By the time our departure date (May 15, 1999) rolled around, we had created an itinerary that allowed two weeks each in Alaska (AK), Yukon Territory (YT), and the Northwest Territories (NWT) and covered a total of 52 days: 8 days in transit and 44 days of touring. The idea of 4 days of driving did not seem too daunting at the beginning of the trip and we enjoyed the changing scenery as we drove farther west, particularly in North Dakota where we found freshly rain-filled prairie potholes playing host to puddle ducks. We also took a brief break from driving on the third morning to spend a few hours at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge (ND), where we found sharp-tailed grouse and Sprague's pipit, both new birds for me, and where a yellow lupine and the beautiful, wispy prairie smoke were in bloom. An unplanned, slight detour allowed us to revisit Elk Island National Park in Alberta where we saw bison, moose, Richardson's ground squirrels, and many nesting red-necked grebes.
Our first full day of touring began auspiciously with a sighting of a black phase timber wolf, our first view of a wolf since we visited Alaska ten years ago. We saw him for perhaps ten seconds before he gave a last look over his shoulder and disappeared into the woods. We were heading for the largest national park in Canada, Wood Buffalo N.P., which straddles the border of Alberta and NWT. Our route closely parallelled the Hay River for a good part of the way offering views of Louise Falls, with a three-tiered, 50-foot drop to the water, and Alexandra Falls, three miles up-river via hiking trail, with its 109-foot, frothy plunge into the river. We curved around the south shore of Great Slave Lake, which, even as we approached the end of May, was still mostly frozen, and stopped in Fort Smith to visit the park headquarters. We learned that the campground was opened a day early; we were the second party to inquire about available sites.
In 1983 Wood Buffalo N. P. was designated a World Heritage Site for a variety of cultural and natural features, including its role as the home of the only natural nesting site of the endangered whooping cranes. We did not see any of these birds as the nesting areas are not accessable to visitors during the breeding season, but we did stop at a viewpoint from which we were able to see the edge of the crane habitat. Some other highlights of the park for us: 1. Karst topography: A collapse sinkhole is formed when the roof of an underground cave (created by circulating groundwater dissolving the limestone and gypsum) collapses; a solution sinkhole results when water percolates from the ground and enlarges cracks in the bedrock. The Karstland Trail meandered through a number of examples of this topography. Another collapse sinkhole is located at the Angus Firetower near the park entrance; it is so large that it requires an entire nature trail all its own from which to appreciate it. 2. Salt Plains Viewpoint: The Salt Plains are another World Heritage Site feature. The viewpoint and picnic site provide a spectacular overlook of the plains where nearly pure deposits of salt are left behind via evaporation. 3. Peace Athabasca Delta: The Delta was high on our list of things to see - it is one of the largest inland fresh-water deltas in the world, where three major rivers converge with shallow lakes to form a huge lush wetland -- but we were not able to make it on this trip due to its remoteness (three days round trip by canoe and hiking are required to reach this area). We did drive to Peace Point, seeing three black bears and two wood bison along the way, and there we had a beautiful view of the impressively large, fast-moving Peace River; it gives every impression that it could deliver you downstream in a hurry should you be siezed with the desire to travel by canoe.
Probably the most exciting part of our trip was our nearly two-week journey on the Dempster Highway, which starts in the Yukon and ends in the NW corner of the NWT. There were, however, several memorable experiences between Wood Buffalo N. P. and the Dempster.
We had just crossed the Mackenzie River via ferry. Once again, our decision not to bring our canoe on this trip was confirmed as this river, too, was filled with chunks of ice (not to mention a current more than a little stronger than that of Irondequoit Creek). We were heading for the NWT capitol of Yellowknife and enjoying a variety of mammal sightings along the way, including black bear and beaver. Brian was driving and I had begun to doze when all of a sudden he gripped my arm with the urgency that could only mean "grab your binoculars NOW!!" and I went from sleepy to alert in seconds. Brian had pulled over and stopped and, following his directions, I focused the binos on a fisher. Though not a common mammal, it is somewhat less rare than the number of sightings of it would indicate. Despite diligent searches and even though it occurs in our plant study area in the Adirondacks, we had never seen one before. And now here was this one, perched on a log, several feet back in the woods, face neatly framed by branches. After a few moments, he moved off, following the length of the log so that we had a full view of him. We got out of the car and admired and photographed a clear set of paw prints he'd left in the mud.
After crossing the northern arm of Great Slave Lake, the terrain changed from flat and sandy to rolling granitic bedrock and beautiful lakes, and we started to see more northerly ducks like surf scoter. Brian declared me deficient in the duck department and I was required to take duck identification lessons on which I was quizzed regularly. Fortunately (or un-), there were plenty of ponds on which to practice and embarrass myself.
Yellowknife is a modern city, population 18,000, named for an aboriginal tribe that lived in the area and were known as Yellowknives because they used copper implements. Our visit was brief but we did stop at the visitor center and walked through the garden of native plants there.
We retraced our route to the Mackenzie River and had lunch overlooking a gorge at the Saamba Deh Falls, where we found a beautiful pink orchid called calypso. The town of Wrigley was our next destination. It rained quite frequently on this stretch. The habitat consisted mostly of acres of stunted black spruce. We had some nice raptors along the way -- peregrine falcon and rough-legged hawk -- but the best aspect of the road was the fine views of the Mackenzie Mountains.
We reached Wrigley with just enough gas to almost not make it. The gas station was comprised of two above-ground tanks operated by an attendant who lived a few minutes away; a sign on the front of her house listed the hours of operation and advised that, in addition to the price of the gas, there would be a twenty dollar fee for after-hours pumping. Later, we had stopped in an empty campground (of only three sites) to cook dinner, where we were visited by a native carrying a shotgun and a plastic bag full of snowshoe hares. He did not speak much English but was able to communicate his need for a knife to skin the hares. We made him a gift of our Swiss army knife for which he expressed his thanks and commenced to skinning. Thus we shared the dinner hour with our new friend.
We spent some time on the Alcan Highway in British Columbia but due to the poor weather conditions we decided not to make our planned stops at this time but to add them on the return trip instead. We did see quite a few animals on this stretch: moose, deer, bear, wood bison, and woodland caribou.
We managed to get one of the few remaining campsites at the Liard Hot Springs campground and had some terrific botanizing along the boardwalk to the springs. I finally got to see a marten! First spotted by Brian, we saw him twice at close range on the boardwalk and running over logs and the ground.
We reached Watson Lake YT in the afternoon, did some shopping and laundry, and headed for Ross River. The senery to the east (the Logan Mountains) was so spectaculer that we decided to try traveling the Nahanni Range Road after all (we had dropped it from the itinerary). There were some slightly conflicting signs at the entrance to the narrow dirt road: one claimed that the road was closed and another that it was not maintained beyond a big washout at mile 83. We decided it meant that the road was open until the washout so we headed down it. The road was rough enough that we wondered sometimes if it was maintained at all but the scenery was so gorgeous that we just bounced and lurched along without minding too much.
We needed gas. Brian calculated how far we could go on the Nahanni Range Road and still have enough to get back out and on to Ross River and the next available gas. We drove precisely that distance (62 mi) and turned around to camp at a campground we had passed about ten miles back. We had seen no one on the road or in the campground which was one of the prettiest ones we have ever seen. We were surrounded by mountains and overlooking a river.
The next morning, as we drove out to the main road, we were approached by a fellow driving a grader (although it did not seem to be grading). We pulled over to leave room for him to pass but he slowed down and we wondered if he was going to tell us that we had misinterpretted the signs and that we did not belong on the road; instead he leaned out his window and asked, "Do you have any matches?"
We barely made it to the gas station in Ross River in time, discovering that one mile of driving lead to about 1.2 mi of decrease in the "miles to empty" digital read-out from the on-board microprocessor. We did have a small quantity of spare gas packed away, but it is a matter of honor (or perhaps laziness) not to actually use it.
Approaching the beginning of the Dempster Highway, we reached a particularly dramatic overlook of the Tintina Trench, a rift valley along which there has been 280 mi of slippage, and which has changed the drainage of most of Yukon (and the Yukon River especially) from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. It is so long and straight that it is readily visible in photographs from space.
Just outside of Dawson City, at the Klondike River Lodge, we washed the car (Why? We were headed down a dirt road in the rain!), filled the tank with gas and turned off the Klondike Highway and onto the Dempster Highway. This road was named for a member of the Northwest Mounted Police. It was completed in 1978, to serve as an overland supply route to Inuvik, NWT. From hither to yon, the road stretches 456 mi. There is a service station, with gas and mechanic, at the Eagle Plains Hotel, the halfway point at 369 km. Services are also available at Fort McPherson, km 550, and, of course, at Inuvik, km 736. There are two ferry crossings, one at the Peel River, and the other over the Arctic Red River. The ferries run during the summer; in the winter, one can cross by ice bridge. For a brief period after the river has begun to break up, but before the ice has gone out, one stays put.
We camped that first night at the Tombstone Mountain campground, km 72, at treeline. On the way in, we saw a black bear, several gray jays, and several porcupines. In our site, we had tree sparrows singing to serve as a lullaby.
One of our first "target birds" for this stretch of the road was surfbird but the weather had deteriorated overnight to cold, windy, and snowy so we explored via car instead. We drove to km 132 (dividing line between Blackstone Highlands and the Northern Ogilvies) and back to campsite. Though we did no hiking, we had a number of chances to do bird photography. Some avian highlights included harlequin duck, long-tailed jaeger, oldsquaw, willow & rock ptarmigans, red-throated loon, and wandering tattler. We also spotted Dall sheep with young high on a mountain flank, and a red fox with about six pups near a beautiful den entrance.
The trek for the surfbird (which would have been a life bird for me) was a tough one. Based on information on Yukon Bird Club home page, we hiked south into the mountains from a radio tower at km 96 for a round trip of eight hours, from 1195 to 1525 m in elevation, only about 1.8 km line of sight one way. The terrain was hummocky, snow-covered tundra. The highlight of the trip was extensive tracks of wolverine in the snow. We were thrilled to find the tracks; although we did not see the animal, we could look at those tracks in the snow and know that somewhere, on the other end of them, was a real, live wolverine.
Note, however, no mention of the surfbird in the highlights. We saw one once, in courtship flight, but at long range and not a good enough view for me to count. Just to liven things up a bit, we tried taking a shortcut on the way back which was a huge mistake. There were steep snow-covered slopes that we could not see from above. At times, we had to traverse extensive patches of heavy snow as much as one meter deep, which was exhausting. We slogged back to the car cold, tired and soaking wet. While we changed into dry clothes, we got to see a long-tailed jaeger fly in to a caribou carcass to pick up something for dinner. We then returned to our site to scare up some dinner of our own.
In the morning, we returned to the Klondike River Lodge for gas as we would not have had enough to get to Eagle Plains. We also washed the car again so it would have a fresh clean surface for the dust and mud to adhere to. Then we made a brand new assault on the Dempster. Naturally, now that everything was ship-shape again, we had a flat tire.
We reached Eagle Plains the next afternoon. At the north end of the Blackstone Uplands, we had oldsquaw, red fox pups, red-necked phalaropes, and moose. The weather was gloomy but the scenery in the Northern Ogilvies was quite spectacular. The slopes tended to talus rather than tundra, perhaps explaining lower densities of arctic birds. We thought at one point we might have a gyrfalcon on some limestone cliffs but it turned out to be a golden eagle. The view of the river valley from edge of Eagle Plains was dramatic. Moss campion, a beautiful, bright pink, mat-forming flower, was in bloom there. Soon thereafter we had a northern hawk owl (finally!) with great scope views for a long time; subsequently we saw quite a few of these. The Ogilvie River had a red-throated loon up close.
On the plains, we had five Harlan's hawks, including one extreme dark phase and one extreme light phase. There were great looks at white-winged crossbills in the road. We were slightly surprised that, in the week or so that we had been on the Dempster, we had seen only one black bear.
The weather continued to be cold, rainy, windy, and snowy by turn, and sometimes all at once. At the Eagle Plains Hotel, we left the flat tire at the garage while we had lunch at the hotel restaurant. By the time we were finished, the area was shrouded in such dense fog that we could not even see the road, so we spent the night at the hotel.
The Eagle Plains Hotel turned out to be an important location for us on the Dempster Highway. In addition to getting the tire repaired and enjoying a warm, dry break from the storm, we acquired, in the gift shop, a new piece of equipment vital to the safety and enjoyment of the trip: a bell. Let me explain here that one member (fully 50%) of the Keelan team has a long-standing and completely sane fear of bears which surfaces at the first hint of anything approaching wilderness, including a planning session in our own living room.
This person had begun to voice objections to the idea of bounding around the arctic without bear protection. So Brian decided to take the advice of the pamphlets and books we had read regarding this issue and hang a bell from the backpack while hiking, the theory being that marauding bears would hear the noise from afar and maintain a discreet distance. The happy campers, meanwhile, would never know how close they had been to a brush with tooth and claw.
In addition to the advice to create a noise while hiking to keep the bears informed, we were also familiar with the jokes that the bears regarded the noise-makers as dinner bells alerting them to the location of their next meal. Nevertheless, Brian attached the bell to his pack where it jingled pleasantly for the rest of the trip and could be heard from as far as five feet away.
We did not rely completely on the early-warning system; should a bear actually be so bold as to encroach on our personal space, we had the ursine equivalent of OFF!: pepper spray, which earned us closer inspection at the border because it is considered a weapon. (By the way, if the bell summons the bear to his dinner, the pepper spray provides the spice for the meal.) The directions suggest that the well-prepared hiker take a practice run with the spray to ensure that he will be able to wield the can with confidence in an actual encounter. Thus we found ourselves in our front yard one afternoon in May shortly before our departure. The air was calm with very little, if any, discernable breeze. We took our best guess, and faced away, popped the plastic trigger-guard, and squeezed the trigger. We could see the mist as it drifted out; that was the last thing I saw because the air currents shifted and wafted the pepper spray back over me and I was unable to open my eyes for what seemed like days. My brother Paul was horrified at the the thought of a bear getting close enough to douse with that stuff; he figured that at that point you might as well clobber him over the head with the can and at least spare yourself the indignity of becoming incapacitated by your own weapon of choice.
Admittedly, this phobia is an inconvenient one to have for someone who spends as much time in the bear-filled wilderness as we do. But clearly all our precautions were effective: we did not encounter any bears while we were hiking. Brian maintains that the explanation is that the bears were rolling around on the ground laughing, somewhere just out of sight.
The fog had partially lifted by morning but the rain evolved into a blowing snowstorm by the time we stopped for lunch in the Richardson Mountains. We'd seen a pair of Northern Hawk Owls at the Eagle River crossing and some fancy ducks such as oldsquaw and white-winged scoter, and we had a lot of fun watching and photographing a long-tailed jaeger. With the exception of a wheatear, which we saw just before the Dempster Highway crosses the border from the Yukon into the Northwest Territories, we did not see much else.
The drive through the Peel/Mackenzie Lowlands was uneventful. We reached Inuvik NWT late in the afternoon and stopped at the Visitor Center, which had some nice displays, in the hope of contacting the guide who had been recommended to us and make arrangements for a trip down the Mackenzie River to look for gray-headed chickadees. However, the fellow at the center did not have the home phone number so he gave us directions to the guide's house. He wasn't home so we left a note on his front porch, pinned down by a boat-engine part, and went off to do some birding before we camped for the night.
We briefly checked the Sewage Lagoon, which had a modest number of ducks (and a small flock of children, chasing a ground squirrel and climbing on the above-ground pipes). We then went to the dump, which, though not very scenic, clearly enjoys a good reputation among the many Glaucous Gulls we saw there.
Sunday morning we found the Catholic church, which wasn't difficult because, in addition to being the oldest building in Inuvik (we learned in the visitors' guide), it is also the most distinctive: it was designed and built in the shape of a huge igloo. We also enjoyed an advertisement in the guide placed by a literary-minded fellow, who named his enterprise for the Beaufort Delta; across the top of the ad detailing the charter flights the company offers, is the name BeauDel Air.
We stopped at the guide's house again and retrieved a message from under the boat engine that began, "If you are reading this, I am still sleeping..." He said our proposed trip sounded doable and to meet him at the coffee shop at noon; he would be wearing a blue shirt and a gray ball cap and glasses. Over coffee, arrangements were made for Vince to take us to Reindeer Station, the home (we hoped) of the gray-headed chickadees. We packed our tent, gear and food for two days, parked our vehicle at the guide's house, took care of the financial details ("this is my favorite part" said Vince, grinning) and were driven to the put-in site at Boot Lake. Here we loaded everything into a large boat and set off, with the guide's assistant, Eddie, following in a smaller boat.
As we were getting ready to leave, Vince asked if we had parkas. At the moment we were wearing thermal underwear, the usual shirt and pants, a long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, down vest, hat and gloves. He took in this attire and said, in all seriousness, "I'd hate for you to get caught out there in just your summer clothes." We put on the parkas.
And a good thing too, for we raced down that river fast enough to create our own wind-chill factor. Vince pointed out various landmarks along the way, including a bald eagle nest. Reindeer Station is an abandoned village that was occupied in the fifties to manage a government herd of reindeer (to provide a steady source of meat, hides etc). The herd was sold to a private individual who moved the herd to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk for short), leading to the abandonment of the village, which at that point had a school and a teen center. Now, the buildings are in a state of collapse, there are piles of lumber, shreds of tarps, broken glass, and even an ancient car, which must have been driven out there in the winter when the river was frozen.
Before Vince departed, he gave us his mobile phone and directions for its use in the event of an emergency. Then he and Eddie shoved off in the smaller boat, leaving the larger one with us.
When we first arrived, the sun was shining and without the wind the temperature was pleasant enough to remove some of our outer clothing while we explored our temporary new home. We were comfortably warm for about twelve minutes and then had to don the heavy parkas again while we set up the tent and arranged a sort of living/dining room in an old two room house. We shoved some piles of insulation out of the way, spread a piece of clean carpet over a large, flat plank that we tugged over some broken floor boards and pronounced it satisfactory. There was a window hole with no glass in it and we leaned another board over it to try to keep out the wind. The "kitchen" we set up about 100 yards away in a large outdoor cabinet complete with counter top, sinks (but no running water) and drawers.
After dinner, we crawled into tent and sleeping bags, and shivered under the down parkas piled on top. We spent a cold night sleeping on permafrost. If you're wondering what that's like, try sleeping in your freezer. (Don't defrost it first.) There is one advantage to the permafrost (maybe more, but at the moment they escape me): one can fashion an excellent underground food-storage locker such as the one here at the station.
In the morning, we ate breakfast, packed lunch, and set out to climb the bluffs that wrapped around on three sides of the village (the Mackenzie River being the fourth side). Walking on tufted, hummocky tundra can be tiring, and risky for the less sure-footed, but, when the tundra is vertical, the hummocks provide convenient hand- and foot-holds. We climbed slowly, stopping often to listen for birds and to breathe. The view from the top was breathtaking. From this vantage, the village did not look derelict, but cozy and homey. We heard many orange-crowned warblers, Wilson's warblers, and fox sparrows but saw no chickadees. Twice we heard distant calls that presumably were made by this species but the calls were not repeated. Early June is too early in the breeding season to realistically hope to see the chickadees; they are in much greater evidence later in the summer.
Reindeer Station, on the Mackenzie River, is only about 60 miles from the Arctic Ocean, by boat, and boasts one of the largest deltas in North America. Forty miles wide and 60 miles long, it is a maze of channels, lakes, and islands. Vince advised us to remain in the east channel and not to go exploring, as tempting as it may have been. The snow and mist and wind finally abated, and the sun came out, so we ate our lunch here, admiring the view.
With the rising temperature, bright sun, and exertion of climbing steep hills, tundra, spruce, and willow-alder thickets, we soon became warm enough to complete the hike in short sleeves. In addition to the sunny afternoon and the marvelous delta overlook, a couple of highlights of the day were an apparent dark-phase long-tailed jaeger and a whimbrel on the tundra about 160 m above the river.
We returned to our camp late in the afternoon and took advantage of the sun-warmed tent by crawling inside for naps. Brian got up first and was about to go into the "parlor" when he saw a short-tailed weasel poking its head out from under the board that served as our doorstep. Brian called to me but the weasel withdrew under the step. I hurried out and we started to circle the building to look for it. It immediately popped back into view and we had incredible views for several minutes as it ran over piles of lumber and even through our house. The summer pelage was richly colored and perfect. Brian had seen one before in New Brunswick but it was a new mammal for me.
Though it was light enough to go for a second hike, we decided we were too tired from today's effort and settled on taking the boat out instead. We left around 11 pm so most of the trip was actually tomorrow. We reached 68 degrees 50' exactly, about 21 km line of sight from Reindeer Station, and turned around. Here, the Mackenzie River was so wide that it looked more like an estuary than a river. Shortly after turning around, we had to change the gas tank. Fifteen minutes later, we came to a dead stop. After some fiddling around and a call to Vince on the mobile phone, we learned the problem was a vapor lock and, with Vince to talk us through it, we were soon on our way again.
In the Land of the Midnight Sun, the sun never sets, during the summer anyway. That does not mean there is no sunset, however. The sun hovers just above the horizon from late evening until early morning, which means there are astonishingly beautiful sunsets that linger for hours and then merge with the dawn. Some highlights of our sunset cruise were a flock of 70 tundra swans, white-fronted geese, parasitic jaegers, many ducks, and arctic terns.
We returned home to find that our tent had uprooted itself from its foundation and was heading for the river where its progress had been halted by a shrub. Aside from a little mud, it was none the worse for wear, so we hauled it back up and shoved it into the house, where we discovered we had just enough energy to climb into the tent and burrow down into the sleeping bags. It was just after 3 am.
The following morning we tried again for the chickadees, hiking 5 hours without any luck. We did have a nice light phase Harlan's hawk, Bohemian waxwings, and a large family of gray jays. We alerted Vince, via mobile phone, of our expected return to Boot Lake and arrived there only a few minutes before he did. After an excellent dinner at the Mackenzie (Green Briar?) Dining Room where we were served Arctic char and caribou, we returned to Chuk Territorial Park, indulged in hot showers, and turned in for the night.
The weather during our return along the Dempster Highway continued to be rainy and foggy. A road worker (he was cleaning the signs!) told us that the pass through the Richardson Mountains was slick and we later found that the road was closed. There were some nice wildfowers in bloom that were not open when we first drove through.
We drove later than usual one night and thus began our night/day reverse schedule. We realized that most people kept to a regular schedule in spite of the long hours of daylight so there was far less traffic at night than during the day. We had more sightings of animals at night too, including two cinnamon phase black bears on the tundra. Also, we arrived at campgrounds after most people had left for the day so that we had them quietly to ourselves.
Several other events of note: 1. We'd just started out when Brian's eagle eye saw a hubcap flipping by. We stopped to retrieve it from where it had rolled down an embankment, and discovered that the right rear tire was shredded. We replaced it and we kept going. 2. We found a gyrfalcon eyrie at km 158 just as promised in Yukon Wildlife Viewing Guide. We set up the telescope and watched an adult tear up prey and feed to the young for 45 minutes. 3. We stopped at a talus slope to look for collared pica, which would be a new mammal for both of us. We crossed the tundra and climbed about half way up a steep slope; we could hear one calling but were having a hard time seeing it. So, Brian climbed to the top of the slope and the next time we heard it call, we both pointed with our walking poles in the direction from which we'd heard it. After doing this several times, we located the animal sitting on a rock at the intersection of the imaginary lines.
We completed our journey on the Dempster Highway two weeks after we'd begun and headed for Dawson City.
On Day 30 of this wonderful trip, we crossed the border from the Yukon into Alaska, where we took the road to Eagle. According to the guidebook, this road is "almost more a trail than a road: very narrow and winding, with steep grades, rough surface, endless hairpin turns..."; we found it a bit slow and tiring but not as bad as the book described. We also had another unforgettable moment: just a few miles shy of Eagle, we rounded a bend and saw a lynx sitting by the side of the road. We watched it for several minutes seeing every mark perfectly: ear tufts, large feet, black-tipped bob tail. It got up and strolled across the road, looking back over its shoulder, until it reached the woods on the other side of the road and disappeared.
We arrived in camp with another flat tire but no place was open to have it repaired. Brian changed the flat, rotating the tires so that the two spares, with their new treads, were on the front. We'd have been stuck here if we had not packed a second spare tire on the trip, because the blowout was irreparable and replacement tires would not be available until Fairbanks.
Red squirrels chased each other through the campsite the next morning and we were excited to hear a wolf chorus during breakfast. It made a nice 13th wedding anniversary present for us!
It was at Eagle where Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, showed up after a long sledge journey to announce to the world that he had successfully navigated the Northwest Passage -- the first person to do so in 350 years of trying.
We were seeing more wildflowers as the season got later but we were also seeing forest fires. Although we saw flames mostly from a distance, the view was often obscured by smoke and more than once we cut our lunch break short when we were enveloped by smoke. There were lots of snowshoe hares, including one luckless hare carried off by a red fox that was not a whole lot bigger than its prey.
In Fairbanks, we bought two new tires, so that we now had four new tires on the van and two older ones as spares. We spent the rest of the day, and long into the night, driving in order to get back on our reverse day/night schedule. We were now on the Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road because it is primarily a truck-supply route to the settlement of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay. It is 414 miles long, including a short spur road, and was only recently opened to passenger travel along its entire length. There are only two service stations between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. The road crosses the Arctic Circle at mile 115 and reaches the community of Coldfoot at mile 175. It was at Coldfoot that we discovered that the valve stem on one of the new tires was bad and we were able to have it replaced there.
The first part of the road was not dissimilar to other areas we had seen near the treeline. We drove at about 30-40 miles per hour looking for mammals and plants. We saw caribou, dall sheep, some nice arctic wildflowers, and of course the pipeline which runs parallel to the road for much of the distance. The north slope, after crossing Atigun Pass, was remarkably uniform, stony tundra with the elevation dropping at a nearly constant rate to the sea. At about 70 miles shy of Deadhorse, we ran into a dense fog and had to turn back. We followed a side road opposite a cluster of buildings called Happy Valley and camped just out of sight of the road.
Although Alaska is famous for its biting insects (the state bird is a mosquito, and that sort of thing), they had not been particularly bothersome so far (mid-June) and certainly not as maddening as black fly season in the Adirondacks, where the only dent made in the population occurs when you accidently swallow one. For the most part, it had been too cold or windy to have much trouble and when necessary, we could keep the bugs under control with just a quick spritz of Off behind the ears. They were now, however, making their presence known.
Driving towards the Arctic Ocean, the tundra became wetter, smoother (less stony), and there were fewer flowering plants. In the last 50 or so miles to Deadhorse, we began seeing good numbers of caribou, long-tailed jaeger, white-fronted geese, small Canada geese, red-necked phalaropes, glaucous gull, oldsquaw, a few pacific loons, lapland longspur, parasitic jaeger, and a single gyrfalcon (the second of four sightings during the trip, which included both gray phase and dark phase birds). Just a few miles before reaching Deadhorse and the shore of the Arctic Ocean, the terrain changed dramatically due to the presence of shallow permafrost. Surface water became abundant and the land was broken into large polygons, looking like bathroom tile. Many of the polygons were nearly perfect pentagons twenty to thirty feet across.
Deadhorse is the end of the road for travelers so we birded around town for a few hours and then took a tour bus the last couple of miles to Prudhoe Bay. The tour guide talked about living conditions of workers on the oilfields. He said that pay starts at $17.50 per hour, 12 hours per day, 7 days a week, for 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. Plane fare to anywhere in Alaska is covered so most workers fly home for their 2 weeks off. Their food and lodging on the oilfield is also covered.
The guide also explained that, due to the low annual rainfall, the area is designated a desert; but that, because of the permafrost, the water pools on the surface instead of draining, and is therefore it is also considered a wetlands! One of the highlights of the tour was the stop at the Arctic Ocean where we got out of the bus for a few minutes to take photographs, pick up a stone, and dip hands into the icy water -- where it wasn't still frozen, that is.
On the tour, the driver mentioned that birders had seen spectacled eider on Lake Colleen. He also said that arctic fox and barren grounds grizzly bear could be found in town. (A sign in the hotel/tour office advised people not to barge out the door without checking carefully for bears.) So, we decided to bird around town again after the tour. We spent a very cold, windy hour squinting through the telescope at a spectacled eider from a great distance. Finally convinced we drove another hundred yards and turned our attention to a Sabine's gull that was feeding at the lake shore. I was following it through the viewfinder of the camera, when Brian said, "you aren't going to believe this..." I looked up to see that a spectacled eider had swum into view and was now at frame-filling distance. It was a much more pleasing way to see a life bird (and only a second sighting for Brian). We also saw a female, and a little while later male and female king eiders as well, also at photographic range.
There were semipalmated and pectoral sandpipers doing displays, in addition to red phalarope, tundra swan, caribou, arctic fox, and many pacific loons in about four hours of birding.
We left town around midnight. Going south, we noticed that many more caribou had arrived since morning. Finally we spotted a grizzly bear, our first of the trip. It was quite near some caribou but they did not seem worried. We were in our vehicle so I did not seem worried either.
The return trip on the Haul Road varied little from the way out -- rainy and buggy. We saw another grizzly, near the small community of Wiseman. We rounded a curve and saw the bear galloping away down the center of the road. The remainder of the drive was uneventful but scenic; was saw moose and cross-phase red fox.
Back in Fairbanks, we attended to some chores and errands including making arrangements for a bus trip into Denali National Park for the next day. We went into camp just outside the park at a record early 4:30 PM. We took a few spins around the campground for some exercize and before we finished the first lap discovered that we had somehow adopted a rather large dog. He walked at our heels for 45 minutes and then joined us in our campsite for the evening meal, finding a comfortable spot where we could conveniently trip over him. He eventually moseyed off to get himself adopted by a large group of kayakers. We also saw a moose mom and her calf pop out of the woods only 20 yards away and amble across the road and out of sight.
Private vehicles are not allowed to drive the length of the road into Denali. Our bus reservation was for 11:45. We boarded a very full bus for the eleven-hour trip (there are rest stops every 60-90 minutes). The scenery was gorgeous. We saw two gyrfalcons, great horned owl being mobbed by a mew gull; surf scoter; pintail ducks with chicks; 7 grizzlies including 3 cubs; about 150 dall sheep, mostly in 2 large herds; scattered caribou; two moose; and a nice collection of wildflowers, including shooting stars, wild geranium, forget-me-nots, and star flowers. The mountain itself was mostly obscured by clouds but we had had some beautiful, clear views of it on our previous trip. We became friends with our seatmates across the aisle, a Chinese couple who spoke very little English. We spoke very little to no Chinese at all, but with lookouts on both sides of the bus, the four of us could trade views out the windows. This happy arrangement ensured that we all got to see as much as possible.
We left Denali accompanied by rain and drove south to Cantwell. On our previous trip to Alaska, we had seen calypso orchids here but the area seems to be partly built over and we did not find any this time. We headed east on Denali Highway, which was very beautiful. A family we had met in Deadhorse had seen wolverine on this road, but though we searched diligently we had no such luck. The east section had many ponds with scaup, green-winged teal, and tundra swan. The middle section of the road was somewhat alpine in nature. We saw four bald eagles in river beds, and a number of porcupines, including some extremely pale ones and a pair that were nuzzling and wrestling with each other.
We then took the Richardson Highway south, finding many ponds filled with yellow water lily and one with a beautiful trumpeter swan at close range. We stopped around midnight at Squirrel Creek Campground, 79 miles from Valdez.
The drive into Valdez the next morning was beautiful, but we drove without stops in hopes of arriving in time to catch a boat out to Columbia Glacier. Luck was with us and we got the last couple of tickets for the 1:00 trip on a boat bearing the saloon-girl name of Lu-Lu Belle. Following lunch at Mike's Palace opposite the boat harbor, we hopped on board for what is probably the best boat tour we've ever taken. The captain treated the the passengers to seven hours of informative, entertaining, and amusing narrative covering both the history and the natural history of the area. He navigated carefully around the cliffs, glaciers and animals, pausing frequently to be certain that everyone had long, close views of everything! We even had a life mammal, killer whale. Other animals on the trip were harbor seal, steller's sea lion, and sea otter. Trip birds were pelagic cormorant, horned puffin, pigeon guillemot, and glaucous-winged gull.
A question uppermost in people's minds when we've mentioned this trip to Valdez, is whether or not Prince William Sound bears any scars of the great oil spill it suffered ten years ago. The answer is that, on the surface, as it were, the accident might never have happened; at least, there are no visible reminders of the disaster.
The next morning was spent keying out and photographing wildflowers. Then we left Valdez on the Richardson Highway. We had stopped to photograph a waterfall, when a woman identified herself as a photographer for People Magazine and asked if we would take a photo of her and her fiance in front of the waterfall; they wanted to use it for their engagement announcement.
As we continued on the Richardson Highway, we passed thousands of columbines and lupines growing together in the most spectacular fashion. Fog closed in as we drove over Thompson Pass at about 2600 feet, reducing visibility to nearly nothing. We crept along, noticing that headlights of on-coming traffic (what little there was) popped out of the mist at alarmingly close range. We finally dropped out of the fog as we lost elevation. However, we were able to take advantage of the high point of the pass by cramming the cooler full of snow. We had noticed earlier on trip that the retail ice supply was not locally abundant and was priced accordingly, so when we could we filled the cooler with snow or ice.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, named for two mountain ranges, is the largest national park in the United States. Although there are a lot of back-country activities from which to choose, such as hiking, skiing, kayaking, and mountain climbing, we planned to spend two days on the two unpaved roads into the park. The first of these, the Chitina-McCarthy Road, extends 61 miles from Chitina on the west edge of the park to the Kennicott River. The road is not regularly maintained and we found it to be narrow and rutted, with many washboard sections. We enjoyed the scenery (lunch was beside a roaring creek) and keying out some nice plants. A couple of the highlights were the sparrow's egg ladyslipper orchids that, after spotting several idividuals and small clumps, we discovered growing in great profusion along the roadside, especially in moist, sunny areas; and one stand of monkshood, with both flowers and fat buds, that we finally saw in the wild for the first time. (Thanks to a friend, we have some growing in our garden.)
We were a bit surprised by the amount of traffic but the road terminus is the jumping-off point for hiking and rafting in the park. There were a number of bed-and-breakfasts as well as private campgrounds along the road. Some other highpoints for the day: a Barrow's goldeneye mama with chicks; a least weasel (our second ever) staggering home with a snowshoe hare; and two sightings of moose.
The northern section of the park is accessable via the Nabesna Road which extends 45 miles from Slana to Nabesna, a privately owned, inactive mining community. We found this road to be very pleasant; we only saw 6 vehicles on the road in seven and half hours and it was in good condition. We got as far as mile 42, where the road was closed, with one notable stream crossing. Had nice looks at a grizzly in the road (we came around a curve and there he was, planted in the middle of the road), plus about 35 Dall sheep and a cross-phase red fox.
We finished the road around 9:30 pm and drove to Tok where we got a room for the night, eager for the chance at hot showers. We got laundry started and I stayed to supervise it while Brian took the car to be washed. One consequence of driving on dirt/gravel/mud roads (which most of them were) is that the vehicle was always coated with a layer of whatever road surface we had just been on; often it was multiple layers with, just like in geology, the most recent layer on top. Once we pulled into a gas station and the attendant took one look at the car and said, "You've just been on the Liard Highway haven't you?". After Brian returned from the car wash, I went out to get something from the car and couldn't find where he'd parked it; turned out it was right out front, but it was so clean I didn't recognize it.
Kluane National Park Reserve, in the southwest corner of the Yukon, was our next destination. It combines with Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in Alaska and British Columbia's Tatshenshini Alsek Provincial Park to form the largest international protected area in the world. We camped at Kathleen Lake but were unable to see the lake itself because the trail was closed due to "bear in area".
The next morning, we hiked the St. Elias Lake Trail which was lovely and only 8 km round-trip (contrary to what at least one of our guide books said; about the distance that is -- we all agreed that it was lovely). At the lake, we took photos and ate lunch. High on the mountain slopes across the lake, we saw four mountain goats fairly well through binoculars.
Our drive that afternoon, on the Haines Road, was pretty exciting grizzly-bear-wise. We saw one in a meadow, only a few yards away from the road, eating dandelions. Later, we saw a female and cub eating yet another (unidentified) yellow flower. And yes, grizzlies do look fierce even with flowers dangling from their mouths. They are eating them after all, not making bouquets. We also saw a black bear, the first since Eagle Plains on the Dempster Highway.
Crossing Chilkat Pass in British Columbia, the Haines Road descended into western hemlock forest with some sitka spruce. While still above timberline, in dense willow shrub tundra, we had about half a dozen golden-crowned sparrows singing a high clear whistle, a low clear whistle, and an intermediate whistle that changed to a very fast trill. We got good looks at these birds, which eluded us on the Dempster Highway.
It was a cool morning as we repacked and retraced our route over Chilkat Pass and back in to the Yukon. A stop in Haines Junction for groceries and the post office, and a visit at the Kluane National Park Reserve visitor center, and we were ready for the day. We headed for Carcross (a contraction of "caribou crossing"), stopping in Whitehorse for lunch and to visit the Chrysler dealership to see if they could diagnose any particular reason for the "service engine soon" light to be on, as it had been for the past ten days. But the mechanic could find nothing immediately wrong and there was no time to make an actual appointment, so we left Whitehorse behind.
Carcross is on the Klondike Highway south of Whitehorse. Just south of it are the Carcross sand dunes. The dunes were very interesting; we saw several endemic plants, including a sedge, a lupine, and a stunningly colored penstemon. We continued south in British Columbia to the Alaska border near Chilkoot Pass. Scenery in the pass was reminiscent of Yellowknife; there were small lakes, exposed bedrock, and stunted trees everywhere. We ate dinner at a nice pullout by a lake, not far north of the pass, which had rusty blackbirds and pine siskins.
We stopped to investigate an interesting-looking wet area a little farther north and hand a marvellous collection of plants! There were two types of carnivorous plants, sundews and butterworts, plus bog candles (a rein orchid), a tiny bulrush, alpine meadow rue, fir clubmoss, and a number of other species.
We were still hoping to get good views of mountain goats so we drove to White Mountain on the Atlin Road, which is supposed to be a prime locality, arriving around midnight. We did not see any goats (when we packed for the trip, we included with the rest of the camping gear, the Coleman lantern, but, due to the long hours of daylight, we never had to light it; even at midnight, there was plenty of light to see any alleged mountain goats). We did see a black bear cub and a Townsend's solitaire, singing its sensational, long song while we watched through the telescope.
The sun did not touch our campsite until nine A. M. so I stayed warm with coffee and a blanket. It wasn't easy to juggle the two along with a book and the binoculars but I got to see an adorable baby least chipmunk and found a Swainson's thrush, perched and singing long enough for me to get the scope out and trained on it. Brian stayed warm by staying in bed; what a clever idea.
There was still no sign of any goats but we did find 3 adult bald eagles perched on cliffs and trees, bank swallows nesting in a gravel pile, and red-necked grebe calling from the lake. We drove to Jake's Corner on the Alcan, where we photographed a melanistic (black) arctic ground squirrel. The destination for the night was Liard Hot Springs, 630 km away. We had covered all of 2 km when we stopped by some likely-looking cliffs and finally spotted a mountain goat, which we saw pretty well in the scope. It's always nice to have a good mammal sighting to help break up these long drives.
Unfortunately for us, the campground at the Hot Springs was full and we camped at a horrible parking-lot-looking campground nearby. Things picked up quite a bit though once we got on the boardwalk to the Springs. We had a delightful three-hour walk, recording about 10 new species and finding others in bloom for the first time. The springs were extremely interesting botanically due to the presence of disjunct, more southerly species and ameliorated conditions causing species to bloom earlier here than elsewhere. A few weeks ago, we'd seen a marten here, so we kept an eye out for it again, but it did not appear. However, we were excited to see so many nice plants, including small round-leaved orchis, a beautiful, spotted orchid of which we had only seen a single plant previously.
Our original itinerary called for us to visit Muncho Lake Provincial Park, BC, much earlier in the trip but when we first drove through there on the Alcan there was moderately heavy snow and it was very windy. We had taken a leisurely lunch at a nearby cafe but conditions only got worse and we decided to visit on the way back, instead of forth. So, here we were, a month later, with much more pleasant weather conditions.
Muncho Lake P. P. much resembles the north end of Jasper National Park in Alberta; the geology is spectacular. We saw some stone sheep briefly before eating lunch in the Mineral Lick Trail parking lot. The trail was charming with many of the small round-leaved orchis along its edges and we enjoyed the warmth of the sun during lunch.
We continued driving east and suddenly saw a wolf just 20 meters off the road, in the brush. We backed up and got a decent look before it disappeared into the woods, because it seemed curious and stopped to look at us. We waited a minute just in case and, incredibly, it crossed the road right in front of us, giving half a minute of totally clear, close viewing! It was a large, pale animal, with a face a bit like a husky, and a long, bushy tail.
After the wolf, we continued, and saw caribou, several moose, and just inside Stone Mountain Provincial Park, 3 stone sheep under ideal conditions - a mother, a very young lamb, and a mostly-grown animal. We watched these at photographic range for over ten minutes. The stone sheep are a sharply bicolored (dark gray and white) subspecies of thinhorn sheep (the all-white subspecies being Dall sheep) and are very handsome. These were our best thinhorn sheep views of the trip.
The road above Summit Lake to the microwave tower had been closed due to snow a month ago, but was now open and we took it to the top, at 1685 meters (about 5500 feet) our highest point of the trip. It was quite late in the evening; we took some pictures of the scenery and a self-portrait, to prove we'd really been here, and at ten p.m., as we started back down the road, officially on our way back home. We drove until midnight and saw several black bears and elk, another new mammal!
Over the next few days, as we drove, we encountered rain, and one night in Saskatchewan, some spectacular cloud formations and lightning/hail storms in the distance. There were new and exciting rumblings coming from the van and, once again, a mechanic could find nothing, so we rattled on our way. We saw a baby thirteen-lined ground squirrel, when we stopped to change drivers (and, no, they do not have 26 lines as adults; they just grow a little bigger, is all).
We had to reaccustom ourselves to the notion that, as night falls, so does the darkness, which was not easy; we'd grown to like the continuous daylight. We arrived home just at midnight on Day 52. This was by far the longest trip we had yet taken and we wondered, while planning it, if we might possibly become just the littlest bit tired of eating the same camping food for 52 days in a row, sleeping in tent or van, hiking in snow, batting at mosquitoes, lurching over ruts in the road, with the occasional jolt of excitement caused by stalling our boat a few miles from the Arctic Ocean, just to relieve the tedium of freezing to the bone. But then we would see the tracks of wolverine and fisher, hear the howl of the wolves and the wail of the loons, watch a beautiful grizzly at home on the tundra or rolling in a field of flowers, and remember a flock of tundra swans flying across the sun of a blazing arctic sunset; and the answer is No, you don't get tired.
During the drive home, we changed drivers every hour, so neither of us had to drive for too long without a break. The driver got to choose which music to pop into the cassette player and during the "off" hour we took naps or read. Brian also took this opportunity to tabulate a few statistics for the trip. I'll close this account with his summary:
The weather was fairly bad, with approximately one in every three days being seriously disrupted by rain, fires, etc. It was cold enough to wear thermal underwear for almost four weeks; we last used the therms on Day 29, near the end of the Dempster stint. We did not use head nets against biting insects, and only went through one can of OFF. We used the mesh at night, inside the van, for perhaps half the nights, mostly after Inuvik. We had five tire failures and lost two hub caps. (The final total for other damage to the vehicle ultimately turned out to be about $700.) On the Mackenzie River via boat we reached 68 degrees 50'; at Prudhoe Bay (on the Arctic Ocean) we were at 70 degrees 18.80', the farthest north we've ever been.
Recorded about 193 species of birds from North Dakota on and returning. Eileen had 3 lifers, bringing her to 630: sharp-tailed grouse, sprague's pipit, and spectacled eider. Brian had his best views ever of spectacled eider, gyrfalcon and king eider. Species seen only once or twice before and seen well on this trip included trumpeter swan, wheatear, Smith's longspur, and bohemian waxwing; heard well were Baird's and Leconte's sparrows. Surfbird, seen poorly, was a first on the breeding grounds. Species seen well on the breeding grounds for the first time since Alaska (ten years ago) include lesser yellowlegs, tree and golden-crowned sparrows, red-throated and pacific loon, oldsquaw, harlequin ducks, wandering tattler, long-billed dowitcher, long-tailed jaeger, rock and willow ptarmigans, lesser golden plover, common redpoll, red-necked and red (?) phalaropes, lapland longspur, snow bunting, glaucous gull, hawk owl, white-fronted goose, whimbrel, Sabine's gull, pectoral, least, and semipalmated sandpipers, northern shrike, and many other waterfowl.
Recorded 36 spp. of mammals from North Dakota on, a record for us (the previous high was 30 spp. on the Canadian Rockies trip, which counted many eastern species on the cross-country trip). Not included in this total is shrew sp. and vole sp. which we were unable to identify. Lifers for both of us were killer whale, lynx, collared pika, and fisher! In addition, short-tailed weasel and pine marten were new for Eileen. Stone sheep was a life subspecies for us.
Least weasel was our second record, and wolf the second and third sightings, the former a new color (black) and the latter by far our best view ever. I had not remembered seeing cinnamon-phase black bear before this trip, although Eileen says we have; ditto for silver-phase (black) red fox. The very pale porcupines were new to us, as was melanistic arctic ground squirrel. The black bear total was in triple digits. Singing vole was heard but not seen and not counted on our life lists.
A total of about 240 spp. of vascular plants were identified to species. Approximately 117 of these (49%) were new species for us, at least as far as positive identifications. This was our best trip ever for plants, partly due to a combination of: (1) greater expertise developed in recent years; (2) possession of inclusive, illustrated works covering almost the entire trip itinerary (AK, YT, NWT); (3) use of mini-press for protecting samples taken in the field (which in turn worked well because so many plants were small due to the high latitude and early season). We did very well identifying plants to genus based on our prior experience, especially in the Adirondacks, and many genera have rather few members so far north, simplifying identification. We usually did not take the time to try to key out large genera like Carex and Salix, but otherwise over 90% of what we could get our hands on was keyed to species, with the greatest problems in the Fabaceae (Poaceae, like Carex and Salix, was rarely attempted). The Saxifragaceae were prominent compared to other areas we have visited. We saw all the NW North American Equisetum but E. palustre; E. pratense was new. There were too many wonderful plants to list, but a few of my favorites were Rhododendron lapponicum, Diapensia lapponica, Amerorchis rotundifolia, Cypripedium passerinum, the Pyrolas, Pulsatilla lucoviciana, Saxifraga tricuspidata, Anemone richardsonii, Dryas octopetala, Alnus viridis, Mertensia paniculata... (I began to type in Brian's list of favorites and discovered that, out of 240 species, he had listed 41 as favorites! Often, my own favorites are the ones we've seen most recently; by the end of the trip, that really swells the list. Obviously we had a good time botanizing!)