Chapter 11. Southeastern Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) We take our good-natured time driving the short 105 mi. to Skagway, stopping at beautiful Emerald Lake and the Smallest Desert in the World. We start to walk among the sand dunes and find that we are headed straight to the top. It is good exercise and a wonderful way to use up calories. Tonight is a baked potato supper and I know we will have plenty of food. I have the potatoes ready and wrapped in foil 3 hr. ahead of time. Coming out of the oven perfectly baked, the potatoes are ready for the many toppings brought by the group. Along with the chipped beef in cream sauce I made, we have chili, cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, chopped onion and fruit salad. Sitting on one side of a picnic table, Ray suddenly finds himself covered with his meal just as the picnic table flips over when Georgia gets up from the other side. He is a good sport and goes home to change clothes, returns and gets another potato. The sad part of the incident is that he lost his martini, but he came out maybe only a little bruised.
(Bert) The Klondike Gold Rush Road takes us south through the Yukon Territory, a small piece of British Columbia and into Alaska again, terminating at the seaport of Skagway. Even though it is only a bit over 100 mi. we stop so many times the drive takes us more than the morning. At Carcross we hike through world’s smallest desert, an isolated sand trap formed when an ancient glacial lake receded. Climbing up the highest of the dunes, we can see Lake Bennett from which the winds blow, contouring and sculpting the sands. Lodgepole pines close in the edges of the “desert”, but only a few flowers and wisps of Timber Oatgrass find purchase in the roving sands. We find many strange tracks in the sand: three-pronged feet with long tails connecting the footprints. We speculate on the source and pay attention to what wildlife surrounds us. The footprints disappear in mid stride, so they must be from a bird. The culprit, I’m sure, is the ravens perpetually flying above us.
Another of our stops is Bove Island, viewed from the high road overlooking the intersection of three lakes, the same lakes the gold rush stampeders took in boats they built to reach the Klondike. Overhead a hawk flies, chocolate brown body and forewings and creamy white trailing wing feathers and an off-white tail. A low-hanging white necklace drapes across its chest, a convincing identification mark for Harlan’s Hawk. Farther down the road I wish I could stop again when I see a grouse quietly resting on the gravel shoulder. I radio back to Ray and Nancy that I think a Blue Grouse is on the left side. Forewarned, they slow in mid road and take four photos which later confirm my suspicion and add a species to our trip list.
(Shari) “This is as far as you’ve gotten in two hours?” I ask Georgia, Richard, Kay and Mike when we meet them at the start of the Chilkoot trail. The early group left this morning at 6:30 and Pat, Ginny, Don, Barbara and I left two hours later. The road to the trail is only 9 mi. long and we meet them within 15 min. of our departure. My goodness! We climb the start of the 3-day trail and marvel at the gold seekers who had to climb one part of it 40 times, carrying packs to the top and coming back for more. I make it farther than I did 4 yr. ago and decide I have not aged as much as I thought I did. After our little stint on the trail we drive to Dyea, the once thriving gold rush town of old. We want to join the ranger on his 10 o’clock tour but Richard says he has news for us. The tour is only given on weekends according to the sign. So I make the best of the situation and say that I am going to read the placard about the trail, grab a self-guiding map and lead the tour. “Spoken like a true teacher,” says Richard I begin by saying take only pictures and leave only footprints and please stay on the path. Sounds like a true ranger, right?
Now only populated with trees and plants, the only remains of the old town are a wooden warehouse foundation and an old real estate office storefront. Once 6000-8000 people lived here and intended to stay. They planted gardens and trees and built houses on well laid out streets. A few years later only three people remained, after the gold had gone bust. As we are departing the parking lot I shout, “There’s a bear; there’s a bear!” Sure enough, a brown black bear crosses the road right smack in front of us. It is nice to view this from the safety of our car and Pat gets a picture of its butt, before it is hidden in the woods. Our next stop is the Slide Cemetery where over 40 people are buried, all having died the same day when they were caught in a snow avalanche. Simple wooden head markers designate their final resting place. As soon as we return, the five of us that started out together this morning walk into town for lunch. After eating, I exchange U.S. currency for the needed Canadian currency on our return trip home. I am still amazed that in every Alaskan town we have stayed, I have seen a Wells Fargo bank. This one is making money for sure since cruise ships dock every day of the year and almost 1 million people visit Skagway in a summer, mostly coming off the ships. The town is crowded, to say the least. I buy a head of cabbage for the coleslaw I intend to make at our halibut potluck. Georgia and Richard want to use up some of their fish and suggested the dinner. Terry grills some and Georgia bakes some and everyone brings something to share. It is yummy and afterwards we sit in a circle reminiscing about incidents on the trip.
(Bert) In Dawson City, in Whitehorse, in the poems of Robert Service, in the songs at the vaudeville shows, in the stories of and about Jack London, in the antique photos hung on lobby walls … we’ve been learning about the Klondike Gold Rush and the Trail of ’98. This morning we visit Dyea, the ghost town once filled by 10000 people in 1898 at the start of the gold rush. Almost nothing of the original town is left to see - only a graveyard, a storefront propped up without a store, a few posts that once held the long wharf – but National Parks signs mark the locations and tell a bit of the history and with imagination you can picture the times and the people. For most of our group, the further intrigue is the restoration of the forests, streams and beaches in the last hundred years and the wildlife it now holds. Far southeast of all the other locations we’ve visited in Alaska, here we find birds that rarely, if ever, occur in mainland Alaska.
The road to Dyea winds around a cove with steep mountains on our right and a calm inlet from the sea on our left. We stop at a cottage nestled in the woods when I see a hummingbird feeder and this time it attracts a Rufous Hummingbird, our first of the trip. I radio to the others, but the transmission is muted and they think we are looking at a different bird. After we’ve piled out of the cars and compare notes, Georgia reports watching a Townsend’s Warbler, Nancy is studying a woodpecker, others are listening to the constant din of tiny unseen birds, and only our carload was observing the hummingbird. I find Nancy’s woodpecker and recognize it as a juvenile Red-breasted Sapsucker, another addition to the trip list. Since the young bird barely resembles the adult depicted in field guides, we need to read the descriptions to confirm its identity and see where the black coloring will eventually be replaced by red. While waiting for the hummingbird to reappear for the others to see, we eventually find the source of softly cheeping birds, seeing the first of what becomes dozens of Golden-crowned Kinglets throughout the day. Moving on, I keep the car window open to listen for bird songs and ask Curt to stop when I hear a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. We get only a few unsatisfying looks at the singer and hope to find a more accommodating one later. Near the Dyea campground we find the mother lode of good birds – American Redstart, Varied Thrush, adult Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Warbling Vireo. The vireo is the best find for me as it is the first time I’ve seen this species in Alaska.
While some take the walking tour of Dyea, five of us walk out onto the graveled estuary that once was the port where the thousands arrived with the glint of gold in their eyes. Salt grass, willows and Shore Pines accommodate dozens of fledgling Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Savannah Sparrows, many allowing close up photos. Bill and I continue to the beach and reach the point just as Georgia announces a Great Blue Heron their carload sees from the cliff side road paralleling the beach. We find it too and eventually locate four herons on the gravel bars. Although quite common and almost a daily occurrence in the Lower 48, these herons are a good find in Alaska.
Some of the cars head back to Skagway and I switch to Ray and Nancy’s car since we want to hike part of the Chilkoot Trail. Like many tourists to this part of Alaska, I’ve hiked the first hundred feet of the trail, but I want to walk farther this time. Famous as the first part of the trail the stampeders took to the Klondike gold fields, the climb up into the mountains quickly gives us a taste for the difficulty of stepping high over rocks and roots and feeling the strain on legs and shortness of breath even after a few minutes of climbing. To our surprise, after climbing through the wooded terrain for twenty minutes the trail heads downhill and eventually reaches stream level. Here the level ground walk is easy and we spend more time birding and studying flowers than laboring. In the dense undergrowth below the hemlocks and cottonwoods, we see a begging juvenile Hermit Thrush, motley and short-tailed, being fed a red berry by its parent. Along the trail I stop suddenly when a Red-breasted Sapsucker feeds up and down a tree trunk. This is the most patient of birds as I take photos, stepping closer with each one, switching to flash photography and then to video recording. Several minutes of videos are full-frame views of the active bird and on the sound track I can hear the click-clacking of claws against wood as it backs down the tree and then flies upward, only to back down again. On the walk back we hear several Pacific-slope Flycatchers and after much searching, we finally find two of them and study their features. I try for photos, but only get one body shot with the head behind a tree branch, making it a very difficult bird to identify from the photo, as the eye ring is a key field mark. Well, I have enough other photos for today to keep me busy cataloging the birds, trees and flowers I’ve captured digitally.
(Bert) It’s Shari’s day today; I’m just the tag-along. Together we walk the streets of Skagway and visit every shop on both sides of Main St. as well as several side streets. We are not alone, just two in a crowd of 10000 visitors today, most pouring from the gangplanks of four cruise ships which would look gargantuan in any setting other than as toy boats against the backdrop of the steep mountains of Lynn Canal and Skagway. The shops boast Alaska souvenirs – toys, clothes, novelties – remembrances of glorious vacations. I pick up a stuffed bear and read the label, “Made in China.” I pick up another toy, “Made in China.” That jump starts my curiosity and suddenly I have something I can do as we visit shop after shop. Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Italy, Hong Kong, Honduras, Cambodia, Macau. Oops, here’s something imported from Anchorage. Skagway, the seaport entrance to the gold fields, has a shop selling “Genuine Alaska Gold,” a suspension of gold leaf in a liquid medium. I check its label, “Made in China.” More labels: Bangladesh, Vietnam, England, India. We stop at the National Parks visitor center at a recreation of a 1890s bar and flophouse. The parks guide explains the décor and the attention to historic accuracy. Then we attend an old film about the gold rush days, when thousands of stampeders poured through Skagway and struggled for months to climb White Pass or Chilkoot Trail by foot. Now, a century later it’s the same number of tourists arriving – and departing – each day, but they take trains, planes, buses, and helicopters to make the ascent and they buy Genuine Alaska Gold, made in China. Philippines, Japan, Canada, Nepal, France, Russia, Taiwan, Vietnam. Our walking tour reaches the wharf where the giant floating hotels are docked and stop for lunch at a delightful dockside restaurant where we can see the helicopters buzzing like tiny mosquitoes against the mountainsides and planes taking off from the airstrip like dragonflies against the peaks. We walk back through town, hitting a few shops Shari missed during the first pass. A pleasant day in Alaska – Made in China.
(Shari) I know Bert thinks we entered the doors of every gift store in Skagway but we only hit one side of the street and then I skipped many of the stores that did not have “the right habitat.” I guess he thinks he owes me some time and has been a good sport about joining me on one of my favorite things to do. He has found an activity that occupies his mind though. As I peruse the shelves of goodies he turns over the items and looks at the label to discover where the product was made before reaching the shelves in Skagway. It keeps him busy while I look at jewelry, toys, books and knitting supplies. At the end of the street we enter the Visitor Center and watch a 30-min. film on the stampeders in 1898. I see the black-and-white pictures of the thousands of people plodding up the steep mountain, but I cannot fathom it. They trudge one behind another in single file, like cattle entering the barn. I try to imagine how they felt: weary, anticipatory, depressed, hopeful, tired, worried. What kind of people were they? What happened to them? After the movie I walk across the street to Starbuck’s and indulge in one of my favorite treats - a mocha latte. I hear a guide say that they expect 10000 people to visit Skagway today and from the looks of the line waiting to be served, a good portion are here. Ten thousand people, most from the five cruise ships docked in the canal, and all walking around town. Too crowded! For lunch we pick the first restaurant a person would find after coming off the ship. No one picks the first one they see, so the wait to get seated is not very long. After eating a salmon burger and fries, I am tired and ready to walk the 2 mi. home. It has been a wonderful outing on a wonderful sunny day. As Bert shows some his birding software to those in our group that are interested, I start preparations for our chili supper tomorrow. I join the group already outside for more social time and we do not go back inside until after 9 PM. Forget supper tonight!
(Shari) I hear the alarm but do not want to get up. It is only 5:30, but today we loose an hour and if we are to make Mukluk Annie’s before they stop serving breakfast we have to get out of town by 6. Driving separately up the 11-mi. ascent, R-Tent-III still struggles even without the car attached. At mile 14, Bert stops at a pull out and we reattach before continuing to Canada customs. We are asked the standard “Do you have any alcohol, firearms, tobacco etc?” before being allowed to continue. I take a turn at driving and find 5 min. into the drive I have to negotiate a narrow bridge with oncoming traffic. Bert says to get over and I move right. “NOT THAT WAY,” he hollers. Wow, I thought I was too close to the oncoming motor home, not the side of the bridge. We continue over the expanse at a snail’s pace. We reach the restaurant with 10 min. to spare and I tell the cook to make as many pancakes on the grill as will fit, since the caravan is arriving. We load our plates with bacon, biscuits, scrambled eggs, sausage, and hash browns before the buffet line closes. Soon six huge blueberry pancakes arrive. It will be hard to drive with tummies this full. Arriving at the campground, I start making chili. The pot is so big and so full that it takes all of the allotted 3 hr. preparation time to heat through. At the meeting house, Bill passes the traveling “Good Samaritan trophy” to Ray because he fell off the picnic table with grace. After dinner some play games but I am bushed and need to clean up and hit the sack.
(Bert) The climb up White Pass is from sea level to 3292 ft. in 13 miles and takes me 25 min. We stop at the summit to reattach the SUV, having driven separately to make the climb easier on R-Tent-III’s engine. Swainson’s Thrushes sing while I attach the hitch, but otherwise the tortured landscape is quiet. The overcast skies deepen the blue of the pools of water and make the twisted rocks look more threatening. We retrace our path to Carcross and then head east through the First People lands of the Tagish. At our turn on to the Alaskan Highway I see a Spruce Grouse beside the road and just after crossing the Continental Divide I see two more. The juvenile moves quickly across the road, but the hen is moving too slowly. I pull to the right just as a semi thunders forward. The poor grouse finally recognizes the dilemma and takes flight. I can see the white markings on its sides as it flies past my windshield to safety. Others find grouse along the road today too. The grouse are more readily seen after the chicks are raised, but I wonder what is their fascination with roadsides. Nancy reports two Common Nighthawks at the Continental Divide, the first for our trip. After reaching our campsite, she and Ray join Bill and me in a hike through the pine forest to two small lakes. Over the vibrant green marsh grass Bohemian Waxwings hawk mosquitoes and then stop to rest in dead spruce spines. A dozen hunt for an hour while we watch. Closer by, a flycatcher snags a dragonfly whose spread wings span the length of the bird. Tossing and twisting the insect in the air, the flycatcher eventually wolfs down the meal. Looking high and into the sunlight I cannot identify the bird until it turns its back on us and I can see the white patches marking it as a first year Olive-sided Flycatcher, my first for the trip. We hike back, stopping briefly to watch a Myrtle Warbler feed a striped chick. Tonight it’s Shari’s homemade chili that feeds us all and is so good that people take extra bowls for tomorrow’s lunch.
Next Day Table of Contents