With temperatures well above normal and smoke from forest fires we set out with friends for an overnight trip close to home. Respite was to be found in Cody, a ghost town up the road from Sandon. Under a clear blue sky our camp was alongside Carpenter Creek. Bugs were few and far between. The night air was refreshingly cool.
South as far as one can go these days was our pursuit. Turning west at the Nelway Border Crossing a gravel road winds alongside the Pend d’Oreille River and U.S. Canada Border.
At one of the unofficial campsites a kaleidoscope of butterflies caught our eye. What were they doing? Apparently some butterflies get their nutrients from damp sand, a behaviour called “mud puddling.” As soon as we approached they took flight from their oasis. Further west the river has been harnessed. Seven Mile Dam has been producing power since 1979.
Driving the Old Cascade Highway from Rossland to Christina Lake one really gains respect for the folks who relied on this route up and over two mountain summits. With many twists and turns the narrow gravel road runs somewhat parallel to the U.S. Canada Border. How times have changed. An active logging road, today we ride it for pleasure. Oddly it also serves as a conduit for fibre optic cable.
On the 2nd anniversary of Laddie’s heart attack, it’s time to acknowledge that our expedition trip to South America will just never happen. Tulák was purchased and fitted out for this very purpose. So it’s time to close this door. Our mog has been put up for sale. Who knows what door will open?
Although the forest service road was closed beyond kilometer 48 the drive up the Duncan was scenic as we wound our way past tumbling rushing water and dramatic vertical slopes.
On this last day of September we’d relax on the shores of Duncan Lake at Howser Creek Canyon recreation site and soak up the sun.
Laddie thought his lures needed washing. An eerie, haunting call alerted us to a foursome of loons, flapping and splashing as they dived for food.
Our appetizer would be ash-baked tubers. So sooty black on the outside, but the smoky, fluffy flesh seasoned with salt was a throwback to when Laddie roamed the mountains in Czechoslovakia building fires and baking potatoes in the ashes for a hot meal.
“We didn’t realise we were making memories,
we just knew we were having fun.”
Winnie the Pooh
Parking lots, campgrounds, gas stations – wherever we stop Tulák draws attention. Laddie has always been most accommodating in answering questions and providing tours. But for some reason this trip his efforts were most highly valued.
The picnic table adjacent to the Premium Sausage store in Seven Persons, Alberta was ideal to set up the camp stove for a coffee break. Suddenly a man emerged from the shop waving a package of bacon at us. Could he take a picture? He even knew what a Unimog was. An hour later we departed with not only the bacon but a free package of ready to eat pork tenderloin.
While refueling in Pincher Creek, Alberta two bottles of Gatorade were thrust upon us by a very excited young man in exchange for a peak at the camper.
It was time for lunch. A parking lot in Fernie, BC would do just fine. Having followed us into town, the FitFix proprietor pulled up alongside to enjoy his sandwich. The questions followed as did his gracious gift of a bottle of wine.
Saskatchewan secondary roads were iffy at the best of times. Sooner or later we knew we’d pay the price. So we stopped at Cranbrook Glass & Windshield to have two rock chips repaired. Not only did ICBC cover the cost we left with a dozen farm fresh eggs.
No matter where, there’s a new road to explore, something to learn, someone to meet. And with Tulák surprises are always in store.
Cooking up a hot meal while underway was Laddie’s idea. The notion to arrive at one’s destination with supper ready to eat was enticing. Our slow ascent up Gray Creek Pass provided the opportunity to give it a try.
Who needs an oven? Ladies, gentlemen, start your engines. Muffler meals are going to be a game-changer.
Besides dust, dung, mud and the risk of rock chips backroads are most often not shortcuts to the hardtop. But backroads are our favored choice.
The Gold Creek Road from Elko to Cranbrook, British Columbia was an opportunity to get from A to B along a new route. The reward of travelling this very dusty industrial forest service road was St. Louis Camp, a historic logging camp location. We had the small open site along Gold Creek to ourselves for the night.
The shortest link between BC’s East and West Kootenays is Gray Creek Pass. From Kimberley/Marysville the road is paved to St. Mary Lake Regional Park but beyond, the east to west traverse to the summit is gravel and rough. Ascent to the summit, elevation: 2072 meters (6800 feet) was slow. Smoke veiled the view but didn’t obscure the shaggy manes alongside the road. Yum – a breakfast of scrambled eggs with mushrooms was tasty.
Just beyond the top Oliver Lake rec site is in a scenic alpine basin. Morning mist shrouded the peaks as we walked the trail around the lake.
Golden yellow was on exhibit courtesy of the larch trees.
Initially we descended into fog but slowly blue patches became visible. Overnight rain had cleared the smoke and we would arrive home under clear skies.
Every prairie town touts a claim to fame. Hodgeville, Saskatchewan brags about two – Coyote Capital of Canada and Home of the Saskatchewan Flag. We cooked al fresco on the museum’s fire pump. Coyotes didn’t bother us.
Officially the green on Saskatchewan’s flag represents the northern forests of the province and the gold symbolizes the southern grain fields. Having travelled through south Saskatchewan in June and September this year, we’ve witnessed its field’s green to gold transformation. Either interpretation, the flag’s color bars are appropriate.
Prairie people are proud of their history. You’ll encounter museums of every genre. Just south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village & Museum showcases the ship built in the middle of the prairie by Tom Sukanen who intended to sail it back to Europe.
We traveled the Red Coat Trail, the path taken in 1874 by the North-West Mounted Police to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills.
Further west along the Red Coat Trail at Etzikom, Alberta antique windmills are displayed with the claim that “it wasn’t the gun that won the West – it was the windmill.” Harnessing the wind to grind grain, saw wood or churn butter had been long established in Europe and the British Isles. But on the North American prairies windmills would provide the means to pump water from underground aquifers. Windmill pumps worked 24-7 and were cheap to both build and operate.
Water and irrigation made prosperity possible in the arid Palliser Triangle thanks to the hard work of Mormon Church members. Without water, early settlers weren’t interested in farming a virtual desert. Irrigation canals would be the solution and no one knew more about irrigation than the Latter-Day Saints who had already transformed the landscape in Utah. Gravity would pull water from the St. Mary’s River to the Mormon settlement at Stirling, Alberta.
Just as settlers needed water, soapweed needs the yucca moth. “Neither species can survive on a long-term basis without the other. Moth larvae feed only on soapweed seeds and soapweed can only produce seeds if pollinated by yucca moths.”
Free-living soapweed is known to occur in only two populations in southeastern Alberta. A horticultural display at the Etzikom Museum brought this Native American medicinal plant to our attention.
“Walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”
Abruptly, grain fields and rangeland yield to forested terra firma. From the surrounding plains the land rises to the highest point in mainland Canada between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. Cypress Hills is a unique geographical region and an oasis in the midst of the prairie. It’s also an interprovincial park on the Saskatchewan/Alberta border.
Road signs that read “Impassable When Wet” gave us no concern as the land was bone dry with no rain in the forecast. The twists and turns up a steep climb to the rustic campground in the West Block were a surprise. Mid-week late in the season, plenty of grassy sites alongside Battle Creek were available.
After a restful night we continued westward dodging cow dung and the free-roaming cattle around every bend in the road.
On a grassy plateau is “The Survival Tree” a lone lodgepole pine that has been growing for more than 150 years.
The plaque reads: “Living things do their best to stay alive. This lodgepole pine has bent with the wind, been frozen under heavy snows and has been parched in the summer drought. It has also endured mauling by cattle. In 1900, it was even cut down! But today it is still growing, its three branches reaching upward toward light and life.”
It’s a fitting message in this time of pandemic. The sight of Cypress Hills dressed in fall colors soothes the soul.
Once again we find ourselves heading east. Family matters beckon. Harvesting is well underway – a bounty of sugar beets, corn, sunflower seeds and potatoes in southern Alberta. Further east in the grain belt some crops have had their clipper cut. Billowing dust in the distance signal that combines are still busy.
A mellow yellow carpets the land. Bales of every size and shape lay in wait.
Canola and grain crops contrast distinctly as does the sky from day to day when smoke arrives from afar.
Abandoned homesteads and boarded-up shops are common sights.
Much less frequent are wooden grain elevators on the prairie landscape. These landmarks continue to disappear across the horizon. Those still standing pull at our heartstrings.
Within minutes from home, choices for exploration abound. As clear weather was indicated, a trip up Mount Buchanan to view the final full moon of summer was called for. Driving up the 12 kilometer gravel forestry road, it is obvious summer is coming to an end. Fireweed is no longer adorned in fuchsia. Mountain Ash is aflame with colorful berries.
From Buchanan Lookout – Elevation: 1,912 metres (6275 feet) there’s a dream dining room view. As Honey Mustard Chicken simmered we had time to soak up the scenery.
Was cloud moving in or heading east?
As the day progressed, a veil of color masked the peaks.
A dramatic scene appeared in the afterglow of sunset.
Initially obscured by wispy whorls the Corn Moon appeared to join Saturn and Jupiter. Hours later, Kootenay Lake was awash in a silvery glow. Memories have been captured.
No sooner home, friends suggested overnight stealth camping up Rossiter Creek. Christened “The Three Bears” the vehicles made their way 5 kilometers up the forestry road to a somewhat level site with a view and a stream.
Food just tastes better outdoors and storytelling is irresistible around a campfire. Peals of laughter broke the silence under the big starry night sky. Camaraderie was found among this rag-tag troupe.
Venture north of Kaslo and drive Highway 31, one of the few numbered routes in British Columbia that is not fully paved. From Lardeau to Gerrard a former railway grade is followed. The Kootenay & Arrowhead Railway and Sternwheelers on Arrow, Trout and Kootenay Lakes were the lifeline for settlers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Indeed a motorized vehicle was used on this route until the 1950’s.
Today we have the privilege to simply admire the scenery.
And everywhere, mountains and water.
Rocks and trees and water. At the turn of the century these were all obstacles for those in search of gold. It’s a forgotten gold rush and many communities no longer exist. Where Nature hasn’t laid claim, the deeded land has been purchased for seasonal dwellings.
Today we delight in the lakefront campsites that can be found.
As you poke around this region of ghost towns one is reminded how temporary our presence is.
“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower”
Suddenly on our return trip home from Saskatchewan a loud noise disturbed start-up for perhaps 5 seconds. Then signal and flasher lights went on the fritz.
Advised that the indicator problem could be related to the Flasher Unit we set out to find it behind the dashboard on the left side. Looking up next to the clutch pedal a silver box was found with a relay dangling. To blink a few lights, this relay was a most complex set of gear.
Fortunately we have two wizards in town who gladly took up the challenge to problem-solve. They were able to repair a broken trace on the Multipurpose Flasher Relay circuit board.
Their thorough examination revealed a pinched wire to the left tail light. It was also observed that the License Plate light (right side) was completely rusted out. Both of these issues were remedied. Then it was determined that a worn alternator belt was causing the noise. Consequently all belts were replaced. Confident that Tulák was roadworthy we set out on a trip westward.
On the Mission Pass descent the RPM gauge died and dashboard warnings lit up. Confident brakes were okay we carried on; however, in Pemberton Tulák simply wouldn’t start. Equipped with “house” batteries and booster cables we were able to jump-start the mog and return safely home.
The team was reassembled. A multimeter suggested the truck alternator wasn’t charging. Following the advice a comrade on the Mercedes Benz Unimog forum provided, we once again have a working charging system. For all the details check out our post on benzworld .
The road beckoned. An excursion was called for.
Simple pleasures are your reward when you get off the beaten path. Huckleberries and wild strawberries, the aroma of fresh cut hay and an Eagle Air Show teased our senses. And, there are always new landscapes to savor.
As we made our way north along the Deadman River Valley, Castle Rock Hoodoos surprised us.
At a fork in the Deadman Vidette Road, we had to satisfy our curiosity. Some 27 years ago, desperate to get out of Toronto, an ad in Harrowsmith had caught our eye. The Vidette Gold Mine Resort was for sale and advertised to be a great opportunity. What had we missed?
We had no idea that private pasture trails from Vidette and a dusty road would lead us to The Painted Chasm.
Raindrops on the roof were the only disturbance at our night stop on the Big Bar Forest Service Road (FSR). But come morning, the road was muddy.
We pulled over for lunch. Within minutes, the rancher who leased the land and paid for water rights was on the spot. Cattle rustling is alive and well in the Canadian West.
Ranching has been the mainstay for a long time evidenced by old homesteads.
Yes, you’ll see landscapes ravaged by fire but Sagebrush vistas delight the eye as you drive the Jesmond Road.
At Pavilion on Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation Reserve a historic Church built in 1898 stands.
As we rejoin the highway, the mighty Fraser River appears below.
Although there are no major commercial Jade mines near Lillooet today the color of BC’s official gemstone abounds in this area.
Traffic on the Bridge River Road to Moha was nerve-wracking. Only upon our return home did we learn of the advisory issued by BC Hydro.
We spent a quiet night along the Yalakom River at a posted active placer mine.
At the Terzaghi our route took us across the dam and through the tunnel.
The prize for your traverse up and over Mission Pass is views of jewel-toned Seton Lake below.
At Seton Portage you see industry on a different scale. The generating stations and penstocks, part of the Bridge River electricity system operated by BC Hydro are a massive installation.
Disappointed that the Highland Road was closed it was up and over Mission Pass for the second time in one day. Down the washboard road Tulák shook and rattled. But now what’s amiss? The RPM gauge has died and dashboard warnings have lit up. Confident we still had brakes we carried on to Gold Bridge and Bralorne.
From Bralorne we connected with the East Hurley River FSR. At the junction with the West spur we spent the night.
It was music to our ears when Tulák started in the morning. On the descent from Railroad Pass sometimes referred to as Hurley Pass (Elevation: 1385 m – 4544 feet) the scenery was outstanding.
The expanse of Pemberton Meadows below is welcoming.
After re-stocking and a coffee break in Pemberton we were looking forward to a slow backroad journey eastward. But Tulák wouldn’t start. Equipped with “house” batteries and booster cables we were able to jump-start the mog but knew we would have to make tracks for home.
If you have to rely on jump-starting your vehicle you most likely will be denied ferry boarding. A change in route was necessary.
Glimpses of the tailings pond at the Highland Valley Copper Mine near Logan Lake were jolting.
The Coalmont Road to Tulameen was a welcome respite from primary road traffic.
We were back on a familiar route when we connected with Highway 3 from the Old Hedley Road.
Gnarly roads were the order of the day on this trip of 1,760 kilometers and were encountered both on and off the pavement – hair pin curves, switchbacks, blind corners, a single lane for 2-way traffic. With grades from 6 to 14% we were grateful for a reliable engine exhaust brake.
Now it’s time to sort some gremlins in the electrics.
With open arms, the Prairies soothe the soul. Their vast expanse of horizon and big sky calm the nerves. One tends to slow down. But when you reach the mountains, the urge to know what’s on the other side hastens you to accelerate. Although we were on our way home, a side trip was in order.
Following a quiet night in the Frank Slide Interpretive Center parking lot we made our way to Fernie. After consulting a local and securing a Backroads map book we drove to Morrissey at which point we departed the asphalt and took to Forest Service Roads (FSR).
Without a radio we wouldn’t be able to follow FSR radio protocol. We’d have to confine ourselves to areas without active logging. A small, partially treed site on the Wigwam River was our destination. The route took us through the Elk Valley Conservation Area and provided great views of Mount Broadwood and the Wigwam, a world-class fly-fishing river deep in the backcountry.
The Ram-Wigwam Creek rec site was exclusively ours for the night. The next decision? Do we buy a two-way radio?
Abandoned in Saskatchewan for over a year, it was necessary and time to retrieve Tulák. Departing “The Hazy” we were thankful for family and grateful to be back on the road.
To return home, we would travel just over 1,900 kilometers. Our solitary route would be off the beaten path but we would not be alone. Each day brought wildlife sightings – pronghorn, deer (both Mule and White-tailed), coyote, fox, badger, hawk, eagle and dare-devil gophers. We would travel through waterfowl habitat where ducks and geese cruise the sloughs while a heron stands sentry. The silence would only be disturbed by crickets and songbirds.
Unimpeded we explored the Poplar River Mine just outside of Coronach, Saskatchewan. The dragline is used to remove the overburden and expose the coal seam. This was heavy duty machinery.
Over the crest of a hill just beyond Coronach, for as far as the eye can see, a ribbon of shiny new, black railcars comes into view. The dramatic drop in global oil demand has the industry scrambling to find ways to store product until demand returns. As the western provinces have little in the way of excess storage capacity they’ve resorted to using oil railcars. At a dollar a day per car in storage fees, how can this be economically viable?
As we zigzagged our way across Southern Saskatchewan and Alberta we were to follow routes used by First Nations, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), outlaws and settlers. These secondary roads that hug the 49th parallel are lined with abandoned rails beds and reclaimed ghost towns the sight of which triggers thoughts on pioneers and dashed dreams.
History lessons are to be experienced. Del Bonita “of the pretty”is situated in an area once claimed as Spanish territory. It was considered a most desirable area for homesteading. Indeed, it was here in 1912 that the last great land rush in Alberta took place.
Thousands of years ago as the glaciers that once covered Canada retreated, a ridge was formed. A gap in the Milk River Ridge was to become a notorious smuggler’s rendezvous point.
Straddling the Milk River, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Great Plains. Battle Scene , a significant petroglyph site is the gem. The park also showcases a NWMP outpost reconstructed on its original site.
Until you have travelled the Prairies in June, you don’t know the color of life. Fields have a green hue, at times leaning toward blue dependent on their crop – wheat, pulses (lentils, dry peas, beans and chickpeas), barley or oats.
A canola field startles the eye as does a yellow-ringed slough.
Caragana bushes are profuse on the prairie landscape. After the Great Depression, these bushes were introduced to the west to be used as windbreaks. Although new soil management techniques like no-till farming have made shelterbelts seem obsolete there are still many to be seen.
Nature is the artist and her palette runs the gamut. Sage and Prairie Rose set the scene.
Swaths of color bathe the rangeland. Sometimes fragile and diminutive, these blooms often require you to sprawl on the ground.
At times the land is blanketed in color.
But it is Cacti that takes the prize this trip. Both the Plains Prickly Pear and Pincushion were in bloom.
When driving the Trans Canada across the Prairies you could be convinced to join the Flat Earth Society. But traverse the road less travelled and a host of landscapes will dispel the myth that the Prairies are boring. Just past The Dirt Hills and over a rise you enter the Big Muddy Valley. Castle Butte looms ahead.
Haunted by our 2019 memories of the West Block – Grasslands National Park we were lured to visit the East Block, a Badlands landscape.
We were in rattlesnake territory when we spent the night at the 70 Mile and Eagle Butte trailhead in the West Block.
Captivated by the wide-open plain we explored Old Man on His Back . Alone on this vast property the opportunity to commune with Nature was ours. An encounter with Plains Bison was our reward.
From Old Man on His Back in the Milk River Basin we drove west in search of the river. Sweeping views of the Sweet Grass Hills to the south are seen for miles.
At a Milk River canoe access point we made camp.
Further west, abruptly the Great Plains meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Majestic Chief Mountain is most prominent. Although our sojourn on the Prairies was over its images are imprinted forever. The Prairies, where morning and evening sun bathes the horizon in vivid flaming color. The Prairies, where a rippling sea of grasses is mesmerizing. The Prairies, where in its good moments one is tempted to return.
“With open eyes, beauty resides in the scrubbiest of places, in the thickest of overgrown weeds, in the way the warm embrace of glowing sunlight softens long-gone blooms and coddles the ones arising new.” Miriam Halliday
First it was an electrical issue. Following the heart attack Laddie needed a pacemaker. Then a leaky valve cancelled our trip to retrieve Tulák in Saskatchewan. Further tests revealed a triple bypass was in order. Needless to say Laddie’s open-heart surgery has stalled our travels.
Laddie is on the mend. Tulák is in storage. And we’re hoping to be back on the road in 2020.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.”
Our journey through the Badlands, Sandhills and Grasslands to Esterhazy, Saskatchewan had been relaxing and gratifying. Settled in to care for his mom Laddie passed the time with Tulák. The small water leak below the sink was easily repaired. Quick connect fittings for the air lines were installed. He was making progress until he came down with what he thought was a stomach flu.
Three days later Laddie had his brother-in-law take him to the hospital. What Laddie assumed to be stomach flu had been a heart attack. Laddie is in good hands at the Regina General Hospital. Tulák has been moved to our niece’s farm for safe-keeping.
A redirection, but …………….…
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
words by Lao Tzo
Although there’s no traffic on these back roads you’re not alone. And you’re being watched.
It is the red-winged blackbird that guards the Red Coat Trail these days.
Eastend, Saskatchewan began as the most eastern North West Mounted Police (NWMP) detachment from Fort Walsh and was the east end of their patrol. Today it is home to the fossil remains of the Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed “Scotty” which was found nearby.
As we approach the West Block of Grasslands National Park 70 Mile Butte looms in the distance. A four kilometre hike takes you to a 100-metre-tall hilltop and a lookout over the French River Valley.
The views at the summit are not the only reward along this front-country hike.
Prairie dogs would be visible until you motioned to take a photo of their colony. Gophers weren’t as shy.
To view bison graze at dusk was a spiritual experience but was captured only in our memory.
The solitude of the grasslands shall haunt us.
East of Dinosaur Provincial Park, the land transitions. Dressed for the occasion, coyote are well camouflaged.
Tumbleweed congregates in the ditch along the fence line. Rolling prairie leads us to a peaceful campsite alongside the Red Deer River.
A bump in the road signals you’ve crossed the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Gravel replaces pavement. Now, there’s one more river to cross.
The seasonal Estuary ferry transports us across the South Saskatchewan River.
Pronghorn, known informally in North America as antelope and mule deer roam the fields.
Signage to the Great Sandhills was lacking so we turned into a farm yard. The owner is accustomed to providing directions and sent us on our way after showing us his wolves. He has a breeding pair with ten pups in a licensed, inspected pen littered with cattle carcasses in various states of decomposition.
Active sand dunes cover a relatively small portion of the Sandhills which have a long history in ranching. Cattle continue to graze on the stabilized sand. The vastness of this landscape astonishes and its fragile beauty delights.
Travelling east, dandelions carpeted the slopes along the all too familiar Crowsnest Highway #3. Anxious to leave the familiar, just past Fort MacLeod, Alberta we headed north. The smell of cow manure permeated the air. We had entered feedlot country.
In Brooks, Alberta we were in for a surprise. Today, it is jobs at one of Canada’s largest meatpacking plants that bring migrants from all corners of the globe. One hundred years ago it was the promise of water that lured immigrants to the land.
The Brooks Aqueduct was built between 1912 and 1914 as part of an irrigation system to provide water to the arid farmlands of southeastern Alberta. It is an enormous engineered concrete structure, 20 meters high.
What did the pioneers think when they arrived given the spareness of this land?
To the northeast Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site protects the largest section of badlands in Canada.
It was here we came to understand the word ‘coulee’ – a derivative from the French verb ‘couler’ which means ‘to flow.’ Often dry, coulees are the products of intense erosion by water. These Badlands continue to be sculpted by wind and water revealing color, texture, form and fossils.
We had crossed the Oldman and Bow rivers over the course of this day. It would be to the banks of the Red Deer River that we would now travel.
Fresh, verdant hues colored our Kootenay highway route initially. As we moved into the dry south Okanagan we were delighted to see bouquets of Arrowleaf Balsamroot everywhere the eye wandered.
This member of the sunflower tribe was new to us and we marveled at its abundance.
Onward to Langley, the floral parade now marched in pinks and purples as Azaleas and Rhododendrons strut their stuff. Vast fields of high bush blueberries spread across the Fraser Valley.
Free evening accommodation was available at BC Recreation Sites. West of Rock Creek, Jolly Creek, a grassy site in a tight valley was quiet and dark.
At the Dewdney (Princeton) site on the Similkameen River evidence of the hand laid retaining wall of the historic Dewdney Trail could be seen.
The N’kwala (Merritt) site located beside the Nicola River had us back in Ponderosa Pine territory.
The whining and whistling of semis and trains through the Fraser Canyon didn’t impede Anne’s sleep at the Yale Rest Area alongside the Trans Canada highway.
Vestiges of the past gave us time to reflect on those who came before.
The proprietor at the Vulture Garage had quite the collection but his pride and joy was a bucket dragster.
But it is the hillsides of Arrowleaf Balsamroot and Ponderosa Pine that will be etched into our memory.
Suspecting a leak in the left front axle/hub reduction we attended Hans’ shop. After a thorough wash of the area and a road test there was no sign of an oil leak. The left front wheel was removed and the hub reduction and axle area was thoroughly cleaned of oil and excess grease from the king pins. The boot at the transfer case to the front torque tube was inspected and found to have some oil inside. The front diff was also found to be over full. The decision was made to change all the fluids in the hubs, axles and transmission.
Headlights were adjusted and two air-line fitting adapters to allow the installation of quick couplers for air tools or air lines were made. A full brake fluid flush and tire rotation including the spare tire was also undertaken.
40 kilometers later when stopped to refuel, the leak had re-appeared on the left front hub. We returned to the shop. The leak could now be pinpointed to the outer seal on the hub reduction at the front axle.
All seals in the axle and hub reduction were replaced.
Seven hours later we’re back on the road.
Finding new batteries for Tulák took time and some research on-line. Scott Ingham at Expedition Imports in Vallejo, California was most helpful. He led us to Napa!
After a quick trip to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho and an easy border crossing we were home with two new lead-acid batteries that fit the Unimog battery tray perfectly.
We’d always intended to install a battery cut-off switch for the “house” batteries but somehow had overlooked it. A Blue Sea model with a simple ON/OFF switch for a single circuit met our needs. Tucked up behind the house “Lifeline” batteries the switch is a great safety device enabling work on the “house” system.
Next up? It’s time to get the differential leak fixed.
Laddie’s left hip replacement has had better results – a smaller incision and for now less pain than he experienced on the right side. It’s time to rest, heal and recover so we can boogie with Tulák. The leak in the differential is on hold until Laddie mends.
There’s more than one good reason to stop at a scenic pull-out along the Oregon Coast. During a walk-around to visually check the truck, Laddie noticed some oil. He kept the news from Anne until the next morning when he announced “Anne, we have a problem.”
A leak from the front differential is suspected. Not knowing neither the severity of the problem nor the availability of parts and service during the holiday season, the decision was made to return home. Disappointed? You bet. Lessons learned? Yes sir.
The trip did give us the opportunity to observe what works and what needs tweaking. Over the 6 days travelling 2,675 kilometers we saw some incredibly diverse landscapes.
- Desolate volcanic rock & dry sagebrush country
- Yakima Canyon where eagles soar
- White Pass snow and ski belt
- Oregon Coast sand dunes
- A dark forest where lichen-laden tree limbs look like reindeer antlers
- Hawks stand watch in a broad and green “Valley of grasses”
- Hillside orchards and vineyards for as far as the eye can see
- Columbia River gorge where nature has chiseled and sculpted the route
We also learned a new word – “dalles” – the rapids of a river running between the walls of a canyon or gorge. This land that Lewis & Clarke and David Thompson travelled 200 years ago is awe inspiring country.
“It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
“Inveniemus viam aut faciemus”
Governed by Hannibal’s quotation (“We will find the way or we will make it”) the transformation from ambulance to camper is complete – for now at least, until experience during our trial run indicates modifications are in order.
Accompanied by our mascot, the Good Soldier Švejk we’re headed to Independence, California and wherever else the road takes us over the next four months. We’re southbound for some warmth.
After testing a Mr. Buddy heater we realized this type of catalytic heater would give us condensation issues. At the other end of the price spectrum a diesel heater would have been ideal but was eliminated given its difficult installation. To drill for a fuel standpipe, you’d have to drop the diesel tank. Without a shop, this job just wasn’t doable in the back lane during a Canadian winter.
So when you have a problem, talk about it to everybody. It was during one of these chance discussions that an alternative came to light – the Propex HS2000 – a propane, thermostatically controlled, blown-air heater.
With forced air combustion and a two stage stainless steel heat-exchanger, this heater is touted to be a clean and highly efficient way to heat a camper. As it exhausts all products of combustion externally there’s no carbon monoxide and no moisture in the “house.” As cabin air is re-circulated instead of using cold air from outside the heater’s efficiency is improved. They’re also apparently very efficient on electrical current consumption.
Propex Air Heaters Canada had a 24 volt version in stock so the order was placed. About the size of a shoe box, the heater will be installed inside one of the dinette seats.
Go to it Laddie! With help from Tony at Alpenglow RV Services the job was completed without any leaks.
With a turn of the thermostat dial we have heat. Now, we’re good to go south.
With the driver’s side storage unit in place, fitting the seats and table for our dinette was the next challenge. The pieces came together well. There’s great storage under the dinette seats.
Laddie’s “shoe” for the table leg will keep it secure while underway. The tabletop can be lowered to create a lounge area. In fact, Anne’s so short she could sleep here.
Custom cushions from Wheeler’s Upholstery complete the job.
Two water tanks store 220 liters (48 gallons) of potable water under the bed platform. Fill connections are accessed from the side door.
To fill the tanks, a drinking water-safe hose with an in-line 100 micron filter will be used. The filter will reduce bad taste, odors, chlorine and sediment in the water going into the tanks and should also help prevent bacteria growth in the tanks. As the tanks can be filled independently, in the event a water source is questionable we’ll only fill one tank so that any contamination is isolated to one tank.
At the galley sink, water is pulled from the tanks with the use of a foot pump.
All drinking water will be purified on a daily basis using the MSR Guardian water filter. “Grey” water from the sink goes directly into a canister below.
The galley is good to go.
For simplicity we opted for a non-pressurized system and no hot water. What are we to do for a shower? Well, we’re going to give this portable camp shower a whirl.
Our first decision was to use the on-board 24 volt system in the “house”. A second independent alternator was fitted for charging two Lifeline deep cycle “house” batteries exclusively. Joined in series, these 12 volt batteries will produce 24 volts with a total 100 amp capacity for the “house”. Mounted on a sliding tray they’re accessible from the side door for servicing.
The first junction in our electrical layout is a bus bar which transmits power from the the batteries to the fixtures.
Our needs are basic: lights and ventilation fans. Some of our “appliances” don’t have switches and require a distribution panel. The first line from the bus bar goes to this 6-gang distribution panel that has in-line fuses.
From this panel, using the rocker switches we’ll control two muffin fans and the pre-existing ceiling light/ventilation fan. Bonus – the panel also includes two USB ports, a 12V DC socket and a voltage readout.
Other “appliances” including two LED cabin tube lights, a gimballed cabin fan and a LED goose-neck reading light have built-in switches. From the bus bar, the second line goes to a fuse block. From the fuse block, lines go to each of these “appliances”.
Charging 110V appliances such as a camera, laptop and flashlight batteries demanded our electrical layout include a pure sine wave inverter.
The inverter, directly connected to the house batteries is also grounded to the vehicle chassis. This 350 watt inverter won’t handle the load a toaster requires but it’s more than adequately sized to meet our needs.
For safety and to keep wiring tidy, surface conduits are used throughout the “house”.
With a great deal of help from our friend Steve, the electrician we can see light at the end of the tunnel.
The existing stairs at the rear of the mog were not adequate for safe entry and exit. The first step was too high off the ground for us short-legged folk and the treads were very narrow. Wider custom treads were welded in such a fashion that the unit still retracted.
Next we had to overcome the distance of 24 inches from the ground up to the existing stairs. As both weight and stow-ability were concerns, it took some time and on-line research to find the right solution.
The Hailo “Mini-Comfort” was made for the Mog. It very conveniently stows inside the mog’s rear door recess. It’s lightweight and has two large aluminum steps with non-slip ribbing for support.
To lend-a-hand, a folding assist rail was installed on the bulkhead.
Now we can enter and exit “the house” with confidence!
The width of the ambulance box provided an opportunity for storage together with the dinette opposite the galley. On the driver’s side, from the bed bulkhead to the back door it’s 64 ½” long and 12” deep. From the floor it rises up to the “crease” in the ambulance ceiling to 54 3/4″ in height.
This space was divided into three levels. The bottom level (the garage) is accessible when the rear doors are open. Long bulky items such as our folding camp table and chairs will be stored here. The “crane” for the spare tire also fits.
Since the dinette bench seats will butt up against this storage unit and the table will be affixed to its center, access to the next level had to be unique. We settled on open access holes. If necessary cargo nets can be used to restrain the contents.
The upper level has doors on hinges and are self-supporting in the open position with some skookum struts.
Here again surface bolts are used to secure the cupboard doors while under-way.
Next up – the dinette.
Our galley is very basic. No oven, no micro-wave, no toaster. We’ll cook on a propane 2-burner stove.
In our research we came across a product designed in Sweden called the Omnia Stove-Top Oven. Also known as a “Wonder Pot” it’s for baking without a conventional oven. So we ordered one from Sea Dog Boating Solutions
Our first attempt was to follow the recipe for Thyme Bread included with the unit.
The silicone liner inside the pan was prepared with pan release and sesame seeds. The dough was mixed by hand in a simple bowl and shaped to fit. After rising for an hour it was placed on the stove top.
For our first trial we were impressed. And our taste buds agreed. This is going to work.
Voilà – it will also roast chicken thighs.
Bottom line: The Omnia stove-top oven is small, light and easy to use.
Our galley will be very basic. From the bed bulkhead to the rear door we only have 64 ½” to work with. A good-sized sink was considered essential. As well, space had to be dedicated for the stowage of several items:
- a 2-burner propane stove
- water canisters, a cooler
- and the foot pump for water.
Storage space for food items and kitchen utensils was also on the list. And where would the porta-potti go? Check out the high-end casters on the throne’s dolly/cart.
The day the counter-top was fitted the galley started to take shape.
With plumbing hoses and valves installed behind, the essentials fit. A modest galley to be sure but we hope to be cooking and dining outside a good deal of the time.
A full-size spare isn’t the problem. Getting the spare stowed on a carrier has been the challenge. As we live in a somewhat remote area finding a welder with a shop and materials took some time.
Reinforcing steel plates are in place.
Hinges and latches were readily available on-line. So now Laddie is off to Trail BC where a welder with a great reputation has agreed to do the job.
After two days Laddie’s plan was executed with minor tweaks and we’ve got ourselves a swing-away tire carrier and crane. Thanks to Ronnie and the staff at XL Quality Industrial Services Inc in Trail, British Columbia for a job well done.
A method of raising and lowering the tire will be the next decision to make. Block & tackle? A come-along or manual hand winch? Chain hoist? Decisions, decisions ………….
Every inch inside Tulák counts. Since we’re relatively small people we decided a standard double-size bed (54” x 75”) could work for us.
Now that the bed platform is complete, it’s time for the first layer on the plywood – HyperVent
When we sleep we exhale water vapor. In fact one person asleep adds a cup of water to the air overnight. This moisture from expelled breathing causes condensation. The colder it is outside, the more condensation inside. If the condensation can’t evaporate it may lead to mold or mildew. HyperVent, a special 3/4″ material that will not compress elevates the mattress so air is able to circulate under. This circulating air promotes the evaporation of any moisture. Boaters and RV’ers attest to its effectiveness in preventing mold under mattresses.
For the mattress we opted for two layers – a 6” high resilience (HR) foam and a 2” latex topper. HR foam is the highest grade of poly foam available. The on-line Canadian supplier we chose to buy from states that HR foam contains a rubber compound that gives the mattress a gentle bounce and superior support. Since there will be some storage space under the bed platform that is only accessible by removing the mattress we had the supplier cut this 6” HR layer into two sections lengthwise.
For additional comfort we selected a 2” Organic Dunlop Latex topper that contains no synthetic rubber or any harmful chemicals.
Upon arrival the mattress layers were assembled in our living room. We can report that there was no off-gassing odors. We can also say we were both very pleasantly surprised at the comfort and support these two layers provide. Best of all, measurements were right on. Everything fits inside Tulák.
Now it’s time for a road test. We’re off on an overnight sleepover. For those of you not from our neck of the woods check out our destination: Glacier Creek Regional Park
An additional diesel tank was fitted in the space where the spare tyre is typically stowed on the Unimog 1300. Where to put the massive R20 spare?
Since our mog cab roof was fitted with a hatch, we ruled out that space. Anything mounted to the front bumper would impede the view. A swing-away tyre carrier on the rear would be the only solution for us. It was to become a daunting project that was the source of many sleepless nights for Laddie.
The construction of the ambulance side wall had to be uncovered so that attachment points could be determined. Then a plan could be devised.
Once a welder was located the initial task to affix 3/8″ steel plates was completed.
Now that interior wall could be closed in and work on the galley could proceed. Yahoo.
“The most memorable days usually end with the dirtiest clothes.”
So how will we tackle laundry while overlanding?
- Wash Bucket approach – A bucket with a lid that Tulak will ‘agitate’ while underway will be our first approach. Our trial run on Tuesday to Nelson worked wonders for underwear and socks.
- The coin-operated procedure – If coin-op shops are available we’ll use them for sheets, towels and larger items.
- The Laundry Lady – In the past when we traveled in both Costa Rica and Ecuador laundry service provided by a local entrepreneur worked well. Items were bagged and weighed to calculate the price which was most reasonable in both countries. A couple of hours later we arrived to pick up our clothes – washed, dried and folded.
Storage of potable water was Job #1 for Laddie inside the ‘house’. Plumbing will be basic as we have settled for a cold water, non-pressurized system. As we wanted the weight of water as far forward as possible the bench had to go. A zip cutter and hours on the knees got the job done.
This project relies heavily on CAD (cardboard-assisted design). A mock-up of the water tanks demonstrated that we had a problem with the floor.
The frame of the former bench had to go. A gaping hole in the floor was fixed with an aluminum plate and a sub-floor.
Two water tanks to provide us with 220 liters of potable water were ordered. Now the challenge was to figure out the fittings.
As a precaution a ‘water box’ was constructed to surround the tanks and plumbing fittings. If anything ruptures or leaks, the damage will be contained inside this box. The box is fitted with a drain. To keep creepy-crawlers out it has a cap.
Wall boards, varnish and paint do wonders.
And now the beginnings of the bed platform.
“Sealed to the inside of the cabin and vented to the outside”
Which necessitates the construction of a compartment gas-tight to the interior of the living box.
Job # 1 – a compartment, accessible only from and vented to the outside that we can access by way of the side door of the ambulance.
Or so we thought.
When we spoke with propane specialists they were more than hesitant and reluctant – suppliers wouldn’t even sell them a thru-hull fitting which is what would be required to do the job safely.
When our dilemma was presented to a friend he took one look at the situation and presented us a solution. Mount the propane cylinder on the outside of the vehicle. But where?
Thereby the paradigm shift. What we had always seen as a cavity to mount two diesel jerry cans, he saw as the ideal place for a propane locker. On second thought rather than sacrifice the jerry cans, let’s ditch the small storage box on the rear passenger side.
So now it’s off to Alfab Manufacturing in Nelson, BC. Their aluminum dry box custom-fit to our exterior cavity will become the ideal propane locker. Voila!
Yes we know we’ve sacrificed departure angle for propane safety but we’re confident that was the right choice.
“Usually, the main problem with life conundrums is that
we don’t bring to them enough imagination.”
What’s under the attendant’s seat?
A massive over-sized military spec diesel heater that we heard was very loud and overkill for our purposes. So we had it removed.
Initially to remove the heater box we chose to cut it with a Zip-cutter.
What now remains though is a rough edge and uneven floor.
It’s time to re-think. And, get the box out.
Now look what we’re left with?
Solution: have an aluminum ‘fix’ fabricated by a professional.
“If you find a path with no obstacles,
it probably doesn’t lead anywhere interesting.”
Frank A. Clark
Finally through the hoops and over the hurdles, Tulák got his British Columbia license plates today. It’s been a frustrating month being parked in bureaucracy’s ‘No-Man’s Land’ but at long last Tulák is licensed for the road.
As we begin the transformation of the ambulance box to our mog- based living quarters we want to credit the folks at Tern Overland for giving our heads a shake. Coming across their website and communicating with David was a godsend.
“Among our core principles is the belief that the greatest luxuries are the ones you don’t have to carry, the systems you don’t have to maintain, and the widgets you don’t have to keep track of. Travel light, travel small, and feel the freedom it brings!”
Overall objectives for our project:
- Durable, efficient, reliable, user friendly
- Critical devices have a back-up option
- Technical areas made readily and easily accessible for repairs and maintenance
- Weights and dimensions should be suited to carry our living box and equipment without being pushed to the limit.
- Optimal balance of weight distribution
Unlike many expedition campers ours will not feature electronics or many gadgets. It’s back to basics and simplicity with a focus on necessity. With the actual ambulance box on hand it’s time to deal with the stretchers.
Why bother disassembling when you’ve got a friend with a fork-lift?
Now we can obtain accurate measurements.
The morning we first saw Tulák parked beside the Atkinson Vos workshop was memorable. We were no longer dreaming.
The week in Britain was most satisfying as we enjoyed the pleasant aspects of its rural landscape and country life.
Following a week of getting to know Tulák we had to leave, trusting a safe passage would be had for our mog.
Tulák was loaded for transport to the Port of Liverpool where it boarded the Atlantic Star, a unique kind of ship in that it carries both containers and roll-on, roll-off cargo.
As we enjoyed the sun and sights of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands we monitored the ship’s progress across the Atlantic Ocean through on-line marine traffic tracking intelligence.
Upon our return to Canada we immediately introduced ourselves to the Customs Brokerage firm Cole International in Halifax, Nova Scotia who was handling our vehicle’s entry into Canada. Incredibly Tulák cleared Canadian Customs within an hour of its arrival and was available for pickup. A 24-hour permit to drive Tulák from the port to a licensed inspection facility was secured. Now we had to be patient and await the news. Did our mog comply with Canadian regulations?
The folks at Nova Truck Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia undertook the inspection and gave Tulák the all clear signal. Now a 30-day permit to drive Tulák across Canada had to be obtained. The bureaucracy was daunting and we were most relieved when the document was in-hand. Our adventure with Tulák in Canada was about to begin.
After 5,855 kilometers we can report that Tulák has exceeded our expectations. The ride is comfortable and it handles the road very well.
Understand that this entire project, from the purchase of the vehicle to every reservation and appointment, was secured over the Internet. Only then can you appreciate the wonderful people who helped make this happen. Our grateful thanks to:
Simon, Emma, Paul, Mark, Shaun, Frank and the team at Atkinson Vos
Glenn, Ken and Debbi-Jo at Cole International
Laurie, Paul and the folks at Nova Truck Centre
“Take a detour. Discover small towns and friendly faces that don’t grow along the highway.” ― Khang Kijarro Nguyen
We’re off to check out Tulák and bring him home. Tulák – that’s what we’ve named the mog. It’s Czech for “wanderer” or “vagabond”.
We fly to London, England and then it’s a 5-hour train trip to the small village of Bentham and the Atkinson Vos workshop.
Laddie has been studying the Unimog Owner’s Handbook and is taking shop coveralls. He plans on getting dirty.
Following a week of getting to know the mog, Tulák is scheduled to be shipped RORO (roll on roll off) to the port of Halifax. After a fling in the Canary Islands we’ll fly from London to Halifax.
Hopefully Tulák will clear Canadian Customs without any hiccups so we can begin the long, slow journey home – a distance of 5,230 kilometers. With luck Mother Nature cooperates and the last of winter won’t be too brutal for crossing the Canadian Shield.
“n’allez pas trop vite”
“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.”
― Alain de Botton, How Proust can change your life
P.S. Another Czech mate – Ondřej Sekora the artist who created “Ferda Mravenec” – Fred the Ant and “Beruška” – Betsy graces our blog.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The dining room has become our situation room. Laddie is using his drafting skills and the eraser quite frequently these days. As we begin to specify our living box plan in more detail there are challenges to overcome.
Once the propane tanks, water tanks and batteries are placed under the bed there will be some valuable storage space. Milk crates may be the cheapest solution. They’re ideal. Ventilation won’t be an issue for items stored inside them.
Gourmet meals won’t be in the cards but we will have a 2-burner propane stove and sink. Since we intend to purchase marine quality fixtures we may be shopping on-line from sources in the USA.
Keeping things simple we’ve eliminated a grey water tank from our plan. Water will drain from the sink directly into a durable military grade water can.
We’ve also decided that we won’t have a pressurized water system. This eliminated the need for a water pump but called into question the type of water filtration system to use. Luckily a friend mentioned MSR for pump-free freedom. Their Guardian portable water purifier is a true game changer that makes almost any questionable water source safe to drink. It removes viruses, bacteria, and protozoa.
From our sailing days we’re familiar with foot pumps in the galley. The Guzzler® Foot Lever Pump will meet our needs. Laddie even thinks it could be used to shower. He’d be inside pumping away while I’m outside in the tepid water spray.
Fortunately we can rely on a local source for upholstered cushions and a custom-size mattress. Wheelers Classic Upholstery in Nelson, BC do great quality work. To calculate the size of back cushions for the dinette Laddie improvised a mock-up.
But he’s getting anxious. “It’s hard to be in no-man’s land.” We need accurate interior dimensions. The count-down has begun – two weeks till the adventure begins.
Tulák is back from the paint shop and is looking great. The body has been cleaned up from all military attachments and we’re happy with our color choice.
Atkinson Vos has made progress with the retrofits. The second diesel tank is installed on the driver’s side.
Given the install of a heavy duty radiator for better cooling a new hood and grill had to be fitted.
It’s coming together.
It was thrilling to see the SOLD sign go up on the Atkinson Vos website. Our deposit had arrived and work on the vehicle could commence.
It’s easiest to import a vehicle into Canada from Europe when the vehicle is more than 15 years old. Ours is a 1990 model so no problem meeting that requirement. If modified they’re still considered admissible for importation as “age-exempt” when they’ve undergone regular maintenance, been equipped with replacement parts, or been newly painted for example. Rebuilds/restorations should also maintain the older vehicle’s original characteristics.
So what’s to be done to our Unimog ambulance? Our Direct German army Mercedes Benz U1300L with OM366A turbo engine & fast axles will have the chassis steam-cleaned and painted black with both the exterior and interior cab repainted. Here’s the color we’ve selected for the new paint job – RAL 1015 Light Ivory.
Included with the vehicle: snorkel, 2nd vehicle battery, rear stabiliser, ether help start, compressed air line outlets, and chassis mounted jerry can holders. Other upgrades we have commissioned include:
- Heavy duty Radiator for better cooling
- 2 diesel fuel tanks (original and an additional aluminum tank) piped separately to avoid fuel contamination
- Air sprung seats
- Engine hour clock in dash
- Intercooler kit fitted
- Uprated primary and second alternators (100 amps)
- Soundproofing cab trim kit
- Sound deadening engine blanket
- Headlight protection grilles
- Venting system for hubs
- Stainless steel exhaust
- Aluminum storage box
- Exhaust brake
- Water separator on the fuel line with the military pressurizing system disabled
- 5 NEW Mitas MPT20 365/80R20 tyres
To ensure the vehicle passes the BC Vehicle Inspection Atkinson Vos will wire the standard lights to come on low beam with the ignition, remove the military switch and replace it with a simple rocker switch so that the vehicle can idle with the lights off. Mud flaps are also being installed.
Since this is a diesel vehicle and we may encounter cold climates or high altitudes we’ve also commissioned the installation of a Webasto engine pre-warmer. Before the vehicle is started, the heater warms the engine to the correct fuel-saving operating temperature.
Can’t wait to see all the pieces come together.
But what’s to be done with the stretchers? Stay tuned!
A deposit was wire-transferred so it’s official.
Anne and Laddie have been mogged by a Mercedes Benz Unimog 1300L. It’s a 1990 model with just over 41,000 kilometers. After this former German army ambulance has had some of its military stuff decommissioned, some parts will be upgraded and a full repaint will complete the job.
Now how did we ever land up here?
When we realized we weren’t ready to part with some of our cashable assets we had to revise our budget. At about the same time we happened across the folks at Tern Overland who are into minimalist travel. They inspired us to reconsider some of our wants and needs. The ambulance box is also smaller than our original cabin plans so it was back to the drawing board.
We’re comforted to know that we’re not alone. There are other people out there overlanding with an ambulance box. We gained confidence in our scheme and took ideas from Ubelix. Now we’ve got ourselves a retirement project!