Monday, June 15, 2015

Travel updates

June 14 - Deadman lake, Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

A warm breeze blows towards to beach over the expansive waters of Deadmain Lake. The thin clouds do not block the warm sun, and we relish in the warmth and silence, and calm of this place compared to the jarring and dusty hours on the Alaska Highway this morning. There is a pair of loons floating and diving just 100 yards off shore,and a lone trumpeter swan floats lazily in the shallows in the adjacent bay. We hear an osprey calling but cannot pick her out of the forested shore. Occasionally a fish jumps nearby, but it barely disturbs the calm sway of the lilies near the shore. To the southwest, across the lake's waters, and easily 60 miles away the frosty ramparts of the St. Elias range rise out of the forest. Through the binoculars we can pick out the distinctive outlines of Mt. Logan and its adjacent glaciated peaks, stretching from horizon to horizon.

We have stopped for the day early to look for birds, and to take advantage of this free camping spot in a primitive campground with just one other party. The alaska highway is built on permafrost, and as such gets tossed and tumbled by frost heaves as soon as it is regraded and chip sealed. To drive it is a bit like navigating whitewater, looking for the smoothest passage through a series of bumps and dips, avoiding the biggest holes and holding on tight of the long roller ride as the shock absorbers try to counteract the displacement of the springs. Usually we manage to avoid the biggest imperfections without swerving off the road, but occasionally, the jarring lump cannot be avoided, and every object in every cupboard takes an unrestrained leap upwards as we drop off the far side of a pavement swell, then it all comes down with a cacophony of clatters as we compress on the next lump.

This morning before crossing back onto U.S. Soil and asphalt roadway and finally reaching Alaska after two weeks of travel, we stopped on two occasions to observe Grizzly bears grazing on the roadside salad of wildflowers. I used the window mounted camera stand I fabricated for just such an occasion to support the big lens while I shot frame after frame of the unperturbed animals. Hopefully I will post a few of these shots before long.

There is still a First Nations community that lives just over the border and they continue to do subsistence hunting and fishing on theses lands. They cross over the border easily, as most of their hungering and gathering travel occurs by water or through the frozen mushy lands that form the bottomland of this area. The preserve is a designated wildlife preserve and IBA, important bird area, due to its vast marshy topography and the long summer daylight hours. Many species transact this broad valley on both legs of their seasonal migration from the arctic plain, and some call this valley home for nesting.

June 13 - camped at Lake Creek, Yukon, north of Kluane Lake on the Alaska Highway, 3,080 miles from Truckee - cool, with mixed sun and clouds - started our drive north from Haines Junction Yukon towards Alaska. The road is very rough, with big frost heaves, pot holes, and sections of gravel. Some driver going the other way too fast and without mud flaps threw a rock which cracked our windshield. Hopefully that won't grow too fast and we Can make it to Anchorage before seeking a repair. We drove to the Sheep creek trailhead, an amazing sight where the highway crosses over the morrain from the Sims river as it drained the frosty heights of the adjacent ice fields. The scale of the landscape was remarkable, with the river bottom several mile's wide of braided gravel, draining glacially scoured valleys of enormous depth and length, all in honor of the pristine snow capped peaks of Mt. Logan massive beyond. This river used to flow to the pacific, but an ice dam formed on Kluane lake and rose the lake level 40 feet. The water subsequently found a new outlet and drained to the Bering sea, the exact opposite direction. After that episode resolved, the flow has continued towards the Bering Sea and the flow on the Sims River basically reversed course. Remarkable. We travel on the same path as what seems to us to be a very large grizzly bear who has left deep and clear tracks on most of our hike today. We are too far north for black bears, so we know this is a grizzly. Last night we had a heavy downpour, so the path was wiped clear like a smugless window, and the bear left us tracks as clear as a kindergarten teacher's alphabet in the blackboard. It was a bit spooky, but the bear had come down off the mountain before we went up, I suppose to fish in the river, so we were never really concerned.

Kluane lake is smaller than Tahoe, but not by much, being the biggest natural lake in The Yukon. It is a turquoise color and very clear, but today a strong wind was blowing whipping up a messy chop across the vast fetch of water. Flanked on two sides by monstrous mountain ranges, the two uncontained sides are vast unbroken vistas. The single road, the one we re on runs up and down the open valley, but is dwarfed by the massive landscape. We see a glimpse of some sort of cat on the side of the road, and a black mink hopping and diving to capture some prey just beyond our sight. A grizzly bear scratches his rump on a tree and we stop to watch the antics.

June 12 - Dezadeash Lake, Kluane Provincial park, western Yukon, on the edge of the St. Elias Mountain range.

first of all, it's not, The Yukon, or Yukon Territories anymore. in recent times the name has been officially changed to Yukon- a real province like all the others. We have washed up on the shore of western Yukon at the foot of the massive St. Elias Range topped with some of the largest ice caps on the continent after a long overland voyage across British Columbia. We can move no further west, as the alpine ramparts block further progress and we must follow the glacial valley north in order to reach Alaska from here. South is Haines, and we can see along the mountain ridge almost all the way to the sea from here.

There are almost no large birds to observe as they must have migrated either north or south from here and will not return until the Salmon run in a few months. There are Mosquitos, but the wind and cool temperatures have kept them well under control. The forest and meadows are carpeted with lush wild flowers , lupine, wild rose, red and yellow paintbrush, and a few smaller varieties we have not identified. Along the hiking trails and lake shores are a wide variety of fresh animal scat and lots of large hoofed prints - like woodland caribou.

Wispy clouds shroud the middle elevations, leaving the steep lower forest slopes, and upper snowy ramparts free of the thick gauze. This is what passes for a clear day here, as it is not raining and the entire sky is not ping pong ball grey. Small songbirds fly by, as almost a second thought of the wind, like they are passengers on a speeding freight train, rather then individually minded creatures with a locomotion plan.

We are intending to almost circumnavigate the St. Elias Mountain Range over the next two weeks. this range is the largest international contiguous protected land mass in the world, and as such has earned the "World Heritage Site" distinction. At it's center, the range is a swarm of interconnected ice fields and glaciers. On the eastern flank where we now find ourselves, there is a massive alluvial plain rising out of the marshes and ending at the snow capped mountain ridges- much like a wet version of the eastern Sierras. Today as we climbed up to the foot of an extinct smaller glacier, now really just a large fan of scree spilling out of a gash in the mountainside Diane spots a large porcupine nibbling on tender shoots of mountain aspen. The animal is about the size of a small beach ball, and when alerted to our approach, he expanded his long quills so he looked like a mountain version of a large sea anemone. After eyeing us carefully, he ambled a slight distance away, and climbed up a stubby tree to continue his nibbling.

While reclining in thrones built of flat stones at the top of the trail, with a commanding view out over Dezadeash Lake, Diane spots a cow moose along the shore of the Lake, grazing knee high in water but easily 75-100 feet off shore. The large beast could be plainly seen, almost 3/4 of a mile away surrounded by the shimmering water of the lake, dipping her whole head under Water to munch, then lifting it dribbling on her high shoulders to look around. The binoculars brought her details in nicely, but of course, I did not have the big lens in my pack, so we settled for a protracted observation through the binoculars. Our first moose of the journey. Hurray.

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