Travels with Tucker

Travels with Tucker

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Climbing to the mountaintop

Lucas was visiting us from Chicago for a week and he and I decided we were going to go on a serious hike.  At first, the plan was to hike to the top of Mt. Tallac, the highest peak around the south part of the lake.  But on further reflection, the 10 miles and 3,200 vertical feet of that hike started to look like a big bite to chew.  So we decided to settle for Maggies Peak, which was half the distance and 1,000 feet shorter, and the view would be similar.  We first hiked to Granite Lake where we ate lunch and then left Lynnae to fish and relax while we kiked and scrambled up the looming peak.

Looking down on Emerald Bay as we hike up to Granite lake
Lynnae settled in to fish
It took about two hours round trip and the views at the top were spectacular.  We could see Lake Tahoe to the east and far into the Desolation Wilderness to the west. Here are some shots and a video from the top.
Looking down on Granite Lake and Tahoe as we climb

At the top!

Tahoe, Cascade Lake and Fallen Leaf Lake

Looking west over Desolation Wilderness.  If you look closely you can see some small lakes

ALMOST everyone is tired after this one!

No fish caught but a nice afternoon nonetheless

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Playing on and around Lake Tahoe

Our friends Tony and Susan joined us for a few days and brought their kayaks (and their two dogs) with them.  We had fun exploring the bays near our beach.

Jeff and Lucas

Jeff had to go back to the Bay Area to start his new job at Oracle.  We rented a bike for Lucas and went riding on the great bike path along the Truckee River.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Marvelous Lake Tahoe!

After the bluegrass festival and our time in the foothills we were eager to head back to the mountains. This time our destination was to be a month at Lake Tahoe, on the border between California and Nevada near the northernmost part of the Sierras.

Lake Tahoe looking Northeast, with Cascade Lake in the foreground
Lake Tahoe from above Emerald Bay

Lake Tahoe is a true wonder  of nature.  About 75 miles around the circumferance, it is over 1,600 feet deep and surrounded by peaks that are 3,000 feet above it's 6,200 foot elevation.  There are 63 inlets to the lake--streams and rivers--and only one outlet, the Trukee River, which flows into Pyramid Lake in Nevada where the water evaporates.  Lake Tahoe in one of the few lakes in the country whose waters never flow into the sea!  There is enough water in Lake Tahoe to cover the entire state of California with 18 inches of water. It is said that more pictures are taken of Lake Tahoe than any other place in the world.  Not sure about that, but it sure is beautiful.

But it is the water clarity that really is amazing about Lake Tahoe.  In the 1800's, the clarity was nearly 200 feet.  Now it is about 90 feet, and it has actually improved over the last few decades.  The various government agencies responsivble for the lake--the towns around it, the US Forest Service and the State of California--are working hard to protect the purity of the lake's water.  Right now there is a major project to improve the road drainage around the lake to remove the main cause of pollution in the lake.

We are staying for two weeks at Meeks Bay, in a National Forest campground on the west shore.  The campground is no great shakes,  but there is a marvelous  beach right at the campground, so we walk over to swim, bask or paddle any time.

Our beach at Meeks Bay

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On and off the grid—electric power for our rig

I have been asked to describe the solar power system I designed and built for our trailer, so this post sets out to do that, but to do so, I have to give some basic introduction to typical RV electrical systems.  If you are not interested in the technology, you should probably skip this post ;-)

 RV electrical systems are complicated, more so than residential home systems.  In additions to the 110 volt power system that a typical home has, an RV has a 12 volt system powered by batteries.   The two systems operate in tandem and interrelated to each other, as I will describe.

When an RV is parked in an RV park with electrical hookups, there is a big cable that brings 110 volt AC to the RV.  This 110 power operates the following in the RV:

  • Microwave
  • Air conditioner(s)
  • TV/stereo systems
  • Wall plugs for small appliances like coffee maker, blender, hair dryer, electric toothbrush, etc.
  • Battery charger for the 12 volt system below
  • The refrigerator can typically run on either 110 volt AC or propane gas.

The RV 12 volt DC system is powered by one or more deep cycle batteries, similar to a car battery but designed to discharge slowly over a long time.  Golf cart batteries are often used in RVs.  The 12 volt system operates the following in the RV:

  • Most or all of the room lights (I recently changed all our interior lights to LEDs)
  • Water pump to deliver fresh water from the storage tank to the faucets
  • Furnace blower fan (with the heat provided by propane)
  • Motors to operate the slide-out rooms
  • Motors to operate the jacks that level and stabilize the RV when parked
  • 12 volt plugs (like a cigarette lighter) to charge cell phones, tablets, etc.

You can see that the critical functions for living in an RV mostly run on 12 volt or propane and don’t need 110 volt AC—water, heat, refrigerator, lights.  The things that need 110 volt AC are more like luxuries—air conditioning, TV, microwave oven and small appliances.  This means that in a pinch you can live in an RV with only 12 volt power—off the grid, so to speak.  There is only one problem…eventually your batteries will go dead.  And eventually is not very long.  In our trailer, our batteries would lose about ¼ to ½ of their charge every 24 hours just running the lights, water pump and furnace.  Without some way of charging the batteries, we would not be able to boondock for very long.  And it is also nice to have some luxuries like TV or a blender or hair dryer sometimes.  So a way of charging the batteries is pretty important and there are two main ways to do this—a gasoline or propane-powered generator or a photovoltaic solar power system with solar panels.

We have a generator, a little Honda 1600 watt gasoline-powered thing that is a wonder of mechanical design.  It is small (40 pounds), runs about 5-10 hours on a gallon of gas and it is very quiet (compared to the obnoxious generators you sometimes hear at construction sites).  We lug it around in the back of our truck and have used it for a few 3-4 day camping trips.  I hate it.  I hate listening to it because as quiet as it is, in the woods or in the desert it is SO out of place. And it is inefficient.  It can theoretically push 1600 watts of power and it runs our microwave oven or a hair dryer just fine, but charging the batteries it only pushes from 120 to 350 watts of power and would take about 5 hours to recharge one days use of our batteries (about one kilowatt-hour, that your utility charges you about 20 cents for).  That’s about $4.00 worth of gasoline.

So I wanted a solar charging system and set out to design one.  I did a lot of research and shopping around for components, purchasing many of the building blocks on Ebay and Amazon.  The whole thing cost me about $600 and it works like a dream—effortlessly charging our batteries to full by about  1 or 2 PM every day. It is completely quiet, charges the batteries even when we are driving, doesn’t need any attention.  But it does need sunshine, so in case we have several cloudy days in a row or have to park in the shade, we have the Honda generator as a backup.

Oh, I almost forgot.  One of the cool things about having the solar charging system is that we now have enough battery capacity to have an inverter.  This box converts 12 volt DC to 110 volt AC, so we can run the TV/stereo, hand blender, laptop charger, electric bed warmers and other luxuries and still have our batteries top off every day. We still need the generator to run the hair dryer, which Lynnae REALLY likes every once in a while ;-)

For the techies reading this, here are the details of the solar system:

  • 2 ea. 140-watt solar panels
  • Morningstar 30 Amp solar charge controller
  • 2 ea. Trojan 6 volt batteries, wired in series to give 12 volts (225 Amp-hours total capacity)
  • Xantrex 1000-watt pure sine wave inverter
  • Bogert Engineering Trimetric Battery Meter
  • Various wires, cables and brackets

Batteries, meter and BIG cables

Charge controller (left) and inverter (right) and more big cables

Overall characteristics of the system:
Typical daily drawdown of the batteries is about 60 Amp-hours, or 30% of capacity.
Typical solar charging current is about 12 Amps, so 5 hours of sun per day will give a full charge.
When boondocking we run our lights as much as we like, the furnace might run 3-4 hours at night, we might watch a few hours of TV and use the bed warmers for about an hour before retiring, we charge all our phones, tablets, laptop, toothbrushes and internet hotspot and we run the hand blender for breakfast smoothies. I could add a third solar panel to the existing system if needed, but so far we have almost never been at less than 100% charge by the end of each day. We live quite luxuriously off the grid anywhere there is sunshine!

The second- best part is that, based on the cost of generator power, the system will pay for itself in less than a year.

The best part is that I rarely have to fire up the generator and break the silence while camping!

Monday, June 16, 2014


We have both loved bluegrass music for a long time (we had a bluegrass band at our wedding) and try to attend at least one or two bluegrass festivals every year.  Bluegrass is a happy kind of music and the crowds that attend these festivals are generally the most mellow you will find anywhere.  The vibe is just great, especially when the location is a beautiful outdoor venue like the Nevada County Fairgrounds.  We arrived on Wednesday and the music was scheduled to run from Thursday till Sunday.  There were already tons of campers and tents set up when we got there, but we managed to luck into an awesome spot right next to the pond.

A goose family were our neighbors

Sunset over the pond

Monday morning after most people had left
 The musicians were virtuosos, many of the younger ones were Berkeley (the Boston music college) graduates.  We heard some great bands like the Lonesome River Band, the Peter Rowan Band and Junior Sisk have been playing for 39 years or more.  Peter Rowan played with Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clemens and David Grisman in the iconic psychedelic hippie bluegrass band called Old and In the Way.

People waited in line at 7 AM to put their chairs in place

The venue was beautiful...a grassy meadow surrounded by huge pines

Junior Sisk getting into it

Of course, one of the joys of a bluegrass festival is the people watching!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Down to the foothills

After spending most of the last couple months in Death Valley and the Sierras, we plan to spend the next few weeks in the foothills.  On the east side of the Sierras, the mountains drop steeply to the valleys below, creating dramatic scenery like we saw in Lone Pine. On the west side of the range, the mountains rise very gradually from the floor of California's central valley to the peaks and valleys of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and the rest of the range.  Between roughly 1,000 and 2,500 feet above sea level is the foothills, which was ground zero for the gold rush of 1849 and contains many interesting old towns and historical sites from that era.  It is also a very beautiful area of grasslands, oaks and ponderosa pines.  Fron 1991 to 1996, we lived in the foothills in a little town called Meadow Vista, near Auburn.  We are going to spend a week in Auburn visiting long lost friends and half a week in Grass Valley at the annual bluegrass festival there, California's largest.

But first, we stopped in Columbia, a gold rush town that has been preserved as a state park.  Columbia is also a jumping off point to drive back up into the mountains to the Clark Fork area where Lynnae used to camp with her family as a kid. We spent a nice few days here.

Main Street Columbia

Relics of the past are everywhere around here
The Sonora Pass area of the Sierras is a very beautiful part of the range and includes the Emigrant Wilderness.  The Stanislaus River is the main waterway, and one branch of it is the Clark Fork River where Lynnae spent many summers camping.  We tried to find the campground they frequented, but came up empty.  It was still a great day trip and a very beautiful area.
Donnell Lake on the Stanislaus

Clark Fork

It turned out to be a good fishing day on the Clark Fork

Kennedy Meadows is a jumping off place for backpacking and horse pack trips into the Emigrant Wilderness. Also  rumored to have ice cream.

Kennedy Meadows itself

One of the creeks feeding the Stanislaus from the high country

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Last day in the mountains for a while

After a week at Huntington Lake, our plan was to spend a couple weeks in the lower foothills of the Sierras, visiting old friends, exploring the gold rush country and catching the big Grass Valley bluegrass festival.  The day before we left the lake, Lynnae had a great day fishing, catching the biggest trout she has ever caught!

Meanwhile I was trying to catch some of the amazing sky and interesting stumps in the lake bed.