We camped for our 68th night last night in Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, about 135 miles from Watson Lake in BC. Set back off the Alaska/Canadian Hwy., the park features a well-maintained 1/2 mile boardwalk meandering through pristine Boreal forest and wetlands to the changing rooms and pools. The water is ridiculously hot at the headwaters, and flows through waist-deep pebbly-bottomed pools that gradually cool downstream. This unique ecosystem hosts a diversity of plant life, including orchids, ostrich ferns, cow parsnip and carnivorous aquatic plants. We survived the latter, and swimming in the lower pond was weirdly tropical. Gorgeous autumn colors filtered through the rising steam, aspen and birch backlit in the late afternoon sunlight. This visit was a spontaneous surprise—a last-minute substitute for the aborted out-and-back visit to lovely Atlin, BC, due to inclement weather. A couple days were spent enjoying the warm water, looking for birds around the large and quiet campground (flock of White-throated Sparrows!), exploring ATV trails on our bikes, reading, writing and making music. Two Great Horned Owls were vocalizing in the middle of the night just after Sooney had come back after checking out the status of the night sky. No sleeping through that.
We returned back to Watson Lake to gas up for our journey down the Stewart-Cassiar road to Smithers and deep into British Columbia. Driving the Alaska/Canadian Hwy. has provided no shortage of entertainment in addition to autumn foliage: Black Bear, a Lynx (our second!), a Red Fox, what appeared to be a Wolverine, and several herds of Buffalo. These bison were an introduced species to the Yukon and in 25 years worked their way to the motherlode—the AL/CAN and its 50m corridors of mowed grass on each side of the highway. Perfect grazing and the herds have flourished. So much so that a park ranger recalled where hundreds of the beasts blocked the bridge across the Liard River and backed up traffic for several kilometers. Flying formations of Sandhill Cranes have been our recent companions, honking above as we roll along. Then, out of nowhere, a clearing appears providing fuel and convenience store food serving the local portion of the 43,000 residents of the Yukon. That’s right. The entire territory of 186,661 square miles supports a population of about half of Medford. The largest city, Whitehorse, tops out at about 3,500 and we really enjoyed the town. A little RV repair here, a bakery there, and freshly roasted coffee at the farmers’ market located in a park right along the Yukon. We’ve gained valuable information about these destinations from locals, and our offers to share a campfire, a coffee or a beer has led to far more than we’d ever expect.
Getting to the Yukon was an adventure in itself. After the glorious Denali Highway experience culminating into an equally fabulous Tangle Lakes River camporee, Marty and I had a date with a fishing guide in Delta Junction. The road to Delta was interesting as we paralleled the Alaska Oil Pipeline for quite a while. I was curious about the posts on either side of the elevated 48″ pipes, and learned that sections of pipe remain above ground because of permafrost. If they were buried, the heat of the oil (120°) would melt the permafrost and cause the pipes to potentially sag and leak. Topped with fan-like aluminum radiators, the posts remove heat from the ground into the cold winter air to keep the soil solidly frozen.
After settling into our campground, we met our guide and floated a short distance down the Delta Clearwater River. It’s all about knowing where the hole is: we caught our fill of spunky Graylings, a beautiful fish whose colorful dorsal was a premonition for the magical Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) that filled the sky later that night. We then proceeded to Tok, a crossroads visited earlier on our journey to Wrangle St. Elias and Valdez, and this time we chose the northerly route to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory. Getting there was no cruiser, however, as we took the “Top-of-the-World” highway through Chicken (the founders couldn’t spell Ptarmigan). The route, about 80 miles of gravel road, follows the ridge of a treeless, tundra-covered Alaska Range and crosses the USA/Canada along the way. It was bittersweet leaving Alaska although exciting destinations awaited us. The scenery through the mountains was expansive, spectacular, and required periodic stops to absorb it all. Driving a ridge line has its challenges, and had I succumbed to rubbernecking the result would have been catastrophic given the 1000’ drop-offs on both sides of the highway. Our journey ended on the shore of the Yukon River where a 24-hour ferry transports travelers to Dawson City. We shared a downtown campground with a bunch of rowdy softballers visiting for the Labor Day Tournament. Before bolting outta Dawson the next day, we happily discovered the weekly farmers’ market that provided us tomatoes, greens and the freshest apples we’d had in weeks.
The Klondike Highway loosely follows the Yukon drainage for 330 miles to Whitehorse, and we briefly diverted our route to explore the Dempster Hwy. into the Tombstone Territory. That road heads north for 450 miles, crosses the Arctic Circle, and terminates at Inuvik on the Beaufort Sea. That was a bit much and we focused on the first 50 miles and loved the colors and serenity of the park. On our drive out (in the rain), we really toned it down looking for the Sharp-tailed Grouse while speedsters flew by. We didn’t see that species but did spot a life bird (White-tailed grouse) that tend to hang out alongside the road bed (dead and alive) due to their fondness for the unpaved roadways.
Our late arrival to the Tombstone Territorial Park forced us to park in the campground’s overflow area. Shortly after we were set up and enjoying the warmth of blissful campfire, another vehicle parked near ours. A young couple about Alicia’s age pulled their mountaineering gear out and quickly set up camp in the nearby tenting section. We invited them to join our fire to prepare their meal and learned about their fondness for the Tombstone area and their love of Whitehorse and the outdoor opportunities it offers. Before leaving the following morning, Stephanie took the time to prepare a list of good eateries, sources of healthy food, and events worth exploring when in their home town. Arik helped resolve a brake issue with my bike and they both impressed us with such kindness, all the while facing an all-day drive and work in the morning.
Our drive to Whitehorse included an overnight and breakfast campfire on the shore at Fox Lake. One Common Loon landed on the water for a couple seconds, then took off that morning while the shrubs and forested areas were alive with birds. Later, while lunching on a hearty Dahl soup and fresh bread at the Alpine Bakery, Stephanie surprised us with a hug. In addition to being a wilderness trail ranger, she’s a wonderful painter and has an impressive display hanging in the local art gallery. One of her more recent pieces features migrating caribou and water, a major player in the Yukon. Rapids are, in fact, how Whitehorse was named, and she depicts her rivers fancifully; stylized manes of a horse, urging you to hold on. Another wonderful surprise along a journey that has far exceeded our expectations for entertainment, friendships, adventure, and resilience. Oh yea, and a good shot of humor. I lost a $10 bet whether a rag Sooney used to wipe down the condensation from the inside of our pop-up would ring out. We’ll soon have traveled the equivalent of a round-trip across the US and continue to enjoy each other’s contributions enormously. Since we bought it in ’06, our Four-Wheel camper has provided us shelter for almost 400 nights. That’s nothing when compared to Raven & Chickadee who’ve been traveling and journaling for 3 years! What we DO have in common is Mary Oliver’s sage reminder how to live a life: “Pay attention, be astonished, and write about it.”
Wildlife spotted along this leg of our journey:
Delta Clearwater CG
Gray Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Junco, White-winged Crossbill, male Ruffed Grouse in display, Song Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Sandhill Cranes overhead, Black-capped Chickadee, Great Horned Owl
Sawmill Rd. off Yukon Hwy.
*Northern Hawk Owl, Kestrel (2), *Rusty Blackbirds, Juvenile Northern Shrike, Savannah Sparrow, Raven, American Tree Sparrow, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal
Moon Lake CG
Gray Jay, Harry Woodpecker, American Robin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee
Taylor Hwy. (West Fork CG en-route to Chicken)
Boreal Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Gray Jay
West Fork Dennison Forty Mile River CG
Robin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Gray Jay, American Tree Sparrow, Junco, Boreal Chickadee, Raven, White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher, Fox Sparrow (Taiga)
Arctic Fox, Raven
Klondike Hwy. (before Dempster Hwy.)
Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal
Raven, Gray Jay, Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Willow Ptarmigan, *White-tailed Ptarmigan, Spruce Grouse, American Tree Sparrow, Wilson’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, 2 Tundra Swan
Two Moose Lake (on Dempster Hwy.)
Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Common Loon
Chapman Lake (on Dempster Hwy.)
Common Loon, 2 Merlins in aerial combat with 4 Ravens, Bald Eagle, Snowshoe Hare, American Kestrel, Gyrfalcon
Klondike Hwy. (after Dempster Hwy.)
Magpie, Ravens, Gravel Lake, Northern Pintail, Red/tailed Hawk, American Tree Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Goshawk
Klondike Hwy. (Fox Lake CG)
Raven, Bald Eagle, Magpie, Junco, Boreal Chickadee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Three-toed Woodpecker, Ruffed Grouse, Wilson’s Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Tree Sparrow
Klondike Hwy. (Teslin Lake CG)
Teslin Lake, *Lapland Longspur, Merlin, Red-necked Grebe, Magpie, Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Sandhill Cranes, Greater White-fronted Geese, Raven,
Klondike Hwy. (Albert Creek Bird Observatory near Liard River)
Mallards, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Tree Sparrow, Junco
Alaska/Canada Hwy. (Watson Lake to Liard and back)
Bald Eagle, Lynx!, Red Fox, Bison, Black Bear, Raven, American Robin, Junco, Northern Harrier, White-crowned Sparrow, Ruffed Grouse, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, flock, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-tailed Hawk, Harlan, American Pipit
4 life birds (25 total for the entire Alaska road trip)