Chapter 5. Interior Alaska
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2006 All rights reserved.
(Shari) ďIf this is a rest day, I donít want anymore,Ē says Dick as he meets me for our travel meeting. I suppose he did as many errands as we did today. Wash clothes, grocery shop, clean, unpack, catch up on sleep, gas up, get propane, etc. All has to be done before departure tomorrow morning. I also take back the camera I purchased last week. It was a dud. Bert and I visit the shop where four of us got a jacket last week. He buys one too, matching mine. We stop at the bank and Costco as well. When I return I continue with all my phone calls. I need to use the cell phone while it works. I talk to my dad and he again falls asleep on me while talking. His nurse says he does not complain of pain but he told me he was in a lot of pain. Then he falls asleep, I wonder if the pain is that of a few weeks ago and he just does not know the timing of things. In any case, he is not doing very well after this second surgery. After our travel meeting, I grill salmon. It is good to eat home for a change and sure is better for us since I can control how much fat goes into the cooking process.
(Shari) Yesterday we drew cards to determine when each of us leaves the campground. Alaska has a law that there cannot be more than four cars blocked behind you and we hear that convoying caravans get tickets for holding up traffic. Therefore we are to travel in four groups. We of course are first and - whether I like it or not - I have to leave at 6:30. About 20 min. into our journey our phone rings and it is a classmate from high school who has lived up here ever since she graduated from college way back when. She wants to meet with us and we find out that within an hour we will be passing the high school where she works. We make arrangements to meet there. Excitedly sharing old times and catching up on new, our 20 min. stop turns into 40 and I expect some of the group has already passed us up. In fact for the next few hours we play leapfrog with each other. For our next break, we find a place that we have visited every Alaskan trip. Bert and the others search for birds and I find fiddlehead ferns. I fill a small plastic bag of the delicacy before we have to depart. We turn into the Mt. McKinley view rest area but because of the cloud cover, the mountain is hidden. After arriving at the campground Bert and I drive the first section of the Denali highway. We are pleasantly surprised that the road is in the best condition of any of our three previous trips and decide to return to camp, having driven the first dozen miles. On our return we see Ray and Nancy. On our last trip, we had a great fisherman and he caught his limit of grayling at mile 3.3. So, Nancy wants to try her luck there too. Meanwhile, Ralph and Virginia are trying their luck at finding birds. The sun comes out just in time for our social but it is still very windy. Bert talks about the birds he hopes to find in the next four days along the highway. We return to our rigs for a buffalo steak and fiddlehead fern dinner.
(Bert) We leave Anchorage, heading north along the George Parks Highway. In sharp contrast to the winterishly scenes of Nome and Gambell, here in Central Alaska the birch trees are tall, fully foliated and luxuriantly green. As we thread north, gaining in altitude and thinning in trees, switching to dark spruce, skies are clear for a view of the 5000-ft. mountains trimming the horizon, but distant clouds shroud Mt. McKinley at the many viewpoints along the highway. We are traveling scattered, so only Chris T., Bill and Ginny are with us when we stop to visit a grade school and high school classmate that we havenít seen for decades. Kathy and her husband came to Alaska in the 1960s when the state seemed like the end of the world to most of us in the Lower 48. Now she takes a break from her classroom on the last day of high school to see us. Through an e-mail, we found out our mutual interest in birding and, in fact, Kathy and David wrote one of the chapters in the Alaska bird finding book Iíve been consulting. I know Kathy is a birder when we momentarily interrupt our reunion to glance up at an overflying Violet-green Swallow. After a short visit, we continue north, stopping frequently to enjoy the scenery and look for birds. Thrushes are commonplace, tallying Gray-cheeked, Swainsonís, Hermit, Varied and Robin. I see White-winged Crossbills frequently and get a close enough view of one for photographing. The best find however is a pair of Pine Grosbeaks that Ray and Nancy report during our 5 PM social. At the social I review the birds we can expect to find along the Denali Highway the next few days and make suggestions about finding the more rare ones.
(Shari) When the birders return from their early morning outing, Bert and I depart with Hoss and Sally not far behind. With its powerful exhaust, R-Tent-III churns up a huge dust cloud as it makes its way down the gravel road. The road is in the best condition I have ever seen it and must have been recently graded. But it is extremely dusty. I take over the driving duties today, since Bert drives too fast over the bumps. I see Ginny does the same thing but her reason is to get practice driving. Not much can happen when your top speed is 20 mph. We stop frequently before arriving at our chosen camp site above a lake. Not many people who go to Alaska see this area and some think we are crazy for taking a caravan here but as the group pulls in, no one complains. The scenery, the beauty, the vastness, the wildness just cannot be beat. From our lofty camping spot, it is as if we have hundreds of square miles all to ourselves. As each rig arrives, Bert has them park to block the wind so we can have a campfire and serve Mexican hot dogs. Unfortunately it starts to drizzle and the wind shifts. By 5 PM the drizzle has stopped, the sun peaks out and we have the fire anyway, even if the wind chill is a bit brisk. This group likes to be outside and socialize with each other. I notice that even after we eat, no one is in a rush to get back inside. I have a need to just soak in this scene, so Bert and I take a walk along the road. We see a few caribou on the hillside above us. Mountains surround us and Bert snaps pictures of the rigs nestled in the lot with the mountains as a backdrop. Just spectacular, the scene is so gorgeous it must be fake. And it is all ours tonight.
(Bert) Mark this gravel road through the outback as my favorite place to visit in Central Alaska. I remember the fusion of intimidation and fascination that I felt the first time I drove the Denali Highway in 1996. The miles of rocky road in a wilderness absent of humanityís conveniences can be daunting, yet less this year since the graders scraped it smooth and wide. Here the horizon is stretched wider, pushing the snow capped mountains to a distant backdrop and filling the interval with miles of tundra valley, meandering streams and shimmering ponds. Watery mirrors reflect spindly spruce meadows, triangularly peaked gray mountains candy striped in white snow crevassed from sunís rays and a bluebird sky. Prime nesting grounds for Trumpeter Swans, I find eight this morning, mostly in pairs, winging along the rivers with long outstretched wings and a gentle wing beat or across the many lakes, forming a white ďTĒ on blue water when I watch them below me from the higher road elevation. We stop beside the Nenaha River when I see a large dark bird on its shore. Through binoculars and spotting scope we watch an immature Bald Eagle scavenge meat off a large carcass with arching ribs, perhaps a bear or moose. A Mew Gull ventures the perimeter, hoping to pick off a few scrapes. Nearby a second immature eagle rests on a dead limb stretched across the turbulent river. We stop frequently for wildlife and birds and even Shari takes interest in a bird when we find an obliging Common Redpoll showing off its bright crown and chest, looking like it had indulged in strawberry jam. Our 10-15 mph crawl eventually takes us to our campsite for the evening: not a typical site, not marked with numbers, no signs, no utilities, just a wide patch of gravel on the esker high above the valley. This has got to rank among the top five places I have ever camped. In the far distance flows a glacier surrounded by twin 12000-ft mountain peaks and connecting our viewpoint is a broad green valley. At our backside a small lake holds two pairs of Black Scoters and on the snow-patched hillside behind, three caribou feed in the tundra. The wind blows coldly through our lofty retreat and our campfire burns fiercely with its oxygenated fuel. Bundled warmly, we enjoy hot dogs roasted over the fire.
(Bert) We double back this morning to the Brushkana River for birding. Although we find birds, we see none of the target species we seek. A moose entertains us though, wearing an unusually light brown coat. Another moose tends a calf that must be only days old and still later we find another moose with two calves. We stop at a cliff overlooking a marsh and open lake dotted with ducks. Wedged in marsh grass at the edge of the water we see a Horned Grebe sitting on a nest. For the second day now we find a Greater Yellowlegs in proximity of Lesser Yellowlegs, the Greater being north of its expected range. At another stop a hill overlooks the valley to the north and a cliff rises to the south. From this viewpoint we see a dark knob on the ridge and through spotting scope we can make out the features of an adult Golden Eagle. From its lofty perch it must be able to see for at least a dozen miles.
Back at camp Shari and I prepare the RV for departure, but I have trouble attaching the car to the motor home and in the process discover that the hitch is broken, so Shari and I have to drive separately to our next stop. In route Chris T. points out a perched Merlin that I see just as it takes flight, the first Merlin of our trip. After descending to a broad river and crossing the bridge, we climb the edge of the mountain. At the crest we can see the road ahead, climaxed by snow covered peaks. I mark the odometer setting and later calculate that our view extended for 22 miles. On this side of the mountain the habitat changes from boreal forest to continuous yellow green willows absent of the dark green spruce. The willows grow to about chest height and somewhat higher near water. This is ideal habit for Arctic Warblers, one of our targets. We find many more swans, perhaps ten during our few hours travel. Probably all Trumpeter Swans, we donít take time to study them closely. But when we reach our campsite for the night, we align scopes on a nearby pond. The bright yellow spot on the bill near the eye clearly marks this one as a Tundra Swan. In mid afternoon we take a few cars along a rough road paralleling the glacial river, seeking Arctic Warbler which just arrived from Asia in the past couple days. We see and hear none, but find a constant progression of Gray-cheeked Thrushes and Blackpoll Warblers singing on territory. Coming back we meet Ralph and Virginia who tell us they found one of our target birds: a Northern Shrike about seven miles back on the main road. We have no time to check the spot again, as we have a 5 PM social where guests tell us about the Arctic Warbler study project they are working on this summer. They will be color banding the birds and also testing Asian migrants for the virus carried by chickens. The two young ladies who are interns on the project, but not yet started work, surprise us with their broad knowledge of the birds and the project. They are joined by Jason who tells us more about the how they will net the birds and reports on some of the other sightings theyíve had as they survey the area.
(Shari) Because our hitch broke this morning as Bert was hooking up, I am driving the car separately following him at a good distance to keep away from his huge cloud of dust. Actually it is kind of nice. I sometimes cannot see him at all, nor anyone behind me. I am playing a CD and feel like I do at the movies when the orchestra performs majestic music as the early pioneers come up over a ridge and are met by grandeur all around. Sometimes I have tears in my eyes thinking of the past, the present and the future. It is so good to be alive that it almost hurts especially when I think of my dad nearing his end and also realize that I am at the tail end of mine. I vow to make the most of it and stop the car on a bridge to take a picture. The more pictures I take, the more I can relive the moment, I think. I wonder if Bert even realizes that I am far behind him. He is too busy bird watching I expect. I am not afraid to be alone like this since I have 24 of my new closest friends behind me to help should I get into trouble. We stop for pie and/or breakfast at Gracious House. I warned the owner that a large group was on its way and it looks like she is ready. We fill up all of the 12 dining stools in the room and as soon as we leave, I see Bill and Ginny and Ralph and Virginia pulling in. By 1:30 we are at our overnight stop and again they are ready for us. Or should I say, they know that we are coming. Four of us squeeze rigs into the pullout across the road and the rest pull in the lodgeís parking lot trying to level as best they can. Later two young female interns join our social and talk about the research they are doing on Arctic Warblers. They are here for six weeks and during that time the warblers fly in from southeast Asia, find a mate, nest, hatch and raise their young. Last year the group found 20 nests. This year they are hoping for 40. Since no one in our group has seen an Arctic Warbler yet this trip, we pepper them with questions. Supposedly they are late this year because of the weather. Hopefully with their information, someone will find a warbler tomorrow.
(Bert) We bird this morning along the road leading to the Maclaren Summit, a thousand feet above where we are camped along the river. We are stopped at a pond holding a pair of Tundra Swans when Chris T. hears a staccato trill and asks me if it is an Arctic Warbler. I agree and we soon find the singer atop a spruce, one of only about three available high perches. So intent is the warbler at singing his territorial song that it is oblivious of our excitement, binocular starring, spotting scope alignment and picture taking. Thrilled with adding this Asian migrant to their life lists, Iím quickly assailed with other birds on their wish list. Rock Ptarmigan is high on the list, but before we get to appropriate habitat I stop again, this time at a glacial moraine halved by a landslide and now serving as home sites for dozens of Bank Swallows. Just before starting the summit ascent, we stop yet again when I see a large porcupine clinging to the spindly pole of a stubby tree. It remains frozen in place as spotting scopes and zoomed cameras reveal a cute face surrounded by bristling quills. On the uphill climb we stop frequently to scan for Northern Shrike and Gyrfalcons, finding neither. Through his scope Ralph finds a white dot against a gray-brown background. Showing me, I agree that it is a ptarmigan, but at 2+ mi. distance thatís as far an id Iíll venture. We drive closer and look again. Itís still an unidentified ptarmigan, but this time Ralph wants to walk toward it. Reluctantly I follow, as does Bill. Our hike across the tundra is tedious and I radio back to the others to drive along the road and try to locate us from the cliffs. By the time we are about a half-mile from the bird Iím fairly confident we are watching a Rock Ptarmigan because of its nearly all white feathering - Rocks transitioning to summer plumage later than Willows. At a quarter mile distance we can see the black line connecting eye to bill and confirming Rock Ptarmigan. The group radio from the cliffs since they cannot see us below. I give them a status report and eventually we reach within a few hundred yards of the bird and in sight of the birders on the cliff. Just as we clinch the id, the bird takes flight and disappears over the ridge. Feeling disappointed that the others did not get a good view of the ptarmigan, we stand in place hoping to relocate the bird. Suddenly it flies back in our direction, over our heads, past Chris and disappears over a higher ridge. We tramp in its direction and in about 10 min. relocate the bird. This time it stays in place and we align a scope for a clear view. We signal to the others to climb down to us, keeping our safe 200-yd distance from the grouse. In time, we have five scopes aligned on the target and everyone who ventures down the cliff has ample time to study another lifer.
(Shari) ďWhy are you going so slowly?Ē I ask Bert, since I do not see any birds and am wondering why he is creeping along. He tells me it is as fast as he can go. As I look through the cloud of dust behind the motor home, I see black smoke. I yell, ďSTOP RIGHT NOW, I see black smoke coming out of the exhaust!Ē Immediately I think we have a clogged fuel filter and know that we have a spare along with us. We decide to back down the hill and return to the flat area next to the lodge. I get Terry to help us and the two men ponder the situation. The next thing I hear is that they think we have a clogged air filter. I think we are carrying an extra one of those too so am not too concerned. Bert informs me that was our other motor home and he does not have one of those. A group of men now gather and I surmise from the conversations that no one knows how to get the air filter off even if we had another one. Besides, it is so dusty inside the compartment that they want to blow off the layers so that nothing falls inside the engine to cause more of a problem. Bert backs to the tire repair shop where we use their air compressor and ďthe menĒ try to remove the air filter. They canít do it and now it is time I get out of their way. I am a nervous wreck, already conjuring up tow services, driving to Fairbanks for an air filter and missing the caravan for a week or more. Pat offers to play cards with me to take my mind away from the problem. I take her up on the suggestion and we play two hands of ďHand and FootĒ before I need to see what is going on. The men have tried to replace the fuel filter, but could not stop it from draining so they closed that up. Bert decides he is going to try to make the hill from a fast start on the flat road. He takes off, with me in pursuit and goes up the hill lickety-split. He does not know what he did but it seems to work and we travel 20 mi. to our next campground without troubles. The air filter gauge still indicates that the filter needs changing, but at least we are moving and are now at the paved road to Fairbanks.
(Bert) Back at camp we are about to depart with R-Tent-III when I have trouble making it up the incline. Black smoke spews from the exhaust pipe and the engine will not shift out of first gear. Fearing a clogged air filter - probably a result of the dusty road conditions - I back down the hill and park on the flats. For the next two hours Terry and I examine the air filter and fuel filter, failing in each task because one filter is nearly inaccessible and the other never stops a steady stream of evacuating fuel. With much trouble we put things back together and I decide to try the mountain climb with a bigger head start on the flats. This time I get the speed up to 45 mph and continue up the 1000-ft elevation change, never dropping my speed below 33 mph. Iím sure my air filter is still clogged, but at least we jumped the hurtle for now.
(Shari) In camp I see Ray taking out his air filter. He knocks literally a pile of dust from it. Curt does the same. I can just imagine what is inside our sealed container. Unfortunately, as Ray is cleaning out the intake tube with a towel, he forgets about the towel. To recharge is air compressor, he starts his engine and the towel is sucked inside the coil. He and I are concerned that he may have ruined his engine but other men I talk with think not since it has to get through smaller and smaller tubes to get there and the towel is too big. What he has to do though is trace down just where the towel is and that means disassembling the intake tube from underneath the bedroom floor. Nancy gets out of the way and takes her fishing pole to the lake. I go off and just worry, but when I return I learn he has retrieved the towel. Thank goodness! We meet for a bird talk around the fire and roast marshmallows for símores. Bert is hungry after that, but I did not plan any dinner. He decides to roast hot dogs. Bill and Ginny grill their buffalo steak and others join us for our impromptu supper. It is just so nice outside tonight that no one wants to leave and it is well after 9 before we call it a day.
(Bert) The day of the Smithís Longspur chase starts at 6:30. We start at a location Iíve found them before. From the road I can see the trimmed down flat tundra area and we study the distant spot, trying to ascertain the best way of navigating around the lake, through the dense willow grove and over the meandering stream and water-filled potholes. None of the routes looks promising, so we just plunge on ahead, right through the heart of the tough and uneven terrain. The men forge ahead with little problem, the women struggle more and a few get a wet foot. At the site we spread out and stumble through the tundra, looking for an alighting bird and listening for a telltale song. Finding neither, we split into three parties; most of the women return the way we came and let the others conduct the search. Ralph and Mike stop when they discover a nest and I photograph the four eggs that look like smoothly rounded scoops of Rocky Road ice cream. We move away from the nest and study the bird that hangs at the peripheral. I snap a few photos and we eventually get a glimpse of the yellowish legs of the Least Sandpiper. Later when we reach the road again, a Least Sandpiper sings as it flutters and dips high over its territory. The bird finding book suggests another location for Smithís Longspurs and we head to the spot and begin a mile hike one-way, up a high hill. Although the hike is easy, we walk slowly, fascinated by the fresh flowers just beginning to open. Some I remember, others I photograph and refresh my memory from my books. For blue, we have Arctic Lupine, for white it is Alaska Cotton and Narcissus-flowered Anemone. Pink is the predominate color, with at least seven species. The short poles of fuzzy plant life adorned by dozens of pink flowers get most of our attention, particularly owing to its unusual name, Wooly Lousewort. We find a new bird for out trip list - Horned Lark - and another nest, probably of the same. Curt and Chris B. are happy to see Lapland Longspurs since they did not join us in Nome, the rest of us having seen hundreds of the easily found buntings in Nome. We also record Long-tailed Jaegers, American Golden-Plovers, American Pipits, but do not find Smithís Longspurs.
In the afternoon Shari and I inflate our portable boat and kayak around Tangle Lake, meeting Richard and Georgia who also brought their kayak and Don and Barbara who rented a boat. Off across the lake is Larry and Maureen, but we donít venture that far. Iím thrilled to watch the Trumpeter Swans. Don says he counted 23 on the lake this morning and now I see a dozen. They shift from one side of the lake to another and I photograph some in flight as they pass over our heads or when they ski to a landing on the calm water. Paddling back, I notice Iím sinking lower into the water and my butt is getting cold. We are loosing air on the bottom chamber and a bit on the left chamber. Paddling gets harder and it becomes a struggle to get back to the dock. Afterward we examine the boat and find no leaks, coming to the conclusion that I didnít close the valve tightly.
At 7:30 PM six of us again try for Smithís Longspurs at a location Chris T. learned about at the lodge. We fan out over the area and walk the tundra, covering at least 40 acres of appropriate habitat. Finding almost no birds at all and hearing no longspurs, the trip might be considered a failure but for Mikeís luck at finding two jaw bones and two caribou racks. The larger of these is a real trophy that he is delighted to save as a keepsake.
(Shari) The boat is slowly leaking and we are in the middle of the lake. I have convinced Bert to get out our inflatable canoe and along with three other couples in kayak or rented canoes we are paddling the lake on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Now the wind is picking up and our boat is leaking. Bert sits lower and lower in the water, making it hard for him to paddle. I am so pooped, Iím not much help and we have lots of paddle strokes left to get back. We obviously do get back, but it is hard work. Good thing Nancy is fishing on shore, since she has to help me get out of the boat because there is no surface to push myself up. As I lumber out, my clothes get pretty wet. We carry the boat to the picnic table and try to find the leak. After using soap we find bubbles coming out at the stem and surmise that the cap was not turned completely tight. As we dry off the boat and put it away I wonder how soon I will be willing to tackle that kind of outing again. Before our travel meeting and social, I ponder what to make for dinner. Nancy solves that problem for us when she comes over and gives us two of the grayling that she has caught. How nice!
(Shari) ďThe smoke is getting blacker,Ē I tell Bert from my vantage point following R-Tent-III. We left with Sally and Hoss at 6:30 and it is only 6:31 and we are climbing our first hill of the day. As I drive alone in the car watching Bert creep up the hill, I wonder if he will make it. I would have stopped long ago but he keeps crawling up, up, up. At the top he keeps going and I expect him to gain speed but he does not, even when we go downhill. I radio to Bert if the road I see snaking up is a side road or the one we will be taking shortly. He says it is ours. Oh boy, we are in trouble. All of a sudden R-Tent-III picks up speed and off Bert goes. We keep driving. No stopping, no birding, no slowing down, we drive without troubles until Delta Junction where we are to stop for the night. We discuss our options and decide to not turn off the engine and, instead, make a mad dash for Fairbanks and the diesel repair facility there. Bert calls for an appointment and directions while I arrange for the group to park, make payment, leave a note for Pat and Terry and say goodbye to Sally and Hoss. Off we go. At Fairbanks, the service supervisor takes us right in and starts to disassemble the air filter. He does not know how to take it off and Bert calls Newmar. They do not know how to take it off so Bert calls the dealership in Anchorage. They give him a part number and say it either comes off from the front or through the bedroom. Well, we knew that. This means we have to empty our closet out which is a task in and of itself especially since it is so dusty in there. We vacuum all our clothes and put them on the bed. The hatch door inside the closet comes off and Paul is able to change the air filter with ease. He carries it outside and mentions that it is considerably heavier than the new one. I donít doubt that since it is probably just crammed full of dust. Since we are in the shop we decide to get an oil, lube and filter change. While John is working on that, we go to a couple of RV places to see about replacing our broken tow bar. The first place can only order one. After a false start at the second place talking with a parts lady who does not know much, we finally get a new tow bar. Requiring no new brackets, it fits on the faceplate of our old one. Bert does not even need a wrench or a screwdriver. Hurrah! As I sit sipping a Black Russian, I feel like a child playing hooky from school. The caravan is 90 mi. south of us and we are all alone. We continue our cleanup, do some wash, eat homemade pizza and watch TV before we fall quickly asleep. It has been a strange day.
(Bert) Only Hoss and Sally follow us at our 6:30 departure, the rest staying to enjoy nature along the Denali Highway for one more morning. Our concern about R-Tent-IIIís clogged air filter and our broken tow bar prompt an early departure. The first few miles of level road run smoothly, especially now that we have returned to blacktop pavement. I slow to let Shari and Hoss catch up with me, but when I try gaining speed on an uphill I again cannot get out of first gear. With a cloud of black smoke coming out of the exhaust, R-Tent-III crawls up the first hill, gains some speed on the downhill, yet crawls slowly up the next. Four miles down the road I suddenly gain speed as the motor home finally shifts to higher gears. For now, at least, Iím back to running as normally as I can expect. Concentrating on driving, I almost miss the incredible scenery, first up to a viewpoint of the distant white peaks of the Wrangle Mountains, then along the shoreline of the broad blue waters of Summit Lake and for miles along the gray tumult of silt laden Delta River which forms the base of a lengthy U-shaped valley. Mountains constantly reforming on a geological time scale, most recently by glaciers, now by wind and avalanches, the concave arcs of smoothly carved gray gravel sweep gracefully to the sky, too steep for plant life to gain purchase. For much of the road we follow the Alaska pipeline, sometimes buried, often suspended above ground on a framework that can shift elastically to accommodate frost heaves and tremors. Climbing out of the valley, we are back to tall forests of aspen and spruce. Without preamble, at 7:55 AM and 61 mi. into our trip, a large cat suddenly crosses the road. In an instant I record a vivid mental picture of the sharply pointed ears, the warm brown fur, the short stub of a tail, the long legs and stretched out body. Muscular and threatening, yet with a lovable face, the Canadian Lynx turns its head to stare at me, not breaking pace in its stride and quickly disappears in the forest again. I vividly recall another time I saw an animal I thought was a lynx. It was also on the Richardson Highway at a location that could not be many miles from todayís occurrence. That time the animal was too distant and the glimpse too short for me to be certain. Todayís sighting is without doubt. Continuing on the road, it is easy to see what has attracted the lynx to this area, for Snowshoe Hares are numerous along the roadside. I start a tally and count 17 in as many miles, all hopping from the roadís edge and into the forest as R-Tent-III sweeps by like a snowplow scaring wildlife in its wake.
We reach Delta Junction in short order and Shari and I decide to continue on to Fairbanks for RV service, leaving Hoss and Sally and instructions for Terry on tomorrow morningís birding site. Fortunately they can take us in at the Caterpillar repair shop and one by one our mechanical problems are solved. Getting the enormous air filter out of the engine compartment is a puzzle though, until I start cleaning out the dust from our bedroom clothes closet and see the trap door on its carpeted floor. Removing two long screws, the hinged door opens directly above the filter. When the mechanic lifts out the old one and replaces the new one, he remarks about the substantial difference in weight, the cumulative result of millions of fine dust particles. We take advantage of our appointment and get an oil change as well, meanwhile visiting a nearby RV shop and buying a new tow bar assembly. We head to the Fairbanks campground where the rest of the group will join us tomorrow, delighted that our mechanical problems were easily and quickly solved.
(Bert) With the caravan still in Delta Junction, Shari and I are on a break from duties. I use the time to write many of the Gambell and Nome journals. With my bird checklists, scattered notes and myriad photos, I find it easy to recall the memories and the sequence of events. With a WI-FI connection here at the RV park, I send out the first batch.
(Shari) This morning I click off errands one, two, three and before I know it the first of our flock is driving into the campground. While Bert is finishing R-Tent-III issues, I sit outside with the car and chat with each person as they come in, filling them in on our repairs. Soon it is time for social and travel meeting. We end up talking about our full stay in Fairbanks and some of our next in Denali as well. Seems everyone wants to be independent these next few days and I sense that they do not want a meeting to attend. So we talk off the cuff as much as we can and tell them to watch the white board for schedules and changes. Nancy has brought us another two fish that she caught at Tangle Lakes and we have them for dinner. Absolutely delicious! I will have to pay half her fishing license fee if I donít watch out.
(Bert) Cremerís refuge is the best known birding site in Fairbanks. We visit today in overcast skies, occasional rain, and multitudes of mosquitoes. Shortly after entering the boreal forest I see an ermine scamper in front of me, carrying a vole in its jaws. It ducks under the boardwalk and I wait for the rest of our group to reach my spot. We progress and fortunately see the ermine again, running through the underbrush, under the deck and out the other side. Our hike includes the ďdrunken forestĒ of tilted spruce from frost heaves, a mesmerizing ground cover of horsetails beneath a white forest of birch, a wetspot covered by flowering calla, and frequent calls from Hammondís Flycatchers, but it is hard to give these too much attention between battles with mosquitoes. Next we walk along the wetlands and watch a Mallard ferry her ducklings and assume a resting spot on the grassy shore: brown ducks blending perfectly with brown grass and almost disappearing from sight even though quite obvious through a spotting scope. A visit to the Alaska Bird Observatory gives us knowledge about a nearby nesting American Three-toed Woodpecker. While walking to the spot, I see a Black-capped Chickadee and then a second adjacent to its nest hole in a birch tree. It leaves and returns again, probably feeding chicks inside. We find the woodpecker in its hole, head protruding. It flies to a nearby tree and pecks away for 15 min., satiating our interest in the special bird.
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