Chapter 5. Interior Alaska
(Shari) The alarm rings and I notice through half-opened eyes that the weather looks worse this morning than it did last night. It is still foggy. Oh well, we still have 4 hr. before flight time. At 6 AM, Bert and I walk to the restaurant and have a good meal before we return to the apartment and wait for the taxi to take us to the airport. Bert had made arrangements with last night’s taxi driver on the price per load but this driver does not want to honor it when I talk to him. He leaves, but returns when Bert steps outside. The driver is rude to Bert and he gets upset and the driver disappears without us yet again. Boy, what a mess! I go upstairs and use the phone to call another taxi. Soon the same driver comes back and picks us up but grumbles to everyone who will listen. We know the drill by now and check in our luggage and wait for a boarding call. Meanwhile a hot game of Yatzee ensues. Joann and I had played yesterday afternoon and taught Ann the rules. Ann then immediately walloped us two games out of three. So Ann wonders if we will allow her to play this morning. Marie asks for one of those dishes you put your watch, keys and wallet in when going though security. We use that to roll our dice and pass it from player to player. We just finish our game when we hear the airplane land. You should hear the loud cheer that comes from the crowd. Looks like we will be in Anchorage by noon! We will have to accomplish all errands within about 5 hr. We hustle. I shop and get gas. Bert does personal work and deals with some business problems. I make phone call confirmations and do three loads of wash. The travel meeting has been cancelled and written on the board instead to allow people time and flexibility to complete their errands. A few of us still manage to squeeze in a 5 o’clock social before returning to more errands. Bert fills the water tank and empties the holding tanks. We put things away and collapse into bed about 9:30. Bert especially is just so tired. You just cannot keep the pace he has been going the last 10 days. Up at 4:30 and to bed at 10. I think he is asleep before he even gets into bed.
(Bert) One of our favorite stops along the southern part of the Parks Highway is Chulitna Rest Area. Shari likes it for collecting fiddlehead ferns and I like the birding. I find our first Alder Flycatcher of the trip, this one close enough for photographs. Not so for the many Blackpoll Warblers that can be heard everywhere but seen nowhere. Scenery along the Parks Highway is grand views of mountains which would include Mount McKinley except for the clouds now blocking it. In route, Marie finds a rare Sharp-shinned Hawk and Jim and Donna report a Rusty Blackbird chasing a magpie. I need to slow R-Tent-III when a moose trots clumsily across the highway. At Summit Lake the passenger train passes below us, in route to Denali National Park.
(Shari) After 14 days of staying put we are on the road again. We pull out at one of our favorite waysides. Bert birds and I pick fiddlehead ferns, those tasty round morsels imitating fresh asparagus when steamed. We stop for lunch at the Denali View South and I find a geocache hidden under a tree root. We get to Cantwell early and are able to use their WI-FI connection for E-mail before our social and travel meeting. Chris and Curt and also John and Betty bring such delicious snacks that they substitute for our evening meal. Meatballs and bean dip and cherries and melted brie topped with dried fruit are among the offerings.
(Shari) Bill A invites me to fish with him, Marlene, Bill and Ginny. I tell him I only like catching, not fishing, and when he catches I will fish. They pass me on the road as I walk to another cache location. It is about half mile down the highway and then another 0.2 in on a gravel road across the street from a school. Described as a first aid box but in reality a clear plastic container with a blue lid, it sticks out like a sore thumb under the leafless willow branches. After I find it, I can see it from the road and wonder how anyone could miss it. When I get back to camp, I find the birders have beat me back and some are already pulling out. Bert and I have some last minute business E-mails to attend to before we too can go and I think half the gang is in front of us. We pass John and Carol and Betty and John out birding by a lake. We pass Bill and Ginny and Bill and Marlene fishing by a stream. We pass others later in the day. I take over driving and find it much more relaxing. Bert is so tired today that he either goes too fast or too slow or hits potholes or weaves. I think we both like it better when I drive. He can sleep and not have to listen to me telling him to slow down. We do indeed go slowly on this road since two years ago we stirred so much dust with our air intake that our air filter got clogged and we barely made it to Fairbanks. On the dusty parts of the road we slow to 5 mph and the dust is just a small cloud behind us. The rain this morning is a blessing in disguise and has kept the dust down. Bert is not as good a navigator as I am, since he is birding as I drive. I miss the turn to camp, forcing us to unhook the car and back up to the road’s entrance. The weather is spectacular and everyone oohs and aahs about the fantastic views. After most are settled, Bert takes a group birding. We are to have a Sloppy Joe potluck this evening and chairs and tables are set up in front of the fire ring on the bluff overlooking the Alaska Range. As I heat up the meat, I hear rain on the roof and ominous dark clouds approaching. I rush out to get the chairs which are already damp and put them into R-Tent-III. I do not make it before small hail pebbles pelt me coming horizontally with force enough to sting. I had left the door open and by the time I rush inside, everything up front is sopping wet. The birders come back and we cancel the potluck since hail is accumulating and the earth is turning white. An hour later the sun is out, the temperatures warm and melting hail turns to slush and then to water. I take my chair outside to soak in the scene and meet others also enjoying the outdoors. When I return, Bert has already gone to bed. I decide to stay up and read until the bright sun entering the windshield bothers me too much. It is 10 PM, the sun says 4 PM, but I go to bed anyway.
(Bert) Before we move the RV’s we bird the first part of the Denali Highway by car. We stop frequently and at each spot we hear Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Blackpoll Warblers and Common Redpolls. The best bird of the morning is only seen by three in our car and one in the next: a Spruce Grouse that flies directly in front of my SUV, showing its spread tail with its golden brown subterminal band. We return for the RV’s and begin the slow crawl across the first 40 mi. of the gravel Denali Highway. Having had much experience with this road in varying conditions, I keep the top speed at 25 mph but often slow to 10 mph if it is washboard or if the exhaust is stirring up too much dust, which then reaches R-Tent-III’s air intake and clogs the air filter. Fortunately, a light rain has dampened the dust and I installed dryer sheets taped across the intake holes. Driving so slowly is tedious for me so Shari offers to drive the last 12 mi.
We reach our camping spot for the night, an incredibly beautiful perch above a broad tundra valley that descends to spruce forest and the Nenana River. Beyond the river extends a glaciated mountain range of alternating black rock patches and white glacial ice. Behind us is a small lake with resident Trumpeter Swans and Long-tailed Ducks.
At about 4 PM a few of us take two cars for some birding along the road. At a side road we overlook the valley below and see a rainstorm in progress. Through our binoculars we can see the downpour and quickly realize it is coming our way. We rush to the cars just before it hits and our vehicles are bombarded with pea-sized hail. We slowly drive back to the campsite and by now the ground is white with accumulated hail. Even as it melts, 4-in. deep puddles of ice water form around our RV’s. Although we wait it out until 5:30, Shari cancels our planned Sloppy Joe’s potluck for another day, hopefully drier. The shortened sleep of the last two weeks has finally gotten to me and I am in bed before 8 PM. When I awaken at midnight I see an orange sunset over the glacial mountains and I take photographs of the magnificent Midnight Sun.
(Bert) Up at 5 AM, I see the sun is rising at a position not more than 30º from where it set last night. It seems the sun just bounced along the horizon a short distance and then came back into view. In another couple of hours we are back on the gravel Denali Highway again. This time Shari drives most of the way. I think she is anxious to get to Gracious House for breakfast and their delicious homemade pies. Not far along the highway I spot a Golden Eagle perched on the rim of the mountains overlooking the valley. At another place we see a small lake covered with Trumpeter Swans, perhaps as many as a hundred one person estimated. After crossing wooden plank bridge over Susitna River and watching a Red-necked Phalarope in a small pond beyond, a white van pulls up and I recognize the driver Jim, a good birding friend from Texas and one I’ve toured Alaska with in 1998. He has led his group through Nome and Barrow and is on the final leg of his trip. We compare notes on our sightings in Nome.
After most of our group has settled into camping spots at Maclaren River, we take two cars to a river road in search of Arctic Warblers. Several of the group have already seen some on the Denali Highway, but not all. After about 20 min. of birding we are on the track of a singing Arctic Warbler when the weather changes. Like yesterday, we head to the cars just before a hail storm descends upon us – another birding adventure cut short. We drive the two miles back to camp and I’m amazed that the ground is dusty dry and the storm has not reached them. Soon the temperature drops once more and the weather becomes foul, but no hail. We wait it out in our rigs and by 5 PM the weather is sunny and warm, so we gather around the campfire and enjoy the Sloppy Joe’s potluck postponed from yesterday.
(Shari) Today I drive R-Tent-III along the gravel road. Sometimes the road surface is smooth, sometimes washboard, sometimes potholed, and sometimes dusty but the view is always breathtaking. The fastest speed I reach is only 15 mph but that is okay with me. After 12 mi. of driving we pull into Gracious House, a small lodge offering food, tire repair, lodging, and float plane excursions. Known for its homemade pies, in past years we have stopped for breakfast and pie. Twelve of us fill the small room, each taking a bar stool facing a counter and order food. Bert and I share a breakfast burrito but we each have a slice of blueberry pie with ice cream before we continue eastward. Bert wants to stop at a river to look for birds and I am surprised when May tells me about a cache. Marie follows us into the brush and Marie says “I found it but I did not mean to.” Sure enough there under a log is a green ammo box full of cache goodies, including a bear bell. I leave the goodies but sign my name. After driving more miles, we were to stop at the wayside at Clearwater Creek but the rain starts falling like cats and dogs. Continuing east, we drive out of the rain and reach our destination in full sunshine. But as soon as Bert gets most of the gang parked and takes off for birding, he returns with hail still stuck in the crevices of the car hood and luggage rack. The birders were pelted again with hail. It rains a bit here but clears out in time for our rescheduled potluck. Jim starts a fire and soon we are pealing off layers of clothing as the sun and fire warm us.
(Bert) From the Maclaren River to the Maclaren Summit at 4086 ft. is one of my favorite places to bird in interior Alaska. The 1000 ft. change in elevation crosses the tree line and moves from the flat marshes and small lakes near the river to more rock barren mountain top. In the lowlands Arctic Warblers are singing and now Ann and the others who had missed them previously get good views of the Asian migrant. We stop at the pingo where Bank Swallows nest. I first remember seeing the swallows here in 1998 and wonder how many years they have used this broken periglacial mound as a nesting site. We have been seeing swans throughout the length of the Denali Highway, mostly at a distance, and have assumed most to be Trumpeter Swans. Now we see a swan sitting on a nest and through the spotting scope we can see the yellow spot in front of the eye that marks this one as a Tundra Swan. Driving to the summit, we stop several times to scan for Northern Shrike, but do not find one today. From the summit we can see forever and in the far distance we watch a pair of Bald Eagles gliding above Maclaren Glacier. In the opposite direction a Golden Eagle soars, soon attracting the harassment of one, then two, ravens. From the summit we can see four caribou grazing and on another side, below us and half the distance to the river, a Moose cow and her calf rest in the tundra.
Shortly after noon, we take the RV’s up the summit and continue eastward. A mile before Rock Creek I see a Greater Yellowlegs in a stubby tree and then two Semipalmated Plovers. That gets me to watch closer and I find a Wandering Tattler too. I park at a pullout and others soon join me there. While Shari tries her luck at fishing, I bushwhack through the tundra to a lake and am surprised to find 17 bird species during my short hike. Our campsite tonight is in view of Lower Tangle Lakes and we enjoy a social hour or two beside a campfire in a place where the sun will not set until we are long asleep.
(Shari) I love this road. It is the essence of Alaska with outrageously glorious scenery, abundant wildlife, spectacular mountains, flowing glaciers, very few people and fewer buildings. I drive again today, allowing Bert to bird without me nagging him to pay attention to the road, and/or to slow down and turn the wheel away from the crash course it is currently headed. The glacier sparkles whiter than white in the morning sunshine. We climb to the second highest pass in Alaska and have sweeping views of the Maclaren Valley below. Now we are above tree line and the vast still brown tundra goes on forever in the distance. Our top speed of 15 mph gives us plenty of time to gaze from our windows and we do not miss the moose lumbering with its funny gait across the gravel road in front of us. We stop at Rock Creek and I have three choices: 1, go with Bert to bird; 2, fish in the creek; or 3, accompany Steve and Nancy to search for a geocache. I dismiss number 1 immediately and then decide to fish. I gather my pole, the tackle box, and the net and walk the 200 yd. to the creek. I cast up stream. No bite. Cast again. No bite. Cast again. Get caught in a tree. Cast again. Get caught on a rock. Cast again. Get caught in the same tree and loose my fly. I quit! Hindsight tells me I should have gone with Steve and Nancy, especially when I hear they found the cache.
When we reach Tangle Lakes we hear that the fish are really biting. They will have to wait for me until tomorrow though. After our social, Steve, Nancy and I go hunting another cache. May says it is straight ahead on the hill. We climb the hill. Now May says it is by the boat dock. We go back down the other side of the hill. We are getting closer but still 0.1 mi. away. Following a path through the willows gets harder and harder as the willow bushes grow denser and denser and closer together on one side of us and the water’s edge on the other side. Steve takes May and goes on ahead while Nancy and I wait. Soon Steve is climbing another very steep hill and tells us he is 3 ft. from the cache. Nancy and I start up the steep willow covered hill. I pull up myself using the branches of the willows to help me climb. About half way up, I turn around to look at my progress and my oh my, is it high. I take some comfort in the fact that should I loose my balance the willows would stop my fall before I reached the lake far below. Up we go, foot by careful foot. Steve announces that he found the cache. Up we go some more with Nancy calling “Steve” every few minutes so that we can make a path following his voice. As I near the crest I see the cache and Nancy finds it shortly after. Whew that one was a hard one and certainly not the “2” it is marked in difficulty. We all think it should be a 4. When I get back down I collapse into a lawn chair thinking if I can make it into bed, I will sleep good tonight.
(Bert) Steve might call his morning, “A brief encounter with an unknown bird”. He and Nancy watched a bird skylarking and then on the ground made it out to be a Northern Wheatear, but behavior and habitat don’t fit well. The two of them sit on the hillside waiting for its reappearance while the rest of us climb to the summit. I might call my morning, “No encounter with the target bird”. We visited this area on the Denali Highway with the hopes of finding Smith’s Longspur, a bird I’ve found once here but has eluded me on repeat visits. The day is not lost, however, as the scenery from the mountaintop would be worth it even if we saw no birds. We do see American Golden Plovers repeatedly and also Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs. Alpine flowers are in bloom and I photograph Arctic Lupine, Parry’s Wallflower, Wooly Lousewort, Lapland Rosebay and Moss Heather. Butterflies – Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Mourning Cloak – flutter among the flowers. And we are not without our mammals, with a sighting of a caribou and a moose with two calves.
The exhausting 3+ hr. uphill hike, followed by a filling “eggs in a bag” brunch organized by Shari, leaves us ready for a long nap in the afternoon. Shari, however, goes fishing and when I awake I fillet her Arctic Grayling as well as some John brings over from his catch of the afternoon. The meal is delicious as we sit around the campfire.
(Shari) God blesses me with another glorious morning. The day is perfect for our planned baggie omelet brunch. Everyone brings a bowl of omelet ingredients and sets them on the picnic table. This morning while the group was out birding, I cracked 44 eggs, added 88 tablespoons of water and put ½ cup of the mixture into each freezer baggie, labeling each with a name. I hand out the baggies, each individual fills the baggie with whatever they like in an omelet, seals it tightly and gives it back to me. The bags cook in the boiling water while we nibble on donuts and Marlene’s great biscuits and gravy. After eating we each go off to do our own thing. Bert and I clean up and put the big kettles back underneath R-Tent-III. Bert naps and I go fishing.
I try a few casts at the boat dock but it is too windy and I get no strikes. I drive the car to the river and as I walk to the shore another man and woman are each pulling in a fish. Darn! I can’t get my line in fast enough. I watch them and try to emulate their fly rod technique with my casting rod with fly and bobber attached. They keep bringing in the fish to my nothing. I bemoan the fact, strike up a conversation with them and soon “Jack” is giving me the fish he catches and his wife is teaching me to fly fish with her rod. I catch a couple of fish but too small for me to keep. I start to feel guilty about using her rod so I go back to my own. “Jack” looks at my fly and says I need a smaller one. I don’t have any so he gives me one of his and even ties it on for me. It literally is no bigger than a mosquito. I have no idea how any fish would get hooked on something so small but I only cast out once and I have hooked a fish. What fun it is to bring it to shore, take it off the hook and add it to my stringer.
A thunderstorm comes up and cuts our fishing short but I come home a happy fisherman with my catch. Bert cleans my four and then John comes over with four more Arctic Grayling which Bert cleans too. I pan fry half and wrap the other half in foil to “roast” over the fire. Others come to join us at the fire, cooking hotdogs or chicken. Chris brings a carrot cake to share. Too bad John and Carol do not come to enjoy some of the fish John caught.
(Bert) I guess I watch the Richardson Highway too closely and don’t stop enough for birds, for my day list is short compared to John and the others when we gather at our pre-dinner social. The birders do especially well with raptors, reporting Bald and Golden eagles, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin and best of all a Northern Goshawk seen by John. Shari and I did better with mammals, seeing a Porcupine, three Arctic Ground Squirrels, seven Moose and an amazing 23 Snowshoe Hares. Others reported Red Squirrel, a Beaver and several watched a Bison being dropped in a net from a helicopter. At the meeting Shari and I give last minute details about our planned departure early tomorrow for Barrow.
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