Hiking and White Water Rafting in the Smokey Mountains – May 2018

As we planned our route for leaving North Carolina we decided that we would stop and see some sights in Nashville. However, it was too far to drive in one day so we opted to stop for a couple of days at the Fox Fire Riverside Campground in Hartford, TN. Our only reason for stopping in Hartford was that it was about halfway to Nashville and we choose Fox Fire Riverside Campground because it was on a river. What a fortunate choice! Hartford is not much more than an intersection with a four-way stop, but is on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. It is also home to more than a dozen white water rafting operations.

We arrived on Thursday, May 3rd. After we settled in to a nice pull-thru site, we checked on rafting trips and found out that the next possibility was two days away, on Saturday. The level of the river is controlled by a hydro-electric dam and they normally released water from the dam on Tuesday through Thursday, and sometimes on Saturday. A release was scheduled for this Saturday.

We followed a link on Fox Fire’s web site to Smokey Mountain hiking trails and made plans to hike to Hen Wallow Falls the next day.  There was plenty of parking and a picnic area at the trailhead. The trail was well marked, although we did take a different trail for a short distance by accident (it pays to be alert!). Two point two miles up the trail we came to the falls. We had fun climbing on the boulders at the base of the falls and looking for a cave that was next to the falls. After relaxing and a snack we headed back down the mountain. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, but cool enough to be comfortable.

The next morning we checked on the rafting and found out they had a trip tentatively scheduled to leave at 1:00, but it was moved up to 11:00 because the dam would close off the water at noon. When we checked in we discovered we had a boat all to ourselves with our own personal guide. It was good that we had this personal service, but not so good because we had to paddle an eight-person raft by ourselves. Fortunately the river was running fast and we didn’t have to work too hard. Our guide, Randall (with his dog, Bluesy), was very experienced and gave us a great ride. I think he was happy to have two experienced paddlers for a crew. The ride was exciting and we were soaked by the end of the float – but what a fun time! I would gladly recommend Big Creek Expeditions to anyone looking for a professional experience on the Big Pigeon River.

In addition to hiking and white water rafting Hartford also has a winery (Goodwater Winery) and a legal moonshine distillery (Bootleggers).  We sampled both and bought some wine and moonshine to take with us.

A side benefit of staying at the Fox Fire RV Park was the annual gathering of the Coleman Collectors Group. If you ever owned a camp lantern or camp stove it’s a good bet that it was made by Coleman. The Coleman Company has been making outdoor equipment for decades, many military command posts in WW II were illuminated by Coleman lanterns and many field kitchens used Coleman stoves. Coleman products are known for being the best and longest lasting pieces of camping equipment. It was fascinating to me to walk around the various tents displaying Coleman products. One of the sad pieces of information I got was that a Coleman lantern I sold at a garage sale for $15 could have been sold on Ebay for around $100-$150! Oh well!

We did a lot in our two days, more than we thought we would do on what was to supposed to be just a stop-over. On Sunday, May 6th we headed west to Nashville and the Grand Old Opry.

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Camp Hosting in North Carolina – April 2018

As we returned to the Falls Lake State Recreation Area, we realized that this would be our fifth season serving as Camp Hosts in the Holly Point Campground. Our duties in the campground are very simple – clean our assigned bathrooms five days a week and be a role model for other campers. In addition we try to make sure the campers know we are available to help them if needed.

Our desire to be camp hosts was not driven by getting a free campsite in exchange for light work, but to be able to stay in the park for more than two weeks at a time. You see, North Carolina, like many other states limits stays in the park to fourteen days in a thirty-day period. Our daughter lived in Raleigh and we wanted to stay longer than fourteen days, hence our desire to be a camp host. Holly Point is a beautiful campground. The campsites at are roomy and wooded, giving each camper plenty of privacy, and many sites offer easy access to the lake. An added benefit was that it was early in the season and there was plenty of deadwood for campfires.

This year was a bit different as our daughter had made plans to move to Washington State. Most of our free time was spent helping her pack her household goods and other preparations for  moving. We celebrated Elisabeth’s birthday at the Brasa Brazilian Steakhouse – all the meat you could eat and we all took advantage of it! We celebrated Elisabeth’s birthday at a Brazilian steakhouse – all the meat you could eat and we all took advantage of it!

On April 13th Pat and Elisabeth left on their cross-country drive to the Tacoma area of Washington. I had the privilege to stay back and clean bathrooms by myself (sigh). As they drove away I was already looking forward to Pat’s return on April 23rd.

Camping in North Carolina in the spring brings some unique problems, the most severe (in my opinion) is the yellow pollen from the pine trees. The pollen doesn’t affect my allergies, but it is constant, and gets into everything. I can wash the truck and in an hour it was covered with a coating a pollen. This is our picnic table after ONE day!

In addition to our camp host duties, I hiked and kayaked in the area. Holly Point Campground is right on the shore of Falls Lakes – a reservoir created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a flood damage reduction project. The Corps of Engineers built the campground and then licensed it to the State of North Carolina to operate as a state park. Over the years I have found almost all of the nearby geocaches and this year I was able to find to remainder.

The Ranger staff presents programs throughout the camping season and I was able to attend one that was held at Holly Point on a “day in the life of a Ranger.” It was informative and well done. The kids attending really enjoyed trying on the various hats/helmets worn by Rangers in the performance of their duties.

Once Pat was back and the pollen had slackened, we spent time doing some work around the campsite, such as washing the trailer and waxing the front cap (makes it easier to clean the bugs off). My last goal was to find the last cache on the lake. The icing on the cake was watching an Osprey circling over us. Of course, this was the one time I was on the lake without a camera!

On May 3rd we pulled out of our site and headed west. Next stop – the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.

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Where The Rubber Meets the Road, April 2018

When you are a full time RVer, tire problems can be more than an inconvenience, especially if it results in a blow out.

In November of 2013 we left Fort Benning, GA enroute to Pensacola, FL. As we were traveling down the road a semi tractor-trailer pulled alongside, tapped his horn and pointed at my trailer. I pulled into the next parking lot and discovered that my left rear trailer tire had a blowout. I suspect that I had driven about 10-12 miles with three wheels on the ground and was not aware of the problem. The shredding tire tore up some of the side and trim on the trailer, ripped out the wires to the trailer’s brakes and damaged one of the leveling jacks. By the time we were done with the repairs, the bill was over $8,000! Thank goodness for insurance.

Now, as always, I had checked the pressure on all four trailer tires and they were fine. I suspect I hit a small pothole that had caused the tire to lose air and with low pressure it overheated and blew out.

This was the beginning of my education on tires, but it was not the first issue we had with tires. When we bought our fifth wheel trailer it came with a brand of tire called “Duro.” It was a Load Range E tire and was, essentially, a piece of junk. Many RV manufacturers will mount a low cost tire on the RV and will often mount the lowest load range possible. The instructions for our Duro tires said they should be inflated to 80 PSI (Pounds per Square Inch), this also happened to be the maximum inflation pressure. I was uncomfortable with inflating the tire to the maximum but I naively figured “they know what they are doing.” On two separate occasions the Duro tires just lost air for no apparent reason and I replaced them with Goodyear Marathon tires (also a 10-ply, Load Range E). It was one of these Marathons that blew out in 2013.

While we were having the damage repaired on our trailer, I did some research. I discovered that the newer models of our same trailer were now being mounted with Goodyear G614 tires which is a 14-ply, Load Range G tire. I located a Goodyear dealer about a mile from the RV dealer doing the repairs and made arrangements to replace all four trailer tires. Now I have tires with a maximum inflation of 110 PSI that I inflate to 95 PSI.

One of the pieces of information you should know is the manufacture date of the tire. It is a 4-digit number – the first two digits are the week and the last two digits are the year. A tire with a manufacture date of 1413 was made in the fourteenth week of 2013. You should replace your tires at least every five years.

There is a lot of information on the sidewall of the tire.

So, the first thing you have to do is to make sure you have the right tires for your RV. Obviously in my case I was placing too much of a load on the Load Range E tires. In full disclosure I don’t get any compensation from Goodyear, but I would recommend the Goodyear G614 to anyone with a fifth wheel trailer.

Second, know to what pressure you should inflate your tires. All tire manufacturers provide a chart so you can determine how much pressure you need for the weight they will carry. The desired PSI is the PSI when the tire is cold. That does not mean that the tire has to be a specific temperature, just that the vehicle has not moved in the previous three hours.

Before you leave to travel to your next location you should check your tire pressure and the tightness of wheel lugs (yes, they can work themselves loose). Periodically, take time to visually inspect the tires. Check for tire wear. Between the treads are wear indicators and if these are level with the tread the tire must be replaced quickly, periodic inspections will let you catch this early. Also look for cracks in the sidewall and unusual wear patterns. In backing the trailer you sometimes cause the tires to move sideways, causing “scrubbing,” where one part of the edge of the tread is more worn than the rest of the tire.

Even if you check your tire inflation just before you leave how will you know if something happens while you are driving – like my blow out in 2013? This is where a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) comes into the picture. A TPMS consists of a set of sensors mounted inside the tire or on the valve stem and a monitor that is mounted on your vehicle dashboard. The sensor monitors the tire pressure and temperature. As a tire is driven on its temperature will increase, this is normal. When a tire has low pressure the sidewall flexes more than it should and the tire heats up abnormally until it blows out.We purchased the TST 507 from Truck Systems Technologies. It came with six sensors and a monitor. I mounted four sensors on the trailer tires and the remaining two on the inside dual rear wheels on our pickup truck. The monitor and the sensors communicate within their own wireless network. Some people have expressed a concern that the distance from the sensor to the monitor in the cab of the truck was too great. We have had no problem with the sensors transmitting from the rear axle on the trailer to the cab of the truck (approximately 36 feet). The staff at TST walked me through the set up to set the upper and lower limits for pressure and temperature.

No matter how carefully you check the tire pressure before you leave, a TPMS is critical for safety. In October of 2017 we were driving from Pigeon Forge, TN to Raleigh, NC when the alarm on our TPMS went off. I immediately pulled onto the shoulder and saw the TPMS was showing only 85 PSI on my left rear trailer tire. I checked it with a tire gauge and verified it was actually 85 PSI. I drove to the next drive into a service station and put on the spare tire. Later I was told that a weld on the rim had a crack in it and that was where it was leaking. It caused me about $150 to replace the rim and remount the tire, but it was much better than another $8,000 insurance claim. By the way, that tire showed 95 PSI before we left that morning.

Another factor is speed. You may be used to driving at the posted speed limits with your car or truck, but towing a trailer changes things. Most Special Trailer (ST) tires are only rated for 65 MPH, yet I will often see trailers smaller than mine (which means they probably have Load Range E ST tires) passing me doing at least 65 MPH or more. Driving at excessive speeds will cause your tires to overheat and fail.

Finally, when you are not driving you need to protect your tires from the sun. Ultraviolet rays will break down the material of the tire. Whenever I am stopped for more than one night I always put covers on the tires. If you are parked on concrete for extended periods of time you should put plywood sheets under the tires to prevent the concrete from drying out the tires.Your tires are literally “where the rubber meets the road,” you take care of them and they will take care of you.

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Family Reunion in Florida, March 2018

We left Key West on February 28th to join much of Pat’s family in Oldsmar, FL. We have a niece, Robin, who lives in Oldsmar with her two children. This year Pat’s brother and sister, Geri and Mary Lee, and their spouses rented a house in Oldsmar for a month, so we decided to find a place nearby to camp and join them for two weeks. The rented house seemed to have a revolving door as Geri and Mary Lee’s children came to visit and escape the severe winter weather in Michigan and Wisconsin.

We stayed at the Bay Bayou RV Park, which was convenient to both Robin’s apartment and the rented house. We could even ride our bikes to the rented house which made it even more convenient!

One of the first things we did was go to the horse races at Tampa Bay Downs. This was a first for us! The rest of the group told us how to get a Groupon pass for the event and we were literally “off to the races!” What a great time! We bet on every race and had a mix of winners and losers. The race program gave us all sorts of statistics and advice on how to figure out your bet and encouraged us to make it fun and enjoy the day. All in all, it was a rather inexpensive way to have a fun afternoon. After the race we all went to the Salt Rock Tavern where we got half price drinks with our losing tickets – another plus.

When our sister-in-law Maureen came to visit we discovered another unique outing – Dolphin watching!  We boarded our boat, the Dolphin Racer, in Saint Petersburg. This is a powerful boat that creates a huge wave that the dolphins love to play in. As we traveled around Tampa Bay we all watched for pods of dolphins. When a pod was spotted our captain would pilot the boat near the pod and speed up to create our wave. If the dolphins were in a playful mood they would swim into our wake and surf on the wave – what a thrill!

Later in the week we took to the water again. We spent a few hours enjoying Clearwater Beach. While Pat and I are always used to warm weather in the winter, our relatives from Michigan and Wisconsin were just loving the warm sun. After the beach we boarded the Calypso Queen for a buffet dinner and sunset cruise. it was a pleasant surprise to find we had reserved seats instead of having to scramble for good seats. Being seated next to the bar was certainly convenient. After dinner we headed out into the Gulf of Mexico for the sunset. We were disappointed to see a large number of low-lying clouds, but were pleased when the clouds helped to create a pretty unique sunset.

For our last night in town, we joined everyone for dinner at one of Jeremiah’s favorite restaurants. I’ve never had sushi before so the Sushi Alive Asian Bistro and Raw Bar was a new experience.

It was a special treat to see so many of our family outside of Michigan. As full time RVers we have become used to a slower pace and keeping up with our family of “tourists” kept us very busy. On March 16th we headed north and our next stop at the Navy’s Kings Bay Submarine Base near St. Mary’s, GA.

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Reflections on Key West – Jan/Feb 2018

Key West is our favorite place to spend the winter. Staying at the Sigsbee Island RV Park (part of Naval Air Station Key West) is a unique, fun-filled, and fulfilling experience. Every year we get to expand our circle of friends. We know more people there then we ever did in our old neighborhood!

The Naval Air Station had sustained considerable damage from Hurricane Irma and it took them until December 27th to open the park. For the first time they took reservations so they could phase the arrival of several hundred campers into the park. We arrived on December 31st. It was interesting to see the park so empty, but we knew it would only be a few days before it would be filling up quickly.

I renewed my duties as a volunteer docent on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum Ship. I have been doing this since our second year in Key West. I enjoy showing people a ship that served our country for 52 years and is the most decorated Cutter in the Coast Guard.

We got involved in our military community quickly. The Key West Half-Marathon has been going on for twenty years. Our small community supports the race by manning two water points on the route. We have two team captains that have been organizing this for as long as anyone can remember – they do an excellent job of coordinating this effort. Unfortunately for the racers the weather was unseasonably cold with strong winds. Despite the weather, we still found it both fun and rewarding to perform this service.

Saturday, January 27th over 150 volunteers, many with canoes and kayaks, gathered at Big Pine Key to help in the continuing clean up from Hurricane Irma. We paddled up the canals and walked the streets collecting trash. In and near the canals we found complete decks and docks that had been tossed there by Hurricane Irma. We hauled coolers, sections of fence, and all kinds of trash (even a hot tub) from the canals. Boards from docks and decks were tossed into the canal and towed to collection points to be picked up by heavy equipment later. As bad as Key West was hit, the Middle Keys got clobbered. The clean up still continues today.

I also conducted my classes of Snorkeling 101 and Basic Wine Making. These are always fun to present and people seem to enjoy them. It’s a great joy to see someone who is not comfortable in the water discover the beauty of what is below the waves and begin to enjoy instead of fear the water.

The highlight of our stay was when our daughter, Elisabeth, came to visit. We toured parts of the island by bike, made SCUBA dives on the USAFS Vandenberg (sunk as an artificial reef) and in the Marine Sanctuary at Looe Key, kayaked at Geiger Key, and generally had a fun time together.

Our campground can often become “party central” and there were several parties at waterside campsites to watch the sunset, Karaoke Night at the Sunset Lounge, open mic night at the Geiger Key Marina, as well as a few theme parties like the “Ugly Hawaiian Shirt Party.” There was rarely a dull time at Sigsbee Island.

On February 28th we packed up and headed north to visit family near Tampa, FL.

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Selfless Service – Key West, FL Jan-Feb 2018

Our country’s military services have sets of values that guide the behavior of their members, whether they be Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, or Marines. The Army Values contain a value of “selfless service” and  the Air Force describes this as “service before self.” The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard include “service” as a part of their value of “commitment.”

As full time RVers we generally spend our winters in Key West, after all wouldn’t you like to spend a couple of months down here, right after Christmas? We stay at the RV park that is a part of Naval Air Station Key West. Living in a community of active and retired military gives us a rather unique view of things and an opportunity to see Selfless Service in action.

Every morning when I go for my morning walk I see an elderly (I hate to use the word old, but I am younger than she is and most people stopped calling me young decades ago.) woman walking along the roads of this part of the base in a determined manner – she is on a mission! She has her grabber stick and several plastic shopping bags and she is picking up all the litter along the road. This also includes the causeway, so she gets all of the litter that is brought in by high tide. Her name is Janet and she is the most dedicated person I have ever met.

Shortly after we arrived here there was a Wounded Warrior Project cycling rally to promote veteran issues. Our crew of volunteers from Sigsbee Island (our RV park) were hard at work, serving meals to all of the participants.

The Key West Half-Marathon and 5K is an annual event and is a source of pride to the residents of the island. This was the 20th year of this race. Local businesses volunteer their time and services. Turtle Kraals and Shipyards hosted a breakfast for all of the volunteers as a part of the organizational briefing.  Once again our military community was front and center. We have two teams that man water stations along the course. Jack and Denny, our team leaders have been doing this as long as anyone can remember. We were on the course by 6:30 am on a cold and very windy morning, but all of our attention was on the runners, encouraging them as well as keeping them hydrated. Next to our station a husband and wife team played their guitars to encourage the runners – they just thought it would be a good idea.

The National Coast Guard Memorial is at the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, a floating museum of Coast Guard history moored in Key West. Every day volunteers man the gangway, welcoming visitors to the ship. The Ingham is a privately-owned museum and could not continue to operate without the volunteers that paint her decks, clean the displays, perform other maintenance, and welcome her visitors.

This last Saturday we and other volunteers from Sigsbee joined a cleanup effort on Big Pine Key. The Middle Keys were the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma and even months after the hurricane there is still debris from wrecked boats and destroyed homes all over the area. Over 150 of us walked the streets and paddled in the canals in our kayaks. We pulled lumber from ruined homes and docks that had fallen into the canals and piled up on the banks. We also gathered debris from wrecked boats and other trash that was swept into the canals by Irma. Local businesses, themselves badly hurt by the storm, donated supplies, heavy equipment, food and beverages to aid the volunteers in this cleanup.

Selfless Service is a value we should all embrace. We are all blessed with talents that can be used to help others. It doesn’t take much. As an example, when we pulled into Sigsbee Island and were assigned an RV site, I knew that we were responsible to keep our site mowed and there are mowers available to us. Before we got all set up I went and borrowed one and mowed our lot. I then proceeded to mow the five lots next to ours. I knew they would be occupied by the end of the day – just a neighborly thing to do. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but to show it doesn’t take a lot of effort to help someone.

Ask your local library if they need help. Is there a non-profit organization that could use someone to answer the phones or stuff envelopes?  If you have web-design skills, possibly help maintain their website?  Check with your local church – do you sing or play an instrument? I’m sure they could use someone like you. What does the local playground look like? Could it use someone like Janet to walk through every day or two and pick up litter?

A local Boy Scout leader once told a group, “We don’t need experts, we just need people who care.”

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Christmas Holidays in Florida, December 2017

Having grown up in Michigan, enjoying winter activities such as skiing, sledding, and snowball fights, it has been strange to have celebrated the Christmas holidays in warmer climates since we have been fulltime RVers. This year we stayed at Wickham Park in Brevard County, near Cocoa Beach, FL. The park has a community center, senior center, multiple picnic areas and playgrounds, a big Frisbee Golf area, and an RV park – something for just about everyone! Wickham Park is a great place to camp. There are full hookup sites, plenty of paths and trails to walk on and an easy place to bicycle. There were also plenty of geocaches to keep me busy.

As we pulled into the park one of the first things we noticed was that it was the site of the Space Coast Lightfest. Every evening people would drive for miles to drive through the park enjoying the lights. The night after we arrived was set aside for a “stroll” through the park. No cars were allowed and we walked around the park enjoying the light show, quite a unique experience. There are light shows in Michigan but you certainly don’t walk around them in shorts and a t-shirt!

We may not be in snow country, but we still decorate for the holidays. We drape ornaments from the crown moldings of our trailer’s slideout rooms. I decorate the small tree that my mom sent to me when I was deployed in the Persian Gulf for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We hang lights in our windows and I make a tree of lights outside. Pat says it is hard to really get into the Christmas spirit when you have the air conditioning running while you are decorating! As we walked around the campground it was interesting to see how others had decorated their RVs for the season.

There were several interesting things going on this season. One of the first was the “super” full moon. This was one of those rare times when the moon is the closest to the earth. We could see the detail of the craters with only the aid of normal binoculars.

My sister flew in to see her brother-in-law, Paul, his wife, Mary Ann, and we joined them for lunch. You know it’s getting bad when the prime topic of conversations revolves around aches and pains and other health issues. I’m not saying we are old, but it is getting harder to ignore it!

We also had a chance to have dinner with Jim and Diana Belisle, who are also fulltime RVers from Michigan. Jim is also a fellow blogger.

We also got to witness the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral. We drove to a site on the beach where we could get a good view. I was glad we got there early because the area filled up quickly with others having the same idea. One thing that made this a very unique launch is that they recovered the booster rocket by having it land back on the launch pad. It was literally like watching the launch in reverse.

The launch of the Falcon 9

And the re-entry of the Falcon 9 booster rocket

On the Florida Spacecoast Santa doesn’t come down the chimney, he skydives in! We spent most of an afternoon watching “Skydiving Santas” landing on the beach at the Cocoa Beach Pier. They jumped from a WWII era C-47 cargo plane and a UH-1 helicopter. The targets on the beach included inflatable chairs and sleighs. Several of the Santas landed right in front of us and I was totally jealous of them. Just watching them made me want to climb into a parachute harness and join them!

The rest of our time was spent doing Christmas shopping, attending services at three different churches in the area, kayaking, and spending time with some friends from Key West who were camping at nearby Patrick Air Force Base. Like us, many of them were killing time waiting for the campground at Sigsbee Island (Naval Air Station Key West) to reopen. We joined them for their weekly happy hour at the base marina.

On December 19th we flew back to Michigan for the holidays and our annual doctor visits. We had plenty of snow and cold weather this year and the temperatures stayed in the single digits the most of the time. The plus side is that I got a chance to use my cross-country skis again!

Christmas with the family in Bad Axe is always fun. We were able to see relatives that we only get a chance to see once a year and celebrate how blessed our lives have been. We hope everyone else had a Merry Christmas and the next time you hear from us we will be enjoying the sunshine in Key West, FL. Happy New Year!

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