Being Odd Ducks
Did you know 80% of RVers are over the age of 50*? Not only that but most of the other 20% are work campers and/or travel with children. Boy, we are odd ducks out here: retired, childless, Canadian couple in their forties full-time RVing in a tiny travel trailer with a motorcycle on the road. We are not going to meet many RVers quite like us. I suspect that is true for most RVers: everyone has their own approach to the RV lifestyle and unique RV set-up. Still, I think we are extra weird: Canadians full-timers are rare to begin with. Most are retired snowbirds of retirement age and most have a much bigger RV than us.
RVing in the USA vs Canada
Our RV trips in 2015 have been about learning how to RV in the USA. The US is very RV friendly: they recognize that there are full-timers out there: the construct is widely understood and business exist to serve them. Even here in the northeastern states, I notice differences from Canada. For example: plentiful National Forests offering free, dispersed camping suitable for RVers (not just hike-in sites); Ranger Stations providing information or where to find them; a free dump station at the outlet mall in Conway (wow!); visitor centers in Adirondack Park and here in the White Mountains offering FREE WIFI (not just for customers) and even a lovely sitting area to access it.
Some things are similar in Ontario: some Walmarts, rest stops and casinos will allow overnight parking; Boondockers Welcome and Harvest Hosts have locations in Ontario. But in other ways, Ontario is a much harder place to RV: there is crown land camping but the government website is cumbersome and there is no one to call and point us in the right direction.
Provincial Parks vs State Parks
Ontario provincial parks charge more on average than the state parks in the US (even after the exchange rate) plus they want an extra vehicle charge of $12 per night for the second vehicle and there is no pass for this. This is in stark contrast to campgrounds in the US where almost every campground includes parking for 2 vehicles. The only work around we have found is using our seasonal day pass to get the motorcycle into the provincial park and then hiding it behind the trailer overnight. Still, an overzealous ranger could come by after hours and give us a ticket for not having an actual overnight pass on the motorcycle. Why the day pass isn’t also valid as a secondary vehicle overnight pass is beyond me.
The provincial parks seasonal day pass, not cheap at $120 for the 2016 season (it goes up every year), gets us daytime access to any Ontario provincial park and we buy one every year. With day use, we can go in and enjoy the parks typically until 10pm and can access beaches, trails, showers and dump stations. Interestingly, the provincial parks do not charge a dump station fee because there are basically no full-timers in Ontario traveling around needing to dump, so dump station use by non-campers is a non-issue.
However, dumping at provincial parks doesn’t help us when we are in the Greater Toronto Area as there are no nearby provincial parks. The closest are Earl Rowe in Alliston and Sibbald Point in Sutton – both about 40 mins from Newmarket at the northern edge of the GTA. Along Lake Ontario, there is Bronte Creek in Oakville in the west while Darlington is even farther east. Near Orillia is Bass Lake on the west side, while Mara and McRae Point are near Casino Rama east of Lake Couchiching. Of course there are lots more provincial parks in the east and north and all along Lake Erie. This network of parks will help us move from friend’s properties to HH to BDW sites and still have dumping options.
Giving up our Seasonal Site at New Lowell Conservation Area
One thing weighs heavily on my mind as my return to Ontario looms: we must decide if we want to pay the deposit to retain our site at New Lowell next year. I wasn’t sure we should have even retained it this year: we knew we would be traveling a lot though we didn’t know I would have a major renovation take over my life in July. Yet James and I were both not ready to let it go: as a result we have effectively paid $2200 for trailer storage plus a few camping weekends here and there. Not financially efficient but we allowed ourselves some financial inefficiency in this, our test-out-this-lifestyle year.
Next year we will actually sell the house, organize, purge and store our things, and transition to living in Nellie full-time. But when exactly will this happen? Even if we end up with a June 30 closing, I would want to spend the summer way up north exploring some of Ontario’s crown land, assuming we don’t have any rental turnover’s to deal with in the height of summer. My preference is for a mid- July or mid-August closing: a longer closing would give me the time to fully organize everything after we have a firm deal in hand to put a real fire under my butt.
Regardless of our closing date, I don’t see us spending much time at the trailer in New Lowell in 2016. Frankly, after spending 3 summers there, then traveling this year, I am ready for more new adventures. Our site is too shady and the effort involved in packing to go back and forth does not appeal to me just to be there. But without a seasonal site lined up, where do we go after our house is gone?
Other Ontario Options
Tottenham Conservation area offers seasonal and monthly rates and are open until Thanksgiving. Rouge Valley has camping in the east end of Toronto. Valens is another option near Cambridge and they only close for December so we can stay there until we are ready to cross the border. Or, we could try moving around: head north for some crown land camping to enjoy the fall colours, overnight at the casinos in Innisfil and Orillia, see if a BDW will take us in for a bit, try some of the HHs in the Niagara area.
If we need to be near Newmarket for a turnover, I bet the Lowes would let us park and even unhitch for a few days or a week. We would almost certainly be buying a few things at that time and with my corporate account, I am a verified customer! There is also a giant movie theatre there – maybe if we go see a couple movies they will allow us to park for a few days and even unhitch. If our big rental is temporarily vacant, we could actually park our rig in the driveway while working on an apartment – town by-laws even allow it. There is a new carpool lot at 404 and Queensville Sideroad with lots of room and a new onroute just opened on the 400 near Innisfil: both they will allow overnight parking though not unhitching.
All this to say, RVing in Ontario and particularly near the GTA will not be easy. Getting a seasonal site in Tottenham in 2017 is easy and affordable but is not necessarily the camping experience we want. For 2016, I think we need to save our money and just see what happens. We really need to just get out there and do it to learn what will work. We are smart, resourceful people and we will figure it out! As RVers like to say, if you plan every detail in advance, there is no opportunity for serendipity to work things out!
Variable Cell Coverage
This transition year is about test driving our new lifestyle to learn what we need to make this work. While on the road, I am making lists of things we will need for real full-timing that we didn’t bring on this trip to Bar Harbor. I am experiencing the realities of finding campsites, obtaining resources when constantly in new places and pacing to enjoy my travels without overdoing it. One issue I have found is the variability of cell and data connectivity on the road. I know Cherie and Chris of Technomadia have developed a Coverage app for iPhone which conveniently provides coverage info on all the major carriers across the US. I have an android phone so will have to access coverage maps for individual carriers on their websites.
I haven’t had any cell or data signal for over a week now – nothing at my BDW spot or here in the White Mountains. However, the BDW had WIFI and there is WIFI at the visitor centre I am allowed to use for free for as long as I like – they even have a lovely sitting room. I’ve made phone calls with James on FB Messenger, Skype and Hangouts Dialer over this WIFI signal. Happily Bell Canada agreed to refund the cost of the second month of US long distance and data since their own records showed that I hadn’t used it at all.
Having a Plan
It makes me wonder to what extent we really both need to have cell and data plans? Since we will be parting ways and meeting up, in theory we MUST have plans. But if those plans won’t even be working in many of the places we want to stay, they could actually do more harm than good by providing us with a false sense of connection. Given this, when James will be riding ahead to scope out good dispersed campsites, we will need to have a clear PLAN for exactly where we will meet up in case we cannot reach each other. Simply assuming we will be able to call or text each other could backfire badly and leave us unable to find each other as darkness is falling.
When dispersed camping is the goal, meeting up at the previously located Ranger Station is probably the safest bet. But if James wants to ride ahead to scope out sites before I get there, he could leave instructions for me with the Ranger on what area to head to. If James fails to show up due to a crash or breakdown and I have no cell signal, he or the police could still leave me voicemail messages which I could pick up using any landline. We always carry emergency contact info cards in our wallets. Perhaps the best thing is to just stick together when we know we are heading into an area with limited cell coverage.
$16 for a Hike? Really?
My time in the White Mountains has presented a bit of a conundrum: this stunning National Forest has provided me with a beautiful, private free campsite for as long as I like and endless opportunities for free recreation including hiking, biking, swimming, scenic drives, visitor centres and just gazing at the incredible mountains all around. Yet, on the flip side, there are fee-based attractions which entice with a special experience but come with a surprising price tag in expensive US dollars: a day’s ride on the scenic train is $60; the cog train up Mount Washington is $68, riding in a packed van up to Mount Washington is $35 while it costs $26 to drive up in your own vehicle! Even to go on a simple hike on the Flume Gorge trail requires an admission fee of $16! Just to go for a hike! Wow!
I am torn in trying to decide just what is worth paying for. Spending money doesn’t come easily to me; with so many wonderful free things available, why spend money to see more? On the other hand, as snowbirds spending our entire 6 month allotment of US time down south, we literally will not have the opportunity to return to this north-eastern corner of the USA for years. I don’t want to look back and regret not trying something cool and interesting just because I didn’t want to spend the money. Plus the things that cost money are likely to be the best the area has to offer. How to decide?
I talked it over with James for his insight on a payphone at the Flume Visitor’s Centre (with no cell service at my site, I found an actual land line payphone and called his toll free work number haha!) He pointed out that since I am not spending any money on camping fees here, it would be okay to spend a bit on some attractions instead. I also noticed, as we were chatting, a poster about a Discovery Pass: $29 would get me access to the Flume Gorge hike and a ride up the Tram, a nearby funicular to the top of Cannon Mountain over 4000 feet. Well $29USD is about $40CAD right now – not cheap but not excessive either. It gets me access to 2 cool attractions and it is half the cost of the train rides! So I went for it and hiked the Flume Gorge twice – it was pretty spectacular and I enjoyed it even with Sadie having to wait in the van.
So the lesson learned? Well, first of all, don’t rush in. If you are going to be in an area for awhile, do something free on the first day to take some time to get to know the area and find out about the different attractions and their prices before deciding. Consider and ask if there are any discounts or combination passes available for any of the area attractions: as happened today, bundling up 2 or more attractions may provide some savings. Often there are discount coupons in tourist magazines so that is a good place to check too. If you are not sure, take some time to think it through logically and set your feelings aside so you don’t regret a rash decision later.
Driving my RV up Cherry Mountain Road
After a week in crowded pay campgrounds followed by a week at HH and BDW, I am more than ready for the independence and privacy of a dispersed camping experience. Like at Allegheny in May, I must find a site on my own without the benefit of James riding ahead to scope out conditions or secure a site. The White Mountains National Forest Ranger Station told me about Cherry Mountain Road having dispersed sites suitable for an RV. It is a gravel road not maintained in winter but they assured me that it was safe to drive and not too hilly. Hmmm.
So I head up this road and discover that it is a narrow, winding gravel road with a severe crown, meaning it slopes off into ditches on either side. Further, it climbs up and down as much as it winds from side to side and is only wide enough for one vehicle to pass most of the time. To accommodate this, there are small pull-off areas every 100 to 300 metres where one vehicle could pull over and allow another vehicle to pass. Hmmm.
Once I get started, I have to continue and maintain a certain speed on approach to each incline to be sure I will reach the top hoping I won’t come across an oncoming vehicle. Normally finding myself towing on a road like this could put me in a panic but somehow knowing that I may find a dispersed site settles my fears enough to keep pushing forward.
The sites are numbered: half are occupied, I stop to investigate the ones that are not but they are each too hilly or the entrance too rutted for my low-clearance trailer. Finally I reach site 8 and see that it is available, beautiful and has a manageable incline and passable entrance. I do something I don’t normally do: concerned another vehicle may come up behind me (one already passed while I was pulled over), I lined up and backed in without walking the site first. Once I am fully off the road and out of harm’s way, I climb out to investigate further and adjust to re-position in the best spot. The site slopes down toward the road so I can use the tongue jack post to level up but I have to crank it up all the way on 4 blocks to get there. Not ideal but with my solid chocks, I should be okay.
What did I learn from all this? Ask the ranger more specific and open-ended questions about the road conditions: How hilly are the road and the sites? Rate this road from 1 – 10 for passability for a minivan towing a travel trailer? Is it a one lane road with pull offs or a real 2 lane road? Would you drive a minivan towing a travel trailer down that road? Other RVers have said that if they are unsure about a road, they unhitch and go down it without the trailer first. But this is exactly what I am trying to avoid: hitching and unhitching are a lot of work. I am beginning to realize just how critical James is to riding ahead on his motorcycle to scope out free campsites before I get there. I got into my site okay but would I do it again knowing what I know now? I am not sure. As long as I don’t come across an oncoming vehicle on the way out, I should be okay.