Week 2 Day 1. Friday May 29. 8th day. Meziadin Junction, B.C. to Dease Lake, B.C. Long, long haul on a terrible road. I had no idea.
We plan to keep our vehicles far apart today because we know some of the upcoming road is gravel and don't want our gravel to be kicking up in Jeane & Red's windshield. We aren't on the road ten minutes when we see a black bear REALLY hauling, up the embankment next to the road. If you had any doubts about whether a bear is fast enough to catch you, this scene would do the trick. Uphill even.
We are travelling about 15 mph, come around a corner and see something walking in the road about 30 yards ahead of us and away from us. While we are getting our binocs up, he turns around and sees us. The little red fox stares at us about five seconds, then turns and trots into the brush, to the east (our right).
Time out for a little red fox lesson. In these parts (and maybe all of North America, I don't know), the red fox comes in three color phases: red, cross and silver. The red is obvious, the cross is red with a black cross on his back, and the silver is actually black with silver or white streaking. I'm told the silver one is considered the handsomest. But they are all "red" foxes. Ours is a cross fox.
So while we are sitting there, a guy in a rented car (who would do this to his own car?) zooms around us on the bumpity, pot-hole gravel road about 60 mph, back into the right lane, and past where the fox had gone off the road. We stay where we were, waiting for the dust to settle before taking off.
In a few seconds, the fox trots back out onto the road, turns right, and continues his brisk walk, headed north again on the gravel highway. He is perhaps 50 yards in front of us. To see what he will do, I honk the horn. He stops and turns around with the funniest fox surprise look on his face: "Huh? How'd you get back there again? You just passed me! What's going on?" He takes two steps towards us as if getting closer would make us disappear. Then he trots off the road to wait for us "again". We laugh, enter him into our cassette tape recorder diary and start off again. He was a gorgeous little fox.
We stop to look at birds as we see them, perhaps 3-4 times over the next hour. At one of the stops, J&R pull up behind us and Jeane says over the CB, "Are you having trouble?" "No," we say, "we always travel this slow." They pass us and go ahead. "We'll meet you at the campsite later," they say, and we resume our birding.
At one of the stops, Sharon gets onto the birds before I, "They look like waxwings," she says. I look, and there is something a little odd about them. "Maybe they're Bohemians instead of Cedars," I say excitedly, and tear open my NGS book. "I didn't see any yellow on their chest or bellies and their heads were sort of rusty or brown," I say, "but I can't see under the rump to see if they have the necessary rusty color." "I agree," says Sharon, "I think they're Bohemians." We are several hours north of Meziadin Junction, and that is already too far north in latitude to be Cedars. BOHEMIAN WAXWING*, a new lifer. Fantastic.
By the end of the day, we both feel beaten up by the terrible road, Sharon especially. She throws what she calls her "periodic fit" (one every four years), "This isn't the vacation I had in mind. Get up at 4:30 or 5:00, be on the road 12 hours, get hammered to death all day, fix dinner, clean up, wash up, go to bed and hear the alarm go off to get up again." She's right. We couldn't see the correct solution yet. That would take one more day.
Wild Animals: 1 black bear (blacks 4, grizzlies 0), 1 cross fox.
Day's Best Birds: Bohemian Waxwing* and Swainson's Thrush, with its hollow flute-like song.
Life birds: 1 today (waxwing), 5 total
Trip birds: 2 today (waxwing, thrush), 78 total
Dease Lake RV Park. Rating B (C but owner/operator Bill was great fun, with good stories)
Week 2 Day 2. Saturday May 30. 9th day. Dease Lake, B.C. to Johnson's Crossing, Yukon Territory. The terrible road continues into a new province.
We agree to travel separately again, but J&R leave first, knowing we will drag anyway (i.e. bird).
Begin seeing many snowshoe hares, bodies now light brown, but all four feet still their permanent white, like four white stockings. "Little bit of gravel," says the woman who ran my Visa card through to pay for the fill-up. It is more of the same, on the terrible road.
Later in the morning, as we clear a hill, a dark bird flies straight across the road, out of the left woods, into the right woods, about 30 yards in front of us. We both see a large blue-gray bird, with a white or light-colored terminal tail band. Sooty grouse - a form of BLUE GROUSE*, we decide. Finally ditch the gravel road for pavement. Heaven.
We see more and more beaver lodges, but no beavers yet. We enter the Yukon Territory, stop, and celebrate by putting our Yukon sticker into its place on our "states visited" map we have on the side of our fifth wheel. High five. Now we're seeing more and more clear, green rivers, unlike the muddy rivers of mid and south B.C.
Hit the Alaska Highway, having come up the left fork of the two ways to get from Prince George, B.C., to this Cassiar/Alaska Highway intersection. Coming up the Cassiar Highway and seeing all of the things we did is sort of like making a deal with the devil. It's not totally clear that it was worth what we paid for it. Later when we're past the bad road a couple of days, we decide that it was. I think.
Hit the Alaska Highway's continental divide. Spit. Watch half of it roll down toward the Bering Sea and the other half toward the Arctic Ocean. Ok, OK, but the sign says that's what would happen. That reminds me, I have to go to the bathroom.
We see the "Halstead's RV Park, 33 km" sign, where we are scheduled to stay tonight. Alright! The end of another terrible day, which is getting better towards the end. We drive into Teslin, ask where Halstead's is. "They changed their name to Fox Point RV," the kid says. "It's about a mile down the road." We continue as directed and pull into our evening's home - we think. Go in and ask if the Wood family has checked in yet. "No," the lady says. We are now in the condition where we are to call our answering machine in San Jose, and see what has happened to them. It is likely they didn't get the Halstead-to-Fox Point name change, but we can't figure out what they have done. I call. No messages. Stumped, we backtrack to another RV park, go in, ask if a Wood family has checked in. "Nope," they say. "Did Halsteads open up a new RV park somewhere?" I ask. "Nope," they say. I play a hunch and call our answering machine again. They just left a message. They had a flat tire on the little white Saturn they were towing, and stopped to get it fixed in Teslin, couldn't find Halstead's, and continued on about a half-hour to Johnson's Crossing RV Park.
Taking two deep breaths, we drive the mostly bumpy-dirt-gravel road to J.C. We find them there and park two slots away, with our RV door facing their RV door. We didn't stay in the slot next to them because it had no electricity, and we both want 'E' to charge up our camera and computer batteries, etc. Sharon is more tired than ever at the long hours we are spending on the road, and I am numb from travelling. As I am listening to her second upset in two nights (she deserved this one, and besides, I think she hasn't had one in eight years), an old man in a Suburban pulling a long trailer drives slowly into the slot between our two RV rigs, blocking our visible connection with J&R. Sharon goes into the trailer.
We decide not to unhitch tonight and based on Sharon's remembering how many mammals we would see in Yellowstone and Canada in 1991 by getting up early, she suggests that we leave really early the next day. This would also get us to tomorrow night's stop about the same time as J&R, or maybe just a little later. The destination is Cottonwood Campground, which got rave reviews in The Milepost - the Alaska Highway travel bible. We will finally spend two consecutive nights in one location, and catch up on rest. Red has a Cassiar headache, and Jeane said they are going to sleep in tomorrow.
I walk over to the rest room and at 10:03pm, the sun is about to go down behind the horizon. Love the light.
Day's Best Bird: Blue Grouse*
Only 1 new trip bird but it was a lifer. 79 total trip birds. 6 lifer trip birds.
Johnson's Crossing RV Park. Rating C - bare bones, but wonderful to arrive at.
Week 2 Day 3. Sunday May 31. 10th day. Johnson's Crossing, Yukon Territory to Cottonwood Campground, near Destruction Bay, Yukon T.
Up early, on the road at 559am.
"The Milepost" is an inch-thick, full-size travel guide for getting to Alaska. When the Canada-Alaska Highway was built, and ever since, mileposts have been placed beside the road in many forms - usually a pole or stick in the ground with the number of miles from the Alaska Highway starting point in Dawson Creek, BC. Then every notable and not-so-notable item on the trip is listed in The Milepost - all useful. "MP 1270.3," it will read, "paved scenic turnout to the right." Then, as you are driving, you might drive past MP 1269 and you know that exactly 1.3 miles ahead, on your right, will be a place to pull over, and perhaps take a photo or have lunch. It extended this concept and listing from just the Alaska Highway to every highway that can get you there, and every major highway in Alaska. We begin carrying The Milepost in the pickup cab with us.
Sprinkling, then drizzling as we began the day. Within an hour, we can see blue sky and another hour later, we are in clear weather. Weather gets better all day long. Sharon finds Miles Canyon listed in The Milepost, a canyon with a suspension bridge across it you can walk on. We pull off and park, walk down to see it. We find a beautiful canyon, filled with water. But instead of a fast-moving river, the deep water is moving slowly but steadily towards Whitehorse - no rapids. Sharon walks out on the bridge, takes videos of me while I take photos of her. We hear, then spot a GRAY JAY*.
On the way into Whitehorse, we see our first ARCTIC TERN* of the trip.
We stop and have breakfast at McDonald's in Whitehorse, buy a few supplies at a small convenience store next door. Whitehorse has the distinction of having the world's largest weather vane - an old DC3 mounted on a rotating pedestal, always pointing into the wind.
At the bank, $1.00 American buys about $1.44 Canadian. When you're in Canada near the Alaska border, Canadian stores display signs like "30% US Exchange" or "40% Exchange." This corresponds to giving you only $1.30 (poor) or $1.40 (good) Canadian value for $1.00 American, when you buy goods at that store vs. $1.44 you would get in a bank.
Driving through Haines Junction, we can see airplanes, including a fire retardant bomber, fighting a big blaze several miles from HJ. We aren't near enough to see flames, but it is a significant fire.
Arrive at Cottonwood Campground, expecting spectacular RV Park, based on their Milepost advertisement. It is good, right on Kluane Lake, but hardly seems like the "best we've ever stayed at," as a couple from Eau Claire, Wisconsin had reported. We finally relax, knowing we will be here two consecutive nights - our favorite situation. We pick a spot at the edge of the lake, in Kluane National Park - one of Canada's biggest parks.
Jeane and Red pull in an hour or so later - another flat tire on the Saturn. They got it fixed in Whitehorse. Red is getting really upset at the flat tires, is threatening to go home if they have another one. As we are all unwinding, I say to Sharon, "These gulls have a different look about them. Let's get our books and check. They may be Herrings or Mews. Pale yellow eyes mean Herring, black mean Mew. Red dot on big yellow bill means Herring, small plain yellow bill means Mew. Pink legs mean Herring, Yellow mean Mew." The first gull we got a good look at was a MEW GULL*. The second one was a Herring Gull, who swam up to the beach and walked ashore, showing his pink legs.
We also find a pair of Mountain Bluebirds beginning a nest in a bluebird nest box provided by the camp owner. The male Mountain Bluebird has a stunning deep blue color on his back and wings, and soft gray underparts - a wonderful contrast to the striking orange and blue Missouri (Eastern) and Western Bluebirds.
Sharon begins to spot Dall Sheep all over the mountainsides behind us. Ewes with lambs, males with big horns, singles - white dots with the naked eye become tiny discernible shapes in the 45-power zoom scope setting. To make matters perfect, the name of the mountain behind us is Sheep Mountain.
We turn in, feeling great because tomorrow is a non-travel day.
Wild Animals: About 100-150 Dall Sheep, sprinkled all over the mountains.
Day's Best Birds: Mew Gull*
Trip Lifers: 1 today (Mew Gull), 7 total.
Trip Birds: 3 today (Arctic Tern, Gray Jay, Mew Gull*), 82 total.
Cottonwood Campground RV Park. Rating B+
Week 2 Day 4. Monday June 1. 11th day. Day trips from Cottonwood Campground base, the Yukon.
We get up "late", 6 AM, Sharon makes us a lunch and we take off for the Sheep Mountain Interpretive Center. J&R are going to stay in camp and clean up their RV and Saturn. Everything is full of dust. We ignore our dusty trailer and head off.
Based on the information given to us by Katy, the helpful First Nation (native) girl behind the interpretive center counter, we set out on a two mile drive to a trailhead, then begin a three-mile round trip hike and climb, hoping to see some specific lifers in the area. We are headed for an area called The Knoll, from which you are supposed to get great looks of Sheep Mountain.
It's a pretty strenuous hike, and the trail is itself a sheep trail. Pretty cool. We get near the top, and decided not to go all the way. Take some photos. Sharon asks if we are ready to go down. I want to go around the knoll and see what's there. As we are looking, Sharon notices a bird, and as usual, locates it and says, "This may be a BOREAL CHICKADEE*." This is one of our high target birds for the trip. It is very skittish, jumping behind cover when we are in each other's line of sight. Finally Sharon says, "It is, it has a grey head instead of the black cap." It takes me a little longer to get on it, because I am trying to use the more powerful scope. Jumping around too fast. Get it with my binoculars.
Just as I'm getting it, Sharon yells, "YELLOW-SHAFTED FLICKERS*." I look where she's looking, and we both watch a male and female pair for a while. Two lifers in about two minutes - not counting the 11 days to get up here, of course. We make our way back down, go to camp.
Jeane & Red are thinking strongly of going around the Alaska loop counter-clockwise - going straight to Fairbanks, then Anchorage, then the Kenai Peninsula, then out. The opposite direction from us. But they are reluctant because they don't want to affect our plans.
Sharon and I decide to discuss it while going for groceries. I pick up my Mac Powerbook, primed for email send/receive and head three miles north to tiny Destruction Bay. No help there. Go ten miles further and find an agreeable cafe owner who lets me hook up. She's very helpful - Betty is her name. "Are you open in the winter?" I ask. "Quite a few locals depend on us for food and other supplies year round," she says. "We just hang around the stove and try to stay warm." I hook up to AOL, pick up our incoming email, send our outgoing, check a few stock prices and log off.
We buy some groceries and head back to camp, discussing the split Alaska vacation plans. We decide it's a good idea, probably excellent. We arrive back in camp where Jeane & Red are relaxing after a day's work of maintaining their vehicles. We talk over the problems and we decide to split up, in order to maximize the effectiveness of our individual vacations - way better to have the exact vacation you want (having come all this way) than to compromise what you want just to stay together. Way.
We have a last, great dinner together. Red gives me his vodka so I can enjoy vodka icies (straight vodka over ice) at the end of the day. Actually I only like to drink them with him. We agree to keep each other informed of good things and bad things we learn on our individual experiences. We will do this by calling each other's answering machines every few days and giving small reports. "Don't do this, don't go there - it's not worth it. Don't miss this." And so on. And maybe we'll meet up in our opposite-direction Alaska loops.
We go to sleep, me feeling better and better about splitting our caravan apart. By the time I fall asleep, I wonder how come we didn't do it earlier. I think because we enjoy each other's company so much in the evening camps. Onward and upward.
Day's Best Birds: Yellow-shafted Flickers* and Boreal Chickadee*
Trip Lifers: 2 today (flicker, chickadee), 9 total.
Trip Birds: 6 today (Townsend's Solitaire, Myrtle Audubon's Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler and Sharp-shinned Hawk, plus the two lifers), 88 total.
Week 2 Day 5. Tuesday June 2. 12th day. Destruction Bay, the Yukon to Dead Man's Lake, in the huge Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. ALASKA! .
We officially split into separate Alaska tours as Jeane & Red hook up and take off. It feels a little strange, but Sharon and I know this is going to solve almost all of our earlier travel problems.
This will turn out to be excellent for our birding, sightseeing, distance travelled each day and mental energy saved, no longer having to end at the same spot every day. They are so much faster than we are. We gear up for traveling at a leisurely pace and pull out. I am beginning to luxuriate already in how much freer I feel now that we're totally on our own.
Lake Kluane (kloo-AHN-ee) emptied via a river in its southern end until about 400 years ago, when a glacier blocked up the exit. The lake filled up much fuller, until it found an opening to the north, where it still is today. I compress this 400 year event into ten seconds, as I imagine the glacier and lake exit activity.
During the day, we stop often, totally enjoying the new feeling that we don't have to be anywhere specific tonight. We can camp anywhere.
We stop at a lake where we see gulls, scope them and realize they are BONAPARTE'S GULLS - small white gulls with totally black heads and bills. They are nesting in the trees surrounding the lake. My mind boggles that these may be the exact birds that winter around San Jose, then migrate up here for breeding.
We continue on, and arrive at the Alaska border. We celebrate, take photos, video, and put on our Alaska map sticker. What a goofy thing, pasting stickers onto our map outlines. But so much fun. We continue on to a Texaco station, where gasoline is in dollars per gallon instead of cents per liter. Aaaaahhh. Our first Alaska birds are Cliff Swallows nesting above the gas pumps.
We quickly find a pair of TUNDRA SWANS, who don't breed here, but rather are stopping over during their migration to the Tundra way up north. We're lucky to see them, and right by the highway. We also spot a pair of TRUMPETER SWANS nesting by the highway, but in a different lake.
We stop at a Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge information centre - I mean center. Can't shake that Canada thing yet. We meet Don Pendergrast, who gives us tons of information on local birds and camping spots. There is a camp at Dead Man's Lake that is free, and we are very likely to see our target Spruce Grouse.
We find the lake, the camp, and set up. It's a little mosquito-ey, but now we know how to deal with them. I found an article about mosquito deterrents. It showed the scientific results of tests of Vitamin B, garlic, other home remedies, and deet. Deet is the unscientific name for a scientific name I can't recall, and don't want to. But it's the ONLY thing that will deter mosquitoes. If you are using anything else, you're wasting your time - and blood. And step 2 is to always close your trailer screen door the instant you go through.
Sharon says deet interferes with the mosquito's ability to recognize that you are "food." It sort of confuses them relative to their intentions. Pretty cool, ay? I mean, huh? After setting up, we take the local trail (called Taiga, pronounced TIE-guh, the way a Massachusetts Kennedy would say tiger), hoping for Spruce Grouse, but no luck. We do see four PACIFIC LOONS in breeding plumage - quite different from their winter colors. They are very elegant-looking.
Then we take off for the road from the highway to Northway airport. It's supposed to have almost certain Spruce Grouse and Willow Ptarmigan. Well I can tell you, that it's a good thing they stuck the word 'almost' in there, because there weren't any. We come back to camp and turn in for the night.
Day's Best Birds: Pacific Loons in breeding plumage, pair of Sandhill Cranes at the Northway Airport.
No life birds today.
Trip Birds: 12 today (including Northern Shoveler, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Bonaparte's Gull, Harlan Red-tail Hawk, Tundra Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Rusty Blackbird, Lesser Scaup, Lesser Yellowlegs, Sandhill Crane and the Loons), 100 total
Dead Man's Lake Campground. Rating: C+. Mosquitoes, no amenities (except outhouses), but it was free.
Week 2 Day 6. Wednesday June 3. 13th day. Dead Man's Lake, Alaska in the Tetlin NWR to Porcupine Creek State Recreation Site, (i.e. very small state campground) just past Tok, Alaska.
Next morning, we take the Taiga walk again, but no luck on the Spruce Grouse. We see a pair of Pacific Loons, but we also see several WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS across the lake. As we watch, a couple take off and fly around the lake, giving wonderful looks at the white wing patches on their black wings that give them their names. Then we also see SURF SCOTERS with their cartoon-like orange bills.
As we get back to the trailer, and begin setting up to leave, we hear this bird flying overhead - round and round, in about a 1/4 mile diameter circle (roughly), several hundred feet in the air. He is making a strange whistling noise as he flies. Sharon looks through her Stokes birdbook, and comes upon the strange description of this very behavior for the Common Snipe (And I thought a Snipe hunt in college was based on the fact that there was no such thing as a snipe). I go into the fifth wheel and cue up the Common Snipe on our Western Bird Sounds CD. Confirmation. An elderly couple with their grandson walk by, each with a pair of binoculars. "Did you see the snipe?" they ask. Double confirmation.
We are looking for recently burned forest habitat, in hopes of finding a Three-toed Woodpecker or a rare Black-backed Woodpecker. These birds specialize in foraging through burned out forest trees. We come upon a dirt road taking off from the highway, park at the entrance, get our birding gear and walk up the road about 100 yards. A robin is scolding us severely. We ignore him. The robin is the only bird that we have seen absolutely every single day of our trip, so we don't pay much attention. But he keeps at it. We hear a woodpecker noise, and Sharon starts scanning.
"Great Gray Owl! Great Gray Owl!" she yells. Perhaps our top target bird of the trip - certainly in the top three. She lines me up, I find it, and we start alternately describing details in what we're seeing and looking in our bird books. Turns out to be a robin trying to run off a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL*, another of our high target birds for the trip. "Scriiiittch," the hawk-owl says to the robin. I give my woodpecker trill and get a stare from the hawk-owl and my own scriiiiitch.
We get continued woodpecker sounds, and Sharon resumes scanning, "Woodpecker nest! Woodpecker nest!" she yells. She directs me, and I put the scope on the nest. We can see birds moving on what seems like the far side of the tree, but can't quite figure out what it is. Suddenly we realize what we're seeing, looking out from all four directions of the hollow top of a broken off tree: four baby Northern Hawk-owls! We can see the faces of two of them really well. They look so serious. We can't believe our luck.
We enter the bird into our microcassette recorder, go get both cameras, record some video and photos, and finally take off. In Tok (pronounced TOKE), we bump into Don Pendergrast again and tell him about our luck. He's with a birding expert (Bob), who gives us more tips. We continue on, winding up at the entrance to Nabesna Road, at an information center. Based on the lady's information, we decide to stop for the night at Porcupine Creek State Recreation Site, not far out of Tok and only 2-3 miles from where we are at the moment. It's small and quite nice, but with no E or W. That's ok, we are self-contained and have plenty of both for the night.
After setting up camp, we go out looking for whatever's to be seen. Spectacular views of Mt. Sanford and the smaller Mt. Drumm, although the sun is at the wrong angle for the best photos. We take them anyway, because you can never tell about tomorrow's weather up here. We find a large lake, and spot two beavers swimming near their beaver lodge. In another location, we spot a moose eating water vegetation. No antlers and a chest scratch of some kind, but it's our first moose of the trip. Finally.
A few days later Sharon talks with a lady while doing laundry, and they say they've only seen one moose on their vacation to Alaska, and that was in Idaho.
Wild Animals: 2 beavers and 1 moose.
Day's Best Birds: Common Snipe with his breeding flyover, whistling behavior and the Northern Hawk-Owl* and her four chicks - so serious-looking
Trip Lifers: 1 today (hawk-owl), 10 total
Trip Birds: 8 today (including White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Pine Grosbeak, Belted Kingfisher, Common Goldeneye, Canvasback, Northern Hawk-owl and the Snipe), 108 total
Porcupine Creek State Recreation Site. Rating: B-
Week 2 Day 7. Thursday June 4. 14th day. Day trip up Nabesna (Nuh-BEZZ-nuh, a surprisingly hard word to pronounce, for some reason) road without the trailer, then Porcupine Creek, Alaska to Tolsona Wilderness Campground in Tolsona, Alaska - our best camp yet.
511am. Sun is up, but sky is overcast. Can see mountain bases, but not upper parts. We head down the highway three miles to the Nabesna road turnoff, and turn off. We scare up several large gray birds who fly into the Spruce trees too fast for recognition, but we figure they might be Spruce Grouse - one of our two target birds of this side trip. The other target bird is the Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird. It should be reddish brown with large patches of white, its complete color in the winter. Can't claim the ID on the Spruce Grouse.
Sharon also has Common Redpoll in her mind (they are supposed to be everywhere) and has been keeping an eye out for it for several days. We see a gang of eight or so birds flying around treetops. They finally settle long enough to ID, and they are WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS - finch-like birds whose bill tips actually cross over each other, top-and-bottom. They remind us of our trip to Idaho Springs, Colorado shortly after granddaughter Mikayla's birth. The next morning after our arrival, we stepped outside and heard a commotion in the treetops. We got our lifer Red Crossbills then. But these have striking white wing patches. I log them.
About six miles into Nabesna road, we see something waddling across the road about 40 yards in front of us. Can't tell without binoculars. Up they go. "Porcupine!" we both say. "But it's blonde," I say. It hangs around and finally exits the road, crosses a ditch and disappears into the woods. Trip mammal.
We turn around and exit Nabesna Road, go back to camp, and decide to take a nap. Ah, wonderful. We wake up at 12:30pm, and get ready to leave. We have some trouble connecting the trailer to the pickup hitch because we parked the trailer on a small angle, where the left wheels would be higher than the right wheels if we hadn't used 2x6 shims under the downhill tires. But the pickup and hitch are on the hill angle. The trailer kingpin doesn't want to snap into place in the jaws of the hitch. We finally get it. A little sweat there, all by ourselves in this lonesome little campsite. Nice to be on the road again after that. We make a note not to camp at that angle again. Heading for Glenallen, Alaska on the Tok Cutoff portion of the Glenn Highway.
Glenallen was named for two men who worked on the construction of the Alaska Highway in these parts. I'll leave it to you to figure out their last names. The San Francisco Giants had a big hitting, light fielding right fielder named Glenallen Hill. Did he get his name from this town, somehow? Don't know and will leave it as a mystery.
We drive through Midway Service Area, between Porcupine Creek and the entrance to Nabesna Road. The Nabesna Road information station lady said a moose and her twin calves had come to the lawn to feed the past two mornings at about 6:30am, but we don't see them.
A small sprinkle starts as we see heavy cloud cover over Mts. Sanford and Drumm. We fill up at Chistochina (kee-stow-CHEE-nuh) Lodge (restaurant, bar and souvenir shop), where gas is $1.659, but the tank is low. I intend just to buy ten gallons and go on, but Harlan, the owner, comes out and is so personable that I just let him fill it up. He keeps the gas pump locked because some people have driven up, fueled up and driven off without paying. He can't see the pump from his normal location at the cash register. I ask about the name. He says 'chisto' is a Russian-derived word meaning clean, and 'china' is a native word meaning water - place of clean water. Our Milepost says it means Marmot Creek. Hmmm. We buy some neat souvenirs and head out again, but not before Harlan tells us about a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans at a roadside lake up the road 1-2 miles.
He gives directions, and we are there in a couple of minutes. It's sprinkling still, but we see the swans. Another bird we are trying to find is the Alder Flycatcher. He looks identical to the Willow Flycatcher, but we are going to have the advantage of Geography. The Willow Flycatcher's range ran out south of Alaska. We have listened to the Alder's call over and over on our birdsound CD, and it has a buzzy quality.
"BerZEEERT," we hear repeatedly. It's coming from a willow grove. And now a bit of magic happens as has often happened before. I look at the huge mass of tangled willows and think, "No way can we find it in there," while Sharon is methodically scanning the trees. I start to put the scope away. "Got 'im," she says, with those two words I love to hear.
I hurry back over, put the scope on him, and begin ticking off visible characteristics. After long looks, he flies away. We review the traits, and it's clear we've got our ALDER FLYCATCHER*, formerly combined with the Willow Flycatcher, and known as Traill's Flycatcher.
We continue on, down the Tok Cutoff/Glenn Highway. We come to a short leg of the Richardson Highway, turn left for a few miles, then right onto the Glenn Highway proper. We pass through Glenallen and load up on groceries. Can't pass up a chocolate-dipped soft vanilla cone at the Tastee-Freez. We continue on to our destination, and thirty minutes later or so, we're set up in the Tolsona Wilderness Campground.
This place has been carved out of the woods surrounding the Tolsona Creek by a man and his wife, beginning in 1970 and slowly expanding it ever since. They are Graham and Mary Ann, and are very personable. The camp is the best combination of being in the wilderness and having electricity and water for hookups. We choose drive-through space 17, right next to the creek, as is each space of the park. You can catch Graylings, but we're not here to fish.
Graham will let me use his new second phone line, and by the way, do I know anything about computers, he can't get his computer to talk to his modem. I work on it a while (486-25 PC, Windows 95), but the stuff I try doesn't work. I upload/download email on my own Mac Powerbook, then fire off an email to my friend Larry Zipper, the world's best PC expert, describing the symptoms and asking for advice. Graham heads off for his weekly Lions Club dinner while Mary Ann takes the controls of the camp.
As we checked in, we told Graham we're birders, and he gave us the phone number of a local bird expert, one Althea Hughes, who writes a local newspaper birder article. She gives us tons of advice, and we decide to stay two nights, trying for Three-toed Woodpeckers tomorrow. Althea says one fellow saw three of them that very day, and gives Sharon directions. Also there are a couple of Great Gray Owls along the Richardson Highway between Mileposts 118 and 124, near the Gulkana Airport.
Sharon does laundry and takes a shower while I'm troubleshooting Graham's modem and doing my email. We bird from 954pm to 1026pm in the broad daylight. Don't see anything except the camp Yellow-shafted Flickers, trading nest warming duties in their six foot high sawed-off tree, with a two-inch hole near the top. The hole is exactly at eye level, and every vehicle that drives into camp passes within three feet of it. There is "saw"dust at its base. We can't believe they are nesting there. But it's fun seeing them.
I spend some time writing what you're reading, and finally go to bed about midnight. It looks a little like dusk outside. But sleep is easy and wonderful. I turn my electric blanket control on low. Sharon's is still on medium. The sandman cometh.
Wild Animal: Porcupine
Day's Best Birds: White-winged Crossbills*
Trip Lifers: 2 today (Alder Flycatcher and the Crossbills), 12 total
Trip Birds: 2 today, 110 total
Tolsona Wilderness Campground. Rating: A