IN AMERICA, NPR STANDS FOR AN ADMIRABLE cultural institution – National Public Radio. For RVers in Canada, NPR stands for New Petroleum Reality ? a dawning era of shorter distances, and bargain-priced shoulder-season trips.
My wife Janice and I learned a lesson this Spring that we hope other RVers might apply this fall or next spring ? outside of high season when school?s out, roads and ferries are clogged and gas prices are at their peak.
Our introduction to Canada?s NPR started with an early April Vancouver Island Saturday morning from the Arctic. I woke to a ?Yikes!? from my bride. Her horrified expression drew my attention to a foot of snow on my fresh-mowed front lawn! And the house was icy cold. No hydro?no heat. ?They said it might snow,? Herself reminded me.
We cherish RV getaways, long or short. Preferred destinations are on or near water; coastal for kayaking, fresh or moving water for boondocking, and whenever possible hot, for soaking in. Given the circumstances, hot leaped to the top of the list. ?I NEED some hot springs,? she moaned.
Our usual choice would be across southern BC to Halcyon or Nakusp Hot Springs. Estimated fuel consumption from Vancouver Island: five 100-litre tankfulls, two overheight ferry trips, and driving time about 12 hours each way through the Coast, Cascade and Purcell mountains. Greater Vancouver RVers might be spared the ferry costs and time, but not the Chanel #5-priced gasoline.
The timing must be soon but we needed to quickly line up vacation times with employers. Two May weeks leading to Victoria Day seemed reasonable; weather should be decent by then. But as our break approached, gasoline prices rose to stratospheric levels, a crushing $1.30 per litre.
Then I remembered Peter Brooke?s excellent article on Washington State (RV Times #121) and thought: ?Hey ? Washington is volcanic ? there must be some hot springs there!? Sure enough, Google popped nine spas to the screen including several walk-in, unserviced ones, and more to our preference a long-developed one, Sol Duc, just over 45 miles from Port Angeles. It also showed gas at $1 a litre Canadian ? a steal! We?d also discovered a few first-rate restaurants on previous trips through Port Angeles, a block from the ferry terminal and duty-free store. So we naturally chose the much nearer and far less costly destination.
A US Customs Inspector at the Coho dock in Victoria produced the usual confusion over what could be brought into the US and what was verboten. A previous trip had cost us a half-bag of dog food in a plastic container, which could not be positively identified as originating south of the 48th, and several frozen chicken breasts originally from Costco but again, lacking birth certificates. This time our chicken breasts got through without a murmur. Luckily we were not carrying any goat meat or lamb, which would have been barred. This inspector didn?t even ask about food for our two large Ruffians, a ?Chusky?? Husky Chow, and an aged Shepherd.
Checking our passports and declaration, an Immigration Officer asked where we were headed and why. ?We?d like to try the spa at Sol Duc, and look around Northwestern Washington for 9 or 10 days.? ?Why so long?? he quizzed, an eyebrow cocked; mock suspicion in his tone. I joined him in the game. ?My wife NEEDS a holiday,? I bleated. ?We?ve had a terrible winter and spring, we like your hospitality, and especially your wine and cheese prices, your cheap gas,? I blathered.
?It?s the perfect time of year to camp,? Janice interjected. ?No bugs!?
Grinning, he handed the passports back.
Our afternoon ferry passage with taxes ran $70.90 CDN, and we passed our first night at Camp Wal-Mart on the eastern outskirts of Port Angeles. In the morning we filled up and drove east to Sequim ?pronounced ?Squim? by locals ? and the immaculately-kept and landscaped John Wayne Marina on the bay. We noted several attractive houses on largish lots priced in the high $170?s, 2BR 2BA, and realized that we could potentially cash in our current modest home and come out with a retirement top-up of $150,000. But there are always complicating factors in the way of such tempting schemes…health care and grandchildren, to name just a couple.
Finally we turned west on Highway 101 back through Port Angeles, ignoring the Garmin 330 navigator we?ve named ?Chatty Cathy?, who insisted on going back to the ferry terminal and returning to Vancouver Island for some other destination she seems unable to let go of. Technophobic me still hasn?t got the knack of dismissing old destinations and getting her to accept that whenever we turn her on, we want to go somewhere new, not back to places to which she?s previously guided us. I keyed in ?Sol Duc?, which she didn?t recognize, and then ?Forks?, past where we wanted to go. She grudgingly accepted that as a way point in going toward what she is convinced is our ultimate destination.
One of these days I?ll key in ?The Grave?, just to see how she responds to that.
We had thought of staying at either the nearby Klahowya or Bear Creek campsites and commuting for $11 per adult, $8 per senior, day trips to the spa. But the winding road up to Sol Duc Road from Route 101 put that idea to rout. The drive is 17 kilometres, an easy, gradual run to 1,650 feet in about 20 minutes – likely as costly in gas consumption as the higher camping cost. Besides, while boondockery is our bread and butter, we do enjoy the occasional luxury of a serviced (30 amp) site with water. The 2008 RV pricing at Sol Duc is $25 a night, plus a $15 National Park fee, good for seven days. A pay sani-dump ($5) is quite close by.
Office Manager Pam Dahl has been a full-time staffer for 33 years, since her college days. ?My parents brought the family here when we were kids. I was offered a job when I graduated, and just never left.? Pam explains that Sol Duc was translated from ?people who live by sparkling water? in the Quileute tongue. When it first opened in 1912, the private spa dining room seated 150, and there was a sanatorium with nurses, to treat up to 100 patients. There was even a ballroom equipped with a grand organ, and a staff residence. But just four years later fire wiped out the main building. For a time the dance hall and staff quarters were converted for guest use. ?It changed hands a few times over the years; one story is that a gambler named Clive Able won the deed in a poker game!? Finally the National Parks Service took over ownership in the 90?s. Pam and her husband have lived on-site maintaining the spa and raising a family year-round for the past 20 years.
Sol Duc today is a gracefully-ageing matron flanked by 32 up-to-the minute cabins, some with kitchen, some without. It boasts a high-end restaurant, souvenir and gift shop, a small convenience store and even postal service, all within a few feet of the registration desk. But if you?ve sometimes tried to enter a Canadian postal code on a US website, you will understand their momentary frustration in trying to get us registered. The computer took a wild guess at ours and decided we came from Anchorage, Alaska. ?I?m very sorry,? Grant at the desk wryly admitted. ?It looks like the computer doesn?t know about Canada!?
Sol Duc has three hot pools ranging from the 99? ?Paddling? pool to the main Fountain pool (101?) and the ?Medium? pool (104?+), with a huge swimming pool more comfortable for swimming in the height of summer. Each hot pool is tested and serviced through the day, leaving the main ?Fountain? pool closed from noon to 1 p.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. Season operating hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Optional features include a poolside deli operating from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and massage service by appointment.
The 18-pad gravelled RV area is a five minute riverside walk from the pools, set in an ocean of mossy alders where you commonly see mule deer, and are serenaded by one of nature?s sweetest sounds – the monotone cooing of thrushes. Goldfinch, the state bird, are plentiful here in mountain forests rich in Cedar, Maple, Spruce, Fir and Pine. The forest is riddled with marvellous hiking trails ranging from a few hundred metres to 10 kilometres, but park policy forbids taking dogs on the trails, even on-leash, and prohibits firearms. We are cautioned of occasional cougar and bear sightings, and new bear-proof garbage cans were being installed throughout the grounds.
Unseasonably cool weather was not yet attracting many overnight and RV guests at the beginning of May. Hiking the woods and along the roadsides we noted mounds of half-melted snow. On our second morning we enjoyed a fairly strenuous walk totalling 6.5 kilometres from the RV area to a series of waterfalls up the mountain. An easier option is to drive to the road?s end at a large trailhead parking area. The waterfall hike from this area is .8 of a mile, making it a very enjoyable 2.5 kilometre return hike for that section alone.
The Camp Host couple, Mike and Robin Dean, are RV full-timers who winter in Texas. Robin, a licensed massage therapist, is one of two providers of masseuse service for the Spa.
?We used to have large numbers of Canadian visitors,? Pam Dahl recalls, ?but that ended when the Canadian dollar dropped in the 80?s ? now we only rarely see Canadians. About 95% of our visitors come from along the I-5 corridor,? Pam notes. ?We are packed solid through July and August, especially on long holiday weekends, but the shoulder seasons would be a great time for two or three day visits.? She says management may consider RV packages to attract BC RV?ers, perhaps a three-day package combining RV spots and pool visits in April to mid-May, and mid-September through October. The facility closes from November through March. Currently there is a single-day ?RV Bonanza? package, including a serviced RV site, dinner and buffet breakfast and a spa day-pass at $130.
Most of the guests we met live in Northern Washington and were making day-trips.
Among them was a slim, laconic Missourian with his young children, a hunting guide who?d led several groups on northern BC bear hunts. He was bemused by Canada?s ?remarkably complicated and costly weapon regulations.? It was his experience that hunters could bring their own rifles in but that the cost of permits was around $200 each, enough to justify their arriving weaponless instead and use weapons supplied by the Canadian guides. He noted that there was no specific constitutional right to own and carry firearms as there is in the US. Another young man wondered, ?Are you allowed to own guns at all up there?? Canada has a fairly complicated and slow process of registering rifles and sidearms, I said, but the general view was that the fewer weapons in the hands of the general public, the better. ?Not wanting to seem impolite, but how do Canadians look after their self-defence?? he pursued.
I told him that our system relied heavily and often too optimistically, on our police being quick and efficient if trouble was in the air. ?We?re having quite an increase in illegal guns, automatic and semi-automatic weapons used in gang and drug activity,? I remarked. He wondered what would happen if someone broke into our homes. ?Here, if someone comes through your door or a window, you can pretty much blow them away and not be in the wrong.? My response, ?My sense is that in Canada you can only fight back with ?appropriate? force. You could probably smack an invader once with a bat or a lamp, but you could only hit him again if he got back up and came at you again. Otherwise he could probably sue you for excessive force. If he was unarmed and you shot him, you?d be cooked. Now, if he beat you up or shot you, I?m sure he?d get bail, welfare and a free lawyer, and probably not go to trial for years. Our criminal justice system is nowhere near as quick or hard-edged as yours,? I admitted.
The promise of a sunny day persuaded us to drive to Cape Flattery, just so we could see the ?end of the continent? from this northerly continental corner. From the Sol Duc junction with Highway 101 to the Cape parking lot was precisely 100 kilometres (60 miles). We found a moderately strenuous half-mile walk to an observation platform at Cape Flattery maintained by the resident Makah First Nation, not for the sedentary. The ocean and cave views are stunning, with Vancouver Island a misty mountainous blur in the distance. The Tatoosh Island lighthouse stands a few hundred metres off the cape on an island missing a chunk at its northern end, as though some monstrous whale had taken a bite out of it.
We chose to overnight at a tiny recreational village called Sekiu, a waterfront strip of RV lots, boat launches and rental wharves being set up for the season as we landed. Fully serviced waterfront RV lots (water, hydro and individual site sewer) are $25. The views of Vancouver Island?s mountains are marvellous and there should be terrific fishing, with huge tidal flushing and numerous kelp beds along the shore.
The following morning we toured Clallum Bay, a notorious footnote in Canadian military history. Back in the late 50?s a stray Canadian Navy dummy torpedo came ashore there, touching off some brilliant Norris cartoons.
Then we took Route 101 southwest to Forks for supplies and then west to the Moira campsite within the shoreline portion of Olympic Wilderness Park. A ?don?t miss? side trip of 4.5 kilometres brings us to spectacular Rialto Beach, with pounding surf and small mountains of driftwood. Alas, the weather decayed into wind and driving rain, sending us scurrying back to Sol Duc for the comforts of hydro and hot tubs.
Mother?s Day morning was intermittently showery, but the pools were chock-a-block with families. ?My wife said we could take the boys to the Mariners baseball game, but I thought I?d earn some brownie points and bring the family up here for the day instead,? an earnest young Bremerton father told me. Good move, pal.
In all, Janice and I spent a relaxing, refreshing week in Washington, including five nights at Sol Duc and a valuable sweep at the Costco in Sequim ? all on about 133 litres of gas. Pulling up at home I raised an eyebrow at She Who Must Be Obeyed, seeking an evaluation. ?Too bad we didn?t get a break with the weather,? Janice remarked, ?but I?d definitely like to go back. It was a really worthwhile trip.?
Given the new ?NPR?, we offer Northwestern Washington a very high ranking for anyone from Greater Vancouver or Vancouver Island craving a shoulder-season spa escape.