Having successfully completed the introductory course, the prerequisite Inside Passage, our entrance to the state, we were eager to delve into Alaska 101. Driving onto land marked the beginning of what lay ahead, our dream state.
Alaska is the northernmost and westernmost part of North American. Aside from a relatively straight border with Yukon to the east, the state is surrounded by the Arctic Ocean to the north, Bering Sea to the west and Pacific Ocean to the south. Rectangular Colorado and Wyoming have the straightest border outlines and Alaska has the most irregular outline. The boundaries of Alaska in outline are similar to a double-tailed kite, with the southern panhandle and the Aleutian Islands forming the two appendages.
By now, we had traveled only a fraction of Alaska’s 6,640 miles of coastline, nearly 34,000 miles if all the various islands are included. The distance between the panhandle to the western most Aleutian island is the same as the distance from the east coast to the west coast of the lower 48. Alaska is huge and makes up 16% of the U.S. acreage. The last frontier state is roughly 700 miles from north to south and 1300 miles from east to west. It is, obviously, the largest state; Alaska is 2.4 times larger than Texas and 6.7 times larger than my native state Oregon. The length of California fits nicely from the north coast of Alaska to the southern coast. Another positive measure of Alaska is its population. Alaska ranks as the 47th least populated state. Only North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming are less populated. Our visit will barely sample the coastal boundaries, the irregular shores replete with fiords, bay and inlets of the Arctic, Bering and Pacific.
Before our visit, before an official census of the state and before there were ships ferrying up and down the Inside Passage, Alaska had yet to become the 49th state. The term Alaska, from the Aleut alaxsxaq, has long been home to the Inuit, who do not like the label Eskimo and prefer Inuit or Alaska Native that live in western Alaska including Seward Peninsula and the Yup’ik located more to the south. The Aleuts, related to Eskimos, not surprisingly live in the Aleutian Islands and Aleutian Peninsula in close association to the Alutiiq. The caribou herding Gwich’in are from the northern Interior and North Slope.
Russian “ownership” of Alaska began in 1733, never mind there were thousands of Natives Indians already living there. Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, and never mind the now American Indians had lived there for centuries. That is another story. Actually, Indians in Alaska are Alaska Natives, not American Indians, but that is another story also. The sale might not have taken place, but Russia had become concerned about defending the remote region should they get into it, again, with Great Britain. The Crimean War had not gone so well for Russia, so to avoid any perceived complications with England the great real estate deal became a reality. Alaska cost the U.S. about two-cents per acre compared to the cost of the Louisiana Purchase of about four-cents per acre. I am not sure of the comparability of the two deals since economies between the times of the purchases were different. Today’s price per acre is subject to location. Average prices in the Anchorage area are in the thousands of dollars. Oil companies paid over $500 per acre a few decades ago but seem to be moving toward the original 2 cents by now paying barely over $50 per acre.
Alaska has long been under the rapacious eye seeking wealth from trapping to hunting, fishing and looking for minerals. Trapping has become mostly a subsistence activity but money is a profit for guides, pilots and lodge owners that service hunters and fisher person. The lure of gold also contributes to the face of Alaska. For example, from the 1900’s gold rush to the 1940’s an estimated 80% of Alaska had burned from human caused wildfires. Today, most fires are lightening caused. More recently, probably beginning about the mid-Twentieth Century, oil and gasoline became the new gold to the point that Alaska is dotted heavily with oily endeavors. Now, during our visit to Alaska, the price of gold has become so high that formerly aborted gold prospecting has jumped to profitability.
The physical geography of Alaska is full of flat tundra and massive mountains of volcanic, metamorphic and sedimentary formations. Alaska bounds 39 mountain ranges that contain 17 of the 20 highest peaks in North America. Rivers lace the state. As many as 12,000 rivers have names. The Yukon River originates in Canada and is almost 2,000 miles long and the longest river in Alaska. An estimated three million lakes dot Alaska. Only about 3200 have official names.
Some of the mountains and rivers in Alaska are under Federal protection. Many of such area are National Parks and Preserves. Most lands in the lower 48 are simply National Parks. The category National Park and Preserve allows hunting, trapping and mining, but, apparently only in the preserve part of the park. Hunting could be sports hunting or subsistence hunting by local natives. Establishment of many of the parks was after someone invented the preserve concept and most of the parks have the designation park and preserve. Denali, although established in 1917 as a park, currently has the designation park and preserve. Our route took us near Glacier National Park and Preserve in the northern end of the Inside Passage and we will be passing or entering Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve and Kenai Fjord National Park. We hope to glimpse Mt. McKinley, but any distant view will be our closest approach to Denali. The flight to Nome will be just north of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The remaining properties, all of which individually are larger than most any park in the lower 48, are roadless wildernesses and are therefore safe from adoring tourist. National Wildlife Refuges also offer protection to wildlife. Many are huge by lower 48 standards. Arctic Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge is 19 million acres strong. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the oil trade covets and contiguous Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge hold 17 million acres. Our route on the Alkan Highway will take us only to Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is unlike other refuges in Alaska that are accessible solely by air or boat.
Besides many inaccessible parks, almost all of Alaska is roadless. Only the more eastern and central parts of the state have roads, and the number pales in comparison to the number of roads traversing any one of the lower 48. The first road, designated the Richardson Highway in 1919, connects Valdez on the shore of Prince William Sound to Fairbanks in central Alaska. By contrast, the former U.S. 66 came into use around 1927. The first survey for the Glenn Highway, in 1898, was over rough terrain of rivers, lakes, steep mountains and muskeg sporting thorny bushes that nearly tore the clothing from the early explorers. The completed highway connected the Richardson Highway to Anchorage around the time I am born. Alkan Highway, about the same time in the 1940s, connects with the Richardson Highway at Delta Junction, 97 miles southeast of Fairbanks. As for the Alkan, that is another story for telling later. In 1950, Seward Highway opened. It provides access from Anchorage to Seward and the Sterling Highway south to Homer. During that period, the Tok Cutoff connected Tok on the Alkan to near the junction of the Richardson and Glenn Highways. We plan to travel the Tok, which will save 120 miles of driving to Anchorage. In 1957, the year I became bird crazy, the Denali Highway opened. It is still mostly unpaved and connects Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell adjacent to the present eastern boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve. The Parks Highway, named for George Parks, once a territorial governor and not for Denali as I had supposed, opened in 1972 and connects the Glenn Highway just north of Anchorage to Fairbanks. The longest road in Alaska, not built until 1974, is the gravely haul road known as the Dalton Highway beginning near Fairbanks, traversing the Brooks Range and ending at Deadhorse near the shore of the Arctic Ocean. The Dalton and Richardson parallel the Alaska Pipeline. My apologies to any highways missed. There are others, but our plans will miss them and we will not have time to travel the Sterling, Parks or Dalton Highways. That may be another trip. Not surprisingly, the once largest state, Texas, has the most miles of road. California comes in second with about 260,000 fewer road miles. Alaska ranks well down the line, with the principle highways turning an odometer to a few miles short of 3,000 miles. One web source listed Alaska as having fewer road miles than comparatively tiny New Hampshire. Interstate highways do not exist in Alaska.
Today, the petroleum industry greases most of the economy of the state. Tourism also is in an important economic factor for Alaska, especially in summer when there are more visitors than there are people permanently living in the state. According to some sources, the average expenditure of a tourist to Alaska who stays a couple of weeks is $2,000. That does not include any expenses getting to and from Alaska. Linda and I finally appreciate that going to Alaska is not our myth as we feel the economic pinch, especially at the gas pump and grocery store. Besides the expense of being north to Alaska, time and distance are important considerations. Not everyone has surplus cash and extra time. Not everyone gets to Alaska. Although over 1.5 million tourist visit Alaska every year, that figure is considerably less than the number visiting Yellowstone National Park and far less that the Grand Canyon. In 2012, annual visitation at Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum hit 6.6 million. It is no wonder that I made it a point to avoid crowded public areas while traversing the museum from the Division of Birds, the main library on the ground floor and other departments in the west wing. It is reasonable that some of the localities in the lower 48 that so many people visit were destination of a trip of a lifetime. How true, but many sources tout that going to Alaska is THE journey of a lifetime? Our views of wild mountains, glaciers and wildlife attest to that idea.
Alaska offers the journey of a lifetime especially for birders and our first Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, was the beginning proof that this is THE journey of a lifetime. This is a chance to experience tundra and taiga, both Russian in origin, breeding shorebirds, eiders, longspurs and grizzly bear, muskox, seals, otters and caribou. During planning to go to Alaska, the formative years, I had thought doing the Dalton Highway should be the best way to see Alaska’s harder to find species. Longtime friend and cowriter, Alan Contreras sat in our living room not too long ago and confidently proclaimed time and money will acquire more birds by going to Nome. We accordingly changed our plans. About that time, we began reading an account of the late curator of the Denver Museum of Natural History Alfred M. Bailey, who traveled to Wales in 1922. Each day during the cool, wet and dark days of Oregon’s dreary winter, we read more of his narrative. Bailey’s adventure and his tantalizing species accounts fed the need for adventure and desire to see new birds. It was decided, Nome and Wales on Seward Peninsula is on the itinerary.
Our plans developed. The itinerary will include a drive from the border with Yukon to Anchorage, flight to Nome and Wales, and a drive to Seward via the Tok Cutoff and Glenn Highway and return via the Glenn. If we miss Smith’s Longspur, we will head up the Richardson Highway for a short jaunt out on the Denali Highway and back to Yukon via the Alkan.
20 May 2013, continued
We had not realized that being one of the first vehicles on the Columbia could mean being one of the last vehicles off the ferry. It did, but the lack of traffic and the thought of so many vehicles driving north do not sit well. Any wildlife, we think will surely scatter from the sudden traffic.
Barely yards from the terminal, we stop along the shore of Portage Cove. From land, as it was from the ferry, the glorious mountains invite us to stare, to admire and take home photographs. Unsettled by it all, we drive straight through Haines, without a thought of the need for lunch. Our route parallels the Chilkat River, taking us into the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, established in 1982 and home to thousands of Bald Eagles. The eagles gather in the fall to forage on chum salmon. There is only a smattering of eagles to see this spring day and our thoughts turn to food. Luckily, a small café about 15 miles out-of-town is inviting with its giant hamburger built for two. Actually, it could feed three or four, but we are confident we will manage to slowly cause the burger to disappear.
Our route, the 146 miles Haines Highway, beginning at Haines, will take us to our first overnight destination, Haines Junction, aptly named as our highway terminates at the juncture of the famous Alkan Highway. Haines Highway originates from a so-called grease trail used by the coastal Chilkat Indians trading eulachon oil for furs from interior Indians. Linda reminds me that eulachon is a name for smelt or candlefish. That reminds me of a time when researching pelagic birds breeding on the coastal islands of Oregon that my coconspirator and I scooped up a bunch of just beached candlefish. I can almost taste them, but that giant burger interrupts. Now, we are sliding up the old grease trail, which became the Haines Highway in the WW II year of 1943 as an alternate to Yukon Territory in the days of building the Alkan Highway.
After about one-hour since ordering the giant hamburger, we pull off the highway. No vehicles are in sight on this surprisingly smooth and wide two-lane paved road. A scattering of cottony clouds float in the blue sky. The Takhinsha Mountains in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve raise glittering snow-covered peaks in one direction and the Chilkat Mountains are to our north. Tall poles marking the roads for snow plow operations tower overhead. Dark spruce groves stand among what are the bare branches of deciduous willow waiting for winter to leave. What snow or vegetation has not blanketed is gray and dusty. The sun is warms through our jackets. There is no wind. Once the engine of the birdmobile stops, there is silence followed by the deep tones of a Sooty Grouse. The bird is amazingly close, but remains invisible. In seconds, we hear another Sooty Grouse from across the empty highway. We sit enthralled, as two more grouse join the circle.
Near Chilkat Pass
Our first border crossing is easy. First, the agent said, “Bon Jour.” We reply with a hello and the agent asked where we were going and what fruits we might be transporting. “Welcome to Canada” comes with a smile. That was it. We are now in British Columbia and pass Mount McDonnell, a 5400-foot mountain and less than three-miles to the west. The mountain marks the International Border and is part of the St. Elias Mountains that range above 8,000 feet. Rivers are everywhere, beginning with the Chilkat and flow from snow and glaciers of contiguously bounded parks with Glacier Bay to the south in Alaska, the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park in British Columbia, Kluane National Park Preserve in Yukon and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. It is wonderful to know that so much land is under some level of protection. The largest of these units, the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve is also the largest of its kind in the U.S., occupying 13.2 million acres. It is not only much larger than Rhode Island and seven other states, it is larger than Switzerland. Yet, the size of the Alaskan park is a drop in the bucket when considering 8.7 million acres of U.S. were victim of wildfires in 2011, that golf courses in the U.S. occupy over one million acres and the number of acres of federal land leased to the oil industry comes close to the total number of acres of the adjacent parks near the Haines Highway. We try to ignore just how much the planet is in trouble and drive on.
We cross Chilkat Pass. Snow, wild scenery and sky reaching peaks make us feel we are much higher than only 3,493 feet. Near the pass I see a treeless slope covered by snow and recall a photograph I had seen of the same slope taken later in the season. An email accompanying the photo instructed that the area is good for Rock Ptarmigan, but snow today precludes a search. North of the pass is Kelasil Lake, once accessible by trail, is impossible to reach; the trail is overgrown with willows and today melting snow prevents a look. Driving on, we spot a flock of birds flying over the road. We stop and I jump out. The birds seem wary, but allow enough looks to ascertain that most, if not all, are Lapland Longspur. Minutes after the longspurs, a white grouse sails across the road. I see its black tail, but which species of ptarmigan. Backing up and parking with two tires on the pavement and two on the gravely shoulder, we begin to see ptarmigan walking from behind bushes and continuing their foraging for young leaf buds on the bare limbs of willows. We see the reddish hue of a few summer feathers. One or two begin vocalizing. The sound is one I will never forget, first hearing it from a Peterson LP in the very early 1960’s. The call of the Willow Ptarmigan remains one of the funniest sounds ever heard from a bird. The ptarmigan is my first lifer on the trip and is ABA bird 664, following my previous ABA lifer, Red-billed Tropicbird, two species one would not expect to be in the same room.
Our grousing success is not finished. In a few more miles, another grouse, this time a small dark one, flies across Haines Highway. Finally, after so many years, a Spruce Grouse can be a life bird. From the range, this bird must be the Franklin’s Grouse, which is presently a subspecies of what is now the Spruce Grouse. The end of tail lacks a chestnut band, typical of interior birds and our little grouse has spots on the upper tail coverts. This is clearly a Franklin’s Grouse. The interior bird, if we find one, will go on the escrow list until the taxonomy of these birds is decided.
Further north, passed three or four rushing rivers and Dezadeash Lake, which is wider than the Lynn Canal our ferry plied, I spot another bird along the essentially deserted highway. It is barely above eye level, that is, not much higher than the top of the birdmobile and sits about four to six inches from the top of a scrawny spruce. This is not a hawk. It is an owl. Although I am not looking for this bird since we are not yet in its normal range, it is obviously clear that I am seeing a Northern Hawk Owl. I barely slow since my view of the bird leaves me without doubt and belief we will see others of its ilk in interior Alaska. Years ago, I reasoned my ABA lifer number 666 should be a Lucifer Hummingbird. Owls already have attracted my misconceived ideas about them, such as wisdom and are often depicted accompanying frightening scenes in movies and books. It is a fluke seeing today’s Northern Hawk Owl, which is rare for the region. Nonetheless, I will gladly accept any new species I might find.
Late in the afternoon, we drive into Haines Junction, with 1,000 fewer people than its 2,000 plus elevation. Several motels, eateries and a gas station, with a smattering of other stores sits at about 1,000 miles north of Dawson Creek, British Columbia at mile 0 of the Alkan Highway. We had reserved a motel since with the thought in mind that many people getting off the Columbia might lodge here. We circled through town, traveling perhaps four blocks and located our motel. It has a worn look, but is clean. Snow draping the Kluane Range, part of the St. Elias Mountains, shines white to our west, with peaks averaging 8,000 feet. At our humble elevation, we can almost smell the clear mountain air. The sky is clear and temperature chilling. Barren deciduous plants remind us winter is in charge. Our trusty blue birdmobile, wearing as a badge the leftovers from a Mew Gull, sits in that stupendous panorama. We select from it a few items we need for the night and cannot believe our eyes.
Haines Junction, Yukon Linda
21 May 2013
The stars last night appeared closer than ever and were brighter and crisper than from any mountaintop since an astronomy field trip so long ago. We locate the North Star, Polaris, sitting above the Big Dipper. Decades after the class field trips on the summit of the Siskiyou Mountains, years of living in the brightly lit obscuring environment of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and too much time simply ignoring the sky, time came to tune into what is up there. The opportunity came after retirement in 1996, when, from our cabin at the brink of the grid, we began living with the phases of the moon, the night breezes over frequent white winter holidays and summer crickets below our sky. It was then I remember that the North Star does not outshine neighboring stars. Polaris is not so bright, but it stays put, unlike other stars that seem to move. Last night under the clearest conditions, we easily find the North Star, the near the Big Dipper on the blue background of the Alaska state flag. Poetic license is justifiable for what we have thus far been witness.
The night is short, with less than 7 hours of dark black to see stars. The lights of the ferry had disguised the fact of brief nights and elongating days during the cruise north. Now, on land, the lack from so many lights easily reveals the advancing season. Yesterday afternoon was but a hint of longer hours of sun and our removal from the warming marine air informs us that winter is not ready to leave.
A walk around the motel wakes me to yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, Black-billed Magpie, white-throated Yellow-rumped Warbler, and some strange sound that lures me a couple of blocks to some kind of conifer growing in a residential yard. What is this unknown bird? A squirrel comes into view. I watch, and the sound is coming from the furry beast. Either that or it is lip singing a nearby bird that no one has ever heard of. Fooled but not a fool, I tell myself. On the way back to the motel, I get a closer look at one of the few juncos in the neighborhood. They are not the black hooded individuals breeding in western Oregon, but more on that later.
During the walk about town, I notice a man drive up to a stack of split wood and begin throwing chunks through a door of a tiny building. Then the man jumps into his car and drives away. A metal stovepipe points high into the clear blue. Inside the restaurant associated with the motel the cook and owner tells me the small building houses a stove and a network of water pipes. That is how hot water is produced for our showers and washing the restaurant dishes. I order an egg sandwich, not realizing at the time it is more bread than egg until a ways up the Alkan Highway.
After 20 miles, we began looking for Sulphur Lake, our next birding location. My notes list the potential species of Franklin’s Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers and White-winged Crossbill. The three-toed and crossbill are potential life birds for Linda. Despite instructions in The Milepost, we miss the turn and tell each other there will be plenty of opportunities for the two birds. We drive on.
Paralleling the Kluane Range, we are soon motoring about 2550 feet elevation along the shore of Yukon’s largest lake, 100,000-acre Kluane Lake. To the west is Kluane National Park and Preserve. Kaskawulch Glacier reflects to the left. Tucked inside the 1976 park is Mt. Logan that reaches up 19,551 feet (elevations may vary) above sea level. The peak is the second highest in North America and has a base circumference larger than any non-volcanic mountain in the world. A low record temperature of -106 degrees F on Mt. Logan competes only with those in Antarctica. Although we cannot see Mt. Logan, we can almost feel its grandeur, smell the cool air draining from its slope and wonder if White-tailed Ptarmigan occur there. We cross a river named after a horse that drowned there in 1903. Beside the ptarmigan connection and interest from days climbing in the Cascades, we learn that the Kuskawulsh Glacier once blocked the same river, which caused Kluane Lake to drain to the Arctic Ocean instead of the Pacific Ocean. That might have been confusing to some wildlife, but probably not ptarmigan.
Farther up the Alcan, we turn down a gravel drive to the Tachal Dhal Visitor Centre. We are about 40 miles northwest of Haines Junction and have yet to see a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). We have no need to, but I cannot help thinking of youthful days listening to “Sargent Preston of the Yukon” on the radio. The series ended in 1955, the year I became a junior member of the National Audubon Society under the exceptionally stern leadership of the fifth grade teacher Linda and I frightfully shared. It took me two years to realize that I am a birder, but that is another tale to tell. As for the sergeant, he and his dog, Yukon King went on to be a TV series. By then I was out birding, not watching TV, that is, until the RCMP was reinvented as Dudley Do-Right an uproariously cartoon character. The radio program may have had some influence on wanting to know more about fauna boreali and take a trip to the North Country. In lieu of such a trip, during the museum years, it was fun working on the subspecies of Rock Ptarmigan, the mystery of Thayer’s Gulls, brant and more. It was also entertaining, at least to me when in the presence of Warren King, who then was working among several projects, among them a book for the International Council for Bird Protection. If Warren was within hearing range and I was fastening the latches of a specimen case I often could not, or did not, resist a Sargent Preston announcement. “Well King, this case is closed.” The case for conservation of birds never closes for Warren, who continues the fight in Vermont and elsewhere.
Dall sheep, formerly Dall’s sheep, aka Ovis dalli, are foraging on the southern slope of barren Sheep Mountain. They are in the same genus as the larger Bighorn sheep of the Rocky Mountains. We see at least three groups totaling 100 individuals, but they are white blobs on a brownish background. They are too far to appreciate their curved horns, especially the thicker and more curved ones of males. Telescopes mounted outside the visitor center help verify the sheep have four legs, but not much more. I talk to the staff in the visitor center about Timberline Sparrows, birds representing a northern subspecies of Brewer’s Sparrow. It is of course too early to expect these migrants, but I want to get my sparrows in a row. They suggest a southern trail into the Kluane Mountains near Haines Junction when returning in June. Remarkably, we leave without even an attempt to photograph the sheep. I recall thinking we would be back in June for another opportunity.
About three-fourths of the way between Haines Junction and the border, we pull into an isolated curve of the Alkan Highway. It is an unpaved section of the road isolated after the straightening the highway, the abandoned crook that is not unlike an oxbow lake cut off from the main stream. We are learning that, at least this time of year, standing water is almost everywhere, including forested hillocks at the pull off. A Lesser Yellowlegs flew low over the trees and two Common Goldeneye float in a small pond. Golden-crowned Sparrows are foraging. At long last, we are within the breeding range of one of our southern Oregon feeder birds. A Townsend’s Warbler sings as we rustle through the leaves. We continually are on the alert for grizzly bears and moose, neither of which thankfully make themselves known. We find several donations from Ruffed Grouse, but detect only their scat.
On the way to the border crossing, we find American Golden-Plover and Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow Warbler and Song Sparrow and a relatively easy passage through U.S. Customs. There was no welcome bon jour or even a warm hello, just a serious glance at our passports and eager faces accompanying questions about our origin and were we traveling for business or pleasure. I thought of answering our business is pleasure, but I smilingly thanked the agent. There is no reciprocal smile. Oh well.
The actual border between Yukon and Alaska is strangely 18 miles up the Alcan. Four miles into Alaska brings us to the Border City Lodge. Like the customs stop, the lodge is miles from the border and any town is hours away. We try not to question the logic of this and check in for our first night on land in Alaska. The lodge, a log structure, sits in a flat area, surrounded by wetlands. Once in our room upstairs, we realize that the building is sinking or at least one side of it is sinking. The floor sloping up from the entrance door to the bathroom is noticeable visually and physically. It is a good thing the bed or nothing else in the room is on rollers. A mid-night pee is going to be a challenge for a sleepy mind. Management tells us they are working on an angle to fix the case of the sinking lodge. To us or to King, the case is not closed.
Daylight abounds allowing plenty of time to scout around the compound for birds. There is not much going on out front except the occasional person buying gas at $4.60 a gallon. Something moves at one end of the building. I follow and end up behind the lodge where several gray mobile homes sit. They look vacant and I follow a group of foraging White-crowned Sparrows. A Song Sparrow jumps into view, revealing a plumage unlike the species back home. How can people ignore subspecies? Suddenly a man lurches from one of the gray buildings. He looks a little hypertensive and, with a voice I have not heard since boot camp, inquires what am I doing, who do I think I am, and announces I am trespassing on government property. Yikes. Trespassing is not something I am apt to do. I politely tell the person I am birding, that I am a birder, that I did not realize I am trespassing and apologize for the encroachment. He seems to be in a tizzy of sorts that shuts down hearing. Apparently, he cannot or chooses not to hear a word I say. He repeats is accusing tone. Once again, I apologize and keep walking to what I think may be the boundary line that will separate me from the tirade. He continues the chastisement about trespassing with an added infraction that I am on Federal property and I again apologize. I finally cross the invisible border whereupon he glares and stops talking. I am thinking the word jerk and phrases beginning with the sixth letter of the alphabet.
A small flock of birds near a two-foot pile of snow are pecking around the gravel where summer time RVs will be parking when the season arrives. I forget the General Services Administration gray building, the red-faced character shooting sparks out his assiduously moving mouth and his dark eyes shadowing me. My gaze is toward a group of Lapland Longspur. The birds are so intent on foraging in plain sight that they allow close and unhurried study. The breeding males boast spectacular patterns of blacks, whites and bright chestnut. Females are demur by comparison. One of the females maintains a greater distance from her neighbors. The behavior catches my attention, since some species will hang back from other individuals of a different species. I have seen such behavior especially with shorebirds. Although the longspurs are not shorebirds, they are foraging on a relatively flat surface. Besides, the one bird, the one that is either aloof or being shunned, is not a female Lapland Longspur. It is too buffy, or is it an odd female Lapland? Before I can decide, the mystery female moves behind a snow pile. I inch slightly to the right and have a perfect view, seeing fine brownish, not black, ventral streaks and a buffy, not white, breast and under tail coverts. Having earlier tuned myself with the field marks of target species, I look for white on the bird’s shoulder. While fidgeting for my camera, a vehicle’s tires crunches gravel behind me as it pulls out form the gray zone I previously violated. All of the longspurs reel into the air, leaving me not being 100% sure about white on the shoulder and wondering if one of the sounds of the flushed longspurs was a little different from the rest. Nonetheless, I am sure the mystery female was a Smith’s Longspur. The species has a discontinuous breeding range and the bird today may have overflown it range to the south or is on its way to the north.
Three Surf Scoters, scaup and other assorted ducks are paddling in an open pool of the small stream meandering away from the highway that also is inviting to Bufflehead and to loafing Mew Gulls. Near the shore are a handful of Semipalmated Plovers. The creek flows into Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, a huge preserve, which the Alkan had been paralleling since crossing the border. From the grounds of the motel, I look northwest across a marshy region and more open water of part of the refuge that stretches from the highway to range upon range of mountains some 40 miles to the southwest. Long-billed Dowitcher and Wilson’s Snipe are in view and a Lesser Yellowleg calls. A Gray Jay patrols the front door, perhaps looking for insects tucked between the tan logs of the lodge. Tree Swallows circle. The manager tells me he will soon be discouraging Cliff Swallows from nesting on the building. I learn that occupants of the gray zone, employees having to do with customs, often yell at him and his staff. Linda wonders why, remarking that is not a good custom.
22 May 2013
Morning sun pours down on the cool flat south of the lodge. Desper Creek flows noiselessly toward the Chesana River that picks up the pace in the heart of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Five American Golden-Plovers walk the dry flat near the creek. Linda and I watch over a group of Lapland Longspur busy foraging in the RV site. We search in vain for the female Smith’s Longspur, which I read last night sometimes occurs with Laplands, but that twosome is not happening this morning. A Gray Jay perches solidly on a flagpole anchored to the lodge that is sinking into the muskeg. It is the U.S. flag. Contrary to the custom of businesses flying both the flags of Canada and the U.S., we notice the red and white maple leaf is missing. Perhaps the cantankerous residents of the gray buildings want it that way.
Up a little over 300 feet in elevation and a few miles from the lodge marks our next stop, the visitor center of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. The view is stupendous, but the area is inaccessible while the roof of the center is under repair. A look for Alder Flycatcher is out, but we promise ourselves we will stop at the center on our return from Seward.
Maybe a half-mile up the road two Turkey Vultures glide over the highway. We are supposedly north of their normal range. Finding what appears to be an abandoned road; we pull off the pavement and park and find Linda’s first Gray-cheeked Thrush. Further still along the Alkan, we stop to admire a female Sharp-tailed Grouse as it calmly walks away, nonchalantly disappearing in the black spruce. In less than a half hour, we arrive at the trailhead of Hidden Lake, with a sign promising beauty and a mile-long hike. The cloudless sky lights the taiga. Long boards, mostly 6 X 2, lay loosely over the wet ground and standing water of the trail, and protect the fragile muskeg from hiking boots. Shallow roots of the thick forest of black spruce lay exposed next to the trail but mostly hidden by the moss and lichens glistening from the melted snow. Mosquitos seem rare, but so are birds, including American Three-toed Woodpecker that we think will love the trailside. They apparently do not. We continue down the trail, tiptoeing from plank to plank, carefully watching to avoid getting wet and searching for birds. So far, the promised one-mile begins feeling as if it is growing in length like some fish story. Essentially birdless, except for flushing a Ruffed Grouse, we turn back, knowing that the lake for us is forever hidden. On the way back, we meet a couple, the only humans seen on the trail. I recognize them. They were on the Columbia coming up the Inside Passage. They ask how much further to the lake since, by their pedometer, they had come 1 ¼ miles. We said wer are not sure and wish them luck finding Hidden Lake. Yards before arriving at the trailhead, I spot a Wolverine scurry across the trail. There is no time for a photograph, but time to check off one of my bucket list mammals.
Never ending trail and never ending scenery.
On an access road to the many gravel supplies along the Alkan, I search hopelessly for what might have been a solitaire and find our only woodpecker of the day, a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. We also tumble onto a flock of Lapland Longspur foraging along the road near the pavement. Slightly further west, Linda spots a flock of birds sitting in bare aspen a few yards off the highway. Traffic is almost not existent and we have a flock of Bohemian Waxwings to ourselves. Linda ticks off another lifer. A herd of maybe 10 caribou ambles across the pavement. They are our first reindeer. We run into more longspurs at the pull off after crossing the Tanana River. This is the fifth largest river among the many Alaskan rivers. Perhaps I should put a note in a bottle to float it to Dan in Fairbanks, but ice chokes most of the river. Across the highway and far out of sight are at least two Sandhill Cranes calling wildly. Except for the Myrtle Warblers, there is only silence interrupted by a couple of vehicles passing by this belated winter day.
In nearly a dozen additional miles, we arrive in Tok, sitting in a large plain, a product of the meandering Tanana River three and half miles to the north. Tok, Athabascan for peaceful crossing, was an Indian settlement and trading center. Other theories abound on the origin of the name Tok, but maybe we are the only ones in town of 1,400 people wondering about the take on Tok. For us, as it was in the beginning of the Alkan Highway, Tok is still an important crossing. One may drive 204 miles northwest to Fairbanks or 254 miles southwest to Anchorage. Tomorrow, we will take the Tok Cutoff on our way southwest to our next night a few miles down the Glenn Highway. Today, our travel is short, covering only 89 miles of the Alkan Highway, but what glorious miles, with three new species for Linda and great looks at many species I do not get to see so far south of the boreal zone. Before settling in, a check around the compound, two buildings of motel rooms surrounded by dusty gravel and a few trees left from the growth of Tok, reveals Myrtle Warblers and seemingly ubiquitous Lapland Longspur.
Also everywhere are high prices. Linda and I reel from the prices of a few needed items, including a small box of all bran ($5.19), a can of baked beans ($2.69), a few navel oranges at $1.69 per pound and 32 oz. bottle of ginger ale ($2.99). Our total rang up to $23.07 and for being old, the clerk gives us a senior discount of $1.02. A stop for gasoline costs $45.21 for only 10.6 gallons at $4.229 per gallon
23 May 2013
Lapland Longspurs have command of an open area near our $75 motel. The flock bolts when the only occupants of the establishments speed up toward the pavement. The flock settles back to the ground as I return to help check out of our room. A gray morph Spruce Grouse quickly walks from the edge of Tok Cutoff a few miles out-of-town. I think it is the interior subspecies. A small accessible pond adjacent to the highway is host to a Solitary Sandpiper and nearby, two moose add to the menagerie of several caribou, an occasional Mew Gull, Northern Flicker and Myrtle type of Yellow-rumped Warbler. An American Tree Sparrow jumps into view. The sparrow is a new species for Linda. It has been such a long time since seeing the species that I forgot how large the center breast spot is.
Sixty-five miles from Tok, our route skirts Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve. We toy with the idea of driving the only road into the park to add a new National Park to our meager list, but decide to keep going toward Anchorage. The Mentasta Mountains are to our left. Further, on, we near the glaciated Wrangell Mountains and do not resist taking a couple of photos of 16,237 foot Mt. Sanford, the third highest volcanic mountain in the U.S. We pass the road junction with Richardson Highway and pick up Glenn Highway at the small town of Glennallen. There seems to be an awful lot of dust and noise for a town not yet grown to 500 and clearing the hustle makes the next 50 miles in near wilderness a pleasure. It is amazing how easy it is to become at ease with wildness.
Our itinerary includes Tolsona Wilderness Campground a few miles west of Glennallen, another good spot for American Three-toed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee and other species we have yet to uncover. However, we drive on. Realizing our stop for the night is not in a town, I begin to worry about driving past it. The service station clerk at Glennallen had said it was on the left before crossing a creek. We crossed a creek and there was a lodge back a few yards. We turn around and discover it is not the place. We drive on and see a building on our left. In front of what appears to be a grocery store/café, we notice three men, two sitting and one standing. They look as if they never have seen a razor or barber scissors, let alone laundry soap. One assures that our destination is a couple of miles down the road. We drive slowly and spot the sign to Nelchina Lodge where we have reservations, but no one is around. A phone number on the door seems hopeless. Surely, there is no cell service, but a man answers, telling me he will be there soon. Several minutes pass before Marvin pulls up to the office and dismounts his ATV. Marvin, who is affable and considerably older than I am, hands us a key. We are soon setting up our room for the night.
Tired, Linda settles in for an afternoon nap. I explore around the compound and hear an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Near the owner’s log house, I discover a birdhouse with an entrance hole suitable for a Boreal Owl. Although the Northern Hawk Owls and Common Redpolls I had expected to be dripping from the trees were not available, maybe a Boreal Owl will be a reality.
Leaving the area, I find one of the many highway maintenance sites hidden from the highway traffic. It is time for a snack, which is a tin of sardines. First, I look around for any bears that might get a whiff of my afternoon nutrition. I am alone except for a red Fox Sparrow marking it boundary with a song that differs from my sooty and thick-billed birds to the south. By my last sardine, the sparrow moved a good city block from one edge of the cleared gravel area to the opposite side. Tracking it down, I find it singing near a gravel pit. The pit is about 10 feet deep and contains water of varying depths and mud flats. Two Pectoral Sandpipers, one Semipalmated, four Least and two Western Sandpipers probe the wet shore. They are all in breeding plumage and a treat since most of my shorebirding is during the dog days of August when drab is the seasonal dress. There are other shorebirds, but they look to be peeps that I do not disturb. Two pipits are at the base of a 25-foot pile of gravel. The bright rusty American Pipits are aptly the subspecies rubescens. The Fox Sparrow sings from the perch where it was first singing an hour ago.
Driving westward, I cross the Little Nelchina River. Only a mile and a half from the river, a wide pull off and a road invite more birding. Snow covers the road and although the birdmobile could easily transport me on the route’s flat incline, I walk. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are singing the song we have been hearing now for a couple of days. New to the trip list is a Varied Thrush. The stubby black spruce also holds Yellow and Wilson’s Warbler, more Fox Sparrows, juncos and a small flock of Pine Siskin. Of course, there are Myrtle Warblers and American Robins and a wary Common Raven, but not one species on my hit list.
Pine Grosbeak at Nelchina Lodge Roadside reindeer
On the way back to the lodge is a small pond, a pool really, one that is just large enough for two male and one female Green-winged Teal. The North American and Euasian subspecies supposedly hybridize like indiscriminate mallards in the Aleutians. Although their zone of interbreeding is narrow, genetic studies may indicate a single species, but not everyone agrees. I am not sure, and carefully check the field marks of two male teal as I do all male teal. There is nothing here today to warrant a Nobel Prize. Returning to the lodge, I meet Henry, the owner. I ask about the birdhouse, which he said a pair of American Goldeneye occupied. He believes Boreal Owls are around, but earlier than late May. He feeds birds, and I enjoy watching a pair of Pine Grosbeaks cracking sunflower seeds.
The sun will not set until 10:40, but I am ready to stop birding. Those sardines have faded away and I am ready for a dinner of some kind of noodle/rice from the dehydrated packets we brought, stir in a can of chicken and have a side of canned spinach or green beans.
24 May 2013
Clouds moved in during the chilly night, but fade away this morning. A Western Wood Pewee announces that it may have also moved in a few hours ago. Before leaving Nelchina, we drop by Henry’s place to enjoy a pair of Pine Grosbeaks and the glaciated Gugach Mountains rising over 10,000 feet from our vantage at 2,400 feet and 20-mile distance. We pass the sites I visited yesterday and are soon at 3,322 foot Eureka Summit. It is difficult to believe, but the scenery along our route is even more spectacular than since leaving Haines. To our south are the Chugach Mountains raining down glaciers that are now only 10-12 miles from Glenn Highway. Only an Arctic Warbler could pull me from loving the magnificent scenery.
Linda spots a few Dall sheep near Sheep Mountain Lodge. Not far beyond at a Matanuska Glacier viewpoint are willows growing below a pull off. We avert our eyes from the amazing landscape to search for Arctic Warbler as we had done earlier at Eureka Pass. As far as the willows are concerned, the snow in the foreground, the snow beyond and the crisp air keeps spring at bay. This is something the normally June arriving warblers know. A stop at Matanuska Glacier Recreation Site offers a better view of the glacier, but no birds. We are happy with a Northern Shrike and more Bohemian Waxwings along the highway and we will be checking for Arctic Warblers on the way out of Alaska.
Glenn Highway turns a little ugly about 90 miles east of Anchorage. Many parts of the road are narrow, with 35 mph curves and steep 7% grades. Lack of guard rails on one side and stern warnings of falling rocks on the other side increase the challenge to keep us in good birding order. The mighty Matanuska River is sometimes near the road, but mostly we careen 100, sometimes 500 feet above it. When I dare look, I see that the river is ice choked. Thankfully, the highway becomes less worrisome as we enter Palmer and the first traffic light since leaving Bellingham.
We have now driven slightly over 500 miles and are motoring toward Anchorage. Somewhere along the way, we are shocked to see leaves along the road, which has turned into a four-lane freeway. Spring is here. Then, and just as suddenly, we see leafless willow and aspen, and winter has returned. The strangeness of the plants is just one aspect of our shock as the furry of the traffic forces a kind of culture shock. It is a relief to find our motel. However, it is hot, or at least the 69 degrees seems hot after basking in the frigid glacial air. We cannot turn off the heat in the motel and a large fan does not help.
25 May 2013
I spend the day moving us into a different and cooler room, arranging transportation to the airport and packing for Nome and Wales.