Chapter 10. Yukon Territory
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Jack London lived in Dawson City and today I hear the Call of the Wild as we drive the Dempster Highway out of the city. We decide to drive non-stop through the first ecoregion of boreal forest to reach the mountainous tundra after KM 72. But only part way down the gravel road, I ask Mike to stop the car when I see a mammal jump to the side. I quickly relocate it and see a second Red Fox as well. As I’ve often found fox to be, this pair is curious and relatively tame, quite willing to let us stand beside the road and watch their antics about 20 ft. away in the aspen forest. One fox is the typical red color, the other is a cross fox and both seem young, perhaps born this spring. Our next stop is the viewpoint of Tombstone Mountain, 14 mi. to the west of the highway. The broad valley through which we travel reminds me of the Denali Highway, but now it’s a different season and the bright green tundra splashes up the sides of the bordering mountains like paint in a shallow bowl. Where the green stops, the alpine is brown or purple depending on shadows and distance. Today must be family day along this road because most sightings are of young wildlife and adults tending and feeding them. A White-crowned Sparrow clasps an insect in its bill, perhaps a Black Pine Sawyer like the one I find clinging to Mike’s hat. The bird remains perched at eye level in a low willow, impatiently fidgeting as it waits for us to vacate the area and let her fly to a nest she doesn’t want us to see. We stop at a pond where Mallard ducklings weave random wakes through the still water, apparently practicing their swimming while mother searches for their breakfast. Red-necked Phalaropes spin in circles, agitating the water to stir upwelling food. I step back to photograph the perfect mirror image of the folding mountains in the silvered pond. We find another pair of young foxes, these both typical red. Again, they are not camera shy as they romp near their den or rest head on paws like a dog following its master’s orders, eyes rotated up in anticipation. Continuing the family theme, the next pond has a pair of Common Loons and on the back of each is a chick, a dark downy feather ball with a stubby navy blue bill.
Chris T. radios to me that he has found a Smith’s Longspur. We all hot step along the road in his direction and quickly see the long sought after birds. The pair is in the same type of rough tundra we’ve searched unsuccessfully many times before, a circular patch that looks flat from a distance, but definitely isn’t when I struggle to walk through it. Chris and I circle around the back side of the longspur territory so that we can have better lighting for photographs. The male flies to the opposite side of the road. I wait, anticipating it will return since Chris and I suspect the nest is near where we stand. Sure enough, in a few minutes it returns with a winged insect in its mouth. Serendipitously, it lands a dozen feet from my position and allows me to take multiple photographs. Not wanting to disturb it further, I exit the tundra. More at a distance, Chris waits and sees the adult fly to its nest and transfer food to a chick.
At Two Moose Lake we see three moose on the opposite shore. We have commented several times that we’ve seen many females and calves, but no males with antler racks. Perhaps these three are all males, as each shows a pair of knobby prongs projecting six inches from their foreheads. I’ve read nothing in my mammal books about females showing shortened horns, so maybe we’ve been finding males more often than we thought and just not looking closely enough for the start of the palmate rack that won’t develop fully until late summer.
Our attention now turns to the wildflowers which are particularly showy in the bright sunlight of this warm day. I photograph Larkspur and Four-parted Gentian, both violet, and Capitate Lousewort and Labrador Lousewort, both yellow, as well as others I still need to match to identities in my flower books. On the return trip, I ask Mike to stop when I see a pingo. I use the personal radio to report the pingo to the others, even spelling it when one thought I was referring to an Australian wild dog. After a pregnant pause, I ask if anyone needs an explanation as they are panning the horizon for an unknown creature. A pingo is an uprising of land – a giant pimple on the tundra – caused by a swelling ice core, an effect of permafrost. This pingo has calved and we get a cross-section view of dark ground cave with ragged green tundra spilling over the top and a frozen ice core inside. One more stop for a Hoary Marmot sunbathing on the gravel road, and then we are headed back to Dawson City. As Nancy comments later, this has been one of the best days of the trip.
(Shari) Today is my idea of a fun day. I have no scheduled commitments and am able to sleep late. I then deal with some tasks I have been procrastinated on tackling. I spend 45 min. just opening envelopes from our mail pick-up in Valdez. It has been 6 weeks since our last mail delivery and there seems to be hundreds of letter size envelopes to open. I tackle my dad’s mail first and find that he has over $25000 in medical bills; all from his two surgeries in May. I match invoices with Medicare payments and then match that with his AARP supplemental payments. What do I do with invoices without matching Medicare, or AARP payments without matching invoices? It is a nightmare and only someone who has gone through that can understand the headache and reams of paper that get stapled together when matched. It is soon 12:30 and time for Ginny and Pat to pick me up for lunch. I started this entry as being my idea of a fun day, didn’t I? I guess the sleeping late part and what comes after 12:30 is the fun part. We walk to the bank to exchange U.S. dollars for Canadian and to the Post Office to mail the grandkids a card, before deciding on Klondike Kate’s patio for lunch. After a delicious lunch we “girls” go shopping. Ginny wants to attend a dance presentation and abandons Pat and me to more gift stores. We end up at the Visitor Center where we watch movies on Dawson City. It is about 5 PM before we walk home and join an unscheduled social at Richard and Georgia’s. Chris and May suggest going out to eat at a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet and Bill, Ginny, Bert and I join them. We three couples all order the same thing; one order of frog legs, Jamaican halibut, salad, and dessert per couple. The meal is simply delicious, we are not rushed and very much enjoy each other’s company. So ends a wonderful day.
(Bert) On the way back from the Robert Service presentation, my eyes follow what my ears hear above me: a flock of Cliff Swallows in disarray, scolding loudly. They dart randomly and swiftly with great agitation. And then I see the Merlin among them, the target of their anxiety. An action so quick it happens in the blink of an eye, the Merlin snares one of the swallows with its sharp claws, clenching it tightly, while the other swallows continue to harass the raptor like bees on the attack. Even as the Merlin leaves my view, the swallows follow angrily.
(Shari) Johnny stares at me and tells me in a soft sing song voice “Let it go; just let it go.” He has been joking with me ever since we got here to listen to his presentation of Robert Service. With terrific charisma, he can bring everyone in the audience into his presence. He even gets a sullen teenager to smile. I have come to hear the poetry of Robert Service. I get much more. Larry heard him yesterday and he called it entertainment. And he is right on the button. We are entertained for well over an hour and not only hear some Robert Service poems but learn about the man as well. I had never heard of Robert Service before my first trip to Dawson City. He is and was a very famous folk poet in Canada. “The cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” are two of his most famous pieces. Johnny recites these and reads us another one about Bessie’s Boil. The poem is hilarious and Johnny’s interpretation increases the hilarity. After the show we walk to the Jack London exhibit. I wish that presentation was as good as the previous but I find it boring. Of course Bert enjoys it since “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” were two of his favorite boyhood books.
After a lunch of salmon and fries, we split up. Bill and I walk back to camp and I take a long nap since we are going out on the town tonight. We are first in line at the opening of Diamond Tooth Gerties and stake out front row tables for the show. Some of us go on to gamble, Ginny and Georgia winning about as much as Pat and I loose. Dinner is a delicious steak sandwich, garlic new potatoes, and Caesar Salad before the 8:30 show. A lusty woman playing Gertie entertains us in song and four cancan girls entertain us in dance. The short 30-min. show is cute and colorful with at least three changes of costumes and plenty of audience participation. The best talent in the group is the female piano player. I remark that she must loose 1000 calories a show as she really gets into the ragtime pieces she pounds out on the old upright piano. As we walk back to camp, I remark to Richard that if we go immediately to bed and right to sleep we can still get 8 hr. of rest before we have to depart in the morning. That is what I try to do.
(Bert) The mammals are out today along the North Klondike Highway through southwestern Yukon Territory. We are just on the outskirts of Dawson City when we see our first Red Fox, followed by a steady succession of Snowshoe Hare sightings. Sixty-two miles into our trip, a large bear stands crossways across the highway. It leisurely turns its head in our direction and then bouncily runs towards the woods, but not before I get one photo. A rich brown color, I’d be tempted to call it a Grizzly but am quite sure it is a Black Bear, which is confirmed later when I look at the photo. When our strung out caravan meets at Braeburn Lodge for cinnamon buns, we compare sightings and our group saw at least three different black bears in route, based on varying descriptions. Best of all, Bill and Ginny saw a Lynx. Others found a moose and we all saw plenty of smaller critters: Arctic Ground Squirrels and Least Chipmunks, as well as hare. Throughout the drive we pass forests that have burned at different times in the past fifty years. Most memorable to me is the 1998 Fox Lake fire which Shari and I witnessed and I wrote about in my journals. We passed this way again in 2002 and in my journals that year I wrote about the twenty miles of mountainous terrain covered with pink Fireweed. Now we stop at the same location I took photos that year and there is a new interpretative trail that we hike to the river. Although some Fireweed is still in a few of the open spaces, most is gone, replaced by dense aspen now about chest height. From the signage I learn a few things about the fire I had not known. It was a manmade fire started from campers that failed to extinguish their campfire on the July holiday weekend. The fire burned until winter and eventually burned 45000 hectares. Tragic as that sounds, the landscape is now wonderful – if short – and supports wildlife. The Fireweed comes in immediately after a forest fire and serves an important role in the plant succession by providing shade for the more moisture demanding plants. Most delightedly, we find flocks of Bohemian Waxwings perched in the few blackened trunks of spruce trees.
(Shari) Up at 5 and on the road by 6 with others close behind, we want an early start for the 330+ mi. today. We hit a 12-mi. patch of smooth gravel and do not realize the damage it inflicts until we reach camp. Our Xterra suffers two windshield chips, Bill and Ginny’s Jeep has two broken headlights and Larry and Maureen’s car has a long windshield crack from one end to the other. Others may have damage as well. After the gravel we put on our windshield protector but obviously too late: like closing the barn door after the horse is stolen. I try to fix the windshield with our repair kit but I am unable to get a seal and the liquid compound runs over my hands instead of into the crack. While I am grocery shopping Bert tries to find repair kits. He tries Wal-Mart, Extra Foods, and Canadian Tire all with no luck. Hopefully tomorrow we can find an auto repair parts store that has the kits in stock. Chris and May are saying goodbye today since they intend to fly out of Whitehorse in the morning and Chris has a birding trip to Panama in a few days. They will return in late August to pick up their rig and finish the drive home. Our group is getting smaller and smaller and I will truly miss everyone after the trip is complete.
(Bert) A day with no regularly scheduled activities, I choose to visit a birding site I’ve not seen before. The wetlands at McIntyre Creek turns out to be one of the most active bird sites this trip; the first hour I find 22 species of birds and 4 of mammals. Again I find dozens of Bohemian Waxwings, which surprises me since they were scarce on our other Alaska trips and this year we’ve found many. The best surprise, though, is finding one Cedar Waxwing perched alone. Neither Sibley nor the NGS bird book shows the species to range this far north, although it has been previously recorded for the Yukon Territory. The wetlands ring with the chorus of birds on their nesting grounds: Common Yellowthroats, Yellow and Blackpoll warblers, Rusty and Red-winged blackbirds. On the adjacent hillsides are Chipping Sparrows and Townsend’s Solitaires. An adult Bald Eagle stands out like a golf ball on a putting green. Less obvious is the juvenile resting six feet below it. Its dark head and bill and mottled body mark this as a bird born this year. It looks so young I’m surprised when it takes flight and shows off its graceful wing beat above my head. When it returns I stop the flight action with my camera, catching the upturned feather tips curled like expanded fingers, the very flat dihedral of its wings, the spread tail and even the fierce concentration in its outstretched head.
I continue on the gravel road to Fish Lake, finding there only a Red-necked Grebe. Doubling back I park the SUV, put on my backpack and start the hike up Mount McInytre, through spruce and aspen forest and then willow bushes, finally reaching above tree line and the lichen covered crusty rocks at the precipice. From the peak I can see all of large Fish Lake to the south, even larger but more distant Lake Laberge to the north and the city of Whitehorse spread out to the northeast. All the mountains surrounding me are eyelevel or lower, so I really feel like I’m on the top of the world. Birds are few, mammals restricted to chipmunks and ground squirrels, but flowers are abundant. Mountain Death-camas grow profusely, a very attractive flower with a species name of elegans, yet deathly poisonous and was used by native people as arrow poison. One of the first flowers we found this spring was the strikingly purple Pasque Flower or Spring Crocus that hugged the ground, almost stemless. Now I find them again, transformed into wisps of feathery strands twisted into pinkish seed heads raised high above the ground on red stems. The Mormon Fritillaries are out in numbers this morning, posing prettily as orange and brown spread wings against the yellow bundles of Northern Goldenrod blossoms. Surprisingly, the butterfly’s thorax is covered with long hairs, giving it the appearance that it is wearing a fur coat to warm it on this windswept mountain top. I could go on and on about the unusual flowers and the far-reaching views – what a delightful visit this warm sunny morning.
(Shari) Bill is a good sport as he gets pulled from the audience by a pretty cancan girl. We have reserved seats at the Frantic Follies and are watching a rollicking good show complete with singing, dancing, comedy, and verse. The lead singer croons about a lost love and looks around the audience for her “Pookie.” She finds him on the opposite side of the crowd from where we are sitting. Later, Bill is the lucky one chosen to remove the garter from the long leg of the high kicking cancan girl and he is great at making an embellished production out of it. Of course, our group laughs the hardest and the longest. One of the lead men sings to “his lost love” from Lake Labesh, Alberta, a resounding theme throughout the evening, related to the home town of a lady sitting in the first row seat. The funniest sketch is about cabin fever and two men enclosed in a room all winter. Exaggerated pauses between setup line and punch line accentuate the humor. The show contains just plain good clean slapstick comedy and a short 90 min. later we find ourselves outside not really wanting to return home. To extend the evening and reminisce, we gather our troops and head for a hotel restaurant bar to order glasses of beer and wine. As soon as we enter the bar, the waitress remarks to Bill “I see you were the one picked to remove the garter.” You see, he was branded by a big set of lipstick lips on his forehead.
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