Alaska '98 Trip. Week 5. Homer, Alaska to Denali

Hi All. We've been gone for a February's-worth-of-days now. Enjoyment gauge still on full.

Week 5 Day 1. Friday June 19. 29th day. Has Anybody Seen My Spruce Grouse?

Alarm's off at 550am. We're on the road in Homer in half-an-hour, to find a Spruce Grouse. A spotter on yesterday's boat tours told us she sees them "almost every morning," as she's driving in to work on East End Road, about 630 or 700am. So that's where we go.

As we're driving slowly, looking down every gravel side street, we are delighted to see a mama moose with twin calves. Most moose births are twins, we were told. We have driven past the cross road, so we stop and ever-so-slowly back up, in order not to scare her. She watches us closely, munching grass, but doesn't bolt. Sharon gets some wonderful video. We can see the umbilical cord on one of the calves, and guess that they were born last night. They have that wonderful, newborn uncertain walk, where they're not quite sure in what order to place their feet, or where. I get a couple of still shots. These might be of the "awwww" variety. One of the calves kneels down to lick the road minerals. How'd he learn that?

Then they slowly make their way down the curving road, away from us. We wait for them to get out of sight, then begin to inch down the road. A Ring-necked Pheasant in the back yard of the house on our left gets my attention. Trip bird? We check the NGS book, and he's not supposed to be here. So he's of the domesticated variety, meaning we can't count him. He's properly handsome anyway. Mama moose is taking her youngsters away from the road, into the woods. The last thing we see is one baby moose standing with its back legs crossed, wobbling a little, then it too is in.

We have driven way down Kachemak Bay, meaning away from the opening to Cook Inlet. We turn around, and begin to retrace our drive, still checking side streets. Spruce Grouse do that gravel-eating thing for their gizzard, to help grind up the spruce needles that they eat. That's why we're so interested in the gravel roads.

Suddenly, we come upon a bird we quickly recognize, pecking at things in a gravel driveway. Sharon pulls out the video camera and shoots a half-minute or so of a wonderful Varied Thrush. In practice, you hear maybe 100-200 for every one you see. We've hit a nice longshot. He's cooperative and keeps working the gravel, then works his way out of sight.

A little later, traveling slowly with the windows open, we hear the now familiar zzz-ZZZZZEEEEERRR call of the Alder Flycatcher.

The spruce forests here are a little sad to look at. Over some parts of western Canada and Alaska we've seen, the Spruce Bark Beetle is killing the trees. I don't know how they can arrest this problem before it's too late. I hope it's one of those things where they have a solution, but we just don't know what it is.

It reminds me of when the Dutch Elm Disease took most of the shade/climbing trees in our yard where I grew up. In what would normally be a full, green forest, there are usually from 10-20%, and sometimes almost 100% of the trees showing a dark brownish-red color, like autumn leaves after the good colors are gone. We've been reading that some of these may be logged. And as we drive around, we see evidence of this. The good news is that large parts of the forests are still untouched.

After not finding the Spruce Grouse, again, we resume the true purpose of our vacation: buying souvenirs representative of every region visited, no matter how small or insignificant - in this case, Homer, Alaska. I like a tiny, two-horned-puffins-on-a-rock ivory eskimo carving, and Sharon buys a reindeer hide in the same shop (There is no one except us in the store at the time, and the saleslady forces Sharon to throw them all down on the floor, like they'd be at home, to make sure we get the right one. We do).

We ship the reindeer hide plus some other discovered-in-nature animal products by U.S. Mail to the Rosses, in San Jose, so we don't have to get in a tussle with Canadian or Montana customs when we re-enter.

We go back to our secondary purpose by driving up into the high Homer hills, looking down on Kachemak Bay, and park near a two-mile portion of Homestead Trail. This little dirt trail wanders up and down the ridges and valleys for about seven miles, providing photo views of the area. The helpful ranger at the local Fish & Game said that we would certainly see Spruce Grouse in this trail section, and possibly Three-toed Woodpeckers too. "Yeah, right, we've heard this before," says Sharon.

It's a pretty quiet walk, birdwise, but the exercise and scenery are worth the effort. We head back into town to replenish our grocery supplies, but (dohp!) the grocery store is displaying some paintings and photographs from an art store a few doors down. We hear a faraway voice saying, "YOU MUST COME." We fight the magnetic pull until the groceries are stashed in the storage box of the pickup, but are then drawn down to the art shop. There, I am forced to buy two arty puffin photos and a locally-fired pencil mug. Sharon is completely resistant and buys nothing. Actually I leave the store twice, before I finally succumb.

We go back to camp, and like the little red squirrels here, find nooks and crannies to store the new stuff. And the groceries. The weather is changing to gray and sprinkles as we drift off.

Day's Best Bird: Varied Thrush

Trip birds today: 0 (We can't bring ourselves to count the pheasant as a trip bird, which surely must have been brought here by the homeowners)


Week 5 Day 2. Saturday June 20, 1998. 30th day. Homer to Anchorage.

After rigging for travel, we exit this scenic campground, and say goodbye to the raven warily sitting in the Bald Eagle's spot, high atop the left spruce tree at the bottom of the park. We're headed for Denali, via Anchorage. It's overcast and started raining when we woke up, about 630.

We drive back up the Sterling Highway, past the Holland Days (get it, get it?) B&B. We listen to the end of one of the books-on-tape we started a week or two ago, before things got interesting. Driving in the rain is very relaxing.

As we descend a small grade and pass a large, flat spruce forest, I catch two marshmallows on the ground in my peripheral vision. Sharon is cross-stitching. "Two Bald Eagles, on the ground, to our right," I yell, tickled to have seen them before Sharon. She looks over as my eyes go back to the road. "...five, six seven - seven Bald Eagles!," she says. There are five more sitting in the surrounding dwarf spruce, all adults. I look over before the scene slides behind us and manage to locate two of the other five. A gathering of eagles, Sharon says. Back to the cross-stitch.

We pass Spenard's Building Supply, where their saying of the day is "When there is nothing for sure, everything is possible." As my friend Bill Petrick so eloquently puts it, "Huh?"

Driving by the Kenai-Russian River junction, we again see fisherman standing in the river, but now there's at least a hundred. We've heard that this season is about to end, so this is probably the last day of the last weekend. It feels not at all strange that the rest of the world is here to fish, but we're not. I picture brother-in-law Jerry Lewis hauling in a fifty-pound King Salmon. Good picture. There are cabover campers, huge motorhomes, small fifth wheels and tents all over the small camps, roadside parks and pullouts - up and down this stretch of highway.

Somewhere near the end of the Sterling Highway, as we approach the Seward Highway junction, we are aware that the mountaintops are changing back from forested green, to the taller snow-capped, tree-free variety. The soft, steady rain continues. We arrive at Tern Lake, at the junction, and decide to have lunch, as we did at this same spot about a week ago. It was gorgeous then, and it is now too, but a completely different kind, weatherwise.

During lunch, we notice the loons again. After lunch, we get the scope and watch one of the adult Common Loons swimming, now with two little black, fuzzy chicks in tow. She swims with her head under water, but doesn't dive. She raises her head, turns around, and presents a tiny fish to the nearest chick. Gulp. Down it goes. She gets another one, but this time, she drops it in the water before it ever gets to the chick. I think it's an accident, but Sharon thinks she's trying to teach the chicks to pick food out of the water - a first step towards learning to catch their own food, she believes. The next one she feeds directly again.

The Homer-to-Anchorage distance is the same as the San Jose-to-Lake Tahoe distance, about 220 miles. We pull into the familiar Anchorage RV Park, pay for the night, set up in the rain, and begin playing back all of the video we've taken so far. This is always a highlight of our big touring vacations.

There are two, (by-now-a-tradition), examples of forgetting to stop the video camera, after recording a desired scene. There is one great section right after I filmed the Pileated Woodpecker in Oregon. I say something like, "Dangit, the battery's flashing. I gotta go across the road and get a new one." Then, wild random shots of the camera trying to focus on the leaves, gravel and grass, as I run across the road. Then more of the same as I return to the woodpecker scene. Then, "Dangit, I forgot the 2X extender for my camera." Then a repeat scene of the ground, as I return to the trailer and back again. Well Sharon's done it too.

It happens again later, on one of the boat trips. There is about twelve-to-fifteen minutes of video of the inside of a lens cap, and the sound of the boat's engine steadily droning.

At least on this trip the video isn't recording us arguing about something as it did on our Canada trip!

After about half of the videos, Sharon goes to a meeting and I sit down at the table, typing on the computer, with the curtains back, so I can watch the rain outside. As I'm typing, I notice small movements out the window, down on the ground. But without my glasses, I can't make out what they are. I finally locate my glasses in the bathroom, next to the sink. I return to the window above the computer, and look outside. At first, nothing, but then I began to see little whizzing movements, as small objects dart from place to place, stop, then dart some more. I realize I'm looking at one adult and three just-fledged juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos. They're pretending to be real birds and are lots of fun to watch. Zip, dart, whiz. Stop, try to look like mom. Zip, dart, whiz.

Tomorrow we head for Denali.

Days Best Birds: Dark-eyed Junco family

No new trip birds today.


Week 5 Day 3. Sunday June 21, 1998. 31st day. Father's Day. To Denali.

Sharon calls to wish her dad Happy Father's Day and learns that Jeane & Red had some trouble with the new Banks Unit (more power for less gas) they had installed in their motorhome. It was under warranty and was fixed right away, but they've decided to head home from Anchorage via the main Alaska Highway, then straight through Canada, instead of angling over to Alberta, Jasper and Banff [We later learned that they did visit Jasper and Lake Louise, after all]. But they will take their time doing it. That means we won't see them again until we stop in Gardnerville, Nevada, where they live, at the end of July. They'll already be long home by then.

We double back on the Glenn Highway to Palmer, then head north on the George Parks Highway, towards Denali and ultimately Fairbanks. It feels like this is the end of the outbound half of our trip, and I feel a little sorry about that. No time. Sorry will have to wait for later. Besides, there's many more new segments of highway that will be coming up in Canada. We may even go into the Northwest Territories. And later, we get to see Shandra and family again.

It's 202 miles to Denali National Park. The day is total gray, overcast, steady rain - good traveling weather, except for missing some good scenery. We pass a new WalMart in Wasilla, north of Palmer. A couple of weeks ago, a lady told us there were only two in all of Alaska - Anchorage and Fairbanks. Maybe this one is brand new, or perhaps, just perhaps, she didn't know what she was talking about. I get that sometimes.

As we get closer to Mt. McKinley, we begin to see pullouts with interpretetive displays and photographs of the scenery beyond. You know, "this peak is Mt. Double, this one Mt. Divide, this one Mt. McKinley," and so forth. Only the scenery is a big gray sheet of cloudy rain. The views will have to wait.

Sharon learned of a campground near Byers Lake which has spruce grouse everywhere. Wait a minute, haven't we heard this before? We bird it and find a thick mosquito population, which makes up for the thin spruce grouse population. We do see a gorgeous Myrtle Race Yellow-rumped Warbler (white throat, not the yellow throat of the California Audubon Race) and three chickadees of some kind. Then we're outa there.

We arrive at Denali Grizzly Bear RV Park, do a quick drive-through, find it fair, then drive to Denali Rainbow Village RV Park (nearer to the park entrance), and find it to be of the parking lot variety, with no trees or attempt to make the "park" nice. We drive back and check in for four nights at Grizzly Bear, then later add a fifth night. Near the entrance to the RV Park, I notice a man walking, and he has a false right arm - but one with an open-and-close pincher, so he can pick up things. "Look, that man has only one arm," I tell Sharon. "And one leg," she tells me. I add, "I bet he was electrocuted," and wonder if he was struck by lightning.

After setting up in the rain, we drive down to Denali Visitor Center, about seven miles north, and get in line for shuttle bus tickets. We check out our options and choose the eight-hour round trip shuttle bus to Eielson (I'LL-sun, like I'LL be home by August first) Visitor Center, 65 miles in. Leaving at 5:30am tomorrow.

Sharon fixes us a hot dinner on a cold evening, rain pelting our trailer all the time.

I go into the office and offer $2 for a telephone line to check our email. The office manager is Scott, and he hesitates a little, but finally says ok. By coincidence, he's the man with one arm and one leg. He sees my Mac Powerbook, and says he's got one just like it. I said I bought mine for $700 and put another $200 into it. He says he paid $5000 for his, brand new, but now it's way too slow for him. He just recently bought a G3 from the Mac Zone mail order catalog (my own favorite), and it's a screamer.

I download three emails, log off AOL and go back to the trailer. I plug the computer and mouse back in, wake it up, and it crashes, taking with it all the freshly-downloaded email [later recovered]. I hate when that happens.

I set the alarm for 4:30am and zonk off. Sharon is already out.

Day's Best Bird: Yellow-rumped Warbler, Myrtle Race

No new trip birds today. Beginning to have withdrawal pains.

Denali Grizzly Bear RV Park and Campground. Rating B (Sharon gives it a C). Probably the best private (i.e. electric and water hookups, plus laundry and showers) campground within ten miles of the park entrance.


Week 5 Day 4. Monday June 22, 1998. 32nd day out. Denali Shuttle Bus Trip.

We show up at 5:15am as requested at the specified location. Scott, our bus driver is about twenty minutes late, but we finally get going about five till six. It's a gray, rainy day, with no chance of seeing Mt. McKinley, aka Denali today.

Early Alaska had three kinds of residents: the Athabascans of the central and south, the Aleuts (al-YOOTS) of the Aleutian Islands, and the Eskimos of the north. The Athabascan name for the big mountain was Denali, meaning "the high one." You hear both Mt. McKinley and Denali here. Generally, the U.S. government says McKinley (since they officially named it that), and modern day rangers and hikers say Denali.

On the first part of the ride up we see red squirrel, a coyote, quite a few Willow Ptarmigan, and several groups of Dall sheep, high up on the mountains. The rain changes to snow as we began to reach higher altitudes. First come those little flakes, which cause you to look very closely to see whether it's rain or snow. Then definite flakes.

As we near Polychrome Pass, the driver points out a nest occupied by an adult Golden Eagle. Just over the pass, we get a ten-minute rest stop. Green buses are used for "shuttle" activity, where people can get on and off anywhere. Tan buses are for scheduled tours, where people stay on for the whole round trip. We are on a green one. As I'm returning from the rest area to the bus, I notice a tan bus entirely filled with what looks like Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish. The men wear black and have long beards and flat-brimmed hats. The women wear bonnets and long dresses. I wonder what travel agent they use. Jacob's Travel Center maybe.

We resume the trip into Denali and come upon a pair of female caribou. Great video as the wind is blowing the snow at about a 45 degree angle. Scott-the-bus-driver says how lucky we are to be able to see the park like this. We look at each other, simultaneously miming "Yeah, right."

Once a large piece of rusty-nail lumber fell on the foot of a guy I used to know, and a nail pierced the top of his shoe, nicking a toe and causing it to bleed. He decided to get a tetanus shot. When he told the story, the nurse said, "Boy, were you lucky it didn't go right through your foot." He said, "No, lucky would be if it hadn't fallen on me at all."

We see an adult caribou and three calves. It's snowing real good right now, which isn't so bad, except that the windows are beginning to be sprayed with watery mud. And the mud stays on the windows. We resort to looking up through the big front windshield

It's now clear which seat to get if you come to Denali and want to take a tour or shuttle bus ride into the park. Get the front seat, on the right.

You're in the front, so you can use the entire front windshield for viewing, in case your seat window gets dirty. Which it does if it rains. And it rains a lot, if you can judge by our trip. You're not right behind the driver, so he's not blocking your view. And you can get out of the bus first, at every rest stop.

I see three small birds flying along in front of the bus, over to our right, just above the uphill ditch. I ask Scott to stop, and he does. One of the birds has landed on top of a rock. I put my binoculars on it and get it focused. I immediately recognize a friend from Nome - it's a Northern Wheatear. "What is it?" Scott asks. I tell him. "Where are you from?" he asks, sort of impressed. I tell him.

Scott gets on the loud speaker, "These little Northern Wheatears are very important to people who like to watch birds - we call them birders. Because they can only be seen in Alaska, within the United States." From then on, every unknown bird that moved, he'd catch my eye in his overhead mirror and ask, "What was that?" And usually I'd say, "I didn't see it well enough before it flew." Which is birder for, "I have no idea." Sometimes I'd know, but usually I couldn't see them through the muddy windows.

The flakes are enormous now, and the ground is almost totally white. The good news is that the birds are much easier to see, dark against the white background. The bad news is that the big animals are mostly holed up at this elevation, with the blowing snow. As we pull into Eielson, Sharon and I spot an American Pipit, formerly called a Water Pipit.

The official bird people keep changing birds' names. Often they change them back to what they used to be too. Sometimes, they'll split out six similar subspecies, like the Dark-eyed Juncos, into six separate species. Then a few years later, they'll lump them back together.

So technically, the number of species changes from time to time, because the bird-namers feel like that makes more sense. Of course, there are no more and no fewer kinds of birds in the world. Just different numbers of categories.

Kids (college students) pile out of the shuttle bus, and start a snowball fight. Sharon and I find Cliff Swallows nesting under the observation deck (they are wondering what's up with the snow), a very tame White-crowned Sparrow and a couple of Rock Ptarmigan. Sharon tells Scott about the ptarmigan, and Scott adds her to the elite bird-identification genius list. He walks up the hill in the snow, and the ptarmigan is very cooperative - doesn't move.

As we reboard, Scott announces the ptarmigan to everyone else. The trip back is basically a reversal of the trip up. We see the caribou a lot closer though, and finally we see what everyone has been hoping for. A mama grizzly and cub. They are lying down on their bellies, but not the stretched-full-out lying down that people do. They have their forelegs sort of tucked underneath their chests, and are facing directly away from us. They look like blonde haystacks or rocks. Mom looks up once and I get a couple of nice photos of her, but from quite a distance. I'm using a 70-210 zoom, with a 2X extender. So at full closeup, it's like a 420 mm telephoto lens. I'm wishing I had a 600. With a 2X.

The grizzly bears of Denali are much smaller than the grizzlies on the coast, because of the difference in food supply. The coastal bears have that annual salmon run, and the results are that the average grizzly of the coast is up to three times as big as the interior bears. So if you're gonna get eaten by a bear, be sure and do it near the coast, so the story will be better. You don't want to leave the legacy, "Man eaten by small Alaskan interior grizzly."

After the bus dumps us at the visitor center, Sharon finds excellent ink drawings of three Spruce Grouse in a spruce tree, and a Willow Ptarmigan perched in low willows. We like the symmetry of these - one we have, the other one we don't have. Then if we never get the spruce grouse, we can admire it on our wall in San Jose, and say, "You always want to leave a reason to go back."

That's loser talk for WE DIDN'T GET IT.

We go back to the trailer and unload. Sharon takes a nap, I take a shower. We have dinner, then decide to make use of the sunshine. Based on suggestions in a new booklet we purchased, called "Bird Finding Guide to Denali Park," we drive about 15 miles south of our camp on George Parks Road, to the Carlos Creek area. We park behind one of three camping cabins at a small restaurant/bar/cabins-for-rent establishment, and see what's up. We're after Three-toed Woodpeckers.

The sun is shining brightly, blue sky is poking through the clouds here, there, and everywhere. It's a great, warm feeling.

We see White-crown Sparrows going in and out of a shrubby area on the ground. In with a morsel, out with none. We start to walk over to see the nest, but Mr. White Crown perches on a tree and peeps mightily at us, on guard. We back off, congratulating him on his diligent defense.

We see a family of two adults and three newly-fledged Common Redpolls. The babies have almost no tail, but they are already flying like champs. They are especially good at following mom or dad, about four feet behind an adult at all times. They look just like mom, only without the red 'poll,' or what you might call forehead, in a person. They are everywhere. And when one of the adults gets at just the right angle in the sun, we get to see a brilliant, red 'poll' sparkle.

I have had an orange Union 76 gasoline ball stuck onto the top of my truck's radio antenna for several years. It helps me find the two-tone blue Chevy pickup in a big parking lot. The top of the ball is faded, exactly down to the equator, and the bottom looks almost new. The '76' is still prominent. A Dark-eyed Junco, of the nearly-black and white variety, makes a fluttering pass at the ball. He's very curious. We've had hummingbirds do this before, but this is the first non-hummer to be interested. He makes several more flutters at it while we're truck cab birding.

We see a Robin fly in, to the back of a tree nearby, and Sharon discovers his nest, as he lands. The female takes off, swapping positions. We can see at least two little heads pop up, each one trying to out-wiggle the other in the unwritten-but-firmly-established rule that the Mom or Dad gives the worm to the bigger wiggler. There are probably two or three more little ones in there.

There's breeding-nesting-fledging stuff going on everywhere.

We next go down to a large parking area, just off the highway, which turns out to be a trailhead takeoff point for moose hunters. We sit quietly, but all we see is another Dark-eyed Junco, this one uninterested in us. It's 806pm.

We reluctantly give up and drive back to camp, excited about all the blue sky. Hopefully the rain is over and tomorrow will allow us views of Mt. McKinley. Statistically, Mt. McKinley is visible only 30% of the time. And in the nearly two days we've been here, it's been non-viewable. So tomorrow...

Back in camp, Janet Huber (birder and travel agent who set up our Pennsylvania friends' Alaska birding trip) recognizes us, from Nome. They're staying across the highway at a big lodge/hotel and she and another birder named Barbara have come over to look for souvenirs. Actually, I think Barbara recognized us first. Janet follows us to our RV, gets our attention, and tells us about their escapades since Nome. We do likewise. Dave Kyler and others are up the Denali Highway (it's not in the National Park) looking for Smith's Longspurs. She says he is expected back about 9pm. I'll go over and see how he did.

Janet goes on to tell us about her experiences at Homer. While everyone else was on the big nine-hour glacier/whale/bird colony excursion, she hired a small plane service to take her to see grizzlies in the Katmai area. She said that at one point, she counted a huge number of bears from one place. The number's so huge, it's hard to believe. Like 17. Or 22. Something like that. They were all sows and cubs, she was delighted, and we were envious.

At 920pm, I go across the highway. Dave is in the lobby and we trade tales. They didn't find any longspur, but at the Brushkana Campground location, they got a pair of Upland Sandpipers. They are doing the Wonder Lake Denali shuttle bus tour (11 hours round trip) tomorrow, while we bird Denali Highway.

I hope for continued blue skies through tomorrow's trip as I drift off.

Best Birds of the Day: Denali Park Northern Wheatears and Common Redpoll family.

No new trip birds.


Week 5 Day 5. Tuesday, June 23, 1998. 33rd day out. Denali Highway (not part of Denali Park).

I look outside and it's 100% blue sky. Like peeking around the corner when you were a kid, under the Christmas tree, you see that Santa DID come.

Sharon wakes up with a worsening cold, and we decide that she should go back to sleep till she wakes up again. I bite my tongue, which is trying to say, "But it's blue sky outside!" It helps, and about 800am we're on the road, headed south. We can see peaks previously unseen, all with fresh snow on the top, blue sky behind. Repeatedly awesome. But Denali is hidden by a nearby mountain range and will be for about twenty miles. Since it makes its own weather system, it's still only 50/50 whether it will be visible.

Us riding. Sharon: Is THAT it? Me: I don't think so. Me: Is THAT it? Sharon: I don't think so. Sharon: How about THAT one? Me: I think it's supposed to have a rounded dome top. Sharon: Maybe that's from a different angle.

Then as we reach and pass the Denali Highway intersection, still traveling south, we suddenly realize we have been looking too far to the right.

About 20 degrees to the right of the road, the pure-white-against-blue, rounded-top block of ice and rock that is Mt. McKinley. Quietly massive. Nearby is another mountain which appears nearly as tall, but is pointed. The two together are awesome, bigger than anything around. On another, higher level [We later learn that both peaks are called Mt. McKinley - one the North Peak and the other the South Peak]. We can see clouds now to our right, and it looks like they are coming this way. I take some video and a few photos. We watch the big peaks for a while. They are about sixty miles away from where we stand.

Once Mom told of a new skyscraper being built in New York City, I think. They wanted a memorable phrase for the cornerstone - something to suggest that this was the biggest, baddest building around. They hired an eastern philospher/wise man who must have had some related credentials. He thought and thought and the words carved into the stone now say, "This Too Shall Pass."

I would carve on Denali, "This Shall Go Last."

We have learned that from the surrounding base to the peak, Denali has a bigger footage differential than even Mt. Everest - in fact, the biggest differential in the world, and from this aspect, the tallest mountain in the world.

OK, back to 'work.' We turn around, top off the tank, and head up the Denali Highway. This was originally the only road from the rest of the world into Denali Park. It's dirt and gravel, and isn't too bad. A few potholes near the beginning, a few washboard places, but all-in-all, not bad.

We head up the grade, and take a photo of Sharon in the truck, the truck in the foreground, you-know-what in the background. Gorgeous. Then we find a bush seaplane docked at the edge of a small lake, and there is almost no wind. We hear the winnowing of the snipe. I take a few shots of surrounding, snow-covered mountain peaks, with lake mirror images. Another one of the plane. Sharon takes some great video. I take one more of McKinley, and off we go again.

Oh. Did I mention? We can see Denali today because it's clear.

We have several mileposts to try for our target bird of the day: Smith's Longspur. Our secondary target is the Upland Sandpiper. Both are supposed to nest in the tundra, in wet meadows. We slow down at MP 17, but the habitat looks wrong. Our source is third-hand, and wasn't sure if it was 17 miles from this (Cantwell) end or the other (Paxson) end of Denali Highway [It turned out that it was 17 miles in from the other end]. Did you ever notice that when you're not sure if something is in the locations you're searching, it's impossible to find? Even if it's in plain sight. Or maybe it's just me.

As we continue our venture, we pass a huge gravel pile with a giant bite out of the front. In the bite area, two or three dozen pairs of Bank Swallows have dug their nests, and are feeding in the air above. Love to watch the Bank Swallows whoosh into their holes. We watch the first, and then the second of a pair whoosh into their hole. Whoosh whoosh.

We move on to the next location, at Brushkana Campground. We follow the instructions, and wind up about a half-mile off the road, in the tundra near a small, narrow pond. It's taken about a half-hour to come this far, and tundra footing is awful. Like a horse wallking through a Kansas prairie dog town. But we do spot a bird after we hear it calling. We can't see the bird very well with our scope, but we can tell that it's a shorebird. It has a relatively short bill, and a fairly large eye, but we can't see the lower half of the bird. Sharon spotted it first, as usual, and we want to get closer to watch its behavior, see the details better. We're sure enough to call it an UPLAND SANDPIPER* (our first life or trip bird for days), but we want to get a little closer to see it better. The trouble is that we left our water boots in the truck. I go back and get 'em. ("What a sweetheart, eh folks?" comment from Sharon)

While I'm gone, the sandpiper we were looking at leaves, and Sharon spots another shorebird. This one is to the right of the water, on a long, flat rock. I come back with the boots, mine already on. Sharon puts hers on, we put her regular hiking boots into a plastic carrying bag, and head closer. As we study this bird, it becomes clear that it's a different bird. It's much smaller and the face is different. We ID it as a nesting Least Sandpiper. The Upland Sandpiper won't reveal itself, it's flown off. But it had a much different call.

We walk around the tundra a bit, looking for the Uppie and the longspur. No luck, but Sharon finds an interesting hole we're pretty sure was a fox den. She "collects" some old remains of his meals (for little boy grandkids, of course) that were laying around the den opening. We walk back to the truck, foot tired, but hopeful about the next stop. Time is passing, and it's now clear that we are not going to drive the entire 134-mile, gravel highway and return in one day. We have to decide whether to "camp" in a hotel room in Paxson or thereabouts, at the other end, and return tomorrow, or pick a midpoint and turn around soon. We weigh the options and decide to go to Susitna (soo-SEET-nuh) River Bridge, a possible longspur location that's not too far ahead. It's at about the 40%-in point of the highway.

We ride on.

Sharon says, "I wonder if moose ever get headaches." This prompts me to ask the question you're now asking, "Why do you say that?" She goes on, "Up here we've seen that they eat a lot of willow bark, and willow bark has acetylsalasylic acid in it." I recognize that as aspirin. Sharon continues, "A long time ago, people brewed tea from willow bark to relieve headaches. Then they researched it and isolated the active ingredient, which is basically aspirin (See? Told you). So I wonder if Moose ever get headaches."

"Trying to hold up those big racks, how could they not?" I offer, scientifically. I wonder what bark Excedrin is in.

A great view of the Alaska Mountain Range becomes visible, and the angle continues to change as the miles roll by. What's the next rank above spectacular?

Far ahead, at MP 113, is Tangle Lakes Lodge. The owners are both birders, and our information says that they would be very helpful. I decide to call them, but there is very little development along Denali Highway. At MP 51 or so, we stop at Gracious House. "Do you have a phone we can use?" I ask. The lady says, "It's a radio phone. $5.00 to pick it up and 45 cents a minute." That's fine. We go up to her house, and try to call, but the first number is a recording at the birders' house, referring us to the lodge number. I can hardly hear it and Mrs. Gracious tries again, but isn't sure she got the other number either. She tries it, but can't get through.

As we're waiting for the radio phone to reset once, she says that the Tangle Lakes Lodge owners had some bad luck a couple of months ago, when the main lodge burned down. But they still have cabins and some trailers. We can't get through. I thank her, and ask what she wants for the try. A couple of bucks. I give her five and thank her for the try. She actually is very gracious. She'd be an excellent and valuable friend, especially here, in the winter. Back in the truck, Sharon asks if she was gracious. Perfectly, I say.

We stop on a bluff and have our lunch in the pickup. River in forest below, snow-capped peaks beyond. Sharon spots some animal traps scattered around a ridge, to our right, and about a quarter mile away. We think they were placed there by trappers. They are actually live animal traps, like the one we used unsuccessfully, trying to capture the raccoon punching holes in our shake roof a couple of years ago (Finally, a couple of arrows from Robin Hood did the trick). After lunch, we see two pickups parked off the road, loaded with more traps, and other stuff. This would be the trappers.

We continue on to Susitna River and by now it's cool, windy and overcast. Not parka-cool, but extra-jacket-and-earmuff-cool. We've crossed many small bridges and creeks today, but the Susitna is bigger. I'd say it was a quarter-to-a-half mile across. We traipse around in the trundra and bird the area to our left, just before the river, but no longspurs. We bird the area to the right from the road, with our scope and binoculars, but no luck there either. OK. Birding's over. Heading for home.

I stop above a small lake to go to the outdoor-bathroom, and a couple of lesser yellowlegs come over to yip, yip, yip us into leaving. We watch them land, leaving their wings up a second before folding them down. Could our Upland Sandpiper have actually been a Lesser Yellowlegs? No, the bills are too different. We head out again. Sharon gets in some of that wonderful car-dozing sleep.

On the way back, we run into three vans stopped on the side of the road. There is action up on the ridge, to our left. I roll the window down and ask a stayed-behind-in-the-van birder what's up. "A Hawk-owl," she says, "and I think they've finally found it." She's heading up to look. We pull further ahead, stop, and I get out the scope. The lighting is better on this one than on the one we saw earlier, in Tetlin NWR, Alaska, so we enjoy it's hawk-owl face. I ask their leader about longspur and Upland Sandpiper locations, and he gives me mostly known information, but a new lead on an Upland Sandpiper, near the beginning of the road. It would be nice to see him a little closer.

We drive the last bit of Denali Highway, stopping at his suggested location. We scope, but no Upland. We head back, noticing that Mt. McKinley is now almost fully covered with clouds.

We come back home and Sharon gets a laundry in, then fixes dinner. She asks if I'll do all the dishes (instead of my usual rub-the-towel-around-a-little drying job) so she can go to bed and get some 'cold' rest. The nerve of some people. She's pretty miserable, but was a great sport today. That's for sure.

I go over to the store and start a conversation with Scott, the park manager who lost an arm and a leg, after I hear him tell someone "...but that was before I was electrocuted." I ask him about his story, and he tells the following:

It was two nights before Christmas '91 and he was at home, about 75 miles north of Fairbanks, where he was a high school science teacher. He was on top of his house with a metal pole, cleaning out the chimney. He accidentally touched the pole to the entire town's incoming electrical line, over his house, and electrocuted himself. He was knocked off of the two-story roof onto the ground, in the snow. That's when he woke up. By coincidence, his parents were there for pre-Christmas activities, I guess, and they tended to him. A helicopter flew him to the excellent Fairbanks burn center. The burn surgeon there is one of the best in the world. He likes his float plane and the outdoor Alaska life. This surgeon is also the one who led a team of U.S. burn surgeons to Chernobyl after that accident, Scott says. I recall reading something about that at the time.

They figured he wouldn't make it through the first night, but he did. Then lots of surgeries and slow rehabilitation. They figured that the electrocution set him on fire and stopped his heart. The fall to the ground re-started his heart, and the snow helped put the fire out.

What a story. He says, "But I try not to let it slow me down. I don't want to lie around and get drunk every night." His parents are listed in The Milepost as an "original wilderness family," who own this RV Park. They are Jack and Edie Reisland, and came to Alaska from Ohio in 1957, first working as teachers in small villages.

Scott went on to say that he had been offered a job in Juneau a few years ago, after his recovery. But his dad made a counter-offer for him to stay here near Denali, and run the RV park. He'd only have to work three months a year. So he took it. Amazed at this story, I head back to the trailer.

After a while, Dave Kyler (Pennsylvania birder friend) knocks on our door, and we trade birding information. I tell him of our failed longspur attempts, and of our new plan (which I'm telling you now for the first time, since we just hatched it) to bird the Tangle Lake Lodge trails in a few days, after we've passed through Fairbanks and are near Delta Junction. That's where we're hoping for the Smith's Longspur. They're supposed to be much more reliable there.

He says that he and some of their group went all the way (11-hour round trip) into Wonder Lake, on the shuttle bus today, and he doesn't think it was worth it. The ride was interminable, and everybody else on the bus wanted to stop and look at every caribou, dall sheep and ground squirrel. They got out to bird at the lake, and the mosquitoes drove them back inside. They were so pooped, they just wanted to eat their lunches, get back on the bus, and sleep all the way back.

I give him a description of the Northern Hawk-Owl site, with Sharon's help. They're going to Fairbanks tomorrow and will bird Denali Highway the next day. Finally he heads back across the highway.

Sharon and I decide not to do the Wonder Lake [Denali shuttle bus] trip tomorrow. It'll be a sleep-in, rest-from-the-cold day. If it's nice, we might walk a small trail or two.

Day's Best Birds: Upland Sandpiper*, Northern Hawk-Owl

Life birds on this trip: 1 today (Upland Sandpiper), 49 total

Trip birds: 1 today, 169 total


Week 5 Day 6. Wednesday June 24, 1998. 34th day. Rainy Day of Rest.

Sharon has a great sleep, wakes up about noon and fixes french toast and bacon. Tastes great on a cold, wet day. We spend a relaxing afternoon reading, napping and listening to the rain. And watching the new drip from the middle vent. I put a cereal bowl, with a paper towel inside, under it. It's a very slow drip. I'm ready with my patching material, but have to wait for a dry period.

Later, in the evening, we decide to drive the 15 miles or so into Denali Park, allowed for personal vehicles. It has stopped raining, but is overcast with low clouds.

The Visitor Center is a large, light-gray, impressive looking building, and we are expecting the same for the hotel. But we drive by and it looks like a series of manufactured homes placed side by side, although the back section is two stories. I was expecting The Overlook (from the movie, 'The Shining') or The Awahnee Hotel, in Yosemite.

About three miles into the park, we see an oncoming bus stopped with his flashers on. That means animal. We get our binoculars and see that everyone is looking out to our left. And a man is out of a vehicle behind the bus, pointing a camera just a little to our left of the bus. We pull up a little and see a big bull moose, with a huge antler rack. Our best moose. We watch a while, then move on for others to see. He appears to be headache-free.

We are nearly the full distance we can drive, when I stop because I see a little dot crossing the road ahead. I put my binoculars on it, and it's a baby bird. Sharon does too, and gets out to shoo it off. A car passes us from the other direction, but the bird is in our lane. It doesn't move.

As Sharon approaches, the bird tries to fly off to the right, but it bounces off of the road about every six inches, finally making it to the ditch. I think its feathers are soaked, and it isn't strong enough yet to overcome the extra weight. Its parents fly over to it, offering encouragement or scolding. Then we see another baby there too. They are American Tree Sparrows, one of the handsomest sparrows, in my opinion. The adult has a rusty red cap, a clear breast and belly, with a dark spot in the center of the chest. And a great song. Sharon later decides that the baby bird hasn't yet properly learned to do the fledge of allegiance.

We drive to the turnaround, and as we're just completing our U-turn, I see a four-legged animal at the edge of the pavement. "BADGER!" I yell, "ON THE LEFT." Sharon gets it in her binoculars, "NO, WOLVERINE!" Fantastic, I think, and we both keep looking at it. Then we become aware of its rodent-shaped head. "No, It's a Hoary Marmot," Sharon finally says, and we're both a little disappointed. Maybe a wolf will eat it, I think. On the other hand, it is a trip mammal, and a life mammal, to the best of our recollection. The marmots we have seen in Glacier and Rocky Mountain were Golden (Yellow-bellied?) Marmots, we think.

Driving on out, we see a park police car has pulled over a small white sedan with a caribou skull roped to the top of his car, antlers still attached. We're guessing he wants to see the driver's skull permit. It takes some nerve to drive that car into Denali.

We do some grocery shopping, then some souvenir shopping, and I start asking questions of the cashier. The answers are as follows: Answer 1. The town of Tenana is pronounced TEN-uh-naw, but the river Nenana is pronounced nee-NA-nuh, sort of rhyming with banana. Answer 2. Mt. McKinley/Denali has two peaks. They are called the North Peak and the South Peak. I had thought Denali was the name of only the higher peak.

We come home and Sharon fixes us pizza. I hook into America Online again, send out our email and download incoming mail. This time, I quit out of the AOL program entirely in case the computer crashes later, take the Powerbook back to the trailer, plug it in and wake it from its sleep. It crashes, and I lose all incoming email again [later recovered]. The problem is apparently in the Operating System File Saving method [hasty evaluation not true], not the AOL program. Next time, I'll shut the computer down altogether before bringing it back.

I'm not very sleepy because of all the day's naps, and go to bed about 1am. Ah, vacation.

Day's Best Mammal: Bull Moose next to the road

Life Mammal: Hoary Marmot

Day's Best Bird: Baby American Tree Sparrow

No new trip birds today.


Week 4 Day 7. Thursday June 25, 1998. 35th day. RRRRRRAAAAIIIIIIINNNNNNN.

We wake up to rain at 6:30, go back to sleep, then wake again at 9:30am. Sharon sleeps till about noon. We stay in the trailer reading and dozing till late afternoon. The extra day's rest is great for Sharon's cold-recovery.

Late in the day, the rain breaks and the sun shines through long enough for me to patch the leaks, on top of the trailer. It resumes raining in a couple of hours. I don't know if there was enough drying time or not. I expect we'll know pretty soon.

We leave the trailer for one more ride into Denali Park, see nothing new, but enjoy the massive mountain ranges and peaks more than ever. Weather overcast, raining deep inside the park.

Just before dinner, Dave Kyler comes over and tells us what they've been doing the last two days. You have to keep in mind, they are flying back to Pennsylvania tomorrow night. They zipped up to Fairbanks (158 miles one way), where he used to live, looking for the Hammond's Flycatcher, but they were rained out from success. No rain checks. Then they drove the Denali Highway today, went all the way to Tangle Lakes Lodge (112 miles one way), after Smith's Longspur. They talked to Rich, the lodge manager, then drove to a roadside lake he recommended. The younger, stronger birders walked into the appropriate habitat, in the rough tundra. The older birders stayed in the van, sitting around and waiting for the big leaguers to return. While waiting, two stay-in-the-van birders claim that they saw the longspur, about twenty feet from the road. The into-the-habitat birders struck out, and didn't believe the van-stayers.

After Dave leaves, we have dinner, hope for good weather tomorrow and stay up late.

Best Mammal: Red squirrel eating the birdseed Sharon put out yesterday

Day's Best (and only) Birds: Mew Gulls of the RV Park


Tomorrow morning, we leave for Fairbanks, about three hours to the north, without stops. We're still not sure if we'll spend a night there, or go right on through, aiming for Delta Junction tomorrow night, either way then resume the quest for the Smith's Longspur, near Tangle Lakes Lodge.

Regards, Bob & Sharon

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