Alaska '98 Trip. Week 7. The Yukon Territory to Jasper, Alberta, Canada

Hi All! Haven't been to an email hookup in a while. Our trip has added 55 new life birds, never seen or heard by us before. When added to the 444 we had at the beginning of the trip, we know that our next bird will be #500. Step right up.

Week 7 Day 1. Friday July 3, 1998. 43rd day. Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, to Liard River Hot Springs, BC.

We are warned of chopped up roads between here and Ft. Nelson. After the Cassiar, though, we're not afraid of much. We head out, planning to stop at Liard (lee-ARD) River Hot Springs Provincial Park, then head on to spend the night at Muncho Lake. My plan for months.

We're in that neat section of the Alaska Highway that crosses back and forth between BC and the Yukon about five times. We pass through Contact Creek, where two army (engineer) groups met head on in the early '40s, completing the Alaska Highway, first edition. There were no casualties, except maybe during the celebration.

It's pretty hot now, and we're running the AC on medium most of the time. I see a little restaurant with a soft, vanilla ice cream cone sign in front. We pull in. We're in Fireside, where one of the worst fires in Canadian history destroyed most of the town some years ago. We can still see stands of dead, blackened trees, but most of the undergrowth is back. I'm curious about whether Fireside was the name of the town before the fire, but forget to ask.

We go inside, and find a competent-looking lady behind the counter. "Is your soft ice cream machine working?" I ask. "Why wouldn't it be?" she shoots right back. I laugh at that, "Well, the machine wasn't working in the last place we stopped." She says, "Well, you have to consider the shop, you have to look at the store." Meaning, I guess, that she runs a tight ship here, and for me not to worry about it. "Great," I say, "I'll have a $2.00 vanilla cone." "We only have raspberry ," she snaps.

So we're driving down the road with our raspberry ice cream, and we come to a construction flaglady. Very friendly. She says, "Just around the corner is a backhoe. Further down is more heavy equipment. Stay to the right of that, go slow. The road's in pretty good shape. You should be ok."

"Thanks," we say, and slowly take off. As we come around the corner, we see the big old backhoe, on the left side of the newly smoothed gravel and dirt road. The front window is swung open, there are a pair of boots crossed and sticking out the window, and then we see a happy-looking fellow sound asleep. We figure he's substituting a snooze for lunch.

We've been noticing for a day or so that the roadside fireweed has been replace by small yellow flowers. More signs that we've moved south. We come up to Liard River Hot Springs and pull into the parking lot.

Sharon's friends Colleen Hinkle and husband Bill periodically take months-long RV trips and they raved to us about this place. Bill loves the water, and this was one of his favorite places. Neither of us are water buffs, it's hot today and the idea of soaking in hot water isn't very appealing, plus I have us scheduled to stay in Ft. Nelson tonight, further on down the line.

"We'll just walk up and look at it, stick our toes in, and head back out," we tell ourselves. And of course, we'll take our birding gear. Sharon makes a pit stop in the trailer bathroom before we set off. It'll be only a 10-15 minute walk to the lower soak, and another five or so to the upper. I see some movement while I'm waiting, and quickly zero in on a flying green and yellow bird, who lands in a dead tree. Then moves to a second dead tree, then a leafy bush about ten feet away. Sharon comes out, and I'm looking for the bird with my binoculars. "We might get our Tennessee Warbler here," she says. "I may already have him," I say coolly, pointing out the target bush. Just then the bird pops up, sits right on top of the bush, in the sun, for about thirty seconds. We see the white spectacles, blue-gray head, yellow chest, white belly and know that it's a BLUE-HEADED VIREO*. The three subspecies of the former Solitary Vireo have been officially split into three species. One is west coast, one is southwest, and this one is eastern (and far north). Those aren't their names, just their ranges. We already have the first two, and the third is perched on the bush in front of us. "That's it for now," he says and flies off.

Bird No. 500 is the handsome Blue-headed Vireo. The birdometer rolls over, we raise our sights to 600.

We laugh as we head up the boardwalk built over the wetland, up to the lower soak. "Another parking lot bird," Sharon says. Her theory is that 90% of our birds could be seen from parking lots. We decide to review our 500 birds and see how many we got in parking lots. But not today. Our bird-finding, bird-identifying sensors are warmed up and we're scanning for targets.

We hear a rich, sharp song and soon see the gorgeous black-and-white-and-yellow MAGNOLIA WARBLER, a trip bird.

We arrive at the lower, or so-called Alpha Pool, and head right straight on to the upper, or Beta Pool. There are birds and songs from all sides up here, and we take a bench and start birding. There aren't very many people here, whereas there are lots at the lower pool, where the surrounding wooden decks are a little better maintained.

Sharon is on a small olive-green bird, which takes off too soon, but then she's onto the same bird I'm on. We watch a female (ideal drab, camouflage colors) Rose-breasted Grosbeak fly into the top of a tree for a moment, then move on. Neither of us knows what it is. Then Sharon gets onto another bird, I resume listening and scanning. "Oh Bob, I've got a black bird with a white belly and red on his chest. I think it's a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak." She says this about 110 kph (70 mph). She can't see his face, and I can't find any of him. She describes where to find him, but I can't lock on. He flies. I pick him up immediately.

I see clearly a black bird with fantastic white markings fly out of the top of a tree and to our left, high overhead. "I've never seen those markings before. Do you think a Rose-breasted Grosbeak looks like that from below?" I ask myself, as I quickly look him up in the NGS. If I change the pink-red breast in the book to black, I've got my flier exactly. And an overhead sun could very likely do that.

ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK*. What a place. I start thinking, "We better be leaving. Muncho Lake will have these birds too." Then... "but we've got them here, now. A bird in the tree is worth two in Muncho Lake. And there are other reasons too. Bears are common at Muncho, and late birding will be a little spooky. But here, with all these people and the boardwalk, we can bird as late as we want to. And feel safe." We decide we want to stay, but The Milepost said that this campground fills up most mornings, and it's about 3:00pm now. Our priority changes instantly. I've got to get back down and get a camp site - if there is one. I explain my reasoning to Sharon, and she's down for it (expression by George Kostanza, from Seinfield).

I say I'll hurry down, put my stuff away, back the trailer out, and pick her up at the trailhead. "OK," she says. But first...

We hear this ka-CHEK call, and Sharon being Sharon, finds him. "Bring the scope," she says, jeopardizing our new plan. But hey, what am I gonna do? It might be a new bird. I give her the scope, she locates the bird, and together we diagnose a LEAST FLYCATCHER, a trip bird. Now I'm off again, hoping she won't call me again. And hoping she will.

I pick up the rig, pick up Sharon, and we pick up a site. It turns out that the campground is only about 40% full, and we get a good site, already in shade, with more evening shade to come. It's hot. We set up. Sharon is inside fixing lunch when I see a black-and-white bird, possibly a Blackpoll Warbler, but he's gone before I can identify him, let alone call Sharon. We have seen this fellow, but in Carmel, California in the winter. He will be entirely different up here.

So we're eating lunch, and I see an orange bird land across the park road, about fifteen feet up, in a large tree. "Orange bird, across the street, in a big tree," I yell. "Where?" asks Sharon as she looks at me, traces my sight line, then immediately finds the Western Tanager. Not a trip bird, but a nice look. And a reminder of how colors 'average' in the right conditions. When I was growing up, I used to occasionally see motorcycle rear lights that appeared purple from a distance. When they got close, you could see that there was one red light and one blue one - from a distance, purple. The western tanager has a yellow body and a red head, and from a distance they merged to orange for me.

Earlier we had heard a small bird with a black-and-white striped head singing a sharp, clear song from high atop a nearby paper birch, I think it was. But when we got the scope on him, he took off as I was zooming in. Now, we hear him again and get him again. This time, I notice a clear gray belly, and white throat, in addition to the black-and-white crown. And in addition to the song, which is far different from the White-crowned Sparrow (the bird we thought it was at first).

We look through our field guides and diagnose a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW. We had claimed one in Door County, Wisconsin, a couple of Octobers ago, in with a flock of white-crowned sparrows. But I've always wondered if we jumped the gun. This, then, is a great upgrade and a trip bird. The English characterization of his song is "pure, sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada [NGS Field Guide]," with each note clean and beautiful. Actually there is a very rapid one-octave slurr up to the first 'Canada.' I had heard previous descriptions of his tune as "the wonderful song of the White-throated Sparrow," but I could only wonder. Now I can remember.

After a nap, we decide to go up to the Beta Pool again. It's about 7:00pm. Our rig is incredibly dirty, but in a sort of interesting way. The bottom half of the truck and trailer look and feel as though they were sprayed with a thin layer of concrete. Very light gray. It looks like it's dust, but you can't just wipe it off with your finger without pressing really hard. I'm so proud.

We drive up to the parking lot again, and Sharon hears a Varied Thrush. We walk up past the Alpha Pool, to the Beta Pool. A noisy flock of White-Winged Crossbills zooms over, but soon the sun goes behind a cloud, and it becomes dark and quiet. After seeing no birds for a while, we head back down to the Alpha pool.

We slowly catch up to a one-legged man with crutches, and his wife. The man sees Sharon's twisty New Zealand walking stick. He comments on it, his wife turns around to see. "I'd never buy Walter an expensive cane. He has a wooden leg, and when he's working around the farm, he puts his cane down and then can't find it." Then Walter says, "Have you seen those diamond willow walking sticks they have for sale?" he asks. "They are all polished up, but they want an arm and a leg for one, and I can't afford it."

I get the notion it's not the first time he's used that one, but it's a good one, ay? He earned the joke, 100%.

We brought our soaking gear, so we go into the changing rooms and dress for the hot springs. Sharon loves real hot water, I'm more of a comfortably warm person. I take some shots of Sharon before I finally get in. One will show Sharon's back, white above a horizontal line high on her back, lobster red below.

The water comes out of the ground at 123 degrees F all the way to the right of the pool. It travels from right to left, spills over a small one-foot drop about 60% of the way, and slowly cools off during the rest of its travel. About 80% of the people are all the way to the left. Sharon is at about the 70%-to-the-right mark, it's very hot. And she's slowly working her way further to the right, a little at a time. I finally get in. As a heat transfer person would understand, there is about a ten-inch layer of extremely hot water on top of the pool, and it's comfortably warm below that. Put simply, hot water rises, cold water sinks.

A fellow named Pete has been in the pool alone about 90% of the way to the right. For the last ten minutes, he's been splashing water like crazy with both hands. I thought he was just showing off, you know, that he could stand hot water. But as he explained to Sharon later, if you do that, you cool the water off around you significantly. Mixing the hot and cooler water. So he wasn't showing off, he was just smart.

As the air gets cooler during the evening, the hot water feels better and better. We finally hit max wrinkle and get out, change, and head back to the pickup, then drive back to our site.

Sharon barbecues cheeseburgers, we eat in the trailer to stay away from the bugs. Then clean up and read our books. About 11:50pm we hear "tic tic tic tic tic tic tic," then Sharon hears a soft "who who who" tacked on to the end. I don't hear the who. Maybe Horton does. I was almost asleep for the "tic tic tic." It woke me up though. We know it's an owl, but don't know which. Then we don't hear it any more.

Sharon gets up and goes into the bathroom. I get up, get out the CD player, put the owl CD in. When I get to the Barred Owl, I hear his neat little "who cooks -- for you?", with a pause between 'cooks' and 'for.' Like the rooster's cock -- a-doodle-doo, where there's a pause between 'cock' and 'a.'

Sharon comes out of the bathroom, and I stop her. "Listen to this," I say. I play her the Barred Owl. She listens, and then I tell her the "who cooks -- for you" characterization of his call. She gets a kick out of it too. I put the CD stuff away and climb back into bed. We can hear the night bird sounds out the open (but screened) vent above the bed. I'm almost asleep again, when...

"WHO-COOKS--FOR YOU? WHO-COOKS--FOR YOU?"

We crack up, can't believe it. We just read his bio, and now it's a life bird for us. BARRED OWL*. He hangs in there with us for five minutes or so, then is gone.

"Sharon does. Sharon does." I answer the owl as I drift off.

Day's Best Birds: Blue-headed Vireo*, Rose-breasted Grosbeak*, White-throated Sparrow, Barred Owl*.

Upgrades: 1 today (White-throated Sparrow), 5 total.

Life Birds: 3 today (vireo, grosbeak, owl), 58 total.

Trip Birds: 5 today (lifebirds + sparrow, Magnolia Warbler), 182 total.

Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, Rating: A+, even though no hookups. Do you think that the rating is higher when we get a lifer or two? Not exactly an independent evaluation.

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Week 7 Day 2. Saturday July 4, 1998. 44th day out. Independence Day. Liard River Hot Springs, BC to Fort Nelson, BC

The Fourth-of-July. The only holiday whose name has become a number. Nobody ever says Happy 31st-of-December, Happy 1st-of-January.

We're not in a hurry to leave, wake up at 9am, and Sharon makes reindeer sausage and pancakes. We finally leave about ten. Out on the road, there are seven rigs parked in the overflow lot across the highway. People sleep there, then wait for early morning exits from the main park, move in and take their places for the next night.

There's a nice suspension bridge over the Liard River, similar to the Golden Gate Bridge design. 'Liard' means poplar, or black poplar, in French.

We stop to check out a mineral lick, attracting caribou, stone sheep and moose. Stone Sheep are like Rocky Mountain Sheep, only a little smaller and browner. It's about a fifteen minute walk down a fairly steep trail. When we arrive, there is already a southwestern Missourian leaning against the railing. We trade hi's, and we start looking. "Did you see anything?" I ask. Nope, he says. He's hoping for caribou, but hasn't seen anything. "We don't have 'em in our country," he says. That's when I learn that he's from Missouri. He was born in northeast Missouri, not far from where Mom was born, in Donnellson, Iowa. I scan everywhere my-style and don't see anything. I move out of the good spot and Sharon moves in. About a minute later... "I got one," she says. It's a female Stone Sheep [she can tell because of the smaller horns]. Then... "I got another one." A baby, hopping around on the steep mineral slope like a champ. If you're looking for animals, take Sharon.

We also see a nice female White-Winged Crossbill and a few juncos. After climbing back up the trail to the parking lot, we head out. Next point of interest: Muncho Lake, our original destination for last night. I'm picturing a tiny turquoise-blue lake high up near a mountain pass. With a bear for every campsite.

We are so lucky we have not sustained windshield or headlight damage. Well, a couple of microscopic gravel gouges in the windshield, but nothing major. My subconscious is beginning to think about our possible trip up the Liard Highway to the Northwest Territories. All kinds of stories about that road.

We come to an enormous, gorgeous, turquoise-green lake. It's a recreational lake, with lots of boats, docks, fisherman - even seaplanes. I shoot a video of one of the float planes taking off. As we continue around the lake, we notice there are two- or three-deep logs floating in the water, chained together and to the log-set on either side. They form a boat/plane-wave absorbing network, that prevents the wakes from undermining the roadbeds carved out of the side of the mountains.

We come around a corner, and a dozen Stone Sheep are herded off the road by a big male. We enjoy them for a second or two, till they disappear. I stop at "Sav-On" Gas and buy the single most expensive tank of the trip. Except Nome. About $1.84/gallon. I think what it would have cost at the 1991 $1.15 exchange rate vs. the current $1.44. Shudder.

Sharon reads that there are two morphs of the White-throated Sparrow - one tan, one white. That's remarkable enough, but wait. If you order now... Oh, sorry, lost my train of thought. What I meant was... but wait, a mating pair is usually made up of one of each morph! Pretty cool.

A little later, I have to stop and pick a huge dragonfly from one of the wipers, because it's driving Sharon crazy [he's not dead and is moving around in the 55mph wind, offers Sharon]. I gently toss him into the air, beside the pickup. He does the flight of the pebble-on-the-end-of-a-table-that-you-flip-off-with-your-finger, but out of Sharon's sight. To his credit, he WAS moving his wings. A little. "Did he fly?" she asks, pensively. "Sort of," I say.

Back on the highway. I'm driving down a slow descent and I see a horse eating grass just to the left of the road, some distance ahead. Sharon sees it too. "Horse," I say. "That looks like a bear," Sharon says. A little closer now. "It's a horse," I say. "It's just one of those stubby ones..." We whiz past a medium-size black bear munching grass, totally unconcerned about the traffic. "... one of those stubby horse-bears," I bite off the end of my sentence.

Sharon suddenly looks like she's seen a ghost. "What?" I ask. "I think I just saw the tail end of a mountain lion, walking into the woods back there." She goes on to describe all she saw. WHACK, goes a rock as it smacks our windshield, gouging out a little crater. And leaving an oddly attractive three-quarter-parts-of-a-circle arc around it, about a half-inch radius away. "I don't know what else it could have been (the mountain lion)." I've learned that it's almost impossible to interrupt Sharon's train of thought when she's onto something big like this.

A few minutes later, we are on pavement. The last of the serious gravel roads is done. WE MADE IT. I am so glad to get off of that last gravel road, where the gravel was strewn with more than a few one-inch rocks. KKRRRAASHH, goes a 10-pound brick (musta been) as it hits the windshield at the far upper left corner. It has so much power, that it breaks loose dust, which drops down onto my legs (I'm wearing shorts). Sharon says maybe it's glass.

As we approach Fort Nelson, Sharon reads that logging is the big industry here, with a sawmill and a plant that makes six million sets of chopsticks a day for export to Asian countries. Another big industry has to be windshield replacement.

We see a herd of fenced buffaloes, including several calves. Sharon changes her mountain lion story to make it a buffalo calf. Then we come to "Resourcefull Fort Nelson."

We check into Westend RV Park, secure our site number, then get in line for the free do-it-yourself car wash. As I'm cleaning up the floor mats, I sweep out more than a few glass shards (it WAS glass I felt on my legs). I inspect the outside of the windshield and see where the 'brick' hit. It was just above the visible portion - in that far outer part of the windshield that they glue to the pickup windshield frame. I'm wondering where we'd be now if that had hit in the middle of the windshield.

We're first in line after the current folks finish their pickup and trailer rig. We finally get in and rub and scrub. The stuff actually comes off. By this time, there's four rigs waiting for us. We finish, move to our site, and set up for two nights. Ah, love the two-night stay.

There are trees all around, and it's a very pleasant site. Sharon does a laundry. When we checked in, the girl told us there was a place in town with a phone line we could hook up to for email. I go back and get specific directions, travel to a hot pink trailer with two girls wearing telephone headsets. It's called City Answering Service. It's only a couple of blocks away, as is most everything in Fort Nelson. They are very friendly ("Oh, there's no charge"), tell me to disconnect the phone line to the fax, and connect it to my modem. Straightforward, in and out. Thanks girls. I ask them about the Liard Highway, between the Alaska Highway and Northwest Territory, about 85 miles one way. "We had a fella turn over on that road, just last week," one of them said. "And he was a professional driver." "So you'd recommend re-thinking our trip?" I ask. "I'd reconSIDer it, she says, accenting the 'sid'." Then the second girl said, "It's a hard, hard road. Lots of logging trucks keep it full of potholes and ruts." Thanks a lot. Dangit. Now what are we gonna do?

Sharon had located a meeting in town, and I drive her to its location, at the town hospital, on a ridge behind the town. I just putter around town, checking it out, till it's time to pick up Sharon. We stop at Nothern Lights Deli (there's a Northern Lights something-or-other in every town we've been through in the last week), and order sandwiches for dinner. We get home, and enjoy our light dinner.

OK, it's Showtime. What about the Northwest Territories? Should we go? Or not? I guess the thing that bothers me the most, after road condition, is that there are no settlements during the entire trip. Not even at the turnaround point.

We had been trying to decide about this little side trip for some time. I told Sharon what the City Answering Service girls said. She had some words from the group she met with also. We decide to try it tonight for a few miles, since it begins only 17 miles west of town. We think we understand bad roads now, so we're curious about HOW bad and WHAT KIND OF bad this would be. If it was terrible, we'd skip it, but if this first section was at all do-able, we'd would go for it. We toss some bird stuff into the truck and take off down the road, 17 miles, then turn north on our scouting trip. It's getting dark.

After a half-mile on the road, I know it will work. We will leave the trailer, and just do an up-and-back with the pickup. I drive in about five miles to make sure. Definitely ok. We drive back and hit the rack about 11:30. I can't go to sleep thinking about the big run tomorrow. Are we taking too big a risk with our truck?

Best Animals of the Day: Stone Sheep, Black Bear, Mountain-Lion-no-Buffalo calf.

Best Bird: Common Loon (seen at Muncho Lake, but not worth a mention in the text)

No trip birds today.

Westend RV Park in Fort Nelson, BC. Rating: B. Full hookups + cable TV. Wooded environment, very pleasant. Kind of crowded, but nice.

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Week 7 Day 3. Sunday July 5, 1998. 45th day out. Day trip from Ft. Nelson to Northwest Territories (NWT) via the Liard Highway. Going for the NWT Sticker on our Trailer Map.

We're on the road at 4:07am, having punched the alarm at 3:30. The sun's not up yet, so we're going to see a nice sunrise. It feels like 6:30, there's so much light.

Fort Nelson is on a very high point, from which you can look around and see all the surrounding countryside. Sharon reads that the crown (the cool word they use for 'government' up here) is trying to increase the amount of farming. We see evidence of that, large forests have been recently cleared all around. Seventeen miles west of Fort Nelson, we take a right on the Liard Highway. Also known as the Liard Trail. Also the Moose Highway.

Our plan is to get up to Northwest Territories and back as early as possible on this Sunday morning. I'm hoping the loggers have the day off. It's the big logging trucks that cut the road up so badly, but we find that about 15 miles in, the last logging road connects with the Liard. After that, the road becomes quite a bit nicer. And much less dusty.

"What is the capital of Northwest Territories?" you ask. Yellowknife. Great name. We interrupt this trivial pursuit game to see four waxwings of unknown type. We see a Kestrel and hear a Gold-Crowned Sparrow. We are hoping for an early morning owl, get a Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk.

We cross the Fort Nelson Acro Bridge, a special type of bridge known for its rapid construction, and use of pins to hold the sections together. Its roadway is constructed from side by side beams laid lengthwise, that is, they are laid down in the direction of travel, rather than crossways.

We stop about halfway to the NWT in an excellent birding spot. Right in the middle of the 'highway.' We hear a RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH and see a female DOWNY WOODPECKER. The nuthatch has that wonderful Christmas toy tin horn sound. Conk, conk, conk, conk, conk. Sharon can do it perfectly. Some unidentified vireos - probably Warbling or Red-eyed, but too high up in the trees to ID in the time we want to spend here. We see a family or two of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, then a Snipe-bearing tree and a Yellow-shafted Flicker. A Bufflehead on a log in a pond. Then an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER. Cliff Swallows are active under every bridge.

Near the end of the northward journey, we see a large bird in the road, perhaps 50 yards ahead, and it is stopped. Looking at us. Not knowing what to do. We creep closer with the pickup. It's a great look at a Ruffed Grouse. Twice it ruffs up its black neck feathers for us, and begins to fan open its tail, but never comes up to full power. We believe it's a female. This a nice upgrade to the Ruffed Grouse we heard in Stewart, BC, earlier in the trip. Sharon takes some great video. Which we later watch, to oohs and ahs.

We continue on, down an 11% grade, cross the Petitot River, pronunciation unknown. I guess PET-eh-toe. It is a wide, slow-flowing, clear river. Very relaxing just to sit and watch. We don't.

And finally we come to the objective of our day trip - the border with the Northwest Territories. We document our presence with a couple of pictures, and start birding.

We want to get a new bird in the NWT. The first bird we see is a Chipping Sparrow - not a trip bird. But then we break down the characteristics of a vireo we're seeing, it's a WARBLING VIREO. Icing on the cake. We start to turn around and head for home. But a guy we met at the Liard River Hot Springs told us that we should go about twenty miles further, to Ft. Liard. And Sharon would like to try for it.

In addition, we have been told that NWT maintains their portion of the Liard Highway much better than does BC. So we continue on a little, then reaffirm the statement, "don't believe everything you hear." We turn around and head back.

Lunch is at 10:00am, since we got up at 3:30. Then we're off again. I get sleepy, Sharon takes over and I have a bouncy nap. As soon as I wake up, I want to take the wheel. But Sharon is doing fine and possession is nine points of the law. I nag her until she lets me back at the wheel. Control, control.

Back over the funny bridge, back into logging truck territory, I am curious as to whether logging trucks operate on Sunday. They do. We meet several coming towards us, all empty. One finally catches up to us from behind, I pull over and let him pass. He dusts us pretty good.

We hit the Alaska Highway, turn off of the dirt, onto the pavement. Ah, highway heaven. We roll smoothly back to camp. Then we celebrate the trip by fixing the Northwest Territories sticker onto our map on the trailer. No bands, no fireworks, no hoo-hooters or wum-pugglers. Now I look at the NWT sticker on our map and feel proud as a new papa.

While Sharon has a nap, I pick up groceries and top off the gas tank. Then we watch George Paige narrate a Jaguar Nature program. Don't you just love George Paige? Or is it Page?

I drift off to sleep, smiling as I think about our big accomplishment of the day. And our sticker. Even though it doesn't fit its map outline spot very well.

Day's Best Bird: Ruffed Grouse

Upgrades: 1 today (grouse), 6 total for the trip.

No life birds today.

Trip Birds: 4 today (Red-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo), 186 total.

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Week 7 Day 4. Monday July 6, 1998. 46th day out. Fort Nelson, BC to Fort St. John, BC.

We are on the road just a little after 8:00am. We try the RV Park office, not open. We try the post office, not open. Trying to buy stamps. By the way, it's 52 cents Canadian to mail a post card to the U.S., vs. twenty cents within our country. It's a gorgeous day, and we're off.

Watch a mom and little moose cross the road a half-mile in front of us. They are both running, all the way. We are seeing fewer poplars and birch, more evergreens.

At Buckinghorse River Provincial Park, we see a couple of roadside blackbirds, the first in many weeks. We continue on till we get to the town of Sikanni [seh-KAHN-ee] Chief. This is also the name of the river running through it. The fellow we've come to call New York Bob tipped us off to a warbler we've never seen, at this location.

We pull in, find an out-of-the-way parking spot, grab our birding gear, and head out. There used to be a wooden bridge built on four metal trestles over the river here, but in 1992, someone set fire and burned the whole thing. It was the last wooden bridge on the Alaska Highway. The new bridge is a very good one, though, probably much better than the old one.

We cross the park, take a trail along the river, till we come to the trestles. Following NY Bob's instructions, we walk up a steep embankment, onto the old roadbed, which is overgrown. You can't tell there was a road here, in fact. We immediately see an adult bird feeding two or three young, who follow her everywhere. It doesn't take us long to identify them. TENNESSEE WARBLER*.

Gray and olive on the back, whitish underparts. Very handsome. The name for this bird is unusual, because it nests only in Canada (well, ok, far northern Maine and far northern Wisconsin, I think), and winters in the tropics.

It was named by an ornithologist named Alexander Wilson (Wilson's Warbler named for him?) in the 1800s, who first saw it in Tennessee, as it was migrating through. Stopped a day or two for R&R.

We also see a Chipping Sparrow feeding young fledglings.

Then back on the road. We share a bag of cheesy popcorn, a giant cookie and I finish a previously opened Dr. Pepper (we don't always eat like this). I like soft drinks in the can better after they've been opened a little while (allowed to breathe, maybe). It releases some gases and becomes slightly 'flat.' Love the flat. Usually I open a can, drink half of it fresh, store the second half, then enjoy its desired flat taste half-a-day later. Sharon's sister Jeane takes it one step further. When she knows she's going to have a soft drink, she'll pop it open and stick it in the fridge an hour or so beforehand. I admire her planning skills.

We're approaching a group of establishments, most of whom have the miles-from-Dawson Creek (Alaska Highway Mile 0) as part of their names. For example, we're approaching 102 Husky. That's a Husky gasoline station, 102 miles from Dawson Creek. And a town even changed its name from Blueberry to Wonowon (get it?). When I first saw that, I thought it was an Indian name.

We breeze through the tiny settlement 101 miles from Dawson Creek, completely oblivious to the impending glitch in our vacation.

Five miles south of Wonowon, we're powering up a hill when we hear a 'pop.' Sharon immediately looks through the back window at the trailer, to see what came off. The audio tape has just turned around and we're waiting for the next side to start. I think it's something I inadvertently put on the tape when I recorded it, and tell Sharon, hoping it is. Then I get an uneasy feeling and glance at the four console gauges. They are located in a pattern like the four spots on a die (half of a pair of dice).

The upper left one (engine temp) and the two lower ones (oil pressure and battery voltage) are a little to the left of straight up when they are normal. The upper right one is the gas gauge and sits at a position proportional to the remaining fuel. Each indicator is a semi-circle with a black background. A white wheel with an orange mark rotates up from the left. Sort of like stepping onto a bathroom scales. Anyway, what I normally see is an orange pointer, white to the left, black to the right.

But the temperature gauge is one solid color. My mind is blown as I overload for a second. I can't remember if it's supposed to be all black or all white when things are safe (it might just be a blown fuse, I think, struggling for an explanation). It's all white now. Suddenly, I get it. The temperature is off the scale, high. I coast to the crest of the hill, but there aren't any safe places to pull over. But it's a matter of have-to. So I pull as far to the right as I can, off the pavement. I'm about four inches outside the white line at the edge of the pavement. If I pull six inches further to the right, we'll roll down a steep bank. As logging trucks sail past just six inches from us, the trailer rocks like crazy.

For a moment, my mind sees a logging truck smashing into us from the back, at 70 miles per hour. Then I stop having that thought. It's too scary.

I shut the engine off, pop the hood latch, jump out (after letting a big rig or two scream past), open the hood, and I can hear cooling liquid boiling. Uh oh. I immediately suspect a broken 'serpentine' belt. Chevy designs their trucks to have one belt drive everything - radiator fan, air conditioner, power steering and a few other things. I have brought a spare belt, and I think I've got this problem covered. Because as I get past the boiling sound, and peer into the engine compartment, I see a shredded serpentine belt. Whew, I think.

I locate the spare, get a couple of tools, and prepare to install it. After taking the old one off, I start snaking the new one on. Around this pulley, over that one, under that one, around tha -- what? There isn't any 'that' one. Then I see the broken-off power steering pump pulley lying at the bottom of the engine compartment. Double uh oh.

I tell Sharon the news. Broken serpentine belt, got a spare. Broken pulley, have to get towed to a mechanic, have him replace the pulley or the power steering pump if that's what's needed. But the big question is the engine. Did I drive it too long, hot? How long was it? Likely thirty seconds or less. But we were going up that hill...

We make a quick plan. I'll hitchhike back to Wonowon, call Triple A (Luckily, I upgraded from AAA to AAA Plus just before we left. Sometimes, you just do things right). Sharon will stay with the trailer. I'll have them send a tow truck. Tow us to wherever we need to go - probably Fort St. John, if not Dawson Creek. It's 52 miles to Fort St. John and another 50 or more to Dawson Creek. Straight AAA would not have been good enough to tow it far enough, for free. We'll have the tow truck pull us to an RV Park. We'll unhitch and Sharon can stay there. I'll stay with the pickup till we get it diagosed and I know the estimated time to fix, then I'll make my way back to the trailer.

I put out my thumb and the fifth car picks me up, a red four-door sedan. A couple of sisters. Not nuns. The regular kind. Thanks a million, I say. Shotgun says, "You don't have any warrants out, do you?" Not that I know of, I say, and laugh. She laughs back. "We have to ask these questions, you know. Do you think the trailer will be ok there?" says Driver. "Sure," I say, "my wife's staying with it." Then Shotgun says, "You don't have her tied up in there or anything, do you?" I'm thinking, if I get out now, I could probably get another ride pretty soon. But they both laugh and I relax. They take me the five miles back and let me off at an Esso station.

The owner says the nearest mechanic is in Fort St. John, about 55 miles away. O-K. I call the 800 number on the back of my AAA card, and BCAA (British Columbia Automobile Association) answers, from Vancouver. I tell her the situation, and that I'm so happy that we just upgraded to AAA Plus. "Triple A Plus, or Triple A RV?" she asks.

Uh oh. I think I know what that question means.

Triple A Plus, I say. She works out that they'll send a tow truck, but I'll have to pay for the tow of the trailer.

Just send him, I say. At the Esso station, or at your rig, she asks, for the tow truck to go to. The rig, I say. I hitchhike back with a grocery delivery big rig, and tell Sharon. It's now about 3:00pm, so I formulate plan B. I decide to wait till about 5:30, in the event that they don't show up. Then if nothing has happened, I'll hitchhike to the Esso station again, and find out what's going on. It's my experience that tow truck drivers are the busiest people in the world. I figure he's trying to work off a list with four or five entries. Then'll be our turn.

We settle down, feeling the trailer shake and sway from the passing vehicles. We read our novels, then take a nap. I can't believe I can sleep with this noise. And danger. Mom said when I was a baby, we lived very close to the railroad tracks. Really close. When she heard the train coming, she'd run in and hold her hands over my ears so the train wouldn't wake me up.

About 5:00pm, we have both awaken, Sharon convinces me that I should go back now. As I step out the door, the tow truck driver arrives.

We work out a deal. Towing the truck will be no charge because of the AAA Plus. He will charge me $50 Canadian to take the trailer to the nearest safe roadside rest stop. He knows of a nice paved one about twenty miles towards Fort St. John. I offer him $40 American, or about $56 Canadian. The deal is struck.

He does his job hooking us up, which includes disconnecting the drive shaft, since it's an automatic transmission.

Although he says it's illegal to tow a pickup AND a fifth wheel together, he will take the chance [We believe this is true only because he has the incorrect tow truck for a fifth wheel rig]. His name is Dale, and he's a good-natured, talkative guy, with a strong Canadian accent. He can't stop talking, but it's ok, because he has lots of great stories.

He takes us to a pull-through lane at a clean, paved rest stop after pulling the truck and the trailer at 110 km/hr (70 MPH) all-the-while smoking, talking on the phone, looking at his paperwork, etc. We unhook the trailer in the stand-alone mode. We transfer all our valuables, medicines, etc. to the pickup for safety and transport to town. We have decided to rent a car and stay in a motel in town for the night, then check with the mechanic tomorrow morning to formulate a plan of attack on the pickup.

Dale takes us to his "lock-up," a fence-enclosed area for storing cars, and unhooks our pickup. He lives in a large mobile home, set up inside the enclosure. He has two pit bulls for security. They almost knock us over with their tail-wagging. They love us.

After unhitching, he drives us to the Pioneer Hotel, the class of the city. But we're only going to rent a car, not stay here. Dale says goodbye and takes off. He has another vehicle or two to tow. He might see us when we bring our rental back to his lockup, to transfer our valuables from our pickup to our rental.

Inside the hotel, the Hertz doors are closed, but a note says to have the hotel desk clerk call the rental lady. We do and she says she'll be there in twenty minutes. Her name's Christina, and she's home having dinner, it being 7:30pm and all.

She shows up and rents us a Chevy Blazer for an automobile price - $60.99 Canadian per day. We do the paperwork, and she gives me the key. "The windshield is clear [about half of the vehicles here have a huge windshield crack, from all the gravel roads and rocks], but there's a ding just in front of the driver's door," she says. I hear the part about the windshield and the ding. Other that that, I am still in slight shock from the day's events, and I hear her tell where to find the vehicle, "Blah blah blah Chevrolet, blah blah blah just beside the white blah blah blah."

Sharon and I head out, and I see a white building with a row of rentals beside it. One is a shiny red vehicle. "Are we getting THAT?" Sharon asks. I see it, and it's a Ford, but just the other side of it, I see CHEVROLET on the rear. "No, it's that white one, just on the other side," I say. "I thought she said it was blue," Sharon says but I've already opened the driver's door with the key Christina gave us. This must be right. We get in. I'm staring at a humongous crack sweeping completely across the windshield. "I've gotta tell her about the crack," I say, jump out and head back for the hotel. "Wait, this is a Suburban," Sharon yells, but again, I've got one thing on my mind - stopping Christina before she leaves, so I keep going.

I catch her, and suddenly Sharon's words hit home. All three of us come together just outside the hotel door at the same time. We're all confused. How come the windshield's cracked? How come the key opened the door? What the heck's going on? Christina says, "I've heard that GM uses only a fixed number of ignition keys, and some keys open other car doors. Give me that key, I want to try it."

In the meantime, Sharon has found the Blue Chevy Blazer, by the white FENCE, not the white building. Clear windshield.

Christina locks and unlocks the Suburban door with the Blazer key. Shut up! But it won't start the Suburban. Sharon and I finally get into the right car, are tickled to death with this almost brand new vehicle, and wonder how the heck the six-inch deep "ding" got into the fender in front of the driver's door.

We go back to Dale's lockup, and he's there, with his live-in girlfriend and her two children. David is 10 and Jade is about 9, I'd say. They're both cute and love Dale. Today's David's birthday. We know that Dale bought him new roller blades. We play with the vicious pit bulls and then transfer all our valuables from the pickup to the Blazer. We say goodbye, knowing that Dale is going to tow our pickup to A-1 Brake [they do engine work too, in fact, all automobile mechanical work] tomorrow morning about 7:30am.

We go across the Alaska Highway and get a room in the McKenzie Inn. It's a nice place, and we're happy with the room. We see a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls out the window. We're hungry, it's 9:00pm, and the restaurant closes at 10:00pm, so we head down for dinner. I order a buffalo burger (do you detect the pattern? any time there's buffalo burger, I order it?) and Sharon orders the Greek special of the day (guess where the chef's from). The buffalo burger is the worst in the world, and I decline to eat it.

I good-naturedly tease our waiter, Lyle or Layal (we couldn't get his name exactly) about the lousy burger. He gives us free desserts, and knocks about half off the buffalo burger price. I give most of it back to him in tips. While he was waiting on us, anytime there was any communication between him and us, he would take one step back, make a small, quick bow, turn and head off. We don't know what that was all about.

We take great hotel showers and watch cable TV till we drop off, but I set the alarm first. I sleep ok, knowing we have several backup plans, depending on events.

Days Best Bird: Tennessee Warbler* adult feeding 3-4 fledglings.

Life bird: 1 today (warbler), 59 total

Trip bird: 1 today (warbler), 187 total

-----

Week 7 Day 5. Tuesday July 7, 1998. 47th Day Out. Truck Repair.

Alarm off 730am. I leave Sharon and drive to A-1 Brake a little before 8:00am. I meet Maurice Cote, with an accent over the 'e' in 'Cote.' I'm Bob, I say. Call me 'Mo,' he says. He gives me his card. "ko-TAY?" I ask and he nods. His first assessment is that the engine is ok. Great news if it's true. He will have a mechanic hook up the driveshaft, drive it into the shop and check out the power steering pump. If it needs replacement, it's $431 from Chevy, less if Napa or somebody else has the unit. $60 or so for the pulley. $55 an hour, about 1.5 or 2 hours. All Canadian dollars.

I'll go back to the hotel and he'll call me when it's done or he knows something new. Checkout time is 11:00am, so if he hasn't called by 10:45 or so, I'll call here and find out status. Then we'll decide what to do.

I get back, Sharon washes her hair, goes out to Safeway for the new People magazine. And orange juice and breakfast (interpretation today: doughnuts). I wait for any calls. She brings breakfast back.

I type on the computer, she watches TV. At 10:45 I call Mo. "All ready," he says. I ask for details, he said the power steering pump checked out ok. Everything else ok. We bring the hotel's luggage carrier up to our room, load it up and go downsairs, check out, load the stuff into the Blazer.

We go over, pay the truck repair bill, switch the stuff from the Blazer back to our pickup, and return the Blazer to the Pioneer Inn. Christina checks us in.

The total cost of the glitch is way smaller than it might have been. We take a big breath, and let it slowly out. When you know you dodged a big bullet.

We drive back out to the rest stop, the trailer is just as we left it. A couple of other folks spent the night at the rest stop, and are happy to see us back. They ask for details. They are RV travelers too and want to hear our story so they can ooh and ah, sorry for us, happy to death it's not them. Everybody's tickled that the problem wasn't bigger.

We hitch up and head out. One of our choices now is to drive like crazy and pull into Prince George about 8:00pm or so, and be back on our schedule of a few days ago. We decide on common sense and travel about 80 miles to Dawson Creek.

We see a number of oil and gas pipes, towers and plants all around Fort St. John. A huge natural gas discovery here in 1955 gave Fort St. John its nickname, The Energetic City. Get it, get it? There is a natural gas pipeline running from near here to Vancouver, BC.

The low, rolling hills on the way to Dawson Creek remind me of the rolling farmland on I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City. As we near Dawson Creek, we begin to see more and more brilliant yellow and yellow-green fields. It's canola, or rape seed, and looks a lot like mustard. Only much richer and yellower.

As we cross over the muddy Peace River, we see a double over-and-under pipeline hung from a suspension bridge, like the Golden Gate.

There is so much going on here, it is difficult to comprehend that there is an employment problem, level at 8% or so. We also learn that Fort St. John is 20,000 while Dawson Creek is only 15,000 population. So we broke down at the right place.

There's a huge increase in traffic. We are not only officially back to civilization, but we are also officially back in heavy traffic. Hate the traffic. The change occurred just at Fort St. John.

Whereas bustling Fort St. John was oil and gas, Dawson Creek is relaxed, with lots of farming.

We make a right turn, head west, but it's before we can see the Alaska Highway Mile 0 marker. We'll come back later. We locate the Northern Lights RV Park, check in and set up. We catch up with our maintenance chores. Sharon does laundry. I re-install the front license plate mounting block, holder and plate itself to the front of the pickup. Dale had to take it off for the tow. I disassemble then reassemble the main trailer/pickup connector. The trailer lights weren't always coming on when I switched the truck lights on and I suspect an electrical short. But the problem is gone now. Just want to make sure.

We have barbecued hamburgers, eat outside about 4:00pm. Weather is delicious. Warm, but cool in the shade, with a nice breeze. After dinner, we go for a walk around the trout pond. There is a drought here, and the pond water level is low. Nobody's catching anything, and some grumblers doubt trout. We find Red-wing Blackbirds and several sparrows, but don't pay them much attention. We go back to the trailer and watch all of our new video.

Finally, we drive into town and take our Mile 0 photos, then stock up with IGA groceries. Love the IGA. Did we mention that everybody seems to smoke up here? Players is the popular cigarette. It's such a change from California, where smoking is just about being run out of town.

I go to sleep comparing the situation tonight (truck working) with last night (not). I like the current situation somewhat better.

Best Bird of the Day: Soaring RED-SHOULDERED HAWK, backlit by the sun

No life birds today

Trip Birds: 1 today (hawk), 173 total.

---

Week 7 Day 6. Wednesday July 8, 1998. 48th day out. Dawson Creek, BC to Prince George, BC, Canada.

Up for early departure, but bumped into a birding lady on the way to the bathroom. It's 6:30am. "Are you a birder, by any chance?" I ask. "Why, yes I am," she replies. "Seen anything good?" I probe to the next level. "I saw a hummer foraging in the shrubs beyond the pond, but I don't know what kind it is. It's a female (they all look very much alike)." I get extremely excited, because this may be Calliope-Hummer-only territory. And she's seen a warbler of some type.

I go back and tell Sharon. She makes up some hummingbird nectar, fills our little feeder, and we walk over to the shrubs by the pond. I hang it up, we sit in our lawn chairs to wait. I begin to compare the polarized phrases 'reasonable expectation' vs. 'expect a miracle.' We last about ten minutes, then decide to bird the other side of the shrubs, on the outer edges of the canola field. We soon realize there are three or four kinds of sparrows (Song, House and probably Savannah), but we're interested in another one. He is well-known for his 'buzz' and we haven't heard him yet.

We check out every sparrow, and begin to zero in on one particular type, different from the familiar other sparrows, and its characteristics match the target bird's description. He's not very cooperative, won't stay in sight. There are several. We are both on the same one when he darts behind a bush. "BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ," he says. Buzz? We got our new life bird - not the Calliope hummer we were hoping for, but the CLAY-COLORED SPARROW*. We are tickled at the surprise switch.

We continue looking for the hummer, but it's not to be. Not here anyway. We rig for travel, and the last item is for me to go collect the hummingbird feeder and give it to Sharon. She stores it in the fridge and secures the trailer inside. We're off, heading for Prince George.

Well, not quite. We get our "Travelled the Alaska Highway" license plate holder and a tee shirt that has a small bear paw, encircled with the words "Alaska Highway" on the front. On the back, is a ferocious, growling grizzly and the words "Bite Me." They have another one with a giant mosquito, but that's a little too real, so we go with the bear.

And speaking of bear, we notice a green laying-on-its-side barrel, about four feet in diameter and eight feet long, as we are birding. It has a wire, reinforced grill on one side and a trap door on the other. It's mounted on wheels and can be towed like a trailer. We ask the lady-half of the owners about it. She said a couple of weeks ago, a bear had foraged in their trash two nights in a row. They called Animal Control, and they brought the portable bear trap over. No bear since then. When I was young, I used to dream that bears broke into our house, and were coming up the stairs, after me. Wish I'd dreamed of this bear trap.

As we are travelling, I suddenly remember that last night we had set the alarm for 2:30am, for a northern lights check. I looked outside at the time, and the horizon was very bright. Sharon saw a couple of stars, but no light show this time of year, at this latitude. Back to sleep we went.

With the sun brightly shining behind us and to our right, we drive past a fifty-member herd of cattle. Every one of them is eating grass, and every one is pointed the exact same direction - away from the sun, to our left. It just looks strange.

I have outlined three birding stops for us, on the way to Prince George, and we stop at the first one. East Pine Provincial Park, near Ft. Sasquatch, a private adventure inn. The access road drops us down from bridge-way-above-the-river level to right-on-the-river. It's very quiet, there is an overnight camper at the far side of the park, but we're essentially on our own. And there are lots of birds, plethora-wise.

We immediately get an adult Purple Finch feeding youngsters, following her around. Then a family of four Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. We can't quite identify a little flycatcher, probably a Least. There is a song which in our mind matches the descending 'veeeer' of the Veery, but we're a little out of its range. And don't see him. We play our Willow Flycatcher tape, and lots of birds 'bite,' none of them the one we want.

We split the remainder of a can of Pringles, those great not-quite-potato-chips we can't stop eating after we've opened them. We are coming up to the town of Chetwynd (CHET-wend), the self-proclaimed chainsaw carving capital of the world. This town was formerly named Little Prairie, but was renamed for a crown minister who advanced the town's cause in some manner.

We also see a sign that says "Forestry Capital of Canada 1992," and wonder what was special about 1992. No answers present themselves. Chetwynd is like most of the BC cities along the Alaska Highway. The highway itself runs through town, with a cross road every eighth-mile or so, to frontage roads on both sides of the highway. The town's businesses are all on these frontage roads.

As we're zooming through town, Sharon sees a mountain goat carving. We try to work our way back to it, but stumble onto another carving, and then another on the way to THAT. We get busy with our cameras. As I look at the teeth and the depth of the grizzly's mouth, I know this wasn't ALL done with a chainsaw. "Open wider please," carver to grizzly.

We do a couple of construction waits during the day, but we have had such a great trip, it's easy to relax. "It's normally about a twenty minute wait," the flagman says to us, "but the pilot car's run out of gas, so it may forty minutes. Or so." We get the road edition of Trivial Pursuit out from the trailer and Sharon has time to beat me two games out of two. They were close though, he said, making the best excuse he could. The pilot car shows up, delivering a long line of vehicles from the other direction. When the last of them has passed, we're up. Third in line.

Back on the road, we follow the pilot car through the road jumble, then he peels off. Soon, I see a black bear speeding across the highway in front of an empty logging truck ahead of us. It's far ahead, and we're looking into the sun, so I can't tell how close it comes to the truck. I can just hear him talking to his black bear buddies a few moments ago, "Bet I can beat that logger."

We check into the Blue Spruce RV Park in Prince George about 6:00pm. It's been a pretty long, energy-draining day, with the birding stop earlier described, plus two others. Plus my subconscious nervous attention to the panel gauges and engine noises.

Day's Best Birds: Clay-colored Sparrow*, Chainsaw carving of two Bald Eagles - one on a nest and the other landing in it

Life birds on this trip: 1 today (sparrow), 60 total

Trip birds: 1 today (sparrow), 189 total

Blue Spruce RV Park, Rating: A. Huge blue spruce grove all around the site. The best section is reserved for tents, but we are next to that.

-----

Week 7 Day 7. Thursday July 9, 1998. 49th day. Prince George, BC to Jasper, Alberta, Canada

We left the trailer on the hitch last night for easy egress this morning. We are heading sort of southeast on the famous (up here) Yellowhead Highway.

We intend to do lots of travelling today, with birding stops only near the end of the day. In Mt. Robson National Park. Don't know much about it yet.

We travel through McBride, on a high plateau. Lots of ranchland and horses. A big fire 81 years ago is undetectable, except that the tallest trees aren't very tall, relative to other nearby forests.

About 11:00am we start to see actual rocky, snow-on-top mountains again. We have hit the Canadian Rockies. A soaring, adult Bald Eagle, first in a long time. After a relaxing rest stop lunch, we are on the road again. Around a corner, and we're hit smack in the face with an enormous, huge snow-covered peak. It's Mt. Robson, the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies. What a great feeling to be in real mountains again. And what a hunk of mountain.

Off to the right is a pullout honoring a Canadian we have heard of, who lost both legs to cancer. He set out to walk across his country on his prostheses, to bring attention to his illness, but died before he completed the journey. I think of his courage as we pass Mt. Terry Fox.

We gas up, then hit the visitor center. A checksheet indicates for each day, whether Mt. Robson was visible or not. The previous six days read like this: NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. NO. Today, someone has drawn a happy face. And it's a gorgeous, blue-sky day. We pick up a bird list, and the salesgirl tells us that there's an adventure travel building about a quarter-mile back, which has "dozens" of hummingbirds that use the several feeders they put up. We put up our hummingbird feelers and go back. A flurry of motion around their feeders. We park and start our vigil. We know they have both Rufous and Calliope hummers here, but we don't know what proportion to expect. My first expectation is to see a male Calliope, with his unusual neck gorget, right off the bat.

But after about 45 minutes, we realize that we're looking almost exclusively at immature (hatched this spring) hummers. It's clear that most if not all are of the Rufous variety. But there's one female a little smaller than the others. She behaves a little differently, but won't display her tail, like all the others seem to do. The tail display says, "Hey, I'm here. Beat it." Or some equivalent hummingbird word. There are other indicators too, and we decide there is enough evidence to claim our CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD* lifer, hoping to see an adult male in the next week or so.

Day's Best Birds: Calliope Hummingbird* (immature female), Rufous Hummingbirds (immatures)

Life Birds: 1 today (calliope), 61 total.

Trip Birds: 1 today (calliope) 190 total.

Jasper National Park, Whistler's Mountain Campground, site with no hookups [We will move to electric hookups tomorrow]. Rating: A. Surrounded by trees, huge mountain peaks.

-----

Our vacation has moved us into familiar territory. We camped at Jasper's Whistler's Mountain in a 1991 trip to this area for scenery and animals - our first big fifth wheel vacation. We enjoyed it immensely then, and the refresher course is fun all over again because we weren't birdwatching then.

Bob & Sharon


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