Chapter 4. Central Alaska
(Bert) Shortly after leaving Tok, a light mist of rain hardens into sleet and then quickly transforms into fluffy flakes of snow. For about 20 min. we are treated to a winter wonderland painted white with fragile snow covering roadsides, flocking spruce trees, and foreshortening our road view. The wet, glistening, warmer blacktop adds the contrast to the black and white scene. Winter soon becomes spring as the temperature edges up to a warm 37º by mid-morning and gray skies widen into blue 20-mi. horizons back dropped by the Wrangle-St. Elias range.
Tok Cutoff is notorious for frost heaves and construction, but today it is better than previous years. We stop often at pullouts for birds and mammals. It is hard to get tired of seeing Trumpeter Swans, such elegant birds, so large compared to others and with regally curved necks. They float high on what little water is open, rest peacefully on snow-covered ponds and rivers, and fly with the slow wing beat of angels. By day’s end I’ve counted 19 swans, mostly pairs, at 8 locations. Near Tolsona Creek, I brake the RV for a Bohemian Waxwing sharply outlined atop a White Spruce and as the other RV’s pull up behind the one becomes three and we get our first view of this northern specialty.
(Shari) Another short travel day turns long with our many stops, in addition to poor road conditions. The Tok Cutoff between Tok and Glennallen is notorious for frost heaves, broken pavement, and construction. Today is no exception and we cut our speed to a crawl whenever we see a gravel patch, as the seam between pavement and gravel is usually very rough. The patches are numerous but short, usually only a block or two long.
A large “No Trespassing” sign blocks the driveway and no one is around. The campground appears closed. The lodge even has a sign in the window proclaiming “Closed”. David asks if we have a Plan B. We don’t because we had been in contact with the owners when we were in Juneau and again in Tok and they knew we were on our way. So I tell Bert to go up to the campground and check if there is electricity while I call the lodge owners on the cell phone. I get a recording and leave a message. Bert finds there is no electricity to the poles at the sites where we usually park. He goes to the next row and finds one extra site with electricity than we need. We tell David to take one of those spots and we take another. The rest of the group is not in yet. Meanwhile the owner pops up and tells us his wife is in Anchorage at a symphony and will not to return until tomorrow. He was playing golf on the ice on Lake Louise. He will put a fire in the fireplace, open the lodge, and have the kitchen open if we want dinner.
Bert gives a talk on owls in front of the fireplace and later we join Doug and Kay for fresh Copper River salmon before waiting to do our night owling. At 9:30 we leave to look for the owls we generally find on Lake Louise Road. Unfortunately, we do not find owls, but do see a moose and three porcupines. Bert is so good at spotting and it is a wonder he sees it, but what looks to me like a clump of mistletoe in a tree is a porcupine sleeping. Stopping the camper must make the animal nervous because it starts to move. The porcupine doesn’t know what to do. It decides to crawl down but loses footing on its hind legs so there it is swinging by its front paws. It then decides to “hide” behind the trunk of the tree which is not even 4 in. in diameter and devoid of leaves. Taking pity on the poor animal, we depart. We meet David and Carrie on the road as they return. Later, they report to us that they saw two hawk owls not far from where we met. Kay and Bert are determined to find those owls and we stop frequently to look at the tops of the spruce trees from the end of the road back to the highway to no avail. Another owling trip with no owls! But as Kay says, “You can’t win the lottery unless you play.”
(Bert) Alaska mammals are best found in spring, at least by my experience, and today we have a zoo full of them. David and Carrie watch a Gray Wolf trot across the highway in front of them, Bob sees a Beaver swim in an opening in a frozen pond and dip below the surface. A couple of Red Squirrels chirp bird-like from the forest. Today’s mammal list continues with a single Caribou, followed hours later by three crossing the highway and disappearing into the woods, and single moose twice seen at different locations. In late evening we see still more mammals during an owling trip on Lake Louise Road. Two vehicles drive at different times and Shari, Kay and I find three porcupines, while David and Carrie find four. We cross paths near midpoint and exchange sightings information. Just minutes later David and Carrie spot two Northern Hawk Owls, and Carrie tries communicating the sighting to us, but we have our radios turned off. A half-hour later we get David’s text message when we are in cell phone coverage again and a half-hour after that we are back to where I think we met. Too late or wrong spot! Our RV trio sees no owls tonight, but still delight in the comical porcupine sightings, the flocks of Lapland Longspurs, the reflective sunset (10:30 PM) glistening off distant snow-covered peaks, and the adult Bald Eagle at the end of the 20-mi. road. We return to camp at 11:50 PM. The thermometer reads 33º.
(Bert) It is past 1 AM before we go to bed, so I sleep late into the morning (8 AM), have a leisurely breakfast at the lodge, and take along my computer to catch up on e-mail, journals, photo downloads, and bird sighting entries. David sends us a text message about a late-in-migration Snow Goose they found on their way to Anchorage. They left early this morning, a day ahead of schedule, so that they can get RV and auto repairs done early tomorrow. Even with the newest of RV’s and a car–only weeks old when we started this trip–they are the ones with mechanical problems. The car won’t start because the battery is not charging, one hydraulic jack won’t come down, the heater does not run consistently, and I think there is a fourth problem as well.
(Shari) This is kind of a free day. Birding is slow and I have lots of computer work to do. After last night’s late return, even Bert sleeps in this morning. We head to the lodge and have a delicious breakfast with Doug and later Pat joining us. I go for a walk later in the afternoon with Bob and Pat and then we have a pizza party at the lodge. Russ outdid himself and the pizza is scrumptious. Even Bob likes it and he is more fussy than I am. Beer on tap, all the pizza and salad that we can eat in a beautiful setting. How wonderful is that?
(Bert) After a day without birding, at 9 PM I suggest to Kay that we bird the back lot of the campground. First we will need to put on high rubber boots, as the marsh is soggy with melted snow. When we come back outside Kay suggests we try Lake Louise Road again for owls and Doug is willing to drive. So we stay out again past midnight, but still go unrewarded with owls. We settle again for the antics of three porcupines and the Bald Eagle at the exact same location as last night. I am curious about the eagle. Why would it sit on the ice at 11 PM? Then I notice it rests on ice adjacent to the only open water, a stream pouring from a small lake into the much larger lake. I’ll bet it is waiting for a fish to pass through with the flow.
(Bert) As the Glenn Highway climbs to Eureka Summit (elev. 3,322 ft.), Shari and I recall the first time we took this road in 1996 and how the Ford gasoline engine of our Pace Arrow motorhome appeared to be overheating–actually, it was the noise of an auxiliary engine fan that we heard. Today in our Chinook, the much redesigned, flattened and wide highway presents no problems. On the descent toward Palmer I notice all of the aspen are in the bud stage and not a leaf is to be seen. Studying the trees more closely at the Matanuska Glacier viewpoint, I see almost all trees are nipped at the bud up to a height of 8 ft., though fully budded higher up. At our feet lie nests of Moose eggs. I make the connection. We do not see a Moose, but judging by the vast amount of scat, there must be a lot of them in the parking lot area. Late in the afternoon, while driving a busy street in Anchorage, we see a Moose at the edge of traffic. Apparently, moose have become so numerous in the city that plans are afoot to relocate them to remote areas.
I was rereading my journals from our 2008 trip when we drove the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek. That year when we left Glennallen our trip-to-date count was 130 bird species. This year, traveling the ferry route and then overland only from Haines, our count is now at 128. Although remarkably close in species count, the lists are quite different.
(Shari) We are so fortunate to have such clear skies as we can see the mountains in all there splendor. One after the other is adorned with a white coat woven with many varying braids. I think I have told you that it is simply fantastic.
I treat everyone to a warm cinnamon roll at one of our stops. Yum! As we approach Anchorage I notice a bit of green grass growing on the road’s shoulder and some fuzziness to the trees. Spring is sprouting in central Alaska, at least at sea level. When we arrive at the campground, we get a free lunch of hot dogs, potato salad, chips and sweet rolls. The free food is available all week to entice residents of a neighboring park to sign long term leases at this park. After lunch we go to Costco, then Fred Meyer, and then fill up our fuel tank. This takes us all afternoon and I had intended to do the wash, but decide I am too tired. Times like these I miss my big rig with my washing machine and dryer in the bedroom. We have a short social, with complementary champagne from Doug and Kay and I go to bed early.
Next Day Table of Contents