Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Six-Bear Day!

Greetings Everyone,

"On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again"

Willie Nelson's and Johnny Cash's immortal song kept playing through my head as we set out on the next leg of our adventure.  We left Denali National Park on July 6 and headed south soaking up our last views of Denali, "The Great One".  

Last view of "The Great One"

We stopped for the night in Talkeetna from which mountain climbers stage their quest for Denali, North America's highest peak.  The next day we decided to leave the main highway and took an alternate route over Hatcher Pass on a gravel road.  We were fine in our SUV, now named Fuzzy but would Chuck and Judy's camper van GAX make it?  The road turned out fine and on the other side was an unexpected find, Independance Mine State Historical Park.  Gold was discovered here in the late 1900's and in its heyday the mine encompassed 27 structures and employed over 200 men.

Independence Mine State Historical Park

We joined the Glenn Highway and continued east past the impressive Matanuska Glacier.  For a mere $20 per person we could drive Fuzzy to the toe of the glacier and hike out on the slippery ice.

Matanuska Glacier

Our final stop for the day was the Musk Ox farm near Palmer.  Here musk ox are raised for their wool called qiviut, the finest wool in the world.

Feeding Musk Ox Yearlings

The next day our route took us past Wrangell-St. Elias National Park where in 1989 Marc and I had encountered a wolf on the gravel road to McCarthy.  We drove this road again in the hopes of spotting more wildlife but only encountered a pair of Pacific Loons on Hard Rock Lake.  

Pacific Loon Pair
We were surprised to find many cars and people at the end of the 60-mile dirt road.  Today there is a footbridge over the Kennicott River so people can get to McCarthy where a shuttle bus takes tourists 5 miles further to the historic mining town of Kennicott.  We were out of time so we headed back without visiting either town.  The next day we left Alaska and entered the Yukon Territory of Canada. We spent the night at some cabins were the friendly owner told us that if we wanted to see wildlife to take a drive through their horse pasture across the road which was filled with soapberry bushes.  The berries were ripe attracting grizzlies down from the mountains.  We didn't see any bears that night but tried again early the next morning.  Still no bears...  Chuck and Judy wanted to see the bears so we went out a third time which proved to be a charm.  A grizzly bear was feeding on soapberries next to the dirt track!

Grizzly Bear Eating Soapberries

We continued south on the Alaska Highway to Kluane National Park.  The weather was not very cooperative but we managed to get in a few hikes between rain showers.  The first was along the Sheep Creek Trail.  At the trailhead was a memorial plaque to Christine Courtney who was killed here in 1996 by a young male grizzly.  It was a very sobering and a poignant reminder to take precautions in bear country.  We continued on with bear spray at the ready and made plenty of noise to alert the bears to our presence.  We climbed along the side of Sheep Mountain to a viewpoint where we could see the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier across the valley.

Glimpse of Kuskawulsh Glacier Toe

We hiked the Auriol Trail the next day through mixed boreal forest to a sub-alpine bench just in front of the Auriol Range.

Auriol Range

We startled a few Spruce Grouse families on the way down, separating the chicks from their frantic moms.

Where are my chicks?

Once we passed, the families quickly became reunited.  The next day we wanted to hike the King's Throne but cloudy skies and windy conditions weren't inspiring.  Instead we opted to take a 270-mile side trip to Haines, Alaska.  I spotted our first Black Bear of the trip on a side road off the main highway.  The inquisitive bear approached our vehicle and stood on his hind legs to get a better view!

Inquisitive Black Bear

We continued south on the Haines Highway past Dezadeash Lake.  Here the soapberries along the road were ripe attracting both Black and Grizzly Bears.  We spotted a grizzly bear and 4 more black bears feasting on the berries, making this a 6-bear day!

Grizzly Bear Eating Soapberries

It not always easy telling a Black bear from a grizzly.  Black bears can also be brown in color so you have to take a closer look at the bear.  The best indicators are the size of the shoulders, the profile of the face and the length of the claws. The grizzly bear has a pronounced shoulder hump, which the black bear lacks. It also has a concave or “dished” facial profile, smaller ears and much larger claws than the black bear. Black bears have a flatter, “Roman-nose” profile, larger ears, no visible shoulder hump and smaller claws.

Grizzly vs. Black Bear

We arrived in the port of Haines around 2PM.

Port of Haines, Alaska

We could now claim that we had driven Alaska from the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  There were no cruise ships or ferries in town so Haines was a very quiet place.  We walked around the docks and Fort William H. Seward.  Built in 1902, the Fort was the last of a series of 11 military posts established in Alaska during the gold rush era and was Alaska's only military facility between 1925 and 1940.

Fort William H. Seward

We headed back to Kathleen Lake for the night.  After dinner Marc and I went on a game drive.  We saw 1 more grizzly bear and 3 more black bears.  They may have been some of the same bears we had seen earlier in the day so I was hesitant to call this a 10-bear day.  We had to make a big transition the following day in Whitehorse.  It was hard to believe that one month had passed since our first arrival into Whitehorse.  We dropped Fuzzy off at the airport.  It was sad to leave him behind.  He was a great vehicle for us and had taken us to many incredible places.  Here is a map of the route we had ended up taking from Denali National Park back to Whitehorse in the Yukon including our side trips.

Route Map (route in yellow)

For the next phase of our journey we had rented a tiny camper van.  When we picked up the vehicle it didn't seem so small but it had all the comforts of home including a couch that converts to a king-sized bed, a bathroom and a kitchen with a fridge, stove and sink. 

Our Camper Van

This will be a new experience for us and we look forward to the next chapter of our Western-Canada saga!

We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Great One!

Greetings All,
It's not often that we return to the same place years later in fear that fond memories may be replaced by disappointment.  We decided to take a chance and return to Camp Denali in the heart of Alaska's Denali National Park after 27 years!  This time we were to rendezvous with VT friends Chuck and Judy on July 3 who had driven their Sprinter Van GAX all the way from VT.  We were relieved to see GAX parked at the Denali train station when we arrived.  After warm greetings with Chuck and Judy we headed off in search of the bus that would take us to Camp Denali nearly 90 miles inside the park.

Denali National Park Map
We found our Bluebird bus named Kingfisher and hauled our stuff over for the 7-hour drive to Camp Denali.
Meeting Chuck & Judy at the Denali Park Entrance

We loaded into the bus with about 20 other passengers and headed into the park around 1:00.  The first 15 miles of the Park Road is paved and private vehicles are allowed.  At Savage River, only park buses and private buses carrying guests staying in lodges at the end of the road are allowed to proceed.  The road turned to gravel and wound its way through boreal forest.  I spotted a lone male caribou about 300 yards from the road.

Lone Male Caribou

We continued anxious to see more wildlife.  We spotted another caribou in a river but noticed two buses parked further up the road.  "What are they looking at?  we wondered.  We left the poor caribou and as we approached the other buses we could see a Grizzly bear lying in the scrubs.  As we came closer a second Grizzly bear appeared from the willows and roused the first!

Grizzly Bear!

Simon, our driver who runs Camp Denali with his wife Jenna, tells two German cyclists nearby to get into the bus!  The sleeping Grizzly, the larger of the two, gave chase to the smaller.

The Chase is On!

We couldn't tell if it's a dominance battle between two males or a female chasing off a male.  They disappeared over a ridge and as we climbed over the top in the bus we saw the two bears again.  The smaller of the two panted as he approached our bus.  Did he want us to protect him?  The larger bear lost interest and ambled off.

Protect me, Please!
With the show over we proceeded to Camp Denali.  We saw a third Grizzly but he was distant.  However a nearby caribou did not see the Grizzly until it was within 200 feet and fled.

Griz, What Griz?

We arrived around 8:00 and saw that the camp had undergone some changes.  A larger dining room and kitchen had been built but the cabins were pretty much as we remembered.  We settled into our rustic but comfortable cabin named Stampede and joined Chuck and Judy at their cabin next door for a glass of wine.  The clouds parted and we were treated to spectacular views of Mt. Denali, the highest peak in North America!  Some things, the best things, don't change even after 27 years!

View of Denali from our Cabins
We were up early the following morning to ride mountain bikes to Wonder Lake with Chuck and Judy.  I spotted a big bull moose browsing in the forest about 100 feet from the road!

Mr. Moose

Chuck did not see him and rode on.  We took loads of photos of the moose and Chuck returned to see what was holding us up.  The moose ambled off and we continued to Wonder Lake.

So Long Mr. Moose

The lake was perfectly calm and the reflection of Denali was mirrored on the surface.  We drank in the scene in the cool morning solitude before the park buses began to arrive.  Ducks paddled along the shore mindful of our presence as they swam further away.

Denali Reflected in Wonder Lake
We returned to Camp Denali for breakfast and joined guide Annie after for a hike along the ridge above camp.  We climbed steeply through the boreal forest admiring the wildflowers along the way until we reached the ridge.

Climbing Through the Boreal Forest

The views of Denali and the Alaska Range across the valley about 30 miles away were somewhat subdued by smoke from nearby wildfires but stunning nonetheless.

View of Wonder Lake & Denali Beyond
We stopped for lunch and an opportunistic arctic ground squirrel approached us looking for a handout. "Sorry buddy, no food for you, you have to forage for yourself." we politely informed him.

Where's my Lunch?

We continued along the ridge startling a female Willow Ptarmigan and her chicks and gave them a wide berth as we continued on.

Willow Ptarmigan and Chicks
We returned to the Camp for a Fourth of July Celebration complete with a good old-fashioned barbecue. The next morning we headed out in one of the Camp Denali buses for the Eielson Visitor Center.  As we passed Wonder Lake Mr. Moose was feeding on the aquatic vegetation thrilling all that ventured this far into the park.

Mr. Moose
We were dropped off for today's hike near the Visitor's Center.  We were led by our guide Mark and joined by 6 others including Chuck and Judy.  We crossed the spongy tundra not sure if we should hop from tussock to tussock or push through the willows that grew in between.

Crossing the Tundra

We climbed steeply up a ridge where Chuck abruptly stopped.  A caribou calf was lying in a shallow depression.  "Where was Mom?" we wondered as the calf got up and loped up the ridge.

Caribou Calf
We continued climbing with stunning views of Denali and the Alaska Range to the south.  I had to keep on reminding myself that we were hiking with a view of the tallest mountain in North America, a peak that sometimes does not reveal itself for days.

Hiking up the Ridge with Denali in the Background
We broke for lunch before continuing up the ridge pausing at a snowfield.

Passing a Snowfield

Mark explained that caribou often use these snowfields in the summer to cool off and escape biting insects that torment them.  Artifacts from early caribou hunters were often found preserved in the ice.  Climate change is causing many of these snowfields to melt, exposing the artifacts to the elements and losing them for good.  As we approached a tiny pass, three caribou ran off but one remained on guard at the top.

King of the Pass 

I desperately wanted to climb to the summit but did not want to displace the caribou so I reluctantly followed the rest of the group down another ridge.

Heading Down

As I scanned some snowfields in a bowl, I spotted a herd of 32 caribou seeking refuge here just as Mark explained earlier.

Seeking Refuge
We continued down the ridge with Mark running ahead to find the best route.  We reached a creek flowing through a narrow canyon and followed it to the road where our bus was waiting to bring us back to Camp Denali.  We were treated to another delicious meal before retiring to our cabin.  It was tough falling asleep knowing that Denali was looming just outside our window.  Denali means "the Great One" in the Athabaskan language of the native people. I couldn't take it anymore and got up around midnight.  Denali was awash in pink alpenglow.  "Marc, you have to get up to see this!" I called in a hushed tone.

The Great One!
The next morning we had to leave early to get back to the park entrance for some to catch the train to Anchorage.  We saw a few more grizzlies, caribou, moose and the ever-present Arctic Ground Squirrels darting across the road on our return journey.  I was happy to find that Camp Denali was just as special today as it was 27 years ago and sharing it with good friends makes for new memories that will last a lifetime!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dallying along the Dalton Highway

Greetings All,
After our raft trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge we had a few days to kill in Fairbanks so decided to do a road trip up to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope.  It was no trivial side trip mind you but a 500-mile journey up the Dalton Highway with very few services along the way.

Dalton Highway Map
We left Fairbanks around 10:00 on the morning of June 30th following the Steese Highway north for the first 11 miles before joining the Elliott Highway.  We passed one of the many forest fires currently burning in Alaska. The fire crews were working hard to put this fire out.  Fire is a natural part of the ecology of the boreal forest but when they threaten homes or the Trans-Alaska Pipeline they are extinguished.

Forest Fire Along the Elliott Highway
We travelled another 73 miles north on the Elliot Highway before finally reaching the Dalton Highway.

Sign at the Start of the Dalton Highway

Up to this point the roads had been paved but the start of the Dalton Highway is gravel.  "Why would anyone build a road through such a remote area with little or no human habitation?" you may be wondering.  The answer is simple, black gold or oil that was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska in 1968.  The nation was in the throes of an energy crisis in 1973 and desperately needed to get this oil from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez 800 miles away!   The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was approved to transport the crude oil and the Haul Road was built in just 5 months to get workers and supplies north to the oilfield.  Today the road is now called the Dalton Highway and attracts tourists as well as truckers still hauling supplies to Prudhoe Bay.

Truck Along the Dalton Highway
The first major impediment to building the road was the mighty Yukon River which winds nearly 2000 miles from Whitehorse in the Yukon to the Bering Sea.  Athabaskan people traveled this watery highway in birch-bark canoes and gold seekers ferried supplies in wood-fired stern wheelers.  But in 1974 the river was an impediment to builders of the Haul Road.  To build a bridge across the river workers first constructed temporary watertight shafts called cofferdams.  Twenty-five feet below the river, workers formed and poured the piers in an eerie gloom.  Now we could drive over the only bridge in Alaska which crosses the Yukon River in a matter of minutes.

Yukon Crossing
Two hundred miles from Fairbanks we reached 66 degrees, 33 minutes north latitude, the only place in the U.S. where you can actually drive across the Arctic Circle!

Us at the Arctic Circle
Sixty miles further along the road we reached Coldfoot Camp, our destination for the night.  Originally a gold rush town, Coldfoot was resurrected as a pipeline construction camp in the early 1970's.  Coldfoot Camp was dismantled after the pipeline was completed and many of the trailers used to house construction workers were sold and turned into the Coldfoot Hotel and Cafe.  We settled into our basic but comfortable accommodations for the night.

Our Room at Coldfoot Camp
The next morning we left early to continue our journey to Prudhoe Bay now only 240 miles away.  The smoke from the recent forest fire had settled in the valley obscuring the views in a thick haze.  We made our way up and over the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass, the highest point on the highway at 4739 feet.  We didn't linger too long in the smoky haze but once on the other side the skies began to clear.  The boreal forest was replaced by endless stretches of Arctic Tundra.  We were hoping to see musk oxen or caribou on the tundra but saw only long stretches of the pipeline instead.

Dalton Highway & Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Regardless of how you feel about the pipeline, you have to admit it is an amazing feet of engineering.  Ed Patton led the 70,000 men and women who built the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  In August 1970, Patton was appointed the president of the Alyeska Pipeline System Company, a consortium of oil companies created to design, build, operate and maintain the pipeline.  The oil begins its long journey through the 48-inch steel pipeline at the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay.  The crude oil is hot (155-180 degrees F) when it comes out of the ground and the pipeline has to be elevated and insulated to prevent it from melting  the permafrost!  Radiators are also used to remove heat from the support pillars in the ground.

Close-up of the Pipeline Showing the Radiators

The elevated pipeline is constructed in a zig-zag pattern to accommodate expansion and contraction as well as to withstand earthquakes.  Where there is no permafrost, the pipeline is buried.  We finally arrived at Deadhorse, a mere 498 miles from Fairbanks and 8 miles from the Arctic Ocean, the furthest the public is allowed to go.  Deadhorse is the industrial camp that supports the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.


We filled up with gas for the return trip to Coldfoot.  Amazingly among all this industrialization were ducks and geese swimming in tiny ponds!

Northern Shoveler (male & female)
We followed the same route back to Coldfoot.  As we were re-crossing Atigun Pass, two Dall Sheep clambored down some cliffs and crossed the highway behind us.

Dall Sheep at Atigun Pass

The skies had cleared and the views of the Brooks Range on the way back were impressive.

Brooks Range from Atigun Pass
As we neared Coldfoot Camp, a Grizzly Bear ran across the road and disappeared into the willows.  I could see him standing on his hind legs to check us out but he was too far away for a photo.  We arrived back at Coldfoot Camp after a very interesting 12-hour drive to Deadhorse and back.  The next day we returned to Fairbanks.  Our journey was humbled by a South African cyclist we met at the start of the Dalton Highway who was carrying 140 pounds of gear on his bike all the way from Anchorage!  His plan was to head up to Deadhorse then back through Canada and the U.S. to Mexico.  He was on a 5-year journey to explore Europe, Asia, North America and South America by bike!  Our 3-day side trip up to Prudhoe Bay via a SUV paled by comparison but was still an exciting adventure for us!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc