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

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