2017 Summer Trip Countdown

The 2017 Summer Trip is just around the corner. I feel a bit more prepared this year compared to the past. Attempting to learn and improve, I have made the following changes with the preparation this year:

(1) Not waiting until the last minute to pack. My clothes duffel is practically complete. I’ve picked through the large storage areas under the main bed and the bunks, getting rid of items not needed. Hitch up and ready to go.

(2) Doing campsite research ahead of time and then being ready to make reservations when sites are first available. Camping at a national park campground is almost always preferable. The price is right and the location puts you near where you want to be. When making a campground reservation you need to know what sites can fit your RV (the smaller the RV, the more sites that are available). Using Google Maps for a bit of reconnaissance helps me take the campground map and figure out which site will work best. Come reservation time, you need to be ready. Most national park’s book their campsites 6 months out… to the day. Usually the reservation window opens at 10am eastern and if you want that dream campsite on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, then you need to click the book button at exactly 10am.

(3) I took a course in how to offroad using my 4 wheel drive. I have an offroad capable vehicle but have been hesitant to go on the national park’s 4×4 roads because of my lack of knowledge. A few weeks back, Sarah and I headed to a offroad park for a 4×4 101 class. I was able to learn about all the capabilities of my vehicle as well as my limitations as a driver. I was amazed at the terrain that my vehicle could handle and feel much more confident in adventuring on 4×4 roads in the national parks.

(4) Pre-execution checks. Maintenance at the RV dealership where I purchased my travel trailer is becoming problematic. They have proved themselves untrustworthy with their ability to do basic tasks, despite my willingness to pay for it. I have to start doing most the maintenance myself. Before the big trip, I was able to take the trailer on a few weekend camping trips to make sure everything is working.

(5) Less books. I read all the time. On past trips, I’ve packed a milk crate worth of hardcover books. Piles of guide books had surround my bed. Christa said, “Why don’t you use your Kindle?” Besides the fact that I prefer the advantages of a hardcover book (no power required, easy to bookmark, highly portable). Well, I’m going Kindle for this summer. That should easily save about 25lbs of weight and space.

(6) Bluetooth adapter for travel trailer sound system. I saw a recommendations for a bluetooth adapter to connect an iPod to a trailer’s sound system. In the past I have used a simple patch cable. That was often a pain due to the case my iPod is in, it was hard to get the plug seated properly. Then I relied on a playlist shuffle and preset volume to carry the day. Now with the bluetooth adapter I can keep the iPod with me and adjust what is playing on the fly. The only downside is the battery life of the bluetooth adapter. When it runs out of juice, your done.

(7) Practice cooking. Easily one of my biggest summer trip failings is my inability to throw together decent dinners. Usually it will not take much to convince me to make dinner plans at the national park’s dining concessions. I consistently underestimate the time involved in dinner meal preparation. Therefore, I have been trying to practice cooking some basic dinner meals that I will be able to reproduce while at the campsite.

Backyard Astronomer

I am a Newbie 1st Class, still trying to make my way around the telescope without bumping the tripod. I’ve always been interested in astronomy. When I was in grade school I used to get a magazine called Odyssey. This was when the Space Shuttle was new and everyone used to gather around the TV to watch the launch. We had a planetarium at my local junior college (DeAnza in Cupertino, CA) which offered summer courses in astronomy. My first merit badge I ever earned was the Astronomy Merit Badge while attending Camp Hi-Sierra. At Camp Oljato (on Huntington Lake, CA), we would take a barge out to the middle of the lake at night, point out stars using a Q-Beam flashlight, and tell the mythical stories behind the constellations. That’s really as far as I ever got in the hobby.

Thirty years later, a new career in teaching elementary school allows me to spend my summer traveling and camping in our National Parks. I started buying books like Night Sky: A Field Guide to the Constellations, Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets, and Constellations, and Glow-in-the-Dark Constellations to read with my daughters. While at Zion National Park, we attended a ranger-led evening program about the night sky. The ranger pointed out that Jupiter was right over there… and there was Mars. While at Yellowstone, I’d marvel at the Milky Way filling the sky. Rangers at Devils Tower told us of the Kiowa story about how the rising rock transported the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades, up into the night sky.

I took the plunge and bought a Celestron 8se. My first weekend in the backyard allowed me to share the Moon with my family. Lots of “ooh” and “ahs”. I figured out quickly what everyone on the Beginner Forum was talking about when they said you couldn’t rely on just using the AA batteries in the base of the telescope. Aligning the finder scope went smoothly. Using the StarAlign, I was able to try my hand at using the features offered on the hand control. I discovered the instead of tracking an object, my telescope would slew downwards… which the forum folks attributed to an inadequate power source.

The following week I got the book Left Turn at Orion. I actively started to read the forums in Cloudy Nights and the Stargazers Lounge. This weekend in the backyard, I incorporated the use of the vibration suppression pads at the end of the tripod legs and was now using a fully charged Power Tank to provide power to the mount. When I was going through the steps of StarAlign, I lined up my second star in the finder then transitioned to the eyepiece to center it. This “star” had rings….. Saturn! Another exuberant announcement to the household… come see what I found! More “ooh” and “ahs”.

The forums kept providing me with tips and suggestions. The NexStar User’s Guide arrived. I re-read the directions for my Celestron 8se. I spent more time looking at star charts and then sitting outside trying to make out the constellations. There was Cassiopeia. That must be the Summer Triangle. There was Mars and not far away was Antares. There was Polaris… not as bright as I would have guessed.

Last night I saw my first galaxy and binary star. Andromeda appeared as a faint cloud of light, bulging in the middle. The longer I stayed outside, the more my eye was able to make out. A household announcement brought out everyone but I think they were less impressed than I.

I had tried to find Albireo before, but had no luck. Then last night, there it was… yellow and blue. Beautiful. Everyone had gone to bed, so I didn’t have anyone to share it with (except the cat, who had snuck out the patio door when I had been moving equipment out earlier).

I know I need to start keeping a paper log of my activities. I know I need to start planning my evening of stargazing. I need to develop my ability to star hop and not rely on the hand controllers catalog and GoTo capabilities.

Thanks for letting me ramble – I am really enjoying the hobby.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 57

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota.

Sunday, July 24th – Left Devils Tower. Bits of rain. Easy drive on I-90. Stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota at Family Dollar for bread and ice. They had neither. Arrived at the Mount Rushmore KOA – that place is like a circus. Dropped the trailer and headed to Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Was able to squeeze in a 3pm and 3:30pm ranger program. Helped us understand why the memorial was built and how. The girls finished their Junior Ranger books.

Final Junior Ranger Badges of the trip!
Final Junior Ranger Badges of the trip!

It was pretty emotional for me to complete our last “park” of the trip.

Did we find our park?
Did we find our park?

Yosemite
Zion
Bryce Canyon
Grand Canyon
Glacier
Yellowstone
Grand Teton
Wind Cave
Devils Tower
Mount Rushmore
… what a Summer!

2016 Summer Trip – Day 55

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

Lakota Native Americans call it the Bear Lodge.
Lakota Native Americans call it the Bear Lodge.

Friday, July 22nd – Toured Wind Cave. Once we entered the cave and started to descend, Emily was scared at first but then was ok. After the tour, the girls finished up their Junior Ranger books and received their badges for Wind Cave.

The day started getting hot. The expectation was temps into the upper 90s. I had gotten a prime parking spot in front of the Wind Cave Visitors Center which allowed me to connect to their wifi. I used the wifi connection to make reservations at the Devils Tower KOA. The heat made me want to camp at a location where we could make use of our air conditioner.

We left the Elk Mountain Campground around 1pm. Elk Mountain Campground is a good place to camp if the weather had been a bit more cooperative. I was disappointed in the lack of any substantial Ranger-led evening program.

It was a nice drive in a northeast direction through a national forest to I-90 where we were only on I-90 to go up one exit. Checked into Devils Tower KOA (located immediately outside the monument) and had some food across the street at the trading post. Ended up getting a pull-thru site next to another ham (KF5SA). He has an HF station mounted inside his trailer.

Quick trip up to the visitors center to get Junior Ranger books (from Ranger Erin Cahill). Attended evening program at the campground amphitheater which was blown out by bad weather into the picnic area.

Devils Tower
Devils Tower

2016 Summer Trip – Day 52

colter_bay_posterTuesday, July 19th – Coulter Bay Village, Grand Teton National Park.

Took showers at the facilities here at Colter Bay. Not as nice as Canyon or Grant Village. Ate breakfast at the full restaurant across from the marina. Dropped Christa off at the airport.

Road our bikes to the Colter Bay Visitors Center; saw a documentary about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone at the Colter Bay Visitors Center. Shopped at the bookstore and bought a Sibley’s book on trees, a book by the Muries and a National Park book.

After lunch we attended a program by D.G. House, a Native American artist, who talked about “ledger art“. She was a very dynamic speaker and spoke to the clash of civilizations between the American Indian and the expanding United States.

Had ice cream from the General Store (a recommended daily activity).

Power went out. Everywhere. Heard over the Ranger frequency that it was a major power outage in Idaho. Started to read the book by the Muries.

Hot dogs for dinner. Attend the 7pm amphitheater program about bears (Ranger JJ, Steve Martin look alike). We then decided to go out and look for wildlife. After striking out at Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats, a tip from the ranger frequency led us near Pilgrim Creek where we saw a black bear bounding between the tree line and meadow.

Out for a stroll in Grand Teton National Park
Out for a stroll in Grand Teton National Park

2016 Summer Trip – Day 46

Wednesday, July 13th – Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park. 9:30am Overlook Hike lead by Ranger Miles Augur. We left from West Thumb and started hiking up into the hills overlooking Yellowstone Lake. We ended up hiking through a group of about 8 elk. Perhaps the most amazing experience of the entire Summer.

Picture taken by Sarah
Picture taken by Sarah

Trip to Old Faithful General Store to restock. Not a great selection, but not many other alternatives.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 44

yellowstone_canyonvillageCanyon Village, Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park

Monday, July 11th – I have been regularly using my VX-8GR handheld to listen to the local NOAA weather radio station. The weather forecast last night was pretty grim. Temperatures dropping. Snow. Snow? In July? Yes. I decided to spend Sunday night packing up. Sarah helped me put the bikes on the station wagon. We put away the folding chairs and rolled up the awning. I had really been enjoying our campsite at Canyon (J200). The Canyon campground is huge. The camping sites are nice – lots of trees and separated at a good distance. Quiet. Canyon also has laundry facilities and showers. Both worked out well. They even have over sized washers and dryers for sleeping bags and comforters. But it was time to move. We’d been here over a week.

We woke up to light snow. It wasn’t really sticking to the ground but the temps were way down. We broke down the remainder of camp and head out. We made use of the campground’s dump station and then made the short drive out down to Grant Village. They have a full-service gas station were I was able to fill up my propane canister. After it was filled, I kept smelling gas. I didn’t know if the canister was leaking or I had some type of line leak. Eventually the smell dissipated.

While I enjoyed Canyon campground, Canyon Village is too busy. Lots of people, lots of craziness. Grant Village is the opposite. The campground is not as nice. Less trees. Sites are a bit closer together. But the village part is low key. Much less people. The visitors center at Grant is not as fancy as the one at Canyon. But the ranger programs at Grant Village were a lot more personal. There is a book shop at the visitors center. A daily ranger program on the back deck, one down near the water, and one at their amphitheater.

Grant also has a very large general store (just a bit smaller than the one at Fishing Bridge). Attached the store is a counter-service eatery with your standard fare (although they make an effort to have healthy choices). The eatery includes ice cream, served by the scoop. My favorite was called Moose Tracks. There are also two restaurants. One is somewhat fancy and requires reservations. The other is right on the lake and serves an Asian fusion menu. Emily acquired a liking for potstickers. Both the girls became intrigued with chopsticks.

Did I mention the ranger programs? We attended a few on the back porch of the visitors center. There were others that took place down by the lake that where meant for young families. Always great topics. Then we would go to the evening programs at the amphitheater. Fairly quickly, all the rangers at Grant Village began to get to know Sarah and Emily. Both really enjoyed participating in the programs – raising their hands to answer questions. My favorite evening program was about the history of the US Army running Yellowstone.

Backporch ranger program with Ranger Miles about bison.
Movie in the visitors center on the Yellowstone forest fire.
Ranger program near the lake was about bears and bear cubs.
Evening program with Ranger Miles about the history of wolves in Yellowstone.

We got to know the rangers so well, we knew all of them by name:
David
Ellen
Miles
Jon
Landon
Ali
Brian

Thank you Rangers!

2016 Summer Trip – Day 41

Friday, July 8th – Canyon Village, Yellowstone National Park.

Day trip to Cody, Wyoming. We got on the road later than we should have. We took the road out of the east entrance to Yellowstone. I had never been on this road before. The east entrance appeared to be a good way to pull a travel trailer into the park, but probably not out. The trip was about 90 miles and took around two and half hours.

The big attraction in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. You can’t swing a dead cat west of the Missouri River without hitting something connected to Buffalo Bill. But the Buffalo Bill Center is the place to go to learn about ol’ Bill. We got here a too late to take advantage of everything there is to see. This is definitely on the list to return to see again. I honesty think you could spend two days seeing it all.