Alaska '98 Trip. Week 6. Denali to the Yukon Territory, Canada

Greetings from the Yukon - we're back in Canada as we file this Week 6 edition.

Week 6 Day 1. Friday June 26, 1998. 36th day. Denali to Fairbanks.

We wake up to blue skies again, the second day out of six. Right on the average. We dress and hit the road quickly, head up to Denali Park, and work our way in. We're not sure whether Mt. McKinley is visible from this accessible part of the road, and I want to find out. Up a little rise, past a small grove of trees, we stop at a pullout, and get our first view of Denali from inside the park. It's about 75 miles as the raven flies from here. Denali is beginning to form its own cloud system as we are shooting.

We satisfy ourselves, head back to the RV Park, but stop across the street where Dave Kyler, our Pennsylvania birder friend, is staying. We want to know where they looked for Hammond's Flycatcher in Fairbanks. We find him, and he tells us it's Creamer's Dairy, which is actually a state(?)-run experimental farm project, but it also includes birding mist-nets and a banding operation, to keep track of the birds in the area, especially during migration.

Everybody calls it the Creamery, but in reality, the founder's name was Creamer and it was originally his dairy. We are already familiar with this good birding location, and are grateful for Dave's input. We say goodbye to them, because they are taking the Anchorage Redeye to Pittsburgh, maybe, and Pennsylvania for sure.

We hit the gift shop, then cross the highway, preparing to load up, hook up, and head up to Fairbanks. We fill up with propane, dump the waste, and we're off.

A couple of weeks ago, I refilled our fresh water tank with strongly chlorinated water, and we could hardly stand it. Yesterday, during the rainstorm, I drained it. It didn't add much to the soaking the ground was already taking from the rain. Then I refilled the fresh tank with the good, sweet water from Denali Grizzly Bear RV Park.

We cross the Nenana River about six times in the next half-hour, as we travel through picturesque Nenana Gulch. Each time I would say, "This is the last time we cross the Nenana." Sharon reads about an interesting little eating place ahead, the Two Choice Cafe. The two choices, it says, are: take it, or leave it.

We find a completely Alaska souvenir shop, sort of (nothing is made from overseas). Sharon finally gets her fish wheel. We are surprised to learn that it was invented in Scandanavia, brought to New England, then the west, then the north - Alaska. We thought they were invented by Alaska natives.

Our Pennsylvania birder friends recommended a lunch place with the "World's Greatest Burgers." We forget the restaurant's name, check The Milepost, and come up with the Clear Sky Lodge. We split a half-pounder, and stop next door where there is a sign showing a soft ice cream cone. They only have hard ice cream. On the way back to the rig, we decide that Clear Sky has the World's Fair Burgers.

We pass through the town of Clear. I check the tire pressures and pump up the trailer tires a little, using air at a service station that is closed. No gas, doors locked, no one there. A sign gives the hours that the air is available.

We pass through Nenana, on the Tanana River. Every year, they put a new black-and-white tripod contraption out on the frozen Tanana. Anybody who wants can buy a ticket to guess the exact day and time, to the nearest second, that the tripod will begin to move -the "breakup" of the ice. A trip wire is connected to a clock over on the shore. We don't buy a ticket (for '99), but it sounds fun, if you're here about breakup time.

We continue on, rather uneventfully, noting the long, fairly rapid elevation drop coming into Fairbanks. We drive immediately to Creamer's, hit the visitor center, and talk with one of the bird-banders, who tells us that she is always hearing the Hammond's call at a specific location near one of the thirty or so mist-nets she helps work. She draws us a map.

We collect our gear and head out, across open fields, toward the woodland trails. Sharon spots three Sand-hill Cranes, two of them much smaller than the third. We figure an adult and two chicks, grown up enough to be called juveniles, or "juvies." We continue into the woods.

One of the tools I have for our Alaska trip is an audio tape I made from a dual-CD Bird Songs set I have. The tape includes about five seconds of the Hammond's Flycatcher song. We have never been successful with using audio tape songs before, but we keep trying.

We get lost a couple of times, but eventually find the chain-link fence on the map the bander drew for us. We see many Dark-eyed Juncos and other familiar woodland birds on the way in, but no flycatchers. There are a couple of interesting Savannah Sparrows, but unlike the ones I recall in the Bay Area, these have central breast spots. Very attractive little guys.

"Let's try the tape," Sharon says. So I pull out my $19.95 General Electric tape recorder, and cue it up to the Hammond's. I press play. Nothing. Well, a song, but no bird.

I rewind it and play it again. Suddenly a little olive-brown bird comes from nowhere, chipping, very interested. "Bob, there he is!" says Sharon. Is this his version of the direct no-nonsense attack of the Goshawk? Can that be him so soon? At all? He keeps his face hidden, I play the tape again. He keeps maneuvering around, trying to locate the intruder to his territory. Soon, Sharon and I are both able to identify his special eye-ring. It's a HAMMOND'S FLYCATCHER* and our first lifer in a week or so. Almost immediately, another one comes in. They continue to flit around us, perching in the trees, checking and rechecking the sound source.

We are in awe of our new magic sound wand, and head back out of the woods, leaving the little flycatchers in charge of their universe. What birds might we be able to call in? There are birders who have a great ear for bird calls and songs, and can instantly recognize a bird's presence by its song. Of course, the opposite side of that coin is KNOWING that a bird is in the brush, you can hear him, but he flies away before you can see him. Anyway, I love to watch these birders work, since I lack this ability.

The bird tapes work best, I understand, when a pair is establishing a territory and building a nest. The taped song is interpreted as another male challenging for this territory, and is (hopefully, by birders) met immediately. But we don't want to use them too much, on the principle that if we bother them more than just a little, they might abandon their existing nest.

We make our way to River's Edge RV Park, east of Fairbanks and located on a loop which exits and re-enters the Richardson Highway. It has cable TV, free showers, and you can transmit email for $2 on a dedicated phone line. Excellent. I'll prepare our weekly trip report and send it tomorrow morning.

We don't unhitch the trailer from the pickup, so we can get a faster start tomorrow. I drift off to sleep, dreaming of calling in new birds.

Best Bird: Hammond's Flycatcher*

Trip Lifers today: 1 (Hammond's), Total Trip Lifers: 50. Half a hundred.

Trip birds today: 1, Total 170

River's Edge RV Park Rating: B. Full hookups + cable TV. Email checking. Wooded environment, next to river (which I never saw, but didn't try to). But somewhat of a parking lot atmosphere.

----

Week 6 Day 2. Saturday June 27, 1998. 37th day. Fairbanks to Delta Junction. Birding the Barley Project.

We wake up, make maintenance stops at an RV parts place and a hardware store, make a grocery downloading stop at a Safeway. On the way, we see a sign that says, "If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?" We pack the fridge.

One of our favorite areas to bird has been burned forests, for fairly rare Black-backed Woodpeckers. But I have recently read that there is a definite time window of opportunity associated with this burn. Within about a year of the burn, a very specific type of beetle comes in and takes residence. This draws in the Black-backed Woodpecker. About 3-4 years after the burn, the beetles are out of food and leave. And so do the Black-backs. So now we are choosy about burns, needing them to have occurred between about 1994 and 1997. Anything older or younger won't have the right stuff.

Sharon has found a burn in The Milepost, about twenty miles back towards Denali, that we believe occurred in that time frame. We go back, with trailer attached, and find it to be too risky, in terms of getting stuck in the mud two miles away from the freeway. We go in a little way, but have no luck.

Then back out, back through Fairbanks (The George Parks flows right into the Richardson Highway, driving through the city), past the loop turnoff to last night's RV park, and on towards Delta Junction and visions of seeing Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Between Fairbanks and Delta Junction is the town of North Pole, Alaska. We drive by Santaland RV Park. As I recall, for a fee, you can send your Christmas cards to North Pole, and they'll resend them, stamping them from [the?] North Pole.

Delta Junction is where the Alaska Highway ends, where it runs smack into the Richardson Highway. Fairbanks argues that they are the real end, but no one seems to care much - except Fairbanks and Delta Junction.

We make it to Smith's Green Acres RV Park, and find in a note they left, that a Seventh Day Adventist family runs it. Their sabbath, or day-of-rest, is from 7pm Friday to 7pm Saturday. It's now about 5pm, and I find the instructions for how to pay with your visa card too complicated to mess with. We'll just wait for them to get back and pay them then. Meanwhile we pick a slot, mark it "taken," park, unhitch, set up and take off. We're after Sharp-tailed Grouse.

We drive the five or six minutes to the Delta Junction Visitor Center. This is a famous place. It's one of the official ends of the world-famous Alaska Highway, also known as the Al-Can Highway in Canada. We take photos and video of the end-of-the-highway marker, the "pig" that they use to roto-rooter the Alaska pipeline when it gets too sticky on the inside, and cross-sections of the pipeline. Then we head inside.

A cheerful, helpful girl born in Estonia marks up a map which shows how to drive through the Barley Project. We have read that this area produces a huge percentage of what Alaska consumes in the way of grains. They use lots of the barley to feed cattle. And the Sharp-tailed Grouse love the barley. Oh, the barley-bone's connected to the grouse-bone... and the grouse-bone's connected to the Lutman-bone.

Following the map, we drive down the Alaska Highway several miles and turn left on Sawmill Road, the main entry point to the barley fields. We roll our windows down and begin slowly rolling through the barley roads. We are the slowly rollers. Within a half-mile, we hear a slightly familiar call, and see a large shorebird calling an alarm and circling, then landing on a fencepost. He leaves his wings extended a second or two before folding them in. Our binoculars quickly show that he is an Upland Sandpiper, our lifer from the west half of the Denali Highway a few days ago. Great, great view.

We were hesitant about claiming him that day, but this alarm call is exactly the same - we now know that we were right to claim him. We see another, then another, and soon we realize there are three pairs, alarms tripped on all of them. I get out, bring out the scope and we have fantastic looks. Perched on a fencepost. Perched on a power pole. Flying from one to the other. One gets my attention and limps across the gravel road, faking a broken wing. It's clear that they have nests in the grass, just a few feet across the fences. We pack our stuff away, and get ready to roll away and leave them to their business of bringing up baby. We classify this sighting as an upgrade, a sort of now-this-time-there's-no-doubt sighting of an earlier-claimed lifer with sketchy credentials. We are ready to move on.

But wait.

I remember something very unique about one of the calls of the Upland Sandpiper. You would not believe it. It is described in several of our bird ID books as a "wolf whistle." It's the kind of whistle that used to be made by young men, cruising city streets and seeing a pretty girl. You know the whistle. And I remember it, very clearly, from the Bird Songs CD. We did not hear our official, Denali Highway Uppie do it, and we have not heard any of these six do it. I'm so buzzed about our luck though, that I am going to try it anyway.

"Wheeet-wheeeooo," I whistle, in the slow, drawn-out, controlled call I remember from the CD. I'm whistling at one of the Uppies perched right next to us, on a fencepost. Nothing. I do it two more times, the same way. Still nothing. He seems to have lost interest and glides down to the ground, away from us, about fifteen feet beyond his fencepost. We start to leave. Then very slowly, "wheeet-wheeeooo," he says. We test the truck seat springs as we bounce up and down in pure delight. Or maybe it was just me, and I was bouncing Sharon. Don't bump your head. Unbelievable.

We continue on, and I am reminded so much of driving the gravel country roads of my uncles, aunts and cousins around Versailles, where I grew up. But soon, the map gets confusing. It shows a road making a 90-degree right, but the road actually makes a 45-degree right. What's up with that? And then we come to an intersection. Do we turn left or go straight? It's not clear, so we have to make our best guess. We guess left, hoping that's right.

Now the roads aren't matching the map at all any more, but since we're clearly still in the barley, we don't care. We'll make it out sooner or later. We see a probable Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk on a power pole, watching the ground below. He jumps off, glides down to the next power pole and alights. Maybe a Rough-legged Hawk. We discuss it, look them both up, but then he's gone when we try to re-check. Disappeared.

We roll on.

After about ninety minutes on the gravel, we are within sight of an asphalt road. It's either the one we're supposed to come out on, or it's the Alaska Highway. As we're discussing which it might be, suddenly I see a possible grouse-sized bird about 100 yards ahead, on the left side of the road.

Jam the brakes (not much of a problem when you're only going 5), hit the binoculars. "POSSIBLE GROUSE! No, two!" I leave the pickup in the middle of the road, jump out, open the silver tool box, pop out the scope, set it up and watch the two birds as they walk slowly across the road. "Come quick," I say to Sharon, who's on them with her binoculars the best she can, "I think they're Sharp-tails. Get them before they get to the grass!" I jump back as she gets on (we both have to see and identify them, as you well-know by now), and I'm relieved to see that they have both stopped before leaving the road. Sharon starts describing what she's seeing as I verify in the NGS. "Yes. Yes. Yes." Everything matches. Feathers down the legs to the feet, black crest-like cap on the head, lot of white on the bellies and lower chest, and most important, those sharp, pointed tails. Fantastic. SHARP-TAILED GROUSE*. Then two more saunter across. Sharon watches the first half of this second road show, then gives the scope to me for the second half. No doubt now. And just for icing on the cake, a truck comes roaring towards us and we get to see a Sharp-tailed Grouse in flight.

We head back to camp to pay, talking about all the things that had to go wrong in the barley field roads, to go right, getting us to that exact spot at that exact time. It tickles the imagination.

At the RV park, we pay up, then Sharon barbecues the fresh sockeye (red) salmon we bought at Safeway. We have that with fresh tomato, brussel sprouts and rice. Soy sauce for the rice and salmon. I can hardly stand it.

Before dinner, during the barbecue, a young bull-moose walks through camp. A gangly teen-ager, but he isn't interested in salmon, of course.

We decide to use up one of our bonus days tomorrow (that will be about 8 out of the 14 we started with), and instead of driving to Tok on the Alaska Highway, we will go down about 90 miles to Paxson on the Richardson Highway. Then turn west on the Denali Highway towards Tangle Lakes Lodge. A last, long shot gamble for the Smith's Longspur.

Day's Best Birds: Sharp-tailed Grouse* and Upland Sandpiper

Upgrades: 1 today (Upland Sandpiper), 3 total

Life Birds: 1 today (grouse), 51 total. [erroneously reported as sandpiper in original report]

Trip Birds: 1 today (grouse), 171 total. [erroneously reported as sandpiper in original report]

Smith's Green Acres RV Park Rating: B

-----

Week 6 Day 3. Sunday June 28, 1998. 38th day. Delta Junction to Tangle Lakes, 22 miles westward from the east end (Paxson) of the Denali Highway.

We're off. We pass Fort Greeley, and Sharon recalls the Sergeant Bilko TV show of our younger years. Phil Silvers was always being threatened with transfer here if he didn't behave. Hey. It's nice here. Now anyway.

We see a jet black rabbit hopping from one yard to another. Domesticated, for certain. Out on the open road, we see a Harlan's Hawk swoop across the highway, pick something up, land in a tree to check his catch. We see Donnelly Dome on the right, near the end of a 4.8 mile stretch of perfectly straight road, rising toward the end. This dome-shaped peak, rising from flatland, is the local winter predictor. From the first snow on Donnelly Dome, it will snow in Delta Junction within six weeks. The first snow is very meaningful in these parts.

There are lean rabbit years and explosion rabbit years. This must be the latter, because there are exploded rabbits all over the road. The Ravens love that, of course.

We come to another place where the pipeline crosses under the road, resurfaces and continues above the ground in the forest, as far as you can see, supported by I-beams. A helpful diagram explains the finned cylinders attached to the top of each pair of vertical stuck-into-the-ground I-beams, each pair supporting a cross-beam, on which rests the pipe itself. These heat transfer fins dissipate the heat from the oil, as it travels through the pipeline at 155 degrees.

Each of these supports resembles an upper case 'H', with a small letter 'o' being the pipe, resting on the horizontal part of the 'H'. Too much heat will melt the permafrost and cause the supports to sink, putting stress on the pipe, cracking it.

The pipe doesn't run to the horizon in a straight line, from here. Instead, it zigzags, to further relieve large stresses, of a different kind.

This stretch of highway is beautiful, maybe the best we've seen in Alaska. We are passing through a natural slot in the Alaska Mountain Range. If we weighed a trillion trillion tons and were five or six thousand feet tall, we'd fit right in.

We pass the Black Rapids Glacier. It's on our right, across the braided Delta River. Most of the rivers in this area are of the braided variety - wide flat expanses of gravel, ground out by glaciers, with many rivulets criss-crossing randomly on their way downhill. In about 1936 or so, this glacier advanced three miles in one winter, earning it the nickname of the Galloping Glacier. It has dismounted for now, we can just barely see the end of it, where it has receded up a huge canyon.

There is an army facility we pass called something like the Black Rapids Proving Station. We guess that they're trying to prove that you can do army things where it's very cold. Sharon says we are passing wild rhubarb on our left. We begin increasing altitude now and there is a dike to our right, on this side of the flat river bottom, running parallel to the road. There are finger dikes sticking out away from the road, pointing to the other side of the river. They are called River Training Structures, and I guess they become meaningful when the river flows wild from the snow melt [Sharon: The Milepost says they help prevent erosion].

We come to a roadside rest stop, right next to the pipeline. From a dent in the "pipeline," I realize that we are actually looking at insulation jacket, not the pipe itself.

We take each other's picture doing goofy things. Sharon is pretending to hold up the pipe, I'm pointing to one of the support structures, like a design engineer. She's goofier, don't you think? Maybe we ought to wait for the pictures.

We pass a place near a feeder creek, where the pipeline disappears underground, then resurfaces. Sharon reads in The Milepost that it's an established caribou migration area. Caribou 1, Pipeline 0.

We are continuing to increase in elevation to tundra area, but behind and to our left now is the Gulkana Glacier, a big one. Its meltings feed both the Prince William Sound and the Yukon River. It sounds like a sort of continental divide, but since it's not dividing a continent, they call it a water divide.

On our immediate right, now, is seven-mile long Summit Lake. The highway runs right beside it, from which we can see loons and ducks. We come around a corner, and only then feel how long this lake is. When I was little, and Dad took us for a Sunday Drive to the Lake of the Ozarks, I would hide my eyes when he was parking right next to the lake. I always thought he would accidentally back or slip into it. One of our rear wheels would crumble off the road, and in we'd roll. I steer a little toward the center of the road.

I overshoot the Denali Highway turnoff, Alaska State Highway Number 8, make a U-turn, then take the left onto the right road. At the "town" of Paxson. This town is about three buildings and a small inn. A sign says "Tangle Lakes 21 Miles," as well as Cantwell 136 and Denali National Park 164. I love the idea that we came up this exact road about 40% of the way from the other end, and now we're going to go back on the same road about 15% of the way. We are in high altitude country here, much different from the western half of this highway, and we quickly add more elevation as we slowly head up the grade.

We stop at the summit pullout and Sharon reads that in the spring, before all the summer evaporation, you can see as many as 40 kettle lakes. I may have already told you, but these lakes are shallow depressions that were gouged out by glaciers. They are at random elevations across the smooth rolling area all around us. Missourians would probably call most of them ponds. The biggest one is perhaps only a quarter-mile across, and most are 20-30 yards across. I count sixty without trying too hard.

The good news is that 21+ of the 22 miles of road to Tangle Lakes are paved. We're done with gravel, or mostly done, anyway. The weather is spectacular, with blue sky and lots of big puffy white clouds. Part of the Alaska Range is visible on our right. Ten miles in on the Denali Highway, a big lake to our left is called Ten Mile Lake. Earlier, we passed Seven Mile Lake. It is left as an exercise to the student to figure out where it is.

I make a mental note that Summit Lake is seven miles long, and up the Denali Highway, Seven Mile Lake is near that highway's summit.

There are almost no trees, but rather low dwarf and scrub willows. The tundra reminds us of (Ah) Nome. We now realize why the Alaska pipeline is visible from so much of the Richardson Highway. It too was run through the notch in the Alaska Range, for economic purposes. The shortest distance between two points.

We see gulls, attracted by fish in the lakes, and begin to realize that they have pale eyes and pink legs, the first non-Mew Gulls we've seen in a long time. They are Herring Gulls.

We come to the edge of the pavement, about 21 miles in, knowing that Tangle Lakes Lodge is about a mile onto the gravel. We stop in and ask for Rich, but he's busy discussing the rebuilding of his lodge, which burned to the ground about five weeks ago. Electrical fault, they figure. We go back and check out the two Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campgrounds. They are free - first come, first camp. One is on the Tangle River, and is already filled with campers, most of whom are standing in the river, fishing. Having a fantastic time, I'll bet.

The other one, beside Tangle Lake, is bigger and more spread out. We choose the highest elevation site we can find, because we have learned that catching the breeze is the key to camping success when there are mosquitoes. There are no hookups, but that's not the attraction of these campgrounds anyway. It's the sheer beauty, being outside, in the mountains, near the water. And it has that in abundance. We enjoy our lunch in these great surroundings.

We make our way back to the road and the half mile or so to Tangle Lakes Lodge, now a misnomer. There are six or eight new log cabins on various nearby lakes, and a few barely-trailers, but no lodge. We ask for Rich, and one of the three fellows installing a satellite dish turns around and comes right over. He's a strong-looking, young guy and very friendly, immediately at ease talking birds with us.

"We're looking for the Smith's Longspur," we tell him, "and we heard you might be able to direct us." "I don't know if they're still here," he says. "There was a big VENT [Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours] group, then a big Field Guides group [commercial birding tour groups], then a group of ornithologists from Houston. They scouted all over and I haven't seen a Smith's for a week now." We feared that it might be like this. "But they've been seen off and on in the last month around the lakes at Milepost 17.2 and 14. I have walked around the 17 mile lake a couple of times this week and didn't see any sign of them. The Houston group said that they found them around 14. That was just a couple of days ago.

"All of the groups got the bird, but I'm afraid they may have caused the 17 mile birds to abandon their nest, if they didn't outright step on them.

"I was at 17 a couple of weeks ago, and watched two male Smith's Longspurs get in a ferocious fight, with feathers flying all over the place. The resident male was fighting off an intruder. It was a real knock down, drag out fight. But I think their aggressive period is over."

We listen to Rich's stories, and I am thinking, "We'll never get them now. We're one week too late." We tell him we have song tapes. He is a little encouraged, "That will increase your chances a lot. I don't have any tapes." I perk up too. Can we call on our luck one more time? I don't even want to think about it.

We go back to the camp, load up and head back toward the 17.2 mile lake. We take our tapes, books, binoculars, scope, water, mosquito repellent, water boots and head off. I immediately get us into impassable waters. Well nearly. After an hour or so, we are about an eighth of the way around the lake, and we see gray rain clouds coming our way.

I play the tape over and over, but there are no takers. We point it in every direction, then we see a bird fly over, with a buzzy call. "Is that him?" I yell. We both watch as he stays out of watching range, but in the area. We see him one more time, same call. Then we don't see him any more. A raindrop hits my ear. Uh oh. "Let's go back," I say, and Sharon is more than ready.

We decide to try to negotiate the wet, watery area near the lake, instead of skirting it widely, where it's dry. I quickly run us into a watery cul-de-sac, and we have to retrace our steps, then change to the dry and wide route.

The good news is that the rain holds off.

We FINALLY make it back to the road, and to the car. We drive up to the 14 mile lake, and play the tape from the truck. We're too tired to walk in here. Plus there's no good parking turnout. We just stop on the highway, but with good vision in both directions. A likely face pops up and we get extremely excited. Could it be? Check carefully. Be sure. It's a gorgeous male ... Lapland Longspur, responding to the song of the Smith's. His mate comes out too, and we enjoy them, having thought we'd probably not see them again.

We try some other likely lakes, but get responses only from Chipping and Savannah Sparrows. We drive on to Paxson for some supplies, but they don't have anything we need. So we head back toward camp, and see a couple of Long-tailed Jaegers.

We stop again at the 14 mile and the 17.2 mile lakes. No Smith's. Not to be, I guess.

But then at mile 14, we see a Semipalmated Plover sitting on a nest with at least three chicks. We see the female Lapland Longspur chase a Robin across the meadow, thinking, hoping for a moment it is a Smith's. But the white belly tips us off that's it Lapland. We see a Yellow Warbler, and hear a couple of White-crowned Sparrows. As we are scanning, an old junkie camper-shelled pickup, topped off with a canoe, comes in from Paxson, and slows down. "What are you looking for?" the young couple asks. We tell them and the fellow says, "We're from Fairbanks. We came in early May for the Bird-a-thon [species count], and Rich put us up in his lodge. The weather was apalling. I've been around here for three years and have never seen a Smith's." I didn't need to hear that. It's 10:00pm. We tell him where we're camped, and he says they're going there too, then they're "going for a float." I like the way that sounds. Off they go, for a float, and we soon follow. Back to camp.

One of the kettle lakes is fairly round, with two arms sticking out in opposite directions, near one edge of the circle. It looks like an octopus, and is in fact Octopus Lake. We see a car stop ahead of us, and a small, black animal walk across the road in front of him. It disappears off the road, and the car moves on. We stop where the car had been, and see a beaver channel leading to a lake on our right. He must have just been visiting his neighbor, across the road.

The last excitement of our return trip is a little porcupine crossing the road, heading into the bushes. Then we're back in camp. We decide to set the alarm early, hook up, drive out, but play the tape at every location we've heard about or that looks likely. It's pretty clear we aren't gonna see the Smith's, and I am trying to make it OK with me. But we'll try once more, going out.

I go to sleep thinking what a great campsite we're in.

Days Best Birds: Pair of Lapland Longspurs, Semipalmated Plover chicks

No trip birds today.

Tangle Lake Campground (BLM). No charge. Rating: A, for the scenery and the cost. Add a '+' for the paved road getting to it.

-----

Week 6 Day 4. Monday June 29, 1998. 39th Day Out. Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska to Beaver Creek, the Yukon, Canada.

The alarm goes off at 523am. The sun is barely up, but is shining through a lake mist, over the entire area. We hit the road at 543am, betting that the mist is only over the lake. It is. We realize that last night was our Alaska last night. What a ride.

We are going to play the Smith's Longspur song tape at a few places, and that'll be it. Two locations at Lake 17.2. No response. Two locations at Lake 14. Two Lapland Longspurs. We wait a minute or two, hoping the Smith's will join the Laplanders. Nice try.

We rig for travel, by storing everything so it isn't in our way. We are driving into the sun, but we're glad it's sun and not rain or mist. We relax and settle in to enjoy our last Alaska day. The sun is in our faces, when I see a small dot in the left lane, pass it, and I am aware that it's another baby bird in the road, like the one back in Denali Park. It didn't move. I stop. "What is it?" asks Sharon. "You won't believe it, but I think it's another baby bird in the road. I'm going back." I back up, and not very well. I keep having to pull forward, straighten out, and back up the trailer some more. It's early morning, and there's absolutely no traffic to worry about. I see the baby bird skitter off the road, to our left and behind us. I stop perhaps ten yards before I would have gotten there. We both get out to make sure it's ok.

The parent birds show up, just like in Denali Park. They won't settle so we can see them - probably American Tree or Savannah Sparrow we figure. Then, a "bzzzzzt," as one flies past us, landing quite a ways away, on a shrub. Sharon is excited, "That's the sound. Play the tape. Play the tape. Hurry!" At the same time she was saying that, I was on one of the flying parents with my binoculars. I thought I saw black on the head. But even more important, what I was aware of was - could I have seen it right? - a yellow chest, not the white of the Lapland Longspur. And black on the head. Both the Lapland and the Smith's have the black. Smith's chests are yellowish. I allow myself to ratchet up one notch on the excitement scale.

I play the tape, and an adult bird comes at us again, landing closer, but with its head hidden behind some brush. Definitely a sort of peach-yellow belly. Is this happening? While we're on our way OUT? AFTER we stop looking for it? Now the mate joins the first parent, perching. We can't see the baby bird anywhere, but the tape is causing great concern from its parents. Finally they both move to a clearly visible perch, and I honestly don't remember which of us said it: "It's a SMITH'S LONGSPUR*! Male! And the female too!"

"Generally uncommon, solitary, and highly secretive..." says the NGS Field Guide. "Nests on open tundra and damp, tussocky meadows."

Me, in the tape recorder diary after watching for several minutes:

"646am, I'm looking smack straight on at the double outer white tail feathers with my naked eye. Male Smith's Longspur ... and female. No doubt whatsoever. Oh ... my gosh my gosh... ."

So now what we believe is that this is the pair that the Houston group got, around the 14 mile lake, their young have just fledged, and like human adults when our kids began to crawl, the adult pair is just trying to keep up. This youngster has made it up the hill to about the 13.7 mile point.

We high five, low five, side five and windup-and-a-half five. We finally get back in the rig and slowly, ever so slowly, head on up towards the summit, realizing that we have put an unbelievable exclamation point on our last Alaska day. It's not 7:00am yet.

The remaining few Denali Highway miles pass under the rig as we crest the summit, then drop down to Paxson. I keep saying to Sharon, "Oh did I mention, we saw the Smith's Longspur?" We pass a B&B owned by the Hines family. "Hines Site 20/20 B&B," it says.

We turn north at Paxson, retracing our beautiful Richardson Highway path yesterday afternoon. The sun angle and morning mountain clouds recast yesterday's scenery, with a new set. More photos. Describing scenery goes real good with Smith's Longspur.

We arrive at Delta Junction, and begin our return trip on the Alaska Highway at one of the official ends. We go through Tok, Tetlin Junction, pass along Tetlin NWR, reversing our path coming north. We stop and walk in to recheck on the status of the four Hawk-Owl chicks. They have fledged the allegiance. Back to the pickup, back on the road.

We drive into Deadman's Lake Campground, where we spent our first night in Alaska, hoping to see a Spruce Grouse. Not then and not now. Back on the road, southbound. We stop in the Tetlin NWR Visitor Center, and bump into Don Pendergrast again, who had given us so much helpful information about one month ago, at this very location, on our way north. "Can you tell us where to find a Spruce Grouse?" I ask, laughing. It was our first question to him thirty days ago. We talk a while, then say goodbye and head out on the highway again.

We cross into the Yukon, Canada, and wonder whether they will confiscate our reindeer antler from Nome at customs. We hope not. They wave us through after asking where we're from, where we've been, and do we have any alcohol or weapons aboard. They don't care about the half-bottle of vodka brother-in-law Red gave us. And untouched since them. We're through.

We arrive at the Beaver Creek 1202 Motor Inn, with RV parking and hookups in the back. And hook up. We had a couple of buffalo burgers here on our way in, and that's what we have again on our way out. We walk a few trails for Spruce Grouse, but only hear many Ravens, one of whom can imitate a turkey and make bubble noises. The owner lets me use an extra telephone line, in the empty bar, to check and download email.

I drift off, picturing the Smith's flying all around us, on the Denali Highway. Over and over, I replay the picture in my mind.

Best Bird of the Day: Smith's Longspur*

Life Birds: 1 today, 52 total.

Trip Birds: 1 today, 172 total.

1202 Motor Inn and RV Park. Rating A for boy-we're-glad-to-be-here and the electricity and the email access, and D for the why-don't-you-do-something-about-this-flat-gravel-parking-lot.

-----

Week 6 Day 5. Tuesday, June 30, 1998. 40th day out. Beaver Creek, the Yukon, near the Alaska border to Cottonwood Campground, the Yukon.

Last night we had ice cream, and the cook, Marcelle told us where he often has seen Spruce Grouse. About a half-hour down the road, past the White River Lodge (closed), park at the first dirt road to the right. Walk in about twenty minutes. Is it going to be this easy, after all the time we've spent looking?

I'll save you the suspense. No. But that's a little later.

Back into the rig, on down the road. As we're driving, I notice a large bird in a tree on our left. It looks a little different from the average common bird. I pull over and tell Sharon. She looks out our back window and asks, "Is it an owl?" "I think so," I say, hoping for a Great Gray. Although I don't think it's big enough.

We get out, and it immediately flies to the ground. Soon Sharon spots it back of us about fifty yards, in a tree. While we're watching, the Northern Hawk-Owl returns to his original perch, lands, and blinks a couple of times. Very nice look. And on we go.

We get to the defunct White River Lodge, and park at the next dirt road. We walk up about thirty minutes and see Chipping Sparrows, squirrels, lots of juncos and a female Varied Thrush. We've been hearing them during our walk. Then a warbler, probably an Orange-crowned. Then Sharon says, "Oriole!" What I hear is "orange-yellow colored bird," since I know there are no orioles here. We are looking in the same tree, and I see the black-and-white of a Red Crossbill or White-winged Crossbill. We check the NGS and learn that the juvenile White-winged Crossbill has the wonderful yellow-orange colors of an Altamira Oriole. Not a trip bird, but a nice bird.

We enter the Kluane National Park, and I start thinking about the Cottonwood Campground, where we stayed about May 31st. I'm eager to learn of the status of the nesting Mountain Bluebirds. We stop and inquire. "They're feeding them now," the girl says. "Is it ok if we check them out, park by the lake, and have lunch? It's too early to stop for the night." "Sure," she says.

We argue a little about where to park for lunch, and stop near a shady picnic table in an unoccupied RV slot by the lake. We bring our lunch out to the picnic table. I check up and down the lake for birds, but don't see any. We munch on, and Sharon says, "Did you see that Common Loon?" "I didn't see any birds at all," I say, turning around and seeing it. "Must have been diving when I scanned," I tells myself, amazed that Sharon has again found a bird where I found none.

I look through my binoculars. Love the wonderful breeding colors of the Common Loon. But wait - check that bill again. It looks yellow, but a black bird can look black, brown, gray, white or yellow, depending on the sun angle and cloud cover. I'm not too excited yet, but I look again carefully. Still looks yellow, and he's changed his angle a little. "Don't get too excited, but would you check the color of that loon's bill while I get the scope?" I say to Sharon. She knows something's up and suspects what: "Is it a Yellow-billed?"

It dives, she has to wait. I say, "One other point. The Common Loon points his bill straight ahead, the Yellow-billed tilts it slightly upward." It resurfaces and she says, "I can't believe you noticed that. I just thought it was a plain old Common Loon. I DID notice that the bill tilted up slightly earlier, and it's very easy to see now." I put the scope on him, and it's a gorgeous bill, pale-but-definite yellow, slightly up-tilted. I look at all the loons of the NGS. No question. We got ourselves a 100% unexpected YELLOW-BILLED LOON*. One of the best kind, because we did it all on our own. We get a handful of them off the Pacific Coast (though we've never seen one), but it's in winter, when they are in pale plumage. You wouldn't recognize them.

The weather is warm, and there's a nice breeze blowing over Lake Kluane. We are enjoying it so much, we decide to stay. We register, and take the last good spot with electricity that's lakeside. By coincidence, it's Jeane and Red's site when we stayed here together. Ah. Smith's Longspur yesterday, Yellow-billed Loon today. We are such easy dates.

Sharon sees a nice Myrtle race Yellow-rumped Warbler. Earlier she saw a "bright red" bird, and we have to check it out. I look at the NGS geographic range of the House, Purple and Cassin's Finch. The only one here is the Purple Finch. I tell Sharon. But I don't look very closely at the bird.

We enjoy watching the pair of Mountain Bluebirds collecting bugs and worms, then flying into their nest box. Back out, another grub trip, back in.

Sharon does a laundry, and bumps into a New Yorker named Bob. An avid birder. They talk a little, and he thinks the red bird is a House Finch. Expanding its region beyond the range shown in the NGS. They trade trip stories, and she puts me onto him.

I learn that he has about 615 birds on his life list (to our 497, not that I'm comparing), and he's very helpful. I show him the birds we're after, and he gives us specific locations that are right on our way down through BC, Alberta, Montana and Wyoming. What a break, Sharon meeting him.

I tell him about our 53 trip lifers, but he has them all except for a handful. I fill him in on location details of those. He goes to dinner, and Sharon and I head out on a trail, looking for Spruce Grouse.

No.

Back home, off to sleep.

Day's Best Birds: Yellow-billed Loon*

Life birds on this trip: 1 today (loon), 53 total

Trip birds: 1 today, 173 total

----

Week 6 Day 6. Wednesday July 1, 1998. 41st day. Cottonwood Campground in Kluane National Park, the Yukon to Teslin, Yukon Territory, Canada.

We get around slowly, timing our readiness to leave for 8:00am, the office's opening time. Except this is Canada Day. July 1st. The country's 131st birthday. The door does not open. We look at the mountain bluebirds once more, and take off.

Then, basically, we just click off the kilometers. We stop for a late lunch at a rest stop overlooking Marsh Lake. It used to be Mud Lake, but a guy changed it in honor of some college professor named Marsh. Sharon takes over driving while I nap. When I wake up, we're only about 45 minutes from our expected stop in Teslin. You're in good hands with Sharon. Teslin Lake is a long, thin lake - maybe 90 miles long or so. We're nearing the far end of it.

We check into the Yukon Motel and RV Park in Teslin, Yukon, in a driving rainstorm. We decide not to unhitch. After the thunderstorm, we watch a couple of Canada Day celebrations on TV, including Leahy, a Celtic family group. They do that Riverdance type of Irish clogging, which I love. We're going to try to get their CD tomorrow in Watson Lake. We have dinner, take a late walk looking unsuccessfully for Spruce Grouse, and turn in. It's 1042pm and the sun is already down.

Man, it's getting dark early.

Day's Best Bird: Mountain Bluebird pair feeding young

No new trip birds today.

Yukon Motel and RV Park, in Teslin. Rating: C+, for parking lot atmosphere, but probably best in the area.

-----

Week 6 Day 7. Thursday July 2, 1998. 42nd day. Teslin, the Yukon, Canada to Watson Lake, the Yukon, Canada

I am awakened by a bump bump... bump bump... bump bump... on the trailer roof. What the? Then through the open vent above our bed, I see a huge Raven hop up on the TV antenna. "Hey," I yell at him. He looks at me, then looks back up. Then flies off. I hear the travel rigs crossing the rumbling bridge over the river emptying from Teslin Lake.

Up leisurely, RV park almost empty, early risers are headed north and are in a hurry to get there. We're headed south, taking our time, want to delay leaving as long as possible. There's a great Bald Eagle in the warm, morning sun, perched high atop a tall spruce. We see two types of swallows here - Cliff and Violet-green.

Sharon is reading a Tom Bodette book called "As Far As You Can Go Without a Passport. The View from the End of the Road." He used to live in Homer, Alaska, and that is the basis for the book's title. Homer is at the end of a five mile spit. Well actually Homer is mainly on the mainland, but also includes all of the spit. Tom tells us that the Homer locals call tourists 'pukers.' But they're not talking about me. OK? Not any more. I like their nickname for tourists anyway. You know, "Sold a reindeer hide to a puker yesterday." "I was talking with an Ohio puker the other day." Like that.

We get off, top off our gas tank, and make our own rumbling bridge crossing. We finally learn the name of the beautiful pink/purple flowers we have seen all over Alaska and the Yukon. Fireweed. We expected them to be red or yellow, but the name is based on the fact that these are the first flowers to come back after a fire. They are absolutely gorgeous in the bright, northern summer sun.

We are checking for Spruce Grouse on the edges of the spruce forests continuously. Or I am anyway. Sharon's resumed her counted cross-stitch. Suddenly I see a familiar long-winged, sharp-pointed-winged dark bird, flapping his wings awkwardly overhead. I verify no traffic, pull to a stop, and jump out with the binoculars, but can't refind him. Sharon saw him too. I immediately recognized it as a COMMON NIGHTHAWK, as did Sharon, and it's a trip bird. There are bugs everywhere, so he must be doing well.

We come to the Cassiar Highway junction and the hair on the back of my neck curls. Terrible memories of that awful road come up. I break out in hives, and start sweating, start throwing up. Naw. We just take a couple of photos of the junction and head on down the Alaska Highway. But I hate that road [Now I believe the problem is the combination of the rough road, and a pickup truck's suspension. Other motor-driven RVs, automobiles, vans, etc. didn't complain about the road nearly as much as we have. And they didn't drive as slowly as we did].

We arrive at Watson Lake a little before 1:00pm. We see the famous Sign Post Forest. On August 15, 1997, it had about 37,000 signs. That was 5,500 more than the same date in 1996. Great photo material. Everybody looks for their home town. We find a San Jose street sign called San Jose Ave. I used to have my Fiat repaired at a shop on that street.

We go into the visitor center, and get instructions for finding Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (everybody hates them here because they slowly kill the birch trees) and Spruce Grouse (yeah, right). We relay New York Bob's Watson Lake instructions, but there's no Thompson Drive, and there's no Partridge Street. We decide he must have mixed up two towns. We thank "Button," as her name-tag says, and head out for Gateway To The Yukon RV Park, a few kilometers east of town.

We check in, find a good spot at the edge of a forest and set up. After lunch, a little reading and a nap, we set off.

First we try a Wye Lake Park trail. It is quiet, and we come back out after only fifteen minutes on the trail. Then we drive up the Campbell Highway, to Watson Lake and up a road leading to a ski trail. We drive up the ski trail road, it turns left, straightens, turns right, and stops at a barrier.

"Woodpecker flying over the truck," Sharon immediately says. We both get out and look at a dark-backed, basically black-and-white bird, with no other colors showing. I get binoculars on it. "Three-toed," I yell, but I'm just hoping. Then it disappears. While we're looking for it, we're aware of a continuous, "Mew, mew, mew, mew." Nonstop. We scan up and down the four or five trees it had to be coming from. We have to decide whether to follow the woodpecker or isolate the 'mew' bird.

We stay with the sound.

As we're scanning up and down, the woodpecker not only comes back, but lands woodpecker-style on one of the trees we were scouring, and begins feeding bugs to the young (that's who was making that call we heard) in the nest hole we missed. We see enough of the colors now to make some headway.

We eliminate the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The back is wrong. We eliminate Black-back. The back is the wrong color. Then we eliminate Three-toed. The head markings are wrong. It leaves only the female YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER*. But we can't see the red on the top of the head, or the yellow on the chest. I finally get a hint of the yellow on the upper chest, as the female adult leaves and returns several times.

While we're checking out the sapsucker nest, a woman comes up the road, walking three Keeshounds (KEESH-hounds). Two of them are free, but a darker-haired one is on a leash. "I bring them to ward of the - you know what," the exerciser says. "Good partners," I yell after her. We continue on the sapsucker.

After a bit, the lady comes back and starts talking about the birds she has seen around here. She lives just across the Campbell Highway, on Watson Lake itself. "Have you seen any Spruce Grouse around here?" I ask. "Just down the road, where it ends the straight run, and bends to the right. The dogs root one out every time we go past. She must have chicks in there." "Did you see it on your way up, just a few minutes ago?" I ask, feeling like I'm in a movie. "Yes," she said, again describing where they were. "Can we walk down with you?" we ask. "Sure, come on," she said. Judith is her name. We walk down to the area and she describes the scene perhaps a half-hour ago, at this very spot. "The dogs spooked the bird, and she flew up into that tree, right there," she said.

We all poke around, including the dogs. No birds. She describes where she lives, and says come on over when we get done. We wade in and out, but no grouse. I decide we need to do something different. "You stay here and I'll walk back up [about an eighth of a mile or so] and get the truck. If you see the grouse, just follow her and I'll find you." "OK."

About a hundred yards up the road, I hear and see a couple of grouse-partridge-quail-shape and size birds flutter through the brush, away from me. I'm lucky enough to watch one land, then fly further, but I see another one land in a brushy tree. It's a baby something. I put my binoculars on it, and I know I'm onto something. Maybe THE something.

For years, near our home in San Jose, there was a dime store called Sprouse-Reitz. Sharon said REETZ. I said RITZ. In southern California, we once visited Howard Hughes' giant wooden airplane, called the Spruce Goose. Over the last month, we have pronounced our frustrating target bird sprouse goose, spruce goose, sprouse grouse, but this time I quietly yell down to Sharon, "Spruce Grouse," and motion her up. I have to bounce the name around in my head a couple of times to verify I said it right.

I'm not a hundred percent sure it is. But I'm at least fifty. Might as well give Sharon a little thrill while she's coming up here, and who knows, maybe it is. She gets up to me, and I point her to the chick, camouflaged in the bushy tree. "Are we going to claim THAT as our Spruce Grouse?" Sharon says the words we're both thinking. "We're not done yet," I say, hopefully, as I start to wade in, and almost step on the mama grouse. She doesn't go far, and I point her out to Sharon. Before Sharon can see her very well, she goes deeper into the brush.

I walk around and slowly work her back toward Sharon, but not before she stops in the bright late afternoon sunshine long enough for me to get a look at her belly, and I now know it's a Sprouse Groose. It heads back up to Sharon, and stops in the sun for her. She picks out her key identifying characteristics, and they are slightly different keys than mine. But it's a ... "SPRUCE GROUSE*," she whispers down to me. All this time, the chick has stayed on its perch.

Then, knowing we have just achieved what we wanted to achieve only two or three days before we are to exit their range, we hang around and enjoy them. The mom and the chick. We figure the chicks just recently fledged, and so mom was basically following them around. Like the Chipping Sparrow. And like the Smith's Longspur.

We are hot and tired, and oh so satisfied. We drive over to Judith's and meet her husband Jim. Michie. They have an absolutely beautiful manicured lawn and fenced garden, right on the shore of Watson Lake. He has made several rows of apartments for the tree swallows, and they seem to be all occupied. As I look around, every corner, every nook, every piece of the property is immaculate. We talk about birds, and they show us how the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are killing their wonderful birch trees. As Homer Simpson would say, "Dohp!" Then a sapsucker flies to one of his trees and we get another good look, this time at the male.

They describe a red and black bird that comes through in migration, we show them a photo, and they identify the Red-winged Blackbird.

Judith has an email address and I get it, promising to send her our next trip report. Jim is an electrical lineman, and is The Man when storms and the like down power lines. At the entrance to their property is a massive piece of jade about six or seven feet tall. The front side is smooth, and has "J. Michie" on it. The 'J' stands for them both at the same time. Pretty neat, ay?

They bought the property from the fellow on the land adjacent to them. He convinced Jim to buy the property, not the other way around. He had noticed what a neat home and lawn Jim and Judith kept in town, and I guess he had visions of such a nice setup next to him. Good choice.

We say goodbye and head back to camp, two happy campers. Sharon had fixed us reindeer sausage, eggs and toast for a very late lunch, and neither of us wants dinner, so we just snack a little, and read some more, enjoying the edge of the woods. And the memories of that little grouse.

Day's Best Birds: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker* feeding young, Spruce Grouse* mom with chicks

Life Birds: 2 today (sapsucker, grouse), 55 total.

Trip Birds: 3 today (lifers plus Common Nighthawk), 176 total.

-----

Hope things are well with all of you.

Way Up North, Sharon & Bob


Previous Report
Next Report
Alaska Weekly Report List
Back to Birding Trips
Home