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

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