September 9-11 – Coeur d’Alene and Glacier National Park

On Saturday, September 9, we left Taidnapam RV Park at about 9:00, headed for Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. When we went to fire up the previously hyper-reliable Dutch Star, we discovered that the batteries were too dead to start it. Motor homes have lots of batteries – the Dutch Star has two 12-volt “chassis” batteries, wired in parallel, that start the engine, put down the leveling jacks, run the instruments and power all the other “driving related” gizmos. It also has eight 12-volt “house” batteries, which power all the lighting, and a 120-volt inverter that can run some of the 120-volt electrical appliances, like the refrigerator (the inverter won’t run the air conditioners, for that you need either shore power or the generator). The engine wouldn’t start because the chassis batteries were dead. Fortunately, the Newmar guys thought of that scenario (and also fortunately, Barry paid attention when the guy at the dealer was showing us how to operate the unit) and provided a switch labelled “Battery Boost”. It’s a spring-loaded switch that closes a solenoid that connects the house batteries to the chassis batteries as long as it is pushed. That got the engine started, but the rig acted a little weird for a minute or so – a “check transmission” message was displayed in the driver information center, and the “comfort steering” wasn’t working. Both fixed themselves after a few minutes, I guess after the alternator kicked in and got the voltage up to whatever minimum is needed. Given the backup of the Battery Boost switch, I decided that getting the batteries replaced could be deferred for a few days until it was more convenient for us.

When we got rolling, we followed Washington 12 east to Interstate 82 north, and then to Interstate 90 East. It was a scenic drive, particularly the first part, but we were not paying as much attention to the scenery as we should have because we were often listening to XM radio’s news channels trying to get the latest Hurricane Irma news and forecast.

We arrived at Blackwell RV Park in Coeur d’Alene at about 3:00, with the odometer reading 7617 (a 329 mile drive). Blackwell is a very popular park – Therese had called ahead the day before and we got their last open site. When we arrived, Therese went in to register, and they assigned us site 115. When we got there, however, the site was already occupied, so she went back to the office to ask about it. After a bit of back and forth, they discovered that the current occupant of 115 was supposed to be at 117, so we just took that spot. It was a nice park., right on a lake, and well laid out. The weather was nice, and we sat out for a little while in our lawn chairs.

Blackwell RV Park at Coeur d’Alene
Blackwell RV Park

Coeur d’Alene is only about 20 miles from Spokane, where Therese’ brother’s daughter, Isabella, is a junior at Gonzaga. Therese called her, and she was able to meet us for dinner. We went to a very nice Mexican restaurant very close to the Gonzaga campus. Isabella is a Mechanical Engineering major, and stays very busy – interning at a local company, working in the Mechanical Engineering machine shop, working on a car built for an interscholastic engineering competition, and taking 6 difficult courses on top of all that. She is one of very few female Mechanical Engineering students at Gonzaga, and is enjoying all that work and the challenge of it.

The campground’s Wifi was pathetic, but we got a little Verizon cellular data (AT&T once again useless) and we hunted down what updated information we could on Hurricane Irma. There was lots of information, most of it indicating the worst possible scenario for Naples, unfolding the next day between about 10 am and 7 pm eastern time. For the first time on the trip, we bothered to connect the cable TV supplied by the campground to see if we could find some news coverage of the hurricane. That had mediocre results, so we tried the “over the air” tuner to see if that worked any better. That didn’t work any better, but it wouldn’t have given us any better news anyway, so we went to sleep pretty apprehensive.

Our plan was to just spend the night in Coeur d’Alene and head to Glacier National Park the next day. The “wrong campsite” couple had just come from there, however, and told us that there was yet another fire there, on the western edge of the park, so the west entrance was closed. We tried to change plans and just stay at Coeur d’Alene, but when Therese checked, the campground was booked up the next night also. So instead we decided to go to Glacier as planned, except to go to the east entrance, which made for a longer drive.

After trying to find out more about the hurricane the next morning, we got off to a late start, close to 9:45, once again having to use Battery Boost to get the engine started. Upon departure, Therese took the Jeep to a Walmart about 6 miles north on Route 95 to buy Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) while I took the Dutch Star to a Pacific Pride fueling station just around the corner from the Walmart. By the way, if you are planning on travelling in a diesel motor home in the west, do yourself a favor and get a Pacific Pride credit card. Pacific Prides are unmanned contract fueling stations – they are pretty numerous out west, all of them are set up for big diesel trucks, and they are usually located near the major routes and not very crowded. This was the third we used on this trip.

By the time Therese caught up with the Dutch Star, and we got the Jeep hitched up, and we got the DEF into the Dutch Star’s tank, it was about 10:45, so that was a pretty late start with at least a seven hour drive ahead of us. As we drove, we tuned into CNN, which had live, nonstop, commercial-free coverage of Hurricane Wilma. Most of the coverage was from Naples, through which the eyewall of the hurricane was passing as it moved north from its mainland landfall at Marco Island (having already wiped out lots of the Florida Keys in the previous 12 hours). Since we could only listen to the broadcast, we didn’t have the benefit of the inevitable video feed showing brave (read foolish) reporters standing in the middle of 100 mph winds getting soaked to the skin, but we were able to determine that while very high winds were recorded (up to 142 mph at Naples airport, 10 miles due south of our house), the buildings in Naples, the new ones of which are built to pretty stringent hurricane-resistant codes, seemed to be holding up pretty well. Trees and other vegetation were getting blown over and wrecked, but there weren’t reports of widespread roof failures or other destruction of neighborhoods that we had been worried about. Also, the actual storm surge turned out to be much lower than the 10 foot predicted – more like 5 foot, because the winds on the back side of the hurricane had been weakened by its pass over Cuba. That was definitely good news for Southwest Florida.

Our route took us up Route 95, and from there to Route 2, which we followed for almost 300 miles. It was two lanes most of the way, but one of the nice things about the west is that there are so few towns, and the two lane roads are in such good shape, that you travel just as fast as you would on an interstate highway, but with better scenery and less traffic.

From Route 2, we took a left turn on Route 89 to get us to Saint Mary’s on the eastern side of Glacier National Park (aka Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park). Route 89 was an exception to the “two-lane roads are in good shape and travel just as fast as an interstate” statement in the preceding paragraph. It was in fact in terrible shape for much of the way, and 5 miles of it were a gravel temporary road while they repave the real road. That raised clouds of dust, getting the already-filthy Jeep even dirtier, and revealing squeaks, rattles, and groans that we didn’t know the Dutch Star had. When the gravel section ended, we breathed a sign of relief only to find that the next 20 miles to Saint Mary’s consisted of a narrow, steep road with lots of white-knuckle sharp turns. In short, Route 89 was by far the worst road we have yet travelled.

We finally pulled into the campground at about 7:00 (Montana time, which is in Mountain time, so we lost an hour) with 7967 on the odometer, a 350 mile drive. The Saint Mary’s KOA campground was expensive (~$70 per night) but distinctly mediocre – gravel sites, no real trees, grass completely brown (which I guess isn’t their fault), and generally tired feeling.

Saint Mary Glacier RV Park

Just to say something nice, the wifi wasn’t terrible, and we did meet a nice couple from California camping in a fifth wheeler. It turned out that they had also taken 89 up to the Saint Mary’s but had gotten some local knowledge on how to avoid it on the way out, which they shared with us.

When we went to bed, it was a pleasant evening with comfortable temperatures, but about 2:00 am the  wind kicked up to the point that the noises the Dutch Star made in response were pretty loud. The slide toppers (a sort of awning that keeps rain from pooling on top of the slideouts) flap around a bit, and the wind in the air conditioners and other rooftop paraphernalia whistles and moans.

The next day, Monday September 11, the wind continued to blow vigorously. It was coming from the west at (by my estimate) a steady 20 knots with some 30 knot gusts. As we set out for the St. Mary entrance to Glacier National Park (only a five minute drive from the campground), we could smell the now-familiar scent of the forest fire on the west side of the park (the windy conditions were making the fire worse), and could also see the resulting smoky haze. By this time, we were beginning to spot a low-visibility trend (or perhaps conspiracy?) for the September leg of our open road adventure.

Saint Mary Entrance to Glacier National Park

We stopped at the Saint Mary visitor center, but it was pretty small, and the few displays there were focused on some Indian tribes that had historically lived in or near the park. At least one of the tribes apparently disputes some treaty or another and claims ownership of the park. Ever insensitive, Barry didn’t want to hear it, and since we would have had to wait a full 15 minutes for the video to start, we asked the helpful ranger at the desk to suggest a hike at the lower end of moderate (appropriate for amateurs such as ourselves) which she did.

We followed the “Going-to-the-Sun” Road, which goes along Saint Mary Lake through the park, to the Sun Point Nature Trail. That trail follows the shoreline of Saint Mary Lake, and after about 2 ½ miles, gets to the Saint Mary Falls at the end of the lake. The trail was uncrowded, and the lake was scenic, but as you can see from the pictures, the view of the rugged terrain carved by the glaciers was partially blocked by the smoke, although nowhere near to the extent we encountered at Crater Lake.

Saint Mary Lake from Sun Point Nature Trail
Another Lake View
Unnamed Waterfall on the Sun Point Nature Trail
Hazy view of Saint Mary Lake from higher viewpoint
Glacier Carved Mountain across Saint Mary Lake
Therese, with Shipwreck Island in the background

The hike would have been more pleasant if not for the fact that the woods that it went through had been burned in a 2015 wildfire. As we have learned at all the parks, fire has a restorative effect on the forests, so it’s all part of nature, but we would have preferred the unburned green trees phase, thank you.

Charred Forest on Sun Point Nature Trail

The falls were pretty cool, and we were again surprised at the flow quantity. Since the entire area was really starved of rain, it all comes from snow melt, but there really wasn’t a lot of snow (at least not visible) on that side of the lake this late in the season. I bet it is really amazing in the spring.

Saint Mary Falls
Selfie at the Falls

After that five-mile hike (which approximates the limit of human, or at least our endurance), we continued up the road to the Logan Pass Visitor Center. That is only about a third of the way through the park, but all of the western part was closed due to the fire, so that’s as far as we could go. By now the park was getting crowded, and the large parking lot was nearly full. I’m not sure why, because the visitor center was pretty small. It did have some interesting information about the “Going-to-the-sun” road that we had followed to get there. It was built in the ‘20s and early ‘30s (with a 2 year interruption during the depression), after being chosen from two different possible routes. The one chosen has only one switchback, and follows the edge of the mountain in a way that was judged to leave less of a footprint on the mountain than the other, more conventional route. The cost was $55,000 per mile, and it was built (as a pretty narrow gravel road at first) in just six years, including a 408-foot tunnel.

View from Going-to-the-Sun Road
Waterfall through Glacier carved Terrain
Dropoff from Going-to-the-Sun Road overlook
Glacier at Glacier National Park

As the afternoon went on, it got more and more smoky, so we headed out. On our way back to the campground from the park, we encountered a not-uncommon sight in the west – livestock in the road. In some places there are fences, often in poor condition, that look like they are supposed to keep the cows in, but in other places, they just let them roam around.

Livestock in the road

All in all, we enjoyed our day at Glacier, although we would have appreciated a smoke-free day. But, we bought a postcard (picture below) to show us how it would have looked on that proverbial clear day.

Picture of postcard, without the smoke.

Once back to the campsite, information about conditions in Naples began to trickle in from a guy who had toughed it out in a neighborhood near ours. He reported electricity and water out, lots of trees down and some tiles blown off roofs, but no flooding and no major damage. Many cellphone towers were down, but at least some were still operating, since he managed to get that e-mail out. We started to be cautiously optimistic, but we had not heard anything specific about our house.

5 thoughts on “September 9-11 – Coeur d’Alene and Glacier National Park”

  1. Sorry not to have posted previously on your tales of your return trip, but I got distracted by all the news on Hurricane-Tropical Storm-Tropical Depression Irma. I just finished binge-reading your posts from September 4 – 11. So sorry that you’ve run into so many fires out west, but your posts are compelling as usual. I hope you run into fewer fires as you travel east!!

  2. Are you sure you didn’t knock over a cairn of the smoke gods?

    BTW, spectacular picture of the Eagles jersey Therese is rocking. Your batteries are toast, but your wife has class.

    1. We had about five other hikers comment on the Eagles shirt, all positive except one sour grapes Washing Fan. Go Eagles!

  3. I am enjoying the pictures even if smoky how’s the new camera working? A UV filter would help cut the haze and smoke but I know you got that fancy auto lens cap thingy so that’s not an option unless you take that gadget off or use the other lens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *