Great Falls, MT to Rapid City, SD

Friday, August 1, 2008 - We arrived at the Gateway FamCamp at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls. This is our fourth time at Great Falls and we have always stayed at the FamCamp. It is a nice RV park with paved roads and a concrete pad to park the RV on. Plus, we get to use one of our Frequent Camper coupons for a free night of camping. Boy, has this program saved us some money. It cost $25 to join and we have saved about $150 in campground fees so far.

It was here in Great Falls, at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, that we delevoped an interest in Lewis and Clark, their Corps of Discovery, and the epic adventure, as directed by President Thomas Jefferson, to explore the Missouri river & such principal stream of it as by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.

Saturday, August 2, 2008 - The Montana State Fair was being held in Great Falls this past week. Had we known, we would have come here sooner. I love a state fair, especially one in a western state. Of course, there was a rodeo at the state fair and tonight was the last night.

Since we saw our first rodeo in Cody, Wyoming four years ago, Carol has been hooked. If there is a rodeo nearby, she has gotta see it. Carol got all dressed up in her cowgirl shirt and hat. All she needed was some boots and a big belt buckle and the transformation would have been complete. YeeeHa!

Monday, August 4, 2008 - We have shifted from the tourist mode to the housekeeping mode. I washed the truck yesterday and we both washed the RV today. I picked up a lot of road tar on both the truck and RV so it took a lot of elbow grease to remove it. The area that Carol is cleaning is always the hardest to clean because it catches all the bugs. Two months worth of dried, crushed bugs don't come off easily. But Carol did a pretty good job.

This part of the country has a store that caters primarily to ranchers. It is a combination western clothing store and hardware store that carries the kinds of things ranchers use. It is Tractor Supply in some areas and Big R here in Great Falls. For wannabe cowboys like me, it's like a kid in a candy store. I don't usually buy too much (what am I going to do with a saddle?) but I sure like to look around.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - We visited the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center today and it was even better than the last time. This time I had my Senior Pass and admission was free. We had lunch at Jaker's Bar and Grill. They were featuring their soup and salad bar for $5.99 which is a great deal because they have a pretty good salad bar and 5 different soups, including lobster bisque. Don't be fooled by the bar and grill label - it's an upscale restaurant with reasonable prices and the food is great. We returned for dinner and I made a steak selection from their "Hungry Hour" menu and Carol had Baby Back Ribs. I highly recommend this place if you are in Great Falls.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - I drove out to Ryan Dam this morning. This dam sits a few yards upstream of Great Falls, the first and largest of five falls that Lewis and Clark encountered. These falls forced an 18 mile portage that took three weeks to complete. Not only is there an ugly dam to mar the beauty of the falls, but much of the water that would flow over the falls is diverted through the powerhouse turbines. This is true of two other falls further upstream. Dams were built on top of all of these falls to take advantage of the added hydraulic head that the falls provided. Another fall is completely submerged by one of these dams.

Great Falls
Eagle Falls
Rainbow Falls

Thursday, August 7, 2008 - I am not an art aficionado but I really like the art of Charles Russell and Frederick Remington. Both specialized in depictions of the Old American West, specifically concentrating on the last quarter of the 19th century American West and images of cowboys and American Indians. Russell spent most of his life in Montana working as a ranch hand and cowboy until his art began to sell. He then married and moved to Great Falls where he built a home and art studio, which, today, remain as part of the Charles Russell museum. Each time I am in Great Falls, I like to visit his museum and that is what we did today. If you think that a guy that creates paintings of cowboys and Indians can't be a serious artist, consider this - two of his paintings have sold for over $5 million dollars each.

Saturday, August 9, 2008 - Near Great Falls, along the Missouri River, is the site of one of the largest freshwater springs in the world and the world's shortest river. Giant Springs flows at a rate of 156 million gallons of water per day into the Roe River which runs 201 feet from the springs to the Missouri River. The rate may be even higher since there is evidence that part of the spring's flow enters the river through an underground channel. It's really wierd seeing all that water bubbling right up out of the ground.

Monday, August 11, 2008 - We left Great Falls and headed for Fort Peck Dam and Lake. We wanted to break up this trip into two legs so we stopped along the way at Trafton Park in Malta, MT. I don't recall where we heard about this place but we have had some good experiences with city park campgrounds and the price was right - $3.00 a night.

But this was not a campground. It is a city park that allows camping in any empty area you choose to use. The local kids use the park as a playground and why not? It's a park. At 3:30 AM, one of the local hoodlums was riding around the park on his motorcycle but took off when the sheriff's deputy arrived for one of his periodic security tours. A sewage lift station in the park was undergoing repairs and the crew arrived at 7:00 AM and cranked up their contractor generator. The Milk River makes a horseshoe bend around the campground. We walked up on the levee to get a view and saw where about a dozen rusted automobiles had been pushed over the levee on the far side.

When we went downtown for dinner, we saw some guy doing wheelies on his ATV down Main Street. Hey, this is the Wild West, right? To put this all in perspective, this camping experience was slightly better than Wal-Mart's parking lot and the price was only $3.00 more. If you decide to stay here, have a nice steak dinner at the Great Northern Restaurant.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008 - We left Malta and arrived at Fort Peck Dam and Lake two hours later. The Army Corps of Engineers (COE) has several campgrounds on this lake and we chose the Downsteam campground at the base of the dam. Typical of COE campgrounds, this one is very nice with paved roads and site pads and the sites are far apart. Our site is shaded by a huge cottonwood tree with a beautiful view of the Missouri River and a cool breeze from the water. Ahhhh, this is the life. But this weekend, according to the camp host, hordes of weekend campers will descend on this place.

Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum, a 17,000 square foot exhibit which opened only 3 months ago, was nearby and presented an impressive display of dinosaur fossils and a full-size replica of Tyrannosaurus rex, films and photos of the dam construction, and a lot of other neat stuff. And it was free! We also took the free tour of the dam. Since the terrorists attacks of 9/11, most dams, like Hoover Dam, offer a very restrictive tour. Some dams have eliminated their tours entirely. But today, we received an excellent tour of Fort Peck dam powerhouses and were taken right down into the bowels of the beast, with up-close views of the turbines and generators. We were even allowed to touch the huge rotating shaft that connects the turbine and the generator.

The Fort Peck Dam powerhouses are strangely unique. They are huge towering structures unlike anything I have seen before and I have visited a lot of dams. Why are they so tall? Well, inside those towers are surge tanks, one for each generator. The surge tanks are similar to those used in homes to eliminate water hammers Whereas, the devices used in homes may fit into the palm of your hand, the surge tanks at Fort Peck Dam are 40' and 65' in diameter and 148' tall and have a capacity of 4.5 million gallons. The intake tunnels for the powerhouses are over a mile long and 24' in diameter. Can you imagine trying to suddenly stop the flow of this volume of water? The surge tanks handle this problem.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008 - Today, we visited the spillway for Fort Peck Dam. I love big engineering structures like dams and bridges. When we were planning our trip to Fort Pack Dam, I looked at photos and satellite views of this dam on the Internet. I could not find the spillway. Every major dam has a spillway, usually at one end of the dam or, in the case of Hoover Dam, in the canyon walls near the dam. But the spillway for Fort Peck Dam is 3 miles away and empties into the Missouri River 7 miles downstream from the dam. Most large lakes that are fed from the Rocky Mountain watershed are at low levels because of an extended drought. So the lake level here is well below the top of the spillway which has been high and dry for a number of years.

Rear (or upstream) view of the spillway gates shown partially open
Front (or downstream) view of the spillway gates
Resident Owl (one of three)

There is a family of owls nesting in the bridge over the spillway. They looked young but they were all able to fly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008 - Since we had to vacate the group camping area, we decided to do that today before the weekend crowd arrived and occupied all the sites that cannot be reserved. We did not make reservations at this campground, so we needed one of those sites. Some large bird is roosting in the tree above my truck. Every morning I have had to wash off a big load that this bird dumped on my truck

Friday, August 15, 2008 - Our next door neighbor and his family are avid fishermen and they caught a mess of Walleye today and cooked them for dinner. He had some left over and offered it to us. Very tasty.

Sunday, August 17, 2008 - We left Fort Peck and headed east into North Dakota. This is my first time in this state. The landscape is similar to eastern Montana but is beginning to turn a little greener. The main attraction is the Mandan Indian village where Lewis and Clark spent their first winter. We stopped overnight at Lewis and Clark State Park on the shore of Lake Sakakawea at the upstream end of the lake. Like Fort Peck Lake, this lake is also at low levels because of the extended drought. In the photo at right, the water would be several feet over my head if the lake was at normal level. From the size of the trees behind me, you can see that the low level has existed for over 8 years, allowing the trees to grow to this size.

Because the lake level has dropped so much, the marina and beaches are closed - the boat ramp ends at a grassy meadow. Because of this, few campers come here and we had the place almost to ourselves.

Monday, August 18, 2008 - We moved to the downstream end of Lake Sakakawea at Garrison Dam. This dam and its spillway are almost identical in design to those at Fort Peck - both dams were constructed at about the same time. There is also a fish hatchery and a small town, Riverdale, that was created to house the dam construction workers.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 - We drove down to Fort Mandan, about 14 miles southeast of our campground. Lewis and Clark arrived at this location on October 25, 1804. A large concentration of Mandan and Hidatsa Indian villages were located across the Missouri River. The total population numbered from 3000 to 5000 Indians which was larger than the population of St. Louis at the time. Lewis and Clark decided to make their winter camp here near these friendly and hospitable people and they built Fort Mandan. The original fort has long since disappeared and is thought to lie somewhere beneath the waters of the continually shifting Missouri River. These photos show a replica built according to the descriptions given in the journals of Lewis and Clark.

This is a replica of one of hundreds of housing units that made up the Mandan villages. The remains of these villages can still be seen as depressions in the ground where the earthen structure finally collapsed when the villages were abandoned. Each house provided living quarters for a family unit which consisted of a dozen or more people.

Thursday, August 21, 2008 - We have to be at the Hitchhiker factory in Chanute, Kansas on September 16 for warranty work so we need to decide where to spend our time between now and then. We have made plans to see friends that live in Topeka, Kansas from September 10 through 15.

We would like to stay somewhere that has full hookups but I really do not like private campgrounds. Many of them are nothing more that trailer parks with many permanent residents. I have nothing against permanent RV park residents - the Escapees SKP Co-Op parks are full of them and our winter hangout, Texas Trails, is about 25% permanent residents. But in both of these places, the residents take pride in their parks and the appearance of each site show this. That can rarely be said for the permanent residents in most of the private campgrounds. Also, private campgrounds cram as many sites as possible into what real estate is available and there is barely enough room left to extend your slideouts and awning. These campgrounds are more expensive than other types of campgrounds, especially the nice ones that don't have the problems described above. Here is an example from a similar trip in 2004.

We decided to spend a couple of weeks at the FamCamp at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. Four years ago, we spent a few days at Custer, SD and made a day trip to Rapid City, Mt. Rushmore, and Custer State Park. So we decided to return and see those sights again plus more. We also like the FamCamps at the Air Force bases. As an old Navy guy, it pains me to say that, of all the services, the Air Force has the nicest RV parks. There is an old joke making the rounds that says, "The Air Force spends money to maintain the morale and welfare of their troops. Whatever is left over, they use to buy airplanes."

Friday, August 22, 2008 - When I flushed the toilet this morning, I could see sewage a few inches below the ball valve in the toilet and the black water tank was far from being full. When we left the campground and stopped at the dump station, I had to rig hoses to snake down through the toilet and into the sewer line. I was able to flush out whatever was blocking the line. Dealing with problems like this is always a disgusting, messy business. But why is my sewer getting clogged? This is a brand new RV!

Although this problem is rare, it is usually caused when sewer hookups are available and the black water valve is left open. This is a big mistake. This allows the fluids to drain off at each flush, leaving only the solids behind which accumulate in a big heap where the sewer line enters the tank. If this problem is allowed to go on for any length of time, the heap hardens into a mess that becomes impossible to flush out of the tank and eventually clogs the sewer line. The valve should be left closed and the sewage allowed to accumulate until the tank is at least 2/3 full. When the tank is dumped under these conditions, a strong flushing current should clear the tank. I have never left my valve open, so I cannot understand why my sewer line is clogging.

A few days prior to the clog, I was getting blasts of air from the sewer line whenever I flushed the toilet. Sometimes these blasts were powerful enough to spray water (and other stuff) from the toilet bowl onto the seat. Ugh! I thought I had a blocked vent line. Each sewage tank has a vent line that runs up to the roof just like the sewage vents in a house. If the vent becomes blocked, sewer gases cannot escape and accumulate in the tank. When the toilet ball valve is open (during a flush), these sewer gases escape up through the toilet. What could be blocking the vent? I never had any of these problems during the 4 years I owned my Cedar Creek fifthwheel.

After spending an hour at the dump station, we continued through the back country of North and South Dakota. There are no Interstate highways that run from Lake Sakakawea to Ellsworth AFB so we took the direct route using state highways. Once you get away from the few large cities in the Dakotas, you seem to go back to a different time. The trip was 350 miles of this. The biggest town was Beulah, North Dakota with a population of just over 3,000. The other towns we saw were just a few hundred people. Soon after leaving camp. we ran into 7 miles of this which made me think I was back in Alaska. The photo at left shows the second most popular crop in North Dakota - sunflowers. Wheat is #1.

We arrived at the FamCamp and got the last available site. This RV park does not accept reservations but has an overflow area that has 12 sites with 30 amp electricty.

Saturday, August 23, 2008 - I went to the hardware store and bought a jet nozzle for my garden hose, returned to the RV, and began a serious fushing operation of my black water tank. The jet nozzle produced the desired stream of water and I snaked the hose down through the toilet and into the sewer line until the nozzle was just entering the tank and let it run for a while while twisting the hose to cover a greater area. I then completely filled the tank and flushed.

Later this morning and into the afternoon, I went through significant quantities of bug remover and elbow grease while getting bugs off the truck and RV. They got bugs in North Dakota that I ain't never seen before! Here is one I pulled off Carol's back before she even knew it was back there. He's a nasty looking rascal. It's a good thing I found him before Carol did. She would have messed her pants!

Monday, August 25, 2008 - Ellsworth AFB is about 8 miles east of Rapid City, SD. There are many attractions and historical sites within an hours drive. Today we saw two of them - Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park. While we were at Mt. Rushmore, Carol and I were trying to decide if another bust should be added to Mt. Rushmore. These two photos show Mt. Rushmore which everyone is familiar with, but Custer State Park may be unknown to those that have never been there. The thing I like about the park is a 17 mile wilderness trail where you can drive your car and get an eye full of prairie dogs, buffalo, and pronghorn antelope. Both Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park are in the heart of the Black Hills.

On the way to Custer State Park, we stopped at one of several nice picnic areas and had lunch. Mr. Tripod and Ms. Self-Timer were kind enough to take our picture at the picnic table. We visited several National Park Service (NPS) campgrounds for future reference. One, Horse Thief Lake campground, charges $20 a night for a typical NPS campsite that has no hookups and a dirt and gravel site. That is pretty expensive for a primitive campground.

Thursday, August 28, 2008 - After a few days of doing nothing, we headed down to Badlands National Park. This place is aptly named. To me, it's a cross between Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. If you go there with an RV, there is a very nice campground with no hookups that can accommodate large rigs - $10 a night, $5 with a Senior Pass.

Needless to say, Badlands is in a pretty remote area. As we were leaving the first overlook, my truck would not start. Turned the key, instrument panel comes to life, but no start. And I also noticed that the key fob would not lock or unlock the doors. I consult the manual for a troubleshooting guide but no luck. I am going to have to call a tow but I can't possible have a cell phone signal way out here. In fact, I have a 5 bar signal. Where is that cell phone tower?

It's going to take forever to get a tow truck out here. Maybe I should call a Dodge service center first but I don't have the phone number. I could call information but, wait, I brought my air card with me and I have cell phone service - I can get on the Internet and go to the web page of the dealership where I purchased my truck. So, I called Peterson-Stampede Dodge in Nampa, Idaho and talked to Darryl in service and explained my problem. He says to remove a fuse in the fuse panel in the engine compartment, wait a few seconds, and then reinsert the fuse. My truck starts! Hooray for cell phone technology and good service from my Dodge dealer.

We completed our visit to Badlands and returned to the Interstate at Wall, SD, population 818. If you think not much happens in such a little town, you've never heard of Wall Drug Store. This is a classic American rags-to-riches story - from this to this. They still serve free ice water, coffee is 5 cents a cup, and veterans get a free donut. And hundreds of fine western paintings line the walls of several sections of the store. They spend an estimated $400,000 on bill board signs every year. Here is some more history on this place.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 - We haven't done much this Labor Day weekend. Last Friday evening, we went to the Flying T Chuckwagon Supper & Show. As the name suggests, it was a dinner followed by a show, similar to the Dixie Stampede but on a much smaller scale. The cost was $17.00 and included a mediocre meal and amateur entertainment. It is a huge open area inside a building with gravel floor and picnic table seating and can probably seat 1,000 people. Only 40 of us were there Friday night. The meal was served cafeteria style and the beef tasted like it was warmed over from leftovers of a previous night. The entertainment, which lasted less than an hour, was five local pickers who also substituted as food servers. But I understand that this place can be packed at the peak of the summer season.

The rest of the weekend was spent hanging around the campground. Yesterday, I had an appointment for an oil change and tire rotation on my truck and today we stocked up on groceries at the commissary and washed clothes in preparation for our departure the day after tomorrow. Our two week stay here at the Ellsworth FamCamp has been a pleasant experience

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