Category Archives: camping

Our Eclipse Trip (Part 1)

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 was the first one that we would be able to get to and view.  Buffalo had an annular  eclipse (the moon is farther from the Earth, producing a ‘Ring of Fire’) in 1994, but it was too overcast to see, and the previous visible total eclipse was in 1925!   So we had planned for this for a couple of years to get the right place to be to see it well.

LOOK BACK: Walter Cronkite covers the 1979 eclipse

I had scoped out the Dixon Springs State Park in Illinois as a nearly perfect place to stay.  It was about midway between the point of maximum coverage and maximum duration.  I emailed back and forth with one of the park officials who identified the best sites to fit our bus, and let me know that the site reservation window would open on January 1, 2017 for the August reservations.

However, when I logged into ReserveAmerica to grab one of the sites, I found them ALL booked.  It turns out that the state of Illinois had decided to capitalize on the eclipse for tourism, and had rolled their reservation window back to November and promoted their state sites!  Scrambling a bit, I found the Fort Massac State Park, adjacent to Metropolis, Illinois.

French Fort De L’Ascension/Massac on the left and reconstructed American Fort Massac on the right.

Fort Massac was originally founded by the French in 1757 as Fort De L’Ascension, and was rebuilt and renamed Massac during the end of the French and Indian War.  While the British nominally owned the territory afterward, the fort itself was burned by the local Cherokee by the time the British got there.

Reconstructed American Fort Massac (minus the log palisades).

The Americans got into the act when General George Washington ordered the fort reconstructed in 1794, and for the next 20 years it served as a military post, sometimes called the ‘Gibraltar of the Ohio’ due to it’s elevation and view of the river. Notable figures of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark camped at Fort Massac in 1803 as they made preparations for their Corps of Discovery expedition to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

The sign says it all …

Metropolis was laid out as a formal town in 1839, and it was hoped that it would be a transportation and commerce hub. It is now a city of about 6000 people, and is best known as the home of Superman (this is official, both from DC Comics and the Illinois State Legislature!).

 

A tiny fraction of the stone tool collection at Fort Massac.

As we were to find out, the Fort Massac Visitor Center there is mostly museum! They have a great collection of native american stone artifacts (from all over Illinois), and French and American artifacts recovered from the forts.

But most important for me was the fact that Fort Massac was still within the band of totality for the eclipse, and was only about 16 miles from Dixon Springs, so we wouldn’t lose much (about 10 seconds of totality) from being dead-center along the eclipse line. Within a few minutes, I had a site chosen and booked.  We had a place to camp for the eclipse!

Then we had to get there.  The longest trip that we’d taken the bus on was from Buffalo to Ohiopyle, PA (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) and back which was a measly 600 miles or so.  This was going to be some 1600 miles, so it would be our biggest foray to date.

Our (rather grainy) route map for the Eclipse Trip

We had limited time to make the trip, and decided on a few key places to stop on our trip.  We had some friends in Cincinnati, OH who we could stop and see, the Embroiderer’s Guild of America Headquarters were in Louisville, KY, as was the Bulleit Bourbon Distillery tour (at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery), all on the way to Fort Massac.  On the way back, we could stop at Mammoth Caves and Big Bone Lick (where we could camp for the night).

With all this planned out, the next thing was packing and provisioning the bus. And then, of course, setting out on the journey …

(Continued in Part 2)

 

A Rochester Trip

So, we had to go to Rochester, NY for the Science Exploration Day that St. John Fisher College hosted.  As we needed to be at the college campus at 9:00 for registration, as our son was going as part of a group of Rochester homeschool kids, and thus we could beat the crush of buses bringing in regular school kids.

We briefly looked at hotels to stay in overnight, as it’s an hour and a half drive from Buffalo, but even with the College discounts at local places, it was still pretty expensive.  Given that, I of course took a look for campgrounds.  And, only 20 minutes away from St. John Fisher College, I found Webster Park, which has some areas of shoreline on Lake Ontario.

Webster Park Location

The campground itself has 45 sites and is nestled back about half a mile from the shore, surrounded by light to heavy woods for all but the big motorhome sites.  All the sites have electric, and while only five have dedicated water, there are enough taps throughout that about the farthest you’d have to walk for water is two or three sites.  While the price per night was higher than we’d payed for any of the Erie County or State sites we’d been to, it was certainly worth it compared to the hotel costs (and proximity to Rochester and Lake Ontario probably causes a lot of demand for sites).

So, even with the bus still having the hot start fail, we decided that it would be a short enough trip that we wouldn’t need to stop the bus unless we were in a place where it could sit and cool before we needed to go again.  We would start in Buffalo and get to Webster Park, then stay overnight. Then we would go from Webster Park to St. John Fisher and shut the bus down for the classes.  Then, when we were ready, head out from the College and back home.

The trip to the park was fairly uneventful, though I did a horrible job of trying to stay out of the way of fast-paced cars on the Rochester expressways.  It seemed like as soon as I moved over into the right hand lane to travel at the speed limit, the lane was ending, becoming an exit-only, or the exit we needed was a left-lane exit.  And, for that I apologize to those inconvenienced drivers.

Irondaquoit Bay Bridge

But some of the drive was wonderfully scenic, like on the Route 104 bridge, some 45 feet up over Irondequoit Bay.  We found the campgrounds with no problem, though the stretch of Lake Road from Bay Road to the park is a lovely twisty, hilly section that motorcyclists must adore.

Checking in at the park was simple – since I had printed out my email confirmation of our reservation, all they had to do was see that and we were set.  Monroe County’s reservation site was nice, as it give pictures of the sites as well as the electrical, vehicle/trailer length capabilities, and such.  From that, while site 19 and 21 looked big and easy to back the bus into, I ended up choosing site 15, as just down behind it was East Creek, and I thought there would be a nice view downhill behind the site.

Settling in to Site 15

Site 15 ended up being even nicer when we got there.  It was easy to get the bus backed in, due to the curve of the loop at that point, and contained the end of a little geographical ‘finger’ so that at the north end of our site we could look down toward a swampy area, much like we could look down into a low valley to our east.

A better look at how Site 15 goes back along the finger

 

Lake Ontario from Webster Park

Down at the bottom of the ‘finger’ was a path that we could follow back along to the west and north, which brought us to the Kanatota Lodge which overlooks Lake Ontario.  It was a great sunny day to be there, with splashing waves and a nice breeze.  And the hike only took us about 10-15 minutes.

Part of the reason for a longer hike than it might seem for the distance was that there had been a windstorm that brought down a number of good-sized pine trees, so we had to pick our way around or over those.  But, since we could use fallen wood as firewood, we didn’t have to use any of our own wood for the fire.

And the galley stayed clean!

We had a nice meal of beans (pre-cooked from dry at home), peppers, and tomatoes all cooked up in cast iron over the fire and some home-baked sourdough bread, and were joined by a dear friend who came up from Rochester to spend the evening with us.  Marshmallows were toasted (or burned) over the fire on the telescoping prongs’ first use,

and scary stories were told in the red glow of the embers of the fire, accompanied by bourbon for those (adults) so inclined.

The morning’s view, east from Site 15
And the nature was ALL around the back of the bus.

We cleaned everything up just as a thunderstorm rolled in, and we all slept well.  The temperature had dropped, so it was a bit chilly, and the sky was a little overcast after the storm, but the bathroom facilities were a warm, and we were able to set out on-time to brave the morning commuters along our route to the College.

And we had to say goodbye to our friends the Window Trees.

I gave us an extra 20 minutes on top of what Google had suggested as travel time for us, and that all worked out – though again, I ended up facing the need to merge into a left-hand exit with rushing commuters doing the same.  My thanks to that pick-up who took pity on us and gave us space to merge!

The Science Exploration Day was a whirlwind of presentations.  The 40 minute presentations were followed by 10 minutes of trying to find the next one’s room.  Construction in one of the buildings, and different numbering directions in differing buildings made this a challenge, but our son got into some cool ones, and as I hung around outside the oft-packed classrooms, I overheard some good presentations.

We had parked in the back of one of the parking lots, and returned after the last presentation to our bus being surrounded by a myriad of national school bus chrome buses!  We stayed and ate some lunch while buses pulled out to pick up school kids, or loaded in the parking lots.  We got some looks, and had some homeschoolers come and take a look at our set-up.

One of the things we found was that the batteries for the linear actuator keychain remotes were dying or dead, meaning we only had one working.  But the batteries were easy to find, and replacing them was the job of a screwdriver and taking the keyring off, taking only a minute to do.  

4 Channel Remote Control Systems


List Price: $79.99 USD
New From: $79.99 USD In Stock
Used from: Out of Stock

A23 12V Alkaline 23-A replacement battery 23AE GP – 5 Pack (Electronics)


List Price: $5.95 USD
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After all the buses were gone, we packed up our lunch and headed out.  Our trip was a bit slower than our trip out to Rochester, as we got stuck behind … school buses dropping off students!  But we all had a great trip, and would be happy to go back to the Webster Park Campground.

 

 

Post Script: As far as the bus engine, it ran flawlessly, even for long periods.  And on our trip out, the ambient temperature was in the high seventies, and the running engine temperatures on the highway were approaching 200, and it didn’t falter.  I did try starting it hot at the campground after we parked, and it still hot failed. More on this later.

A Trip to Presque Isle State Park, PA

So, on the 13th of July we set out for Presque Isle State Park in/by Erie, PA.  Our son had a day’s worth of homeschool classes on aquaculture, swamp & beach biomes, the geology of the park, and preservation and maintenance of the park.  While it was only two and a quarter hours away from Buffalo, as the classes started at 9 am, we decided to camp overnight.

Our trip was uneventful, except for the fact that I made the mistake of topping up the coolant level in the bus before we left.  Why was this a problem?  Because there was a small leak at the coolant reservoir that dripped down onto the alternator, frying the voltage regulator.  By the time we had hit the Angola Rest Area on the NYS Thruway/I-90, we were running on battery power.  But as on our Evangola trip, I knew that the engine would keep running fine, but unlike that previous trip I had the house batteries fully charged, and chargers for both the house and bus batteries that would work when we got to shore power.  But now I knew the reason WHY the alternator was failing.  Unfortunately, the fluctuations in voltage damaged the board in the fridge, though I got it to work for part of the time we were plugged in.

We stayed at Sara’s Campground, whose lands abut right up to both the Presque Isle State Park and the Tom Ridge Environmental Center.  Their grounds also have sites on both sides of Peninsula Drive/Route 832, the east side has sites for actual beach camping (in tents), and the west side is in the more forested area.

Sara's Campground Site Map
Sara’s Campground Site Map

So, we ended up getting Site 21 in the Forest Section.  It was our first stay in a private campground, and I was frankly surprised at the density of sites! The dashcam recorded our trip into our site, including the trepidation and worries I had of getting the bus in a place I’d have to back out of.

Sara’s Campground, Site 21, with the bus all settled.

But the site was fine.  The electric/water pole had a streetlight on it, so we had to put a blanket up over the windows on that side (thankfully magnets hold to bus steel wonderfully).  But there were no sites to our starboard side (where the firepit was), so it was a nice open site (next to a parking lot). And the concrete pad was very nicely level, so everything was comfortable.

Saras Campground, Site 21, with the bus settled and the fire burning down for Toastites.
Saras Campground, Site 21, with the bus settled and the fire burning down for Toastites.

But right across the street (via a crosswalk with speedbumps and a pushbutton controlled set of flashing lights to cross) was the start of Presque Isle’s beaches, and we walked all the way up past the first couple of breakwaters.  We did a little beachcombing, then returned and we made a fire and some lovely toastites for dinner.  We had some people stop by, interested in the bus, and we gave them the tour, and some skoolie info, as they had expressed interest in working up their own.

The sunset over lake Erie, shining right through the back window of the bus.
The sunset over lake Erie, shining right through the back window of the bus.

A little while later, as the sun was setting, we found that the sun was setting directly behind the bus, through the path to the beach.  It was, however, it was basically 9pm, so we were forced to get to bed before we felt we were ready.

Our next morning was fine, coffee and bowls of cereal for breakfast, and as the engine was running and I was doing our pre-trip, folks came over, interested in the bus. Alas, we didn’t have time for a tour, and weren’t returning, but they thought the concept was cool and were absolutely fine with us being there.

Unfortunately, given the short timing of us getting to the Tom Ridge Center for the aquaponics class, and then us getting from that class to our pontoon boat tour, I forgot to turn the dashcam on for those trips. But after the boat tour, I remembered to turn the cam on, so we have a video tour of Presque Isle, sped up 4x.  You miss out on a whole bunch of the cottonwood tree seeds floating about at that speed, but I recorded us getting from the tour to Barracks Beach, and then down the beach road to the Tom Ridge Center again, and then around the whole park once more.

 

Our trip back was uneventful, except for the one tractor-trailer driver who LOVED the train horn.  He paced us while we were still in PA, blew his horn and motioned for me to blow ours and gave a thumbs-up when I did, and hung out in front of us to break air for us until he got to the Angola, NY exit where he sounded his horn again and waved, and I sounded ours again.