Chapter 17. Alaska Highway
(Bert) We are driving alongside a large section of forest that has changed each year we have passed. One of the benefits of writing trip journals is the ability to go back and reread an experience that likely would have faded from memory years later. In 1996 we did not comment on the Pelly River fire of the previous year. However, in 1998, I wrote, “Near Pelly River we drive along a forest burned in 1995: charred black poles standing in a carpet of bright violet fireweed, death and life juxtaposed. Later, near Fox Lake, we encounter a more recent fire: blackened trees stuck in a sea of glossy mud. Patches of short grass appear like golf greens in a black fairway. In the distance the mountains are hazy and in a couple spots curls of smoke ascend.”
In 2002, I wrote about the Fox Lake fire, “After fire comes Fireweed. Here we learn the real derivation of the name "Fireweed," for the mountains are blanketed in the pink colors of this flower. For twenty miles we drive beside distant mountainsides clothed in billions of flowers. I have never seen so many flowers. The pink glow surrounds us for miles. Now no longer restricted to the roadsides, the Fireweed infests all of the land once covered by spruce, hiding the gray ash and the black char in festive pink. Only the remnant blackened spruce trunks add contrast to the vibrantly colored mountains. Out of death comes abundant life.”
In 2006, I wrote, “Although some Fireweed is still in a few of the open spaces, most is gone, replaced by dense aspen now about chest height.”
It was different again two years later when I wrote in 2008, “The 1995 fire area shows scattered blackened spruce trunks like spindly telephone poles, yet most of the terrain is now aspen grown to eye level up to the height of R-Tent-III. No darkened ground is exposed, instead blanketed by grasses and flower-depleted fireweed. In the 1998 fire area, evidence remains in the charred and fallen trees, more bare spots and a stronger base of fireweed, with shorter aspen growing profusely.”
So here we are again four years later, August 18, 2012. But for my memory of the location, it is nearly impossible to see evidence of the 1995 Pelly River fire. It is now a tall aspen forest and if there are any spruce trees, they must be small as I cannot see them from the highway as we pass by. The 1998 Fox Lake forest fire is still obvious, however, and in a surprising way. It was once a dense spruce forest, but only a few charred spruce posts remain. Instead, the land on the east side of the lake is densely covered in willow (1-2 ft. high), pine (1-2 ft.), birch (10 ft.), aspen (5-10 ft.), a very few spruce (2 ft.), and an understory of many plants, most notably soapberry bushes, but very little fireweed. The much more severely burned west side of the lake is only sparsely covered, but most surprisingly is that it is Lodgepole Pines that are taking over. The forest fire will change the habitat from a spruce forest to a pine forest.
(Bert) Question: How do you drive from Inuvik in Northwest Territories to Yellowknife in the same territory? Answer: Drive 167 mi. south on Dawson Highway (NWT8) to Yukon Territory, then continue 289 mi. south to Dempster Corner, then 298 mi. south on Klondike Highway (YT2) to Whitehorse, then 594 mi. southeast on the Alaska Highway weaving in and out of Yukon Territory and British Columbia until Fort Nelson, then 158 mi. north on Liard Trail (BC77) until crossing back into Northwest Territories, then 212 mi. northeast on NWT3 through the territories until reaching Yellowknife. That comes to a total of 1718 mi. from Inuvik to Yellowknife because there is no east-west road connecting the two. In fact, did you know that the only road in Canada crossing the Arctic Circle is Dempster Highway? (There is also only one in the United States). So, today, we are on the Alaska Highway leg through Yukon Territory.
(Bert) A good day for wildlife, we encounter wild horses, grizzlies and bison. We get one of our best roadside views ever of the sow Grizzly Bear, accompanied by two cubs. Nonchalantly, they nibble on berries about 50 ft. from our RV and slowly amble along in search of more. We see Bison first at Coal River, moving through an empty campground and an abandoned yard across the highway. Thirty miles farther, we see another five beside the Alaska Highway. We see and smell smoke for many miles. Coincidentally, it is densest at Fireside, near an abandoned campground, though we never see the source. The Alaska Highway is littered with abandoned buildings. We estimate that more than half of the businesses that were open during our 1996 and 1998 trips are no longer in operation. They once offered RV parks, restaurants, stores, fuel and much more. Now they are just abandoned and falling into disrepair.
Soon after arriving at the campground at Liard River, I put on my swimming suit and head to the natural hot springs and luxuriate in hot water just barely bearable. While the alpha pool is still open for bathing, the trail to the beta pool is now closed because of bears. A park worker says that last year they chased away bears 6 to 7 times per day. This year they called a truce with the bears: the bears were given the beta pool area and people get the alpha pool. So far this season, workers have chased off a bear from the alpha pool only once.
(Bert) I leave the RV before Shari is awake and walk along the boardwalk toward the hot springs. At this early hour I am surprised how many other campers are awake, going to and coming from the hot springs. But my interest is in flowers and the hot water and warm air are the ingredients that sustain this special microclimate. While flowers are mostly dried up elsewhere, here they are still blooming and some, such as the Kalm's Lobelia are at the northernmost part of their range. I take photos of species I have not yet seen this year, as well as some that I do not recognize and will use the camera to aid in identification. Just a few of the ones I’ve identified so far are Star-flowered False Solomon's Seal, Macoun's Buttercup, Wild Mint, and Narrow-leaved Hawkweed. Absent, though, are a few of the common birds I see here in spring. Usually the woods reverberate in the songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Least Flycatcher, and Hammond’s Flycatcher, but they must have already started their migration south, as none are to be heard or seen this morning. I do witness a strange territorial dispute, however. On a tall tree nearly barren of leaves are two robins, two sapsuckers and a Swainson’s Thrush. One robin cannot tolerate the others, so first it chases off the thrush, then tries for the sapsuckers that are reluctant to leave a good drilling tree. Eventually, the robin succeeds in being king of the tree, but just then a Red Squirrel usurps its authority, scampers up to the highest limbs and chases off the robin.
On our way southeast we stop at a few of our favorite sites. These are places we have often visited in spring when snow still blankets the mountains–and sometimes the highway–and ice covers the lakes. In the warmth of late summer, now in the low 70s, everything looks so different when we stop at Muncho Lake, Toad River, and Summit Lake. Wildlife usually is in the high places this time of year, so we are delighted to see a few near the highway, including a yearling Mule Deer and a Stone Sheep with one of her offspring.
Before we reach Fort Nelson, we leave the Alaska Highway and turn north on BC Highway 77. The newly paved highway climbs steeply into the Mackenzie Mountains. We stop a few times, looking for a roadside camping spot, and Shari finally agrees on a semi-wooded spot beside the Petitot River, still in British Columbia, but only a few miles from the Northwest Territories border. I call Shari’s attention to two Beavers slapping their tails in the shallow river, but the best wildlife is yet to come.
(Shari) “Oh, my gosh; oh, my gosh!” I can’t help saying it.
Last year my daughter asked me why we downsized from a 41-ft. motorhome to a 25-ft. one. I told her so we could camp with the bears. I never really thought it would happen. We find a camp spot that would make our friend Bob proud. It is down a dirt road, behind some trees and next to a flowing stream, away from highway noise and sight. And it is free! We are just about to go outside to start a fire, when Bert says he hears something. He says it is a bear. “Oh, my gosh!” Not 40 ft. from our rig, a cute black cub is breaking branches of roses to get at the tasty rose hips. Soon mama comes in sight. “Oh, my gosh!” I can tell she is upset with us and wants to travel down the road past our rig but is wary. She keeps looking at us and turning away, looking and turning away, as if we would depart her territory. “Oh, my gosh; oh, my gosh!” Bert hears more noise and another cub comes into full view. The cubs scamper around while mama acts nervous. Finally mama walks away from us but turns one last time to look. One of the cubs jumps on her back to take a look at what mama is upset about. “Oh, my gosh; oh, my gosh!” There I go again. Mama and cubs walk off into the woods and we close our door–we had been standing on the steps to take picture after picture–and wonder at the sight we just saw. About 20 min. later I see mama and cubs crossing the entrance road, now far in front of our RV. She had taken her babies on a huge circuitous route to avoid us. Not long later another Black Bear is in the bushes. This one is alone. I wonder if I will sleep tonight. I don’t think my other experiences of three grizzly bears, sheep and bison on the side of the road can hold a candle to the bears. Neither can the most delicious cinnamon roll I ever ate from Tesla compare to the bears. “Oh, my gosh!”
(Bert) I am not yet ready to start a campfire, so I am working at the table, using my computer, when I hear rustling in the bushes. The noise is loud enough to be a person, a deer, or a bear. I look out the muddy back window and see a Black Bear cub in the bushes. Without stepping out of the RV, I put one foot on the lower step and Shari puts her foot on the upper step and we both lean out of the RV to get a good view of the bear cub pulling down Prickly Rose bushes to pluck off the red berries with its teeth. I hear more rustling, this time louder. The sow bear appears next to its cub and soon a second cub appears, all intent at eating the fruit. The click of my camera shutter alerts the sow to our presence and creates a decisive moment. It appears that mother bear intended to head to where we are parked, a distance of only about 40 ft., but now is reconsidering. Instead, she leads one cub and a very reluctant second cub, back into the woods, making a huge circle around us and reappearing in a clearing a few hundred yards away. All of this happened just before I was about to go outside to start a campfire. We, too, change our plans and stay inside. Surprisingly, at 7 PM another Black Bear appears at the berry bushes. It is smaller than the sow, though larger than the cubs. We wonder if the bears will be outside our RV as we sleep tonight.
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