Thursday, May 30, 2013

Overland Expo 2013 - Classes, Cool Trucks, and Camping

This was my first Overland Expo. In fact I'd never even heard of it, or overlanding, until sometime last December when I was reading truck-camper forums and thinking about the pop-up camper that I had not yet even ordered. The Expo was being held at the Mormon Lake Rodeo Grounds not too far south of Flagstaff, AZ in the middle of the Coconino National Forest. You could buy a single-day ticket which would allow you to view the exhibits, open demos, and try the driving course, or buy a three-day pass which would also allow you to attend as many of the classes as you wished (some specialized training and certifications were also offered, as separate cost items.)

What is overlanding? Wikipedia states, "Overlanding is the self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, accommodated by mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping; often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries."

For me overlanding means visiting natural wonders and seeing & photographing amazing landscapes and wildlife while camping along the way. It means being off the beaten track, finding the backroads that allow a sense of wonder for nature. My interest is in traveling in the US, especially the southwest, but there are overland adventures on every continent and folks who dedicate their time and resources to exploring the world.

Overland Expo promised a window into a realm with which I was unfamiliar, yet very curious in learning about. Visit the link to learn about the wide variety of subjects offered, as my focus and this post will be only about a small part of what was available.

A big attraction was also the overland driving course on which one could drive under the instruction of an experienced Land Rover driver. As I hadn't been behind the wheel of a 4x4 since high school, getting a refresher and instruction on doing it right seemed like a great plan. For more information on the driving course and photos, visit my blog post on the subject.

Attendees were invited to come on Thursday afternoon to check-in and find a camping spot in order to be ready the next day to dive into the Expo experience itself. I knew beforehand that camping would just be a bunch of folks haphazardly setting up in a big open field. I didn't realize how lumpy that field would be - it was hard to drive across and even harder to walk across to get to the main Expo grounds, but camping was included in the 3-day package and a good way to make new friends. I found a good spot on the edge of the campgrounds, next to the fence, figuring that would keep a vista clear.

Looks like the three of us are all alone, but that is just an illusion. This first morning there were lots of folks, but that is nothing compared to how full the area was by the time I returned at the end of the day. I would not have been able to get this view Monday evening due to many more campers being in the area. 

Day One, Friday

After attending a Welcome Ceremony, I made my way to my first class, How to Weld in the Field. Years ago I'd seen a couple of engineers weld an accelerator cable back together in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada, so was interested in how it should be done. Amazing how "easy" it was to strike an arc for welding and how much practice would be required to lay down a smooth bead.

After initially demonstrating the power of three batteries in series, the instructor shows that 24volts can also be effective in drawing a bead and welding two pieces of metal together.

The exhibition area was on the way to the overland driving course, where I drove a fancy Range Rover. See the separate post on the driving course.

Here are some of the cool trucks I saw that morning:

This customized vintage rig was for sale.
More military surplus trucks outfitted for overlanding.
When I was wandering through Flagstaff trying to find the road to the Expo, I spotted this safari-decorated truck on the road I was following; I was comforted that I was indeed on the right path.
I later learned the truck is a Unimog, made by Mercedes-Benz.
Another Unimog, sporting a pop-up camping top. Note also, the spare tire storage & lifting device behind the cab.

After lunch I attended the class, Recovery without a Winch, taught by two seasoned Land Rover Drivers. Very informative! For those who don't know "recovery" refers to the techniques to extricate a vehicle stuck in mud, sand, water, rocks, etc. This class introduced us to recovery tools such as specialized straps so one vehicle can pull another out of trouble.

Straps, ropes, chains, and jacks, oh, my!

My next class was Basic Navigation and Compass Skills which I found to be very interesting. I know how to use a GPS device, but never navigated using a compass and maps. The instructor was an experienced Search & Rescue volunteer for the county. He had a baseplate compasses, sample maps and hand-outs for all the students to practice with. The wind was blowing hard making it difficult to hold the maps flat and I neglected to get a photo of the class.

There were so many new campers in the camping area that I almost couldn't find my way back to my truck - could have used some of those new navigation skills, here. Fortunately, there was a ham radio operator with a tall mast that made a good landmark.

A couple of spaces down was another Tacoma with a self-contained Fleet on it, owned by an interesting fellow named Roy who was from Canada. We exchanged tips and ideas about our campers. We ran into each other later that evening at the Happy Hour and exchanged other stories. (Hey, Roy, did you make it home safe?)

Day Two, Saturday

My first class on Saturday was Conservation Driving taught by Jonathan Hanson, co-owner of the Expo, owner of the famous JATAC (Just Another Tacoma And Camper), and all around nice guy. This was held off-site and we were to bring our own vehicles, so I packed up tight and left my campsite.

Turns out the driving portion of the class had to be cancelled due to a large tree that had fallen across the appointed course. Nonetheless, Jonathan demonstrated the affects of 2 wheel drive versus 4 wheel drive versus front & rear differential lockers, which was interesting new info to me presented in an organized and understandable manner. Seems I failed to get a photo.

Since I was all packed up, I decided this was the time to try my hand at the overland course in my rig. See the separate post.

I attended the one hour Recovery with a Winch demonstration before lunch. It was excellent. Taught by two Land Rover drivers who not only covered the subject well, but also instilled a real sense of the hazards in winching and the necessary steps to take to stay safe.

Left: showing how to keep tension on the cable while paying it out, without load, to keep the cable dressed.
Right: showing how to use a snatch-block (pulley) to double the winch capacity.

After lunch attended the 2 hour Recover with a Winch Class which wasn't as well organized, but they did have time to set up an actual winch task (though for safety sake, with all us standing around, they didn't put full tension on the winch cable.)

Left: the "winch master" giving the signal to reel in the winch cable.
Right: manning the winch vehicle & running the engine to keep from discharging the battery.

As the camp had been a bit noisy the night before, with people socializing and a few dogs barking, I decided I'd camp in the National Forest that night. There are many nearby forest service roads leading into the hills with a number of dispersed campsites available.

The Expo site is surrounded by the Coconino National Forest. Here is the site I found.

Day Three, Sunday

Sunday started with an Exhibitor Walk-about with the exhibitors serving food and treats for attendees. I missed most of this as I was relaxing in my camp off-site. But did get there in time to talk with Terry at the FWC exhibit area about my camper.

The first class of the day was Wilderness Bail-out Bags (or survival bags. What you need to survive in an emergency, or be more comfortable in a tight situation.) It was taught by Andrew Moore, the same excellent instructor as presented the compass and navigation class. Very interesting and I took notes.

The pink backpack is a bag Andrew made up for his young daughter to keep with her.

Bush Mechanics: 4WD Vehicle Maintenance was the next class I'd signed up for. Wasn't exactly what I was expecting as it didn't actually cover maintenance, but rather Land Rover driver Fred Monsees told stories of how he had patched together various vehicles that broke on the road or trail, then explained how that might apply to our vehicles. Much more entertaining than changing oil. No photo.

Fred is a genuine character, a very helpful and nice guy who has obviously had years and years of off-road and overland experience. He was also my instructor the first day on the driving course and had encouraged me to try it in my Tacoma.

Here is a photo of a couple of Mercedes-Benz trucks that I thought were interesting. As one walked among the exhibitors or to classes, there were always interesting things to see. I didn't photograph even a small fraction of all the cool things and pretty much neglected all the more common vehicles, such as campers, expedition tents & trailers, and vehicle & camping accessories.

On the truck on the right they were using "unleveling blocks" at the corners to show how the truck will articulate with the terrain.

After lunch was Solar Essentials 101. It was presented by a fellow from SolarFilms, Inc. which is the only thin-film, amorphous silicon solar-panel manufacturer in the U.S. He discussed the various types of solar panels used in mobile applications, their pros and cons. He attempted to keep it technology- and company-neutral, but it was clear he thought the advantages of thin-film trumped the others. He provided a comprehensive hand-out on the various technologies covering efficiency, thermal losses, etc., so we can evaluate our own applications. No photo.

The last class of the event was Advanced Tire Repair. Another excellent, fun, and very interesting class. Earlier this year, as I was waiting for my camper to be manufactured and delivered, I purchased a good tire repair kit, but had never seen one used in person. Plugging a hole, repairing a sidewall, and removing & mounting a tire in the field were demonstrated.

Using a Hi-Lift jack to break the bead on a tire.

A delicious BBQ dinner was served in the big tent behind the main lodge as the Expo finale. I had the sirloin steak, baked potato with sour cream, corn on the cob, beans, salad, sourdough roll, cookies and iced tea. Enjoyed visiting with new friends made at the event.

I've no photos of the BBQ so will end with one of a Camel Trophy Land Rover to honor all the great Land Rover drivers, many of whom had, in the past, participated in Camel Trophy events. They did a fantastic job both on the driving course and also as skilled instructors in the vehicle classes!

And what do Land Rover drivers always advise? 

Drive "as slow as possible and as fast as necessary."

Excellent advice which served me well in days to come. Stay tuned to this blog for those adventures.

Yes, that is a roof mounted tent. Many expedition vehicles (even small ones such as Jeeps and Toyota FJs) had roof-mounted, clam-shell or pop-up tents mounted.

The Overland Expo was a great experience; fun and very informative, filled to bursting with people eager to learn or to teach. If you've never been and have even a small interest in this type of adventure, then you owe it to yourself to go next year!

Thanks for visiting my blog!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Overland Expo 2013 - Overland Driving Course Photo Gallery

I attended this year's Overland Expo at Mormon Lake just south of Flagstaff. The event was held May 17 - 19th and included exhibits, demonstrations, classes and the Overland Driving Course. The Driving Course was sponsored and set-up by Land Rover. Anyone attending the expo could drive the course either in their own vehicle or one furnished by Land Rover. In both cases an experienced Land Rover Driver would sit in the front passenger seat and provide instruction, tips and techniques.

Note: this post only covers the Overland Driving Course. My next post will be my main report on the Expo.

I went through the course the first time on Friday driving a super-fancy Range Rover with computerized controls that handled everything to do with controlling the engine and suspension. It was fun, but more like a theme-park ride. I kept asking about how my Tacoma would do on those same course features and the instructor kept encouraging me to bring in my Tacoma and camper and try it for myself. He said they would pick a route and lines appropriate for my vehicle.

After some thought I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. How else would I learn so much about the 4WD performance of my rig in such a safe environment where a super experienced instructor would make sure nothing "bad" happened. I drove the course in my truck on Saturday.

Below are general photos of the course. I end with two photos of my vehicle stopped on the course in the section which would lift one wheel of a Land Rover in the air and thus required differential lockers. My stock Tacoma does not have lockers, though they could be added after-market if I wish. The instructor guided me from outside the truck and eased me as far as we were both comfortable going and where the truck was losing traction. He had me exit the cab and take a look saying I could probably get though if it were absolutely "necessary," but recommended I back up and take the bypass for this section. Whew!

I was amazed at how well the stock Tacoma and camper did on the course as we went though most of the rest of the features including the steep climbs, dips, and cambers. The instructor commented several times at how great the stock limited-slip differential performed. A wonderful experience and I came away with new ideas on how to drive in these situations and what the truck, even laden with the camper, could do.

The Overland Driving Course at Overland Expo 2013.

I was able to go this far, but then stopped at the next "bump."

Another truck and camper at full tilt.

Three hills; three Land Rovers.

Another truck and camper climbs a small hill.

A little log bridge to add some flavor.

This is the section that requires differential lockers, as you can easily see.

My Tacoma and camper at its limit.

Other side of my Tacoma and camper at its limit.

Driving the course was a great, fun experience and I encourage everyone who attends the Overland Expo to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Rattlesnake Springs Bird Photo Gallery

I visited Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area in the late morning and again in the late afternoon of April 30, 2012. The area is part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but not contiguous with the main park, but located farther south off the main highway.

For the main blog posting on this area and complete trip, visit "Spring" in Southeastern New Mexico.

It was a windy day and the birds did not care to pose for the camera. As you will see many of the birds were in thick branches and many of the photos are not particularly sharp as the subjects were far away and the photos had to be cropped heavily.

Nonetheless, I did want to preserve some of the photos I took as a general interest to birders and nature lovers.

Barn Swallow resting on a wire overhead.

This Green Heron was hanging out in a marshy area until I blundered by and it flew into a Cottonwood.

The Orchard Oriole is smaller and darker than the Baltimore Oriole

A bright, male Summer Tanager in a thicket.

This is the female Vermillion Flycatcher against a overpoweringly bright background.

The male Vermillion Flycatcher. He was singing and flitting about constantly.

A Western Kingbird, though I tried to wish it into a Cassin's.

A Western Tanager overhead in thick twigs.

Wild Turkey gobbler displaying his finery. The bluffs in the background contain Carlsbad Caverns.
Thanks for stopping by to look at the birds.

Monday, May 6, 2013

"Spring" in Southeastern New Mexico

The plan was to take a week for some early dragonfly hunting (with my camera) in southeast New Mexico. My resident expert said the last two weeks in April and first two weeks in May should be ideal and not too hot. Sign me up!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Got a good 7am start, filled up at $3.08/gal, drove east on I-40 to Clines Corners, then south on US-285 to Roswell. Nice drive, mild winds, unlike last trip! Antelope are frequently seen along here, but not today.


Topped off the tank at $3.04/gal. in Roswell! The gas station attendant came out of his armored booth to say, "I just realized. Does the roof of your camper lift up? How high does it go?" "High enough for me to stand easily inside," I replied. He asked a couple other questions, then as he headed back to his duties, he said, "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen!" I agreed, but just said, "Thanks."

Found a good parking spot in the shade next to the civic center, as it was now approaching 90F. Walked down to and back along the Spring River, which is one of the good dragonfly spots in the area, but not today. 

Had a great lunch at Martíns on 4th Street, just west of Main. Carne Adabo enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas and covered with both red and green chile. Yummy! Super to have a fridge in the camper for the go box. 

Color on the pond at the bird sanctuary 
Next I tried the two ponds at the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary on the west side of town for odes, again no dragonflies. Though I did see a few damselflies, including a Double-striped Bluet, which was a new species for me. 
Double-striped Bluet damselflies mating in the "wheel" position. The male is bright blue.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Drove about eight miles east of town to the wildlife refuge. They had water in many of their pond areas, which was good to see as this is an important stop for migrants, especially shorebirds. Saw a bunch of very cool Wilson's Phalaropes in breeding plumage feeding in dizzying circles like they do, but no odes. 
One of many Wilson's Phalaropes. Also seen were a good number of Black-necked Stilts & American Avocets.

This is a great place for migrating birds, such as Sandhill Cranes in winter. They also host a Dragonfly Festival in early September.

On the Road

It was earlier than I'd planned to camp, the wind was kicking up and there was construction on the highway to Bottomless Lakes State Park, so time to innovate. Thought I'd head to Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, which was recommended both for its beauty and the possibility for finding dragonflies. However, when I turned off the main highway between Artesia and Carlsbad, there was a sign by the road advising me of the recreation area's hours. I stopped and called the forest district office to confirm, and sure enough out of luck. It is only open Friday through Monday from noon to 6pm. 

Lincoln National Forest

After much driving found a plain dispersed camp spot in the national forest just west of the tiny village of Queen. Not a real exciting spot in the sparse juniper forest, but the nicer looking areas seemed to already be hosting range cattle.
Camp site among the juniper - at least it was level.
The cacti were blooming in the area.
I'd heard that Saturn was close to earth and easy to see this week, so had brought my spotting scope. I used the SkySafari app on my phone to locate the planet and, sure enough, I could see the rings around the planet and, I think, one of its moons. Very cool! I tried to use my digiscoping camera, but had no success taking a photo. I then turned the scope to Jupiter and found it and three of its moons all in a diagonal row. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rattlesnake Springs

Drove to Carlsbad to refuel, $3.29, then checked out Rattlesnake Springs which is part of Carlsbad Caverns NP, though the turn-off is 5.4 miles south of the main entrance. No odes, but a few camera shy birds. Backtracked the short distance to the caverns. I'd only been there twice in my life; once when I was maybe 6 years old and again in high school.
The Ocotillo were blooming all through the desert in SE New Mexico.
This is just outside the Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center with the eastern plains visible on the right.

Carlsbad Caverns

I decided to do the self-guided tours. First I walked down the natural entrance. Wow! Sure a long way down. That route is not as scenic as the Big Room, that I walked next, but puts the whole cavern in context. The Big Room is amazing! I'm going to have to return and take tours of some of the other areas you can only see with a ranger. Tried various techniques to photograph the interior, some of which seemed to at least produce an image. It is impossible to discern the scale of the objects in the photos, however, due to that natural fractal thing.

Rechecked Rattlesnake Springs Picnic Area before I left the area. It was still hot and the picnic area did have many large trees for shade where I could while away a little time. There were a few more birds, but no odes. 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Drove south to the Guadalupe Mountains NP. Didn't time it as well as I'd hoped. I guess I spent too much time in the shade at Rattlesnake Springs. I'd intended to arrive before dusk, but got to the Pine Springs Campground just at dark. Pine Springs is the only campground in the park unless you are a dedicated backpacker. I was amazed at all the campers. Lots of tent campers and the RV lot was almost full, and most of it is just that, a parking lot. 

I was lucky as I found a spot at the very end of the lot which had a buffer between me and the van next door, plus no neighbor at all on the far side - with great views. I guess it is a cheap night for many with those enormous fifth-wheels as most of them rolled out early in the morning. 
Pine Springs RV Campsites with the fabulous view which greeted me in the morning.

It was warm and breezy, but not too bad. 

May, 1, 2013

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

I met a couple of folks in the campground in the morning on my way to the flush toilets. They were advising their fellow campers of big changes in the weather ahead. Extremely strong northerly winds that evening and a large drop in temperatures. They decided they'd stay at Pine Springs and batten down, but were going to day hike McKittrick Canyon. I said I was hiking there, too, and maybe I'd see them on the trail.

McKittrick Canyon

After packing up, drove to the McKittrick Canyon trailhead. I didn't get the chance to explore here on my previous visit. Clear skies and it was already getting quite warm. The first part of the trail is desert, but after you get up canyon a ways the vegitatation changes and then the stream appears (then disappears and reappears and disappears.) But the areas of water must persist through the seasons as they are full of life, including beautiful little Rainbow Trout. Scrub gives way to juniper to piñon to pine and Madrone. It is dramatically scenic and I recommend the hike, though be aware about half of it is essentially on natural gravel and is a chore to walk through.

I made it up to the 2.4 miles to the old Pratt Lodge where the folks I'd met from the campground caught up with me. We shared a few stories and they shared a bit of their lunch with me... very nice people. Pretty hot walking out - take lots of water if you go. Saw only the same damselflies I'd been seeing all week, plus a Flame Skimmer and another very dark red dragonfly I cannot identify. 

I was very glad to get back to the (unmanned) visitor center at the trailhead. I wet a kerchief and draped it over my head to cool down.

Lincoln National Forest

On my drive back north I took a detour to check below Sitting Bull Falls in the trickle of water there for odes, but nothing. On my way north to Roswell I could literally see the cold front coming from the northeast. I looked for eats in Artesia. Stumbled upon Henry's BBQ on Main west of downtown. Good food and the chopped, green chile brisket was delicious. 

Bottomless Lakes State Park

Pulled into the Lea Lake campground at Bottomless Lakes right at sunset after fighting the winds since just before Artesia. Forecast for dangerously high winds and plummeting temperatures was coming true and I became quite chilly in my shorts and t-shirt as I set up camp. I'd found a site with a little shelter downwind of a Salt Cedar. The camper got thrown around pretty good all night by the winds, but held up well. 
Campsite at Lea Lake with a scraggly tamarisk as a wind break.

May 2, 1013

Bottomless Lakes State Park

It got down to 39 according to my thermometer. Still windy. At least they have electric hookups and WiFi here. If I left today I'd fight very strong headwinds home. If I leave tomorrow I'm supposed to have good tailwinds and have a chance to look for dragonflies if the weather does improve. 

I was able to download from the library website Nevada Barr's first novel, Track of the Cat, which is set in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I will lay up here reading, listening to satellite radio and let my feet and legs recover from my hikes. I don't recall how I first found her murder mystery series, but the accounts of a fictional law enforcement ranger for the park service, written by an actual law enforcement ranger are compelling. Her love and respect for the stark, unforgiving, yet beautiful land of Guadalupe Mountains NP was the cause for my first visit to this park in far, far west Texas. My visit yesterday made me want to revisit the novel. (She has written many more excellent mysteries featuring the fictitious Ranger Anna Pigeon as she is transferred to other National Parks. Recommended!)

My first propane bottle became empty late this morning. The furnace turned on then off again after only a minute, but that didn't really register. However, when I went to heat up some lunch and the stove would not light I finally figured out what had happened. The camper has two 10 pound propane bottles and it is very easy to move the hose from the empty to the full bottle. I just need to remember to fill the empty before my next trip.

The weather improved some, though it stayed windy all day, and was able to take a couple of short walks. Took some photos of Lea Lake and found a few damselflies including a Variable Dancer. 

A can of soup filled my belly for dinner, but I really should put more effort into it and get creative since I have a refrigerator for fresh food. 

May 3, 2013

Bottomless Lakes State Park

It was 25 degrees when I finally climbed out of the sleeping bag at 6:40am. That must be the magic number, as every trip I've taken so far, it has dropped that low at least one night. Fortunately, this cannot go on much longer!

It took a while to warm up, so I stayed inside either on the Internet or reading my novel, which I finished before lunch (combination of being a fast reader, a quick read, and the time to put those to aspects together.)

The wind had dropped to almost nothing, even though still cool, and I was able to walk around to check the dragonfly areas. Lots of those Variable Dancer damselflies, but only a couple of glimpses of a dragonfly too fleeting to really count.

Roswell, then on the Road to Home

I packed up in the early afternoon, checked the Spring River in Roswell one more time without success. I was really looking forward to filling my tank at the station with $3.04/gal. gas, but it had gone up by 15 cents/gal. Darn! Oh, well that was no higher than anywhere else in town. I then set off for home. Luckily as forecast, I did indeed have tailwinds most of the way home.

Carlsbad Caverns Photo Gallery

Photos to go with the "'Spring' in Southeastern New Mexico" post.

Begin walking down the trail to the Natural Entrance.
Down, down we go...
About to enter the cave. You can smell the cool moist air. Cave Swallows fly around.
There is still a long way down from here. It is an amazing space underground, but my photos of this area didn't come out very well. I was experimenting as I continued farther into the cave.

These types of formations are called "draperies."

I hope you have enjoyed this small selection of photos. Most of these were taken in the Big Room.

If you have questions about the photo techniques, please ask in the comments. Most were taken with high-ISO, primarily ISO 6400. Most were taken using only ambient light, a few with ambient light and -2eV flash. The flash only photos didn't turn out well for the most part, the exception being the "dagger" photo. It was very difficult to correctly set focus until I hit upon the technique to enable flash & autofocus, set the range, turn the flash & auto focus off, then take the photo with ambient light. The entrance photos were a manual blend of two exposures.

Thanks for looking.