Chapter 1. Rendezvous at Mile Zero
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Anyone who has followed our journals for even one trip knows that I am not a birder. I have no interest to find out whether a white stripe is on the head or the neck of a sparrow, no patience to look at gulls to determine if it has a black wing tip and certainly no ambition to get up at 5 AM to see the first feathers of the day take flight. I do however like birds in the spring when they can easily be seen at 10 in the morning or 4 in the afternoon intently carrying on their mating or nest building. Their colors are brilliant at this time of the year and their antics, if described in human terms, can be downright comical. Yesterday we pulled into our first campground in Grand Forks, North Dakota. We were given site 7 and as we were settling in, Bert rushes into R-Tent-III (the affectionate name for our 41-ft. Dutch Star motor home) to retrieve his camera. He snaps pictures of a Killdeer playing wounded in order to distract him from her nest, which is built in the gravel right in the middle of site 8. What a dumb place for a nest but Killdeers do that and here this bird is trying to protect her four eggs from being trampled by us.
Bert once told me that there were not enough Aprils left in his life. He too likes this time of year. Lately we have been extending our springs and this year will see four of them. Spring started in February in Mexico, March in Texas and May now. We will see another one when we reach British Columbia and the Yukon. To me, newly budding trees look like cotton candy in many shades of green. Sunny spring days have perfect temperatures and the world looks fresh. Right now I am parked in the parking lot of a wildlife refuge and out my window at sunset I see two deer looking back at me. We have met our friends Ralph and Virginia and will travel with them to Dawson Creek. As the only two campers here, it is extremely quiet and peaceful. We enjoy Happy Hour on the shore of the lake sitting around a picnic table and remarking that life does not get much better than this.
(Shari) FINANCIAL SHOCK! Even before I exchange money, the rumors are out that the Canadian dollar is at a 28-yr. high. But I did not expect it to be this bad. When I exchange my money I find the rate to be 92 cents on the Canadian dollar. The first year we came to Alaska it was around .73 and even last year was around .82. My goodness, now things are expensive. On top of all that the price of gas is high and the campgrounds are no longer dirt cheap. Canada used to be a bargain, now it is just like the U.S. -expensive everywhere you turn. Luckily I expect prices to go down a bit when we hit Alaska; you would think at least with all the oil they have, gas prices should be on par with Texas which has some of the lowest in the nation. We do find one good deal along the way though. We buy diesel at an Extra Food Store and get a rebate of 7c per liter. When all is said and done we end up with $30 worth of coupons to use toward buying groceries in the store. We part with Virginia and Ralph in Edmonton and drive on to Dawson Creek alone. Three couples from our group are already here and a pizza party is arranged at Boston Pizza, one of the treats of traveling in Canada.
(Shari) By Saturday we have over half our group in residence, all raring to get acquainted and get started. Meeting around the fire pit at 5 PM we share stories of our trip up and our future trip together. Bill and I walk to a Monaco Diplomat to “caress” its front end. It looks like it has been shrink-wrapped and the owner comes out to tell us he purchased a 200-ft. roll of single sided sticky plastic filament to cover all of the front. Every two to three weeks he intends to take it off and reaffix new because he is afraid that the glue may take off his paint. We will see all sorts of homemade ideas that people use to protect their vehicles from the rocks and gravel along the highway. I use contact paper to cover my headlights.
(Shari) “What happens when the water goes ’oudt’ of the raison?” asks Mary to the young boy sitting at the altar for the children’s sermon. I listen intently to her words partly because her Canadian accent is so cute and every other sentence is followed by the word “Rigdht?” The little boy answers the question with the simplistic, straightforward kid’s logic, “It is no longer a grape.” Mary was comparing this to God’s love and when we do not participate in God’s Word, we may loose some of our water (love) too. This all takes place at Grace Lutheran Church in Dawson Creek and after the service I compliment the pastor on his friendly congregation. Everyone is sincerely interested in us and one man even offers us his pew cushions to use during the service. After the service we go to Wal-Mart - this store was not here 4 years ago - and search out water repellant for our rain jackets. By 5, we gather around the fire ring for another social. Everyone is here already, except Ralph and Virginia who are still in Grand Prairie with transmission problems.
(Bert) Everyone took our suggestion about arriving early and some have been here as much as one week before our scheduled start date. Oil changes, replacement batteries, tire repairs, stockpiling supplies have taken up part of the days, but so has socializing around a campfire in late afternoon. Is it the extended sunlight or the camaraderie of this group that broadens our pre-dinner get-together from 5 PM to past 7? I’m surprised how many of the caravaners have been to Alaska before, mostly on their own, but now joining together for this special birding and nature trip. Alaska is one of those places that beckons repeat visits and we that have been there before seem just as anxious to return as those seeing it for the first time.
(Bert) Radar Lake is a bit south of Dawson Creek and when Bill and Ginny said they saw Surf Scoters there yesterday, I suggest we visit the place again today. Four carloads head that way, while Chris and May bicycle the ten or so miles. The Californians in our group are surprised to see these coastal ducks so far inland, on a small lake certainly devoid of surf this calm spring morning. The scoters are joined by a host of other ducks in fresh breeding plumage, most impressively led by the male Ruddy Ducks with spatula bills painted riotously bright blue. Tail wagging on the gravel road at the approach to the lake, a Western Palm Warbler surprises me, as I don’t recall that species as a Dawson Creek possibility. I quick check on the local list says it is very rare, not seen annually. In fact, many of today’s birds are at the extreme western edge of their range here in northeastern British Columbia - Black-throated Green Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, White-throated and Swamp sparrows, Common Grackle - and we are unlikely to see them again as our Alaska Highway trip begins.
In the evening we gather for a “welcome party,” although the term seems belated since we’ve been together for a few days already. We enjoy the desserts Shari has baked and reintroduce ourselves and hear the answers to Shari’s question, “Why did you pick this particular caravan to travel on?” The answers vary, but the length of the trip, the broad itinerary and the freedom of choice are common themes, as is the ample opportunity our schedule affords to see wildlife and, particularly, birds. Those that have traveled with us before also add they signed up to travel with us again and Shari jokingly says she will pay them later for the kind advertisement.
(Shari) Alternating with Bert at our orientation meeting, I talk about schedules, expectations, and types of birders. I judge that we have the whole gamut of experience level on a scale of 0 to 10. Hurrah, some companions for me! I do, however, have to set expectations and sensitivity levels between kinds of people and styles of birding. Even though I present in a humorous way, the points I make are valid. Serious birders do not like a lot of chatter on the trail and timid beginning birders need to be a little aggressive to get attention. After three hours of imparting knowledge, we break for lunch. By 1 PM we are at the Dawson Creek sign, posing for a group picture before we head to our first scheduled birding spot. We all enjoy the food at the welcome dinner, stuffing ourselves with three kinds of salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, buffalo lasagna, roast buffalo and roast boar. Do we have room for the four kinds of desserts? You bet! Turtle cake, pistachio cheesecake, butterscotch bars, Saskatoon pie, and melons. Bert challenges me to a ride in the paddleboat. Peddling to the island in the small pond we spy on a Canada Goose laying over her newly hatched chicks. After dinner, we hop on a wagon for a hayride through part of the 1200 acres of the game farm. We see a huge herd of female bison with new born, musk ox, ostrich, chickens, rabbits, boar, elk, fallow deer, caribou, Bighorn sheep and the common deer. We get home at 9, which no longer seems late since the sun is still pretty high in the sky, but I am tired and wish I did not have chores to finish before bed.
(Bert) A continental breakfast melds into a brief orientation meeting and then a session I call Birding 101. Unlike some of the intense birders that participate in our subtropical caravans, this group seems to represent a broader spectrum of those that enjoy hiking, photography and nature, with about a third to a half strongly focused on birding. I mention that we will see more wildlife and have more time for sightseeing on our Alaska Highway trek if we start early in the morning and I tentatively propose 7:30 AM as the starting time for traveling. Often this invokes groans from the late risers, but I’m quite surprised when Ray suggests 7 AM and others agree, much to Shari’s chagrin. Hearing no dissension, we agree on the early start time.
After a lunch break we head to Mile 0, the start of the Alaska Highway, for a group photo and then travel to McQueen’s Slough for birding. Tree Swallows have just started taking up residence in man-made bird houses and they perch on the roof tops and adjacent cattails with a tameness that allows marvelous close-up photography. A dozen duck species float on the lake, difficult to focus on because of the sun’s glare. We’ve had several days of pleasant spring weather and now with the sun burning intensely it feels more like summer. The best birds are a pair of Trumpeter Swans: snow white feathers blending into gold gilded necks gracefully outstretched or daintily tucked under wings in rest. We head next to a game farm where we continue birding, but also explore the wild game domesticated and raised in large enclosures. Russian Boars, Mountain Goats, Bighorn Sheep, Elk and the only Muskoxen raised in British Columbia are all there for us to enjoy. The delicious meal that follows includes bison and boar on the menu. Then we climb aboard a “hay” wagon, sitting on straw bales, and a tractor pulls us around the farm and into the bison lot where we are surrounded by a 100+ Plains Bison cows most with calves born in the past month. We linger at the farm to see Ostrich, Chukar and other exotic game and by the time we leave for our campsite most of us are tired from a full and most enjoyable day.
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