Chapter 3. Alcan Highway Through Canada
(Bert) Yesterday, Bob and Pat reported hearing an owl outside their RV at 6:07 AM. After reviewing recordings, they decided it was a Northern Saw-whet Owl. This induced me to pile on five layers of clothes this morning and step out of the door at 5:45 AM. I pace up and down the road running beside the campground and write down the dawn birds as I identify them by call: Song Sparrow, Common Raven, Northwestern Crow, Varied Thrush, Sooty Grouse, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mew Gull. At 6:10, I am about a quarter-mile from a calling owl. I quick step to the sound, a distinct and irregular series of single-note “bonks” almost like a muted dog bark, emanating from a copse of tall Sitka Spruce. I count the beat: 15 bonks in 45 sec. and then a long pause before resuming. About the time I reach the cluster of four spruce, the owl stops calling. It is 6:15 AM. For 15 min. I study the dense spruce branches, up and down, left and right, but cannot find the hidden 8-in. Saw-whet.
(Shari) Some days are just so full of adventure it seems like they are three days crammed into one. Today is one of them. With a 8 AM departure, we only drive about 150 mi. but do not arrive at Haines Junction until 6 PM. Before we depart, I walk to the grocery store intending to buy some bread for a bread pudding I want to make on Friday. The store does not open until 8 AM. Can you believe that I am up walking around before 8? Something must be wrong with me as I have no trouble getting up in the morning. So I walk a half-mile to the bakery and buy a loaf of day-old sourdough bread getting back to the campground just at 8.
(Bert) As we follow the Chilkat River out of Haines, we are soon within the Bald Eagle Preserve. Although autumn brings 3000-4000 Bald Eagles here to dine on the spawning salmon, today we are lucky to find a single eagle. Instead, a thousand Mew Gulls mixed with two dozen immature Glaucous-winged Gulls gather in the shallow braided river, silty-gray from water running off the alluvial fans of what once were glaciers. At the lowest elevations, yellow-green leaves are just beginning to unfurl on the cottonwoods, but the Red Alders are only in the bud stage. As we slowly climb, even the cottonwoods are in bud stage and no deciduous trees have leaves. Snow and ice cover the broad river, with veins of ice water trickling down steam in meandering rivulets. The adjacent forest is blanketed in a foot or two of snow and up to 5 ft. is piled beside the highway, remnants of past winter’s snowfall. We deviate on the road to Mosquito Lake. Two dozen new arrival Trumpeter Swans, some already paired or courting, gather in melted pools within the frozen lake. Minuscule by comparison, a pair of Hooded Mergansers swims side by side.
(Shari) We head out, making our first stop at the Eagle Center trailhead. We read the interpretative signs under the roof of the kiosk and walk the short boardwalk trail through the woods along rivers edge. My kind of walk: flat! We continue stopping at various scenic overlooks to drink in the scenery or watch a bird. The road is untraveled and it seems we have it to ourselves. The road is wide and we have no trouble parking the whole group on the wide shoulder as we look at this hawk or that. Pat finds our best sighting of the day. She shouts “Ptarmigan” and we all stop driving. Unfortunately, we are quite a bit ahead of them so Bert and I have to walk back several hundred feet. We hear the clucking of more birds and realize they are all around us. Ptarmigan at this time of year at this altitude in the snow are mostly white. Some of the new summer feathers have started to come out, enabling us to find some birds easier. They look like a fat stick stuck in a rounded clump of snow and I would never realize it was a bird unless it moves. After I see the telltale shape of the stick and the clump, I realize the birds are all over the place. This first group has about 30. Later we find a group of 35, then 29, and then 13. In all we must have seen over a 100 ptarmigans, a bird that is always a treat to see.
(Bert) We cross into British Columbia after a short and uneventful border check. A sign informs us, “Next services 184 KM.” We continue climbing, now 50 mi. from the coast, and at 2600 ft. we are above tree line and all is white with snow for many miles in every direction. Steam rises from the black top and the thermometer dips to freezing. A few Arctic Ground Squirrels have come out of hibernation and stand as thin brown stumps in a blanket of pure white snow. About 5 mi. from the summit (1000 m., 3281 ft.), Pat excitedly proclaims, “Ptarmigans.” I slam on the brakes, pull to the side, and start to walk in the direction of her RV when I notice I’m surrounded by ptarmigans also. Bird tracks scatter everywhere, ptarmigans cluster in groups; others take flight and reveal black outer rectricies edging white tails. Many ptarmigans are almost completely white feathered, while some are showing progressions of dark to reddish head and neck feathers. Each one we see is a Willow Ptarmigan. For the next hour before and after our lunch break at the summit, we see clusters of ptarmigans, white against white, barely discernible but for their movements. Summing up the flocks and pairs, I count 107 ptarmigans, surpassing my life’s total of sightings in Alaska, Colorado, and Manitoba combined.
(Shari) At another one of our pullouts, while studying a distant eagle, Bert says he sees a porcupine beyond it. It looks too big to be one and has a halo effect around a brown body. I make him get out his spotting scope as I think it could be a bear. It is a porcupine, and that is another treat. Doug and Kay stop at a campground they visited years ago, that is closed today and full of snow. Here they see a moose but none of the rest of us sees it. We stop at the “Welcome to Yukon” sign for pictures. We stop at beautiful Lake Kathleen in Kluane National Forest and constantly marvel at the drop dead gorgeous mountains all covered with snow. Because we are so early, we see an Alaska that we have never seen before and it is breathtaking. In the lower elevations of Haines, spring had begun and buds are out. Later crossing through British Columbia and into the Yukon, the landscape is covered in glistening white snow. We were rained on this morning and snowed on this afternoon. Before we know it, it is 5 o’clock and David wonders if our campground will be open. We had better make tracks. It is open when we arrive, but just barely. I check us in, start a load of wash, and conduct a short travel meeting, before Bert gives a talk on ptarmigans. I keep our blinds up inside our rig today until we go to bed because our view is unreal. If I did not know it was the real McCoy, I would think it was a painting. Three tall peaks all covered with snow, cast shifting shadows with the setting sun and the passing clouds. Did I say that the sight is gorgeous yet?
(Bert) Again I start out early–this time 6 AM–in hopes of hearing owls. I hear a call I do not recognize and head in that direction, but I am distracted by a drumming Ruffed Grouse.
I’ve told part of this story before in other years. I’ve seen Ruffed Grouse, drumming logs, Ruffed Grouse near drumming logs, heard Ruffed Grouse drumming, BUT I’ve never seen and heard a Ruffed Grouse drumming from atop its log. Logistically this is difficult since the drumming log is usually in dense woods and it takes patience, persistence and punishment (from the whiplash of understory branches) to find the log, all without upsetting the drummer and causing the grouse to vacate its perch. This time the understory is more penetrable and the drumbeat is closer, so I think my odds are better. I advance in a sequence of listening, walking, stopping, waiting for the grouse to begin another drumming session, and then redirecting my path toward the drumming. I repeat this three times and now am close enough that I might be in sight of the log.
Through a tangle of intervening branches and twigs, I can see body fragments of the Ruffed Grouse perched on a fallen tree trunk, perhaps 18 in. in diameter. I focus my binoculars on the grouse and wait anxiously. It cocks its wings, forewing outstretched, primary tips pushed inward and then does a sudden flap of its wings. After a 2 sec. pause, it does it again, but this time accelerates the flapping and in the process it causes a low pitched whooshing as air moves in and out of the gap between wings and chest.
It is the Ruffed Grouse’s drumbeat of love, a sex attractant to females to mate with this the best of drummers, perched on the best of drumming logs, in the midst of the best of habitat for feeding on the catkins critical to survival. I stay for another session, this time with my camera focused on the part of the grouse I can see through the brambles. Then I study my surroundings so that I can find this spot again.
Returning to the campground, I meet the birding group and explain what we are about to accomplish. Shari, although a self-proclaimed non-birder, is anxious to witness this also. She reminds the group to maintain silence as we search for the grouse. We proceed directly to the viewpoint, pausing when we hear the drumming sessions so that the group can hear our target. No one in the group has seen this before, most have not heard drumming before, and a few have not yet seen a Ruffed Grouse. We reach the spot and the grouse is on the log. Except for poor Bob, everyone sees the grouse, but in the process of pointing and whispering and talking in increasingly loud directional advice, the grouse gets upset and springs from the log. Although it stays nearby, I know it will not return to the log for drumming until our overly zealous group departs. Well, at least most of them saw a Ruffed Grouse standing on a drumming log. That itself took me years to accomplish.
(Shari) Part of the Alaska experience is getting there. I have always said that the Yukon is more of a wilderness than Alaska and I love it more. There is a song that states “Once you are in the wilderness, the wilderness becomes a part of you.” That is so true and that is why Alaska and the Yukon keeps pulling me back. Bert and I always thought that this might be our last trip to Alaska and today we caught ourselves thinking of ways to do another trip. This morning Bert comes inside from his early morning walk alone and tells me of a Ruffed Grouse on a drumming log. I have seen the grouse in the past, but my ears are unable to hear the deep drumming of its wings and I have never seen it on its log. Today I get so close that I hear the drumming and later see the grouse on the log. How neat is that! It is hard to beat that show and I let the birders hike to the Kluane Visitor’s Center while I write journals. We then all go out for breakfast. Actually it is so late that breakfast turns into lunch and each of has the special at the restaurant; a filling homemade Hungarian goulash soup and delicious bread. As we drive farther north and west, the weather gets colder. It is rather brisk at Sheep Mountain and we do not stay outside long. However, there are more sheep on the slopes than I have ever seen in the past. We get to our campsite at Destruction Bay and soon head out birding. We do not see much. After a short talk by Bert, travel meeting by me, and social by all, we head inside, thankful that we have electricity tonight as it is going to get cold.
(Shari) Our thermometer recorded a low temperature of 16.7º last night. I believe it. We had an electric space heater going all night and our gas furnace as well. The sky this morning is all clear and blue and the mountains are spectacular. I snap a picture of each RV with a mountain peak in the background, one of the lodge in the foreground, one of the road ahead of us, and one of each of the seven peaks all over 15,000 ft. high. Whatever am I going to do with all these pictures? But I cannot help myself.
We again take our time traveling the road through the Yukon, drinking in the scenery and looking for birds. I read of a restaurant down the road that serves real French crepes and by lunchtime we have a mouthwatering appetite for them. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed. We eat in our rigs at Pick Handle Lake instead. There we see a moose across the frozen water. Usually when we come through three weeks later, the entire lake is thawed.
While in Juneau, I called a campground in Beaver Creek and confirmed our
reservations. When we arrive, they tell me there is no power. I notice that the
Westmark campground, where we usually stay, is open so I head over there. Yes,
they are open. Yes they have power. We can fill our tanks from the pump house
and can dump at the dump station. Just perfect! So we stay. Jyl apologizes that
no one answers the phone in the winter and tells me she is usually open by May
1. I tell her I need to make reservations before that so she gives me her
private cell phone number. This afternoon the day is pretty again so we have
Bert’s talk on periglacial effects, travel meeting, and social outside.
(Bert) Last evening I gave a talk on plate tectonics and explained the terrain surrounding our campsite at Destruction Bay. Lake Kluane lies within the Shakwak Trench and our travels today on the Alcan Highway follow that trench as well. Shakwak is part of the Denali Trench, the collision line of the Pacific Plate with the North American Plate. To our left (southwest, Pacific Plate), the steep snow-covered mountains are ragged, with sharp angles. To our right (North American Plate), the mountains are more rounded and older.
Migrating birds know about Shakwak Trench too, but for different reasons. For them it is the highway through the Yukon and Alaska, the route to their summer homes and nesting areas. The deep valley separating the mountain ranges is bottomed with lakes, rivers, trees, patches of grasslands, i.e., bird restaurants while traveling. We are in the midst of Lapland Longspur and American Pipit migration. Taking flight from our approaching vehicles, flocks of 10-30 add up to hundreds in a day. Snow Buntings passed through a week or two before our arrival, but no more these days.
Of course, we have been seeing thousands of ducks in the past weeks and they continue, albeit in smaller numbers along the trench as well. Just in the past few days, Trumpeter Swans are passing through and I suspect some are stopping to nest. As I am photographing one flock of 16, I notice a much smaller bird among them and am surprised to see it is a Greater White-fronted Goose. This laggard missed its cohorts and should have been far north from us by now. It’s lucky for us, since it would have been a tough find during this tour’s itinerary.
One other species we have started seeing today is Rusty Blackbird, first a migrating flock near Burwash Landing, another flock at Swede Johnson Creek, and then three setting up nesting territories at Pick Handle Lake, the latter being the place I have found them nesting on other trips. Today Pick Handle Lake is frozen over and covered with a blanket of snow. Across the lake we watch a moose in the water. On our side a Tundra Vole scurries in and out of its tunnels at the lake shore.
(Bert) Two nights ago in Destruction Bay our low overnight temperature dipped to 16.7º as registered by my outside digital thermometer. Last night was a bit warmer and it was 21º when I got up at 5:45 AM. A bit over an hour later we are birding at Mirror Creek amidst a smorgasbord of good birds. As smoothly as the people-mover at the Las Vegas airport, a Trumpeter Swan effortlessly glides toward us, so tame you would think it was a Mute Swan in a city park. Rusty Blackbirds are plentiful, seven Horned Grebes are in pristine plumage, and a flock of ten Lesser Yellowlegs is the first of the trip. Carrie shows us the nest of a Fox Sparrow that was incomplete last night when she and David came out here, and now it is completely woven. We see a Bald Eagle and when a road worker pulls up in his truck I ask him about the nest we saw on our last trip. He said it fell down last year and the eagles are building another farther back in the wetlands. At the Alaska border I take a group photo using time delay on my camera and we cross the border without incident. I count some of the migrants we pass along the highway and today’s totals are 180 Lapland Longspurs, 48 American Pipits, and 140 American Robins, the latter mostly in groups of 1-3. Our best bird of the day, though, is the Sharp-tailed Grouse crossing the road in Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, 14 mi. west of the border. It is my first ever of this species in Alaska and a lifer for several in the group. We arrive at our Tok campground and while Shari is checking on our reservations I hear Sandhill Cranes. Very high above us are long strings of cranes migrating north, a total of 890 as determined by the photos I take.
(Shari) I have come to the conclusion that mountains without snow are just mountains, but those that have snow are works of art. Our day’s drive is uneventful for me. We have discovered that if I drive the rig, Bert can bird so that is what we have been doing for the past two days. He spots a Sharp-tailed Grouse for us all to see, so that is exciting. But I want to mention the mountains. I have never noticed that there were mountains on the west side of Tok but, my gosh, today they are beautiful. Running for miles, the peaks are all white. Actually the whole of the mountains are white. Each peak has different characteristics than its neighbor, something that I had never noticed in my previous five trips here.
(Bert) A comment on fuel prices: I purchased diesel at Border City, Alaska, five miles from Yukon Territory because in 2008 this was the cheapest fuel station. Today, I paid $4.999/gal. for diesel, but I should have waited until I got to Tok as here it is $4.499/gal. By comparison, in 2008 I paid $4.979 for diesel. So, although we hear newscasters and politicians complain about gas prices, so far on this trip we have paid from $3.699 to $4.999 for diesel, with an average of $4.29. Gasoline prices are less. That’s not much different from what we paid four years ago, during the last presidential election year.
(Shari) When we arrive, a sign on the campground door proclaims “Back at 2”, so we go to the liquor store to get some Alaskan white APA ale, my new favorite after tasting it in Juneau. We also stop at the grocery store and pick up a few items to last us until Anchorage. As Bert is entering receipts in his computer he notices the receipt has $9.99 for Dunkin donuts which I did not buy. We will have to deal with that later. During our drive today, I used the inverter (using battery power) to cook a bread pudding in my slow cooker. The smell is driving me crazy and I am ready to eat all eight servings. It is for tonight’s “Dessert first, life is short” social. After our yummy bread pudding with rum sauce, Bert and I walk to the store to take care of the overcharge. We go in the store and explain the issue of the overcharge and come out of the store with egg on our face. I DID buy Dunkin Donuts though not the sweet delicious bakery kind, but it’s the name-brand coffee. Oh, how stupid am I! Oh well, the walk helped us wear off part of the calories we gained with dessert.
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