we have left the Chicago area has paralleled the famous Route 66. Every town has a Route 66 museum and the main business area is still Route 66. One of the unforgettable features of Route 66 is on the Will Rogers Turnpike near Tulsa. It is a restaurant that spans the highway.  Both Kathy and I remember it from family cross country trips in the 60s. I am sure that everyone that past this way as a child remembers it as well. Kathy remembers it as being a Howard Johnson sit down restaurant and I remember it as a more of a cafeteria. No doubt it has changed hands many times over the years, but today it is like all restaurants on the toll road, it is a McDonald’s.

Another unforgettable place on the old Route 66 that is still there is the Big Texan Steakranch. Is has billboards for several states before you get there that they have a free 72 ounce steak. The only catch is you have to eat the entire meal (which also includes a bread roll with butter, potato, ranch beans, shrimp cocktail, and salad) in less than one hour  That is a four and half pound steak. Neither of us thought we wanted to give it a try.

Our objective was Palo Duro Canyon State Park just south of Amarillo, Texas. We know several RVers that have stayed there and they all agreed we had to see it. Apparently, we picked a bad time to come. The weekend we arrived Palo Duro Canyon hosted a series of endurance races: 20K, 40K and 50 miles. I may have been dumb enough to run a marathon in my 30’s, but 50 miles on dirt trails in 78 degree heat sounds like too much. The next weekend they have a Palo Duro Canyon balloon festival: “Pirates of the Canyon Balloon Liftoff”. Their write-up says they had over 1,100 cars come into the park for last year’s balloon event. I am sure it would be pretty exciting to see, however I don't see how they can launch with all of the wind they have. Also the event starts TWO HOURS before sunrise!  Sunrise is at 8:02 AM.

We stayed at an RV park just outside of Canyon, Texas, about 12 miles from Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The first order of business was to get groceries. This is when we came across a new phenomena for us: a “dry county”. We have been to other places where the grocery stores don’t sell beer, but in Canyon, Texas there is no place to buy any kind of alcohol. We found out that there is nowhere to buy liquor in the 112 miles between Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas. We were also told that much of north Texas is like this. This was odd because several parts of Texas have Drive-Through Liquor Stores! One extreme to another!

Although we call ourselves the BirdingRVers, about the only birding we have done lately has been on Raider’s walks or as we drive down the highway. While staying in Canyon we drove a few miles to Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Buffalo Lake NWR covers over 7,600 acres, has recorded over 300 bird species and is a major stop for migrating birds. However, the day we were there is was very windy and we saw less than a dozen species. We didn’t add anything to our year list, but it was nice to be out birding.

When we checked into the RV Park, the two ladies behind the counter said “you really should go see the museum while you are here”. The very nice lady who had the neighboring RV site said “you really should go see the museum while you are here”.  We, of course, said “what museum?” Canyon is home to West Texas A&M and on the corner of their campus they have the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum the “largest history museum in Texas”. This really is a quite remarkable museum with exhibits that cover pre-Columbian native culture to the history and modern day farming and oil producing methods. We wandered the museum for 3 and ½ hours, by then our legs were giving out. Unlike the Royal Tyrrell Museum back in Drumheller, Alberta,  the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum does not have a food court where you can have lunch and rest for a bit.

Finally, on Monday the runners had left Palo Duro Canyon State park and the only ones there were retired people like us. This part of Texas is flat plains. You can see the end of the earth in any direction. As you drive toward Palo Canyon State Park you suddenly come to a canyon that is 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide at the widest place. They refer to it as “the Grand Canyon of Texas”. The park does not include the entire canyon but does cover over 26,000 acres of the northern part of the canyon. Palo Duro Canyon has a long history of use by Native Americans and in the late 1800’s a ranch supported 100,000 head of cattle. In the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corp built the roads and buildings that are still in use today.

The canyon provided some protection from the strong winds blowing above the rim. So the weather was warm with a little breeze for the most part. This Texas State Park allows dogs everywhere, except in the buildings, including the trails. We stopped for a little birding, a picnic and for a couple of short walks at some of the turn outs. It may have been due to the wind not being as strong in the canyon, but for some reason this was the birdiest spot we have been for awhile. We saw several bird species including our first Cardinals for quite some time. We added Golden-fronted Woodpecker to our year list, which brings the year list to 241. All of the time we were in the canyon we saw huge formations of Sandhill Cranes flying west, circling and catching the thermals, calling out that prehistoric-sounding call, so they are definitely migrating. We hope their flight takes them to Bosque del Apache in central New Mexico near Socorro, our next destination. It is a National Wildlife Refuge and they have the Festival of the Cranes in the middle of November, to celebrate their arrival.

Our next stop was Tire Country in Farwell, Texas to see our friend Lonnie Bussey. We came to Farwell in March to have Lonnie replace our trailer tires before the long trip to Alaska. This time we came back to make sure that we hadn’t broken the springs, axles, etc. on the rough roads. We also had Lonnie replace the tires on the truck. We have driven an unbelievable 20,000 mile since we were at Tire Country in March!

BirdingRVers slide show

Monday, October 13, 2008

Canadian Prairie and Visit with Tim

Today's blog was written by Kathy.

Never having been to the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, we decided to make a “push” to Aurora, Illinois from Drumheller, Alberta, just in case the weather would deteriorate. 9/28/08- Driving up and out of the canyon where Drumheller is located we were back up on the rolling prairies of Alberta. Wheat fields in various stages of harvest for hundreds of miles. That night we stayed at Trail Camp Ground in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. The sites were so unlevel, pointing the nose of the fifth wheel downhill that we had to unhitch the truck to level out the trailer.

The next morning we were off by 10:00 AM, traveling past more prairies and wheat fields, staying the night at Fieldstone Campground, in Moosemin, Saskatchewan. Since we were just staying the night, we just leveled the trailer and stayed hitched to the truck.  It was a quiet, off the main highway park, though their roads needed some work before next season! 

With the signs along the highway being in English and French, we learned that the word “prairie” is really French for “grasslands”.  Maybe because a lot of the trappers that explored this region in the late 1700’s were French, they left behind the names in French for navigating back to eastern Canada. You learn something new every day!

OK, now we can add Saskatchewan to our map of Canadian Provinces, on to Manitoba. Heading south the highway deteriorated rapidly. This was a concrete surface, heavily traveled by semis coming and going into Canada from the US and vice versa. Each slab of concrete was beveled, sort of concave, which caused this bouncing harmonics between the truck and the trailer! The worst part was the 63 miles to the US border! Will it ever end?!

At the US Customs Inspection Station there was lots of confusion. The various stalls where you stop at had jack hammers drilling away at concrete!  The inspector would ask us the usual questions: how long were you in Canada? Where are you going from here? Why? (We’re US citizens why are they asking where are you going?  He could see we had Texas plates!) But as Grant answered, the guy would turn away, totally distracted! Since we were towing a trailer, we had to pull forward and have the agricultural inspector board the trailer. She went through the fridge, checked the fruit basket.

We had told her we only had one banana, no raw beef, a package of chicken, frozen in its original wrapper, she checked for said items.  Then came the real question:  what about the food for your dog? “Oh yes, we have kibble made in the US.”  To which she asked, “Is it in its original bag?”  “No, we only had the little bit left in the bag, I didn’t know I would need it to cross the border, so I trashed it!”  So Raider’s special kibble was confiscated, and she told us, “You know you need to have everything written down as to what food you carry BEFORE crossing the border!”  No, we didn’t know that, but at least we knew what we had to recite to her. Without internet connections for the last couple of days we couldn’t check to see what the latest changes to the list of items you could or could not bring back into the US! I wanted to tell her, “This isn’t a usual daily routine for us to go between the 2 countries,” but held my tongue so she wouldn’t insist on a Full Inspection of the trailer, where we would have to open the slides!! Homeland Security certainly has been beefed up at the Canadian Border compared to previous trips!

One thing for sure, we were glad to get under way and on a better surface of highway!  We were in North Dakota, another state for the map and lot greener than I would have expected! The fields were green with sugar beets and corn for miles of rolling prairie.  That night we stopped in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  We had the name for an rv park, a former KOA, but the Garmin GPS directed us left off the highway exit and into a residential area, plus the phone number was bogus, so we couldn’t call for directions. After retracing our tracks back to the highway and calling 411 on our Verizon cell, we got the correct number. All we had to do was turn right off the highway and there was a sign for the campground.  YES! Stupid Garmin!  We were so tired at this point, we didn’t care that the highway was adjacent to the campground. Just park it and use ear plugs tonight! Staying hitched up made for a quicker “get away” in the morning!

Traveling south through North Dakota we continued past rolling green fields and then into Minnesota. Another state to add to our map! We stayed 2 nights in Clearwater, just next to St, Cloud, Minnesota.  It is about 40 miles from Minneapolis/St. Paul.  After all of the driving, Grant needed to catch up on some rest and I had to get some laundry done, 5 loads worth! Plus it was a beautiful rv park, with fall colors starting to turn the leaves and away from the noise of the highway! Several seasonal trailers were parked on the outskirts, where people come for their weekend hideaway. It was formerly a KOA, but restored nicely and not run-down like we saw in Grand Forks.  

The next morning we were rolling southeast down to Wisconsin. Yes, you guessed it, another state for the map! The prairie became more like rolling hills, lots of cows grazing. Now they must be the Real Happy Cows, despite the California ads! These were lush fields for the huge dairy farms, making Wisconsin famous for their cheese. We saw several places along the way enticing us to their cheese chalets.  I was hoping to find one of those places that had frozen custards, but I guess those are found more in the cities. Driving the trailer through cities does not thrill us. We try to take EVERY bypass around cities, including Minneapolis.  Especially after the Bypass for Calgary, Alberta was a nightmare, it took us down the middle of the city!

Since it is pretty close to the end of the camping season, finding open campgrounds was still a challenge. Near the Wisconsin Dells we found the Country Roads Campground, a half mile from the highway, a very nice park and since we were staying just the night, we didn’t have to unhitch, saving us time in the morning.  It was even within walking distance of a Super Wal-Mart!  Whoohoo! Now we could purchase that cheap American beer! Plus a few items to get us by for a few days. With the DirecTV working we could get The Weather Channel forecast, and things looked good going south to Illinois!

Saturday we were up and out of the campground by the crack of 10 AM, heading for Illinois. The weather was gorgeous again! Our son, Tim, told us the first 2 weeks of October was a very good time to visit Illinois, most of the heat and humidity of summer would be over. He was right! More fields of corn in various stages of harvest zoomed past us. By 3:00 we were in Hide-A-Way Lakes Campground in Yorkville, IL, about 10 miles west of Aurora where Tim lives.  Oh my goodness! He had emailed us photos of the place, a few weeks earlier, it was very unique, though the area we were in looked nice! Several trailers looked permanently parked, perhaps retired people stayed here. But then there were some trailers in other parts that looked like they had been abandoned!  Oh well, the next closest campground was Jellystone Park, it was twice as expensice and another 10 miles farther away from Aurora. We checked for availability and they didn’t have any full hook-up sites, we would just have to make do here.

Before we could bring out the slides, Tim and his roommate, Allen, were parked right next to us, intrigued with our Montana. They were definitely curious as to how we could live in this RV while traveling all over the country. As they sat in our comfy Lazy Boy recliners they agreed that it appeared roomy enough, and appreciated all of the cabinet space to store stuff!  Then we were off to see their new house in Aurora. Talk about “housing boom”! It was incredible all of the new subdivisions that seemed to sprout up where corn fields were just a few years ago!  

That night I had one request for dinner: Chicago style pizza! So the guys took us out to Giordano’s and it was delicious!!  I couldn’t believe how thick it was! One piece and I was full! It was fun getting caught up and reminiscing about some of our family camp outs in the VW Country Homes.

We then had the daunting task of returning to the campground, as the guys went home.  The roads are very dark on those country lanes, so Grant had to use the high beams to find our turn off. Oh wow, our poor truck, the pot holes we had to take it through because there weren’t any flat areas. Plus, we had to deal with a security guard at the gate. If you didn’t have a special decal you weren’t allowed in! It turns out that the sheriff had to make a bust there last weekend when there was a rash of break-ins! Tremendous! Later we found out that some of the “residents” were prime suspects and were fortunately now gone!  Never a dull moment!

Over the next 6 days we would visit over at Tim’s during the afternoon and evening. They have every kind of video game imaginable, plus it is viewed on a humongous screen that’s about 72” wide and 5’10” high!  What a giggle fest we had as Grant and I attempted “Rock Band”.  Talk about Karaoke kicked up a notch!! For those who don’t know, in this game you play tricked out guitars, where you have to play the colored notes on the stem according to the screen, plus strum a bar where the strings would be! I have never played any of these games before, except for my Nintendo DS, which Tim got us for our birthdays! (That’s what we were waiting to arrive back in Fairbanks, at the end of June, via Federal Express!) There are also vocals to follow along, guitar section and drums.  Allen did drums quite well, that looked too involved to attempt!  Then we got to play with the Wii! After seeing all of those commercials, I can appreciate the fun this video game generates for all ages!  What fun! Getting to be a kid with your kid! No age difference, just try to keep up with everyone else and have a fun time!

Then in the evening it was the thrill of returning to the campground. We never knew if we would have power, often it had been off while we were gone! We could tell because the DVR would or would not have a recording at a certain time. One day we didn’t have water either . It turns out they were “winterizing the plumbing”, without notifying us that the water would be turned back on some time later when they were finished!  Later that same day we lost power! The campground caretaker was trying to pass it off as our problem in our wiring, not the campground’s electrical system! To our advantage, the only other rig in the campground was right next to us, they were Disaster Recovery Claims Adjustors. They had an entire supply of voltage meters and proved it wasn’t our electrical but the campground’s problem. They then went on to describe that just a few weeks earlier, thanks to Hurricane Ike, the area we were camped in was under water, totally flooded.  Hmm, are we surprised that we hadn’t been told? No!

Next time we will heed the campground reviews, despite it being the only park within close proximity to where we want to be!!

With the campground a little muddy still, there was another storm coming in on Saturday, so we said our farewells to Tim and Allen Thursday evening and bugged out on Friday morning.  I didn’t want the trailer mired down if it happened to rain real hard. The truck has 4 wheel-drive to pull it, but not the trailer! Looking for a campground about 230 miles from Aurora we found Red Barn Rendevous in Edwardsville, IL. A very nice, though small campground, we asked for a site that was as far away from the highway. There was a really tall corn field to the right of the park and the other fields surrounding it were soybean plants.  Very unique, low growing plants with the pods still attached.  Finally, we found out what the short field was that the farmers along the way had been harvesting.  I had never seen soybean plants before. Locusts were singing away in the trees on the other side of the park. Another new experience.  Fortunately, we didn’t have those same kind of trees near us!

The temperature was warmer and more humid than the previous week. Not hot enough to run the AC all night, so we propped up the Breeze fan on the dresser and enjoyed a cool comfortable night’s sleep. The white noise it created drowned out the highway sounds.

The next morning was warm with blue cornflower skies. We skirted around St. Louis, going south on Hwy 44, though we were able to see the St. Louis Arch across the river! Crossing over the Mississippi, we were now in Missouri. Grant had remembered the Meramac Caverns were about 64 miles southwest of St. Louis, so we only had a little over 100 miles to travel.  The nicest campground open was the Cross-Eyed Cricket KOA. Nicely kept and with barely 30 rv sites. We took the last site on the end right next to a large meadow. Full hook-ups, 30 amp power, water and sewer, with a pet walk area nearby!  This is what a campground should really be like!

Sunday it was up in the mid-80’s with a real high humidity level! What better way to spend the day than by exploring caves, which are a constant 60 degrees all year long! They had a very nice tour through the caverns. However, after going through Carlsbad Caverns in April, it wasn’t as impressive here. Less rock formations and only one tunnel is shown. They do the funky light show at the end, but don’t have all of the colored lights they used to have. Grant remembers going through here in 1967, while on a trip back east to visit his grandparents in Johnstown, PA.  It would be a nice break after sitting in a car for hours. They used to do more light shows, but discovered that algae grow in caves where there is any kind of light. This ruins the cave formations.

Just 5 miles over is the town of Sullivan and they are really growing. They have a brand new Super Wal-Mart, so we had to stock up the pantry and fridge, no doubt!  Grant also stopped to fill up the fuel tank and diesel was down to $3.45 a gallon!  Wow, such a deal after those high prices in Canada and Alaska!!  Back at the rig we changed into shorts for the first time since Fairbanks, AK on the 4th of July!

We lucked out as the remnants of Hurricane Norbert zoomed north just west of us, but on Monday we woke up to overcast and the temp in the 70’s. Oddly enough the humidity didn’t feel as high, so we decided to stay an extra day so we can figure out where to go next! There have been a few sprinkles, so that’s a good excuse to work on the computer for a change!


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Royal Tyrrell Museum – Drumheller, Alberta

We are taking a rest day today so this is chance to get caught up. Once we left Jasper and the Rockies we were on the plains. The above picture is pretty much all we saw from Edmonton to Minnesota; day after day of flat or rolling farms. Our first stop after Jasper was the town of Red Deer, Alberta. Not the warm spot we were hoping for as the overnight temperature was 27 degrees!

After driving for miles of flat plains, on rough secondary roads, the land drops away to reveal the Red Deer River Valley and the town of Drumheller. This is the home of the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Their claim to fame is the world’s largest collection of dinosaur bones, including full skeletons. This part of Alberta is one of the world’s best places to find dinosaur bones. It is a beautifully done museum, absolutely one of the nicest we have been through. We spent 4 hours browsing through it. This is definitely worth getting off the interstate to see!

Also just outside of Drumheller is the Dinosaur Trail RV Resort, one of the nicest RV Parks we have seen in quite some time. When we arrived they were only 5 days from closing for the season. It was park with huge shade trees, birds everywhere and the Red Deer River at the back of our site.

White-Breasted Nuthatch pictured above 

One of the very unique things about the Dinosaur Trail RV Resort is they have dozens and dozens of domesticated rabbits running all over the place. They don’t take off, just stick around like cats. 

During our stay in Drumheller the days were in the 70s and the nights in the 40s. Much nicer than the cold we had in Jasper.

Kathy decided we had better leave Drumheller, because she was afraid that I would put down roots. That and the RV Park was closing. So, we started our trip across Saskatchewan and Manitoba; day after day of flat or rolling farms. We drove much further than we normally do each day because there just weren’t very many RV parks and some had already closed for the season.

We are now in St. Cloud Minnesota to do laundry, get groceries and rest up before our final push to Aurora, Illinois to see our son, Tim.

Slide show of visit to Drumheller Alberta