Chapter 2. Canada
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 1998 All rights reserved.
Day 17 - May 28, 1998 - Milepost 2989 (221 today) - Edmonton, AB
(Shari) Jeans voice crackles over the CB, "Are you sure we are supposed to be on Hwy. 22X?" I look up from reading The Milepost and see farmland all around me. We are supposed to be taking Hwy. 2 through C algary so I know something is wrong. I figured since we got on Hwy. 2 this morning, all Bert had to do was stay on it. Not too difficult! He must have turned off somehow, somewhere. Now where are we I wonder? We had driven less than 15 minutes so we could not be too far wrong. I wait and wait to see a highway sign. I wait some more. Finally I see 22X. We are heading east and I wonder just how far east we have gone. I get out the map of Calgary and decide we can go north on any number of possibilities. Finally I see the first possibility and we turn on it, travel up to Hwy. 1, turn on it and 36 miles later we are back on track. Two hours later, I see a sign for a REST AREA. It is time for a break so we follow the arrows off the highway, under the bypass and down the frontage road. This is strange. The only way back onto the highway is south. We want to go north. Surely this cannot be right. Two motorhomes in a small parking lot cannot turn around and go back the way they came in. We decide to turn right on 17th Street, past a golf course, turn right into a subdivision and turn right again. This should take us to the point where we got off. Wrong! This takes us right back to where we started. Now we see another motorhome in the same predicament. We make the loop again, stopping to ask a lady doing yard work, how to get back on the highway. We have to wiggle through town some more but finally we get back on track. I realize I must readjust what I take for granted in the USA. I am now in a foreign country and from yesterdays experience, lucky to be allowed in. Rest areas are supposed to be easy on and off. Road signs are supposed to be frequently placed to confirm the travelers direction. This is Canada and it is the same but it is different. We get gas and pay 48.9 cents per liter. Changing liters to gallons and Canadian cents to dollars, I realize we just paid $1.41 per gallon. Yikes!!! What was to be a simple four hour trip took us six hours, but we finally pull into Rainbow Valley Campground in Edmonton at 2:30 p.m. Our reserved sites are too small for a 35-ft. motorhome. After some rearranging we finally get assigned sites for the next three nights. The campground is not that big and is pleasant to walk around. Although we had been to this campground before, it looks different dressed in summer green. It is a friendly oasis in the middle of the city and only 10 minutes from the MALL. We settle in, eat Jeans yummy pea soup and head to scratch the surface of the 800 shops waiting for our money. Later we introduce Jim and Ermine to Don and Jean and catch up on their trip north. Jean and Ermine must be cut from the same cloth; they hit it off immediately. They talk a mile a minute and, amazingly, I find it difficult to get a word in edgewise. Looks like we will have a fun trip continuing our way on the ALCAN.
(Bert) This morning when I reinsert the battery in the carbon monoxide detector the light illuminates, but the buzzer remains silent just as it should. Last night its piercing scream could have driven nails through steel and no amount of turning off appliances, opening windows and vents and turning on fans could silence the buzzing alarm. It seems the detector was not alarmed by something inside our motorhome, but rather by the auto emissions from the freeway next to our campground and the low cloud ceiling causing an inversion: it must have been detecting air pollution. By 8 a.m. we are on the road bypassing Calgary and heading north to Edmonton. Jean expresses surprise at the open treeless farmlands, except for trees clustered around farm houses. She expected forests, drawing on her experiences in Ontario just north of Minnesota. I am reminded of how little we know/retain about the geography of places unseen. One of the greatest benefits of cross country traveling is to experience geography first hand and to get a feel of the lay of the land. In Edmonton we check out the Mall, a preview for tomorrow, and then go back to Rainbow Valley Campground to meet Jim and Ermine who left Texas after us, traveling through the Midwest and Saskatchewan. Well travel together now along the Alcan and spend some time together in Alaska.
Day 18 - May 29, 1998 - Milepost 2989 - Edmonton, AB
(Shari) I am again amazed at the friendliness of the people of Edmonton. I ask Barbara Rains of West End Nisson if friendliness is taught in school. She said no, but appreciated my comment. We are at the Nisson dealer because in Glacier National Park we heard a metal grating sound when shifting to drive gear. It happened just once and then went away, but to be on the safe side I wanted it checked. None of the technicians have seen a transmission disconnect and are fascinated as Bert demonstrates the device when the car is lifted on a hoist. As far as can be determined, the disconnect may have been bent a little. A washer is added and a real cotter pin put in place instead of the wire Bert made. We are sent on our way with a smile and a no charge bill. Now it is shop-till-I-drop time. I arrange to meet Bert at 4 p.m. at the Wave Pool area and methodically walk the huge West Edmonton Mall, store by store. Frequently walking the wrong direction, I retrace my steps when I realize I am headed back the way I came. I am running out of time so head for Regis and my haircut. It is 4 p.m. and I have bought 1/4 lb. of coffee, a wallet I already returned because it fell apart and a salt and pepper grinder I also return because it did not grind when the batteries were added. Not much to show for myself, but I have just barely scratched the surface. This mega-mall will take days to thoroughly appreciate and I only have a few hours. I again arrange to meet Bert at Jubilations Dinner Theater where we have tickets for tonights performance. At 6:15 I meet him and the rest of our crew and we make ourselves comfortable for the show. We are transported to the environment of a river boat on its maiden voyage up the Saskatchewan River. The 3-act comedy interspersed with a four-course dinner combines modern music with campy vaudeville and all six of us thoroughly enjoy it.
(Bert) Im not a shopping person. One of the tradeoffs of Shari accompanying me on some birding trips is for me to join her on a few shopping trips. Usually I find shopping a bore, but Edmonton Mall is one place I enjoy. Of course, I can pass on the 257 womens clothing stores and the 1329 womens shoe shops, or whatever the number is. But the porpoise show and ice-skating rink and wave pool and book stores and computer shops - these can entertain me. At the IBM computer store I find a notebook computer that I think would be exactly what Jean needs to replace the oversized AC-powered tower computer she is trying to use in her motorhome. While setting it up one night Don managed to twist the monitor cable, so now the screen sometimes flickers off and this causes Windows 95 to reboot. Im sure its frustrating both Jean and Don. Later I take them to see the IBM Thinkpad and Jean likes it. They will think about it overnight and decide tomorrow before we leave Edmonton. Even though Ive been in the computer business all my life, Im always amazed how they keep dropping in price. This Thinkpad exceeds the specifications on my notebook computer and sells for a quarter of the price I paid at dealer cost a little more than two years ago. Our evening at the mall was four hours of pure entertainment. The six of us go to a dinner playhouse that combines a four-course meal (I choose prime rib) served by the actors and actresses, with an amusing play called "Slowboat" and first rate singing.
Day 19 - May 30, 1998 - Milepost 2989 - Edmonton, AB
(Bert) Adjacent to Rainbow Campground, joggers and hikers share the trail through White Mud River Nature Preserve. My pace is slower as I watch nesting goldeneyes and widgeons float on the lingering stream and I listen to an Eastern Phoebe call his name while White-throated Sparrows sing their sad minor-key symphony. A Least Flycatcher is calling its characteristic "che bek" when one of the joggers stops and asks at what I am looking. I tell him and he asks if I noted the Northern Rough-winged Swallows, obviously a fellow birder to be able to distinguish one swirling swallow from another. He introduces himself as Jeff and I respond with my name. He asks, "Dont I know you?" Here I am 2,989 miles from home and I meet a jogger in another country and he thinks he knows me. Whats the odds? I tell him Im from Texas, on my way to Alaska. He says he conducted a research project in south Texas this winter studying Burrowing Owls. I told him I sent an e-mail to a researcher about Burrowing Owls I found in the county adjacent to my home. He remembered the e-mail I sent and then told me more about his research project. Jeff is a professor here in Edmonton and, with his students, he put leg bands and radio transmitters on the summering owls and traced them to south Texas in the winter. One of the birds was located by a photograph that a birder took. The photo was so sharp that they could read the numbers engraved on the leg band. When they went to the location where the photo was taken, all they found was a pile of feathers, the victim of a predator. I mention that we will be traveling on tomorrow to Lesser Slave Lake to help with bird banding and he says he knows the project managers there. A small world, isnt it? Later when he jogs past me on his return trip I quiz him about two vireos I am listening to. I position myself along the trail so that I can hear one Red-eyed Vireo in my left ear and the other in my right ear. Even though they are the same species, the bird songs are slightly different. Both are incessant singers, but one has a slower cadence and repeats an identical phrase every third or fourth time among other more variable phrases. The other vireo sings faster and moves further up and down the musical scale. They say that birds have individual songs and can recognize each other by their songs much like we can distinguish other peoples voices. Usually the birds variations are too difficult for humans to identify, but here I can tell the difference in the two vireos.
(Shari) This morning Bert and Jim fix our steps. Now Bert really cooked his goose and EVERYBODY will want him to fix things. When exiting from the gas station yesterday, the steps got caught on a raised portion of the pavement and bent all out of wack. They would not even retract without the help of hands pushing on them. They certainly did not come back out. Bert really thought we would need new steps. So Jim and Bert are now banging on them with a sledge hammer. Bang, bang, bang and the steps move a tiny bit. Bert and Jim gaze at the steps for a bit, mumble some words to each other (all I hear is "I think . . . ") and soon Jim leaves and returns with his truck and a rope. The rope is tied around the steps at one end and the truck hitch at the other. Jim starts the engine and gently pulls. Bert hollers, "Stop." Again they look at the steps and mumble to each other. The rope is tied to a different place on the steps and the procedure is repeated. This is duplicated again. Finally the rope is tied to yet another spot on the steps, pulled by the truck and Walla the steps are almost as good as new. What geniuses they are. Now it is time to go to the Farmers Market. Cars and people are everywhere and we are thankful we can wiggle into a tight parking place across the street from the market. The market is inside a huge warehouse type building. I think each merchant got someones money from our group. We bought tomatoes, asparagus, bakery sweet rolls, home made bread, a toy for Maddie, homemade jam, a basil plant, freshly made sausage, fresh eggs, spinach. Since we only had an hour, I was forced to bypass the craft booths. Next it was back to the mall to purchase our fishing license. The walleyes are calling all the way from Slave Lake. Jean and Don buy a new laptop computer and, while it is being readied, Jean and I grocery shop. We visit the Save-On store I shopped at last time. Again we spend two hours in that store. Two hours is not enough. I could spend two hours alone in the bin sections. Everything from candy, chips, cookies, flour, nuts, powdered drinks, cereals, cake and muffin mixes and spices are sold in bulk and I have a hey day filling little bags with my treasures. Meat is displayed for sale in cases by type: chicken here, lunch meats there, beef roasts over there, processed meats at yet another place. Then comes a bakery you could die for and a section where one can buy whole meals for take-out dinner. Of course there is the boring aisle after aisle of canned goods and paper products etc. Well, now it is 6 p.m. and the mall is closing. We are to meet Don and Bert with computer at the mall entrance. We arrive at the agreed upon meeting place but no Bert and Don. Soon Don comes without Bert and without computer. There was a virus on the one they were to buy so they did not buy it. That was the bad news. The good news is that Bert found another one. Jean must give her approval first. So we pile into the car (the store Bert is waiting at is located of course at the other side of the mall). We drive to the place, see the computer and soon Don is setting the box into our car. Now we have to jam all those groceries into RTENT. By the time I am done I need a drink and am ready to relax a bit. We join the rest for grilled hamburgers, salad, tator tots, and beans at the Haileys campsite.
Day 20 - May 31, 1998 - Milepost 3173 (184 today) - Lesser Slave Lake, AB
(Shari) I wonder how many churches have two 55-ft. motorhome/car combinations parked in front on a Sunday morning. Since church service started at 9:15 a.m., we decide to pack and be ready to leave before church. Holy Spirit Lutheran Church, LCA, is loud with chatter as we settle into our pew. No one seems to notice us. Those around us talk to their friends, catching up on each others news since last they met. The start of service is made especially meaningful on this Pentecost Sunday with the reading of John 3:16 in six different languages. Pastor Tim Posyluznys sermon em.p.h.asizes the peace one finds in the church community and how our future is in Gods hands. Worship forces us away from ourselves and into the realm of the Holy Spirit. At the conclusion of the service Pastor Tim asks if any visitors are worshiping with them this morning. We raise our hands and introduce ourselves. This unleashes a friendly spirit that was missing at the beginning. Everyone wants to know about our trip to Alaska and we are peppered with questions as we make our way out of the sanctuary. We finally hit the road and exit Edmonton many miles later. I am amazed at the size of this population center so far north. We arrive at Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park after Jim and Ermine. With ample sites carved out of the forest, the park is situated on a bank above the large lake. Loop A has electrical service and we back into a site close to the Haileys. Don and Ermine and I scout the area for fishing spots, learning the walleyes we have heard calling since Glacier, are some 100 miles west. Disappointed, we ask the camp host where a good alternative spot might be. He offers to go with us in the morning if the weather is nice.
(Bert) If you look at a Canadian map, youll see we should head west out of Edmonton to reach Alaska. We head north. Jim and I intend to help in a bird banding project at Lesser Slave Lake. Shari, Ermine and Don have Walleye dreams for the opening day of fishing, June 1. And Jean is anxious to stay cooped in dBus to try her new Compaq Presario notebook. Heading north from Edmonton, we again are in the midst of farmland ankle deep in newly planted crops. The fields are edged in rows of tall deciduous trees and remind me of central Wisconsin, the state of my childhood, except for the absence of lakes. The pock marks of an ancient glacial period are less evident and the terrain is smoother, yet not flat. Very small ponds fill depressions and each supports one or two pairs of nesting ducks, mostly Mallards, but also widgeon, scaup, teal and a few Canvasbacks. As we travel north, the woods increase at the expense of farm land. Aspen and birch become more common, with a sprinkling of spruce. Still further, the spruce begin to take over, solid masses of them, standing shoulder to shoulder, arrows aimed straight up with deep green needles splayed like feathers on the arrows shaft. Each spruce stretches toward sunlight, struggling to inch higher than its competitors. With the change of trees, the dominant black bird shifts from a medium sized flapper (crow) to a large sized glider (raven). A sign warns of smoke ahead and immediately I note the charred black ground in patches beside the road, followed by charred spruce arrows stripped of their feathers. The fire damaged forest stretches for miles, not completely devastated, just selective patches of blackened spruce trunks. The aspen and birch remain green leafed. While the sign warns of smoke, the sky is blue, studded with white cumulus. Only the acrid smell tells us the fire was recent. One small remnant casts up wisps of smoke and a yellow clad firefighter watches the subdued flames choking in its death throes. By the time we reach Lesser Slave Lake, everything is green again. But a sign at the entrance to tonights campground pegs the fire warning at extreme.
Day 21 - June 1, 1998 - Milepost 3173 - Lesser Slave Lake, AB
(Bert) I am awakened at 4:15 a.m. by a beeping alarm. As my head clears, I notice the alarm is not inside, but comes from just outside our bedroom window. Then I recognize the alarm is really a bird singing. It isnt until later in the morning that I identify the song as a White-throated Sparrow because somehow the birch woods, moist with last nights rain, intensified the song and made it more shrill. Its already light outside and the wake-up alarm is appropriate; it gives me 45 minutes to put on layers of clothes and eat breakfast before Jim and I leave for the birding observatory. When we arrive, we expect to see the mist nets in position and ready to be inspected for their first catch. Instead we find that Stefan and Sara have not yet arrived. When they show up 15 minutes later, they explain that they didnt want to expose trapped birds to cold rain and had decided to get a late start this morning. Together we unfurl the nets, delicate light weight nets stretched across 7-ft. aluminum poles. Each mist net is about 5 ft. high by 30 ft. long and is positioned in a straight line cleared in a dense woods at the edge of Lesser Slave Lake. The thin black net is almost impossible to see and birds flying low through the woods hit the net and are caught. After the nets are set, we move to a makeshift shack with a paint splattered table and two chairs. Sara makes tea and we wait for the birds to show up. I find out Stefan Jungkind is a volunteer bird bander this spring, but his full-time job is playing viola for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. His assistant, Sara Wittkowski, is a college sophomore with one years experience as a birder and two weeks of on-the-job training as a bander. We check the nets and I find a Canada Warbler in one. Stefan removes the bird and we take it back to the shack. Here Sara identifies its sex and age as a second year male and places an appropriately sized aluminum band on one leg. Then she measures its wing and tail lengths, judges the condition of its feathers on a 6-point scale, determines its fat content by blowing on its chest and looking for fat deposits and also checks its sexual maturity. All of this data is carefully recorded in a book. Finally, the warbler is weighed and released, the whole process taking five to 10 minutes. Our next bird is a male American Redstart. This particular bird is already banded and from its number we know it was banded here last year and returned again this spring. I take a photograph of this one before it is released. Since Sara is holding the bird in her hand, I can use a closeup lens positioned only a few inches from the warbler. Todays net captures are infrequent because of the cold weather and intermittent rain, combined with the end of migration. Yesterday only about a dozen birds were captured; this morning is even slower. The next net check produces another redstart and a Swainsons Thrush. While Sara processes these, the three of us survey the area for singing birds and an occasional sighting. As the morning wears on, we identify Song and Clay-colored Sparrows, Alder Flycatchers, Common Goldeneyes, Common Terns, Common Loons, a Bald Eagle and a half-dozen other species. But our nets only produce an additional Orange-crowned Warbler and White-throated Sparrow. Also, a Lincolns Sparrow is recaptured, almost a daily occurrence since its nest is next to one of the nets. Because so few birds are captured this morning, Jim and I have little to do but watch. For a half-hour we hike a trail through the woods, see only one bird but hear dozens that sing songs mostly strange to us. Warblers passing through Texas during migration do not sing, so identifying their songs here on the breeding grounds is something at which we are a bit rusty. Exiting from the trail we encounter one of the mist nets and it holds a captured sparrow. Jim attempts to remove the bird from its entanglement and I go
to get Stefan to help. When we return five minutes later Jim has made little progress, but Stefan takes only a minute to get the bird free. We learn that removing birds from nets is a skill that requires much experience. By noon the mist netting is all but done for the day and we leave, promising Stefan we will return tomorrow morning.
(Shari) The rain splashes RTENT most of the night. Bert has long since gone since his bird netting started at 5 a.m. I snuggle under the covers, roll over and return to catch a few more winks. I hear knocking at the door. Surely no one wants to go fishing in this weather I think. I get up, turn on the heater and start the coffee. Again the knock. Don wants to know when we are leaving. Oh, oh! Guess I better make my lunch, gather my rain gear and boots, get the worms and tackle and head for the car. I have 15 minutes. We drive 20 miles toward town in constant drizzle. We turn into Norms Fish camp and not a soul is fishing this popular spot. The whole river bank is ours. I am the first to ready my rod and cast into the swift moving stream. Wop! I got a fish immediately. I scream and holler, "I got a fish! I got a fish!" It puts up a struggle but soon I see what is pulling back on my line. It is one of those skinny, snaky looking pickerels. Unable to remove it from the hook I ask Don if he would do it for me. So glad he is along! I get the rod ready again, thinking if there are little ones there are bound to be bigger ones. However there are more of the same and I manage to loose three of my lures, one of which is bitten off by a Northern Pike while I watch. Ermine and I are cold so we drive into town and shop, leaving Don all alone to fish. We return 90 minutes later and Don points to his stringer. He caught a good 5-lb. Northern. What a blast! This gives Ermine and me courage so we gather our gear and cast more lures into the water. I catch more small pickerel but nothing to take home. Finally I am numb with cold and return to the car. We pull Don away from his fishing. As he returns a borrowed lure, he is offered another good sized northern to take home. Now we have enough for a good meal. The fishermen return with food for the table.
Day 22 - June 2, 1998 - Milepost 3173 - Lesser Slave Lake, AB
(Bert) The thermometer reads 33 degrees when we leave our campsite at 5 a.m. headed for our second day of bird banding. Shortly before we reach the banding site I yell to Jim, "Stop! Theres a moose!" Rigid as an imposing statue, the cow moose poses broadside with her head cocked in our direction. Her broad rippling muscles under dark, almost black, fur are obvious even from our view point 150 yards away. She is standing in a grassy corridor sliced through the dense forest to allow passage of the utility wires dangling high above us. Nearby a half dozen White-tailed Deer prance, light-footed and daintily, in contrast to the firmly planted moose. When they run, the underside of their long tails waves like white flags. This time when we arrive the nets are unfurled and Stefan and Sara have already captured a Swainsons Thrush, American Redstart and Yellow Warbler. Were off to a good start and with the improved weather, colder but drier, mist netting gets better. With the increased catch, Jim and I get to help more. Both of us help in recording the data and in surveying for birds, but Stefan and Sara do all the bird handling, unlike other bird banding experiences Ive had where helpers get to make measurements and free the birds from the nets. Several species sing sweetly from hidden perches and we identify their songs and hope to catch the more elusive. An especially tantalizing one is the Alder Flycatcher, an incessant singer here. During the morning we catch four of these and I photograph the first one. Coded ALFL in the record book, the Alder Flycatcher belongs to a group of birds that my identification book describes as, "The bane of birdwatchers, flycatchers of the genus Empidonax are extremely difficult to identify." The 10 North American species in this genus are so similar that in most cases, only bird songs are considered a reliable way to tell them apart in the field. And even that is confusing. My guide book describes its song as "fee-bee-oh," a poor mnemonic since it sounds more like "raa-bierdt" to me. When an Alder is caught in the nets we get a chance to see it up close. I notice the longer and wider bill and the longer length of the primary feathers in its wings, key identification features. The apparent, but not bold, white eye-ring can be seen, as can its yellow lower mandible, but these features are shared by several other Empidonax. Even with the bird in hand, it is obvious that Empis are hard to identify. But thats one of the things that makes birding continue to be interesting to me even though Ive been at it for more than 40 years. By the end of the morning when we close up the nets, weve tallied 27 birds including 20 newly-banded birds and seven recaptures. The most attractive are the colorful warblers: Mourning, Canada, Wilsons, Black & White and Magnolia in addition to the redstart and Yellow Warbler we got on the first round. On our way back to our campsite we again see moose: this time a cow and calf standing in the middle of the highway. They watch us with little concern until Jims truck narrows the gap to a couple hundred feet and then the two slowly plod into the surrounding forest.
(Shari) Two oil field workers, fishing on their lunch break yesterday, told us fish were being caught at Faust. Since we did not think the weir was all that great we decided to drive to the spot. My mouth waters for walleye while Don and I (Ermine is taking a day of rest from fishing) drive the 60 miles to Faust. We find the dock down the gravel main street of Faust and park the car alongside three others. "Are the fish biting today?", I ask one of the men on the dock as I gather my pole and bait. His short answer, "No," makes my heart sink. We have driven more than 3,000 miles to catch fish and another 60 this morning. Apparently the fish are not biting at Grouard Bridge either. I thought I could not hear them calling anymore. One young man has been here since 5 a.m. and has only a northern (Jack) to show for his efforts. It is a nice one however. I think those fishing just are not using the right bait. I put on my newly purchased Five-of-Diamonds lure, a nice yummy yellow spoon with five little red diamonds. Casting out, I hold my breath for the bite that I know will come. Fifteen minutes later I try a yummy nightcrawler on a hook, then I add a bobber and even later I change to a jig. Throughly discouraged, I walk to the car and eat my lunch. The nice young man I met earlier stops his van and asks if I would like his fish. Would I? At least we will have something to take home. Don fares no better and we decide to leave when we see locals, who arrived after us, already leaving. We head for the weir where at least we caught something yesterday. Unfortunately we fare even worse here and only see two fish caught. The clerk from the fish store catches a walleye and puts it into a plastic bag weighted down with rocks. I think it strange; since he works at a fishing place, he could get all the stingers he likes. Later I realize he may have been a poacher and the bag could easily be kicked should a game warden enter the territory. He loses his fish anyway as the bag got a hole in it and the fish swam out. It looks smaller than 17 in. to me. Giving up for the day we head home and I prepare fish soup for everyone. Jeans rhubarb pie makes a good treat for dessert.
Day 23 - June 3, 1998 - Milepost 3276 (103 today) - Lesser Slave Lake, AB
(Shari) We decide to spend the night at Hilliards Bay Provincial Park near the walleye calling me. After lunch Don and I take separate cars to Grouard bridge. I am afraid he will persist longer than I am willing to stay. With bucket, pole, worms and lawn chair in tow we settle between others on the bridge. I notice fishing on this bridge is a family activity and kids come join their parents after school. If too young to attend school, the children are put in strollers or even carried in baby carriers on the back of dad. The man next to me pulls up a walleye, too small to keep. The man on the other side of me pulls up a walleye, a keeper. However, not many fish are biting. The bait of todays successful fisherman is a leech. Of course, I do not have leeches and am told the closest place to buy them is Faust, the same tiny town I was at yesterday. I try scented lures and worms and crappie rigs but nothing hungers for my bait. Thoroughly disgusted, I drive to the boat dock to try my luck. Nothing going on there either! After three hours of trying and nothing to show for it, I head home. Don stays another two hours and shows us his second nice northern of the trip, which he caught about an hour after I left.
(Bert) Lesser Slave Lake dominates a little known camping and fishing resort area in central Alberta. Even many Albertans dont know about it: a fact Steve Lane would like to change. Yesterday we met Steve at the bird banding site and in the afternoon went to his office in the town of Slave Lake. He had generously offered his phone jack for Jim and me to retrieve our e-mail. Steve wears two hats: Director of Tourism and Chamber of Commerce President. He gave me one of the brochures he has produced for the Kananaskis Country he promotes; it is obvious he is proud of this wilderness dominated by a large lake. For the past two nights weve been parked in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park at the Martin River campground in widely spaced, heavily wooded sites equipped with 30-amp service and accessible water and dump. All sites are within a short walk of the east end of the lake which stretches almost 50 miles east to west and more than 10 miles north to south. The lake is shallow enough to warm up for summer swimming, a fact that is hard to accept for this Texan accustomed to 90-degree water in his backyard pool. But judging by the many Canadians running around in shorts and T-shirts as soon as the thermometer hits 10 degrees Celsius (50 for us still on the Fahrenheit scale), I guess swimming in a cold lake is believable. At the urging of the three fishermen in our party, this morning we move our campsite to the opposite end of the lake. Jim and I leave again at 5 a.m. for the bird banding site, but we encounter heavy rain and a formidable, mud-entrenched road as we exit the paved highway. At the intersection we decide that getting stuck, axle deep in mud, is not in this mornings plans and guess that Stefan has made a similar decision, so we forego our last opportunity at banding here. Unlike the muddy side road, the main highway is superior from Edmonton to Slave Lake and again is high quality as we drive along the southern edge of the lake this morning on our way to Grouard. At Hilliards Bay Provincial Park the campsites are narrow and many are sloping, but we find three that well suit our needs. The three fishermen head out to the bay in search of the walleye that eluded them the past two days. I catch up on my sleep and computer work until three hours later when Shari and Ermine come back empty handed. Shari and Ermine have four principles of fishing: (1) if its raining or cold, postpone fishing; (2) if they dont bite in 20 minutes, they wont ever bite; (3) if she cant catch any, she needs to buy more lures; (4) if she hasnt any fish to take back, get another fisherman to give up theirs. Don is of a different school. He also has four principles of fishing: (1) if they arent biting now, they surely will if he tries longer; (2) if they dont bite today, they surely will tomorrow; (3) if they dont bite tomorrow, they surely will at the other side of the lake. But he does share one principle with Shari: if he hasnt any fish to take back, get another fisherman to give up theirs. Don comes back a few hours later with two Northern Pike he caught and I help him clean them.
Day 24 - June 4, 1998 - Milepost 3523 (247 today) - Fort St. John, BC
(Shari) Can you believe it? We have driven almost 3,500 miles and finally reach the start of our trip: the ALCAN in Dawson Creek. We arrive there about 1 p.m. and I immediately notice how different it is from two years ago. The town is bustling: bustling with cars, bustling with trucks, bustling with tourists and RVs, bustling with shops and even bustling with a group of school children serenading the tourists at the information stop. Everybody stops here because a sign proclaims this as the start of the Alaska Highway, Mile 0. We do the tourist thing and Bert even sets up his tripod to take a picture of all six of us (and Nina) at the "monument." The day is warm and sunny and people are milling about everywhere. The men tell us we have exactly 45 minutes before we hit the road again so we split up and I visit the gift stores, the information booth and the grocery store. Bert visits the liquor store and stares at our rear tire. He hears a hissing sound there and after some manly stares he decides some small leak exits. We drive onto our predetermined destination in Fort St. John. Someone once told me all of British Columbia is a mountain. Almost immediately crossing the border, the hills commence. The road is no different from that on which we had been driving. It is two lanes with wide shoulders but the cars, RVs and trucks are thick. We are stopped once for a small construction area near the Peace River bridge. The Milepost describes the "highway begins steep winding descent to the Peace River bridge. CAUTION: Trucks check your brakes." Boy, they were not kidding. It is a doozy of a descent by my standards and a piece of cake by Berts, but I can tell you we took the decline in first gear. We arrive at Sourdough Petes RV Park and inquire if the park is modem-friendly. It is and we stay. The six of us look like a hive of bees at this point. Bert takes RTENT to get the tire fixed. I take the wash into town to find the Laundromat, Jean does wash here at the campground, Don calls the RV repair person to look at his water pump, Ermine and Jim also wait their turn at the washers and dryers. Upon returning I make a cake for tomorrows surprise celebration commemorating Jeans birthday. Finally all work is done, the dishes are washed and put away and we girls embark on our evening walk.
(Bert) Driving west from Lesser Slave Lake, we pass large tracts of laser-flat farmland cleared from the boreal forest, rich in deep green, generously watered alfalfa and grain. Small towns look prosperous as they support agriculture with grain silos, railroads and farm machinery. Further westward, ripples in the smooth land grow to waves and the terrain begins to resemble sand dunes at the beach, but colored green except for the thinly-vegetated crests where the brown earth shows through. The turmoil increases until some 5 to 10 miles further we see a highway sign warning us of the 8% descent to the Smoky River. We roller coast down and back up and then repeat the sand dune image on the other side, but in reverse order. Geology fascinates me as I try to guess how land formations got the way they are. Here it appears that through time the Smoky River meandered a wide path, some 20 miles in breadth, through a flat plain, leaving sand dunes in its wake and carving a deep crevice where the flow was strongest. We cross into British Columbia and then reach Dawson Creek. When we visited on May 11, 1996 the town was like Old Man Winter, chilled and still, sleepy and gray. Today Dawson Creek has awakened from its long sleep, busting with cheerful spring flowers and bustling with frontier town activity. Standing in rows three deep, a semicircle of school children sing cheery songs in front of the visitors center. The parking lot is crisscrossed with RVs and everyone is posing in front of Mile 0 signs for photographs commemorating our start on the Alaska Highway. We pile back into our RVs to start our adventure on the Alcan. The road starts superbly, but we get our first roller coaster thrills when we plummet down the steep hill to the Peace River bridge, one of the first engineering challenges of the 1942 construction crew. The view from the top of the descent is of the caliber that makes us want to grab our cameras for a photo through the windshield. We continue as far as Fort St. John and select campsites at Sourdough Petes, an RV park thats new since our 1996 visit. It seems each vehicle in our little caravan is in need of repair. I get a tire repaired, a pin hole leak caused by a "tiny little finishing nail" according to the tire serviceman, so small that he couldnt plug the hole and instead, put in a "boot." Im glad thats fixed and I dont have to add air every 500 miles. Don gets a local RV repairman to look at his malfunctioning water pump; it spurts to life every 30 seconds even when no water is demanded. In the water line the repairman finds that leftover plastic shavings from the RVs construction caused the problem. Jim adds two problems to the list when he discovers a clothes rack supported by special screws affixed to the ceiling of a bedroom closet give way leaving him with a pile of clothes lying on the bottom. His second problem is uncharged batteries and both problems will have to wait until tomorrow for resolution. When we see Dons repairman, we ask him to stop by our RV to look at a malfunctioning heater we discovered on our first day of travels. But when we try it out we find it now works. It fixed itself and we have no idea how, but are happy for the self-repair.
Day 25 - June 5, 1998 - Milepost 3765 (242 today) - Fort Nelson, BC
(Shari) Our first day on the Alaska Highway begins. No one likes it, except Bert and possibly Jim, but we leave at 6 a.m. We reason the traffic will be less, the wildlife will be out and vacancies will exist at Fort Nelson when we arrive. In addition we will have a good portion of the day to diddle and do whatever we wish. Beeeeep, Beeeep, Beeep is the noise we hear like garbage trucks backing up in the morning when you are trying to sleep. Beeep, Beeep Beeep. The alarm sounds alerting us to a jack down position, but we know the jacks are up. Beeeep, Beeeep, Beeep goes the piercing noise. Other times it went away and last time we thought we solved the problem by removing the ignition alarm fuse. Now the fuse still lies on the dash, but I still hear Beeeep, Beeeeep Beeeep. We stop, apply brakes, put gears in neutral, start, stop, put gears in reverse and finally the noise stops. I think the jacks will not be used again on the trip. Jims closet pole crashed down yesterday and Dons water pump and water heater do not work. Oh, the trials of traveling! A funny thing, none of this relates to the ALCAN however. We have not approached the bad part of the road yet. Soon after departing Ft. St. John, the wilderness begins. There are no houses, stores or even buildings to be seen. Our first grade is 7%, 124 miles out of Dawson Creek. This is not too bad. We see two moose in a hollow near Pink Mountain. The road narrows a bit with paved shoulders replaced with gravel. The scenery is spectacular and from the perspective of the hilltops, a forest as far as the eye can see consists of dark green White Spruce trees interweaved with the lighter green of aspens. About 156 miles from Dawson Creek, The Milepost states "Slow down for hill." That is an understatement. I drove this in 1996 and Bert had to pry my hands from the steering wheel when I finally arrived at the bottom. I do not do much better this time and my heart is in my throat as Bert gears down (not slow enough in my opinion) to travel the 9% grade. I see us careening over the edge of the mountain at every curve and prepare to meet my maker. Then I see a sign "Very dangerous curve." It must be bad if we have to be warned. I thought all the others were very dangerous curves as well. After this, the road deteriorates a bit and periodic 12-ft. patches of loose gravel and tar patched road make the surface a bit bumpy. We see another two moose take their good nature time crossing the highway in front of us. At mile 199 we are stopped for about five minutes. Construction crews are repairing this section of the road and one side is dug out for about 20 ft. allowing only one way of traffic to pass at once. At mile 226 the road widens, is smooth and has a paved shoulder. Overall todays drive is not much worse than a secondary county road in the US but sure has a heck of a lot of scenery. At 12:30 we arrive at Fort Nelson, gas up (to the tune of $1.75 per gallon), and wash our vehicles at the free RV wash at West End RV Campground. We beat the rush but not by much. Rigs are pulling in right and left and I expect this place will be close to full tonight.
(Bert) We start our first full day on the Alaska Highway at 6 a.m., an early beginning to beat the RV crowd and a better chance to spot wildlife from the road. From Fort St. John, the ALCAN is a smooth wide two-lane highway with generous shoulders. With other RVers still sleeping in, the only traffic we encounter is locals, primarily oil field pickups and logging trucks, leapfrogging through our caravan. The remnants of civilization are quickly shed and the land reverts to limitless seas of deep green spruce forests and scattered, somewhat paler, aspen groves. The rolling hills and gentle curves grow to steeper grades and sharper turns and from our RV chatter it becomes apparent that men and women view the road differently. Sharis worry scale moves toward full tilt, 5.5 on the Richter scale, and I suspect Jean and Ermines concern is not far behind. For Shari, the arrival of light rain moves the scale up a notch. On the other hand, my worry scale is riding on empty and I doubt that Jims has budged from zero. Older and wiser, Don might be registering a small concern. Nevertheless, we smoothly transition the hills and curves without incident. We reach Pink Mountain, a non-incorporated "town" consisting of one gas station on the left side of the highway and a restaurant/gift shop on the right. The Milepost, the bible of the Alaska Highway, tells us to look for moose here and, right on cue, two of these marvelous creatures appear in a marshy spot outside our passenger side windows. Miles further as we coast down a broad valley we see two more moose lumbering slowly across the highway on the uphill side. Next in The Milepost we read about Suicide Hill and Shari is reminded of a scary hill she descended in 1996 near this spot. Suicide Hill comes and goes without us recognizing a threat, but soon thereafter we encounter Sikanni Hill, the actual one that Shari was remembering. This time I am driving and I have difficulty understanding why she was concerned. To me a yellow sign depicting a truck on an incline represents a warning to downshift; to Shari it is the threat of death by free fall. Lest some readers think these roads are scary, be reminded that most of the roads through the Lower 48 Rockies give Shari the same level of anxiety. Nearer to Fort Nelson the land flattens and the road straightens. Grassy green strips separate highway from spruce and delightful golden dandelions are generously sprinkled in the green background. Contrasting Mountain Bluebells and clusters of fluffy white flowers called Cotton Grass add more color to our travels. We arrive at West End RV by 1 p.m., in plenty of time to wash our RVs and cars in the free carwash (a long hose) and prepare our vehicles for tomorrows passage through the worst of the ALCAN.
Day 26 - June 6, 1998 - Milepost 3917 (152 today) - Muncho Lake, BC
(Bert) In my minds ear I can hear Jean yell, "DON, STOP!", as I drive a quarter mile ahead of their RV on the Alaska Highway. Within 10 seconds they are out of CB range and only miles down the road do they catch up to tell us of their discovery. Jean has developed an interest in wild flowers (which she shares with Ermine in the evenings when they compare notes on their finds) and when, from the perspective of our her motorhome perch, she sees a new species she yells to Don to stop for her to pick a sample. This time as we course beside Toad River, she finds Purple Loco which she tells us is a poisonous member of the pea family. The valley we traverse rivals Yellowstone in beauty: copper laden streams reflect changing patterns of blue, gray and green; Black Spruce clad mountains climax in bare rock too steep and too hard to support vegetation; apprehensive Woodland Caribou at Summit Lake and Stone Sheep, a blackish phase of White Sheep, at Stone Mountain approach the roadway (we see one of each); while along our journey the sun pours forth warmth appropriate for the T-shirts Shari and Jean purchase at a shop near Summit Lake Provincial Park. Weve reached this spot by mid morning having gotten an early 6:15 a.m. start from Fort Nelson. On the way we got a great view of a large canine which three of us independently identify as a Timber Wolf by its charcoal gray color, bulky size and more substantial rounded face, contrasting with the pointed gaunt look of coyotes. While the wolf was on our left, we almost missed a herd of bison on our right. A bright red Mule Deer and a moose and her calf were other mammals we sight this morning. In addition to wildlife, I enjoy a wild ride through the construction site at Steamboat, the toughest section of the ALCAN this year. After a 15-min. wait for our pilot car to arrive, we drive single file through a mountains rock and gravel slowly being transformed into a highway by Caterpillars, earth movers, graders, rollers, dump trucks and a crew of construction workers using their monstrous tools seven days per week. Mid-course through the construction site the pilot car drops to the side and I find myself in the lead. I meander through the gravel and mud, narrowly bypassing the large equipment at work. At one point I find a roller slowly narrowing my path on the right side of the eventual road. The driver motions to me and I interpret the hand gesture as a signal for me to pull in the left lane. (Shari later confides she thinks he was giving me a loco signal.) From my new perspective on the left side, I see trouble ahead of me: a semitrailer length gravel truck barring down on my path. Jim, following behind me, stays in the right lane. Its a stand off and I wish the pilot car was here to referee. Wisely, the gravel truck zigs to the other lane to pass me and then zags back to avoid Jim. I decide to move back into the right lane before I get in more serious trouble. We continue our snails pace through some 10 miles of gravel and rock and welcome hard pavement again when we reach constructions end. All-in-all it is an enlightening experience that gives me a feel of what it might have been like to take the ALCAN when it was a raw road untamed by the straightening, broadening and flattening of modern times.
(Shari) Oh no, I do not want to get up. The alarm rings at 5:20 a.m. because we want again to get an early start for what is purporting to be the roughest section of the Alaska Highway. I am crabby and out of sorts, but am dressed and in the copilot seat by 5:45. We all dump our waste water to unload extra weight as we anticipate climbing over the Rockies. Five miles later I spot something in the road ahead. It is a wolf. It looks at us as we approach and Bert snaps a picture
as we slowly drive past. Across the street is a herd of buffalo grazing in a meadow. Jean wants to know what to look for next. I tell her the guidebook says Caribou. When leaving town we noticed clouds ahead and now we approach a wall of fog. It is spooky driving into it as if we may never come out again. We disappear and Jean, who is behind, says goodbye. The shroud lifts in a few miles but the road narrows. The gravel shoulder shrinks from 2 or 3 ft. to less than 12 in. Since the road is built higher than the surrounding land, we would appear to drop off the edge at any miss turn of the steering wheel. Road construction begins at Steamboat. We congratulate ourselves for picking a Saturday to drive since no crews are visible and the road is smooth gravel and wider than the previous paved road. We should have kept our mouths shut. Just ahead is a person holding a stop sign. She approaches RTENT and tells us the wait will be 10 to 15 minutes until the pilot car reaches us from the other side of the construction. We pile out of our vehicles and chat with others who do the same. Soon the pilot car is ready to escort us and I am grateful. This does slow Berts speed to something I can handle and I am brave enough to let go of my passenger brakes to take a few pictures. The pilot car abandons us to our own defenses and we are again in the lead through the construction. It is sometimes one lane and we wonder who is stopping oncoming traffic. Sometimes it is two lane but we are forced by bumpy conditions to take the left lane. Again we wonder who is stopping the oncoming traffic. Apparently no one, as we see an oncoming truck barreling toward us. The truck takes the right lane and we decide to move over also. By this time a grater approaches and makes a circling motion to Bert who understands it to mean "take the left lane." I understand it to be "you are loco." Apparently I was right for another truck approaches on a collision course. Finally the construction ends and we made it through. The last 1,000 ft. however are littered with rocks the size of golf balls and tennis balls. All told the construction lasted about 10 miles and it was rather an experience. Soon we see a caribou that seems lost. It is a young one and wants to cross the highway but too many cars are in the way. It runs up and then back on the road and its body language is frantic. We see a couple of moose near Toad River. We stop at Toad River Lodge that is a bit of something to everyone, a motel, a restaurant, a gift store, post office, ambulance station, a bus depot, service station, minor road repairs, airstrip. This IS the town. Bert and Don take a well deserved snooze (Jim and Ermine left us in their dust hours ago) while Jean and I scan the gift shop. We each buy T-shirts that are 40% off. The lodge is known for its collection of hats and more than 4,000 baseball hats are on display attached to the ceiling. The road follows a stream bed from here to Muncho Lake. We camp at Strawberry Flats Campground, Muncho Lake Provincial Park. The only water available is supplied by a hand pump. We decide to make do with a quarter tank and not drive to town (population 17) to fill it. If you like areas enjoy Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and Glacier National Park, you will love this section of the highway. Every turn, every corner, every hilltop is an Ooh Ah view and I feel so in tune and one with nature, more so than when I visited Yellowstone, et. al, because this is more natural. Man has not had the opportunity to spoil it with ice cream shops, lodges, massive amounts of cars and souvenir stores. It is still pristine and pure, with Muncho Lake the gemstone in its emerald like color and crystal clear water. We park RTENT facing the water between the White Spruce across from the Centennial mountains of the Rockies. It is a postcard picture and so serene we decide to stay two days.
Day 27 - June 7, 1998 - Milepost 3917 - Muncho Lake, BC
(Shari) On yesterdays boat tour of the lake, the captain explained the difference between Black and White Spruce. The Black almost look sick and are scraggly and skinny. They have a purple underbark that gives them the black dark color. The White Spruce look healthy and more like Christmas trees with wider bottoms than tops. They have white underbark and therefore are a lighter color. The captain was a wealth of information, but the tour was mediocre. The Milepost mentions Muncho Lake as having a population of 26. The captain says now only 17 hearty souls brave the harsh climate full time. He has lived in the area 20 years and wears many hats. Besides running the tour boat he has the service station in "town" that also is a cafe/lodge. Muncho Lake gets its green color from the oxidized copper in the soil on the west side of the lake. Iron is the predominate mineral on the east side. He tells us of the first settler, a trapper named Petersen, and of a local native family still practicing the old way of life. Looking out of my window as I write this, I see the mirrored surface of the lake reflecting the mountains on the other side. One small patch of snow remains and is also reflected on the lake. As the day progresses the lake changes its clothes with different images on its face. Don is fishing on the dock and has already caught three Lake Trout. Only one a keeper, but he has been at it for four hours and just now caught the fish. Jean brings him some coffee and he is a gem. He is such a supportive and positive person and tells Jean how grateful he is for the coffee and that it brings him luck. Jean, now feeling appreciated would gladly take an undersized fish to the refrigerator to hide should Don ask. Luckily the undersized fish is already released back into the lake. Bert is biking the six miles to J&H Resort where we stayed in 1996, searching for some birds that he saw there then. Jim and Ermine have rented a boat for an hour or two. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere is so intoxicating that I feel drowsy. By noon the 15 sites in the campground are all taken for the night and late risers must travel on to find accommodations elsewhere. Don catches two more dandy Lake Trout and feels so good about it he invites us all over for fish tomorrow night. He is a real trooper, fishing from 4:30 this morning to 7:30 this evening.
(Bert) In ancient silence the mountain caresses the west flank of a serene spring fed lake. Only rustling of distant leaves and muffled avian songs break the stillness. Two hours since sunrise, the churn of RVs, Alaska bound, has not yet arrived and I soak up the tranquil beauty to my hearts content. Iron rich red cliffs nest in Black Spruce shoulders of the far mountain range, called Terminal to denote the northernmost reach of the Canadian Rockies. Yet the emerald blue of Muncho Lake owes its color to the eastern shore where the Sentinel Range, a distinctly different range separated in time by 80 million years, leaches copper oxide down its alluvial fans. Strawberry Flats, our campground these two days, is built on one of these fans, a wide and rocky wash created by persistent floods down the steep slopes. Our RVs are nestled in thin spruce which have forced their roots through the rocky outfall at the perimeter of the lake. Behind us the rocky flat supports Nootka Rose, wild strawberries now in white blooms and a few delicate yellow Lady Slippers. The idyllic scenery has encouraged us to linger here today, a days pause in our travels and a pleasant respite. In mid day I bicycle six miles on the ALCAN where it edges beside the lake along a road literally carved from the rock. They say this stretch along the lake was the most expensive section in the 1942 construction of the Alaska Highway. I pause frequently, both from heat and scenic wonderment, as I bicycle the smooth road. RVs pass me occasionally as I head northward, but few vehicles move southward. At my terminus at J&H Wilderness RV camp, a commercially led caravan of RVs is queuing for spots. One man maneuvers a motorhome labeled "Staff" in first place; on the edge of the highway his wife sits in their towed car with CB in hand, conversing with another RV coming toward her. On my return trip I encounter other RVs with numbered caravan signs propped up in their windshields. Eventually I see the last one, followed by another staff vehicle, a fifth wheel. The caravan represents a more carefree, but expensive, way to make the Alaskan adventure. I lean toward the pioneers method of surprise and discovery and as if to prove my point I spot four Harlequin Ducks beside my path, overlooked by the caravan.
Day 28 - June 8, 1998 - Milepost 3960 (43 today) - Liard River Hot Springs, BC
(Shari) We drive to Muncho Lake at 6:30 a.m. to fill our tank with water. We are told Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park also has water only from a hand pump. The park is only 40 miles from Muncho Lake but campsites fill early. Seven Stone Sheep, losing their winter coat and looking a bit shaggy, are licking the minerals on the road side. We pass them ever so slowly as not to disturb their snack. We arrive at the park at 9 and can have our pick of the spots, well separated, level and surrounded with trees and greenery. By noon all 53 sites have various vehicles in them with their occupants ready to enjoy the water. A half mile boardwalk through lush green meadow and woodland takes us to the first spring area. I am astonished to hear my name and look up to find Clyde and Sarita also on the boardwalk. They have cut their Banff part short due to cold and rainy weather, but do not intend to stop here this evening. Many people are already in the water enjoying its warmth and therapeutic properties. Don swears he has lost twenty years and as many pounds by just soaking 15 minutes. Jean is the cutest one in the pool with her skirted purple suit and short hair always as neat as a pin. Bert chatters with a group that is part of the caravan that he saw yesterday at J&H Resort. I find the water a bit too warm to be refreshing. However, on a cool day it would be heavenly. Spring is also three weeks early here (as it was at Slave Lake) and surprisingly warm. Temperatures are near 90 degrees and long hours of daylight enable the spring flowers to proliferate. The wild roses are so thick near our campsite that when the breeze blows the smell of roses permeates the air. A raven serenades us with his repertoire of songs as we eat our sandwiches on the picnic table. When the breeze blows the air is full of cottony seedlings making their way to fertile soil. Don brings his fish wrapped in foil over to our fire and we sit and watch them cook during Happy Hour. We feast on the fish, potatoes and my cole slaw while sitting enclosed in our EZ-Up screen, praising the delicious pink meat of the Lake Trout. I do not think I have ever tasted fish soooo good and am pleased that Jim does not like and eat fish, leaving all the more for me. Ermine brings the ingredients for samores which no one can resist. As Bert says "there is always room for samore." At 9:30 we walk to the lower pool, whistling and singing all the way for fear of bears. Last July a man and a woman were killed by a bear at this location. 10:15 p.m. finds us on the walk back and we comment upon the fact that the sun is still up and less than three weeks ago we needed a flashlight to return from the ranger program at the Grand Canyon. No flashlight needed here; in fact I read by natural light until 11 p.m. Thankful I made those blackout shades for the bedroom windows, I retire in darkness, well almost.
(Bert) The envy of every landscape architect, the dream of every gardener, the delight of every nature lover, Liard River Hot Springs is an incredible surprise tucked away in northern British Columbia, just a few hundred feet off the Alaska Highway. Lets start with the campsites: ample, secluded wooded sites, leveled, campfire ringed, picnic tabled. We left Muncho Lake early to insure one of the coveted campsites. Once parked, we take a short walk to a wide wooden boardwalk traversing a shallow marsh that catches a few inches of clear mineral water. The marsh supports minnow-sized Lake Chub; a dozen silent Solitary Sandpipers and boisterous yellowlegs; a pair of brilliantly red-headed, yellow-bodied Western Tanagers; flocking Mew Gulls calling their name as they fly overhead; and a bulky, reddish brown bull moose casually foraging between the spindly tamaracks. The boardwalk continues through a spruce and birch forest underlaid with elegantly plumed Ostrich Fern and big leafed Cow Parsnip resplendent in large white flower clusters. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sings out his heart, almost hidden atop a conifer and a Least Flycatcher che-beks from a dry branch above our heads, while Red Squirrels scurry near our feet, scolding while we pass. Then we reach the focal point: a crystal clear hot springs welcoming us to bathe in its calcium sulfated waters. I touch my toes into the water at the middle set of descending stairs and quickly retract them and enter, instead, at the stairs further downstream. In time I work my way upstream but am eventually halted. The temperature at the hot springs is 130 degrees, but cooler underwater springs graduate the water temperature in the swimming area from 120 degrees upstream to 105 degrees downstream. For a half-hour I soak in the therapeutic waters, melting muscle aches I didnt know I had, sometimes sitting under a 3-ft. waterfall and letting the hot water pulsate over my shoulders. The gravel bottomed stream is surrounded by a high-pitched shore covered in spongy moss and lacy ferns. From the green background, yellow Monkey Flowers and daisy-like, white Philadelphia Fleabane poke through. Beyond these climb hundreds of pink bloomed wild roses. From the thermal springs the wooden boardwalk climbs further into the jungle-like rain forest, to the hanging gardens. Built over years, mineral depositing streams created an almost vertical base of tufa (a soft calcium carbonate rock) now covered with algae, mosses, ferns and flowers. Beyond the gardens the path leads through a taller forest of spruce and White Birch, some as much as 5 ft. in diameter at the base. I hear gentle tapping and then a catlike call and decide the two sounds - although coming from the same direction - are not likely to be the same bird. The singing Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flies into view, but the source of the tapping is more elusive. Standing still for five minutes attracts mosquitoes, but I ignore them, being intent on discovering what I suspect is Three-toed Woodpecker, a species I have not yet seen this year. Finally, through the thick woods I can make out the yellow crown on a woodpecker with a skunk-like white stripe down the center of his black back. My suspicion is confirmed. This makes 199 bird species so far for this Texas-to-Alaska trip and 401 species for the year-to-date.
Day 29 - June 9, 1998 - Milepost 4092 (132 today) - Watson Lake, YT
(Bert) Today we sample the ALCAN in three flavors. In much the same condition it was from Muncho Lake, the road northward from Liard River resembles the early Alaska Highway: narrow lanes with sparse, steeply declining shoulders; a dozen curves per mile; climbing every hill, often in second gear, without shaving off the top to ease the grind. The road is patched, but otherwise in reasonable condition. Probably this road lies atop the original Alaska Highway and, although resurfaced, it is otherwise unimproved. At 45 m.p.h. it is a pleasant safe ride. Soon we encounter a construction zone, a section of the highway completely recontoured with hills cut down to easier slopes, low spots filled in, curves straightened, but in its present condition this is only a dream. What we actually drive through is gravel, mud, detours and competition with larger-than-RV construction equipment who own the road and act the part. Here we travel at school zone speed of 15 to 25 m.p.h. Next we tread the future Alaska Highway, the road completed most recently and dreams reality. We recall the snails pace, stone-jarring, mudslinging trip we took to Watson Lake in 1996. Today, with construction now completed, we slide through this impressive wide lane, broad shoulder, smooth, straight flat road like a knife through warm butter. We drive at 55 m.p.h., but could easily do 70. Today we traveled the 132 miles at an average speed of 44 m.p.h. In a few more years our bumper sticker, "We drove the Alaska Highway and survived," will ring hallow. We might just as proudly announce we drove I-10 from Tallahassee to Santa Monica; the challenge becomes one of distance, not grit.
(Shari) "If you still have to wash that other side, I am going to beat you to the tree." The three men seem to have a race on who can get going the fastest. The past few days a 7 a.m. departure meant 7:20 until Don realized Jim and Bert jockeyed for first place in the morning. Today Don joined the race and would have beat them both except for the moose. A bull moose was having breakfast next to the boardwalk leading to the hot springs and of course we all wanted to see it. Therefore poor Don is in last place again, since Bert and Jim had already seen the moose on their early morning birding expedition. The next race occurs at the free RV wash at Downtown RV Park in "down town" Watson Lake. That is when I hear Don say " . . . I am going to beat you to the tree." We are the first ones to arrive at this RV park at 11:30 but RVs, 5th wheels, campers and vans are pulling in right and left. Campgrounds along the way have been filling by 2 p.m. and without reservations, you need to be an early bird. Road conditions are average today: narrow, no shoulder roads alternating with wide, smooth, large shoulder sections. One 5-mile stretch of construction slows our cruising speed of 45 m.p.h. to 15 m.p.h. I remember reading a sign in 1996 at Adsett Creek Realignment about the highway:
This little poem will not be true in five to 10 years. Construction on the highway is continually straightening the curves and leveling the hills. Soon the highway will be a rolling wide shoulder-paved road with a 70-m.p.h. speed limit. Even now sections of the old road are seen wiggling and climbing to the side of the newer straightened wide road. We stop at Watson Lake, the second biggest town in the Yukon with a population of about 4,000. The sign forest again intrigues us as we read and recognize some of the almost 40,000 signs from around the world posted there since the original in 1942. I do some laundry, but am frustrated by the expensive, forever lasting dryer. I finally complete the task three hours later and $12 poorer for four loads. Bert is equally frustrated with the lack of e-mail facilities. We have not hooked up for five days now and I am starved for news from home. The woman who follows me at the washing machines tells me she is on her way home from Alaska. She says she did not like it and would not return. I am very surprised by this comment since I have never met anyone who has not liked Alaska. Then she tells me she left central Texas a month ago. She has been there and back in the time it has taken us to just get there. She did not take the Denali tour for she was "sick of" paying for every little thing. She said the fishing was only catch and release, but did not know if that was for only one kind of fish or for all fish. She was afraid of the grizzlies since a couple was killed (she did not know where) while they were there. She was not impressed with the fishing and did not travel too far onto the Kenai (at least she knew she did not get as far as Soldotna). I doubt she made it to Seward either. She did not go to Valdez for by now she just wanted to go home. If I was on my first trip to Alaska, I would have been very disheartened. Since she said she and her husband averaged 400 miles per day because there was nothing to see, I surmised she was tired and frazzled.
Day 30 - June 10, 1998 - Milepost 4362 (270 today) - Whitehorse, YT
(Bert) "Ill bet you a quarter," Ermine challenges. "Youre on," Don counters. Ermine interrupts the quiet conversation of the couple sitting at the booth in the corner of the cozy bar and restaurant where we have just ordered dinner. "Is Newfoundland a province of Canada or a separate country?", Ermine asks. Thus starts an interesting conversation about the current and past politics of Canada, with us peppering the questions and the soft-spoken gentleman and his attractive wife supplying the answers. Halfway through the discussion we find out the couple is Lionel and Debbie Stokes, owners of the Edgewater Hotel which includes this restaurant. We introduce ourselves as six Texans traveling to Alaska. Later, after finishing our delicious meals, Lionel brings Don, Jim and me complimentary baseball caps stitched with a picture of a husky and the words, "Edgewater Hotel - Whitehorse, Yukon." Then Debbie uses Ermines camera to take a group photo of us at our table and we ask Lionel to get in the picture with us. The cordiality of the Stokes tops off two weeks of Canadian hospitality. I think back to all the Canadians who went the extra distance to be friendly and helpful to us: the man who ran after my car when he noticed the gas cap hadnt been replaced after refueling; the Nissan service manager and staff who gave us immediate attention, solved our problem and did it gratis; the lady at the Mall who found a teenagers wallet and returned it to him while I watched; the IBM salesman who would rather lose a computer sale than supply a machine that was less than perfect; the New Brunswick camper who supplied the rope Jim and I used to pull out my RV steps, the members of the Lutheran church who made sure we felt welcomed and the many clerks and business owners that let me use their phone jacks to transfer e-mail. Without exception, their courtesies enhanced our Canadian visit. Well, maybe one exception: I still wonder about that border agent.
(Shari) We are first at the "starting gate" this morning and Don is second. I wonder what happened to Jim, but he is unusually quiet. Knowing how I hate the mornings, he frequently harasses me to get a rise out of me. We learn from Ermine the disaster of a morning they had. The alarm did not go off and they woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a 5:45 departure. Their coffee pot overflowed. Their batteries have not been recharging and did not have enough juice to retract the slide, forcing them to crank it in manually. With all that happening, I wonder how they even managed to get ready in 15 minutes and I can understand Jims reticence to banter. Beating all the traffic, we have the road to ourselves. We stop at Walkers Continental Divide and fill our tanks. We have to thank Jim for this find. His neighbor at Muncho Lake told him about the 4 cents a liter savings on gasoline. I calculate this information saved us $17. Still, the total bill was $146! As Don says, "If you cannot drive with the big boys you had better get off the porch." Almost two hours later we stop for breakfast at Mukluk Annies. We have the all-you-can-eat breakfast of scrambled eggs with ham and green pepper, bacon, biscuits, coffee, sausages, hash browns and blueberry pancakes the size of frisbees. The gift store is filled with tempting items and I end up buying some Christmas presents for the family. Shortly before Marsh Lake, we see a bear. It is a Black Bear, but very blond in color. It just forages very close to the roadside and ignores the cars whizzing past and a few stupid people who stop, get out of their car and take a picture, too closely to be safe. We arrive at Pioneer RV Park, register and squeeze into one of the parallel places lined up all in a row. This place is nothing to look at but does allow us to use a phone jack for e-mail, now five days in arrears. After a bit of a rest from the long drive, we pile into the car and head for town, developing film, perusing the shops and filling our larder for the next few days. Finally after the groceries are crammed into the cupboards we head for the Edgewater Hotel, a place a local mentioned to us as one she frequents. Prices are extremely reasonable and I order a seafood combination that includes two fried halibut strips, two fried oysters and two fried shrimp plus baked potato and salad for $8.75 Canadian. Ermine asks Bert and Don if Newfoundland is a province of Canada. Bert says no and Don agrees. Ermine bets them that it is not a province. She asks the pleasant looking couple at the table next to us to settle the bet. Ermine wins a quarter from Don and we all make new friends. They inform us about the politics of Canada and the Yukon in particular. Later we find that they are Debbie and Lionel Stokes and they own the hotel. Lionel disappears into the back and brings out Edgewater hats for the men to wear. Such a kind gesture and one that shows they practice what they preach. (Their advertisements tout they are "A small hotel dedicated to providing genuine hospitality.") We will try to eat there again on our way home.
Day 31 - June 11, 1998 - Milepost 4649 (287 today) - Beaver Creek, YT
(Shari) "No" "No" "No" "No" the unfriendly clerk at The Westmark RV Park answers our questions one by one. Do you have a car wash? Do you have the Good Sam discount? Are you modem friendly? Has anybody ever asked that question before? That is how our day has been so far. Now a 6 a.m. start means 5:55 a.m. Bert pulls out ahead of Jim at 5:55 with a "cat that ate the canary" look on his face. We see fresh snow on the mountain tops as we travel, with one particular mountain glowing in the morning sunshine, appearing lit from the inside. This section of the road was the most tiring to us in 1996 and it proves to be that again. The section of the road under construction in 1996 is completed but already has many sections of bumps and loose gravel patches that slow our speed to a crawl. Some older sections, while smoother, have many twists and turns that require concentration to stay within the lines. I have the feeling I am riding atop a narrow dike high above the ground. It took us 10 hours to complete this section in 1996 and it takes us eight hours today. We stop at Kluane Lake and admire the aqua colored waters. I find Dall Sheep high atop Sheep Mountain. Bert spots a moose nibbling a mid day snack at one of the many marshy ponds along the road. Don sees a fox scamper across the road and Jim spots a Bald Eagle sitting on the beach. Nevertheless, we are tired and happy to see Beaver Creek, a town 170 miles from nowhere with a population of 140 hearty souls. However we are greeted with negativism and find the gravel spots short and confining. We anticipate a tight squeeze in the morning when we attempt to exit the park. I await tonights Dinner Theater at the Westmark next door to lift my sagging spirits.
(Bert) Kluane, a native name, concurrently refers to a national park, a very large lake and the region through which we drive today. We travel in a skimpy spruce forest made sparse by fires that spread through the region several decades ago. Although I am not hungry, all of this mornings mountain scenery reminds me of desserts: dark chocolate Hostess cupcake mountains with white swirls of snow atop, powder sugared mountain tops prepared by yesterdays snowfall, syrupy sundae peaks sprinkled with chocolate chips, and mountain ridges made of chocolate cake slices laid on edge like toppled dominoes. We pass the St. Elias mountain range and see some sugar-covered mountains cut adrift by marshmallow clouds and topped with stretched cotton candy, pink over a blue pudding sky. When we stop at a roadside exhibit, the air bites an ice cream coldness of 43 degrees. The highway this morning is the old-fashioned one of hills, curves and narrow passageways. The roadsides are beautified by miles of red-violet flowers which look like fireweed from our motorhome altitudes, but turn out to be more Purple Loco when we get out and pick a handful. We curve around Kluane Lake and in CB chatter we try to pick a color that describes its awesome shade of blue: Shari suggests turquoise, Ermine offers cerulean and then aquamarine. All seems appropriate depending on which bay of the expansive lake you set your eyes on. At Sheep Mountain, which edges Kluane Lake, Shari is first to spot four or five White Sheep grazing at the very top of a massive steep mountain of bare rocks. The sheep appear as white pin heads to the unaided eye, white blobs with binoculars and poorly defined sheep with a high-powered telescope. Once past Kluane Lake, we drive on a section of road that was under construction when we passed two years ago. Now the road is completed, but it is still difficult to drive. The permafrost of the muskeg distorts the ground, making the Black Spruce point their trunks in random directions. Likewise the road is distorted, causing cracks, potholes and frost heaves. To repair the road, the upper layers are removed in short sections and a rough gravelly surface remains. Red flags warn us of upcoming hazards and I slow down to avoid the bumps but the gravel shoots from under my motorhomes tires onto my tow car. Weve protected the windshield with a leather screen, put plastic shields over the headlamps and taped duct tape across the turn signals, but the paint job gets dinged with sharp missiles each time I hit a gravel section. Two years ago we judged the Beaver Creek leg of the Alaska Highway to be our most difficult. This year it is the most tiresome and I am glad its over when we reach Beaver Creek after 8.5 hours, including stops to rest and eat lunch, averaging 34 m.p.h.
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