Sunday, August 09, 2015

Glaciers Galore!

Greetings All,
From Stewart, British Columbia we rejoined the Cassier Highway on July 23 and continued our journey to the southeast.

Route Map from Stewart, BC to Calgary, AB

One of our last stops on the Cassier was Gitanyow, home to some of the oldest known and largest collection of totem poles in British Columbia.

Gitanyow Totem Poles

We left the Cassier Highway and turned east onto the busier Yellowhead Highway, part of the Trans-Canada highway system.  We took a short side trip to Old Hazelton crossing a suspension bridge over the Hagwilget Canyon.

Bridge over Hagwilget Canyon
Founded in 1866, Hazelton was once the commercial center of the northwest.  From 1886 to 1913 it was the upriver terminus for a fleet of sternwheelers which plied the wild rapids of the Skeena River.  People and supplies were then dispensed inland to dozens of mines, farms and settlements.

"Nose Like Coho" Totem & Paddlewheel
Next to the paddlewheel of the river boat "Hazelton" was the Gitemkaldo's "Nose Like Coho" Totem.  Carved in the late 1800's, this is one of the Gitanmaax Frog Clan's oldest surviving totems.  In Tekwa we stopped and asked for directions to a back road to Francois Lake our next destination.  The road was not easy to find and even more difficult to follow as it had turned into a network of logging roads.  We had to take care not to get driven off the road by a fully loaded logging truck.  The next day we took another side trip to historic Fort St. James.  We were just in time for the chicken races.  If you've never seen a chicken race just click on the short video below.

We each bet on a different chicken and we all lost when Chicken #2 won the race.  After the festivities we toured the well-restored site.  It felt like we had stepped back in time.  The site isn't a fort in the classic sense but was the administrative center for the Hudson's Bay Company New Caledonia (north-central portion of present day British Columbia, Canada) fur district.  We visited the reconstructed trade store as the original burnt down in 1919.  Everything from shoes, blankets, foodstuff, guns and saddles were for sale.  The proprietor showed us the scratchy woolen underwear the men would wear all winter long.  When spring rolled around they would have cut their underwear off themselves, not a very pleasant image!

Trade Store at Fort St. James
We also visited the general warehouse and fur storage.  Hanging from the rafters were fox, otter and coyote pelts.  Stacks of beaver pelts were piled on the floor.  In the 19th century, Europe's insatiable demand for top hats made from beaver pelts fueled the fur trade and was a fundamental factor in the exploration and early settlement of Canada.   Fortunately, the fashion changed and top hats were no longer in vogue saving the beaver from near extinction.  Today the furs stored in the warehouse represent only 10% of the furs that were amassed during the height of the fur trade.

General Warehouse and Fur Storage
The next day we stopped to hike the Ancient Forest Trail along the Yellowhead Highway.  We walked along a boardwalk through a grove of ancient Western Red Cedar trees some 2000 years old!

Ancient Forest Trail
In 2005 Dave Radies, a graduate student at the University of Northern British Columbia, discovered that the area was to be logged and he alerted the public!  In 2008 plans to harvest the trees were cancelled and the forest obtained a greater level of protection.  The next day we hiked in 7 miles on the Berg Lake Trail in Mt. Robson Provincial Park where we had great views of Mt. Robson, the highest (12,972 ft.) peak in the Canadian Rockies.

Mt. Robson from Berg Lake Trail
Adjacent to Mt. Robison Provincial Park is Jasper National Park across the border in Alberta.  We opted to do one of the more popular trails in the park and had to get an early start to get a parking spot.  When we arrived the parking lot was nearly empty and we had the trail to ourselves.  We followed the edge of a bouldery moraine, climbed through subalpine forest and entered the alpine meadows above.  The views were somewhat obscured by clouds but we could see the great north face of Mt. Edith Cavell and the layered ice of the Cavell Glacier across the valley.

Mt. Edith Cavel & Cavell Glacier
On the way down American Pikas were collecting grass to store for the long winter and Hoary Marmot pups were tussling among the boulders.

American Pika

Hoary Marmot Pups

We headed to a popular viewpoint of Angel Glacier resting her wings in the cirque between Mt. Edith Cavell (Left) and Sorrow Peak (right).

Angel Glacier

The following day we continued south on the Icefields Parkway through Jasper National Park, stopping at the Athabasca Glacier.   Marc and I had visited here in 1985 and were amazed at how much the glacier had receded.

Us at the Toe of the Athabasca Glacier

In fact it's losing about 16 feet per year and could completely disappear within a generation!  We could see buses driving onto the glacier and decided to book a tour.  We had to wait a couple of hours but where else in the world can you drive onto a glacier?  The buses have been retrofitted for steep glacier travel.  They are 6-wheel drive and have 5-foot high tires!  There are only 23 of these buses in the world, 22 here and 1 in Antarctica.  For a mere $1.1 million you can have one of these behemoths built for you.  We crawled up a steep grade over a lateral moraine then inched down an even steeper grade on the other side to the glacier. 

Buses Heading for the Athabasca Glacier

Once onto the ice we had 15 minutes to explore.

On the Athabasca Glacier

The Athabasca Glacier is fed by the massive Columbia Icefield, the largest sub-polar body of ice in North America.  The Icefield covers 130 square miles and is up to 1200 feet deep.  Meltwater from the Icefield flows to three oceans: the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic via Hudson Bay.

Columbia Icefield Above the Athabasca Glacier
The next day we continued south along the Icefields Parkway and entered Banff National Park.  We spent two days exploring the beautiful and popular Lake Louise area.  By now we had learnt how to avoid the crowds: get up early.  Our first hike in the area was up Mt. Fairview.  We left Lake Louise and climbed steadily on switchbacks through forests of Spruce and Larch to a pass at Saddleback.  Mt. Fairview loomed 1000 feet above us.  It took about an hour to climb the scree slopes of the mountain to its spectacular summit with a 360-degree view!

Us on Mt. Fairview
To the south was massive Mount Temple.  Below lay the turquoise waters of Lake Louise and Mount Victoria and Victoria Glacier at the head of the valley.  We enjoyed the views in solitude before heading back down.

Mount Temple
Early the next morning we drove up Moraine Lake Road and secured two of the last few remaining RV parking spots.  From Moraine Lake we climbed steeply on switchbacks through the forest reaching a junction in about 1.5 miles.  We took the left fork and the trail leveled out following the side of the Valley of Ten Peaks.

Valley of Ten Peaks

We broke out of the trees and could see Eiffel Lake about 200 feet below us.

Eiffel Lake w/Wenkchemna Pass Beyond

We now hiked through alpine meadows where a lone marmot complained about our intrusion.  We kept a lookout for sheep and goats as we climbed toward the pass but did not see any.  We climbed once again to Wenkchemna Pass on the Continental Divide.  We were the first to arrive and peered quietly over the other side hoping to see some wildlife but instead were greeted with unending views. 

View to the South from Wenkchemna

We sat in solitude overcome with emotion at the privilege of being here and paid tribute to a loved one recently lost.

View to the East from Wenkchemna Pass
What a fitting end to our nearly 2-month journey through Alaska and Western Canada.  We saw so many amazing places and shared new experiences with our good friends Chuck and Judy.  We drove east to Calgary to fly home. 
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

       Western Canada and Alaska Mammal List

 No. Species Scientific Name  Notes
 1 Hoary Marmot  Marmota caligata  Tombstone, Jasper, Banff 
 2 Arctic Ground Squirrel  Spermophilus parryii  Yukon, ANWR, Denali
 3 American Red Squirrel Tamiasciurus  hudsonicus  Yukon, Coldfoot, BC
 4 Least Chipmunk Tamias minimus Yukon Wildlife Preserve
 5 Snowshoe Hare Lepus americanus Yukon, Alaska
 6 American Black Bear Ursus americanus Yukon, Drive to Haines, Hyder, AB
 7 North American  Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum Yukon
 8 Moose Alces alces  Top of the World, Denali, Fairbanks
 9 Wolverine Gulo gulo 2 sightings, Taylor Hwy & ANWR
 10 Dall Sheep Ovis dalli dalli  Dempster, ANWR, Dalton, Kluane 
 11 North American Beaver Castor canadensi Dempster, Hyder
 12 American Marten Martes americana Delta Jct.
 13 Brown Bear Ursus arctos  ANWR, Dalton, Denali, Yukon,  Haines, Hyder 
 14 Barren-ground Caribou Rangifer tarandus    groenlandicus ANWR, Denali
 15 Grey Wolf Canis lupus ANWR
 16 Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus ANWR 
 17 Vole Sp.? ANWR
 18 White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus
 19 Mule Deer Odocoileus hemionus Fort George, BC
 20 American Pika Ochotona princeps Jasper NP, BC
 21 Golden-mantled Ground  Squirrel  Callospermophilus lateralis  Jasper NP, BC
 22 Colombian Ground  Squirrel Urocitellus columbianus Jasper NP, BC
 23 Ringed Seal Pusa hispida ANWR
 24 Stone Sheep Ovis dalli stone Tadoggan Plateau, BC
 25 Coyote Canis latrans
 26 Red Fox Vulpes vulpes Silver & Cross color variants, BC

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Clunking Down the Cassier

Greetings All,
We left Whitehorse in the Yukon on July 14 in our rented camper van.  It didn't take us long to affectionately dub him Clunky.  We rattled and clanked down the Alaska Highway toward Teslin where we spent the night.  It would take us a few days to get accustomed to Clunky's charms.  The next day we left the Alaska Highway and headed south on the less traveled Cassier Highway.  Our next destination was Boya Lake with crystal clear blue water and forests of aspen and spruce along the shore.

Boya Lake
Many of our destinations were private or public campgrounds along the shore of a lake.  When we pulled up to the office of Mountain Shadow Campground Marc spotted a moose in the lake below and Bald Eagles were perched in the tall spruce trees.

Bald Eagle

As we were leaving the following morning a Cross Fox was posing nicely outside his den.

Cross Fox
Cross Foxes are a partially melanistic color variant of the more common Red Fox.  The name implies a hybrid between 2 fox species but actually refers to a long dark stripe running down the back intersecting with another stripe to form a cross on the shoulders (not evident in the above photo). There is another color variant of the Red Fox called the Silver Fox which is more uniformly dark and is even more rare than the Cross Fox.  We did see a very skinny Silver Fox hanging out by a dumpster a few days earlier.

Silver Fox
We arrived at our next campground early and spoke to the owner John about hiking possibilities in the area.  He drew us a map to the start of the Todagin Trail where we hoped to find Stone Sheep, a subspecies of Thinhorn Sheep.  We climbed steeply through spruce forest with Chuck in the lead clacking two stones together to ward off bears.  We arrived at an open alpine meadow where we stopped to admire the view and have lunch.

Todagin Plateau
I scanned the meadow and ridges above but there were no Stone Sheep in the vicinity.  We pushed our way through willow thickets to climb to a high point on the front ridge.  Just as we crested the top I spotted a sentry Stone Sheep keeping an eye out for predators.

Stone Sheep Sentry
He had spotted us long before we saw him and trotted off as we approached.  We never did see if he was part of a larger flock hidden below.  The next morning we checked with John to see if his grandiose hiking plan for us had come through.  He told us yesterday that a helicopter from the nearby mine was coming to pick up an employee and that the pilot could fly us to the top of the plateau on the other side of Tatogga Lake and drop us off.  All we had to do was find the trail down and text John on our satellite texting device to come pick us up in his boat and take us back across the lake.  It sounded great in theory with one major flaw, the pilot could not take us for insurance reasons.  We opted to do a hike to nearby Cascade Falls at the confluence of two rivers instead.

Cascade Falls
The next day we left the Cassier Highway and took a side trip to Stewart.  The draw here is the Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site where you can see bears fishing for salmon in Fish Creek just across the border in Hyder, Alaska.

Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site

When we got to the bear-viewing boardwalk along the creek, there were only a few chum salmon swimming upstream to spawn.

Spawning Salmon
We were content to do some birding and to read the information boards along the walkway.  One explained the life cycle of the chum salmon in detail which is amazing in itself.  Salmon that are hatched here will leave for the ocean and return in 3-5 years to spawn in the creek where they were born.

Life Cycle of Chum Salmon

With so few fish in the creek the chances of seeing bears was slim so we drove up the gravel road to see the Salmon Glacier.  The road was built to reach mines but today gives tourists the opportunity to drive along an immense glacier to a viewpoint of the snowfield that feeds it.  This morning the chances of seeing the glacier were more slim than seeing the bears due to the thick clouds.  We did get a glimpse of the toe of the glacier in the valley below on the way down.

Toe of Salmon Glacier
We returned to the Bear-viewing Boardwalk (BVB), still no bears.  The head ranger Eric gave us the number to the "Grizzly Hotline" so we could check later to see if the salmon or bears had arrived. We checked again that evening and again the following morning, still no bears.  We did a few errands in town, took a walk on the estuary boardwalk and returned to the BVB.  The salmon were just starting to trickle in.  Surely at some point all the splashing would attract the bears but not today.   We extended our stay in Stewart to give us one more day to see if the bears would make an appearance. The next morning we were the first to arrive at the boardwalk at 6AM.  Eric had broken up a beaver dam downstream and today there were many more salmon.  We waited until 9:30 and left disappointed.  We returned to Stewart and did a hike along a historic sluice box.  The remnants of the cylindrical sluice box made of wood and reinforced with coils of wire resembling a slinky were still evident.

Hiking the Sluice Box Trail
We returned to the BVB around 3:30 and as we headed to the boardwalk Marc remembered that he had forgotten his pass so returned to Clunky to get it.  Suddenly I heard someone shout "bear!".  I raced back to the parking lot and Marc exclaimed that a black bear had just run across the road right past a family with small kids.  He had disappeared into the forest so we headed for the boardwalk.  As we neared the ticket booth I saw a bear in the upper creek heading toward the BVB.  A ranger was there chatting with some folks and I interrupted their conversation to tell them "a bear is heading this way!".  Sure enough, a beautiful female grizzly bear emerged from the bushes and walked along the BVB just 20 feet from us!

1st Grizzly at Fish Creek!
She crossed under the boardwalk, entered the creek and almost immediately catches a salmon!

1st Catch!
She dragged it into the bushes and ate the unfortunate fish in private.  "Don't worry", Flint the ranger explained, "she'll be back in 15-20 minutes to catch another fish".  Sure enough in 20 minutes she re-emerged and started fishing for another salmon.

1st Grizzly Bear Re-Emerges

It took her a little longer to secure her second catch and we all got a better show.

2nd Catch!
She disappeared again to eat her meal and appeared a third time to catch another fish.

3rd Catch! (Check out those Claws!)

After this catch she disappeared into the forest and did not return.  A woman came up to thank me for alerting her and her husband to the bear's presence.  They were on their way out and would have missed this grand spectacle.  They had come to Hyder to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary and now had a more memorable experience.

Let's Find a Place to Eat!
At this point I wasn't going to leave the BVB until we had to at 10PM.  The time passed quickly with so many birds and salmon to watch.  The bears weren't the only ones fishing, a belted kingfisher was searching the creek for smaller pray.

Belted kingfisher

A female merganser with her chicks had hauled out of the creek to preen on a log.

Merganser and Chicks
By now a large crowd had gathered and most were hanging out at the downriver end of the boardwalk.  I was positioned on the upriver end where I could scan more of the creek.  Around 8:30 I spotted another grizzly coming upriver but the crowd at that end had not seen him yet.  Marc and I raced down and positioned ourselves on the railing and some in the crowd start asking "what's going on?".  "A bear is approaching! " I replied.  "Where, I don't see a bear?" the crowd responded dubiously.  Just then the bear emerged in the creek and the crowd erupted in excitement.

2nd Grizzly Bear, 1st Catch!
This bear not only fished in front of us but ate his first two catches on a tiny island across from the platform.

He devoured his first two fish but left his third.  Flint explained that this fish didn't have any eggs so the bear just left it to catch another salmon hopefully laden with roe.

2nd Catch!

3rd Catch!
He caught a fourth salmon before disappearing into the forest having put on quite a show for all us thrilled onlookers.  We stayed until 10PM watching a beaver repairing his dam (not the one Eric had broken up) before calling it a very successful day!  We returned to the BVB early the next morning for a few hours.  There was a grizzly in the creek when we arrived but she ran off and didn't return.  It was time to leave Hyder and continue our journey southeast.  Here is a map showing our route from Whitehorse to Stewart.

Route Map (outlined in orange)
We made one last border crossing back into Canada (the border guards were getting to know us after 7 crossings) and rejoined the Cassier Highway.  "Clunky, take us to new places and more amazing experiences!" I implored.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc