We took another road trip er, off-road trip, as it were, with the same group as our North Maine Woods adventure last year. Plus a few! I guess it's not really a "Jeep" club anymore, as we were in our 2003 Tacoma, breaking the mold. The Morrises opted to share Topher's yellow TJ this year. Brendan was in his silver 4-door Wrangler again. The Sweeneys were in their new Grand Cherokee with Declan. Bob and Claude brought along Jessica and Ben this year, and they all piled into their 4-door Wrangler Rubicon. Other new additions to the group this year were Andrew in his white Wrangler LJ, and Ryan and Dani in his Grand Cherokee. It was certainly a more diverse mix of vehicles this time around!
We had such a great time in Maine that we wanted to do something similar, but also of course different. In order to keep things interesting, and to add a level of complexity to planning, we decided to cross an international border and head into Canada. This trip would include a couple long legs of highway driving in order to get to and from the off-road portion making the total trip longer, however it involved less off-road driving. The off-road section begins just a few minutes after crossing the border from Ogdensburg, NY, and passes through North Frontenac, Ontario, and makes a clockwise loop toward Ottawa. That's the plan anyways. Let's see what happens.
We packed all our gear into the truck, including Loki and his gear, and we left the driveway at 7:01am. Fortunately, we did our research before this trip. Unfortunately, what we found was that the province of Ontario euthanizes dogs without question if they deem the pup resembles a "bully breed". He's a total sweetheart, but he's full of pitbull and husky, so we opted not to bring him, because we didn't want him to have to die. It's sad, but he's thankful. He went to the sitter's house just down the road and we were officially underway at 7:12.
Our first stop was just a few minutes down the road for gas. This may have been a mistake. While the pump was running, we took the opportunity to move some stuff around and fill in the space that was previously occupied by Loki. It's important to have food and drinks and the camera easily accessible for a long ride. We were rolling out of the gas station by 7:22 am. We set our sights on the Sweeneys house. I would say we set our GPS for it, but we know the way. We had agreed to carry some of their gear, chiefly a grill, because the whole group would be relying on it, and the alternative would be putting it up on their rooftop, and that just stinks. We also carried a couple coolers, one of ours, one of theirs, for food for the group. After chatting a bit and trying to psyche ourselves up (or wake ourselves up?) we rolled out of their driveway at 8:20.
Our next destination was the Westborough, MA service plaza on route 90W at 9:30am, according to the most recent communication before the day of the trip. We hit some rush hour traffic getting there on 495S. We radioed to the Sweeneys on CB to ask if all the traffic was going to Canada, too. No one of us could be sure. We were just hoping that we wouldn't be late, making everyone else wait at the service plaza. As it turned out, we were both late and early! We arrived at 9:12, a full 18 minutes before our planned arrival. But about half the group had been under the impression that we were meeting at 9:00. So although we were "early", we were among the last to arrive. Oh well. A minor communication breakdown. Everyone listed above, except for Bob, Jessica, Claude, and Ben met at this location. The plan was to meet them at the first campsite, later on. We chatted, coordinated communications devices (CB12, because our usual channel 4 was too busy), used the restrooms, and synchronized our watches. We convoyed out of the service plaza at about 10 o'clock under drizzly skies in cool weather. It was not great, but it was not awful, and the forecast was optimistic, so we didn't mind.
After two bio-breaks in MA, the 'pike crossed into New York around noon. We were all getting a bit hungry so the passengers collaborated on the fly to find us a good pit stop for lunch. We agreed on the 518 Grille in Amsterdam, NY. They quickly moved several tables together to fit us all together. I ordered a Brown's oatmeal stout to drink, and a summer salad, which included grilled chicken, granola, pineapple, melon, and cranberries, and a fried dough buffalo chicken pizza. The waitress talked me out of it, citing the gigantic salad. As she took orders from the rest of the group, I mentioned to Mandy how good the pizza sounded and after a few minutes of discussion, everyone convinced me that I should order it. So I did. I ordered a buffalo chicken wrap and just had water to drink. Everyone's food came out, except Mandy's, so she stole a slice of pie while I worked my way through a seriously delicious salad. She was raving about the pizza as I was filling up. Her food finally came as I switched over from the salad to the pizza. It was just a small one, about 10" across. But it was thick; they load the toppings on there. And the dough was so dense and amazing. I justified it citing we'd be out in the wilderness and what if I didn't have access to food or something happened? So I ate the entire pizza. I felt like I was going to pop, but it was so good I couldn't stop. The beer was not noteworthy, if I'm honest. But the food here was outstanding. Well done.
Back in the parking lot, we tackled a few issues. As Topher was hanging out waiting for everyone to arrive back at the vehicles (we all paid separately) he noticed that his front passenger's side wheel bearing was about to fall apart. As he was working on confirming his diagnosis, I was dealing with a strange issue the Tacoma was exhibiting. When were arriving to the lunch stop, I had noticed that that truck's engine would not rev beyond 3250 RPM. I tried. Other than a possible decrease in low-end power (which may have just been due to the added weight of gear) there were no other symptoms. I plugged in my OBDII-to-Bluetooth dongle and pulled up the Torque app to monitor some sensors while I drove around the empty parking lot. Everything appeared normal, except that the top end of the engine's operating range was just inaccessible.
I parked the truck and hopped out to try and brainstorm with the group, and found that Topher had changed his diagnosis to a worn or broken RCV shaft in his front axle. Though a potential issue, it would not likely hold us up with the type of driving that we were expecting to do. So we agreed to leave it alone and monitor it, and we agreed that we were impressed he broke such a stout aftermarket piece.
Unsure of what to make of the Tacoma issue, the best option was to continue to monitor it as we carried on. I was wracking my brain to come up with possible causes, but nothing really made sense. Maybe it was a bad fuel pump? But then it shouldn't run at all. Maybe it wasn't getting a good spark? But then there should be a misfire code, stuttering down low, something. Since it ran fine up to 3 grand, and I don't typically rev it beyond that, it wasn't truly an issue. But it was...something.
So we got back on the road around 3:30pm. The lunch stop took much longer than we anticipated, due to the vehicle non-issues. But it's preferred to diagnose and address problems in a flat parking lot rather than on the side of the highway, or to run the risk of a potential for catastrophic failure. In other words, it's better to be safe, than sorry. We made a quick stop at a Sunoco somewhere along the route for gas and carried on. We exited the highway, and turned onto a minor route. We stopped at a McDonalds here for some of us to eat, get pictures with the giant cow, and I decided to seize the opportunity to get a couple cheap-insurance items at Advance Auto Parts, because it happened to be across the parking lot. Still unsure what was causing the problem with the Tacoma, I used the shotgun method, and bought a set of spark plugs, a bottle of fuel injector cleaner, and a box of fuses (unrelated). I dumped the fuel injector cleaner in in the parking lot, and decided to keep the spark plugs on hand, and only install them if necessary. When we got back onto the road, I was heavy on the gas, and the truck seemed to be running better, but still not 100%. It would rev up to 4000 RPM. Then ~4500. Something was different! So I kept pushing harder, while trying to avoid being too aggressive. Eventually, it was running normally again. I think that the gas I got first thing in the morning was just bad, and possibly gummed up an injector or two. I can't be certain. But, spoiler- the issue didn't resurface for the remainder of the trip.
After some beautiful minor highway and back roads driving, we eventually found Santway Park in Theresa, NY. And the Levesque family. It was about 7:00pm. Unfortunately, this was a couple hours later than our goal arrival time of 5-5:30, but we still had plenty of light, and it could have gone much worse! The cool thing about this campground is that it's free! At least as far as we could tell. The signs were somewhat ambiguous, but we took it to mean that a permit is required if you intend to stay for 5 or more days. Anyway, we didn't pay, and we had no issues. Everyone spread out and found their temporary "home". We hung our hammocks on three trees, with our heads hung from the same tree. Meanwhile, Shayna and Jenny prepared our dinner. The meal was steaks, green beans, chicken, mushrooms, and new potatoes. No surprises here; dinner was fantastic. There were multiple flavors of steaks, the green beans were nice and crunchy. So good. In keeping with tradition, Shaun built us a fire. Declan serenaded us with some ukulele and vocals. Always love live music! Everyone drifted off to bed when they were good and ready. We slept soundly in our hammocks.
We woke at 6:30, refreshed. I packed away our sleeping bags, pads, and hammocks while Mandy worked on coffees and getting my breakfast from the grill. The truck was packed by 6:55. Not bad timing. But the organization needed work. I inhaled an awesome breakfast sandwich from the J&S Grille (Jenny & Shayna, obviously), and then got to work on sorting the gear in a manner that made some sense. The trouble with the truck is there's so much room to store gear in the bed, so it can go multiple ways. In the Jeep, everything has to fit precisely in only one way, so it's easier to figure out. Anyway, we got a leisurely start to the day, and left the park at 8:30am, with a one hour ride to the border of Canada.
We cruised along the south bank of the St. Lawrence River for a while, and eventually stopped for gas and some Timmy Ho-Hos! That's Tim Horton's for any of you southerners reading this. Next stop was Walmart, because we wanted a real American experience fresh in our minds, just in case something happened and we don't make it back. Just kidding; a few of us needed some minor supplies. We got some juices to mix with the rum we were carrying. It finally started to sink in that the trip was starting. We were doing it. It's happening!
We cruised through the American side of the border, and onto the gigantic bridge over the St. Lawrence at 10:30am. We got in the short line at the Canadian side. Bob suggested a group photo op over CB, but stated that we'd have to hustle, so we wouldn't be holding up any traffic. Ryan set his camera up with a self-timer on the tripod, and then we counted down. We all hopped out and ran to the sign at the border, just in time for the picture, and then we all ran back to our rigs. The border patrol officers were not at all pleased with this activity. Apparently, you're not supposed to do that. We were all apologetic; we didn't know. Future reference, you can't get out of your vehicle at all in the line. In retrospect, it was probably suspicious behavior. After a stern talking-to, we were graciously allowed into the country, and we cruised on through and pulled off to the side of the road safely at 10:45. Once we all regrouped, we went a very short distance down the road, and pulled off onto gravel just ten minutes later.
After about 3 hours on the trail, we stopped for lunch in Merrickville. We found a small park downtown and parked just across the street. We got some cheese and crackers and salami out of the fridge and found a nice grassy spot to sit and have our lunch near the Levesques. The plan for the group was to spend a half hour in town for lunch and then wheels up and carry on. We were running a little behind schedule when we got into town so we wanted to make it quick. It as a little tight, but Team Tacoma was ready to roll just in time. Unfortunately, it was too short a window for some of the group, and it just simply wasn't possible. But this was also good for us because it meant no one was waiting on us.
We left Merrickville an hour after our arrival, and planned to skip part of the next off-road section of the route. This would hopefully get us to Black Donald Campground in time to have dinner and relax a while.
We did not cut out all of the off-roading between Merrickville and Black Donald of course! As we cruised the trail, we came upon what appeared to be a bridge that got washed out. We had to divert off the trail into a creek and climb up the other side. It was tight, but the Tacoma was able to negotiate the turns, narrowly avoiding a few small trees and a large boulder. Sadly, the Sweeneys were not quite so lucky. Coming through just behind us, they took some very light scratches from a boulder on the driver's side door. On their shiny, new Grand Cherokee. They took it in stride, and we kept on toward the campground.
We stopped a short way in to make some adjustments. I had to let some air out of the truck tires to soften the ride a bit. They were way too harsh at 35psi. I took them down to about 20-22psi, and it was a minor improvement. Some others did the same. I think some sway bars were disconnected for comfort as well. We cruised on a very straight, very flat trail most of the way to Merrickville. We passed what appeared to be a field burning along the way. We assumed that it was under control, but couldn't confirm.
Arriving at about 7:45, the group quickly set to work on setting up camp. We opted for hammocks again, due to the lack of good flat ground available, and the ease of setup. Mandy made me a drink, and helped with the kitchen setup. J&S Grille whipped up turkey tacos which were most excellent. I had one with nothing on it because I was totally oblivious to all the fixings that were spread out right in front of me. My second one was fully loaded with everything including an awesome handmade salsa! Once everyone had some food and drink in them, the jokes and laughter rang out across the site. I walked down to the waterfront and out onto a super sketchy dock with Brendan and Andrew once it was good and dark out. A terrible idea in hindsight, but you know how it is when something seems brilliant in the moment. It turned out fine, and we got a fantastic view of a super dark night sky before we all made our separate ways to bed.
I woke up because Rob got out of his hammock around 5am. He was just getting some water to calm a moderate hangover. And to pee. I decided to try to beat the rush and go shower when he just wanted to sleep some more. But of course he couldn't sleep. I had just put conditioner in my hair when the five-minutes-for-a-toonie ($2CAD coin) shower ran out. So I put in the second toonie we had gotten for showers, so I could finish. When I got out, Rob was waiting outside to get his toonie from me so he could shower off his hangover. I felt so bad. Thus began the great toonie hunt of about 6:30am. We went down to the main office to see if we could buy a couple more, but the office did not open until 8. There were a couple men inside, but they had no toonies! We went back up to the campsite to see if anyone else was awake and had a toonie. Shayna may have had a spare, but she wanted to first get through her own shower, to be sure. Understandable. She set off to go shower, and Andrew awoke shortly thereafter. I'll trade you a loonie for a toonie. He sold us his only remaining toonie. I was so thankful for this; five whole minutes of hot water. Sorta. The pressure was wimpy and the shower was awkwardly shaped, but I didn't even care. I felt a hundred times better afterwards. Mandy pressed me a cold-brew coffee from our french press, and I got a hot breakfast scramble from the J&S Grille. After devouring breakfast I really felt whole again, like a human being. It was amazing. We packed up the hammocks and sleeping gear, and then we made our way down to the lake for a group meeting and pictures.
There was one other minor issue with the Tacoma that I noticed the night before, but I wasn't really sure what to do about it with the resources I had. See, when these trucks are lifted, especially with longer leaf shackles in the rear end, the leaf pack on the passenger's side has a tendency to hit the exhaust tip where it dumps out the side in the rear of the truck. Old Man Emu makes a bracket to push the exhaust down about 5 inches or so. I have read mixed reviews on whether this works or not. When the truck is empty, there's just a tiny bit of clearance between the exhaust and the leaf pack. Unfortunately, over the trails, with everything jostling around, the exhaust gets pulled down quite a bit. This caused the hanger to break off the exhaust pipe where it was welded. So the last few feet of pipe were just hanging off the muffler, which isn't ideal. But it wasn't a problem, yet. I wanted to address it at this point, rather than leave it with the potential to get worse, and then try to deal with it on a trail, or who knows where. So I asked Topher if he had any good ideas. He whipped out a tiny hacksaw with a metal cutting blade, which was perfect. I set to work cutting as quickly as I could, while everyone else was slowly making their way into their vehicles and getting situated. Topher told me to give up, and took his saw back. I was confused, so he explained that a gentleman who works at the campground was going to grab a Sawzall for me to borrow and would be right back. He handed me his battery-powered saw with a brand new blade in it and it cut through the exhaust pipe in about one minute, like butter. The hope was that this would alleviate stress on the remaining hangers, and at least get us home with an intact exhaust. I tossed the scrap in the truck bed, thanked the man profusely, and we hit the road at 9:15.
It wasn't long before we were on trail again. The modified exhaust pipe was so much quieter. It still hit against the leaf spring occasionally, but now it was only hitting it against the side, and was not being constantly pulled down by the suspension. We cruised along a while, enjoying the gorgeous weather. We happened across some people on 4-wheelers, and they waved as we passed. That was reassuring, because we weren't absolutely certain if full-size vehicles were supposed to be on this particular trail or not. Again, the signage was ambiguous. We were just outside of Killaloe (pronounced "kill-a-loo" by the locals) so we stopped in town at Freshmart because some people needed to resupply. I went in, and it smelled absolutely wonderful inside. Like a cinnamon bomb exploded inside a giant bakery. They didn't have any bathrooms that I could see, but I asked about fuel, and got directions to a few nearby stations. I was also directed to the information center just across the street for restrooms. We decided to opt out of getting fuel in Killaloe, and instead make way for Barry's Bay, which was less than 20 minutes away on pavement.
We pulled into a large Shell station and stopped in front of the "chip wagon". We think chip wagon is a rough Canadian equivalent of a food truck here in the states. But it seems like most of them serve fries, at least. Except fries are called chips. And they're usually served covered in gravy. You know, poutine. Anyway, we obviously had to try some poutine. We ordered a small classic, and then I asked, just out of curiosity "what's on the Scared Polish?" Bacon, onion, fried chicken. YES! We apologized, because she'd already written our order, but we had to change it. No problem. While Mandy waited for our order to be made, I pulled into an empty fuel pump and tried my best to get gas. The machine fought me, though. It was brutal. I slowly began to notice the sounds of frustration from others in the group, fighting the same battle. Finally, I overheard from Shaun that he just pumped first, and would figure out payment after. We're not used to having this option in the states, so what should have been the obvious solution, wasn't. But once I got that figured out I went inside to get my international credit card declined for who knows why. Mildly frustrated, but more so just confused, I used another card, and got out of there. Just in time for Mandy to show up with our poutine. As most of us were finishing up getting fuel and whatever else, Ryan came on CB, and told us to continue down the main road about a tenth of a mile, and take two consecutive rights. This would land us in a parking lot at a park by the beach, where we would relax a while.
We parked the truck and folded down the tailgate to have a makeshift table at which to stand and eat our poutine. It was very tasty. After we ate, we changed into swimsuits and made our way over to the small beach. I was determined to swim out to the floating dock. But not before we threw the frisbee around in the water. Eventually, Shayna, Rob, and Shaun made their way out to the floating dock. Shayna was first to arrive, and she refused to step on the dock, opting instead to jump back into the water from the ladder. Rob went next and stood on the dock, just at the top of the ladder. It was disgusting how much bird poop was on the dock, the smell was atrocious. Shaun said he would only stand on the dock if I did, so I stood there until he started making his way out toward the dock. So gross. Once he made it out, we both leapt off the dock and raced back to shore. I was hoping my shorts would dry off in time, but it wasn't happening, so I changed before our driver's meeting. Then we were all ready to head out at 1:40pm.
We cruised roads a while before we got back on dirt. The weather was perfect, and we were loving it. Although the warm, dry weather was causing the dirt roads to be rather dusty, and we were having flashbacks to the super dustbowl trip in Maine last year. Luckily, we had learned from that trip to keep extra distance between vehicles and to keep lights on for safety. We spaced out along the trail to minimize the truck's dust intake. We had windows up and air-conditioning on for comfort.
At 3:30, we arrived to Bonnechere Provincial Park River Loop Campground. Jenny had called months ago to make reservations for us. During the check in process, we learned a lot. Most importantly, the park staff are not the same people that accept the reservations. Whoever does accept reservations does not know the rules of the campground. This is a terrible design. Jenny explained that we had a large group of people, and several vehicles, and was assured this was not an issue. It was. According to the campground rules, each site may have only one vehicle and no more than six people on it at any time. And only three pieces of shelter equipment. Each additional vehicle cost $13.50 to get into the park. And no having any fun. Just kidding about that last rule, but the point is there's a lot of rules.
We were assigned to sites 109, 111, and 113. These are about a mile or so from the main gate, so we made our way through the park to our sites and began to setup camp. This night we opted for the tent, since there was plenty of smooth, level ground available. We also hung one of the hammocks for relaxing in, since we were so early to the campground. The nearby parking lots had about 6 spaces, and were all full, so we did not move the vehicles, but figured we would wait until spaces became available. We had some drinks and started making our way to the beach. Brendan was coming just behind us, he said. When we arrived at the beach, we realized we forgot the frisbee. DANGIT! We were a little put off when we saw two uniformed police officers strolling by on the beach, so we went back to the site to get the frisbee and see what everyone else was up to. We retrieved the frisbee and made our way back to the beach. When we got back to the beach, Brendan drove past us; he was heading back to the campsite. Unfortunately, he didn't see us. After we tired of playing on the beach, we went back to the site for some adult beverages. We saw Brendan driving again, through the trees, so we darted out of sight. It looked like he was headed back to the beach. Eventually he caught up to us, though, and we laughed at how terrible the timing had been for each beach trip.
We got back in time for dinner. This night was chicken and broccoli with rice from the J&S Grille. It was delicious, per usual. And afterward, the whole group broke the rules as we coalesced around the fire in site 111. Claude called out Jenny for a dance-off so we had some outstanding entertainment. Jenny got absolutely annihilated when Claude busted out some phenomenal break-dancing skills and secured first place for himself. Uniformed campground staff patrolled through the grounds and told us we had to move our vehicles off the sites. We had all been drinking, though, and the closest place there may have been parking available was at the main gate (which only had about 8 spots total), about a mile away on "provincial highways". So we passed on putting ourselves at risk for a DUI in a foreign country, and left the vehicles where they were.
We woke up around 6:30 and made our leisurely way to the free showers, once we figured out where they were located. Jenny followed us. She'd been walking for about 45 minutes previously with no luck in finding them. The showers ran on a mechanical spring-loaded timer/valve for about one minute per push of the button. I tried to stay ahead of it as we showered. The water was hot which was outstanding. Until it turned cold unexpectedly. We waited with it running for what felt like 10 minutes, and it never got warm again. Finally, I gave up waiting and finished rinsing in frigid waters.
When we got back to the site, we packed up our gear while Jenny and Shayna worked on pancakes, bacon, and a few remaining breakfast sandwiches for breakfast. We left the sites individually, as each vehicle was ready, and intended to meet outside the gate. I misunderstood and got onto the main road just outside the entrance, and pulled onto the shoulder. Realizing I'd overshot the meeting location, we circled back and joined the brief driver's meeting. Our goal was to make it to Ottawa by the afternoon, which gave us a lot of free time.
We hit the road and got to Timmy Ho-Hos in Pembroke for another coffee, and a pee break. We continued on, and at some point the road signs switched over to French, which added a level of complexity. Especially when the speed limit signs didn't include units. Along our way, we saw signs for "Chutes Coulange" and Bob asked if it might be a good time to stop, and check out the waterfalls. Everyone agreed, so we pulled in around 11:30. Everyone parked and stretched their legs while a couple people went into the park entrance to see what it was like inside. The report sounded very appealing to everyone, and the cost of entry was low enough, so we packed some snacks and water and headed in. We agreed to meet back at the vehicles no later than 2:00 to make it the rest of the way to Ottawa.
Chutes Coulange park was a really cool stop. We hadn't planned for it at all, but we got lucky and everyone had a good time. We learned quite a bit about the logging history in the local area, which was fascinating, and we got to walk around and check out some pretty impressive waterfalls. We did a ropes course and I injured myself on the tiniest zipline ever. Everyone organically gathered near the ropes course, and we tossed the frisbee around as we waited for stragglers. We ended up leaving earlier than anticipated, which is very rare, at about 1:40.
We got off the highway in Ottawa without a concrete plan. This was probably a terrible idea. We intended to get a last meal together. With 15 people in 7 vehicles. Thankfully we had functional CBs for communications, as it would have been impossible without. After circling a few blocks a few times, we found parking together in a public lot. We paid and set out on foot to a nearby restaurant. They couldn't seat all of us together. After striking out at about 5 restaurants that could not meet our group size and dietary requirements, we gave up and split. Looking ahead to the remaining hour drive to the final campsite, we wanted to get back on the road again as quickly as possible. Mandy and I grabbed a couple seats at the bar in Heart and Crown with Brendan and Andrew. We don't know where everyone else went. We ordered a Guinness and a Mill St. Cobblestone Stout. Rob ordered a bison burger and I ordered a chicken wrap. The burger was outstanding, and the beer was great. We chatted a bit with the bartender before we made our way back to the vehicles just in time for our planned departure of 6:30pm. We tried to stick together leaving the city, but we anticipated a struggle, so each rig had its GPS pointing towards the campsite address. We got split up by traffic and lights, but we reconvened with some of the vehicles on the highway. Then we found the rest of our people at the Oops! Express gas station. We fueled up and got some firewood then hit the road.
We arrived to Whispering Pines Campground in Curran at about 7:45pm. This was a rather unique private campground, but we liked it. The host showed us to our site, which was gigantic. We were allowed the entire beach, a grassy area, a huge fire pit, a stage, and all the area in between. We of course all set up our tents on the beach. As we were setting up, a few raindrops poked at us, so we opted to put our EZ-up canopy thing over our tent to keep it dry. The rain stopped and the skies looked clear so we built a fire and gathered around. Some time later, the rain picked up and came down much heavier, so we moved our chairs to the stage to get under some cover. Eventually we all started to drift off towards our tents to sleep. We went to bed in our dry but open tent around 11pm.
Rob's alarm went off at 5:00am in the truck. I got up to shut it off, and then laid back down. We got up together at about 6:00, and began packing up our gear. We woke up the Sweeneys, because we believed they had said they wanted to drive with us, and we were close to a point where we were ready to go. Bob said he wanted to leave no later than 7:30 because he had a hard deadline to meet. At about 7:45, we left the Sweeneys behind per their request, because they weren't quite ready to go.
We hit the first Timmy Ho-Hos we came to for breakfast sandwiches and coffees. Then we powered on to the US border, arriving at about 10:40am. As we were sitting in traffic at the border, we saw a familiar rooftop cargo box. I called out on CB that the Sweeneys were 6 cars ahead of us. A few minutes later, Shaun came on to say hi, and make fun of our obviously slower route. Pointing out that they had left after us and arrived before us. After one last bout of chatter while we waited, we made it through the border at 11:15. Everyone split up at this point to go at their own speeds, to their various destinations. We stuck with Andrew in his LJ all the way to Concord, NH, making just 2 brief stops, before we parted ways and made our way home alone. We arrived in Ipswich at 3:30pm to do one final unpacking of our gear to dry it out, and one final packing to put it all away.
Background - We're 10 friends as a result of a local Jeep club (check us out on northshorejeeps.com) and currently living scattered about Massachusetts. We try to get out wheeling as much as we can, but we all shared a desire to do something a little different. Something a little bit bigger. Maybe too big. None of us - well, maybe one of us - had made a trip quite like this before. The gist of it is Concord, NH to Massachusetts via the North Maine Woods, about 900 miles, and as little pavement as possible. Well, that was the initial design, anyway.
We are Rob (that's me!) and Mandy (that's me!) in our green '99 Wrangler. With us are Topher in a yellow TJ; Shayna in a blue TJ; Shaun, Jenny, and Declan in a white JK; Brendan in a silver JK Unlimited; and Bob and Claude in a grey JK Unlimited Rubicon.
We used this trip report (http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/67758-The-Map-is-Not-the-Territory-A-Northern-Maine-Adventure) as a solid basis for trying to figure out where the heck we should go on this journey. Some of us probably knew about them already, but I learned of the B-52 site and of the lost trains from reading that report. They seemed really neat, and we were all interested in checking them out. Now just how the heck to get there...The planning process was long and involved. We had several more people and rigs during the early phase. I won't bore you all with the details of that. As you know, that's the fun part of the trip, but really only if it's YOUR trip.
Day 1: 6/23/16
So we set out on a Thursday at 7 am. We finally got out of the driveway at 7:11. Don't know what happened there but this is it! It's finally begun! Mandy and I are coming out of Ipswich. Just for the sake of clarification, I drove the whole time. That's not to diminish the role of shotgun! In fact, a lot of the time, it might be more work than driving. (I took great notes for the trip log!) Anyway, the rest of us left from all over the place, but we've agreed to meet in Concord at 9am.
At 7:50, Mandy noted that we have made our first turn-around because I hopped on 495 the wrong direction. Because I was on auto-pilot. Because I hadn't gotten my coffee in yet. (I didn't suspect it would be the LAST turn-around of the trip...)
We met up with Topher and Shayna in Salem, NH real quick so we'd at least have some company and some CB chatter. And I had to pee. Just before we hopped back on the highway, we could overhear Shaun and Brendan on the CB. I tried to contact them over the radio but they wouldn't stop talking long enough to hear me. We saw them fly by ahead of us as we approached the on ramp, but we simply couldn't catch them before Concord. We all arrived precisely on-time-ish and applied stickers and fueled up. Some of us finished waking up. We officially started driving the route when we left the parking lot at 9:52. The somewhat-arbitrarily-chosen order put Bob and Claude in the lead. They were followed respectively by Brendan, Topher, Shayna, Shaun + Jenny + Declan, and Mandy and I brought up the rear.
The weather was pristine. Low 80s. Light clouds. We cruised to the Kancamagus Highway. Of course we had to stop for a group photo at Pemigewasset Overlook. It's just so scenic. Back on the road, the route had us taking Bear Notch Rd. north to route 302. On the way, Mandy convinced us to take a slight detour to check out the Experimental Forest. Joke's on her because that was a planned part of the route already! (I was so excited!) Bob came upon a tree across the road, so we rerouted rather than bushwhacking. Detour number 1. (Technically detour number 1 started when we went the wrong way on 495...) We picked up some speed on 302 and got to Jefferson Notch Rd. We found a big clearing on the side of the road and pulled in to have some lunch. And stretch the legs. As we were getting ready to get back on the road, we realized that we were at our first campsite. Neat! Excepting a chip in Brendan's windshield, everything was going well, so we continued on to Trio Pond Road.
Trio Pond Road flipped all that upside down. Now, before we get into all that, it's necessary to explain a bit more background information. See, our route was roughed out using the aforementioned trip report, but it was detailed using topo maps, satellite imagery and GaiaGPS. So the actual surface conditions were unknown, but we were hoping for the best all along. So when Trio Pond Rd. got really rough, we had to just deal with it. All of us are experienced with more technical wheeling than Trio Pond Rd. presented, so this was not a show-stopper. But it did set us back some. We aired down and disconnected the front sway bar for comfort. In the future, I'd do this at the beginning of Trio Pond Rd. We crawled on for a while until, eventually, we came upon a cluster of lake-front houses. Or pond-front? We found this quite odd, especially when we saw the vehicles parked at these houses. They were quite incapable of getting there by their looks. We pushed on. We had to do some winching to help some of our smaller rigs through the mud and boulders. We came upon a small creek with a pretty significant and awkward ledge. This required some makeshift bridge construction to help prevent the trailers from flopping. We all got through with a little nail-biting, but no problems.
For potential future running of this route, we made a note that at "Point 024" on our route, we should have turned left. This is near the houses, and given the state of the vehicles at the houses, it must be an easier route out of the woods. We wondered aloud how they were able to get the building materials for the houses out there along Trio Pond Rd. Or heating propane. Or groceries. There's got to be another way in and out.
Anyway, at 7:15pm we finally arrived to our first campsite! The campsite, just after "Point 026" on the route, was in a clearing on a plateau on a large hillside. The views were spectacular around dusk. The sky was perfectly clear. There were some windmills in the distance spinning casually. When we pointed them out, Jenny shared some confusion as she believed them to be called "powergrid mills". Everyone was a bit frazzled/exhausted/hangry. Jenny and Shayna got to work straight away cooking us all delicious steaks! We also feasted on cheesy potatoes and corn cobs. The food was delicious and well-deserved. Everyone poured themselves a drink (or a few!), set up camp and gathered around the fire Shaun built. The ground at this site was not awesome for tenting, but it was not awful either. Mandy and I hung our hammocks so we didn't have to care. With food and drink in our guts, spirits were boosted and lots of laughter ensued. We recalled Jenny's "powergrid mills" comment and shared a laugh. Sorry Jenny.
Day 2: 6/24/16
We woke up at 5:30 because Mandy forgot to shut her alarm off. Hi, we're on vacation, remember?! Sorry!! That didn't happen again. We got to work making coffee and whacking bugs. Breakfast was scrumptious breakfast sandwiches of sausage, egg and cheese on English muffins. These were super satisfying (as well as delicious) because all the ingredients were the same diameter and concentric. Rob is so weird, but they were delicious! I ate two. We packed up, aired up, and reconnected the sway bar, and hit the road at exactly around 8:40ish.
Everything was going swell. The weather was pristine, the roads were good. Spirits were high. We had the top down and it was sinking in that we were on vacation. You know the feeling. We had covered a fair bit of ground and we had about a half hour or so until we entered Errol, NH. When suddenly...
Brendan stopped abruptly. As the dust settled (literally) I could see that he'd either parked awkwardly across the road, or something was very wrong with his trailer. Upon inspection, we discovered that the passenger's side of the axle had shifted rearward until the tire contacted the fender. He must have finished his coffee by then, because his reaction time was quick enough to prevent any damage to the tire. And there may have been several profanities let loose! So what it appears had actually happened is that the axle U-bolts worked themselves loose. This allowed some relative movement between the spring pack and the axle tube. This allowed significant forces to be translated to the spring pack bolt and at some point, this bolt was sheared. At this point, the axle was free to move along the leaf spring. It stopped when the tire touched the fender. Everyone searched their tool kits for a replacement bolt and unfortunately we had none. We looked at our rigs to find an appropriately-sized, non-crucial bolt that could be removed and installed in the trailer. We came up empty-handed. After some head-scratching, we realized that a 1/4" drive extension is almost an exact fit. We installed it up through the bottom of the leaf pack, and then set it into the spring perch. The taper on the large end ensured that it couldn't pop out over a bump. It was a perfect Band-aid, and served well to get us to Errol, NH.
We pushed on. We wanted to find the easiest route to pavement because we weren't totally confident in the limits of the extension-Band-aid. Luckily for us, it was Craftsman! So if it broke, we could just go to any Sears location....oh wait. We were in the middle of nowhere. So we decided not to turn left at "Point 035" because it looked steep and overgrown and unpredictable. The trail system we were on has occasional maps placed at major intersections. These are very well detailed and served us well. Also, we chatted with a local who was stopped at one, and he helped us navigate to pavement. We emerged the woods in Errol, NH a short drive from L.L. Cote hardware, lumber, clothing, sporting goods, grocery, gas station, rest area megaplex. A backcountry Walmart. We divided and conquered. In other words, we fueled up, Brendan got new trailer hardware, we got drinks, used the restrooms, checked out the grass flip flops and other interesting merchandise and then we moseyed over to the Hawg Trawf BBQ. Which, ironically has very little BBQ. We figured it wise to get a full meal while it was available to us, because we were all a little unsure of what lay ahead. One thing we did know was that a quick parking lot wrenching session was in our immediate future. We settled our bill and regrouped in the parking lot under the trailer to swap out the extension for a real bolt. We were practiced now, and worked pretty efficiently as a team. After a minor exploding bolt incident (Brendan threw a little too much muscle into the new bolt and it failed under tension, rocketing up into the floor of the trailer) we were packed up and back on the road.
Over lunch we had discussed some route modification to make up for time lost both crawling over Trio Pond Rd. and addressing trailer suspension issues. We were also keen now to consider potential future breakdowns. We made a group decision to cut off the northern sort of "loop" in NH through Pittsburgh. We took route 16 east from Errol towards Rangeley, ME. We officially entered Maine at 2:30pm.
We got off-road again and hit some more logging roads. We cruised until we found our second campsite. We were all ready to call it a day much earlier today. We parked at 5:10pm. It'd been a taxing day. Though the wrenching was not particularly difficult, it's hard work "supervising". But actually, stress levels were slightly elevated because of the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Would we have more problems? Would we get stuck in the middle of the woods? Setting up camp helped to take the edge off. We had better ground this time.
Mandy found a bunch of delicious field strawberries. (They were quite scrumptious. Claude agreed.) We were at the base of a wind farm, on another hill. So the views were again amazing. The weather was still perfect. We set up our hammocks again as everyone built camp. Jenny and Shayna got to work on dinner of chicken, beans and rice. Yet again, the food was delicious. We were beginning to notice a trend of hangry, followed by excellent food, followed by elevated spirits. Maybe it was the drinks. Maybe it was Shaun's fire. Maybe it was just being content with being done for the day. Whatever the cause, I think the nights after dinner were the most relaxed moments. One by one, we headed to bed.
Day 3: 6/25/16
Strangely enough, it was Shaun who awoke first. Even stranger, it was only 6 am! Everyone hustled out of bed and huddled around to collect their share of the long-hyped overland pancakes. It was everything we hoped it'd be. So. The evening prior, other than the good timing at which we arrived to one of our chosen campsites, a large part of the reason we stopped where we did was because the path forward was unclear. Our best guess is that the imagery used to plan the route was dated and the path shown has since become overgrown. The intended route made a sort of corner (north, then east) which we simply cut off diagonally by heading over established roads northeast. It was a short diversion. Back on logging roads, we were able to space out (for dust abatement) and cruise around 30 mph.
We came across a village? (later research shows it is classified as a "township" - Holeb, ME) that was quite odd. It's very secluded, and then suddenly there is a small cluster of maybe a dozen houses very densely built. We crossed the train tracks to push forward along the route. We didn't get too far before we were stopped as the trail fizzled to what was about a walking trail. None of us were looking to bushwhack at this time. So we pulled out the maps and found a loop around to the "other side" of the bushwhack. So back through Holeb and onto logging roads again we went. We found a small pond (just west of Long Pond) at which we stopped briefly to stretch our legs. I had to go for a swim because, well why not? It was warmer than I was anticipating, but very refreshing! Eventually we got onto Holeb Rd. which we took east to route 201.
We took 201 south a short ride into Jackman for fuel at Citgo. We spent some time in Bishop's grocer/liquor store/deli/restaurant/convenience store thing. We got sandwiches for lunch here. Then we drove back up the road a tiny bit to a pretty sweet park we saw on the way into town. There was plenty of grass and shade for frisbeeing and after we worked up a little sweat, we went down the hill into the pond to swim and continue frisbeeing.
After a while in the water, we noticed that we were all surrounded by tiny, dead, baby fishes floating on the surface. (EWWW! - I couldn't swim in the lake anymore after noticing them.) Eventually, a yellow lab named Diesel trotted onto the beach alone. We noted that he had huge balls. Some old lady was yelling at him from atop the grassy hill. He didn't seem very interested in obeying her. Once we were all sufficiently grossed out at the tiny, dead, baby fishes we got out of the water and back on the road.
We took mostly highway to Moosehead Lake so that Shayna would be able to visit the B-52 crash site and Gulf Hagas with us before she had to split off and head home. We felt like we were running "behind schedule" although we didn't actually have one. We were worried if we ran the route as planned (give or take) that we wouldn't have any time to enjoy these sites (even ignoring when Shayna would break off from the group). We revised the plan from doing a clockwise loop (i.e.-follow Canadian border to Allagash wilderness, then head south toward Gulf Hagas), to a counter-clockwise loop (head east to Gulf Hagas, then north to Allagash wilderness area, and then follow the border southwest if time permitted). This plan would allow Shayna to safely drive alone back home (she had to leave the trip early) without any challenging or technical roadways.
So that brings us to the B-52 crash site. In 1963, a B-52 bomber plane crashed on Elephant Mountain near Greenville, Maine. Only two of nine crew survived. Some of the crash debris was cleaned up for analysis at that time. It was then redistributed throughout the woods. It's a very short, easy walk into the site from where we parked. It is really interesting to see the aircraft hardware strewn about the nature.
We passed through Greenville and made our way back to logging roads and the route. Somewhere near "Point 192", the route became rather vague. It is important to note that for nearly the whole trip, Bob had been unofficially deemed the leader, but at this moment I was, for reasons unknown, in the lead. The trail had all but disappeared into overgrowth, but I decided to push ahead just a bit to see if it became clear again. It didn't. But it didn't get any worse either. I kept creeping along and Bob followed, just in case. The rest of the group hung back in a small clearing where the trail had seemingly ended. We stayed in touch via CB. I gave the all clear and that the path was pretty mild, though overgrown. Minor pinstriping was the worst of it. The decision was made for the rest of the group to circumnavigate a short distance and link up with the route at the next waypoint. They'd found another path. We and Bob were committed at this point, as it was too narrow to turn around, and too difficult to navigate in reverse. So we pushed on, the only way we could. Luckily for all of us, we had tuned our CBs before this trip, so we were able to stay in contact. The rest of the group were making progress, but it didn't sound as though their path was clear. Neither was ours. Eventually, though, we broke through to what appeared to be a formerly-logged area. There were small branches and sticks all over the ground, preventing new growth from overtaking the area. It worked out awesome for us because it gave us a reasonably-flat, open, wide makeshift road and an obvious direction. I jogged ahead to make sure the going was good, which it was. So we pushed on and arrived at "Point 193" which was a large clearing atop a hill.
The "road" we had been on intersected a well-kept actual dirt road! So we hopped on that and very shortly arrived at "Camp Dirt Lot". I scouted the site on foot and came what was apparently too close to a mother bird and her nest. This was deemed a mistake for which I would be required to pay. The bird was on the attack! I had been jogging through the site as it was rather large and I was ready to setup camp if it looked like a good spot. Well, I about-faced and sprinted back to the Jeep, and Mandy. "How is it?" she asked. "We're not staying here!" Also, there was a rather extreme number of flies around which we tired of swatting as we waited for the rest of the group to make their way to us. Eventually, they arrived at the North Maine Woods office/gatehouse. This was marked as "Strange House" on our route. It's not that strange in person. They inquired about campsite availability and the decision was made that we would camp in the North Maine Woods! We'd made it! We just had to continue along the dirt road we were on, and we'd arrive shortly at the "strange house". But not so fast...
We got a couple hundred yards down the road and had to stop. There was a tree down, blocking our path. Bob and I busted out our hatchet and axe, and got to work straight away. We were ready to be setup camp and stop driving at this point. But there was work to do. Unfortunately (or not? I don't know) it was a whole bunch of small branches, and not one big log across our path. So we got to chopping. We were through about half the work and I paused a moment to realize that about 50 feet beyond this tree was another, bigger tree down. Shit. So we kept at it, doing what we had to. Topher came up the road from the office to meet us, ensuring that we were going the right way. He conveniently arrived just as we finished clearing the road. We got him turned around and then we had a very short ride to the gatehouse. We paid $39 for two people to camp and we were in! Entering the North Maine Woods was one of our major goals with this trip, so this was an exciting moment.
We chatted a while with the gatekeeper and paid our fees. He gave us several maps and hand-drawings and explained the route to the campsite in great detail. It seemed a bit odd at the time, but now I get it. Because we managed to get lost on our way to the site. We came all this way, with all this technology, explanation and more maps than we could count and we still managed to lose our direction before we arrived at our site. This was really frustrating for the group; we were hungry, we were tired, and we just wanted to be done with the day. But eventually we figured it out. Well, Bob and Shayna did, by splitting up and travelling the same dirt road, two different ways and somehow arriving at the same point, which we still don't understand, but whatever we don't care because we were finally at the site! At 7:45 pm. To be fair, it's a very long ride from the gatehouse to the site. I can't speak for everyone, but it's gotta be the largest campground I've ever been in, by several orders of magnitude. It's just gigantic.
Jenny and Shayna got to work making dinner again while everyone setup camp. We pitched our tent instead of hammocking. This night it was sesame steak tips, green beans and sweet potatoes. I don't know if it was because of the long day we'd had or the frustration, or maybe just because it was an excellent dish, but this meal was a hit with everyone. When we arrived, I think everyone was a little hangry (I certainly was, and Mandy had a headache), but this dinner (and drinks!) turned that right around and everyone was much happier in no time. We had a fire again (that's every night, so far), and gathered around for more drinks, stories, jokes, planning, and relaxing. This site was right on a stream, which was great. But also right next to another group of campers, which was fine, but we were not used to. We'd been so alone and remote each night before this, it was just different.
Day 4: 6/26/16
We got a later start; we were up at 8:05am. We had to figure out our 2-day plan which would take us to the end of our trip. Over breakfast burritos and Maine Gazetteers, we plotted our route to the Allagash Waterway.
But first, we drove to Gulf Hagas. This was another goal/stop/attraction in our original plan. We weren't sure if we'd be afforded any swimming opportunities, but I wasn't taking any chances to miss out! So I swapped into my swim trunks and in the process I lost my key. We scoured an area about 10 feet in diameter for 10 minutes as a group until Shayna found it on my spare tire. We'd already held up the group enough at this point, so when we couldn't find our camera, we said whatever, and went without it. Unfortunately for us, the views of the canyon and the waterfalls were amazing, and we couldn't get any pictures. But we did get to swim in the river pools, which was equally amazing. And the hike was pretty great, but a bit longer than we all anticipated. We should have brought some more snacks, or eaten a bit more before we hiked. We were parched and hungry when we finally got back to the parking lot. So we replenished ourselves and hit the road to the north gate and left Katahdin Ironworks Jo-Mary Forest to head towards Millinocket. We fueled up and iced up and beered up in Millinocket and then headed to Baxter State Forest.
I'd heard about "the golden road" in Baxter, so I was secretly a little excited to get to drive it. But I was also curious if this was just a colloquialism. I'd asked the group, no one knew. Turns out it's just a road named Golden. Golden Road. Not THE Golden Road. It should be called Dusty Rd. It was very anti-climactic for me. Well, not exactly. We crested a hill along Golden Rd. and had awesome views of Katahdin from the west. We took a right onto Telos Rd. There were more awesome views on the bridge over Ripogenus Gorge. We followed Telos Rd. until it intersected with Main St. At this intersection, we took a right and followed a path a short distance to a campsite on the northwest shore of Harrington Lake. We weren't sure if we were supposed to have paid, or how much, or where, but we decided that if someone came along to collect a camping fee, we would gladly oblige. The guys setup camp while Jenny and Mandy worked on dinner. We were tired and dusty. We had cheeseburgers for dinner and they were, of course, delicious. We pitched the tent again, in lieu of hammocks. The campsite was pretty awesome, the ground was flat and grassy and there was plenty of room for us to spread out our vehicles and our tents. Of course we had a fire, yet again. And we gathered around to have some drinks and stories. Some of us dropped off early to sleep, some of us stayed up til about midnight. The night sky views over Harrington Lake were outstanding. We saw several meteors and countless satellites.
Day 5: 6/27/16
We got up at 7am. Jenny and Mandy made breakfast burritos! Do I need to keep saying the food was great? We spotted a rabbit in our campsite, near the tree line, before it hopped away. It was pretty big. Then we all got to work cleaning up the site and packing our gear away. In the process, a red squirrel went into Bob's open tailgate and was climbing all about inside his Jeep. This was hilarious for the rest of us because he strongly despises red squirrels. We got on the road and headed to the Telos checkpoint, which only took us about 10 minutes. We thought we were further away. We checked in and told them we would be camping near the Allagash Waterway. It's $35.50 per adult. It took a while for them to process the whole group; their pricing system is odd. So we had some time to look over maps and get a better idea of what we could do on our last day of the trip before heading home. We found out that the abandoned trains were only 30 miles from where we were and we decided as a group that we must go see them. We had considered it in the early stages of planning the trip, but ruled out visiting the site because it was far off the route we had planned. Since that plan was long since abandoned, we were all in. But things had been going a bit too smoothly...
As we set out, we were making good speed on the logging roads. Everyone was spaced out and cruising comfortably behind the dust. But then we saw brake lights through the cloud of dust. Topher had stopped unannounced. He was looking at his suspension. This always means that something is not right. So we stopped and I went to see what the issue was and if he needed help. His rear shock bracket at the axle end had sheared off the axle. Unfortunately, this allowed the shock to drag on the ground and bent the shafts rendering the shock useless. Since there was nothing else to be done, he simply removed the shock and put it inside his Jeep. He packed up the minimal tools used and we were back on the road in about 10 minutes. A very minor setback. For now...
We drove to what's probably not the best parking spot to hike in to see the trains. There's gotta be a better trail than what we took. We were bushwhacking for about two miles, following pink ribbons, trying to guess what the trail maybe was. We eventually found some rails in a small valley. Right about the time it started to rain on us. In this regard, the dense forest we were trekking through was a blessing. It helped us stay dry. Fortunately, it only rained for a few minutes. (Unfortunately, this meant the roads were still going to be very dusty. Oh well.) As we continued our hike, we began to see more and more railroad debris strewn about the woods. Eventually we found a clearing and a trail that looked much more travelled. Bob scouted ahead and shouted back that we should follow. Walkie talkies would have been useful here. He'd found the trains! It's a pretty neat site. It's so strange to see trains buried so deep in the woods, with no clear way in or out or how they got there. We spent a while climbing on and photographing the trains. We picked a different trail back to the vehicles, which eventually linked up with the one we came in on. We got back on the road and saw a moose! Well, I didn't see the moose, but some of us did. It was walking along the road we were driving on.
Earlier at Telos checkpoint, we had found a site labeled "Ice caves" that we knew nothing about, but had a campsite nearby. We had planned to check it out and hopefully camp there. But after hiking back from the trains, which took longer than we'd anticipated, we were all somewhat exhausted so we decided to skip the ice caves in favor of setting up camp early. We found a campsite nearby at Round Pond and set up around 5pm. I think everyone was slightly jealous of Brendan's location within the site, right on the waterfront.
Jenny made us delicious chili for dinner. Shaun and Brendan gathered, cut, and split plenty of firewood. We were having a fire yet again. We had one each night, at every campsite. As I was sitting by the fire relaxing with a beer, I saw a fox trot by at the top of our campsite along the road.
I should note that this writing is derived from a journal that Mandy and I kept as we travelled. Whenever there was downtime, we would jot about what had gone on for our memories. So since it was the last night and (we thought) the whole story was written at this point, everyone wanted us to read it back to them. So we had story time around the fire and it was actually pretty neat. Everyone notes different things about the journey because of their perspectives and it was fun to share ours and hear others'. We haven't kept a travel journal before, but I think we will continue to do it in the future.
After story time, Bob and Declan were looking out over the pond when one of them spotted a moose! They got the rest of the group’s attention as quietly as they could so we could all get a look. It was a couple hundred yards away along the shore, standing around in the water. We watched it not do anything for a while then returned to the fire. Just before bed, Mandy took a peek down by the water to see if the moose was still around. There was a large black thing in the water immediately in front of where she was standing. She thought it was a large boulder until the moose lifted its head. Jenny saw it too. By the time the rest of the group got out to the shore, the moose was swimming away. Which was still really awesome to see. It seemed it was trying to get around our campsite to the shore on the other side, but didn't want to come too close to us, so it swam by about 30 feet off shore. After that, we headed to bed so we could get an early start. We had a long ride home ahead of us.
Day 6: 6/28/16
We woke up at 6 am to start packing. It became apparent that over the course of the night, something had taken care to cleanup the leftover chili from our garbage bag. It was THAT good. By 7, everyone was packed up and we left the campsite. We took a left out of the site to take a shortcut through some trails that would get us to Telos Rd. After about 25 minutes or so of driving down trails that seemed to be slowly dwindling in size, we reached a water crossing. From looking at the maps, it looked like the trails would continue to diminish. I think that everyone wanted to be on the way home at this point, so we decided to go the long way instead. The way we knew would get us there. The way we came in. So we turned around, and since we had been in the rear, we were now leading the way. We had a chuckle as we passed by our campsite around 8am. We'd explored as far as we were going to and we were officially headed home. We would cover no new ground. But that didn't mean it was about to get boring!
We reached a large intersection, and unsure which way to go, we stopped to handoff the lead back to Bob and let the rest of the group catch up. When he arrived, Topher hopped out to confirm his suspicion that he'd broken his other rear shock mount. Same issue. Same fix. Just a few minutes to remove the rear shock and we were good to go again. Towing a trailer with no rear shocks was not ideal, but we drove on anyways.
We had almost reached the Telos checkpoint when disaster struck yet again! Not really disaster, though. Bob got a flat tire. We figured that with 7 people on it, they should be able to handle fixing a flat, so we continued on to the checkpoint to use the restroom and brew a coffee for the road. See, we'd foregone breakfast in favor of getting an early start, so I was a bit hungry. Right as I was finishing cleaning up our snack remnants and packing away the coffee gear, the rest of the group arrived. We got a few group pictures and some locals hit us with some questions, and showed a general interest in our trip. After a short stop, we headed back toward Millinocket.
We gassed up in Millinocket and said our goodbyes. I think some of the group were going to get breakfast somewhere nearby. Mandy and I both wanted to go straight home. Which we did, with just one fuel/pee stop. Mandy got some messages from Jenny which said Topher had swapped his trailer over to Bob's Jeep because it was too difficult and dangerous to tow with no rear shocks. And that when they were on their way, some of the axle nuts came loose. Luckily they stopped in time to tighten them down, that could have spelled disaster for real.
We got home around 4 pm.
We decided to take a road trip to Yellowstone. It wasn't quite as spontaneous as all that. It was a trip in the making for several months. Since I had just graduated pharmacy school this seemed to be the perfect time to go before I started a new job. Rob had very limited time off, so we figured the best approach would be to rent a car, drive to Wyoming, and then catch a flight home. We loosely planned the trip but didn't have any hard goals other than the flight home. We picked up the rental car in Beverly, MA on Friday. Originally we had reserved a compact car in order to get good gas mileage. When we arrived at the rental car company we were informed that they were out of compact cars but we got a free "upgrade" to a Chevy Malibu. We weren't thrilled about the increased fuel cost we would surely incur, but we hoped the extra interior space would be nice. It was Memorial Day weekend so we wanted to get out of the greater Boston area as quickly as possible to avoid traffic.
We got the car packed and set out on the road around noon. Other than a few pee-stops and to stretch our legs, our first lengthy stop was at Niagara Falls, on the U.S. side. Neither of us had been to the falls before but we both had grand expectations. I expected the falls to be much taller. It’s width is pretty impressive, however. The park surrounding the falls was a great area to spend a couple hours wandering on foot. We even got to see some fireworks, which was a nice surprise!
After leaving Niagara Falls in the late evening, we fit in a few more hours of driving. Eventually, we stopped somewhere at a gas station in Pennsylvania to catch some sleep in the car in the parking lot. The Malibu seats were extremely uncomfortable for sleeping, but we got about 4 hours of shut-eye. Unable to feign sleep for one more minute, we decided to push on. We were lucky to catch a fantastic sunrise over Lake Erie near Cleveland.
The journey continued on I-90W through Ohio and Indiana. We were approaching Chicago near lunch time. We were getting hungry. We had heard that Chicago has great pizza, so we thought we would try to find some. Not really knowing where to stop we decided to just get off the highway and wing it. We saw signs for a college and knew there had to be pizza nearby. Success! There were people inside and it was around noon, but when we walked in they told us they didn't open until 2pm. We were so confused and now flirting with hangry. Really, we just wanted to get some food and get back on the road. To our surprise, there were no other pizza joints to be found nearby, so we decided on a sandwich shop that appeared local. We walked in and ordered some sandwiches. This is the moment we realized that Jimmy Johns is a chain restaurant we’d both never heard of. We left Chicago feeling underwhelmed by the food experience. We had higher hopes, but we know it was our own lack of planning that caused it.
As we continued through what was left of Illinois, we passed the Belvidere assembly plant. We felt bad we hadn't anticipated this, but fortunately, it seems they don't offer tours, so we didn't miss out! But at the time, we were intrigued, and it was too late to stop in. So, we made our way through Wisconsin. We got dinner in La Crosse on the Mississippi River. We walked around a bit to stretch the legs and happened upon a neighborhood of floating houses. Boat houses, but not house boats. We were perplexed, because it appeared that some of the houses had bicycles on their decks and cars parked nearby but we couldn't figure out how they got there. Some of the cars were pretty deep in the water and there were no signs of any roads or driveways.
We got back on the route and called ahead to Palisades State Park in Garretson, SD to secure a campsite for the night. We were excited to set up camp and not sleep in the car again. But we still had to make it through all of Minnesota! We were doing our best to make good time as we had to get to the state park before they closed the gate for the night. It was here in Minnesota that we had a run-in with the police. Rob was driving over the speed limit to make time and we got pulled over. Oops. I gave him a quick heads up about the Minnesota accent before the cop approached the vehicle as Rob had never heard it before. It was a hilarious surprise! The cop was very nice; he even apologized because he "had to give me a ticket". Then he told me where I might look out for his colleagues.
We finally made it to the state park and pitched the tent. Immediately after we got the tent set up, it started to rain. The thunder and lightning might have been the most intense either of us had ever witnessed. It was tough to fall asleep but we did end up getting a good night's sleep and woke up feeling refreshed and ready to explore.
We wandered around the state park for a little bit in the morning and grabbed some pictures. We hopped back on I-90W and headed for the badlands of SD. I LOVED the red dirt roads throughout South Dakota. We decided to venture away from I-90 for a bit when we reached the Badlands. We followed US240 through the park and enjoyed the change of scenery from the rest of the drive. We had ample opportunity to get out and explore, snap some pictures, and even play a game of Frisbee. We rejoined I-90W in Wall, SD. We had covered so much distance the day before so we felt like we had plenty of time for adventures in this area. Being so close to Mount Rushmore, we couldn’t just drive through without stopping so we made our way down to Keystone. When we actually got to Mount Rushmore, we realized they wanted to charge us a fee just to park at the monument. But we could see Mount Rushmore from the road, so we called it good enough and didn’t feel like parking would get us significantly better views. I guess we did drive through without stopping! We stopped in Keystone though and that seemed like a pretty neat town.
Our plan for the night was to get a campsite at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. As we made our way there, a rainstorm blew through the area, and as we arrived we could just see it on the horizon, moving away. We got an amazing campsite near the base of the tower. We were so excited to get another good night’s sleep in a dry tent. At some point in the night though, the wind picked up. The tent was caving in. We pushed it back out and it was fine for a few minutes. But then it happened again. There was intense thunder and lightning. I’m not going to lie, I was terrified we were going to blow away with the tent. I’ve never camped with that much wind before! I convinced Rob that we should sleep in the car again. (It didn't take much!) We quickly put our gear in the trunk while we were getting pelted with rain from the torrential downpour. The tent didn’t seem safe to leave set-up but it was also soaking wet so we just took it down and shoved it under the car to “protect” it. In hindsight, this is probably not the best treatment for a tent, but in the end it was fine. So we had another night of restless sleep in the car. The morning was beautiful when we woke up though. And the tower is way cooler than Mount Rushmore, definitely worth a stop if you’re ever in the area.
We were prepared for the "last stretch" of driving. Not actually the end, but the last major leg that we intended to do in one day. We left Devil’s Tower and made our way towards Bozeman to meet my friend Kelly. She was attending grad school at Montana State University. I met her in 2009 while were both doing research projects there because we’re nerdy like that. I was so excited to be in Bozeman again and to experience it with Rob. We got to Bozeman around noon and met Kelly for lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill. The bison burgers there were amazing! It felt great that we had completed the majority of our drive. From here on out we could take a more leisurely pace. We enjoyed the day with Kelly and some of her friends and did a small hike on the outskirts of town. We spent the rest of the day hanging out. We were planning to sleep in the tent on the lawn but decided to crash inside instead. It was nice to sleep in a bed and get a free shower. THANKS KELLY!!
The next morning we headed into Yellowstone through Gardiner, MT. We checked out Mammoth hot springs and wandered around a bit on foot. We stopped at the office and reserved a back country site for the next night. We had to watch a bear safety video first. After reserving our site we explored some more. There was a family of elk that had made their home in Mammoth, on the lawn outside the back country office. It was fun to watch them. I had been to Yellowstone before when it was much more crowded. We were there at the start of the tourist season this time, but the crowds get bigger as the summer goes on.
We grabbed a campsite at Norris for the night. We were planning to make our dinner on the campfire but the wood was wet and we were hungry so we decided to go for a drive. We figured we would feed our hungry bellies at one of the restaurants in the park near Old Faithful. After dinner, we stepped outside and watched Old Faithful erupt. It’s pretty incredible to see in person how high the geyser can shoot. We made our way back to Norris for some sleep before our activities the next day.
We started the morning by visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I’ve never been to the “actual” Grand Canyon. I have! I love the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone because of how it shimmers. It’s just so pretty. After taking several pictures we drove to the trailhead for our back country adventure. We started our 5-mile hike in to our campsite on the Hellroaring Creek trail. This was a beautiful hike. I’m not really one for hiking up mountains, so this hike was more my pace than others I have done. It was mostly flat with some minor elevation changes.
I started to get tired throughout the hike, though. Neither of us were used to backpacking and carrying ALL of our gear. The weather held off pretty well but my feet did manage to get wet. We found our site with no problem and set up camp and secured our bags over the bear pole. Of course, as soon as we got everything set up it started to rain. We relaxed in the tent and decided that an early night to bed wouldn’t hurt.
The hike out in the morning was more brutal than on the way in due to it being uphill most of the way. Those minor elevation changes were okay the day before because they were mostly downhill. I was definitely slowing down towards the end of the hike on the way back out. I had to offer some motivational speeches to keep her going. We followed a deer for quite a while on the hike back out; he seemed to be leading us back towards the road. This was such an awesome brush with nature and it really highlighted for us how far we were from home. Overall, we both loved the back country adventure and it was probably our favorite experience in Yellowstone. The hike was beautiful and it gave us an opportunity to explore some of the park without the masses of crowds. Really without any other people at all. It was just us and the wildlife.
We had plans to head out of the park to Gardiner the next day. Kelly was planning to meet us again there along with our friend Harrison who we had also met during our summer doing research. It was nice to catch up with them again and spend more time with them while we were in the area. We met for lunch and played a couple games of pool.
After lunch with Kelly and Harrison it was time to part ways again for the last time on this trip. We headed back into the park and wound up near Yellowstone Lake. We stayed at Bridge Bay campground which was very different than being in the back country. It seemed that they had a lot of campground rules. Do this. Don't do that. But, we FINALLY got dry weather and a clear night sky which made for some excellent stargazing.
We departed the next morning. Our last day in Yellowstone. We enjoyed a leisurely drive through Grand Teton National Park and were mesmerized at the enormous size of the mountains. They truly are majestic. We were also relieved to find amazing weather in this area! It was 80 and sunny. A nice change from the cool, misty weather we had been experiencing. We made it to Jackson for lunch and explored the town center on foot. Obviously, we had to get photos with the antler arches.
The campsite of the night was at Curtis Canyon Campground. This campsite was phenomenal. By far, the best one of the trip. It was up on a hillside overlooking Jackson Hole with the Tetons in the background. We spent some time in a field there watching the sunset behind the Tetons. Some locals paraglided down from higher on the hilltops behind us. A few landed right next to us. Later that night we went out to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar for some drinks and food. This bar was very cool and we had a blast watching the locals dance. I think I would be content to spend some more time in Jackson.
The next morning we packed our things and made our way over to Mormon Row. The views were amazing and we got some great shots of some barns there with the Tetons in the background. We continued on our journey to Riverton, WY. This was a very small town but we got a “family” discount on the rental car and apparently that means you can only rent/return the car at corporate locations. Riverton was the closest we could find to Jackson. We stayed at a hotel here (and showered!) and visited a fair that night before catching a flight out the next morning.
Our flight from Riverton to Denver was tiny. I think there were twenty people on the plane. Unfortunately, one leg of our connections (LaGuardia to Manchester, NH) was cancelled. So we got rerouted to Atlanta and upgraded to first class! We enjoyed the free alcoholic beverages and the comfy seats. We finally made it to New Hampshire around midnight but our bags were nowhere to be found. Apparently they didn’t get rerouted to Atlanta like we did. No big deal. We made it home and climbed into our nice, big, comfy bed and slept like babies. Without the pooping and crying. And our bags finally showed up a few days later.