Niagara Falls, Chicago and searching for Beavers…..
Our adventures in Winnie (our camper)
So far campervanning in the US has been a slightly different experience to campervanning in Patagonia but we’re still loving every minute of it. As the US is not quite as desolate as Patagonia the places we have stopped to sleep and eat are somewhat more urban than we’re used too- luckily Winnie has blackout blinds so it’s all good! It’s also slightly chillier- and that’s saying something given how far south we got in Argentina- but we’re wrapping up warm and still getting out and about.
Walmart has become our new best friend which is something I never thought I would say about a superstore! We stopped to stock up on supplies on our second day of having the van and have returned at least 5 times since. Most stores allow campers and RV’s to stay the night for free which is turning out to be a really good option at the moment. They are normally not too far away from internet access, something we wouldn’t get if we were trying to be sneaky and wild camp elsewhere. (We need Internet as Mike is currently sorting out accommodation and funding for the uni course he will start when we return to the UK.)
Although we are trying as much as possible to do all our cooking ourselves, using Walmart as a campsite can lead to unhealthy habits. The temperature here has got to lows of -8’c and this can make cooking outside physically painful. On top of this Walmart is often located in industrial estates with Dunkin Donuts, Subways, MaccyD’s and almost any fast food chain thinkable only 5 minutes away (sometimes Cinabon- yum!) . They can be hard to resist. At least Macdonalds are doing free coffee atm so we can feel guilt free when we need a caffeine hit. Our camper made hot choc with marshmallows also goes down a storm in the cold, but that’s fine because the’re low fat, aren’t they?
In the cooking department we have had some disasters and successes. We have mastered chicken fajitas (minus the expensive accompaniments of course) and we now do a mean eggy bread but at the same time we have also managed to mess up soup. We bought condensed soup but failed to read the instructions, or even the label, and ate it wondering why the soup here is ‘like pasta sauce’- fail! We almost cracked out the knife and fork just to get through it.
Apart from Walmarts we have slept in a park and ride in Pennsylvania as a nice woman that worked in a petrol station close by said it should be fine. We almost froze to death cooking dinner in a service station car park just off the interstate 90 we were camping in. The snow started coming down hard and fast while the pasta was cooking, and by the time I was washing up the water was freezing to the plate and Mike’s hand almost froze to the gas canister. That’s when we decided we should check the weather forecast before committing to cooking dinner ourselves.
Although we have spent a fair bit of time on the big highways moving from one town to the next, we have now started to make an effort to get off the interstates. We took route 5 from Westfield, where we had stayed the night, to the Town of Eerie enjoying the cute houses on the lake we saw along the way. In Westfield we found a temporarily abandoned pier and decided it would be the perfect place to stay the night. It also came highly recommended by a local who gave us his address in case we needed anything. The pier was abandoned as Lake Eerie had frozen over- something we had never seen before- so people had not been requiring lake access for some time.
Before hitting the hay we had a lovely meal at the Zebra Diner (named so because of its decor) where we were the only two customers not at the bar, despite the restaurants capacity of around 70. The waitress generally seemed like she may have forgotten how to do her job, there was dust on the plates and people kept popping their heads round to see us (confused as to why anyone would be in this neck of the woods) but the wings were good and we got chatting to a few locals which was great.
We then headed ‘home’ to write some scholarship applications before bed. The police turned up just as we were switching of the lights for sleep so we got ready, keys at hand, to be moved on- bollocks. However it turns out they were just curious about why the heck we were in the area and what we were doing so far from home- we have Californian plates on Winnie- phew! We were glad we got to stay as during the night we could hear huge cracks from the ice and when we woke in the morning we could see small areas where the lake had melted- the first signs of spring. On a slightly less cheery note along the cracks in the ice we could see fish that had frozen solid when winter begun a few months previously.
We also hit route 14 between Madison and La Crosse and saw loads of huge farm houses with sprawling land, some with Amish people going about their day to day chores. We found a nice place to sleep just of the road in a forestry area that is a functioning campsite during the summer months but was ‘shut’ meaning we could stay there for free. In the morning we went for a lovely, but super chilly -4’c run around the area.
Finally, while we were in Chicago, Mike managed to sweet talk a Walgreens manager into letting us sleep in their parking lot. Although the store had no loo’s it was ideally located in the centre of town, something that cannot be said for the Walmart’s of Chicago. We could literally walk 20minutes and be in downtown- and for free- what more could you ask for!
We are not sure if it’s our accent, the camper or just the super friendly people of the US but we have managed to wangle a lot of freebies here. Along with 8 out of 8 free nights so far, we have also been given a free donut, free chicken, wedges and mash potato which were all yum, an offer of a free night parked in someone’s driveway (which we politely turned down), and finally we have each had two free showers in trucker stops that would have otherwise been rather pricey at $12 a time. To be fair they are amazing showers, with towels, soap, a hairdryer and heating lamp, it’s like going to a hotel without the bed, but it’s still a bit more than we can afford.
Where we have got to….
With little plan when we picked up Winnie in New York we headed West driving through New Jersey to Pennsylvania where we stayed the night. The next day we drove another hour west before changing our plans. We decided that Niagara Falls was worth the visit North as it was only a 5 or so hour detour and the Canadian side could be visited on foot. This avoids the rigmarole of getting Winnie over the border and having to pay for a night in Canada which is very built up in that area. So…we drove north, back through New Jersey and into New York State where the weather had taken a turn for the worse- there was a minor snow storm going on and lots of snow around.
Niagara Falls has the fastest flow rate of any waterfall in the World so we were eager to go check it out. We went and explored the American side first and then took a stroll over the bridge to Canada- very surreal. From all angles it was truly beautiful. Almost everything we could see was white with snow and, although the falls weren’t frozen, the huge river below was. There were also huge mounds of snow in front of the falls giving a completely different viewing experience from your average waterfall. Unfortunately the horseshoe (the curved part of the falls and supposedly most impressive bit) was hard to view because of the amount of spray it produced but the sound it created was impressive enough. The Canadian side definitely provided the better viewing experience, strolling along the river gave wonderful views of both the Canadian side (the Horseshoe) but also the American side (American Falls).
Despite the falls being incredible I was surprised by their location. In my head they were going to be in a huge National Park with loads of walking trails, in reality they were sandwiched between the two hugely built up tourist towns of Niagara Falls. Although this did not ruin the experience in my opinion it would be much nicer to see the falls without high rise buildings behind them. The town on the Canadian side was a little bit mental. On the ‘main strip’ there was a tacky theme park feel, with a giant Frankenstein eating a Burger from Burger King, about 10 differently themed haunted houses and the World’s worst wax works. On top of it all, we were two of around ten visitors to the falls that day so it was a ghost town. We did get a traditional taste of Canada though- we found a Tim Horton’s for lunch and has some of their oh so famous goodies.
Our next destination was Chicago- for sure this time- so we drove through New York State and Pennsylvania yet again, then on through Ohio, Indiana and then finally to Illinois where we briefly stopped in Cleveland before making it to Chicago.
Chicago turned out to be lovely. Although freezing the sun shone for the two days we were there making the city look gorgeous. We visited what we have decided is the World’s best sculpture- The Bean, or officially Cloud Gate There is nothing much to it other than a large bean made out of shiny, reflective material but it provides endless amounts of fun-and it was designed by an English sculpture don’t you know.
After taking insane amounts of pictures we decided to check out the open air concert venue (Pritzker Pavillion) which is also in Millennium Park, as it turns out, just behind The Bean. This was also a rather lovely design, we just wish we could have gone to see one of the free concerts held there but unfortunately we were out of season- people don’t generally like to picnic in the snow!
We also walked the Magnificent Mile, a section of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue filled with designer stores and impressive buildings. On route we stopped off at Chicago Cultural Centre to view a rather ornate and extremely beautiful Tiffany Dome, The Holy Church to see their stained glass windows and detoured along the river to view the old quirky buildings along its front.
Thinking that it probably wasn’t the best idea to try and cook in Walgreens tiny car park we decided to treat ourselves to dinner out and when in Chicago there’s only one thing to eat…. Deep dish pizza. We found a cute little pizza joint which we thought would be too long a wait but as we were happy to eat at the bar we were seated pretty quickly. Not being huge fans of thick pizza’s we were a little dubious but turns out the frozen ‘Chicago’ pizza’s you can buy in the UK don’t quite do the real thing justice. Our ‘pie’ came in a steel tin making it look seriously dough heavy but turns out it was as light as air, seriously cheesy and had a yummy tomato sauce- heaven.
After filling ourselves to the brim we thought it was a good idea to end our night in the Blues Capital of the World with a little blues music but it didn’t happen. It was a Saturday night so everywhere was either ticketed or had a high cover charge- something we couldn’t justify given that neither of us are huge fans of the blues- oh well, next time!
The next morning we went to check out the beach! We were surprised to hear there was a beach in this inland town but headed to Lincoln Parks’ ‘Golden Mile’ anyway. The mile long beach is situated on Lake Michigan’s pristine blue waters and is absolutely stunning. In fact you would never now you were in a city except for the high rise buildings looming overhead. We went for a stroll along the shores, taking in the rays and watching the runners making the most of the first signs of spring. A gorgeous way to end our time in Chicago.
Back on the road we headed through Wisconsin and Minnesota before landing in South Dakota home to Sioux Falls. Just 10mins away from this bland town we saw signs for Beaver Creek Nature Area and keen to see a Beaver we took a detour. Unfortunately no Beavers were to be found that day but we saw some Beaver Dens, Woodpeckers and Dear along the nature path so all was not lost.
Not surprisingly the town of Sioux Falls is named after its resident waterfall Sioux, which in turn was named after the great Native American Tribe. While in town we went to check it out, and, although pretty tiny it was a nice walk up the river.
While we were there we saw a beaver- yay! Well we were pretty sure we did but he was quite far away and scampered off pretty quickly so we couldn’t be a 100%, especially as the lady at the information centre said she had never seen a beaver here in all her life. We thought this was pretty strange as we were almost certain we saw the giveaway paddle of a beaver but oh well. While we were walking down the river we then saw other evidence beavers lived there, tree branches and trunks with gnaw marks in them, as well as beaver dens and decided the woman did not know what she was talking about.
Convinced we had just found a beaver’s home we returned to the river later on in the day, just after sunset to see if we could get another glimpse. Beavers are nocturnal so are rarely spotted in the day, especially outside there digs so we were lucky! When we arrived it was getting dark but we sat awhile straining our eyes trying to find Mr Beaver. Only five minutes into our stake out Mike pointed to a drainage pipe leading into the river and said ‘that rock looks amazingly like a beaver but it’s too still’. I looked for a while and had decided it must just be a beaver looking rock when Mr Beaver stood up and slinked into the water- talk about luck! He was a beaver after all and a big one at that. We followed him on his fishing expedition upstream for a while, before it got too dark and we lost him. It was such a great experience if only for a short time!
Next stop….. We are sticking with South Dakota and heading to Badlands National Park……