Chapter 1. Rendezvous at Mile Zero
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2008 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Winter clings by icy fingernails, refusing to release its hold on the Northland. As we transit northern Wisconsin falling ice crystals sting the cold windshield. In Minnesota remnant snow drifts in dark crevices and a few stretches of dirty iced snow, the last of the snowplow’s piles, still edge the highway, while white wisps of last night’s snowfall dust the still brown grass. The sun bursts forth, determined to shoo away winter and by mid day it succeeds in at least creating the illusion of warmth. At frozen-over Cass Lake, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Horned Grebes and Common Mergansers dive in the narrow icy water separating ice floe from shoreline. A robin dressed in spring plumage seeks early worms in hardened ground just beginning to show green grass. It cocks its head and ear to one side and then snatches up a long earthworm in its bill and swallows the wiggling creature in a single gulp. Spring is in the air at the Red River, separating Minnesota from North Dakota. Dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers flutter like butterflies on barren tree branches, bulbous with spring buds not yet exploded into first leaves.
(Bert) We arrived at the refuge yesterday afternoon, an abundant grasslands and wetlands preserve teeming with wildlife and a place I’ve visited each of the last two years and anxious to come again. In yesterday’s survey we found 51 bird species battling icy winds too strong to keep my spotting scope stable. Our best finds were Eastern Phoebe and White-faced Ibis at the extremes of their ranges. Earlier in the day at a rest stop on Highway 2 I found a milestone bird at the edge of a small pond. The Clay-colored Sparrow was my 700th species for 2008.
Now, at 6 AM, I put on a few extra layers of clothes and walk along the dike separating wetland lakes and am surprised to see a pair of American Avocets fly by and I watch my first Red-necked Grebe of the year. Bill, Ginny and Shari join me in the car as we drive around the refuge. Twice Shari spots a coyote in the distance, each wearing a winter coat that makes it look robust and wolf-like. The first trots across a burnt grassland, its light tan and gray fur standing out in contrast to the blackened bare ground. Marshlands are almost non-existent as North Dakota received little rain or snow so finding three Marbled Godwits is a bit of a surprise. With the diminished winds this morning the sparrows are out in good numbers and I’m surprised when with Harris’s Sparrow we reach 10 sparrow species well before 10 AM. It reminds me of the Audubon trips I used to lead with the goal of 12 species by noon. With that incentive I search for more, adding Lark Sparrow and finally Chipping Sparrow, this time 12 species before 10. The best birds of the morning, though, are the Mountain Bluebirds which Shari is the first to spot and quickly become her favorite of the day. Maybe Shari will become a birder yet!
(Bert) The Great Plains are the Atlantic Ocean of the North American continent. R-Tent-III sails along Trans Canada Hwy 1, dragging the SUV behind like a trailing row boat. The brown waves of Saskatchewan grain stubble stretch in undulating hills to each horizon and for hundreds of miles along the arrow straight road. Spring has not yet sprung, dead grasses have not yet arisen to life. Winds buffet us like tossed waves. The monotony of endless prairies is unbroken by trees, only by far distant grain elevators and gas stations advertising deceptively low prices of $1.329 until I do the currency and liter to gallon conversions to $5+ per gallon.
(Shari) In the 37 days since we left Mexico, traveling north, the warm weather and spring flowers of Texas became cooler and more barren until, while in Wisconsin, I joke with Bert’s Mom, “I am going back to Texas”.
During our break between caravans we accomplished a lot: celebrated three birthdays in Texas with grandkids, daughter and husband, visited relatives in Wisconsin, completed medical and dental checkups, attended a memorial service for my father who passed away just before our Costa Rica trip and completed preparation for the Alaska caravan.
We left Wisconsin with friends Bill and Ginny in even worse weather and at one point snow actually hits our windshield and sticks to the ground. Right now I am in Rosedale, Alberta, parked by the side of a river with the wind whipping the grass around R-Tent-III and rain pummeling the roof. Bert went with Bill and Ginny to the Royal Terrell dinosaur museum. Since I had already seen it, I elect to stay home and make muffins. It is a good day to bake or visit a museum, since it does not look as if I will be hiking outside anytime soon. Hopefully this cold bad weather will get out of its system and the start of our caravan will be sunny and warm. One has to be optimistic in the face of such awful weather.
(Shari) The weather turns pleasant as we head out towards Elk Island National Park. May, our GPS system named because she “may” be right or “may” be wrong, leads us down country roads. May goes crazy when we miss a turn and announces that she is “recalculating”. She then leads us through town to a sharp turn Bert thinks he “may” be able to navigate.
After arriving at the park, we are surprised at the price: $6.00 per person per day to stay in the park, plus $25 per day to camp without facilities in a narrow parking lot. Oh well, the experience of having buffalo roam the campground is worth something. Bert and I find a trail to hike. By my definition of lost, we become lost. We don’t know where we are and after walking too long, I decide to turn back. Bert does not consider that lost. Later after looking at a map, we find out we turned about 500 ft. too soon and our trail would have looped back along a shorter route. We arrive back at camp and after a social hour with Bill and Ginny, I am ready to collapse into bed.
(Shari) We meet Bill and Ginny at 9 AM and take the car around the bison loop, looking for bison and birds. The best bird of the day is a Mountain Bluebird. We later find another trail to walk and again with my definition we get lost. I decide I am going to turn around at 11 AM if the trail has not started to turn back. At 11, we meet another couple who tell us of a bird they saw on the ground, fanning its tail. They say it is between KM 14 and KM 15. We walk another KM but find no Ruffed Grouse. No matter what Bert decides, I decide to turn back. I feel like I have walked 3 mi. already. An hour later I limp to the parking lot and plop down at the picnic table with Bill and Ginny. Later we find the trail we were on was 16.3 km and we only walked about 3.6 mi. of it. When we get back to R-Tent-III, we eat lunch and then I take a nap –actually, more like a sleep because I don’t wake up for 3 hr. By then it is social time. Bill tells us of a couple that has arrived with Oregon plates on their RV and an Escapees sticker. I wonder out loud if it is Steve and Nancy. What a small world! It is them and they join us at our social. It is an early night because tomorrow will be a long day of driving.
(Bert) After a pleasant two-night stay at Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton, where we enjoyed watching bison in our campground, we are on the road again for our final 400-mi. day to our caravan rendezvous point at Dawson Creek, the start of the Alaska Highway. Still no leaves on trees and sparse green grass, the scenery is now more rolling and spruce forests interrupt some of the barren plains that separate the Alberta oil-boom towns that have rapidly grown into sprawling cities. The most astounding is Grande Prairie where we stop to refuel and buy groceries. We’ve traveled 941 mi. since that last time I’ve refueled and I set an all-time record for a tank of gas when I pay $644 for diesel. This oil-boom town has the best prices and after the conversion from liters to gallons and deductions for rebates towards groceries, I pay $4.54 per gallon in Canadian dollars, which nowadays is almost the same as US dollars. When we arrive at the Dawson Creek campground we are greeted by those that have come earlier: Jim and Donna, Bill and Marlene, Mel and Joanne. Bill and Ginny accompanied our travels since Wisconsin and coincidentally we met Steve and Nancy at the Elk Island campground. So, we’ve accounted for half our group.
Here is a bit of mileage trivia: While we drove 5247 mi. round trip from Texas through Central America to Costa Rica, we drove 4095 mi. one-way to the START of our Alaska rendezvous point (McAllen TX to Dawson Creek BC). To reach Alaska we will have driven more miles from south Texas than our whole Central America round-trip.
(Shari) We drive close to 400 mi. today. I am glad we have Bill and Ginny along to break the monotony although things are quiet on the CB until we realize ours is not working. We switch to the hand held radios at lunch time and now I can talk more since I can reach it easier than the CB. We listen to our Sirius radio and I am amazed that it is still picking up a signal so far north. Missy calls from Texas to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day and I talk with her for almost a half hour as we drive across Canada. Isn’t technology amazing! We stop in Grande Prairie to get fuel. While Bert fills the tank I get groceries. Since we get a 7-cents-per-liter rebate to be used for groceries, $37 of food in my cart is free. Well, in my logic it is “free”. Upon arriving at Dawson Creek, our driveshaft disconnect on the car does not reconnect. Jim (our Tailgunner for this trip) and Bert play around with it for quite some time and do get it to work but I am not convinced that the problem is solved. Stay tuned on that issue. Three couples are already here and we get acquainted over an impromptu social hour before heading off with Jim and Donna to my favorite pizza restaurant, second only to Paison’s in Madison, Wis.
(Shari) Our whole gang is here and it looks to be a winner. Bill wrote his first installment of a newsletter and it had me laughing out loud, especially when he describes Bert splitting wood. Bill wonders if the pattern of wood chips can depict Bert’s blood pressure and surely Bert could develop his Birder’s Diary software to instantly recall all manner of data about the chips. For those of you readers who know Bert, that is funny since Bert spends hours entering and analyzing his bird data. I hope Bill continues writing these blurbs on the whole trip. I seem to be so more organized this year than past ones. Yesterday I took some free time to shop and came back from Canadian Tire with rain boots, rain pants and rain coat. I hope because I am prepared for rain, it will not rain. We have been extremely lucky on past caravans with weather and most days had sun. I know how much weather affects the mood of a caravan and that places with rain are considered not as nice as those without. Today I print photo albums and have fond memories of Costa Rica as I review those pictures. I look forward to yet another great trip. After a social hour where everyone is gathering letters for the word scramble, we carpool to Boston Pizza and our first LEO - let’s eat out. This job is just so wonderful and I feel so fortunate that I can still do it.
(Bert) Although our caravan does not officially start until tomorrow, everyone is here and we go birding this morning to Radar Lake. To my surprise, even Shari joins us for birding this morning. On the forested approach, beside the gravel road, John spots our first bird for the trip. I announce “Ruffed Grouse” over the personal radio and our four carloads of birders carefully evacuate to watch the fluffed out male grouse in the short grass only a few feet beside the first two vehicles. I don’t have my camera ready before the grouse slowly walks into the forest. Bill and I lead a few others among the short trees and soon relocate the grouse. My photos reveal a cocked comb and ruffed necklace of feathers. It steps into a clearing and now I capture the whole body and its spread patterned tail. We find almost three dozen species this morning, including Horned Grebes, lots of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, several Gray Jays, a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Purple Finch. Mel reports he found Evening Grosbeaks. Half the group heads back for an early lunch while the rest of us check out another area, one designated for cross-country skiing. We add Solitary Sandpiper, Eastern Phoebe, Western Wood-Pewee, Wilson's Snipe and Sharp-shinned Hawk to the list. Some of the bird species we’ve seen this morning are ones we are not likely to see again as we head farther west and north.
(Bert) In this morning’s session, Part 2 of what we started yesterday afternoon, Shari discusses travel procedures, especially those for tomorrow. She makes a point of mentioning the stop for cinnamon buns and I point out our stop for birding in route. I give an introduction to birding – I call it Birding 101 – and together we emphasize the contrasting interests and birding styles of our diverse group, ranging from beginner to expert. After assembling for a group photo at Mile 0 for the Alaska Highway, we head to McQueen’s Slough for birding. Strong winds push across the small lake as we line up along the board walk. I keep one hand on my tripod, concerned it might topple in the wind. Slowly we pick out a dozen species of geese and ducks – ending the day with 14 species – but I am disappointed no swans are on the lake this year. We see a threesome of Mallards trying to fly high above the slough, only to be pushed aside by the forceful winds to a lateral course and watch Tree Swallows struggle to reach their nest boxes. Along a trail bordering the water, we hear a Sora in the marsh and a Red-tailed Hawk is buffeted in flight. A mammal dives in a creek and we debate beaver versus muskrat since it does not reappear, the evidence of many gnawed off tree stumps and a large mound of mud and sticks favoring the beaver presence.
We continue to Sewell Valley Game Farm. I am noticing that we are seeing fewer birds than two years ago, even though the calendar day is the same. It is quite evident spring is late in arriving and locals that we talk to say the same. Except for Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated and Savannah sparrows and a very few Wilson’s Warblers, most migrating passerines have not yet arrived. During our outdoor dinner, which includes boar and bison dishes and a wide array of salads and incredible desserts, we eat too much and are slow at getting up from the picnic tables. We walk off some of our overeating, wandering in the woods and along the ponds of the pretty farm. Then we climb aboard the hay wagon, pulled by a giant tractor, and tour a small part of the 2500-acre farm. We stop to watch the Elk, Dall’s Sheep, Fallow Deer and two enormous old bison. Opening into a broad, gently rolling, shortly cropped field we can see a herd of bison in the distance. Closer approach lets us see the 30+ newly born calves staying close to their mothers who keep their distance from us. The bison heifers are not timid and readily come to small piles of grain poured on the field. The windy conditions earlier in the afternoon have subsided and we enjoy the warmest day since we left Texas. Clear skies, a golden glow across the grain field stubble and views extending for miles culminate a delightful day.
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