Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Our Solar Set-up… the good, the bad and the potentially boring.

There is something very nonchalant about solar power.  It’s there but it’s not there.  It’s works without really working.  You are neither plugged in nor tied down in any way.  Yet, when you want to turn on a light or plug in your computer, even at night, there it is!

IMG_0328(Our panel, fresh out of the box and already providing power via a temp connection)

We’ve been solar independent for about nine months now.  That means we have no generator and we turned off the option to charge from our alternator. 

Solar is now our sole source of electricity.  There are days when it doesn’t even cross our minds where our power is coming from.  But we are quietly confident that it will be there when we need it.  Other times we gaze up at our roof in amazement, get a chuckle out of the whole process and marvel at its simplicity.

Simplicity is what we are seeking in this venture but so is freedom.  Solar provides us with both.  It allows us to park in places like this… nine miles down a dirt road and at least fifteen to the nearest of anything or anyone.
2012-02-24 Lake Mohave Tree Scene
Or this… around fifty miles in any direction to civilization and services.
2012-04-14 e. Fry Canyon, UT (1)
Now, if only we could figure out how to fill our water tank in these remote locations!


Our system is small and fairly crude compared to larger rigs but then again our vehicle is too so it works just fine for us and our purposes.  In our set up, the sun feeds one Kyocera 135 watt panel which is flat mounted on our rear roof rack at about a 3 degree permanent angle due to roof slope and with no possibilities of shadows from roof vents, antennae, etc.. 

IMG_0397 The panel feeds into a breaker first so that we can shut the power feed into the van off at will.  Although we had read about other breaker and fuse options we kept our system simple with just this one shut-off from the panels in.  If we need to work on the panel itself we just throw a sheet over it.  The raw power from the panel is fed through the breaker into a Morningstar Tristar 45 Controller. 
IMG_0394 The controller feeds the batteries based on its ongoing assessment (via the battery voltage monitor wires and its other calculations) of what they need at any given time.  We are running two 12 Volt, 105 amp hour, Costco Krikland Marine Deep-Cycle Batteries wired to provide us with 210 amp hours (which works out to 84 usable amp hours when all is said and done). 

No, we have not put them in a vented battery box.  There is a small vent to the outside just left of the breaker and plenty of circulation in the van at this time so we opted not to.  So far, we are happy with this decision.2011-10-07 Battery Bank Set-UpOur 12 volt lights and outlets are wired through the fuse panel in our old converter (which sits right next to the batteries). 

To run our 110 items, we’ve purchased a Cobra 400 watt inverter.  The inverter is located about a foot from our batteries just outside the bench seat compartment they are stored in.
IMG_0033All 110 items are run via a surge strip which is plugged into our inverter essentially turning one outlet into six.

We followed a few important solar installation basics like keeping our wire runs short, upsizing the gauge wire we used and locating the controller within only a few feet of the batteries all in an effort to minimize voltage drop.  After the system was complete we used our voltmeter to test / compare every in and out and found only a negligible drop in the .0XX range. 

Via the solar, our batteries are charged at 14.8 volts which is why we chose the controller that we did.  It is one of the few that allows the user to set dip switches to their specifications and allow for a higher charging level. 

The batteries that we are running were offered to us by Darlene’s father.  They were used for a while in his boat and in his mind ready for replacement.  To us, they were better than the nothing we were starting out with so we jumped at the offer, topped them off with water (we had found two cells were dry) and threw them in the van. 

From day one of their install (which was three months prior to getting solar) we charged them 98% of the time by van alternator.  Although we had a generator, we used it very sparingly while crossing the country and when we finally turned it on to charge them one afternoon discovered that it had kicked the bucket in a way that was financially not worth the fix.

IMG_0141(A combination voltage regulator / windings failure did in our 1988 friend)

When we had it, our generator was better than nothing at 13.8 charging volts.  Our alternator will charge the batteries at 14.1 but we really don’t drive all that often.  With no generator and plans to boondock for weeks on end without starting the van we needed a way to keep our batteries healthy and provide ourselves with a regular and reliable source of power.  Solar was the answer for us.


Despite having been warned otherwise (by the highly recommended ‘Handy Bob Solar’), we did our own thing initially and purchased a Go Power controller.  Strapped for finances and wanting a simple system it made good sense on one hand if we could get it to work.

It didn’t work.  It charged lower than our 1988 converter / generator combo and was not adjustable.  Our batteries behaved as if we had no solar attached to them at all.  After a few days of ‘testing’ and learning more in a hands on way about why controllers work and don’t work, we returned the Go Power and swapped it out for the Morningstar.  Within a few days our well used batteries were behaving like brand new.  At rest readings in the morning, even after normal evening power consumption, were typically above 12.5 volts and they still are.  We now charge them solely on solar, even when driving (we turned our alternator charging toggle off).  So, if you are considering a system and like to ‘try your own thing’ first like we do we suggest you ensure a solid return policy.

Not once since switching to the Morningstar to complete our system have we run out of power, seen our lights dim or observed a voltage reading indicating that we have pulled our batteries into a deep cycle.  Even over the course of a three day cloudy spell, we saw no negative effect on our system and most of the time still read in the high 13’s on the volt meter. IMG_1590Speaking of meters (or monitors).  We did not install one.  Yes, we think that they can be important, and we consider the Link Lite or the Trimetric 2025 to be great options.  In our case, we opted to simplify our process and reduce our financial output in that we do the majority of our electronics charging (phones, computers, etc.)  and high power usage (tools, etc.) during the afternoon when the panel is providing way more charging power than the batteries can use.  In the evening, we run a few lights off the house batteries.  Our electronics use the power of their internal batteries occasionally getting plugged into the house for an hour or so at night if they die while we are in the middle of something. 

As we said, in the morning, we rarely see an indication that the batteries have been used.  Although we aren’t getting a true measure of actual amp hours, given our particular usage pattern we feel that we are o.k. at this time.

When we first installed the system we took readings every 15 min the first and second full sun days.  The next few days we picked random times to check them and compared with our previous readings.  After observing consistent readings in the system we decided that we could monitor our system by taking periodic readings at the batteries.  If we buy a new piece of electronic equipment we check readings at various times with our volt meter.  A basic rule for us not having an amp meter, we never keep anything that pulls our volts below 14.8 for any length of time while full sun charging.  For the most part, if readings stay within the ranges we recorded those first few days and our electronics are working, we consider ourselves and our batteries in good standing.  IMG_1593The beauty of solar is that you can make it as simple or complex as your desires and finances permit.  Although there are a few basics everyone should follow to ensure an efficient system, you have a good bit of freedom in what you create for yourself based on your rig and your power usage.

Solar has been a wonderfully freeing addition to our boondocking regimen.  Our batteries are healthy, fresh and always ready to provide.  We do not buy gas for nor have to worry about maintenance on a generator.  It is also a much more considerate power option for our neighbors and the animals who reside where we stay as they most likely prefer to hear the sounds of nature over the noise of a generator.  It’s a total win in our book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Volunteering with the Forest Service


We had two unanswerable questions in our minds when making the decision to accept our first ever Forest Service Volunteer Campground Host position. 

1) Will we be happy staying in one place for four whole months after having the freedom to move at will for the last seven?
Vedauwoo 2012-05-16 (3)
2) Will we be happy in a campground setting surrounded by so many people after months of dispersed camping in unstructured, private and remote locations?

Sure, most work campers are a bit more practical about their worries.  They concern themselves with questions about the work load or the hours or the variety of random and sometimes unpleasant duties they will be asked to perform like cleaning pit toilets.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26 (5)
(An ‘after’ shot… we spared you the ‘details’.)

The work however was not an issue for us.  We were more concerned with the quite drastic change to our otherwise rather solitary and spontaneous existence.
Remember all of those ‘Where’s Annie?’ photos with us in the middle of nowhere all alone?!

Well, after four months of living in a campground and serving as campground host we happily report that the answers to those two original questions are a resounding YES and YES! 

We were very happy to stay in one place for four months as it afforded us time to really get to known the area and to make some wonderful new friends.  It didn’t hurt that it was a place as beautiful and peaceful as Vedauwoo!  We were also quite happy with this particular campground set-up.  Our host site, while at the entrance to the campground, was far enough from the other sites that we often felt like we were still dispersed camping.

So, down to the nitty gritty…

What did we think about volunteering with the Forest Service?

We loved it!  There is nothing to compare with the feeling of providing a service purely because you want to and expecting nothing in return.  Pit toilets and all!

What were our duties?

For a month and a half of our four months, we managed the entire park consisting of 28 site tent/RV campground, a 17 site tent only campground, 14 pit toilets, 25 day use / picnic areas and a group shelter.  While the picnic / day use host was on site, our duties were reduced to the 28 site campground, 8 pit toilets and two portions of the day use.  Our maintenance duties included cleaning and stocking the pit toilets, picking up trash and monitoring or cleaning fire rings, picnic tables, grills and campsites as needed.  In addition to an ongoing focus on keeping the campgrounds and park clean and ensuring everything was in working order, our primary responsibility was to make ourselves available to the public, to inform them of the rules, address any concerns, answer questions, make them feel welcome and ensure that their ‘Public Lands’ experience was a good one.

What is the most important thing we learned about being a camphost and day use attendant?

Being a presence matters.

Did we learn anything about people?

Yes.  Respect them, their individuality and their inherent desire to do right by giving them space to do so.  While they all have their own way of getting there and some even have their own time frames (which we affectionately termed “Wyoming Time”), the majority (once informed) will do the right thing.

And, what did we learn about ourselves through this experience?

A lot!  The two most important things that we learned were: 1. We make a great team!  2. We really enjoyed welcoming folks to ‘our home’, getting to know the passers-by as well as our return guests and doing what we could to ensure that all of them had a wonderful experience during their time at the park.

Were there any negatives to volunteering in this position?

None.  Seriously.  No negatives for us.

What was the best part of this experience?

Everything.  We loved it all!  But if you really pinned us down to one thing we’d have to say that it was a tie between being so warmly welcomed into the Laramie Forest Service ‘family’, being so warmly welcomed into our ‘regular’ campers lives and knowing that our service with and for them truly made a difference.

Would we volunteer again?

Definitely!  In fact, we already have in another location.

More on that later though.  We’ve got to hit the road and make tracks to get there.  Guess we’ll see “Where the Wind goes…” and what adventures we can find along the way.


And with that we bid a very fond and sad goodbye to our 2012 Summer home of Vedauwoo, Wyoming.  Land of the Earthborn Spirit, you are now a part of us and we will miss you.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Winding Down…

There really are no photos in our album that appropriately display how we are feeling about the nearing of the end of our volunteer camp-hosting time in Vedauwoo, WY.  So, we created one just for the occasion.

unhappy campers

And with that we’ll throw in a few last minute photos and nifty facts about our experience.

Vedauwoo 2012-07-12 (1)
We had some weeds behind our van.  They contained some pretty sharp pokey leaves.  So, we acquired some clippers one day.  Just as we went to cut them we noticed buds.  Next came these bad-hair-day purple flowers.  Then the butterflies and the bees and every other flying thing in the area.  In the end, we were very happy we didn’t cut them down.  They have continued to bloom the whole time we were here.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-24 (3)
The Clark’s Nutcracker!  One day these birds showed up and they made a point to let us know.  For a while we couldn’t get a good eye on them as they flew from tree top to tree top and held lengthy conversations with each other.  Every now and then we’d entertain ourselves by squawking back at them and taking turns.  Not long afterward a pair of bird-loving-photographers from England arrived.  We saw them out snapping photos one morning and boy were they excited.  Despite all of their worldly bird oriented travels, the Clark’s Nutcracker was here in Vedauwoo and it was the closest they had ever been to one.  Check out that beak!  This is a rather ingenious bird.  He’ll disconnect the pinecone and carry it to a ‘V’ in the branches where he can wedge it in and then crack away at that nut.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-30 (2)
Thanks to Tom & Viv for this awesome shot!
Vedauwoo 2012-08-30 (8)
Moose! The big attraction for non-climbers and other non-rock-appreciating folk visiting Vedauwoo.  At this point we believe we’ve identified seven different ones residing within our park boundaries. 
Vedauwoo 2012-08-30 (4)
Vedauwoo 08-31-12
As with the Nutcracker excitement, one of our favorite moose quotes goes something like this… “So, I’ve traveled to three of the major National Parks recently and it is at Vedauwoo that I see my first Moose!” 
Vedauwoo 08-31-12 (1)
Our smallest resident on the left with Mama in tow.
 Vedauwoo 2012-08-30 (3)
Vedauwoo 2012-09-02 (4) 
We were pretty proud that our park could offer something unique to rival the larger ones.  These guys kept folks entertained randomly wandering through the campsites, surprising them on trails and occasionally sticking their noses into their tents for an early morning heart attack (we mean, early morning ‘hello’).  Our fingers are crossed that our resident moose will stay within the park boundary once hunting season kicks in as we’d sure like to see the numbers increase over the years.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-24 (7)
One morning we discovered some leather tramps sleeping in the grass near our pay station.  And, no, we’re not talking about the above pictured cows.  These were people who choose hoofing it as their means of travel.  It only happened that one time but the point is the area is free range (for all animals).  Hence, the cattle guard at the entrance to the park.  On this day, one of the babies figured out how to skip the cattle guard by walking in the grass around it.  She then became very confused.  As we tried to figure out a way to corral her back to the other side, the mama cow (one walking toward us in the photo) decided that we humans just didn’t know what we were doing and she started Mooing up a blue streak.  We stopped walking and talking and she just ‘mooed’ and ‘mooed’.  Next thing you know that little cow ducked right under a fence rail and everyone went on about their merry and very quiet grazing.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26 (4)
The mountain bluebird is beautiful.  The brightest blue you’ve ever seen on a bird.  This is not the mountain bluebird.  This is a Stellar Jay.  We believe they are named such because of their stellar ability to avoid being photographed!  Quite large, crowned with a black mohawk and behaving like a woodpecker they sure are a cool bird to watch.  We’ve recently seen large groups of Northern Flicker appear in the park.  With a malfunctioning zoom, we couldn’t get a shot of one though.
Vedauwoo  2012-07-18
All taped up.  Bring on the crack!  We can’t say that crack ever really became our friend this go around.  But we also can’t say that we didn’t give it the ole college try.  It’s just different.  Really, really, different.  And hard.  Really, really, hard.  We experimented with a wide variety of levels and would have to say that even at the lower rated ones Vedauwoo won every time.  After thrashing Nicole about really good and working her harder than some 5.12’s she’s been on, one particular 5.10 snatched up a favorite cam and wouldn’t give it back.  Dang cracks.  We want our crimpy, east coast, face climbs back!  Final score:  Vedauwoo 1  Us 0
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26
It is only August and the Aspen trees have started to turn.  We were talking to our friend Cody one day and he says, “So, let’s see, you’ve seen Spring, Summer and now Fall all in the course of four months.”  Our reply, “So you are saying that the other eight are winter?!”  We won’t be waiting around for his reply!
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26 (2)
Nicole’s favorite turn has started to turn.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26 (3)
The rocks in Vedauwoo are not just piled up in cool ways, they also create many different tell-tale features like the clamshell, the turtle, the dog and in the above photo one of the more popular features called the Coke Bottle.
Vedauwoo 2012-08-26 (3)
Here’s a close up.  Do you see it in the center?

So, moving on… let’s run some numbers of our experience in Vedauwoo.

Climbs that Nicole dominated = 2
Climbs that dominated Nicole = too many to count.

Pieces of climbing gear lost = 1
Pieces of climbing gear found = 4

Number of weddings at the Gazebo = 4

Number of dogs lost (that we knew about) = 3
Number of dogs found and returned to owners = 2

Number of humans to be rescued on our watch = 3

Number of domesticated rats lost or released into the park = ??
Number of above that we rescued = 1 (Thanks, Teresa!)

Total miles driven doing our daily work over four months = close to 2000
Most miles driven in one busy day of doing rounds and making a presence = 24

Of our ‘found’ or left campground items:
Ones we found the most of = spoons, hats and tent stakes
Second place = sunglasses
Other random objects = gas grill, numerous toys, dog leash, lots of rope, bandana, two blankets, few jackets, dish detergent, onion, twelve pennies, two quarters, a dime and three nickels (who says volunteering doesn’t pay!), baby bottle, stove fuel, 3 pairs of socks, wool winter cap, windbreaker, skewer, sippy cup, container of bb’s, horn, radio, microphone cord for movie camera, dozen golf balls, pocket knife, axe, antique fire starter that looks like a gun and surely things we’ve forgot.

Number of times Lou ran the Turtle Rock Trail = too many to count
Number of times we walked the Turtle Rock Trail = 1
Number of times we sat by the water instead of walking Turtle Rock Trail = MANY

Number of harvest moon rises we saw = 1
Number of amazing sunsets we saw = how many days were we here?!
Number of incredible cloud formations we saw = see above answer!
Number of seriously windy days =apparently not as many as usual but enough for us!

Wyoming Joke:  What happens when the wind stops blowing in Wyoming?
Joke Answer:  Everyone falls down.

Daily question: Do you know what the weather is going to be like?
Daily answer: It’s Vedauwoo… rain, hail, snow, wind, sun, cold… one or all of those.

Alternate question:  That sky looks really bad.  Is it going to rain?
Alternate answer: It’s Vedauwoo… Maybe.  Maybe not.

Popular question:  Did you order this wind?
Popular answer: Yes, we have a dial back at the van.  We turn it up when we are ready for you to leave.

New words learned = 1 (Virga)
Essentially, it means rain that evaporates before it even hits the ground.  See how the dark vertical rain lines are cut off.  This is taken right behind our van.  Back home it would have been definite that the sky was going to open up and flood us good.  Here, we received about five drops on this day as it blew on over.

Frequently asked question:  Have you been able to see much of the area?
Truthful answer:  No, but why would we want to go anywhere else when it is so beautiful in Vedauwoo.

All time favorite question: The water says “Not Potable”.  Can I still put a fire out with it?
Our response:  A polite “Yes, you can.”
Favorite after-the-fact response (from Sparky Pants): Sure, but don’t use a pot.

Great friends and camphost buddies, Lou and Dale, departed Aug 29.  It sure was wonderful having them share a portion of this experience with us.
Sad to see them go.  They left us with some great memories.  One of which was the sunset from an overlook Dale discovered.  Originally we thought this was an old CCC trail.  As it turns out, it is actually a trail that was cut back in the late 1920’s for a play created by a UofW drama teacher.  The play was named Vedauwoo and was held on an outdoor stage high up in what is now called Box Canyon. The trail was designed for the 500+ actors as well as the audience as a way to approach the stage and to move around the area during the performance.  After this play the area adopted the name of Vedauwoo.
Vedauwoo 2012-09-01 (3)IMG_1008 We shared the trail with our friend, Tom, one day. He liked it. Two days later, we went again which is why Tom has two different outfits on.  If he were that vain he would have changed his hat.
Vedauwoo 2012-09-03 Overlook The reward at the top of the hike is a panorama view of the valley.
With all of the hi-jinx going on, Viv decided she’d stay safely at the bottom.  She had some company from a local fella.  (Don’t tell Tom.  She told us she was going to read.)

Tom and Viv have a garden back home.  One day, they brought us a summer squash that was about twelve times the size of the ones we buy at the store.  And then there was this…
The mother of all Zucchinis! 
Well, we take off six days from now on Sep 10 so we should probably get to the preparations.  Most of which include saying goodbye to some really amazing new friends. 

Sure hope you enjoyed our brief summary of our time here in Vedauwoo, WY.  If you are every driving I-80 through Wyoming, it is highly recommended as a stop off point for a few hours, the day, a week or more.  If you are into dispersed camping, the dirt road just past the park entrance offers 21 day stays!

Most important tip that we have for campers coming to Vedauwoo:
No matter how long you plan to stay … Pay by the day!
It’s Vedauwoo.  You never know what the weather will be.IMG_3548
One thing is guaranteed though… The sky will always be AMAZING!