Journeys must end, at least momentarily and the northern excursion’s closing stages is through lands representing what was long ago penned Fauna Boreali-Americana. The entire title is “Fauna Boreali-Americana or, the zoology of the northern parts of British America: containing descriptions of the objects of natural history collected on the late northern land expeditions,” which was under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, Royal Navy. John Richardson, who traveled with Franklin, was senior author, so to speak, of the published discoveries of the Franklin expedition. The work came out in parts, with William Swainson and Richardson coauthoring the part containing birds, which although once thought to be available in 1831, did not actually appear at the local newsstand until February 1832. This is important concerning priority of scientific names, and part two was full of them. Among the names new to science described by either Richardson or Swainson are Cackling Goose and names that today equate to subspecies of Mew Gull and Black Scoter. Another species described as new is Black-backed Woodpecker. The wide geographic scope was far enough south to result in a description of a northern subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike.
During my museum days, there were many occasions to consult the pages of Fauna Boreali-Americana not just for verifying original descriptions but to determine what the authors wrote about other species. For example, the name wapacuthu, based on a 1785 work by Pennant, was in use by some ornithologists as a subspecific name of Great Horned Owls or as a synonym of Snowy Owl. Although what Swainson and Richardson wrote on the matter was not pivotal to question, reference to Fauna Boreali was essential. Part 2, the birds of Fauna Boreali-Americana, will remain an important reference not to mention its history provides some informative and enjoyable reading.
Incidentally, wapacuthu is a Cree name, but the description is not identifiable with either Great Horned or Snowy Owl. Nomenclaturally, wapacuthu used for owls as a scientific name is a nomen dubium, a name of doubtful certainty.
Having spent so many hours that add up to a generous sprinkling of several years referring to the Fauna during my stint at the museum, it is impossible, even after years of retirement, to not think of such a significant work. With the Fauna in the background literary contributions by Jack London and images of Sargent Preston, wolverines, wolves, northern birds and fresh memories of Alaska are fuel for sampling the northern part of British America.
7 June 2013
Water is still a scarcity this morning. There is enough for a.m. essentials, but coffee is a luxury. Our frustrated hosts, dealing with a building apparently sinking into the permafrost and now out of water, hands me twenty-five dollars cash to help defray some of the inconvenience. We feel a bit sorry for the management, but this is our second night there, which amounts to $100 per night or a total of $30 above our average. We accept the cash. A Cliff Swallow, unwanted by the owner, is fluttering below an eave. We motor onto the Alcan Highway, with our last Alaskan bird, not a boreal species, but a species nesting over much of Canada and the lower 48 to Mexico. Would it be possible to end Alaska with a more characteristic species and write a different ending? Perhaps, but we have over 200 miles to our next destination and accept the swallow.
Before we realize it, we come to a large sign marking the boundary of Alaska and Yukon. We had passed the same sign 18 days ago, but were too anxious to take the prerequisite photo to document we were crossing the boundary and entering Alaska. Today, we reverse the normal touristy photo shoot and take our entering Alaska picture and our entering Yukon picture. A couple traveling into Alaska stop and we hand them our camera for a photo of us, intrepid birders from Alaska. By now our walking had trimmed away a few pounds. We are ready for Canada and the Fauna Boreali.
A few miles down the Alcan Highway takes us to customs for entering Canada. No one is behind us this cloudless morning and we are ready with passports. We stop, and a 40-something male greets us with a friendly bonjour. He asks to see our passports, but somehow in our excitement we cannot locate them. The agent smiles and lets us know that this is not a problem as he assures we will find the documents. Eventually, we produce the passports, but in the meantime our conversation is leading to potential friendship. The three of us discussed the importance of education, the environment and children as if we had met before today. Alexander told us his last name, which I will not repeat here, but we will not forget the kindness of a stranger I hope that we meet again. We thanked him and told him our pleasant visit would not have happened had we been entering Alaska. Days ago we had as frowning agents at the border crossing. Today, Alexander, apparently alone at his post left us with a smile.
Twenty miles and in almost as many minutes, we pull into Beaver Creek and Buckshot Betty’s clean and rustic restaurant. It is crowded. Most of the customers appear to be tourist on their way northwest. We seat ourselves at one the few available tables near the slightly elevated back of the establishment. Our small, nearly oval-shaped, table is attached to a burl much larger than my big head and barely large enough for our appetites since we are hungry for something substantial to feed our waterless stay at the Border Lodge. Our order of two hamburgers looks and taste better than any historical hamburger of bygone meals. French fries, something we rarely eat, nearly tumble off the plate of the homemade buns holding an almost wild meat. A bowel of soup evens out the ratio of too much fat and healthy eating. Just how the establishment got its name is a mystery, perhaps answered from a bluesy “Ballad of Buckshot Betty,” but I have not heard it yet. As for the food, the hunger that once was forefront, fuels the rest of the day.
Two hours of digesting the Buckshot Betty burger brings us to exposed gray rocks angling gently up a slope. Standing on the loose rocks are two grizzlies, a sow and her cub. We are what could be dangerously close, but I crack the window wide enough to allow my camera to peek out at the best view of this species we have had so far. The mother has her ears flatten toward her back. This is not a good sign for mere humans. The curious cub peaks around the huge sow and when venturing away from her bulk, the mother moves to keep herself between us and the cub. The watchful eyes of the twosome are both wonderfully adorable and anxious from potential danger. Snapping pictures of the drama, at least for us and maybe the bears too, we end the adventure with a sigh of respect and relief.
The highway takes us through terrain full of black spruce and small ponds surrounded by short woody plants of some unknown species. Admittedly, my botanical skills do not reach far beyond fascination of David Douglas who explored much of the Pacific Northwest but never north to Yukon. Gathering clouds shut out the sun and threaten rain on the far slopes.
A stop near the Duke River does not bear the finding guide’s promised fruit of an Upland Sandpiper. Perhaps birds are hunkering down as the weather becomes more threatening. Another roadside stop during a lull in the gathering clouds is full of people, something we usually do not encounter. Something else that is not so usual are a couple of Palm Warblers and further down the highway are wildflowers growing along the shoulder. They are pinkish-lavender and blue. One bunch are lupines. Onward, we reach the turn for Tachal Dhal Visitor Center at Sheep Mountain. I had told the staff there that I might check in concerning “Timberline” Sparrow, but we are late. The center is not open and rain is catching up to our journey as we continue to Haines Junction.
The Kluane Mountains sport less snow than days ago. Ash and aspen are opening their bright pale green leaves and more wildflowers hover under the angry clouds. We reach Haines Junction and find our motel. I find the visitor center and a staff member tells me that my plans for tomorrow may be unworkable because of a grizzly. I will know more tomorrow.
8 June 2013
During last night’s review of the day, I recall a childhood dream of a large dark paw, what surely must have been that of a bear, reaching up between my little bed and the wall. The menacing shadow disappeared about the time I screamed loud enough to wake the family, even the lazy cat curled near the wood stove. That dream, or a variant of it, has since periodically reappeared throughout my life. Perhaps I am crazy and should bare my thoughts to a professional, but so far those claws have not drawn blood. In fact, perhaps the bear spirit was only pointing me to some direction. In the case of its original appearance, the direction was up as if guiding me to the sky where birds would override dark shadows in the night. Maybe the dreams since that first installment have something to do with leaving the toilet seat up instead of steering me into a career of birds. At least the bear does not interrupt my sleep last night although my waking thought is will I need to fear any real bears today.
The morning temperature is in the 50s, but the sun is clear and bright as I reach the culture visitor center at the eastern edge of Haines Junction. Being too early for the park rangers, I explore the outside of the magnificent building that provides space for First Nations, a term Canada uses for native Indians, and space for Yukon and National Park services. The park rangers arrive and I introduce myself and inform the Klaune National Park and Preserve staff I plan to hike the Auriol Trail to search for “Timberline” Sparrow. There was no need for me to call the birds by their official species name. The staff, like many other birders, is aware that “Timberline” Sparrow refers to the mostly northern subspecies taverneri of the species Brewer’s Sparrow. They tell me staff has not found “Timberline” Sparrows yet this season, but that they found a dead moose and that a grizzly had done the killing. Oh. How long ago, I ask. “We moved the moose two kilometers off the trail a week ago.”
Gulping, I respond with half-hidden insecurity “That is good, but will the grizzly be looking for its dinner?”
“That’s very doubtful. Just make plenty of noise during your hike.”
This good news and bad news is not the best of news. I would prefer something like “the trail is completely safe and the Timberline Sparrows are there and singing up a storm.” With forbearance, no pun intended, I drive about four and a half miles south of town on the Haines Highway that Linda and I traveled on 20 May. There was snow covering the trail head then and hiking it at that time would have been difficult and too early for “Timberline” Sparrows. It might be too early today, but every leg of our trip north cannot be timed to meet so many schedules of migrants, breeders and our own need to keep within our own agenda.
Maybe today is the day for the sparrow and not the day for a grizzly. Gathering up my nerve, I strap on my day-pack, which contains extra water and snacks that I am trusting I sealed sufficiently to prevent a whimsical grizzly from stealing my food. I also had read that during a confrontation with a bear, a person, that possibly being me, should get face down and keep the pack on to provide extra layers between your skin and those long grizzly claws. Just maybe the can of sardines is thick enough to avoid death.
Beginning and middle of the trail
Before heading out, a vehicle carrying two passengers slightly older than me, park a few feet from my staging area. Maybe they could accompany me up to timberline, but my plan for safety in numbers fails. They are on their way north. I ask them to take my picture to commemorate my auspicious trek into bear country. The snapshot is of a person looking older than I judge I am and a person looking braver than I should believe. The stuffed pockets of my favorite green jacket makes my fat content appear higher than it is and my slightly hunched posture and whitening beard gives a flavor of Hemingway before writing his last page. Linda would have reminded me to stand up straight, but today I am almost glad she is safe in Haines Junction. The couple drives away, leaving me to wish myself good luck.
Auriol Trail is a little over six miles long, with an elevation gain of 1300 feet. Its length forms a loop and shrubby alpine habitat is near the top of loop, which is where I might find the sparrows. The trail heads westward toward the gray deforested Kluane Mountains. Snow remains on some of the slopes and summits along the range are hidden by low hanging clouds. In a few yards from the trail-head, the trail traverses a flat and open area for at least a quarter of a mile. Months earlier, I noticed from computer searches that the large sections of flat area are sometimes under melted snow. Luckily, it is dry today. I look to the right and to the left in case there are any oncoming grizzly bears. There is none. A few yards beyond the flat are trees that hide the mountains ahead and any wildlife lurking along the route. High and lower vegetation is now lining both sides of the trail, with most of the deciduous plants in various stages from catkins to almost but not quite leafed out plants. This is where I begin talking to myself. I am speaking aloud, speaking a volume above my usual conversational windy self and I don’t let up. I am following the ranger’s advice and make plenty of noise to let any bears know you are coming. This also lets them know that you are an idiot, not just for talking to yourself but being here, alone and unarmed and probably stinking of peanut butter coming from my pores or is it fear. I tell myself everything will be all right. I will complete this hike safe and unharmed.
My solo conversation continues and becomes less humanly sensible and probably leaning in grizzly serviceable range. I had run out of things to say. To keep the chatter going, I repeated phrases.
“Bears begone, be out of sight and be too far to see me, me, oh what should I do if I see one of you.”
“Go away, go away, stay away today and let me return to the highway.”
“Mr. Grizzly, run from me so I don’t have to see your claws and teeth.”
“Go away bear. I have a gun.”
Some of my phrases also concern weather, bends in the trail, birds I might find. “I hope the rain keeps the bears away, oh no, I can’t see around the bend and where oh where has that little Timberline Sparrow gone.” Any person listening might wonder where or where has this guys mind gone. The denser the vegetation adjacent to the trail, the more vocal I become until I run out of breath. Then, I clap my hands. Hand clapping was also necessary depending on the steepness of the trail and my speed. My goal is to speed along parts of the trail that allow me at least to believe I am not in danger of a bruin bushwhack. If there were any grizzlies around, they either covered their ears or left the scene, which is what most wildlife probably did. Quickly dashing any complacency on my part are thoughts of that mother grizzly guarding her cub yesterday.
The trail forks to the right and the left. A pole once supporting a missing sign stands at the fork in the route. Claw marks or are they woodpecker pecks scar the pole. Some of the scrapes on the pole appear brownish like the wood underneath the gray weathered guardian. Should I worry? So far any fresh bear tracks or even any deer or moose tracks suggest little to no traffic of any large mammal, including human. Following the advice of the staff safely ensconced in the visitor center, I take the left fork. It is steeper than most of the trail so far and laced with tree roots. A few yards up this fork, I hear something. I freeze, but am relieved it is human. Two women are coming down the right fork. They are also talking, but to each other. I hurry back to the junction and ask if they are on the survey, the tally the park staff said I might see on the trail. I ask if they ran into any “Timberline” Sparrows whereupon they reply they did not go to timberline. Great, I think and wonder what kind of survey skips part of the trail. I also ask about bears. They detected none. My worry shifts to thinking I am definitely alone on the left fork. I wonder if the left fork is where the grizzly killed the moose. No. The kill was probably in the low flat area hear the highway. Great. When and if I return, I will be standing on the trail, with the hungry grizzly salivating between the birdmobile and me. No, that is not going to be the story. I am going to find the “Timberline” Sparrow and as for any trepidations, I will grin and bear it, I think.
Sing-songing, I utter, “get a grip.” About half way to the summit the cool gray overcast turns to periodically falling rain. It is not enough to cause me to pull out my raincoat, but enough to further dampen the forest floor from sounds of, say a grizzly bear. The rain stops and a mild breeze stir warmer air enough to invite mosquitoes. DEET comes to the rescue. I do hear Yellow-rumped Warblers singing. American Robins, birds often seen on manicured urban lawns seem at home in this wilderness. An occasional view of Haines Junction reminds me further that I am a long way from anything. Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes add to the family. A Gray-cheeked Thrush is singing and Gray Jays are skulking in the background. I wonder if they would scold a bear and thereby warn me. I hike on, until I am in what must be good “Timberline” Sparrow habitat, the brushy subalpine. Intent on listening and looking, I put my bear be-gone repertoire, including hand clapping, on hold. I feel confident my noise has cleared the area of danger. Although I had earlier been listening to a CD of the sparrow’s song, a singing junco momentarily puts me on high alert. Realizing my mistake, I walk a few more yards, hoping to flush a sparrow into view. There is only silence and an empty view. I must be too early.
The junco sings again, taunting me, but three hours have passed and I am not sure how long it will take to return to the trail-head. No longer watching for sparrows and other species that enticed me, I feel free to leave any bears behind and return to the safety of the trail-head. I cannot help but wonder if a silent “Timberline” Sparrow is lurking in the bush, waiting for me to leave. Again, I tell myself it is just too early and that I need to realize the hard and sweaty push up the mountain is at an acceptable end. Now, it is all downhill and sooner than not I see a lone vehicle at the end of Auriol Trail. The blue birdmobile awaits. Because today is Saturday, I had expected and hoped there would be others hiking the trail. My plan for safety in numbers did not materialize, and my plan to witness “Timberline” Sparrows on their breeding grounds likewise fails. Luckily, I am 100% certain of seeing and hearing a singing migrant a few years ago in mountainous southern Oregon. The singing bird was not alone. Seconds from seeing my first “Timberline” Sparrow a second bird began singing, but it was paler and browner than the first soloist. The sunny day and the cooperativeness of the two birds allowed close study and confirmed that the second bird’s auricular is not gray and in fact, just like the field guides stated, the head of the second bird is more akin to a Clay-colored Sparrow than not. Having seen many Brewer’s Sparrows over the year, and seeing one near a “Timberline” Sparrow that morning in the Oregon mountains was fortunate. Even better, the two birds did not sing the same tunes. Probably the “Timberline” Sparrow was practicing for a patch of territory northward, maybe in Yukon. The paler and browner Brewer’s Sparrow might have been setting up shop at the time. Neither bird exhibited any concern of their close proximity; they ignored one another.
Although I miss the target “Timberline” Sparrow today, I feel a great relief that I am back to the trail head. Luckily, a grizzly bear did not eat me or that any thing poked out my eye or I did not sink into quicksand. I relax, sitting in the confines of the birdmobile munching on a lean piece of beef jerky while feeling as safe as Daniel Boone now that my walk is complete. I am safe from any marauding bears, but wait a minute. What is that in the bushes? It is about time. Finally, there is a Boreal Chickadee to pepper the trip list! Bohemian Waxwings added to the end of the trail journey.
Partly to unwind from the bruin induced stress and the ever-present need to be birding, I drove south of the trail-head for five miles. A roadside pullout looks inviting, but any birding is impossible as the clouds unload their moisture so furiously that I cannot see beyond the front of the car, even with the windshield wipers set at full speed. Driving is impossible for several minutes. At the first let up, I begin driving north to Haines Junction. I cannot see the mountains that are west of the trail and am grateful I came down when I did. Parts of the trail surely became creeks during the torrential rain. Just as suddenly as the storm hit, sun begins to shine south of Haines Junction. I stop to check out some roadside habitat, but it fails to produce any birds.
9 June 2013
The friendly owner of our Haines Junction motel laments to us about the poor tourist economy, saying that more and more people pass up motels and restaurants since the they are traveling in RVs. Certainly, we notice numerous styles of recreational vehicles that offer self-contained environments for cooking and sleeping. Linda and I have toyed with the idea of someday selling our home, buying an RV and living across the continent. Some RVs are huge, commercial bus size. I cannot imagine driving such a monster let alone contributing to climate change. RV sizes measure down to smaller and smaller units and would certainly be easier to drive, but so would pick-ups with a camper straddling the rear. Of course, gas mileage of pick-ups and larger RVs is not great. We have seen some inviting RVs that remind us of a type of van and harken to the days of the Volkswagen bus. Perhaps someday we will also pass up motels and restaurants, but in the meantime, we aim our little SUV eastward along the highway.
Besides our trek in May from Haines Junction to Tok on the Alcan or Alaska Highway, we have been traveling the legendary route from the official western end at Delta Junction, Alaska, 1,390 miles from its official beginning at Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Our first impression from driving the highway is that is wider and smoother than imagined. Only sections from near Kluane Lake in Yukon to the Alaska border seem difficult owing to potholes, graveled sections and frost heaves. We had far worse driving conditions on sections of Glenn Highway in Alaska than anywhere. We are impressed with the well-placed passing lanes and pullouts. We are also impressed with the well-spaced places for fuel and lodging. There are far fewer curves than I thought possible. In fact, there were more, but straightening the road is an ongoing process. Historically, if my math is correct, the highway was 290 miles longer than today, testifying to the number of curves untwisted.
The idea of building the Alaska Highway came in 1938. The bombing at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and thoughts that Alaska would be in danger of invasion prompted construction by the US. Army of the route that began in March 1942, two years before Linda and I are born. The highway followed already established wagon roads from Dawson Creek to Fort St. John in British Columbia and between Whitehorse to Lake Kluane in Yukon. First Nation Indians filled in the missing links. Completion of the highway, with the help of Canada supplying timber and gravel, would supply strategic airfields in Alaska. Road builders often discovered it necessary to follow existing winter roads and trails of Indians, but also pushed the forest down by driving large caterpillars in straight lines and over elevations without benefit of curves. Melting permafrost was almost as huge of an impediment as were mosquito and other blood hungry insects and early autumn frostbite. The road, really a track, was completed by November 1942. Development of the route to a standard highway took place in 1943, but use of it was restricted mostly to military. In 1946, the US. Army transferred the “highway” in Canada to the Canadian Army, Northwest Highway System. Travel restrictions were lifted in 1948 and by 1960 the entire Alaska Highway was paved.
The Alaska Highway changed Boreali-Americana forever. It currently maintains steady increases of the region’s population and economy. During its construction road crews surely invited attacks from grizzlies although hopefully most of the workers were louder and as lucky as me. So far, the highway, which because it traverses Canada and Alaska might be best designated as ALCAN Highway, with the all caps as abbreviations of the two regions. Whether as ALCAN or Alcan, the highway, is changing our lives, with its grand mountains and amazing tundra and mammals we were beginning to think I would never see. And, what a great birding route.
Leaving Haines Junction and heading east today feels like beginning a new trip. The search for all species on our hit list for Alaska is over. Oh, there remains a chance for finding a Boreal Owl in Canada, but that is long shot. A singing Palm Warbler near the motel reminds us that we are now about to enter the country where opportunity for eastern species increases during each day of our travel for the next seven days.
Hard Time Mountain rises abruptly, towering over to our left some 4,000 feet above the Alan Highway. Ninety miles of highway driving in the Yukon wilderness yields to Whitehorse, a city 26,418 inhabitants. The Alcan Highway increased the prosperity of many settlements and towns and Whitehorse is no exception as the city replaced the more remote Dawson City as capital of Yukon in 1953. Entering Whitehorse is a little disconcerting for us. It stands alone as a populated region and possesses all the accouterments of modern cities including shopping malls and traffic jams. The first traffic light since Anchorage tells when to stop and when to go. We do stop to shop at a reasonably large grocery for a few supplies and we do go to a bridge crossing the Yukon River, the very river I flew over during the trip to Seward Peninsula and the same that flows to Dawson City and through Alaska where birders go for a chance encounter with Gray-headed Chickadees. It is the river of Jack London, northern wildlife and gold. It is the river I enjoy having the opportunity to cross with Linda at my side.
From one side of the bridge and back, we stop at the dry docked S. S. Klondike, a steam-driven stern-wheel boat sitting on the bank of the Yukon River. Playing tourist in this mid-70s day of clouds whipping across blue sky, we marvel at the 210-foot vessel. Its shallow draft floated 40 staterooms, transported supplies, and silver-lead ore between Dawson City and Whitehorse. The S. S. Klondike had plied the Yukon River from 1937 to 1955. Cliff and Barn Swallows dart overhead and Mew Gulls, an almost ubiquitous species of the fauna boreali-Americana, mill up and down the Yukon River just as they probably did 80 years ago.
Whitehorse has an active birding community, but we do not take advantage of local knowledge and head upstream and soon come to a junction that leads south to Skagway. In about an hour we arrive at another intersection and a route also leading south to Skagway at the northern head of the Inside Passage. Sooty and Dusky Grouse breed near this route, but there is, as always too many birds and too little time. Miles and miles go by, but there is nothing boring. Although birding is on the back burner, a Rusty Blackbird nearly collides with our windshield. It is the closest view I have ever had of the species.
We cross the long spans of a steel bridge over the Teslin River, one of many tributaries of the Yukon River. Not far, we arrive in the hunting and fishing town of Teslin, our destination for the night. Inland Tlinglit totems and a heritage center celebrate the fact the town has the largest Native population in Yukon. How wonderful it would be to have more time to savor the culture of the north, but our destination for the next day continues to push us forward. Someday, we will return for a more leisurely stay for more than a mere taste of the land.
Today, we find less than half a thousand residents overrun by tired and hungry road crew members also looking for a night’s sleep. Checking a couple of establishments reveals they are full. From researching what to expect on this trip, we read that the window for roadwork is narrow. Now, we witness the earnestness of getting the roads ready for the onslaught of summer tourist and destructive winter. Although grateful to those maintaining the fine condition of the Alcan Highway, it is late and I begin feeling nervous about finding a bed. So far, it had been unnecessary almost everywhere to not have reservations. Further, we have easily avoided night driving in order to find a place for the night. Living in Oregon was enough for us to know that not driving at night would keep us and any wildlife safe. Any collision with a moose, bear, almost anything is not why we are on this journey although our list of owls is pitifully bare of check-marks. What are we going to do? At the last motel we check, the clerk said to try the outfitter’s place about a block away. It was a house. The owner is a guide and supplies canoes to people and he is renting rooms in his house.
Desperate, we take a room. Our room is up a steep set of stairs. The banister is a 1 X 4 inch piece of wood barely tacked to the top and bottom of the unfinished wooden steps. Falling is definitely an option. Three bedrooms and a bathroom at the top are cozy enough in a Spartan manner of speaking. We pick a room, but, like Goldilocks, quickly realize the bed is too small. We move to the room immediately over the kitchen, which we confirm by peering down through a hole in our room’s floor. We also realize that the rooms belong to children. Our interesting host reveals he is the proud father of four, but we never discover where his family is. Arrival of a man who needs a room makes any further conversation moot. The man is traveling alone on a motorcycle. Whether it was from traveling solo or too many bugs in the teeth, the guy never stops talking, especially about himself. He approaches one of those types that would have to live several hundred years to experience such a life. He is an aggrandizer extraordinaire. We retreat to the room where the bed is just right, leaving Doug, our gracious if not mysterious host at the bidding of the new guest. From our room, we hear over the prattle arrival of a couple, who take the third room.
10 June 2013
Waking dread came in the morning and it is about the schedule of the shared bathroom. Before rising, I hear the late night couple, who we never actually saw, saying to each other something like getting the “hell out of here.” Luckily, before we are up, Mr. Mouth is already pontificating the dishes off the kitchen table as Doug looks on with an expression of politeness under duress. The bathroom is joyfully free. Minutes later, Linda and I gather ourselves and cautiously make our way down stairs where Doug offers fresh coffee and a delicious variety of homemade cookies and fruit. On our way out, our escape, we are able to get in a thank you and a good luck to poor Doug sitting there with his last talkative guest.
In about thirty minutes we find a large gravel pull off. No vehicles are there and we enjoy the quiet of the infrequent traveler at our early hour. It is a good place to retrieve our wits and look for birds. We are getting closer and closer to the ranges of a few eastern warblers and Linda needs a smattering of them including Magnolia that might be lurking in the trees. Unfortunately, the forest is quiet although we do hear a woodpecker, which, from its familiar call is surely a Hairy. Before leaving our haunt, we discover a marker that marks the boundary between Yukon and British Columbia. We also find a black bear almost uncomfortably close. It seems less interested in us than we to it. Once again on the Alcan highway, we travel about 40 miles into northern British Columbia before again entering southern Yukon where we will be until tomorrow east of Watson Lake.
Eastward, we find ourselves deep in the Cassiar Mountains, a range lying west of the Rockies and east of the Boundary Range of the Coast Mountains. The name Cassiar was a familiar name well before planning the details of this trip. The name Cassiar, apparently derived from Cassa, an Indian who owned part of the mountains, also refers to a type of Dark-eyed Junco. Not so many years ago, Dark-eyed Junco included two northern populations of birds then deemed by the AOU as separate species, the black-hooded Oregon Junco and the gray-hooded Slate-colored Junco. Each species included several distinguishable subspecies. One is what is currently regarded as the Cassiar junco consisting of birds with dark hoods that are grayer than black. Of course, these birds possess other characteristics, but a detail of them belongs in my references back home.
Generally, in all field marks, Cassiar juncos fit perfectly the subspecies that many proclaim to represent a population of hybrids between the black-headed individuals formerly known as Oregon Junco and the gray-headed birds formerly under the name Slate-colored Junco. I first notice presumed Cassiar juncos at Haines Junction in May and again a couple of days ago. Cassiar juncos occupy an exceedingly large range that covers over a thousand miles in any one direction. The birds there are known by the trinomial cismontanus according to some ornithologists and the trinomial henshawi by others. Having worked at the museum a bit on this complex species, I favor following the scientific logic of those using henshawi as the trinomial or subspecific name, assuming, of course that the population is not representing hybrids and are subspecies. Hybrids, a group of interbreeding organisms that share genetic material of two or more named populations do not have nomenclatural status. They are neither fish or fowl or in this case, neither Oregon or Slate-colored Juncos.
Remarkably, before the AOU lumped Slate-colored and Oregon Juncos in 1973, the so-called hybrid population with the English name Cassiar junco had been considered a subspecies of Slate-colored Junco. Today, most “juncologists” believe Cassiar junco are closer to the black-hooded Oregon group. For now the Cassiar junco, aka Junco hyemalis henshawi, is officially one of 10 or so subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco.
As I ponder the junco at Haines Junction and those along our route in the Cassiar Mountains, I wonder if, as a notable taxonomist wrote not long ago, that the different so-called subspecies of junco “may represent a case of speciation in action.” Clearly, the fat junco has yet to sing; the need for further research should help solve relationships. The picture could change anytime, but for now, some informally hypothesize the junco complex could be subject to splitting into more than what I am calling today a Dark-eyed Junco. Will Slate-colored and Oregon Juncos be reborn? If so, what of the conundrum which is the Cassiar junco?
In about an hour and a half, we fill the birdmobile gas tank near the Continental Divide where the elevation is only around 3,200 feet, but the high fuel is $65.44. Assuming the tank was bone dry, the price per gallon would be over $5 per gallon, but we rarely have allowed the gauge to go below ¾ from full. Filling a tank only ¾ empty would be… The math is easy, but do we really want to know how much it costs to drive fauna boreali-Americana? The divide separates watersheds of the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers, with cool water flowing to the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean respectively. The highway follows Rancheria River eastward, passes the junction of Highway 37, aka the Cassiar Highway, an alternate and sparsely populated route south. We continue on the Alcan Highway toward our next destination.
Albert Creek Bird Observatory Watson Lake sign forest
Further east, we turn north on Albert Creek Road, a dirt route leading into the forest and away from the sound of tires humming on the highway pavement. We take a right at a fork in the road and arrive at the Albert Creek Bird Observatory, formerly the Albert Creek Bird Banding and Migration Station (Southeast Yukon Proper Land Use Society) that began banding birds in 2000 and have evolved more than its name to become a scientifically operated banding station in Canada. The observatory occupies several acres of the Liard River flood plain consisting mostly of regenerated forest and marshland. There are willow, alder, popular, paper birch and white spruce and among the trees, bushes and in the marsh during their operation are as many as 27 mist nets that are monitored by 507 volunteers during spring and fall of 2012. That same year the station has banded 43,440 individuals of 90 species. During that same year, according to a detailed annual report, 22 species arrived earlier than their average, with Swainson’s Thrush and Wilson’s Warbler leading the early bird specials by 10 and 8 days, respectively. Climate change and global warming might be the culprits for such early arrivals.
Unlike the 102 visitors to the banding station in 2012, our visit has no demonstration of banding. We are on our own. Boardwalks and vegetation removed from an otherwise dense habitat reveal where some of the mistnets were set. The observatory, abandoned by the army of banders, has recorded 170 species over the years, but our timing today is not particularly great for seeing hoards of migrants. Most of the birds have moved on, leaving only a few individual stragglers and those staying to nest. The early afternoon sun invites mosquitoes, butterflies and bees out of the vegetation. Large puddles from rain yesterday overflow the road, but we manage during our makeshift tour. We imagine volunteers plucking warbler from mistnets, gently weighing, measuring and recording every ounce of data from plumage, fat, age and more. Many birds are singing, with Philadelphia Vireos singing the loudest. The vireo is a new species for Linda as is a reasonably cooperative Alder Flycatcher. According to the station data, Alder Flycatcher numbers are diminishing. Also plentiful today are Yellowthroats, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler. A different warbler calling somewhere behind the thick leaves of summer is a mystery. A vocalizing Barred Owl surprises us in our frustration. That species only began showing up in the Albert Creek Observatory since 2010. A puddle straddling the road from heavily vegetated edge to edge is impossible to walk around. It looks to have a depth appreciated by snorkelers and stops our exploration. We begrudgingly return to the birdmobile.
The town of Watson Lake, eight miles east of Albert Creek is famous for the Watson Lake Signpost Forest. A forest of poles support thousands of signs from as many international locations. Signs point toward a named city, often with numbers that provide distance in miles for US localities and others in kilometers. Old car license plates tacked among the myriad of signs add color and even more of a personal testimony to mark having been at Watson Lake. Real trees, with a few pine and alder, grow among the signs, but nonhuman wildlife is gone, perhaps hidden by a large yellow curve sign or an orange and black detour sign probably stolen from a highway department. If there was a sign from Medford, Oregon, it was hidden among others from Oregon to Florida and Europe. The signpost forest began by an Illinois soldier, who, while working on the highway and experiencing a case of homesickness, commemorated his home by placing a sign at Watson Lake.
Apparently anyone can put up a sign, but space in the birdmobile could not permit bringing along something identifying us. By now, we are more interested in proving we are visitors to Watson Lake by signing a motel registry. The motel picked from earlier research of the region turns out to have shared bathrooms. Since we had been there and done that in Teslin, we drive to a find only motels with much higher fees. So far, our average motel fee is better than originally predicted and having private solo time on a throne is worth the extra rate.
11 June 2013
Barely east of touristy Watson Lake, we find a nearly cloudless sky and a large bison at the side of the road and more signs. One sign warns us of road work ahead. Another, a large electric sign warns “BISON ON HIGHWAY/YUKON-MUNCHO LAKE” and “BISON SUR L’AUTOROUTE/YUKON-MUNCHO LAKE.” I wonder why the last word is not LAC, but perhaps I should ask for a pardon on my French. The forests along the route appear larger and have not been blighted by bark beetles. Lushly growing roadside dandelions seem to have an intoxicating affection on shiny pelted black bear after black bear scarfing up the rich green leaves and yellow flowers. The multilingual sign about bison becomes true as herd after herd grazes the wide grassy spaces between hard pavement and thick forest. Most of the herds are females with a shade of cinnamon brown calves among them. The calves are relatively tiny to their adult protectors, the mothers and aunts that guide them to greener grasses. A few expectant mothers labor along with the slowly moving herds. One individual, which we think was dust bathing, appears out of breath as if tired or sick. We realize the bison is a male as he stands up, now perhaps revived from a rest after competing for females.
Being subject of so many humans and their clicking cameras surely tires the bison by the interruption to their normal lives that may last to around 40 years. They look patient, but I recall reading that bison can run up to 55 kilometers per hour and the last speed sign I recall stated a maximum of 50 kilometers per hour. We keep a distance, confident that most the bison are interested in each other and eating than goring our stead.
The remainder of the day in is full, with wildflowers, a threesome of grizzlies, one which we believe is the mother to the smaller bears, one of which is nearly adult in size and the other still smaller. The highway leaves Yukon for several miles in British Columbia and then back to the two provincial borders at Contact Creek. At this location military and civilian builders of the highway from the north make contact with a similar party from the south with a kind of golden spike event in September 1942.
The highway traces above the meandering Liard River on its way to the Mackenzie River that emptys into the Arctic Ocean. Liard is French for eastern cottonwood and there are forests that could be members of some species in the genus Populus, but that is assuming vegetation today is similar to that of the early 1800’s when the river got a name. The first whites to venture into the region were interested more in fur pelts than botany just as my focus has been less on plants and much more on plumages that allow bird identification. Today, we have high hopes for a taste of eastern species of birds and of course, continue to be vigilant for some species we missed earlier, but might still grace our hit list.
In addition to the target species of birds, we are looking for time soaking in the hots springs of Liard River Hotsprings Provincial Park. We had earlier made reservations in a commercial inn next door to the park. The fee is not a surprise since we had earlier checked lodging possibilities. The room is tiny and spartan, without a coffee maker and hot from the afternoon sun. Ignoring that, we head into the park. There is a day use fee of $5 per person to enter the park, but the ranger kindly waives the fee when we explain we would like to only look at this time.
Many years ago people speaking Athabascan and Kaska represented groups of natives with the wonderful names of Dog Rib, Nahanni, Beaver and Sikanni. Moose was their primary source of reliable food. The springs, their springs, were “discovered” in 1835 by a member of the Hudson Bay Company, an organization then as widespread as Wal-Marts and fast-food joints today. The first white man to live at the springs came to pass in 1920. About two years later, that person drowned in the Liard River. The US Army built board walk facilities at the springs in 1942 and the region became a park in 1957. Today, hot springs aficionados rate the springs high on the list of North American hot springs. The temperature of the pool open to the public ranges from 42 to 52 Celsius, which to Fahrenheit users might seem cool but the translation is 107.6 to 125.6. That sweltering temperature, never mind the .6, is hot and keeps the pool open even in winter when ambient temperatures may dip to around -30 F. We can see the steam rising as the boardwalk brings us to the pool where a few individuals in bathing suits are sitting neck-deep in water that, as revealed when they stand, are turning red. They could have cooled downstream from the hot bubbling water. Heat loving ferns, wildflowers, including orchids and trees shading a boreal tropical zone border the pleasant changing room and more boardwalks.
Having traveled the nearly 300 yard boardwalk, we are ready to return to our over-priced room to change into our bathing suits. However, barely half way back to the parking lot, we discover a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that slows our pace. It ignores our close stare as it hitches up a pine. What else could be missing? In our silence and without the foot steps on the wooden trail, we hear a Least Flycatcher, another of around a 100 species reported to frequent the park. Pine Siskins forage among the pine and spruce and I think but am unsure I hear a White-winged Crossbill.
Linda on boardwalk to hot springs. Basking in the hot springs
After changing at the room, we drive back to the entrance gate, pay the fee and park. Leaving our binocs after so many days of constant wear is uncomfortable, but the cathartic power of the pool calls us to its water. About 10 people are in the water while others are in various stages of putting on or off their street attire. Linda and I slowly lower ourselves into the water. It is definitely hot. It takes about five minutes to squat or sit on a few submerged benches to bring ourselves to becoming wet up to our chins. A couple of people advise us to try the upper reaches of the pool, which is small enough for a few swimming strokes but not deep enough to avoid occasionally contacting the sandy bottom. We wade upstream. The temperature rises to a point above anything a lobster could tolerate. We shuttle downstream, where a constructed spillway offers cooler and far more comfortable temperatures. Our view from the water is full of luxuriant vegetation, with ferns spilling from the banks and trees shadowing the scene. A small waterfall is a slight distance away. We stay in the water about one enjoyable hour, which is relaxing almost to the point of intoxication.
If there were any birds frequenting the springs during the one-hour soak, they went unnoticed and unheard from the moaning and yelps of humans indulging the thermally heated pool. As we are getting out, people are getting in the springs. Our dry clothes feel strange and our sandals rub against wrinkled feet. The walk back to the car feels slowed by muscles drained of their tone. As we near the grove of trees where we saw the sapsucker, we finally find an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Straining our naked eyes is not necessary as our prey is close enough to discern the black and white barring on the back and the yellow on the head. Finally. I had thought we would have found this species in Alaska, but there are no complaints since Linda now has her three-toed woodpecker on her life list. Buoyed from our good fortune, we rush back to the birdmobile for our tools, binoculars to have at the ready as we trek back on the boardwalk for more birds. Magnolia Warbler is one of the target species that might be here, but it is no where to find. The forest is quiet. Not even a noisy vireo is within hearing. In fact, after the woodpecker, almost any other species would be anticlimactic. We cannot give up and do discover six medium-sized Canada Geese and hear the haunting call of a Wilson’s Snipe flying over during our evening walk back to the car.
12 June 2013
It is early when Linda spots, frome our room window, two male bison grazing the green grass growing between the edge of the graveled parking lot and highway. They ignore human activity. I search around the property hoping to have another look at the female Rusty Blackbird spotted yesterday. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds plot behind the inn. After miles and miles of travel through more than suitable habitat, I finally hear the bird that should have been noticed earlier. It is our first Western Tanager. As we leave, the forest is silent.
The only thing reverberating in our brains has to do with coffee. Since there was no coffee maker, we asked for a complimentary cup of java to go, something places such as Border City and other establishments graciously made available to their guests. The staff retorts that “Nothing is complimentary here.” We gave in and paid $2.80 for a small regular coffee, a thorn to our frugal paw, but how could we complain since we now have tasted what so many correctly tout as a revitalizing experience. Even so, the next time we visit the springs, we will try the campground.
Near Muncho Lake
Our drive today is about 200 miles. We join an estimated 140,000 travelers who traverse the highway between April and September. Today the traffic is lighter than previous day and allows us to photograph almost anywhere without fear of being rear ended or holding up traffic. Emerald Muncho Lake shines in the Rocky Mountains that grace every direction. Many bare mountain faces reveal the torterous geologic power of extreme folding of layers upon layers of ghostly hued rock. Several regions along the way are desolate gravel fields, full only of gray sand and rock, alluvium from rapidly melting snow and mostly the result of heavy summer deluges. I recall the alluvial fans eroding out of parts of the Sierra Nevada in California. Contrary to most of those localities, the road here traverses the alluvial fans. There was no choice in this considerably rougher northern terrain. Huge culverts large enough to drive through divert the flash floods under the highway.
About half way between the Liard River springs and Kledo Creek Recreation Area, along either Toad, MacDonald or Trout River, I am not sure, a Northern Hawk Owl flies across the highway affording us an easy identification. Slightly further down the road, we see a road kill, something we have so far not witnessed to the extent Oregon’s squelched skunks, rutted raccoons and other lifeless wildlife. The roadkill today is a hapless female Spruce Grouse. Clouds are beginning to obscure the blue, but our drive down a gravel road into the recreation area is warm as the afternoon peaks at 60 degrees. We park and walk the road. Every bush and tree is in full leaf. It is difficult to see anything, but Philadelphia Vireos are singing as are Tennessee Warblers that come to the edge of thick vegetation after spishing. A woodpecker, probably a Hairy, barely sounds off and disappears before another confirming sound. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers call and a Yellow-bellied Flycatchers sing. Wild roses are everywhere and in bloom their smell is intoxicating.
In a few miles we come to the intersection of Liard Highway that goes north to Fort Simpson, a collecting locality of specimens held back in my old Potomac haunt. It would be nice to drive there, set foot in Northwest Territory, to have time to look for birds and for Linda to someday fish one of the many streams in Alaska and fauna boreali-Americana.