Chapter 2. The Alaskan Highway
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Spring is barely in evidence along the start of the Alaskan Highway. Snow has been relegated a few hidden crevices, replaced by a soft brown billowy blanket of dried grass spiked with the short leafless red stalks of budding willow. Like 10,000 white matchsticks upended across the rolling foothills, the Quaking Aspen stand naked of leaves, but surrounded by a blur of mauve created by millions of buds ready to burst. The first half of our trip we climb more often than descend, accumulating elevation until 4000+ ft. The aspen transition to spruce: an unending field of green bottlebrushes with sharp points reaching to the overcast gray skies. On distant horizons, mountains are covered with the powder sugar of recent snowfall. On the CB, David asks if we are driving over those mountains. I reply that we will drive through them, but predict we will not reach snow levels. We encounter wildlife along the highway. In my notes, I include the mile marker where we see them: Gray Jay and Mule Deer @ MP 78, Mule Deer (5) @ MP 99, Moose @ MP 168, Coyote @ MP 197, Woodland Caribou @ MP 240. At our lunch stop I note a partially frozen pond as we pull into the parking lot. While Shari prepares sandwiches I check out the pond, then quickly return to inform the others of my find. Lunch is given second priority as our group gathers on the hillside overlooking the pond. Amongst the more common array of ducks is a pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes, the male in bright new feathers clearly showing his characteristic white crescent face patch, the female with a foreshortened yellow bill. Better yet we see several phalaropes and David is the first to identify them as Wilson's. How striking is their harlequin patterned feathers compared to the drab coat they wear when I see them in Texas. Nearing Fort Nelson we start descending again and pull off to our campsite for the night. Always quick to explore, I find birds favoring a cluster of aspen behind the RV park fence and I bring back Jim and Pat to watch a pair of Evening Grosbeaks, a lifer for Pat and her third today.
(Shari) Beckoning purchase, big, soft, warm, fresh, tasty cinnamon rolls call our names at today's first stop on our first leg of travel. A pond with ducks takes precedence over lunch at our next stop. Our trip is easy with excellent road surface and we are surprised to see a caribou, a moose, a coyote, and a few mule deer along the way. Pat is scared by two big hills with declines of 8-9% and Jim wants to know if she signed up for the evacuation insurance because she was soon to be evacuated. Since this is my third time down those two descents, much to Bert's relief I hardly blink and only mention two or three times that he is going too fast. As Pat says, it is not the hills themselves but the fear of the hills that is the bad part. The landscape is forest upon forest of White Spruce and aspen with little civilization to punctuate the scene. The aspen are putting out buds and look beautiful clothed in a pink hue, as if from a painting by Matisse. It is a wonderful day, marred only by the fact that our fancy dancy CB, after another $100 investment, does not receive David and Nancy's transmissions. It receives the others, but even those not very well. We have Happy Hour on the lawn next to R-TENT (the nickname I call our motorhome) and discuss tomorrow's travel plans as well as the geology of frost heaves and drunken forests. The sun is warm but not too hot and we enjoy its warmth until after 6 PM.
(Bert) Shortly after our 8 AM departure we reach the lowest point on the Alaskan Highway: ~1000 ft. Later, at Summit Pass, we will have climbed to the highest point at 4250 ft. But we are stalled by weather problems before we get that far. Just as we pull off for our first rest stop at Steamboat we encounter thick fog, so much so that I almost miss the turn into the parking lot of the gas station / restaurant / gift shop / home. Our 9 AM rest stop extends to 12:20, waiting for fog to clear , the snow to stop at the pass, the slick ice to melt and enough time to have a bowl of homemade soup and coconut cream pie at the restaurant. Meanwhile, migrants feeding in an icy puddle just outside my window entertain me. The Pectoral Sandpiper is unaware I am taking close-up photos through an open window. Later a Solitary Sandpiper and a flock of American Pipits join it. When the skies clear we have a dramatic view across the Muskwa River valley, a view we have from different angles as we switchback up Steamboat Mountain. By the time we reach Stone Mountain Provincial Park, snow is everywhere around us, but fortunately not on the highway. The treeless mountains are blanketed in fresh snow and the bright sunlight casts shadows highlighting the sharp angles of the steep slopes. Wildlife is out today again and we see Black Bear, Woodland Caribou (7), Stone Sheep (9) and a Mule Deer. We also see a leucistic western form of Red-tailed Hawk, with a white chest and black belly. Melting snow trickles down rocky creeks and nearing Muncho Lake it plunges from the mountainsides in tall, distant waterfalls. Muncho Lake is different than our previous two visits - once white in snow cover, once turquoise blue and cleared of ice - but now in transition, the ice cover only a couple of inches and thin enough so that the unusual blue color shines through the ice like a backlit lava lamp. We camp at lakeside, our vehicles pointing toward the ice lake and dark green spruce forested mountains capped by white snow. Around a campfire, roasting marshmallows and soaking in the scenery, this is a beautiful day in Northern British Columbia.
(Shari) Why is Steamboat, BC, called Steamboat? Because:
#1 The Mountain is shaped like a steamboat,
#2 Radiators boil over on the way up and tires burn on the way down,
#3 When it rains, steam forms on the highway,
#4 Fog rolls in from the north,
#5 Shari is steamed because this is the second time she has been stuck at this same spot due to weather,
#6 All of the above
The answer is #6. In 1996 we had to pull off the side of the road because of snow. We waited three hours for the weather to clear as we did today. Some of us read, some nap, some shop and talk and some bird. Yes, you can see birds in the fog. Finally, after eating some hot soup for lunch at the café, we boogey out of there when the fog lifts. It turns out to a serendipitous day after all with incredible scenery straight from an advertising brochure. I have never seen such beauty: freshly fallen snow covering the ground and mountains, caribou and Stone Sheep on the highway licking the freshly thrown salt, trees barely in the bud stage casting that lovely pastel hue that mesmerizes me. We stop for a break and find new wet snow six inches deep and just right for making a snowman and throwing snowballs. We decide to camp on the shores of Muncho Lake and it too offers a new view. In 1996 it was snow covered and white. In 1998 it was clear and beautifully turquoise and today it is covered with a very thin layer of turquoise ice. No artist could recreate such beauty and as I sit by the fire I only can marvel at God's creation. We enjoy each other's company by the shore of the lake, basking in the warm sunshine and heated by the fire. Later we roast marshmallows and introduce Pat and Jim to s'mores. Can you believe that some people live in America that do not know what a s'more is?
(Shari) Wally is the first one into the hot springs and I follow soon after. We drove the 40 miles to the springs instead of camping here last night. It turns out to be a good decision because a lady in the changing room tells me the young people in the campground were loud until 4 AM, celebrating the long holiday weekend. This morning we have the pools almost to ourselves and we luxuriate in the warm, even hot, mineral waters. I feel younger already. On the way over here we were treated again toStone Sheep, moose and caribou on the roadsides. I can get used to this. Pat, Jim, Wally, Virginia and Bert stay to bird and I hitch a ride back with Nancy and David. I need a nap since I have been up since 5 AM. It is just so gosh darn light at that hour that as I wake up I think I am late. Soon it is 4 PM and we have Happy Hour. Nancy's hors d'oeuvre of caviar, cheese and crackers is the Ritz. Pat brings a taco salad to go with my chili and Virginia offers a delicious peach dessert to top us off. The sun is warm as we sit in our lawn chairs soaking in the incredible view, almost wishing we could stay an extra day or two. The talk centers on why birds migrate and Bert has lots of answers.
(Bert) Spring is poised at the threshold of bursting into leaf along the boardwalk of Liard Hot Springs. The buds are rosy red on the stalks of High Bush Cranberry, some still holding the last few berries of last fall. The palmated leaves of the Cow Parsnip poke an inch above the forest floor, on their way to the full 8 ft. they will eventually stand. Here in a microcosm warmed by the hot springs, life is a bit ahead of the wider surroundings. Tiny Lake Chub swim in warm water, a pair of Canada Geese nest, as do Blue-winged Teal and Mew Gulls. Dark-eyed Juncos and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet sing on territory. We hear many Pileated Woodpeckers and Varied Thrushes, but they stay hidden in the forest. Warblers are more plentiful and we see Orange-crowned, Tennessee and Blackpoll warblers, as well as many Yellow-rumps. Jim and Pat report a Hoary Marmot, but when I reach that location the marmot stays hidden under the boardwalk. We see a Meadow Vole prowling the underbrush. A pair of Least Flycatchers perches close by and several times one flies directly at us and picks mosquitoes off our clothes. After our excursion to Liard River Hot Springs we return to our campsite at Muncho Lake, sit next to the wood fire, exchange stories and soak in the ambience of a stunning setting.
(Bert) Sightseeing while we drive, frequent stops and lots of good bird and mammal sightings combines to a leisurely fun-filled day. Beyond Liard River Hot Springs, stretching for miles, buffalo chips litter the brown grass bordering the highway. Hundreds must roam this area, but they remain hidden in the dense woods. Finally we see a Wood Bison cross the road in front of us and then later another one near Whirlpool Canyon. Twice we encounter Black Bears browsing on the grassy hillsides beside the road. I recall a place where I saw a Ruffed Grouse in 1998 and hoping that lightning can strike the same spot twice I lead the group to the wooded area. Remarkably, after a 15-min. search I see one poised motionless in the brambles and he gives us ample opportunity to check out the pattern of gray and black bands on his tail. Virginia finds a feather that confirms this is a gray morph of a male Ruffed Grouse. The bird patiently stays motionless and I am able to take full-frame photos with my digital camera. Our drive follows Liard River and forested areas cleared of tall trees except for random charred trunks, but repopulated by stands of 3-6 ft. Lodgepole Pines. We stop for a group photo in front of the Yukon Territory welcome sign and then pull into our campsite. Walking around the lake we see a neat variety of birds that most of the group has not seen before: Red-necked Grebe, Pacific Loon, Surf and White-winged Scoters, Barrow's Goldeneye, and Long-tailed Duck. Pat spots a small sparrow hoping through the leaf-littered forest floor, out of habitat for what turns out to be a Lapland Longspur midway between winter and summer plumages.
(Bert) Our first rest stop on today's drive gives us a distant view of the snow-covered peaks of the Cassiar Mountains and, looking down, an outlook over a marsh that suitably could contain a moose, but doesn't. In fact we don't see a single mammal today. The highway is much improved from our last trip in '98. Curves straightened, hills flattened, roads widened, surface smoothed, we easily maintain 55-60 mph. Aspen are still in bud, with little movement toward leafing, but patches of snow are now far and few between, even when we reach the Continental Divide. Lakes and all but the fastest rivers are iced over, with wide water channels separating shore from ice floe. We stop at an observation deck overlooking Teslin Lake and read that Chinook Salmon migrate up the Yukon and Teslin Rivers, 2000 miles from the Pacific. Wow! Continuing westward, we follow Teslin River looking for any lingering swans - we find one - of the thousands of Whistling and Tundra that fly through in April and early May. At Whitehorse, while others pick up groceries, Pat and I check out the Yukon River, near the rapids at Whitehorse. We add several species to the trip list - and some to Pat's life list - including Arctic Tern, Violet-green Swallow, Boreal Chickadee and both Common and Red-breasted mergansers.
(Bert) Long before we reach the base of the St. Elias Range we can see the snow-covered peaks loom ahead of us. From the balcony of Kluane National Park Visitor's Center in Haines Junction I set my camera to panoramic mode to try to capture the grandeur of the mountain range. The 3-D scale model in the mini-museum shows that we are just seeing the edge of the glacier covered mountain range, most of it inaccessible except by ardent hikers or by airplane. Skirting the edge of the park we encounter our first Alaskan Highway construction. For nearly an hour we tread our way along the gravel road, surrounded by earth-moving equipment. At one particularly challenging crossing a Caterpillar has removed almost the entire roadbed and I cautiously crawl across the remnant with about a foot of margin on each side before the roadway plunges 4 feet lower. We skirt the shoreline of Kluane Lake and stop at Sheep Mountain. Far up on the mountain little white dots materialize into Dall Sheep through the power of my 70X spotting scope. A couple dozen feed on the steep mountainside, including rams with spiral horns and ewes with lambs. Our campsite tonight gives us a glorious view of the ice-covered Kluane Lake. The campfire discussion is on glaciers, appropriate now that we have entered that world.
(Shari) "I cannot believe it? Are you telling me the truth?" I say to Bert. He claims yes. Wally and Pat later confirm he is not lying to me. In 1996, Bert saw some kind of grouse at a pullout along the highway. He pulled off at that same spot the day before yesterday and sure enough. There was his friend the grouse, just waiting for him and the group to walk by. Unreal! Our days since I have written last have been extremely pleasant. The group is really coming together and is extremely easy to "manage". Don't tell David that though. Let him think he is managing me. Yah, sure! We vary the starting time each morning to keep everyone happy, except of course Bert. But I tell ya'all, it sure is nice not to have to get up at 4:40 in the morning to leave by 5 or 6. Today is so leisurely. We had an extra day in the schedule, in case of snow, and we decide to use today, splitting the route from Whitehorse to Beaver Creek into two parts. The road has two big sections of construction, one of which we traverse today. 20 miles of rough road at 20 miles per hour really does havoc to a schedule. We diddle along stopping at many points of interest and extremely neat scenery. Jim says this is exactly how he pictured the Yukon in his mind when reading about it. Of course we get our cinnamon bun fix again today. I have found two more stops for the sweet confections on this trip, which makes for a wonderful tasty mid morning snack. We have seen so much more wildlife this year than any other. Today is the day for Dall Sheep. On a mountain not too far from camp we see at least 40. From the road, they look like white speks on the hillside but after looking in the scope we can see the mighty rack of horns on the males and the babies suckling the ewes. The mountains are so magnificent, clothed in milk chocolate with white frosting dribbling down their sides. Today is the first day we notice green leaves sprouting from the trees. From a distance the pink hue of a few days ago has now changed to yellowish green. We are getting all four seasons of the year into a 70-day visit. I am now sitting at a picnic table 50 feet from the shores of Lake Kluane. The lake is mostly frozen with ribbons of open water zigzagging randomly across the lake. The campground is free tonight. Normally closed until June 1, the owners are letting us park here for nothing. What a deal! The view is worth a million bucks alone. I think we are getting a little special treatment because we are a caravan though and we are thankful for it. Three of us have our noses facing the lake and Wally found a spot where he can look out his one window at the lake and out the other for a view of the mountains. We are warned of a possible grizzly and her two babies in the area. That would be an excitement for sure. We gather around a cozy fire while Bert gives us a lecture on the geology of glaciers. As long as he does not give tests it will be okay.
(Bert) "Isn't that a swan on the opposite shore?" asks Pat. Her sharp eyes see the pair of white dots nearly a mile across the lake. The spots transform to nesting Trumpeter Swans when I train my 70X spotting scope on them. The swans swing their necks to and fro as if they are gathering mud and sticks to build up the sides of the nest. The rest stop turns out to be a bonanza of bird sightings, many in springtime nuptials. Two Rusty Blackbirds have paired off; one gathers nesting material. A Spotted Sandpiper flashes his wings and approaches a female, while another watches nearby. Herring Gulls have paired up; Red-necked Grebes swim together. In the middle of the lake a Herring Gull attempts to eat a large fish. Perhaps it's a Northern Pike as are the large ones we see swimming near our shore. A raft of ducks contains seven species, including a Redhead that is rare for the Yukon Territory. We see our first butterfly of the trip, the tiny Northern Blue. By mid afternoon when we arrive at camp the day is warm enough for shorts and T-shirt and we all - even Wally - wash the layers of dust from our vehicles, gathered from miles of road construction we passed through the past two days. After tonight's dinner and show it seems too light to retire, but by 11:30 I force myself to go to bed. Just before, though, I take a picture of the orange sky backlighting the profiles of pointed spruce as the sun sets on the horizon.
(Shari) We have a relaxing day of travel today, stopping at lunch at a sight I wish we could stay forever. Another stop for gas gives me the serendipitous experience of unique shopping for hand made burl items. I cannot resist a darling bowl. AND the price fits my budget. Stopping in Beaver Creek for the night we learn it is 301 miles from nowhere. Here we are treated to a dinner show superb. Sitting together at a front row table, the eight of us have a ringside view of the performers after dinner. They sing and dance up a storm while telling the story of the Yukon, the Alaska Highway and Beaver Creek. Bert gets special treatment from the leading lady and his red face matches her hair. The end of the show has a wonderful song that captures some of the feelings I have when up here.
You never can forget the wilderness,
No matter what you do.
Once you've been up here in the wilderness,
It becomes a part of you.
Beautiful mountains and rivers,
Far as your eye can see.
The way it all used to be,
Where eagles can fly to the end of the sky.
So when you're back in the city and caught up in the strife,
Just remember the time you were here and how special it was in your life.
This is my third time on the road to Alaska and I am amazed that this is the third very different experience I am having. Each one is unique with none better than another, just different. For sure, the weather has been cooperating. I actually put on shorts today. Unbelievable!
(Shari) It is a good thing we left at 6 AM this morning. A few unexpected snafus added at least two hours on an already long day. Everything goes well at first. We stop at the U.S./Canada border to take pictures of the group in front of the "Alaska" sign. We stop for an hour in Tok to get information and our fishing licenses. We stop again at a pullout because the scene is just too incredible not to enjoy longer. A chatty local guide tells us his history and that of the area. He would still be talking if we did not say we had to go. On our next leg, Dave asks Jim if his car is supposed to bear to the left. A few seconds later, he is telling him he sees sparks and that he should stop immediately. The ball on his hitch literally tore through the metal and the car separated from the motor home, held only by the safety chains. While Jim drives the motorhome, Pat drives the car the next 60 miles to Glennallen where we find a very nice gentleman who makes a new hitch in less than an hour. So we are late getting to camp and everyone is starved for the promised wine and cheese. It is a good way to relax after a long and tiring day. I for one am happy we leave at 10AM tomorrow. Bert and I walk to the restaurant on the river and order a pizza. David and Nancy join us and we spend close to two hours enjoying the food and the company. When we get home, I go to bed and Bert and Pat go looking for owls.
(Bert) At the Wine & Cheese party I play recordings of owl calls that we might hear in Alaska. I describe the characteristics of the owls, including the Northern Hawk Owl with its long tail. As if on cue, a hawk owl swoops above us and alights on the spruce tree above R-TENT, giving all of us a grand view of the unusual owl. The party is our welcoming into Alaska and the owl is an added bonus. Exhausted by a long day's travel, most everyone except Pat and me retire for the evening. But the two of us leave the campsite around 9:30 PM in search of owls in a place I know they occur. Although we don't find our target Great Gray Owl, we encounter lots of other birds and animals out during the Alaskan dusk. Four Surf Scoters catch the rays of the setting sun, turning the orange bill and white feather patches into brilliant beacons. Red-necked Phalaropes feed on the same lake. Our first owl is another Northern Hawk Owl that graciously poses for a photograph. Driving directly into the setting sunlight, I almost don't see the caribou on the road in front of me. Fortunately, he moves aside. We see muskrats swimming in the little ponds and, later, a porcupine on the side of the road and then a second sitting on its haunches. The day started with Trumpeter Swans and a Sharp-tailed Grouse and ends with a Short-eared Owl flying low across the road and disappears in the spruce trees just as darkness is creeping in.
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