Chapter 12. Northern Alaska
(Bert) Do we have a battery and/or alternator problem? That question has
nagged us–especially Shari–ever since we replaced the truck batteries in
Anchorage 16 days ago. We probably would not have thought much of it except that
the Ford mechanic said they should have tested the alternator to find out what
caused the batteries to fail. We are about to start the next leg of our Alaska
trips and this time we will be traveling in remote areas, so just to be
reassured, we take the RV to the Fairbanks Ford dealer. Fortunately, they can
check it out immediately and two hours later we get the diagnosis: no problem
with the new batteries or the alternator. However, they do find a hole in
something to do with the turbo something or other. I’m certainly no mechanic,
but it sounds like we need to get it fixed. They can order the part, have it
flown in from the Lower 48 by tomorrow, and replace ours on Wednesday morning,
before we start our trek north.
(Shari) Today I am glad we are in Fairbanks because we want to arrive at the Ford dealer when they open. At 6:50 AM we find we are fourth in line. After about 2 hr. we are told nothing is wrong with our battery but we have a crack in our turbo charger. I had diagnosed that 6 mo. ago because the noise was similar to the noise that our Dutch Star made when not getting enough air. The dealership is going to order the part and will put it in on Wednesday.
(Bert) We fill the rest of the day with checking off errands on the to-do list that accumulates when you are busy 24x7 for several weeks: grocery shopping, Internet, laundry, vacuum cleaning, car wash, haircut … At our 5 PM social we say farewell to Doug and Kay–although we may cross paths later again–and say hello to Norm and Cindy who will be with us on our northern trek.
(Shari) We return to the campground, start two loads of wash and then drive to the grocery store. It is either feast or famine in our rig. We had run out of fresh everything and the refrigerator looked so bare. After shopping, I barely can get cabinet and refrigerator doors shut. But we are set for the next 5 to 7 days. Bert puts the wash in the dryers while I finish shopping. After lunch we scout out a few nearby bird places and come back to await the start of our next caravan. Norm and Cindy arrive about 5 PM and we renew our friendship over wine, beer and snacks. Doug and Kay join us and lively conversations abound about Methodists, gift cards, past travels, etc.
(Shari) We want to get some birding done before the forecasted rain starts, so we depart the campground at 6:30. Am I nuts? I have never walked the trails at Creamer’s Field because of all the mosquitos until today. Now I am clothed with long pants, long sleeves, a mosquito net for my head, and bug spray. Yesterday, Donna mentioned that geocaches were placed at Creamer’s and Norm is interested in looking for them with me. So while Bert and Cindy bird, Norm and I search under trees, under boardwalks, in the grass and woods, and answer questions for an earth cache.
(Bert) Shari has been monitoring the weather forecast and the latest report calls for rain today, perhaps by late morning. Norm and Cindy are agreeable to an early start, so we leave at 6:30 AM for Creamer’s Field. We are prepared to battle the mosquitos and, as it turns out, they are not quite as bad in the boreal forest as I remember from other years. Our main target species is Hammond’s Flycatcher and about 45 min. into birding I hear one and soon we see it singing above us. I notice that we are now seeing many more fledged birds–Slate-colored Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, Mallards, Gray Jays–and witness adults feeding the hungry youngsters.
Next we bird the Alaska Bird Observatory Trails, heading first to Wander Lake where we see a pair of Red-necked Grebes with a single chick. We feel the first drops of rain and head back. But when I hear a flock of robins boisterously complaining continuously, I suspect they may be upset over a hawk or owl. Cindy and I take an alternate trail to investigate. She is in the lead and a few minutes later I motion to her to come back to where I am standing. Deep in the woods on a stout horizontal branch a Great Horned Owl perches. The robins are scattered in the surrounding branches, continuing their concerned complaints. The owl ignores them, but swivels its head in our direction, peering with large dark eyes right through the glass of my binoculars.
(Shari) Altogether, we get four caches. Plus we look at a few birds. The best bird is one Bert finds because he notices some nervous robins. I heard the birds too, but I am not attuned to wonder why. He did, and there in plain sight is a beautiful big Great Horned Owl. We get wonderful satisfying looks at it as it keeps us in its sight. Wow, what a treat! Later we learn from the visitor center that the owl’s youngsters have just fledged and had we looked harder we may have found some babies on the ground. As predicted, the rain starts at noon and steadily gets worse. We stop the birding and we all do errands. More shopping, a little napping, and some needed relaxation completes our day.
(Bert) Although the part–plus air freight–only cost $69.55, the labor cost to replace it is $375. When I look at the tight confines of the E-450 engine compartment, it is no wonder how time consuming it was for the mechanic to replace the CAC tube.
We leave the Ford dealership at noon, meet up with Norm and Cindy, and visit the forest surrounding Smith Lake. We hope to hike to the lake, but after an hour of following a circumlocution of trails, we seem no closer than when we left the RV. We have seen little more than Boreal Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and our feet are getting wet from the tall grass, so we backtrack to the RV and drive to the botanic gardens.
(Shari) Another early start, but not for birding this time. We have a 7 AM appointment for R-Pup-Tent-II for a replacement of a part on the power something or other. Bert and I sit in the customer lounge watching early morning TV and working on the computer, enjoying the free, fast Internet at the dealership. Our truck is done by 11:30 just in time for us to make it back to meet Cindy and Norm for birding.
Our first stop is the large animal facility of the University of Alaska campus. Since our first visit, the muskox have been moved to a far back lot, barely visible, many buildings have been built, and a gift store sits at the entrance, catching tourist dollars for trinkets or entrance fees. We get a map from the talkative lady there and make our way to Smith’s Lake. A person could get lost in these woods as the trails are circular and of differing widths.
We don’t see many birds, so decide to go to the botanical gardens. The previously free attraction now has a fee. We enjoy the next few hours looking at the huge blooms on the many different flowers, smelling the lilacs, and wishing we could pick the lettuce. Bert gets in a conversation with another couple who do bird surveys and they ask us if we would like to go to see Boreal Owl chicks in a nest box. It means rearranging our itinerary but we think the change will be worth it. Not many people get to see Boreal Owls.
(Bert) Looking down from the gardens to a grassy field we watch Sandhill Cranes grazing and a bit later we watch a Red Fox hunting in the same field. The gardens are beautiful, especially the many hybrid peonies. The best, however, is the birder couple–summertime professors at the university–who give us suggestions for good birding sites on the Dalton Highway. We make plans to meet them again tomorrow.
(Bert) The chick cannot weigh more than a few ounces. It feels so light in my hands, it can’t be more than a bundle of feathers. Well, I guess that is what it is. It stares up at me with large banana-yellow eyes and when it blinks, it is like someone slowly pulling down a window shade and quickly releasing it. Its rounded head meets its rounded body without a hint of a neck, forming one oblong unit, except for the unique ability to swivel its head more than 180º.
Cindy and Norm also hold Boreal Owl chicks while Shari snaps photos of us. Ornithologist Dave and his wife Jill have just finished weighing and measuring the chicks, a task they have completed every two days since the chicks were born at the end of May. Four chicks hatched, each two days apart, and one fledged in the last two days. All have been banded and have been given names: Peter, Paul, Mary, and Puff.
(Shari) We depart the campground and head north to the Elliott Highway stopping at a few birding places along the way. We are to meet Jill and David around 2 PM. We don’t know exactly where to park so pick a spot at a turn out. Jill and David soon show up and wave happily. We follow their truck for about a mile and get out of our cars. After a very short distance into the woods we reach the nest box. David puts up a 12 ft. ladder and begins to take the owl chicks out of the box and puts them into a fanny pack. Meanwhile, Jill takes out a small scale from her backpack and sits on the ground with pen and paper ready to record data. Next to her she places a device that generates smoke and really keeps the mosquitos away. While he is working, David presents an extremely interesting commentary on the owls and tells us the nest started with four chicks and one has already fledged. They have been observing the chicks and taking measurements ever since they hatched. Each of the little fuzzy owls has a name. Puff is the smallest of the lot, the last one to hatch and the first today to get measured and weighed. After she is done, Jill gives the owl to me to hold. I never expected to be able to do that. What a treat! The owl is very soft, fuzzy, and docile. It likes to back up against my chest. Out come the cameras and we go picture crazy. Next, Cindy gets to hold either Peter, Paul or Mary, and then Norm holds one also. We take a picture of the two of them for their Christmas cards. I hand my owl to Bert for his picture. I don’t want to give the owls back to David, but tells us that in a few days their hormones will kick in and they will get very aggressive and start to claw and bite.
(Bert) The project started in 2001 when Alaska’s non-game biologist began a study of Boreal Owl populations. He tried to estimate the population size by hoot surveys, i.e., counting the number of owls responding to a Boreal Owl hoot recording. Then he installed 120 nest boxes and studied occupancy rates. To his surprise the two measurements provided very different results and he found out that males only hoot until they get a female and then they stop hooting. When he retired, Dave and Jill took over in monitoring the nest boxes–starting this year on May 23 and visiting every two days–and undertook a new study on measuring the growth of chicks. Within this section of the Elliott Highway, six of ten nest boxes were occupied this season. Most of the other owlets have all fledged and these three owlets will be the last to leave.
Dave puts the three owlets in a leather pouch, climbs up the ladder leaning against the birch tree, lifts the top of the nest box, and carefully returns each chick to the nest. He says that on previous visits he found stacks of Red-backed Voles, a flicker, a thrush, and half a hare, all food for the chicks. The hungry chicks soon devour the food cache while the female stays in the nest and the male gathers more prey. Then for a 10-day period the reserves are gone and the male barely keeps up with feeding the rapidly growing owlets. During that period, if the food supply is depleted, the larger chicks will cannibalize the smaller ones. After the ten days, the female leaves the nest and both adults supply food.
(Shari) Jill and David have to depart to check other boxes, but tell us we can look around for the other owlet and the adults. We are about to give up the search, when Cindy whispers “I found one,” saying it softly so as not to disturb it. I am not really sure what she said, so I walk over to where she is standing and sure enough, there tucked in the crook of a tree is another owl. We think it is the adult (later learning it was a fledgling). We get Norm to come over without too much trouble and after I think he has gotten all the pictures he wants, I shout for Bert. If the bird flies, too bad I guess. The bird does not move, Bert thinks I am calling because I want to leave and is reluctant to come. I have to shout again. Finally he makes his way to our spot and sees the owl. He too takes hundreds of pictures.
(Bert) Dave shows us the scratch marks on the tree where a bear climbed up to inspect the box. The bear left this nest box intact, but a few of the other boxes have been destroyed by bears. He removes the ladder from the tree, carries it to his truck, and drives to another nest box. Meanwhile, we stay in the area to try locating the adult female owl. Dave told us the owl is likely to be within a 30-50-yd. radius of the nest box, so the four of us fan out and begin searching for an owl perched on a branch, close to the trunk of a birch or spruce. After 15 min. of searching, Cindy finds the owl in a dark spruce, about 9 ft. from the ground. It quietly remains perched, staring at us, while we take photos from a distance. It has been another of those National Geographic days that cannot be beat!
(Shari) We wonder what to do during the rest of the trip. Experiences will all be downhill from this high point. We get back into our cars and continue westward on the Elliott Highway toward Manly Springs. The road is probably the worst one I have ever driven: gravel, rocks, mud, narrow, winding, etc. I am driving because I find it safer if I have control of the steering wheel. Bert tries to bird and drive at the same time, writing sightings and notes along the way. Just when I think things can get no worse, we go through an area of construction. Now I am afraid I will get stuck in the soft muddy dirt and gravel as my tires make ruts. At the top of a hill I find a nice wide flat pullout and think this is camp tonight. We gather some rocks to form a circle, take out firewood we found near the owl site, plus gather some more and have a nice campfire overlooking the countryside. Life is good. We head inside just as it starts to rain. And rain it does. Most of the night, I hear rain.
(Shari) At 4 AM, I wake up and look outside. We are socked in with fog and I barely can see Cindy and Norm’s rig parked next door to me. I hope the fog lifts by our 8 AM departure. I read in the Milepost–the great book with mile-by-mile descriptions of Alaskan roads–that two miles from our location is a soft spot in the road when wet. After all the rain we had, it will be wet. The fog is lifting but I think Bert should drive this section as I would not know what to do in slippery rutted roads. We get to the bad spot and it is soft and narrow, but not as bad as I anticipated. After that we begin to climb and the road pack is harder. I am happy that we don’t meet any oncoming traffic though. We turn off at the junction with the Minto road and drive to the small Athabascan town. Apparently in the late 60s the U.S. government said all the kids needed to go to school so they built housing from logs shipped in from Minnesota (why when the town is in the middle of a forest in a state full of trees?). The people bought the log houses and made a town. We learn all this from Walt, the owner of the only café in town. Bert and Cindy bird, while Norm and I listen to Walt’s tales of the old days and the new. I buy a frozen bean and beef burrito from him and we listen some more as he heats it up, adds chips and a pickle. We listen more as I eat the burrito and wrap up the chips for later. At one time the school had over 100 kids, but now only has 36. The economy has gotten bad and many people have moved to the cities. At last night’s town meeting the residents discussed attracting tourism. Some want it, some don’t. Walt suggested building an RV park outside of town along the creek, and renting canoes for people to float the creek to the lake. Then a bus would carry them back to their RV’s. I personally think maybe ten people a year would take advantage of the opportunity. Can’t make a business plan with ten paying customers! After saying goodbye to Walt, Norm and I see Bert and Cindy down the road birding and we drive to meet them. Apparently it was a good birding spot after all and Cindy gets another life bird. Any day with a lifer is a good day!
(Bert) Fog envelops the RV as I peer out of the window. Last night’s rains have softened the gravel road and as we continue westward the road narrows in parts. The Milepost warns of slippery conditions when wet, but we manage to get through without concern. At a “T” in the road we turn toward Minto onto a fine hardtop surface. Ten miles later we reach this remote native village of log cabins–with logs imported from Minnesota–aligned in three parallel streets and overlooking a broad, shallow lake dotted with treed islands and grassy marshlands. They say this lake offers some of the best fishing in Alaska. While Shari and Norm are learning the history of the village from a restaurant owner, Cindy and I are walking the streets and looking at birds. I find a single Bohemian Waxwing in a birch and Cindy is eager to see it too, as it is a life bird for her.
(Shari) We drive out and head to Manly. This place is like a rose among thorns and you have to wonder why it is there. We eat lunch at a cute roadhouse advertised as having the greatest selection of liquor in the state. Our hamburger and macaroni salad is delicious and we get a cinnamon roll to go. After lunch I walk across the bridge to the noted hot springs. Four 8-by-8 ft. concrete tubs, surrounded by a greenhouse, contain hot water of varying temperatures. I talk to a man just getting out of one of the tubs and he asks if I am the 1 o’clock. I tell him no and then ask him procedural questions to enable us to take a bath in the hot springs. We walk to the house, knocking on the screen door. Meanwhile, mosquitos have congregated by the zillion gazillion around us. We get permission to use the tubs and walk back to our rigs to change into our swimming suits. I get into the tubs before anyone else and realize there may be fewer mosquitos inside of the greenhouse, but there still are hundreds of them. I try to sit down in the water to cover up to my shoulders, but the insects find my head and neck. I move to a hotter tub, hoping the bugs won’t like the temperature. They find me anyway. By the time Bert, Cindy and Norm arrive I am ready to get away from the mosquitos. I try one more tub before I go back to the rig to change into my clothes. I do feel clean.
(Bert) We backtrack to the main highway and continue to Manley Hot Springs, 150 mi. from the start of Elliott Highway. Again, it is surprising to find civilization after traveling hours through uninhabited forests and mountains. Although a fair number of people live here the main population is millions of mosquitos. Unless escaping indoors, there seems no way of avoiding them. Lunch is at Manley Roadhouse, a charming and historical building filled with period antiques. Next, it is bathing at the locally famous Manley Hot Springs. At first I was leery of the idea. Some hot springs are unpleasantly covered with algae and smelling of sulfur and I can’t imagine dealing with hordes of mosquitos. Not so at Manley Hot Springs. Conveniently enclosed in a greenhouse, the concrete lined pools–four, of increasingly hot water–are surrounded by tropical plants, including grape vines with hanging fruit. Although we scheduled the privacy of an hour in the pools, the water is so hot that we have had enough in half the time.
We double back on the highway and on the return trip I spy a Ruffed Grouse with chicks. I quickly jump out from the RV with camera in hand. The hen has retreated into the brushy shoulder, quickly followed by the chicks, but some of them fly higher into the branches and then freeze. One in particular poses for photos. Curiously, the fist-sized chick already displays raised crown feathers.
We stop at the top of Ptarmigan Mountain, where we camped last night, and Shari is surprised to pick up a text message from Doug and Kay, stating that they are just starting down the Elliott Highway. We travel to another pullout, one that had functioned as a small gravel pit, and camp for the evening.
(Shari) The drive back is better since the road surface is not wet. We find a nice gravel pit and as we are settling in, Bert hollers that Doug and Kay just passed us up. You know how things seem to last 10 min. when it is only a minute? I think to myself, “Oh no, they have missed us and won’t know we changed plans.” Bert starts running up the gravel path, yet realizing it is hopeless to wave them down. Suddenly we see the Earth Roamer coming into the gravel pit. Doug had seen us out of the corner of his eye. We happily greet them and invite them to stay the night with us, roast kielbasa on the fire, and go out owling tonight.
(Bert) At 11 PM, all of us except Shari leave our RVs for an owling adventure. Norm drives us to the place we saw the Boreal Owls yesterday. We hope to see an adult owl, perhaps feeding the owlet we found in the spruce tree or the remaining chicks in the nest. Only minutes after we arrive near the nest box, I relocate the owlet in the same spruce tree, though more hidden within its dense branches. Just as we are studying the owlet we hear a commotion at the nest box 50 ft. away. Two birds are in swift flight, one attacking the other. By call, I know one is a robin and then I get a quick, yet clear, view of the adult Boreal Owl just as it turns its flat oval face toward me. The adult is larger and displays more white facial feathers than the owlets. The robin is victorious in chasing off the owl.
Now we spread out and position ourselves 75+ ft. from the nesting box and the treed owlet, standing or sitting quietly with our eyes focused on the two owlet locations. We wait patiently to see what will transpire. Though we are silent, the night forest is not. The drone of mosquitos and tiny black flies is like standing next to an active beehive. Mosquitos pass by my line of sight with the next box, casting cataract patterns. Fortunately, I am well covered in a hooded jacket and my exposed hands and face are dabbed with enough DEET to keep the buzzing insects at bay. A more pleasant sound is the continuous singing from a distant Swainson’s Thrush. It endlessly repeats its musical melody. Less harmonious is the periodic squawking of a robin. At 11:45 PM I hear a very subtle “beep”, so quiet I at first wonder if it is my imagination. But the sound repeats in a distinct pattern of discreet, well-separated, abrupt monotone notes. The sound seems to be coming from the owlet’s spruce and when I confer with Doug, he has the same opinion. I circle around the spruce and from another direction I have a clear view of the owlet. I see its body quiver in synchrony with the beeping call. It is as if it is sending out a sonar signal for the adult to find its branch and deliver a vole dinner.
Another commotion develops near where Kay is standing. I am too far away to see any action, but I again hear the agitated robin is part of the disruption. It is now after midnight and we still have not seen the adult again. I am getting concerned that our presence is keeping it away, so we begin our retreat. As we take one last look at the owlet in the spruce, Cindy says she sees another and simultaneously I also see the owlet higher in another spruce. Seeing two owlets means one of the chicks we saw yesterday in the box has fledged today. Just as we are watching owlet #2, owlet #1 jumps from its spruce and clumsily alights in an adjacent spruce, at the same height. It continues to send out sonar signals as we return to the highway. I take a photo of the forest illuminated by a sun that has just set below the horizon but still casts a pinkish glow on the sky. After an exciting evening, I am not ready to fall asleep. I read a book until 1:30 AM, reading without artificial light since the barely descended sun still provides ample glow.
(Bert) We have heard so many stories of the Dalton Highway that we wonder which ones are true. Is the road so bad we need two spare tires? Do the semi truckers fly by at incredible speeds, showering our windshields with rocks? Are the gravel roads drivable for our RVs? Can we get fuel, water, dump facilities, camping sites, food, etc.? What will we see?
(Shari) Oh my, I think I saved the best Alaska road for maybe my last trip up here. If I ever I do return, I know I will drive this road again. You can’t imagine the beautiful scenery we see today. We travel north on the Dalton Highway or Haul Road. It is also the road where many episodes of the TV show “Ice Truckers” are filmed. The road was built in three years and completed in 1974 for the only purpose of supporting the oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. It is over 400 mi. long with varying types of road surface. We have been told horror stories about the road. Its rocks, its big trucks going at dizzying speeds, its narrow width and 12% grades, its soft sand, and its lack of commercial services. No gas, food or water for 250 mi.! Other people we know have traveled the road and have told us their own reports. All agree that the scenery and the wildlife are something not to miss.
So here we are, starting out on wide smooth gravel. Not long into the trip we are stopped by road construction and led through yucky sandy, but manageable road surface for 10 mi. Again I drive so Bert can bird. The road under construction is the worst we see today. Thereafter, we travel on miles of smooth chip seal, miles of pavement with frost heaves and damaged surface, short sections of washboard, and miles of smooth pavement. We drive 180 mi. today, stopping for lunch at the Yukon River crossing. Beyond the river, traffic is lighter. I drive 35-40 mph, weaving my way from one side of the highway to the other, avoiding bumps. We always slow for trucks oncoming and those passing so we minimize getting a rock thrown at our windshield. The truckers are amazingly polite and slow down and wave as they pass. I am the lead car, Norm and Cindy follow, with Doug and Kay bringing up the rear.
(Bert) The Dalton Highway, more often called The Haul Road, stretches for 414 miles and starts 81 miles north of Fairbanks. It is mostly gravel surfaced, but some sections are now paved. At the onset the road is mostly enclosed by tall spruce-birch forest, but soon it opens up to vast views of mountains, ripples of receding ridges stretching to a distant horizon. Frequent sections of burned areas have the bright pink glow of thousands of Common Fireweed flowers. On one roadside or the other is the continuous zigzagery of the Alyeska pipeline, mostly above ground, but occasionally dipping below for river crossings, large animal crossings, or convenience. Dragonflies buzz across the road, a welcome sight as they are voracious mosquito eaters. During this first stretch of road through boreal forest, birds are commonplace species and few in number. Perhaps we would see more if we stopped for birding, but we keep on moving except for short breaks, as I want to reach Coldfoot by this evening. A half-hour into our travels we encounter the first stop for construction. We wait for the “follow-me” lead truck and it takes us single file through the construction where heavy equipment and long-bed gravel trucks work on widening, raising, and leveling the road. Free of the construction, we stop for a view of receding mountains, undulating waves of contrasting purple hues, all covered with dead spruce interspersed with some living green trees. An adult Bald Eagle wings majestically over the grand valley.
(Shari) We pass up a famous place for burgers that we note for our return trip. We don’t stop too much, though, because Bert says the “good” birds are beyond the half-way point. But the scenery! OMG, as my teenage granddaughter would text. Miles and miles of wide open vistas with mountains surrounding the road. And the pipeline is always in view, sometimes seen stretching in front of us to infinity. The day is warm and sunny, and the hills and mountains green. It seems as if Bert is snapping a picture at every turn of the road and I snap my own at every stop. Just when we think we have seen the most beautiful scene of the day, we turn a corner and another one comes into view. Up and down, around the mountains we go.
(Bert) Fifty-six miles along the Dalton, near lunchtime, we cross the Yukon River, a 1980-mi. river that stretches from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the Bering Sea. The stop, a pullout on each side of the highway, serves as a ferry dock, fishing boat launch, restaurant and visitor’s center. With effort, I also refuel and buy propane.
The highway is a constant potpourri of gentle curves, steep climbs and deep drops. Some sections have colorful names, such as the “Roller Coaster.” Mostly, the ground cover is forests, but occasionally there are outcroppings. Finger Mountain (mile 98) is capped like the fingers of multiple hands; rock torrs (mile 126) are simpler knobby outcroppings. We cross the Arctic Circle and take photos at the colorful sign marking latitude 66º 33’.
Other than an Arctic Ground Squirrel or two, the only mammals we see are two moose at Grayling Lake (mile 151) at about 6 PM. Ten minutes later we get our first view of the foothills of the Brooks Range. At mile 158 we reach Coldfoot, a named stop, offering an impressive visitor’s center that deserves more time than we have now. It is late and we are anxious to continue 20 mi. more to a BLM campground at Marion Creek.
(Shari) We stop at the visitor’s center in Coldfoot and are amazed at the modern facility that could be located in any National Park in the Lower 48. Here it is in the middle of nowhere. We wish we weren’t too tired to attend the ranger-led program on caribou tonight. Maybe on our way back. Our camp tonight is a developed BLM campground complete with level gravel sites, firewood, and picnic tables. Bert builds a campfire to keep the mosquitos at bay and we plan our travel day for tomorrow, while munching on hummus and carrots, salsa cream dip, and chips.
(Bert) Our first day’s travel has been fairly easy, at least with our vehicle. I am surprised that there has not been much traffic. Oncoming traffic was a bit more than two dozen 18-wheelers, a similar number of smaller cars and trucks, and a half-dozen motorcycles. That calculates to about one vehicle every 3 mi. or considerably less if one worries only about the stone-throwing vehicles. Actually, almost none were throwing stones, as we always pulled to the side and stopped at the same time the oncoming traffic slowed to a reasonable speed.
(Bert) At 6:15 AM the temperature is 54º, about half the Fahrenheit degrees it is in many Lower 48 cities today. A couple hours later, Doug, Kay, Cindy and I walk around the campground and nearby Marion Creek, looking for wildlife. A couple of Red Squirrels are about as far north as I have found them, an indicator that we are still in the boreal forest. A bird I didn’t expect to see here is an American Kestrel. The male is regularly calling and I suspect there is a nest or fledglings somewhere nearby. Before we leave the campground, Shari and I fill our tank with water, a 20-min. operation that means turning a crank to lift the water, filling a bucket, and pouring the water into our filler spout.
(Shari) Yesterday we crossed the Arctic Circle. From here on we will see no darkness at all! In the far north, the sun rises in May and does not set for 60 days. Now that is what I call a long day. Today I continue to drive but we do not get far.
First stop is the little gold town of Wiseman where we learn of the American Legion picnic and a church service. We talk to the locals and share some scones before going to the local church which is open all year round. The 78-year-old woman preacher welcomes us and introduces us to the other five or six people in attendance. She starts us out in song from the hymn book and we sing and we sing and we sing another and another and another. Then she asks if anyone has a favorite and I want to put tape over Bert’s mouth when he suggests one. So we sing that one and then another one before she reads her four-page sermon. The message is to look for God’s wisdom. It is amazing that this cute church is here in the middle of nowhere. I wish more of the locals would attend as I think it would give them a measure of peace. I detected some dissatisfaction from one of the residents as she told me she wanted so badly to get out of “here”. The church service is conducted in an original log cabin and neatly maintained. Everything is clean, rugs are placed under the 12 chairs and a table covered in lace serves as the pulpit. It is an enjoyable experience even if we sang so much I lost my voice. We stop again at the picnic around noon and still no food is served so we continue on our way north. That is too bad as I would have enjoyed talking to people who live in this seemingly uninhabitable place. Why?
(Bert) We head north again, but only a few miles when we sidetrack to the nearly abandoned Wiseman, a former mining town kept alive by a few residents as an historical site. It is a serendipitous occasion as our visit coincides with 4th of July celebrations. A man who retired from the job of removing snow from Atigun Pass is quite a storyteller as he regales in tales of trucks that plummeted over the edge of the steeply banked road in blinding snowstorms. He shows photos of the pass with 20-ft. high snow piled straight up from the path he wedged out for the trucks to drive. One of the other men at the festival opens the door to the former post office, a tiny 1909 log cabin that sunk into the permafrost a little each year and now has a door only about 4 ft. high. The building was closed in 1956 with most furnishings and wall hangings still intact, included FBI wanted posters. Just before 11 AM we attend church services in the Kalhabuk Memorial Chapel, named after the woman who built the small log cabin in 1919. Gaps between the logs are filled with sphagnum moss and the walls are covered with religious artifacts. A log burning stove, piped to the roof, could heat the cabin, but is not needed today. Besides the six of us and a few other travelers, most of the others in attendance are descendants of the lady conducting the service, including her great grandchild carrying her infant child. The leader starts us off in a familiar hymn, without accompaniment except for the sporadic crackling of a bug zapper as it electrocutes mosquitos. After an almost endless number of hymns, most of which I enjoy gustily singing, especially in the low key we seem to start off with for each hymn, the lady reads her sermon entitled “The Gift of Understanding.” Rain is pouring when the service ends and when we return to the celebration festivities it seems the cook is no further in preparation, even though it is noontime, so we leave Wiseman.
By 2 PM, 4000-ft. Sukalpak Mountain is in sight and 15 min. later we can see 4820-ft. Dillon Mountain, followed by Snowden Mountain at 6,450 ft. At mile 234 I see my first and last Snowshoe Hare along the road, and just a mile farther is the start of tundra. We stop at a wide pullout and, with Cindy, I attempt to identify a Golden Eagle extremely high atop the cliffs. Meanwhile, Kay finds a Red-backed Vole that we corner with our feet and she picks up the vole while it balances on a small rock. The vole keeps trying to find a way off its high pedestal as Kay turns the rock to prevent it from going over the edge and the rest of us try taking close-up photos.
(Shari) Scenery is again great though our sights are hindered with clouds. We climb Atigun Pass and find a camp spot just a tenth mile from the highway summit. Again we have a fire and I serve Sloppy Joes for everyone. Cindy makes the Suddenly Salad I purchased in Fairbanks and it is the best one of its kind I have ever tasted. She added almonds, avocadoes, and tomatoes to it. For dessert we finish the package of those extra large marshmallows as som’ores. They are better than the regular ones, as the center gets so creamy.
(Bert) Ice shelves skirt the Chandelar River and the temperature which had climbed to 63º now drops back to 55º. By the time we climb to the top of Atigun Pass where we will camp for the night, the temperature is 48º at 5:10 PM. Oncoming vehicle traffic today is mostly restricted to long-bed trucks carrying rocks and gravel for road building. We encountered only 19 semis and 11 smaller vehicles today. We build a campfire, not to ward off mosquitos this time, but for warmth. When we retire at 9 PM, the temperature dips to 46º where it remains until morning.
(Bert) While the 4800-ft. elevation of Atigun Pass may not seem like much, because we are so far north it is the equivalent of the highest passes in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. In fact, the treeless and rocky habitat reminds me of Loveland Pass in Colorado. Kay and Cindy join me for birding in the crisp morning air and both get life birds. We soon find a singing Golden-crowned Sparrow, three Snow Buntings flying across snow banks, and a Hoary Redpoll perched on a gray boulder. After these successes I suggest we could also find Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and not 10 min. later I see the dark bird and quickly point it out to Kay and Cindy.
(Shari) On our way north, we are traveling through many ecosystems starting with boreal forest and ending with coastal plain north of the tree line. Today’s drive is considered the North Slope since it is north of the Brooks Range of mountains. It is high rolling hills of green where, when atop one of the hills, I can see for miles to the next hill. The road is a light brown ribbon cut through the green. Road conditions vary from extremely good pavement enabling me to approach 50 mph to horrible road construction where I find 5 mph too fast. I hate the road construction.
(Bert) In our RVs we descend down a switch back to a grassy waterlogged tundra plateau. Here we puzzle over a sandpiper that I cannot definitively identify, but are interrupted when Cindy calmly says, “Are you interested in a black-and-white bird?” Of course we are, especially when it turns out to be a Northern Wheatear which cooperatively allows us to get scope views. Another lifer for Cindy. That highlight soon follows with another when I find a Smith’s Longspur and then a Rock Ptarmigan with chicks. We follow a flying bird that lands on top of the oil pipeline and as we are focusing on the Savannah Sparrow, Cindy looks beyond to the base of the mountains and finds our first Long-tailed Jaeger. Although we strain to get better looks at the jaeger, little did we know that it would become a commonplace species along the highway.
(Shari) Now, while driving uphill, I approach a road grader coming at me on my side of the road. He motions me to use the left lane but I am scared to death that one of those big haulers will be barreling downhill on me. We make it! Whew! Chip-sealed road is pretty smooth and I find I can reach speeds of 35 to 45 mph as long as there are no breaks in the surface. Gravel can be smooth or washboard and I wind from one lane to the other avoiding potholes on this surface. So to go 120 miles in one day would be a lot.
We stop early in the day, just before the 10-mi. section of road construction. I am happy to give my nerves a break from the constant jarring of the bad road. As soon as we pick a camp, it starts to rain, so we take naps. A couple of hours later the sun comes up and shines gloriously on our camp. We start a campfire to keep the mosquitos at bay. The farther north we get, the worse they get. Swarms of them hover around my legs. Without my mosquito net covering my face, I would go nuts. As soon as we open a door, at least 20 sneak inside. But the good of it is that they don’t bite. They just buzz and you think they are going to bite. So we swat them and shoe them out the window and the last one leaves about the time we stop to get out and the process starts all over.
(Bert) Our intense birding has reduced our travel distance today to only 30 mi. Because of the short distance, we encountered only three semis, three smaller vehicles and three motorcycles today. We camp tonight at Galbraith Lake, joining hordes of mosquitos that fortunately keep their distance once our campfire starts smoking. At 8 PM the temperature is a comfortable 65º. Cindy finishes the day with 11 life birds, a tribute to the special birds of the far north.
(Bert) Before I get outside, Cindy is birding the Galbraith Lake campsite and
finds a Northern Shrike to add to her life list. It is no longer there when I
join her. I am surprised by the mixed flocks of Hoary and Common Redpolls, and
how common they are. We also find a vocal pair of American Golden-Plovers with
one that I slowly creep up on and get excellent photos of its black and gold
breeding plumage. Two Long-tailed Jaegers are also quite photogenic while they
are attracted to a squished road kill. We start again in our RVs and Shari
leads, slowly, while I continue birding. Alongside the access road, before we
reach the highway, I spy Lapland Longspurs and we jump out of the vehicles to
get a better look.
(Shari) Road crews are given the day off today so we are not hindered by big trucks and pilot cars. That is the good news. The bad news is that we have to weave our way over the bad road on our own. And those 10 mi. of construction are bad. Big rocks lie first on one lane and then the next. Grader mounds down the middle of the road make it hard to move from lane to lane. My tires slip on the soft gravel piles of an uphill. Soft surface, rocky surface, surface scraped raw, washboard surface, and pot holed surface. Luckily there is barely any other traffic so I can have the road to myself. We alert each other as to oncoming traffic from the front and from the back so we can pull out of the way.
(Bert) Our next stop along the Dalton Highway is Toolik Lake where our target species is Yellow-billed Loon. Just as we arrive two Eastern Yellow Wagtails call and fly above us in undulating circles. I set up my spotting scope and scan the lake for loons. Shari finds it first with her binoculars and I focus on the spot, confirming the profile and yellow bill. The distant loon spends more time underwater than above and each time it reappears at a far different spot, so others in our group do not get a good look through the scope. Then the loon disappears altogether. We will have to return to the lake again if we want a good view of the loon.
As we leave the lake area, I notice a ptarmigan in the tundra. Three of us get out for a better view, stumbling across the tussocks. The Rock Ptarmigan is leading a parade of small chicks and when I get closer for a photograph, the adult female leads me in one direction while the chicks scatter in another. I aim my camera at the adult and then suddenly hear a commotion behind my back. I turn around to see a Long-tailed Jaeger attempting to capture one of the chicks and at the same instant the male adult ptarmigan squawks and tries to distract the jaeger. Cindy and Kay shout also and in the confusing maylay, the jaeger fails to catch its prey. Just to be sure, Kay walks up to the jaeger until it abandons the area. Amazingly, I caught much of the action on my camera, including one shot showing the jaeger in a vertical position, braking its flight with wings and tail outspread, its head turned toward a fluffy chick also in flight. We head back to our vehicles to let the ptarmigan family regroup.
(Shari) Here’s the story of how Kay saves the babies. On our way back from the lake, Bert sees a ptarmigan with chicks and stops to take pictures. The ptarmigan tries to draw him away from her chicks, leaving the chicks behind. In swoops a Long-tailed Jaeger trying to get at the chicks. Kay swings her arms in the air and runs after the jaeger now sitting on a rock. It is a sight to behold from my vantage point in the car.
(Bert) Our next stop is at Ice Cut, a steep uphill climb that takes us from riverside level to a plateau. Near the river we see a small flock of Cackling Geese, and halfway up the incline, beside a small pond, are our first Greater White-fronted Geese along the highway. I again see Eastern Yellow Wagtails and by the end of the day my total reaches 13 wagtails. Also numerous are the Long-tailed Jaegers, totaling 12 today. The last good find of the day is Pacific Loon at a lake just south of Deadhorse. With no road construction work today, oncoming travel has been reduced to 24 semis, 14 smaller vehicles and 4 motorcycles in 139 mi., or about one vehicle every three miles. Deadhorse, bordering the Arctic Ocean in fog, is noticeably colder and at 6:10 PM the thermometer registers 48º.
(Shari) The road gets better after this point and we decide to go all the way to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. The road is smooth, wide, and flat for over 80 mi. We arrive at the end of the road about 6:30 PM. The Milepost states that one of the hotels has electricity for RVs. However, that hotel is closed and no one knows about another. We try three other hotels and settle on our last when a security guard says we can stay in the parking lot for free and, for reasonable fees, eat meals there, take showers and do laundry, and use the Internet. All the hotels are camps for the oilfield workers. There is no restaurant per se, nor grocery store, but each camp has a cafeteria. Ours is wonderful and I have trout teriyaki with lots of fresh salad. It is all you can eat, plus we are told to take extra food for a late night snack and lunch tomorrow. We find a make-your-own sandwich bar and cookies, chips, fruit, Danish, etc. What a deal!
We say goodnight to one another and retreat to our RVs. I notice for the next 3 hr. that every man with any level of testosterone has to gawk, admire and/or take pictures of the Doug and Kay’s Earth Roamer. Some actually get out of their trucks to get a better look at this amazingly outfitted Ford F-550. Maybe every one of the 6000 workers in this camp now have a picture of the vehicle.
(Bert) At 3 AM I check the thermometer. It registers 44º. I will need to get out my long underwear and goose-down jacket again, especially when the stiff Arctic winds bring the wind chill to below freezing. Can you believe I need four layers of warm clothes on the Fourth of July? The birds do not seem to mind, though, especially the Snow Buntings that flutter under and above the raised buildings. All of these pre-fab industrial buildings are built on massive steel beams and were trucked here to Deadhorse. This is an industrial town and has the bustle of a movie setting of an Old Wild West town, with constant traffic, except that no one walks and the horses are replaced by pickup trucks, semis, rubber-tired loaders, cranes and other working vehicles of every imaginable type. And, the town never sleeps, as the traffic and the work go on 24x7. No one takes a holiday here. Everyone works every day. The only indication that today is the Fourth of July is the huge American flag flying from a crane boom. No point in having fireworks, since the sky is never dark!
(Shari) How hard can it be to dump, get water, and find a trash can? It takes us all morning! The Milepost states there is a place to dump our sewage waste as well as fill with fresh water. We first stop at the “store” figuring they should know where to direct us. They don’t know, but suggest the municipality office. That office does not know either but then one person remembers that an oilfield service company has a dump area. We drive to it and I ask about a dump. The people there don’t know anything about a dump and suggest I go to the main building. Success! They tell us to go around the building and we will see a sign. Sure enough, there is the sign. Now why not put a sign on the street directing us to the back? We pull up to the sign and see nothing. We open the door and see a big smelly open hole with lots of big pipes above the hole. I guess this is the sewage dump.
Next we ask about water. We are told to go back to the municipality building, the other end of town. On three sides of that building we see lots of signs labeled “potable water” but each has only a big 6-in. diameter hose dangling from it. We need a garden hose fitting. We see a small building with a sign on it and look inside. It has a garden hose fitting coming out of one of the 6-in. pipes. On the wall are directions to shut this lever, pull this other lever, and sign the log noting how many thousands of gallons we take. Bert attaches his garden hose to the faucet and just about the time we are ready to turn the lever, a man comes up to help. He says he needs to call his boss. We get approval but when there is not enough water pressure without turning on the pump, his boss changes his mind and he does not want us to use this water but directs us back to a hotel near the oil service place, again across town. Fortunately, before we leave, the man suggests a trash receptacle–the first one we have seen–where we can dump three days of accumulated garbage.
We drive around the hotel near the airport and find nothing useful. I go inside the hotel and the snotty receptionist there tells me she knows of no such place even though I was told to ask her specifically. She offers no solution. We go back to the oil service business. We ask a few gentlemen in the back and they direct us to another hotel. Meanwhile, Norm asks at the office and they take pity on us and tell us we can connect to their water inside on the second floor. One by one, we drive our three RV’s inside the massive building. We string our hose to the second floor, fill each tank, and thank the gentleman profusely.
By now it is noon and we stop to eat lunch. Finally, poor Bert can get to bird. Poor guy, as if he hasn’t birded for the last three months. The two gals and the guy bird while the two guys and a gal chauffeur them from place to place waiting patiently in the car.
(Bert) In between our repeated transits across Deadhorse in search of water, fuel, sewage dump and garbage dump, I scan the many shallow ponds that fill the gaps between industrial sites. At the ponds we see Cackling Geese, White-fronted Geese, Brant, Long-tailed Ducks, Pacific Loons, Tundra Swans, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Arctic Terns. Later, when we have finished our errands, Cindy and Kay join me on the tundra bordering Lake Coleen. Here we can closely study the dozens of sandpipers and eventually deduce that they comprise three species: Baird’s Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers.
We drive to the edge of town and get our best birds across from Lake Olivia. While watching a flying Parasitic Jaeger, I glance down and see a pair of immature Spectacled Eiders and take a few quick photos at rest and then as they take flight. We continue a few miles out of town, see a herd of six caribou across the river, and watch a raven fly over with a lemming in its bill. We take a side road to a small pond. I use my bucket to dip out some water and wash my impenetrable rear window and the steps which are now so encased in road mud that they will not retract. Then we enjoy Happy Hour, sitting on lawn chairs beside our RV which I carefully aligned to block the Arctic winds. In bright sunlight, with the sun leaning toward the west in late afternoon, it is pleasantly warm.
(Shari) In late afternoon we stop on a road out of town and set up our chairs in the sun and out of the wind for a social. Another nice conversation ensues and by 5:30 we realize we had better move along so as not to miss dinner. The cafeteria is full of men tonight and only one table of women. I’d say the ratio is 25:1. Hot dog! Tonight we have a choice of T-bone steak or halibut or both if we want. I choose the steak with twice-baked potato and salad. Salmon mousse and cheese trays, deviled eggs and Sharp’s nonalcoholic beer (no alcohol up here) are located around the dining hall as well as apple pie with ice cream and strawberries. I think this must be a special meal in honor of Fourth of July. Again we can take snacks back and, again, it will be my breakfast and lunch tomorrow.
(Bert) I’m up at 5:30 AM and head inside the building for breakfast, toting my computer with me. Doug soon joins me and we occupy one table for several hours, both working on computers. I finish up my North American Birds seasonal report and send it to the regional editor. Then I send accumulated journals for four days and respond to a few e-mails.
(Shari) While Cindy and Norm take the oilfield tour, Bert works on a report he needs to send out and I do the laundry. Bert helps me carry two bags of dirty clothes inside of the workers hotel. Every one of the six wings has two washing machines and two dryers, yet each wing seems to have only one machine available at the moment. Just when I decide to split my wash into two wings, a man folding his wash tells me that I can take the hotel towels out of the machine and then put them back when I am done. For $3 per load, I get a wash and a dry plus soap and fabric softener. That is the cheapest rate so far.
(Bert) By noon, Norm and Cindy have not yet returned from their tour of the Prudhoe Bay operations and sticking their toes in the Arctic Ocean, so I bird in the area near where we have parked our RVs. Most of the buildings bear few labels and many of these are hard to interpret. This one is labeled CH2MHILL, as are many of the trucks and machinery in the area. I don’t know how you pronounce CH2MHILL, though I find out that it represents the last names of three owners of the oil company. While birding, I add more ducks to the Deadhorse list–shovelers, scaup, long-taileds, pintail–and a pair of Wilson’s Snipes. I’d like to bird longer but head back to our RV when a truck driver stops to warn about bears again. A Grizzly Bear was in town near us yesterday–we heard the warning rifle shot–and the driver is concerned that it may reappear.
When Norm and Cindy return, we head to the only gas station in town to refuel. It is a self-service operation with directions printed on the credit card machine inside a small building. The meters are also inside, as is everything except the insulated gas hose and the flip handle. My credit card buys me 41.183 gal. of diesel at $5.399/gal. Norm also refuels and only when the truck driver behind us starts to refuel do we realize we skipped one step in the 7-step procedure. We forgot to push a large rubber container beneath our fill spout to catch any drips of spilt fuel. Gas and oil spills are treated very seriously in Prudhoe Bay.
(Shari) As we are fueling up for our return trip, Norm and Cindy show up. Doug is at the post office (again) and calls on the radio. I tell him that this strange couple from Tennessee just showed up. He asks if they are as strange as the first couple we have been traveling with and I say, “Stranger.” He tells me to send them north. That just cracks up Cindy and me (Cindy was listening) as they can’t go any farther north without swimming in the Arctic Ocean.
Norm tells us about a location for Snowy Owls. So that is where we drive and sure enough, Bert spots one off in the distance. Once we see it, it flies closer for better looks. Then we see more Snowy Owls on our way out of town, plus a Muskox and double-plus a Short-eared Owl. Wow!
(Bert) On their tour, Norm and Cindy learned of a location where a Snowy Owl hangs out. We drive halfway around Lake Coleen to a mound of ground and scan for the owl. I see it first, well beyond the mound, and give directions to the others. The road is too busy to get out and set up a scope, so we do the best we can to see the owl. Fortunately, it takes flight and comes close enough to see its charcoal eyes set in an almost totally white-feathered bird.
We head out of town, going south on the Dalton Highway. Surprisingly, we find Snowy Owls twice more, at mile 412 and mile 405. Shari is driving again as I scan the tundra for owls, hawks, and falcons. At mile 388 I ask her to stop when I see a soaring Rough-legged Hawk close enough to photograph. I find another at mile 382 and at the same mile Shari spots a lone Muskox. Through binoculars, we can see swarms of mosquitos on its shaggy back. Fortunately, when we camp a few miles beyond at a spacious pull-out the mosquitos stay away from our campfire. We have returned to the warmth of the interior, as the temperature has risen to 66º at 7:45 PM.
(Shari) We camp only 30 mi. south of Deadhorse and enjoy the warm sunshine. There is just enough wind to keep mosquitos at bay. We munch on blue cheese and crackers, Cindy’s brie, and Kay’s cream cheese with a delicious green jelly over it. Earlier, Doug, Cindy and Norm had walked over to a pile of pallets and found some broken ones to use as firewood. We are all set. We have our lawn chairs around the fire looking over the bluff enabling Bert to find quite a few different species to look at. Now that is what I call birding. Just wait for them to come to us.
(Bert) Morning fog shields our campsite from the surrounding tundra when four of us walk the gravel road toward Sagavanirktok River. Stored on the gravel lot are a dozen portable buildings, each about the size of an enclosed railroad boxcar and each built on steel skis. At one end of each building is a long triangular hitch that enables it to pulled or attached to another building, forming a train. The buildings are designed for severe weather and some have labeled doors such as “B1-1 Generator” or “B1-2 Food Storage.” Collapsible enclosed hallways can connect the buildings, thus the collection can become a portable village or hotel for ice field workers.
Among the wildlife out this morning are a half dozen Semipalmated Plovers that constantly try to distract us, allowing close approach, but then feigning wing injuries. Only later do we find the tiny chicks they are trying to protect. We also find six Least Sandpipers, a species I hadn’t noticed this far north before. A Northern Harrier flies overhead and is lacking so many wing feathers I am surprised it remains airborne. Wildflowers are abundant, many of which I can identify until Doug points to a small plant that looks like a green pincushion with dozens of tiny spikes of unopened yellow flowers. I don’t know what it is called, but later look it up and find the name: Dwarf Hawk’s-Beard. I also did not know hawks have beards!
Shari is driving again and I am riding shotgun, on the lookout for owls and hawks, or shorebirds if we get near the river. At Mile 360 I see a hunting Short-eared Owl and we stop to watch it fly over the tundra. Seven miles farther, I see another short-eared. It is 10:30 AM and if we were in Texas I would not expect the owl still to be out in the sunlight, but here it has no choice as it is always sunlight. We have been extremely fortunate at finding owls and this is the fourth owl species observed since Cindy and Norm joined us.
(Shari) The group goes out birding this morning, allowing me to get a few extra winks before I have to get up. We are on the road at 9:15 AM. Bert wants to go slowly on this first part to try to find the birds we missed on the way north. He is after shorebirds, some of my least favorite birds. He can spend hours looking at them trying to determine what kind of sandpiper or what kind of gull they are. There is not much scenery to keep my senses occupied this morning so at each stop, I read a book. During the first 80 mi. the road is smooth and the land is flat, covered with green tundra. We seem to look at every little bit of water from lakes and streams to even puddles.
(Bert) We stop again at Toolik Lake, intent on getting a better look at the Yellow-billed Loon. Shari is again the first to locate it on the lake and I quickly align my spotting scope on it. In between dives, each of us gets a satisfying, though brief, look at the loon. We meet the naturalist for the university research facility and he tells us about the Bluethroats that nested nearby. He points in the direction they have been seen up until about two weeks ago. Since the nesting season is over and the males are no longer singing, we may not be able to find them. We hike over the tundra tussocks and rock fields to the spot just as the rain starts in droplets. A sparrow-like bird lands nearby, a bit too distant to identify, so I photograph it. Later, on my computer, I blow up the image and see that it is a female Lapland Longspur that is midway in plumage between breeding stage and fall colors. We find Eastern Yellow Wagtails and Northern Wheatear and, best of all, a pair of Horned Larks not seen previously on this Alaska tour. However, we cannot find a Bluethroat before the rain starts coming down hard enough to drench my raincoat and hiking shoes.
We had seen a fox earlier, presumably a distant Red Fox, and now at Mile 277 Kay spots a darkly furred Arctic Fox. I wish I had seen that, but we are a mile farther on the highway. Later, at our campsite for the evening, we watch a Red Fox prowling between the RVs.
(Shari) Bert is driving now. Construction crews must be enjoying the long Fourth of July weekend, as no trucks, bulldozers, or graders are to be seen. It starts to rain, making the road slippery and wet and we decide to pass up a camp spot since we don’t want to be outside now anyway. About 90 min. later, when the rain has almost stopped, we find a big abandoned gravel pit that even has a flat concrete pad for our three rigs to enjoy being on the level. I make another pitcher of margaritas, which we enjoy inside of our puptent. I show my slideshow of Australia, as Cindy and Norm were on that trip. Just as everyone has returned to their own rig, I spot a fox trotting between us and Norm and Cindy. I knock on the window to get Cindy’s attention and she sees it too. All dash madly for cameras. It continues to drizzle and just as we crawl into bed, I spot a rainbow. I am a sucker for rainbows and have to take lots of pictures. This one ends between two mountains above us and seems to glow brighter at the bottom. As Bert turns over to fall asleep he says, “We have seen a lot of rainbows in our lifetime.” Boy, he’s got that right! Just being able to travel this beautiful road and experience the wide open wilderness is a rainbow in and of itself.
(Bert) This time it is my turn to see a Northern Shrike with no one else around to show it to before it disappears across the river. It is the best bird of my morning walk and we are soon on the highway again. We climb Atigun Pass, probably the most impressive mountain pass that can be reached by road in Alaska. The scenery here easily rivals Denali National Park. Just over the crest we see a Red Fox and this one is kind enough to allow multiple photos as it lightly trots across the road and up the embankment.
(Shari) “Shari,” Bert says loudly and in a disgusted tone of voice, “Aren’t you up yet?” He can see I am not up yet. I turned over when he left this morning intending to sleep just for 15 min. but I overdid it. I grab some clothes while Bert makes the bed and “battens down the hatch.” I stumble to the passenger seat and hope I did not keep anyone waiting too long. I barely have my eyes open to enjoy the gorgeous uphill drive of Atigun Pass. At our first stop, I make some coffee and eat a piece of bread with cheese. I am still too crabby to talk to anyone.
(Bert) My most important stop this morning is the Chandalar airstrip. I’ve heard Bluethroats nest here, but I’m not holding my breath in hopes of finding one this late in the season. Instead, I am delighted to find a pair of Say’s Phoebes at the bridge over Chandalar River. All six of us are walking along the airstrip when we find piles of scat that we identify as bear. The men all check to see if they are armed with bear spray and we proceed with renewed attention. Norm has his doubts about the scat and soon he proves us wrong when he finds horseshoe tracks beside a few of the piles. Not finding any more notable birds, we turn around anyway.
(Shari) As we travel south, the clouds break and the sun comes out. We have a fox cross our path and see about six Dall’s Sheep not too far up a hill. Doug and Kay wait and watch while the rest of us move on and are rewarded with views of the flock of sheep passing in front of them on the road.
(Bert) Eagle-eyed (it sounds better than sheep-eyed) Shari zeroes in on a flock of Dall’s Sheep browsing on a grassy mountain slope. We watch the sheep bounding down the slope and getting close enough to see the ringed horns on the dominant male. We continue, but Doug and Kay stay longer and later tell us the sheep crossed the highway in front of their vehicle. Our next sighting is much less impressive, though interesting at least to me: a Northern Bog Lemming races across the highway, notable by its tiny size, dark fur, and very short tail.
I slow to a halt when I see three different ducks on a lake, identifying our only Surf Scoter along the Dalton and then take photos of the tall spruce and much taller mountains reflected in the mirrored lake.
We reach Coldfoot and stop to eat lunch before entering the nicely designed Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. We watch three videos in their auditorium. The most impressive to me is one produced by PBS on controversies of building the pipeline and its subsequent construction. Although I recall the environmental controversies in the Earth Day timeframe, I did not remember what the oil companies’ original plan was. Prior to the controversy, the oil company coalition had imported steel pipes from Japan and their intention was simply to bury the pipeline in the permafrost in the same way they ran pipe in the Lower 48. It is unlikely the pipeline would have survived even one winter season without disastrous pipe breaks and oil spillage. After numerous scientific studies and expert outside advice, a workable plan was forged. In an amazing feat of engineering and incredible labor support, the pipeline was completed in 20 months for a price of $8 billion. Although there have been a few minor spills subsequently, nothing begins to compare to the Exxon Valdez disaster which spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into prime Alaska wildlife and fishing waters. And, that disaster cannot be blamed on the pipeline, though it still points to the danger of transporting oil.
(Shari) Norm wanted to spend some time at the Coldfoot Visitor Center and so do I. I pick out three movies and we spend a good 2 hr. watching them. Of the three, the best is the one about the pipeline. A PBS show, it relates the history of the oil pipeline from its shaky beginnings in early 1970s to its successful conclusion in 1977. After oil was discovered in 1968, the oil companies wanted this pipeline at all costs. Fortunately, environmental groups slowed the onward movement of construction enough to get environmental safeguards put in place. (Much as our President wants to do now with the natural gas pipeline purposed through our heartland.) Originally, the oil companies intended to bury the pipeline like others they had built. You can’t bury things in tundra without melting it with hot oil and causing the pipe to sink. “Build now and repair later” could be disastrous with lots of oil spilling out onto the land. In January of 1974, the Haul Road was constructed. Three million tons of stuff were hauled up that road and by March of 1975, the construction of the pipeline itself began. Built in five segments, each to meet up with another, it forms a continuous line for transporting oil from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez. Of this length, 420 mi. had to be built above ground and insulated so as to prevent the oil from freezing. Twenty-seven thousand workers, earning in excess of $1500 per week, were employed. An amazing 30,800 welds were made. Finally on June 20, 1977 oil flowed through the pipes for the first time. At its height, the pipeline transported over two million barrels per day. Today it is down to transporting just about a half million barrels per day. Over the past few days, I have seen this pipeline snake across the wilderness, over streams, under hills, and above the tundra, always within sight of the road we traversed. It was a sense of beauty and after seeing this movie it gives me a sense of awe and appreciation. We convene a travel meeting and kind of nudge Norm into departing the museum early. He relents after the ranger tells us he will now give us a shortened version of his evening talk on “Light in the Arctic.”
About 4 PM we head south and drive a good 3 hr. longer. Our goal is the famous Hot Spot Café for their big hamburgers. After eating dinner under their garden canopy, we load up with fresh water from their artesian well. Camp tonight is the BLM campground next door to the café.
(Bert) We finish the day at Hot Spot Café and enjoy delicious over-sized hamburgers. In dramatic contrast to other days in Alaska, the temperature is 77º at 5:20 PM.
(Shari) I battle mosquitos all night long. At first I thought there was only one and if I could get it, I would sleep. I get our electric zapper and finally kill the mosquito. Unfortunately, there is another one. I go into the bathroom and it follows me in there. I cover my head with my PJs and can hear a mosquito buzzing. I wonder if it is caught in my hair. I shake my head and brush my hair and slam the bathroom door shut. Ah, no mosquito. I sleep for about 45 min. when the buzz starts again. I zap three mosquitos and then another five. Where are they coming from? This goes on ALL NIGHT LONG. I finally fall asleep at 6 AM and don’t wake until Doug stops at our door and asks when we are going to depart for breakfast. Oh my gosh, here goes another quick morning preparation. But first I have to take a shower and wash my hair. We kill another 30 mosquitos before we depart and meet everyone at the restaurant 5 mi. down the road. There we find out that each vehicle was plagued with mosquitos last night. These are tiny mosquitos and we theorize that they came in through the window weep holes.
We have a delicious meal and say our goodbyes. Doug and Kay take off and leave us in their dust. Norm is next and we bring up the rear. We lose sight of Norm after the 25-mile-curve and look for them at the Fox pie place, but they either didn’t stop or stopped and left again. We decide we don’t need any more calories so pass it by too, but do stop at the Silver Gulch Brewery outside of Fox.
At noon we are in Fairbanks. We spend money at Wal-Mart, and Fred Meyer and, oh my yes, the car wash. Bert washes for over an hour, pushing in $25 worth of quarters, while I enjoy my time shopping at Fred Meyer. While Bert sends e-mail at Barnes and Noble, I shop at Sports Warehouse and end up buying one of those mosquito foggers that Jill had at the Boreal Owl site. I take Bert inside to show him a folding duffle bag. We buy two of those too as they are so light and big. We can use them for our trip next week to Dutch Harbor and then again to Australia in 2013. By now it is 6 PM and we decide to spend the night at Wal-Mart along with at least 24 other RV’ers. The day is still pretty so we sit outside drinking a bottle of beer and reminiscing about the Dalton Highway trip. I enjoyed it so so much. I have a feeling of achievement in doing it and am proud of myself for driving the vehicle over half the distance. If anything gets me back to Alaska it will be the thought of doing this road again. The drive is like having Denali National Park all to ourselves. The beauty, the solitude, and the open spaces cannot be described, nor captured on pictures. Sure, I did not like the condition of parts of the road, nor the incessant mosquitos, but those were only little distractions in the scheme of things. This is God’s beauty for us at its best. It is to be enjoyed and treasured by us and generations to come.
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