2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
Previous       2012 Journal Topics       Home       Next
 

   GREAT FALLS, MONTANA: ACTIVITIES AT
   GATEWAY FAM CAMP, MALMSTROM AFB

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 16

 
"Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we  
would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure  
our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world."
 
~ Josh Gates, American adventurer, explorer, and photographer
 
 

Weíre baa-ack!  Itís a relief to be in our own country again.

Even Alaska felt a bit foreign since itís so far away and so different in many ways from states in the Lower 48. I imagine Hawaii is like that, too. It's the only state I haven't visited; Jim went there several times before we met.

I don't agree with the quote above about needing a home, however. I subscribe to JRR Tolkien's sentiment that "all who wander are not lost."


One of many colorful sunsets this week at our campground

Jim and I feel at home in many places, including Montana -- even though we haven't had a sticks-n-bricks house there since 2004. In fact, we'd like to sell the house we currently own in Virginia because we prefer to wander. Wandering doesn't feel at all like being lost to us. We haven't felt the need to have a home base for several years.

And we aren't in any hurry to return to Virginia now. We're just glad to be back in the Lower 48.

I've included some sunset and nature photos from the campground in this entry. Although we miss the long hours of daylight we enjoyed all summer it's nice to be able to see sunsets well before bedtime.

Another unmistakable sign that fall has arrived in Great Falls and winter is approaching is the change in the trees, flowers, and other plants from our visit here in late spring. Green leaves and grasses have turned gold, orange, and brown.

GATEWAY FAM CAMP

We are camped for a week at the Gateway FamCamp at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where we stayed for a few days at the end of May to "stage" for our trip through Canada.

The campground is more full this time but we still had a choice of six or seven sites when we arrived four days ago.

   

The site we chose faces east toward a large grassy area on our door side. We have 50-amp electricity, water, and sewer connections.

There is a nice restroom and laundry room nearby. We've washed just about all of our clothing, linens, and dog bedding/towels since we got here because everything got musty on the way back through Canada and it was easier and less expensive to do it on base than somewhere in British Columbia or Alberta.


We have lots of room, especially on our door side.

We have a strong free WiFi signal so we wonít have to use the MiFi except to do financial transactions or other secure online tasks. We can get the major TV channels and other stations Jim is interested in.

The cost is $24/night or $130/week. We paid the weekly rate minus the average for one night, using an Air Force coupon we had for one free night.


Medal of Honor Park at Malmstrom AFB

There is another, smaller campground on base. One advantage of the larger campground we're in is that it is outside the main gate so we donít have to go through security every time we come and go. It is patrolled several times a day by base security personnel and there is a campground host on site so we feel safe.  

Another advantage of this campground is being able to walk around all the grassy areas and huge, hilly field that has pathways mowed.

RECOVERING (?) FROM OUR TRIP TO ALASKA

I've mentioned before about our travel fatigue. We've done a lot of miles and experienced/seen a lot of new things this summer.

We originally planned to stay at Malmstrom for just four days but extended it to seven because of the lower weekly rate and the most excellent weather forecast for warm, dry, sunny weather. A week has also given us more time to thoroughly clean the camper, launder things like throw rugs that we havenít washed in a while, do some mechanical things to the truck and camper, and just rest.

After seven straight days of driving from Fairbanks to Great Falls we can use some rest. We've been pretty busy so far, though.

Above and below:  sunset views from a hill in the field near the campground

The first day we got here I organized everything in the cabinets and drawers that were in disarray from traveling. Even with rubber mats on the bottom of all the shelves in the living area and kitchen some things shifted on the Alaska Highway.

Fortunately, nothing broke and none of the doors opened in transit. One of the things Jim did before this trip was to add stronger/and or additional latches on the inside of a few of the upper cabinet doors. That prevented heavy or breakable things like books, office supplies, and dinnerware from spilling out when we encountered expected -- and unexpected -- highway bumps.

We've had to spend much more time dealing with moisture problems -- not damage to the structure from any leaks, fortunately, but just interior dampness from the high humidity all summer. The same thing happens when we camp for a prolonged period of time in other humid areas like southern Texas and it's one reason we've mostly avoided the Pacific Northwest on previous RV trips.

I've mentioned before that this was one of the wettest summers on record in Alaska and the places where we spent the most time -- Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula -- are some of the wettest in Alaska in a normal summer. We've been battling mildew and mustiness for weeks.

One reason for pretty sunsets this week has been particles in the air from wildfires to the west of us.

One of our major projects the last four days has been to take advantage of the sunny, breezy, 75-88  F. temps, and very low humidity in Great Falls to clean every surface of the camper inside and out, launder whatever can be laundered, and thoroughly air out the interior of the camper (AC helped, too). Even our books and paper travel information (maps, brochures, etc.) were damp!

It was a lot of work to clean and dry everything out but now we're so much more comfortable.

MECHANICAL ISSUES

When we get back to Virginia in a few weeks we'll have driven the truck over 15,000 miles and hauled the seven-ton Cameo for over 11,000 of those miles -- on some pretty rough roads at times. A lot of things could have gone wrong with our 2008 Dodge Ram 2500 pick-up truck and 2010 5th-wheel coach under such conditions.

An additional stressor was knowing that Carriage, Inc., the long-lived manufacturer of the Cameo, went bust earlier this year. We had concerns about getting service and/or replacement parts if we needed any due to wear or breakage.

I'm happy to report that we've had very few vehicle problems this whole trip. Most of that was due to preparation (prevention) and vigilance.

Before our trip we read all sorts of blogs and other websites re: taking an RV to Alaska. Some of them were fellow Cameo owners so we knew it was possible to take a large 5th-wheel up there successfully. It's not the most practical type of camper to take to Alaska -- a truck camper or small motorhome would be more ideal -- but it's what we've got and it worked out well for us.

Every RVer whose account I read, regardless of the type of camper they used, reported various problems along the way, from chipped windshields (gravel flying up from oncoming or passing vehicles, mostly trucks) or flat tires to major mechanical breakdowns like broken axles.

Some problems RV travelers reported were no fault of their own, just bad luck. Others may have been preventable. We tried to learn from all of them.

Jim got the truck and camper in the best possible shape before we entered Canada in June -- fluids, tires, brakes, etc. That really helped because we had few to no problems due to lack of maintenance or faulty parts. We were just lucky that we didn't have any windshield chips from flying rocks because that's more difficult to prevent.

The few problems we encountered came either from "driver error" or our inexperience with the poor road conditions.

For example, Jim damaged the tailgate on the truck from accidentally backing into a tree at a campground we were investigating (the camper wasn't attached then). It still works but it looks bad:


Oops

Because of the weight of the tailgate and the cost of a new one we plan to replace it with a lockable composite louvered gate. The one Jim wants from Cabella's is back-ordered online and there aren't any stocked in the stores we'll pass between Great Falls and Roanoke. Jim will order one when we're closer to Virginia and have it delivered to our house.

Addendum:  Here's the new louvered tailgate we got. Jim installed it after we got back to Virginia:

Looks good, eh? It should give us better fuel mileage, too.

STAYIN' HITCHED

The only other mechanical-type problem we had was with the truck-camper hitch, which wasn't durable enough for road conditions like we faced on this trip. We both tried to drive very carefully over gravel breaks, potholes, and pavement damaged from frost heaves but despite our diligence the extensive road damage apparently took its toll on the hitch.

I'm including several pictures here that I've used in a couple previous entries to show how the camper and truck are hitched together.

The first photo shows the MorRyde pin under the front cap of the Cameo, the second the hitch head that sits in the bed of the truck (hence, the name "5th-wheel"):

 

On our last night on the road in Canada Jim realized the hitch was damaged or bent. He wanted to disengage the truck from the camper so he could go get fuel more easily in the truck. When he couldn't move the handle (red arrow above) out of the hitch head as usual, he left the camper attached until he could investigate the problem more easily here at Malmstrom AFB.

Back in May, before we began this trip, Jim got a free replacement hitch head from Curt (the company that manufactured it) because he was having problems with the original hitch head. This company has a good warranty and return policy.

That replacement is the one that malfunctioned a few days ago. We had to get a replacement for the replacement!


Old hitch head/new hitch head back in May


Replacement Curt hitch head we got in May; the new one is the same (it's upside down here).

Jim had great difficulty getting the handle out of the hitch to unhook the camper when we got here. He talked with a nearby Curt dealer and also called the manufacturer. Both said to force it off and install a new hitch head.

Since it's under warranty Curt sent us another one via FedEx for free -- it arrived in less than 24 hours! -- and we sent the old one back. Jim has already installed the newest one.

Jim has also spent time researching different kinds of hitches and pin boxes online and at a couple nearby dealers in Great Falls. Heís considering a different MorRyde pin box that moves on more planes than the one that came with the Cameo. It would work with the Curt hitch. Heís also considering different kinds of hitch heads.


How the camper pin and truck hitch head connect

Meanwhile, this new Curt hitch head should at least get us back to Virginia and will hopefully last a lot longer than that if we decide to continue using it.

Weíre lucky that that is the only malfunction weíve had with either the truck or camper on this lengthy, difficult trip. Itís one reason we wanted to do it now instead of later when the truck and camper are both older and more likely to break down.

OTHER ALASKAN TRAVELERS

We aren't the only folks in this campground who spent part or all of the summer in Alaska. Great Falls is the main gateway into Canada for the eastern route to Alaska.


There are still some scattered clumps of both of these daisy-types of flowers
and other wildflowers in the grassy areas surrounding the campground.

On our first day here we talked with Bruce, the campground host, and mentioned that we just returned from Alaska. He and his wife havenít been up there yet but want to go next summer. Bruce had lots of questions for us re road conditions, things to do and see, where to camp, etc.

He's wise to talk to as many people as he can before making the trip. You can learn so much that way. We don't consider ourselves experts on Alaska but we're happy to share information with folks.

Bruce told us that one of the men who regularly hosts at the Russian River Campground where we stayed in early July comes here before and after his summer job in Alaska. He hasn't come back through Great Falls yet -- guess we weren't the last ones out of Alaska! <wink> It would have been fun to talk with him.


Several kinds of fluffy seeds in these three photos

 

We have found some other folks in the campground this week who just got back from Alaska so we've been comparing notes with them.

One is a couple who used to live in Soldotna, AK. We had fun talking to them about their adventures on the Alaska Hwy. during 35 trips between Alaska and the Lower 48 in their lifetime. Wow. I can't imagine making that trip so many times!

When Jim was doing some research about hitches/pins he talked with another fella in the campground who's done the trip 20 times. During his military career the man was assigned to JBER (Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) in Anchorage and Eielson AFB near Fairbanks. He's retired now and goes back in the summer just because he loves it so much up there.

Above and below:  Have you ever seen a little pine tree with so many cones??

Jim also talked with another couple in a 5th-wheel coach who just arrived from Alaska after driving 700+ miles on their last day in Canada. They started down the Cassiar Hwy., which we considered but didn't take because of the lousy weather prediction. The road was in such bad shape (no lines, narrow, bumpy) that they turned around after 30 miles and returned to the Alaska Hwy. 

Guess itís a good thing we didnít come back that way. That information makes us hesitant to try it in either direction on the next trip, too. The roads in remote areas of Canada should be better at the end of summer than the beginning. If it was that bad now, I wonder what it was like in June?

OTHER ACTIVITIES

It hasn't been all work and no play this past week. We've also gotten out to ride our bikes, walk with Cody, and replenish our food/supplies with tax-free goods -- there is no sales tax in Montana.

In the next entries I'll show scenic photos from the impressive bike path along the Missouri River and Giant Springs Heritage State Park.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

Previous       Next

© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-