2005 Alaskan Chronicles

On May 18, 2005 I left for a ‘trip of a lifetime’ that covered 12,000 miles and 73 days. All did not go as planned, but it truly WAS a trip of a lifetime. For those of you who might be interested, you can follow the trip in photos by pointer your browser to <Here>.

There are five episodes that I sent back to friends at different points along the trip. Its a ‘warts-and-all’ telling of the story that I assembled from the hand written journals that I kept up nearly every day. You will notice that I got more long winded as the trip went on …

Hello from the north!

[05/17/2005 – 06/12/2005]

We left on 5/17/05 for Idaho and on to Alaska via many places in Canada. We spent a couple of days in the upper Owens Valley. It came as a surprise that we found Willets in the sage, and a bigger surprise that we found an egg! It was found as we were walking back to the Samurai … I almost stepped on it. It was on open ground with no nest preparation whatsoever. I theorized that when the clutch was complete, a scrape would be prepared.

We spent a day and night at Mono Lake (South Tufa Beach) and found Sage Sparrows, Western Gulls (galore), a Dipper feeding 3 fledglings, Western Wood Peewees and a flycatcher I believe was a Willow, and Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers. Those are all I remember as of this writing.

We drove on in a pretty hard push to Malheur NWR in Central Oregon. Our route was rather circuitous, but scenic. It took us from California, to Nevada, back into California, into Oregon, back across the border into Nevada, and then back into Oregon. I think we covered about 600 miles that day.

Malheur NWR gave us Western Tanagers, Brewer’s, Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Yellow Warblers and Common Yellow-throats, Sandhill Cranes, White-faced Ibis, Ravens, Black-billed Magpies (eating a RWBB egg), Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Red-necked Phalarope, Cliff, Tree, and Barn Swallows, Song Sparrows, Bullock’s Oriole, Greater Egret, Chukar, California Quail, Willet, Western Meadow Lark, Northern Harrier, Avocet, Killdeer, White Pelican, Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Double-crested Cormorant, Franklin’s Gull, Western Grebe, Northern Flicker. Also were heard: Pied-billed Grebe, Sora and Virginia Rails, Snipe (also photographed) and Night Hawks. And those damned Brown-headed Cowbirds. We’d hoped to get to the Sage Grouse leks at sunrise, but we’d have had to give it another day, and we were expected in Idaho, so we moved on without seeing the leks. We did see the birds at Owens Valley though.

We arrived at Kamiah, Idaho on 5/21/05 and it took us until 5/29/05 to get Corky (Steve’s dad) ready to go. In all fairness, the rear brakes on the Samurai went south during our stay there (wheel cylinders ruptured) and Corky helped me (or I helped him) get them rebuilt. Its good that it happened there … so much for the Midas inspection 6 months prior that said they were fine!

The next days took us through Kootenay NP, in British Columbia (BC), Banff, BC, and Jasper, BC. From Jasper we drove to Grand Prairie, Alberta (AB) where we camped between Little Lake and Saskatoon Lake. We were told of an incredible warbler migration corridor at the east end of Lesser Slave Lake, AB so we decided to head east to see for ourselves. When we arrived on 6/6/05, we realized that we’d just missed a big warbler festival. We spoke to a couple catching and banding birds in mist nets, that the peak migration had been on the 3rd week in May (2 weeks earlier). We found a nice camp and enjoyed mostly excellent weather and birds until we left on 6/8/05 to Dawson Creek, BC and the official start of The Alaska Highway.

In Dawson Creek, we were told we’d gotten through southern Canada in time to miss torrential rains and flooding. We also heard that a 26 year old woman was killed by a black bear in Kootenay NP after she climbed a tree to escape, but the bear pulled her down and ate her. I can only imagine her terror.

We stayed at Beatton Provincial Park at Charlie Lake (near Ft. St. John, BC) for a few days. We’d each been passing around a virus and here it was my turn to take the dive. I spent 6/9/05 just taking it easy. We drove most of today (6/11/05) to Ft. Nelson, BC. We’ll do more exploring here tomorrow and play it by ear as to when we’ll travel again.

In general, the road ahead is Watson Lake, Yukon (YK), White Horse, YK, Dawson City, YK and Inuvik, Northwest Territory (NWT). Inuvik is well north of the Arctic Circle and its quite likely we’ll be there for the longest day of the year on 6/21/05. There the sun will make a great circle around us without dipping below the horizon.

Ta for now,

Jack


[06/12/2005 – 06/25/2005]

Hello from the north,

June 25, 2005 finds me in Inuvik, NWT and traveling solo. This morning I tried to catch a flight to Tuktoyaktuk, but the flight had to be canceled due to low ceiling that would not allow planes to land. I was planning a day trip, but that not being allowed, I checked into lodging, but that didn’t work out either. I guess I might not get to dip my toe in the Arctic Ocean … <sigh>.

A LOT has transpired, some good, some bad, since I last wrote. Since my last note was from 6/11/05, I’ll start there.

6/12/05: Ft. Nelson, BC

On leaving Fort St. John yesterday, we traveled in alternating drizzle, rain, and threats thereof for most of the way. Just before reaching Ft. Nelson, we broke out of the poor weather and finished the trip under partly sunny skies. At the RV camp where we settled, I learned they had been dry for four days.

We searched for birds in the area. And had some luck in a wooded hillside across the road from the campsite. There seemed to be better opportunities at the edges that in the interior of the woods. We did find Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, and Western Tanagers for sure. I think a saw a Fox Sparrow briefly and a fast moving warbler with black side stripes, but I got no photos and can’t be sure of the ID.

And the drama … I provide the following because it factors in to current events.

Corky is a talker. Sometimes he talks when noone is listening. I believe he just likes to hear his own voice. Usually this is amusing and easy to tolerate. It’s a different matter when I’m trying to get a photo of a bird. Often stillness is a requirement. While I was in just that scenario, sitting quietly waiting for a bird to return to a perch it had been using, Corky walked up to me and just started chatting away. I didn’t make any objections at first, but when I said something about it and moved away, he growled “I ain’t hurtin’ nothin’”. While I sure that this was his opinion, it does not make it fact, but to get him to see it differently is no easy task. Both he and Steve have a tendency to state opinions with such force as to create an aura of close mindedness. While not universally true, I’ve seen this with enough frequency that I feel it’s usually an exercise in futility to debate the related topic. It’s a challenge for me and I’m still working on it. On talking to Steve about what had happened (I had no wish to spoil anyone’s good time), he suggested I make some kind of apology, even if I didn’t mean it. I did so.

6/14/05: Muncho Lake BC

We got to see caribou and Rocky Mountain Stone Sheep on the road yesterday. The caribou had fine coats, but the sheep looked quite raggedy. Birding throughout the mountains is quite sparse, but the scenery is spectacular.

Our dry weather has ceased. Last night it started raining and it continues to drizzle as we push to Watson Lake (YK). Muncho Lake and the river that drains it, is sort of a milky blue due to copper minerals that leach out of the surrounding mountains. It gives the waters an interesting look. Yesterday our views of the Northern Rockies were clear. Today they are shrouded in misty clouds.

This morning in Muncho Lake, we broke our fast with eggs (etc.) in a restaurant within ‘the largest log building in BC’. Flying outside the windows of our table were swallows (Cliff and Trees or Violet Greens). At our camp last night were Ravens and Mew Gulls along with some sparrows who were too shy to ID.

6/15/05: To Whitehorse, YK

I drove most of the way from Watson Lake and stopped at the Yukon River bridge. Thousands (it seemed) of Cliff Swallows were circling to hundreds of feet over the water. I could hear flickers and kingfishers a short distance away. The river is very clear here and it moves with a steady slow pace. There is a dam a few hundred yards downstream, but it is not impeding the river’s progress. It was quiet here as we arrived, but it is just like stopping along the road at an African game park, it is short lived. Soon about a half dozen more travelers have joined us and this quite place is bustling … ah well!

Good weather followed us to Whitehorse, but some serious thunder boomers arrived while we were sorting out vehicle maintenance and shopping for supplies. It seemed to come as a surprise to the locals as well. There was a foot or more of water standing in several intersection. This caused some gridlock as smaller cars to stop for fear of the deep water. I was able to drive the Samurai through the deeper sections and left the timid behind.

There seems to be a lot written about birding opportunities right here in Whitehorse. I think we’ll look at some of them tomorrow. The tire store parking lot, where we had the truck’s oil changed is where we’ll be sleeping tonight. We’d be out before they arrive in the morning anyway. We’d considered making a long push to Inuvik from here, but we thought better of it when I pointed out the tension levels we’d be putting ourselves under.

6/17/05: Adios Whitehorse

I think this little town has a population of about 20,000. The entire Yukon Province has maybe 25-30,000 people. The largest part of them live here because of  jobs, as it is the seat of the provincial government. It seems an eclectic group that inhabit this place. You are bound to find more than your share of ‘true characters’. I’d like to visit here again. I think it might be a challenge to stay through the winter though. There’s that long stretch where the sun would not show for very many hours, but then there’d be a glorious summer and a pretty interesting spring and fall.

We found good birding downtown near the river. Yesterday we found McIntyre Marsh with lots of birds, including dozens of eagles (Bald & Golden). Now we’re off to Dawson City on the Klondike Highway. Then on to the Dempster Highway!

6/18/05: The Klondike Highway. (Places to get through. Places to be.)

We stayed at Twin Lakes last night. Our map showed 18 sites of camping and fishing. Steve and Corky wanted to wet their lines. It turned out that the lake shore was fine for fishing, but bad for catching. Being a shallow lake, most of the fish were in the deepest waters for cooler temperatures.

I looked for birds, but found few. There were juncos (Slate backed) and Hermit thrushes singing all  around. I tried to photograph the thrushes, but only got two mediocre pictures. Very shy these thrushes! I heard Common Yellow-throats in the thickets near the water’s edge. There was a loon far away at the limits of my vision in the lake, but I enjoyed the calls in the morning. Also in camp this morning were magpies and Gray Jays. There were gulls (Mew? Herring?) on the lake and Corky said he saw a Gadwall hen with nine babies. I saw a pair of scaup (Lesser?) And a Bufflehead hen.

I made breakfast for everyone this morning and then went for a walk with the camera AND the G.P.S. Yesterday I followed trails around the lake and found myself in a section I hadn’t expected. It took quite some time to find camp again, and I did a lot of kicking myself for not carrying the Garmin Etrex Vista. Had I been packing  it, I’d have saved myself a lot of walking (with tripod & camera). It rained somewhat on the hike, but had gear for me and the camera, so no harm done.

We’ve all started to carry bear spray too. It’s a strong pepper spray that’s supposed to be good to 30 feet. We all hope we don’t need to use them.

We started our drive to Dawson under gray clouds, but after a few hours, we broke out under blue skies.

6/20/05: After breakfast on the Dempster Highway.

The Dempster Highway does not disappoint. We drove to first 80Km or so without much to report on … birdwise. After beginning our ascent of the North Fork Pass, our encounters began to improve. The country is raw. Rugged mountains (South Ogilvies) surround big sweeping glacier carved valleys. The footing as you walk into the ‘bush’ is cushioned by 4-6″ of lichens and moss. The trees are short. Black Spruce and Poplar/Cottonwoods grow to mostly 10-30′. Above the tree line the brushy patches are waist to head high.

I found redpolls. Judging voice, I thought they might be Hoary, but later review of pictures and range maps, assured me that they were Common AND Hoary Redpolls. White-crown Sparrows are EVERYWHERE!

Late yesterday we stopped high on the East Blackstone River. We hiked to a pond just off the road and found nice encounters with Red-necked Phalaropes. We also had a nice visit with American Tree Sparrows. We moved a little further down the road to our campsite for the evening. There, about 200 feet from the river, we met our sparrows again (Am. Tree & White-crowned). After dinner, Steve found a female Harlequin duck on the water and Corky found a nice Willow Ptarmigan that sat well enough for us all to get photos. Later, while managing our digital photo data, I spotted a blondish furred critter moving through the brush a ½ mile away. I was hoping for a bear, but it turned out to be a fox. It never got to within camera range, but it made for a nice end of the day.

After breaking camp in the morning, we drove north. We spotted a Mew Gull on a nest on a small grassy island on a small pond to the left of the road. On closer inspection, there were Lesser Yellowlegs also nesting. We took our fill of photos and left them in peace to investigate the other side of the road. Walking over these bogs is like stepping through 6-8″ of wet sponges. Amazingly complex are these mosses.

6/21/05: The longest day.

We’ve yet to cross the Arctic Circle, but at our present location (N65° 47.11′, W137° 46.825′), the sun will set today at 1:44am and rise at 2:40am. Later, we did make it past the Arctic Circle on this day though. There, I checked my GPS for sunrise/sunset times and it displayed no information for times. Very cool!

I’ve named the big rigs that travel this road as “Dempster Dusters”.They live up to the name quite well. They churn up great columns of dust clouds as they thunder up and down this road. When its dry, all who travel here will conjure a share of dust. With ten tires down (6 on the truck, 4 on the Samurai), we too generate a good share, but we are no match for these ‘Dusters’. We saw some ‘Dusters’ being tailed by a pickup truck loaded with spares (probably due to a hard learned lesson along the way). There are no services between the Klondike Highway and Eagle Plains, nor between Eagle Plains and Ft. McPherson, and just one between there and Inuvik. This road can be very hard on its travelers.

We encountered one driver the day later (when it was muddy) who drove his rig like a weapon. We stopped and pulled over to let him pass and he accelerated down the road charging us with a double trailer of shipping containers fish tailing behind. The road there was quite narrow and he only barely missed us. Taking some perverted joy, I suppose, as it spraying us with a heavy coating of mud. A plague of chiggers on him and all his kindred.

An hour or so before reaching Eagle Plains, we began to encounter smoke. It eventually got bad enough to bother my eyes. When we reached Eagle Plains, I was told that there were four fires burning in the area, and they’d been burning for 4 days. I’ve heard that these ‘peat fires’ will smolder through the tundra mosses and are very difficult to extinguish. The fires were all south of Eagle Plains, so we expected the air to clear as we went north (it did).

6/22/05: North of the Arctic Circle

Last night we camped at Rock River (Mile 278). After making camp we were approached by a young German man who we knew to be traveling with his father. They stayed at the adjacent site at our last camp (Engineer Creek). It turned out they had two bad tires under the rear of their rented camper truck. By the time they realized they had a flat, they’d ruined the tire. After putting on the spare, they realized they had a leak in the other rear. Ultimately, after lending them my small compressor and a can of sealant, they were able to continue under a flag of caution. We convinced them to go north to Ft. McPherson, rather than turning back to Eagle Plains (which was closer). I let them keep the compressor and we followed. Our pace included photo stops, so we didn’t catch them until the following day. They eventually got a repair and made it to Inuvik. The German guys returned my compressor after they got the repair and they bought a can of sealant to replace the one I’d lent them.

It rained and snowed in camp that night. I photographed a Swainson’s Thrush and got some mediocre shots of a Varied Thrush mom feeding a noisy fledgling, but papa thrush sang from the tree tops a would NOT come down.

6/25/05: Inuvik

[06/12/05 – 06/25/05]

We are no longer traveling as a threesome. The road has taken it’s toll on relationships. Steve is a very angry man. Given his recent history (not detailed here), he has much to be angry about. He believes he is an easy going person, but under the surface he simmers when bothered until he explodes. It is little meaningless things that have set him off on this trip. He and I had a problem on 6/4 that erupted because I ate a bagel that he thought I should have saved. We’d skipped breakfast that day to go birding early and came back hungry. Steve and Corky grabbed what they wanted to eat and there were only a few items in the fridge that I had an interest in. Since I went shopping a week earlier in Idaho and purchased the bagels, I thought nothing of taking it for the purpose it served. Steve got ugly about it and I was ready to separate then and there, but we talked it out and we stayed on as a group.

On the evening of 6/22, we’d been traveling through muddy conditions all day (remember the insane truck driver I spoke of?). We finally stopped at a rest area at the Rengeng River (after the 2nd ferry crossing and the Mackenzie River). Both vehicles were covered in about 200 lbs. of Dempster mud. The others climbed into the camper but I took a bucket to a nearby creek to carry water to wash off a couple of ‘clean’ places for entry and egress purposes. When I finished and made my way into the camper, Corky asked if I wanted a cup of tea. Though not my drink, I thought it sounded like a sociable thing to do. When I asked where the tea was, Corky directed me to the cabinets over the sink. I open one of the doors and saw what looked like a box with tea bags and pulled out a bag of sweetener. I thought this humorous and commented about the sugar. Steve groused that this was HIS PERSONAL tea, bought with his PERSONAL money and he wasn’t about to share. He then continued in what I would call a forceful, venomous tirade. He went on to include other topics on this rant. I refused to pickup my end of the ‘fight’, but I was pissed. The following day we finished the drive to Inuvik in silence. I made my plans to separate from the father son team, but I felt it was pointless to discuss the subject under the current emotional state we were in.

Arriving in Inuvik, Steve announced we’d be getting a hotel and rest for a couple of days. I became temporarily optimistic that things could be worked out. The rooms were high ($160), but I did not care. The rest would be good.

When I walked into the hotel café the next morning, Steve and his dad were finishing coffee. I have reason to believe that over coffee, Corky told Steve that it was too expensive to stay at the hotel. Now I’m hit with ‘what was I going to do today?’ I ordered breakfast and had to endure what had become an established derogatory pattern about how much Steve HATED eating breakfast. They were planning to check out. Since I had no intentions of continuing on with the two of them, I had to deal with the drama while eating my food.

I had hoped to get Steve to see how much his ‘approach’ to me was damaging, but he chose to continue on and justify himself. I was taking up too much ‘space’ with my stuff. The fact that I’d paid him $1000 before we started as ‘usage’ fees, had escaped his memory. (I later looked at these ‘spaces’ with my things removed … it was STILL a crowded mess). As soon as I heard Steve defend and justify his angry outburst, I knew I had no choice but to separate. What followed was very emotional for me. I became very sad. Steve recognized this and tried to soften his approach to me somewhat, but serious damage was done. Time will have to tell if our friendship can survive.

I spent yesterday organizing myself for independent travel. I had to breakdown the 2-man boat (Steve agreed to transport the bags that stored the parts), organize the 1-man boat for transport alone (means refitting the carrying caddy on the Samurai and workout the tarp to the one boat where we sewed it for both boats), gathered essential gear from the truck/camper (food, clothes, books, boat batteries, repair gear, …), securing the 2-man boat to the roof of the camper so Steve could carry them.

After doing my best to organize everything, I realized that I needed to ship a number of items in order to have a manageable load. I may be able to find a shipper Sunday or Monday, but I’d better do something before I head south on my own.

If I decide to stay on to Monday, I may yet decide to try for Tuktoyaktuk again!

Wish me luck,

Jack



July 2, 2005

[06/27/05 – 07/02/05]

My last message was from Inuvik (pronounced in-NEW-vik) on June 25th. As I begin putting this into an electronic form, I am in Fairbanks Alaska. Inuvik was many miles ago. I stayed several days there getting prepared for the drive out.  On 6/27/05 I left Inuvik, so I’ll start my account there.

06/27/05: It’s always something!

On this start of my ‘get-a-way day, I phoned UPS Canada to get information on how to ship the extra gear back home. It turns out the local UPS contractor was less than helpful and gave me bad information. Of coarse he insisted that UPS was the culprit. None the less, it looks like I’ll be hauling all my gear myself. (I still have it here in Fairbanks, but I should be able to ship from here w/o customs to mitigate).

This setback has caused me to decide against the trip to Tuk. This morning I’ll gather up groceries and supplies for the trip south. I think I may have stated earlier, that the Dempster Highway is like driving from San Diego to Reno ON DIRT ROADS.

06/28/05: On the road to Eagle Plains (again)

Yesterday I pushed hard much of the way. The road between Ft. McPherson and Inuvik is largely uninteresting and I wanted to get to the Richardson Mountains to spend time on things we rushed by on the way up. Alas, the Short-eared Owls I’d seen, weren’t working the tundra fields as I’d seen them the week before. Neither were the American Golden Plovers or the Wimbrels I’d seen in the fields further south.

I stopped at a couple of campsites along the route, but the day was hot and the midnight sun plays hell on my sleep patterns. I stopped at the Eagle River and setup my tent and mats on a picnic table, but at 6:30pm it was HOT. While the tent gave relief from the mosquitos, it interfered with the mild breeze and the heat prevented any restful sleep. I decided to continue on the hotel at Eagle Plains, as that would be my only salvation.

I was feeling a bit trepidatious about my fuel capacity. I decided I probably had enough to complete my longest legs (a 12-15 gallon tank, plus 2 five gallon Jerry cans), but just in case, I emptied one of the 5 gallon cans into the tank at Ft. McPherson, then refilled it. If I could make it to Eagle Plains (the half way point of the Dempster) with one can intact, I’d be able to make it all the way to the Klondike Highway. I made it to Eagle Plains with BOTH cans intact. I now have more confidence in my ability to get to my destination.

06/28/05: Later on, driving further south

The fires south of Eagle Plains are STILL burning. Yesterday, from the north, I could see columns of smoke rising in the distance. Now the smoke is hugging the ground that I’m riding on and it bothers my eyes.

While driving, I saw a ‘red’ bird fly across the road in front of me. I stopped to investigate. I could hear a bird singing some distance away, but it’s song was unfamiliar to me. While I was puzzling over the song, the ‘red’ bird moved again by me at the tops of the spruces. It was a White-winged Crossbill. Cool! I decided to listen to my bird song recordings for my mystery singer. I thought it could be a sparrow. Sure enough, it was a Fox Sparrow. The recordings weren’t exactly what I was hearing, but it was close. I played them louder and the bird came to investigate. It circled around me at a distance too far for photography, but I got nice views. A nice Taiga (red) Fox Sparrow. At this location on the Eagle Plains (plateau) I also saw a Gray-cheeked Thrush and a Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warbler.

By the time I’d dropped off the Eagle Plains plateau and into the Ogilvie River Valley, the smoke from the fires began to clear somewhat.

06/29/05: A night camping on the Dempster

Last night I pulled off the road and found a track that lead about 1/4 mile to the river. I was tired and the cat naps I’d been taking inside the Samurai weren’t cutting it. Besides, the mosquitos seemed to have found some secret passage from the outside to the inside. The tent was my best option now. Now on the Blackstone River, and south of the Arctic Circle, I could count on the sun passing below the horizon for a few hours. It being still warm, I started out with just a blanket, but after a few hours it cooled substantially. I decided to break out the sleeping bag and I was toasty thereafter.

This morning, there were a couple of places I wanted to visit on my way south; in particular, a small lake at about Km 98 where I’d met Red-necked Phalaropes. I wasn’t pleased with the quality of the photos I’d taken, and I wanted another opportunity.

After a few exploratory stops along the way, I made it to the lake at mid-afternoon. The phalaropes were still there, along with Surf Scoters, Long-tailed ducks (Oldsquaw) and Bufflehead. I also encountered Yellowlegs (both kinds I believe). While the Lessers were in many places, the Greaters were not supposed to be here at all, though I’d heard them at another location a little further north. At this location, while I was photographing some Least Sandpipers, a Lesser Yellowlegs landed in front of me and began ‘barking’ at me. He’d been doing this during almost my entire visit here and I thought nothing of it. Just then the Greater Yellowlegs (I believe) landed and chased off the Lesser. He began his unique ‘winnowing’ song and sat for his portrait nicely.

[Addendum: After my return, I investigated the identification and found that these birds were ALL Lesser Yellowlegs. The ‘winnowing’ song is shared by both birds. The recordings that I’d studied did not indicate it for the Lesser, but it should have.]

The Least Sandpipers were a nice surprise for be too. Earlier, near where I camped, I’d photographed what I thought was a Western Sandpiper, but closer review of the pictures showed that it too, was a Least. These ‘peeps’ all look very much alike to me. Another surprise was a ptarmigan family that I encountered (Willow, I believe). There was Mom, Pop, and several babies.

On the way north we’d passed a lake near the summit of the North Fork Pass, about 3/4 of a mile to the west of the road. There were two swans (Tundra, I suspect) feeding there. I looked at them again, but thought better of taking the hike down to the water (& back). The tundra is not that easy to walk through, and my energy level was not up to it.

Just down the hill from North Fork Pass was the ‘Tombstone Mountain Camp Site’. I pulled in to investigate some displays they had. There was a woman attendant who said she’d seen me earlier while driving by, at the little lake taking pictures. When she asked what I was shooting, I told here of the Yellowlegs. She seemed quite excited to hear of the Greater Yellowlegs and asked if I’d send a report to the Yukon Bird Club. I said I would when I could find a internet connection.

I decided to drive on to Dawson City from here. I opted for a shower, bed and room for the night. I was pleased to find that the fuel in the tank not only got me to the Klondike Highway, but with enough to spare that I could drive the 20-25 miles into Dawson. There I fueled up and gave the Samurai a bath. I was most concerned with the under side and the mud that filled every crevice. I also cleaned off the engine.

The room I got was supposed to have wireless ‘high speed’ internet, but I learned later that only by renting there proprietary hardware, could it be utililized. I had a fair amount of computer work to do anyway … going through my photos and organizing them. I also wanted to start writing up these notes, but picture editing was all I had energy for. I decided, on advice from the visitor’s center, that the ‘Downtown Hotel’ could meet my needs.

I feel that this town is a cheap tourist trap. It is very run down looking, but they try to put a good ‘face’ on things … but it’s a case of  ‘sow’s ear’ and ‘silk purse’. The drive into town on the Klondike Highway is damn depressing. The entire valley has been dredged and the gravel piles cover the valley floor in huge ugly piles that stack up for miles. Some of the surrounding hills bear the scars of hydro-mining. Inuvik wasn’t much to brag on, but it’s a working town, and I prefer it to this town. So much destruction in the search for gold.

That being said, I had a surprisingly good meal in the hotel restaurant (the Jack London Grill). I told the waitress I was looking for vegetarian fare. She told me that this town did not offer much to us vegetarians (she too claimed to be one). She said the cook could make up a ‘special’ vegetable pasta. I asked for a marinara sauce and to surprise me with the pasta (noodles). It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip.

06/30/05: Thirty days hath September …

The last day of June found me in Dawson City, Yukon. After breakfast and room checkout, I wanted to take another shot at shipping my unneeded gear. On this I failed again. I did find some help at the local hardware store. (* This could be a trend. In Inuvik a hardware store’s proprietor was quite helpful too.) The manager found a large used visqueen bag in his trash. With that and a roll of wide packing tape that I bought there, I was able to surround the box of gear that I had strapped to the rack of the Samurai. I’d been lucky that the drive from Inuvik delivered no rain, but the road ahead was sure to deliver precipitation. Now the box was protected.

The road to Alaska from Dawson is called “The Top Of The World” road. By 11:30am, I was on a ferry crossing the Yukon River to leave Dawson behind. At about 20 miles into this leg of the trip, it becomes apparent on why this road carries its name. From its track one can see in all directions. You ride broad rolling ridges that overlook great valleys and vistas of mountains that fade into the misty haze.

The weather appears to be changing here. From Dawson I could see billowing clouds in the distance. Now on the road, they are looking even more threatening. It appears that my box’s rain gear came just in time.

The surface of this road has been alternating between gravel and pavement. Somehow, the gravel seems ‘cleaner’ than that on the Dempster and the dust generated seems different, less offensive to the senses.

I stopped at a couple of places on the road to listen for birds. I encountered Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warblers. I also glimpsed a thrush which could have been a Gray-cheeked.

At about the 50 Km (from Dawson) mark, it started to become apparent that there were fires burning in the area. There’s been a haze hanging in the valleys, but now it starts to irritate eyes and nose. It’s not as bad as it was at Eagle Plains, but the visibility has dropped to a mile or so. Most of the clues point to a fire to the southeast (Ft. Yukon fire, I later would learn). At about the 95-100 Km mark, I began to see another fire to the north. Here I could see the actual line of the fire about 2 miles away. No fire fighting was being done here. I’m now considering myself lucky to get through this road, considering my other option would take me due south and almost to Whitehorse and add hundreds of miles.

I could not see any red flames in the fire. It’s my understanding that these ‘peat’ fires smoulder through the sphagnum mosses, but they are quite difficult to put out. Most of the spruce trees here won’t survive, but I’m not sure they are that long lived anyway.

At 2:30pm (Pacific), 1:30pm Alaska time, I crossed back into the USA at what has to be to loneliest, most remote border check on the continent. Though the settlement of Boundary Alaska was a few short miles away, the crossing station seemed to be a hundred miles from any ‘civilization’. I didn’t ask, but the building must serve both American and Canadian customs operations (I later learned that this assumption was correct). The agent who ‘interviewed’ me, informed me that the road ahead was gravel for 45 miles (two miles past Chicken, AK), then paved the rest of the way to the Alaska Highway, about 100 miles or so total to Tetlin Crossing. Then it’s about 12 ½ miles more to Tok.

The road from Chicken, Alaska south is no longer called the ‘Top Of The World’, from there to its terminus at Tetlin Crossing, it is called the ‘Taylor Highway” and it continues north to Eagle Alaska. About 26 miles from the border crossing, there is a campsite at the Walker Fork (river). At this place I can see close up, the aftermath of the fires. There appears to have been a great fire here a year or so ago. All the mosses have turned to blackened carbon charcoal. Some of the tops of these small spruce trees seem to be hanging on for dear life. I couldn’t say if the trees will survive or if it will be a mere short extension of their lives.

The birds in this place are quiet. I heard a warbler that sounded like an Orange-crowned, and there are some swallows … Cliff and possibly some Violet-greens.

Further down the road I reached ‘Chicken’ Alaska. The story goes that in trying to name the settlement, they wanted to call it Ptarmigan, but nobody knew how to spell that, so they settled on ‘Chicken’. Two miles further the road turned to pavement as promised. From here I pushed on to Tok and get dinner and a room for the night.

07/01/05: Tok, Alaska

Today is the Canadian equivalent of the 4th of July. I got out in the nick of time <grin>. I spent the night in an $85 turned $75 room that most places would have been a $45 to $35 room. It was clean and it served its purpose.

There is a high ceiling of thin gray clouds this morning. I have options of  two roads leading out of town from here. One road leads through Glennallen and on to Anchorage. The other goes to Delta Junction where I could go north to Fairbanks or south to Glennallen. After reviewing my bird finding books, I choose to go in the direction of Fairbanks. I still could travel the Glennallen route from Anchorage later if I choose.

Eighteen miles west of Tok, I stopped at Moon Lake. There I met some interesting birds. When I arrived it was raining and thus limited my photography efforts. On the water I could see ducks (Bufflehead), loons (Pacific), goldeneyes (Barrow’s) and scaup (not sure which one). On the shores I could see blackbirds (Brewers), robins, juncos, and I could hear warblers (Common Yellowthroat), Swainson’s Thrush, and flickers. But by far, the most rewarding was the Three Toed Woodpecker. I’d hoped I’d be able to photograph this bird when I started planning this trip. Now this wish had come true!

I made one more stop at the Delta Agricultural Project on this leg. I was hoping to get to see the Upland Sandpiper there. I did … and pictures too! I decided to make it to Fairbanks this day, so it would call for a bit of a push.

By 8:30pm I’d made it to Fairbanks. The drive was hampered by weather. It rained either on me or ahead of me and the roads were mostly pretty wet. As I neared the city, the sun was low in the sky and right in my face. The reflections off the wet highway were especially bothersome. I found food at a Denny’s, touted “The Most Northern Denny’s” and a room at the Super 8 next door.

07/02/05: Fairbanks

I was not impressed with the accommodations at the Super 8 where I stayed last night. This morning I decided I would NOT stay another night.

After breakfast, I put some real effort into finding a shipper for my extra gear. I found the UPS depot, but it was closed. I was told of a Mailboxes Etc. store across town and I set off to find it. Of coarse these are all now called “The UPS Store”, but I was able to ship out all the gear I wanted to shed. What a relief!

That chore being done, I had the rest of the day to scope out the town. I knew from my bird finding books of a few places to look. After finding a dud, I found a jewel. Being that it was raining at the time, I decided to find better quarters and come back later.

I found the Comfort Inn. It had (has) free wireless internet, the rooms are nicer, it has an elevator (Super 8 required a hike up 3 flights of stairs), and it is $20 less. I signed up for two nights. From here, I’ll likely head south past Denali Park and on to Anchorage and the Seward Peninsula.

So you see, the adventure continues,

Jack


July 13, 2005

[07/05/05 – 07/13/05]

My last report was from my arrival in Fairbanks on July 2. I stayed there through the fourth and left the morning of the 5th, with the idea that being on the road on the Fourth of July might not be an excellent idea. I’ll begin this edition of my adventures with July 5th.

07/05/05: Adios to Fairbanks

Yesterday I discovered a major blunder I’d made with the last several days of photos I’d taken, including the Upland Sandpiper and the Three-toed Woodpecker photos. In transferring the files from the card reading hardware (Nixvue) to the portable hard drive, some of the folders of files did not transfer. I deleted from the Nixvue before I realized this. So for my last night in Fairbanks (last night) I checked into the Best Western and found some utilities on the internet to recover from just such a problem. I had with me another Nixvue that I decided to use until I could recover all my photos. Today I say ‘Adios’ to Fairbanks and hit the route south.

07/06/05: Almost Denali

Yesterday’s drive was a dud as far as birds were concerned. I believe I’m late for most of the birds I’d read about for this section of the road. The drive, however, was very scenic. Late in the afternoon I took a drive off the main (Parks) highway on “The Stampede Trail”. I drove the first eight miles, but I didn’t find any birds to get excited about (late again, I believe). The road runs west through a great sweeping, glacier carved valley that is adjacent just to the north of Denali Park. After the first 5 miles the road is gravel and the country is open tundra … only a few small spruce dot the landscape. The road at the 8 mile mark turns into a narrower rougher track. While the Samurai could have easily negotiated it, I was not prepared with fuel, food or attitude on this rainy day. I decided to continue south and look for a room to hole up in for the night.

I drove south to Healy and found that most motels were booked full (due to the nearness of Denali Park). I did find one with a wireless internet connection and decided to get a second ‘undelete’ utility to help with my picture recovery process. I worked on the project all night, but still had a couple of folders to recover, but I knew that the complete recovery was within my grasp. All that would be required would be my time and effort.

I woke to SUNSHINE this morning. At breakfast the weather was clear, though one couldn’t be sure if this would last. But for now, the views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular.

On this day my plan is to drive into the national park as far as I am allowed, then play it by ear. The STATE park is only a short distance to the south and it might offer some interesting options too.

Later:

I traveled south into Denali and while stopped on my way into the park (listening for birds), who should I meet on their way out but Steve and his dad. I managed to keep composure and I was cordial. Corky seemed anxious to tell of all they’d seen, did most of the talking and I mostly listened. I must admit I found the encounter agitating. Though I wasn’t completely surprised by the encounter, I’d have preferred to missed them and avoided the meeting.

Denali (the mountain) was clouded in and offered no views. On my drive out to the end of the access, I may have gotten a view nice shots of an American Tree Sparrow. The road is closed to most of us at Savage River. There I encountered several families of Willow Ptarmigan.

On the gravel bars on the river below I saw a Mew Gull feeding a large chick. I decided to walk down to the river with camera and tripod in tow to see if I could get a better view. This did not please the parent who made repeated flights at me, often to within a few feet of my head. I opted NOT to cross the shallow river. While I’d probably have gotten better shots, I didn’t want to add to the stress levels of the birds. The parent seemed to settle down and just scold me from 100 feet away. She wasn’t done with me though. As I was leaving the scene she made another run at me from behind and ‘bombed’ me … without going into unnecessary detail, just let me say I could tell she’d been eating some kind of purple berries. None of this behavior was a surprise to me. I’d had some experience around tern colonies, and these actions serve to protect their progeny.

On leaving Denali N.P. I continued my drive south, stopping at places that seemed interesting to me. One stop took me a mile west of the highway on a bush track. There, among the warblers, thrushes, sparrows and yellowlegs, was a Blackpoll Warbler. I got a series of what might be good photos of another bird that I had my heart set on for the trip.

Continuing my drive south a very severe accident stopped all traffic while they ‘Life Flighted’ the victims out of the area. I struck up a conversation with a local who had moved here from Corona Del Mar (on the Southern California coast) … small world!

I stopped for the night a few miles north of Talketna. When I checked in to the room, I took count of my traveling time. I realized I’d been on the road since 5/17/05. That’s eleven days short of two months. I’ve been traveling on my own since 6/25/05. I guess that’s only been eleven days. Until now, I hadn’t bothered to add up the time.

While at a gas stop I met and spoke with a man from Minnesota who had a guide business in Saskatchewan. He saw my rig and asked about my photography. He invited me to stay at his place in Saskatchewan if I wanted some spring or fall (or whenever). I took his information and who knows?

07/07/05: Mary’s McKinley View Cabins and Café

This little Gift Shop/Restaurant/Motel at Mile 134, is where I found to lay my head last night. Mount McKinley has been pretty socked in with clouds recently, but this morning I got a glimpse. As I ate breakfast there were a lot of blue patches, but who’s to say what the rest of the day will offer. $75 bought me a small room w/o a phone or TV, but I did not miss those amenities. I used the time to recover the last of my deleted pictures. Now that I’ve recovered them, I have a lot of deleting to do. The recovery process reclaimed ALL the pictures, including those that I’d edited out. So back to the Recycle Bin some of these will have to go.

Today I have two locations not far from here to explore. The first is about 13 miles behind me is Byer’s Lake. There are trails around the lake that might offer some birds. The second, south of here, is the Petersville Road. It leads west to perhaps forty miles. The write-up in my bird finding guide makes it seem very attractive for birds, but we’ll have to see what it offers. After reflecting on these options, I decided to skip Byer’s Lake and head south to the Petersville road.

End of the day (Dinner):

I’m happy about this day. The Petersville Road is an experience. Another place that could have easily justified more time spent. Birdwise it was a bit slow. I imagine that 3-4 weeks ago it would have been very different, though I did get what I believe will be good photos of a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a White-winged Crossbill.

I drove about 25 miles out on this road to a place that was reported as ‘reliable’ for the Arctic Warbler. Again, I think I must have been late, as there was no sight nor sound of them. However, while lingering by a small creek, a local miner on his way to work a claim, stopped to chat and we spent about two hours talking beside the road. He was going to work a gold claim for a friend who had two recent heart surgeries. By working the claim for his friend, fees to the state could be avoided, so each man benefited from the arrangement.

He told me of different claims he’d worked … some he was still planning on working. One claim he looked forward to working when weather here turned bad was on the Trinity River in northern California. He told me of his interest in art, of making jewelry from his gold, of his carvings in walrus and mammoth ivory, and his carved horns (sheep, caribou, and moose). He explained how he’d work as a union carpenter enough hours a year to hopefully catch some retirement income. He showed me how to pan for gold in the stream we were near. I might have turned back and headed out sooner, and he might have gone on his way sooner, but we each seemed to find a reason to continue our chat. But alas, eventually we each had to go our own way.

Once I started driving out, I moved things rapidly in the direction of Anchorage with no more ‘bird stops’. I made about another 40 miles south on the Parks Highway and found myself a plate of food and a roof over my head … Wasilla, AK!!

07/08/05: If its Friday, this must be Anchorage

This morning I finalized my data recovery process and synchronized my two portable hard drives. I decided make a quick exit from Wasilla (a bedroom community for Anchorage) and headed to the ‘Big City’ for breakfast. The drive took most of an hour. The views of the mountains as I headed in were impressive. These rugged peaks seemed to rise straight skyward from the landscape below. I can only imagine the incredible tectonic forces that are at work to push them up in this manner.

Anchorage is by far, the largest urbanized area in Alaska. More than half the state’s population lives here. Since big, populated cities bother me, I won’t spend a lot of time here. I owe it to the experience to look over a few places while I’m here. I would like to find an ‘information center’ here. I need to start working on my ferry plans. I’ve been told of one ferry trip from Whittier to Valdez that sounds very cool. From there I’d be able to drive north on the Richardson Highway, the connect to the Alaska Highway and come down to Haines, where I could catch a ferry down the ‘Inside Passage’ to Prince Rupert. In that way I’d see some very different scenery and cut down on a bunch of driving. I’d still like to see Hyder, AK, so I’d have to drive north a few miles from Prince Rupert to get there.

In considering my travel options, the alternatives are:

#1. Drive to Haines and catch the ferry

#2. Ferry from this area over open ocean and continue on the Inland Passage

#3. Avoid the ferry and drive to Watson Lake and south through BC.

Option #2 would reduce the drive considerably, but I’d miss out on some interesting roads. Option #3 would be a long grind and could be very tedious on man and machine.

I did not find an ‘information center’, but after driving around and looking at some sights, I stopped and used my cell phone to call the Ferry Service. I learned that ONLY option #1 was available in the time frame I needed to work in. They were running a half price special on the Whittier to Valdez run and it was booked well in advance. The ‘open ocean’ option would not be available until August. I booked passage for me and the Samurai from Haines to Prince Rupert for July 17th. I also booked a cabin for the 36 hour trip. The cost was $172 for me, $382 for the Samurai (to 15 feet long), and $172 for the cabin with bath. There will be brief stops in Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan, before arriving at Prince Rupert. That means I’ll have enough time to explore the Seward Peninsula a bit before I hit the trail to Haines.

While I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey, its starting to ‘feel’ like the homeward leg has begun. This is probably because I’ve made commitments to my itinerary that moves me in the direction of “home”.

My stops in Anchorage after breakfast included Elderberry Park, where the NW corner of  town meets the open waters of the Cook Inlet (Knik Arm). There were many gulls on the mud flats below. Further away on the flats were many hundreds of shorebirds that I believe were Marbled Godwits. I took no photos, as they were well beyond reasonable camera range, but the sight was impressive.

In the afternoon, while driving to Seward, I stopped to look at the shores along the Turnagain Arm. The tides must have been receding, as the waters seemed to move like a great river, complete with white water and rapids.

07/09/05: Seward

Yesterday afternoon I drove the highway to Seward from Anchorage. I didn’t find much in Anchorage that could inspire me to linger there. With my commitment to the ferry ride, I must more carefully manage my time for the first time on this trip. I want to see the Kenai Peninsula, but Seward seems a good choice to offer me a slice, if not the whole pie.

On driving into the town proper, I drove past RV stops, a couple of small ‘lodges’, and a couple of larger sprawling motel complexes that smelled of money. Near the end of town I found the “Trail Head Lodge”. I liked it and booked two nights. I was tired and decided to order a pizza and hole up in the room and rest until morning. At breakfast I read up on my ‘bird options’ for the area. Today I would explore the area and see what I can find.

I first drove south along the western side of the Resurrection Bay to Lowell Point. The road follows the shoreline rather closely and leads to an RV camp and a few houses. At the end of the road is a parking lot and a trail system. There was a short extension of the road leading to ‘upper parking’. This was the state park. Here the trees are quite different from the rest of those I’d seen in the state. The canopy reaches up 60-80 feet. The under story densely covered in ferns and giant broad leafed plants with leaves about a foot wide. From this place I could hear chickadees, nuthatches, thrushes and crossbills. If not for the airplanes above, the boats motors below and the tourists all around, this place would be quite serene.

On my exit from Lowell Point this morning, I encountered a family of River Otters (I also saw briefly, one Sea Otter). I focused my attention on the River Otters and kept moving the Samurai in their direction of travel, stopping ahead and taking photos as they’d swim by, fishing as they went. That was a treat!

Later I explored the east side of the bay from Nash Road, the back to the upper end of the west side of the valley to Exit Glacier. On the way back into town I stopped into a Safeway to shop for groceries and supplies. Who should I see there, but Steve and Corky. I didn’t feel up to grinning at them and I avoided contact. I couldn’t say if they saw me, but a meeting was avoided. I returned to my room and organized my supplies, then took another run at the Lowell Point road. Gulls were plentiful and I spent my time taking ‘in flight’ photos. I also might have got a few nice photos of a Double-crested Cormorant.

Seward seems to me to be a pretty nice place. I’d like to visit here in the winter. I’ve heard that many birds visit here in the winter. While I did see several Bald Eagles here, I’m told that in winter they’re everywhere.

07/10/05: Adios to Seward

Yesterday afternoon I made an appointment to have Sami’s tires rotated and balanced. At about 35 mph it gets a little ‘hop in its step’. It’s done this in the past, but it seems to be getting worse. I arranged to be at the shop at 10am and get it sorted out. With all the miles ahead of me, it seemed time attend the problem. I got checked out of the room, had breakfast and showed up at the shop at the agreed upon time. However, the owner had booked two in front of me. I had expected the one, but this second customer was an unwelcome surprise to me. I was asked to wait at LEAST an hour. So much for small town repair shops. I decided to do an about face and begin traveling immediately.

Damn! Later on the drive the driver’s outside door handle broke. It was a bit stiff before I left San Diego, but I’d lubed it and it seemed to be working fine. Now it appears it will be an annoyance until I get home.

Just before reaching Anchorage, I stopped at Potter’s Marsh just south of town. I saw only Mew Gulls … lots of them. Even the fledglings were airborne. Yet another sign of the advancing season I guess!

07/11/05: Glennallen

I drove all the way from Seward to Glennallen, a distance of about 300 miles. I stopped at a few place, but only briefly … until I came to a section of the road that promised the Arctic Warbler. The second stop I made on the stretch of road described, delivered the bird. The subject, however, proved impossible to photograph. He’d sing, but either from inside a willow thicket, or from behind a branch on the back side of a spruce tree. Try as I might, I could not get this bird to pose for a portrait. After about 40 minutes, I had to give up and stop bothering the bird.

What makes this bird so interesting to me, is that it won’t likely be seen further south on our continent. When it leaves here, it travels the Western Pacific shores of Asia. Our only opportunity to meet the bird on this continent, is right here, right now.

Last night I spent some time looking at maps and referring to my bird finding book. An hour’s drive to the north. I made notes on my maps for about the first 25 miles on places I might meet some interesting birds, including the Upland Sandpiper. There might also be large mammals too.

Later:

The Nabesna Road runs for 42 miles from the Tok Cutoff into the Wrangell-Saint Ellias National Park, only the first 4 miles are paved. My drive wasn’t very eventful. I stopped, listened, explored side trails, looked … I didn’t see and noteworthy birds. I did see some HUGE wolf prints. I used to raise Saint Bernards and these were substantially bigger. What a thrill it would be to see this critter. I traveled to Rock Lake and Long Lake. Other than a few ducks on the water and some Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows, there wasn’t much going on with the birds. I keep getting the feeling that the birds are moving south and so should I.

07/12/05: Tok, Again

Yesterday wound me up back in Tok, thus completing a very large triangular trip through Alaska’s interior. From here I will head towards the Yukon on the Alaska Highway. Since I entered Alaska via the Top Of The World Road and the Taylor Highway, there’ll be fresh scenery ahead. There appears to be a number of birding opportunities up to the Yukon border, and I still have five days before I catch the ferry in Haines. I might as well take a look at some of these places … even if it is late in the season. I drove 21 miles out of Tok to Midway Lake. I pulled off the road to investigate. The dirt road to the lake led me to a small floating dock. I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to get the boat in the water.

It took me about an hour to get the boat down, hook up the motor and batteries, mount the camera support and shove off. The lake was mostly pretty shallow and weedy. It caused me some grief with the propellor, but I learned a few tricks in clearing the propellor. It was at times, windy on the lake and I had to develop some techniques to deal with that as well. I decided to head into the wind and cross the lake to the southern shore, then use the wind to come around the west end of the lake and back to the dock. On the lake there were ducks with young in tow, Pacific Loons feeding, but most were too far away for photos. Then I had some luck with Trumpeter Swans and six signets that came into my path. I got what I believe will be some very good photos. The parent would fly and land near me and then try to lead me away from her half grown brood by swimming ahead. The whole procession started moving in the direction of the dock I needed to return to. I got enough pictures in about 10 minutes and then spent time trying to out run the group and let them return to the area where I first encountered them. It took longer than I would have liked, but I was eventually successful in getting past them and they did go back as I’d hoped. The parent continued to lead me away, honking and being prominent, eventually she (I assume ‘she’) finally flew off and made a big circle back to her brood.

When I reached the dock, there were Spotted Sandpipers … a mom and her fuzzy young (two that I saw). I took some photos before they too moved on.

It took me about another hour to load the boat and all it’s chowder back on the Samurai. After all, the ‘custom’ cover was made to fit TWO boats. There were plenty of adjustments to get it to work on the single boat.

When I got back on the road, the Samurai wasn’t running very well at all. It was almost like it was running on three cylinders. I stopped to check the wires, but that didn’t seem to be the problem. I considered that it might be some bad gas that I purchased in Tok, or some related fuel problem. Thirty miles further, I stopped at Northway and bought some Methanol additive to dissolve water in fuel. I added two to the tank and pulled out, but the Sami died in the lot and would not start. I decided to call AAA and request a tow. Damn! Before the tow arrived (two hours later), I managed to get Sami started, but still running as bad as before. Sami rode back to Tok on a flat bed trailer.

07/13/05: Back in Tok

I had breakfast early so I could be at the garage ‘front and center’ at 8am. I stopped at 7am on my way in to the restaurant, but the mechanics weren’t set to get in until 8-8:30am.

Without all the detail, between 9am and 1pm, we replaced the fuel filter, replaced cap-rotor-plugs (I brought them with me), replaced on questionable plug wire, the air filter, checked the fuel pressure. I added 5 more gallons of high test fuel. After all this, the Samurai ran better, but still not right. I decided to get the tires balanced and rotated at a station down the road and spend the night here and leave, come what may, in the morning.

07/14/05: Is the third try the charm?

This morning I find myself leaving Tok for the 3rd time. The Samurai still loses power when I ask it for too much, but feel like I can get to Haines. That the ‘Check Engine’ light never came on, gives me hope that the injectors are delivering enough fuel to run. Perhaps, if bad gas is the culprit, by running through a few tanks of high octane fuel will clear the problem.

My ferry leaves at 9:30pm on the 17th and I need to be there by 7:30pm. That gives me 3 ½ days to cover 440 miles. I believe that’s well within my reach … barring no more unpleasant surprises.

It’s a high gray sky that greets me this morning. Folks here have been talking about what an unusually rainy season its been … until I got here. Perhaps the rainy pattern has returned.

07/15/05: Haines

Yesterday I pushed the Samurai all the way to Haines. At Haines Junction, 155 miles north of here, I added more methanol, some injector cleaner and more high octane fuel. None of these have seemed to help. If I drive with about 25% throttle it seems almost OK, but if I ask for more power it hesitates and seems to loose power. I’ve been able to achieve 50-60 mph on the flats, but only 40-50 on hills. It has less power than before I put in this ‘stronger’ 16 valve engine.

I pulled into Haines and immediately looked for a garage. I found one and made an appointment for the morning. I then went looking for a motel. I found the “Captain’s Choice” motel that looked over the water and had wireless internet. I booked three nights at $97/day. I still had time to look over the town.

Everywhere I’ve been on this trip, the Samurai (complete with boat on top) has been a head turner. It seems to bring a smile to faces. I will get comments as I drive slowly by like, “Hey, I like your rig” and “Now there’s fun just waiting to happen.” Sometimes longer conversations will start. I’ve had guys that say they have or used to have a Samurai. Then they are interested in how mine is outfitted. My first hour in Haines fulfilled this trend a couple of times.

Yesterday, when I made the appointment for the Samurai, I’d considered staying with it and watching the process. However, this morning I feel I’d like to take care of other projects, and perhaps walk to the harbor with my camera gear. (It looks as though I’ve used up most of the time in typing up this tome.)

I dropped Sami off at the shop at 8:00am and got a ride back to my room. I was warned that a panic job on a tour bus came in early and they had to give it priority. My feeling is as long as the problem gets solved today, I’ll be OK. At about 3:30pm I got the Samurai back. Other than a loose bolt on the EGR valve, a new set of plug wires solved the problem. They decided to fly in a top of the line set of Beldon, lifetime warranty wires from Juneau. Even at $116 + $10 shipping, I’d have agreed to their choice, though I wasn’t asked. Bottom line: it runs great again. This shop in Haines was much more professional than the ‘just get you going’ shop in Tok.

Ed, a fellow at the garage, told me of a place on the lower Chilkoot River where bears could be found. Just below Chilkoot Lake and a mile or so above the mouth of the river, on the east side and above the bridge, brown bears, including sows with cubs, had a long history of fishing. There is a weir fish counter stationed just above this spot, so the salmon get backed up and the bears take advantage of the situation.

I made two trips to the location. One at 4:00pm after retrieving the Samurai, and another at 8:00pm which I stayed until 9:30pm when it was getting dark. I was told that evening was the best time, but it seems the bears were exploiting some other food source during these times (or resting), and weren’t to be seen here.

This same fellow, Ed, has a new Mexican restaurant in town and I decided to give it a try in-between my visits to the fish weir. Ed told me that he built a house here 18 years ago (sort of a New England style, two story with veranda in front). After the kids were raised and had left the nest, he and his wife decided to make an upstairs apartment and convert the house into a restaurant. I asked him why he chose ‘Mexican’ cuisine. He explained that he’d polled the town folk as to what venue they’d most like to see added to the town. ‘Mexican’ was the overwhelming favorite and had about 80% of the votes.

This day started out kind of gray and cloudy, but turned into a beautiful, sunny afternoon and evening.

07/16/05: Haines All Day

Though I was present all day here in Haines, I spent most of the early portion in my motel room working at the computer while the Samurai was in the shop. My ‘bear hunting’ trips didn’t pan out but the salmon were definitely there.

This morning I got up too early for breakfast (restaurant was closed), so I decided to make another run at the bears. No bears again! I’m sure its not the location. I saw signs warning fishermen not to enter the area due to bears. I’m sure it’s a ‘timing’ thing. I plan to go back up later today, as I saw mergansers and kingfishers that interested me.

After breakfast I ventured south down Mud Bay Road. I stopped at a few places along the way. I drove into the Chilkat State Park. I did not find exciting birds, but this sure is fantastic country.

That’s my report for now. I’ll stay here again tonight and then catch the ferry at 9:30pm tomorrow evening.

Be Well,

Jack



July 27, 2005

[07/17/05 – 07/27/05]

Presenting another episode in the continuing saga. Our last episode ended on July 16, as I waited for the ferry in Haines Alaska. Shall we start there?

07/17/05: In preparation for the ferry

We have a nice little rain going this morning. That will make packing the Samurai a bit tricky. None the less, that is what must be done. I have until 11am to check out and I intend to use all the time available. I took Sami down to a coin op wash and shed some of the grit and grime accumulated on the last stretches of highway. Hopefully it will cut down on some of the transfers from Sami to me.

 

I understand that this region is very ‘birdy’ during peak migrations in spring and fall. However at this time, in mid July, things are a bit slow birdwise. I’m not sure if there will be photo opportunities on the ferry, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I’ve been told I could see a good deal of cetaceous mammals on the way, but we won’t know until I look for myself.

 

There’s a lot to like about Haines. Mostly, the folks here seem happy to be here. That will put most people into a mind set where they are nice to one another. As I visit different places on this trip, in the back of my mind I’ve been considering “would I like to live here?” So far Haines is one of the three places that have intrigued me. The other two have been Seward and Whitehorse.

(Later in the day)

I spent the day exploring bird options north of Haines. I stopped by the ferry terminal and got my ‘lane assignment’ (this is the final step before boarding) for the voyage. Since the ‘bear location’ I’d been scoping out was also in this area, I gave it one more try, but still no bears. While at the bear site, I saw a family of Common Mergansers swim by, down stream on the way to the bay, but I wasn’t ready with my camera and had to be content to just watch them. I did get a couple of mediocre shots of an American Dipper at the weir, but the light was poor and I didn’t expect anything wonderful.

On exiting the area, I drove south with the intention of getting a shot of a Belted Kingfisher. I’d seen one the day before perched on a piece of driftwood. Knowing these birds will frequent favored perches from which to spot fish, I planned to give it a try. Before reaching the spot I planned to wait for the kingfisher, I spied to merganser family swimming and fishing along the near shore. Mom was trying to teach her five half grown young about catching eels. They were moving along the shoreline just as the River Otters had in Seward and I used the same strategy of moving ahead and shooting as the went by. I got hundreds of shots in this way. I finally did get to the location I’d hoped to see the kingfisher, but 3 ½ hours did not produce the result I’d hoped for, though a Pigeon Guillemot did offer himself up for a few good shots. This visit with the bayside was a nice way to pass time until I had to get loaded onto the ferry.

At 10:45pm I finally got aboard the ferry and the sea voyage had begun. It was a good idea to get a cabin. From the looks of things it was quite a scramble for everyone who was staying on the deck to find a space. I found my room and tried to sleep.

07/18/05: The M/V Matanuska

Sleep was hard to come by last night. Between the vibration of the engines and the party crowd in the next cabin with their nonsense, I struggled. Fortunately, Juneau was only a few hours away and after the loud crowd disembarked there, I was able to drift off. I began to think of the engine vibration as one of those “Magic Finger” machines that one used to find attached to those motel beds, that for a quarter, would vibrate the bed for a cheap massage.

My GPS tells me that we’re traveling at a rate of 18 mph. Out the window of my cabin my views of the mountains we are passing by are limited by a low ceiling of clouds. Through them, I can see the occasional patch of sky that off hope of better weather later on. But it could just be teasing me.

I used the ferry time to relax and do computer work in my cabin. I ventured out onto the deck a few time to enjoy the fresh air. Due to the high winds on deck and the unstable conditions, I decided against bringing out the camera gear. Even on the occasion that we encountered the pod of about 20 Humpback Whales, the best way to enjoy the experience was by using binoculars and trying to stay clear of the wind and the chill. It was quite a thrill and I enjoyed the fluke slapping, spy hopping, breaching, and the upright tails flipped before a deep dive. The captain was good enough to announce the whale sighting opportunity and I was able to get up on the deck in time to enjoy the encounter. When he announce the killer whales though, I wasn’t able to get on deck quickly enough. Unlike the humpies, they were quick to get moving on.

We pulled into Petersburg with not enough time for anyone to get off board and explore the town. I hadn’t planned to do so anyway. This is a town with a LOT of boats and docks … significantly more than I’d seen in Haines. I could see the potential for some interesting encounters here, given the time and resources.

Round about 5pm we pulled out of Wrangell. From the ferry it looked like another place worth a later visit. I was struck with how much like Haines it was. They could be sisters. From here were off to Ketchikan and by 9:30am tomorrow I should be in Prince Rupert, BC.

07/19/05: Prince Rupert BC

Getting off the ferry was a pain. First, my time calculations were off. At 5:30am the PA announced that we’d be docking in an hour. Even with the loss of an hour for the time change, this was two hours earlier than I’d figured. Ah well! I was able to get my cabin gear packed and get showered before they opened the car deck. I had to make two trips from the cabin to get my ‘normal’ gear loaded into the Samurai. The kicker was that on boarding the ferry, I had to dismount my two 5 gallon Jerry cans and store them in the ship’s paint locker at the opposite end of the boat as my parking location. By the time I was ready to roll, all the rest of the cars, busses, motorcycles and RV’s had  already gotten into the customs check line and I had to take my place at the rear. It took an hour for the customs agents to get to me and then I got pulled in to the secondary inspections area for another 20 minutes. Following this, I had to spend time to organize my gear again to recover from the pilfering that had just gone on.

Finally free to travel, I went on a quest for breakfast. I took a tour of the ‘downtown’ area nearest the docks. Those restaurants I encountered seemed to me some combination of oriental and western cuisine. I made a selection and enjoyed a small breakfast at “Herby’s Family Restaurant”.

After eating breakfast, I set my sights on Stewart-Hyder some 300 miles away to the north by highway. Other than fuel and rest stops, I did not deviate from the plan. The scenery was pleasant until the final stretch down to Stewart, then it became magnificent. The road navigates an extremely deep gorge decorated with glaciers. In particular, “Bear Glacier” extends from high up the nearly vertical slopes and terminates at the river below, calving its white-blue ice into the waters. A little further down the road we encounter ribbons of falling water as they stream from the glaciers pillowing the tops of the ridge lines. Just wonderful!

I drove though Stewart, BC and the 2 Km of road that lead to Hyder, and I was in Alaska again. I found accommodations for the next two nights and set out for “Fish Creek” four miles out of town on a dirt road. I’d read about the observatory for watching bears feed on salmon. I scoped it out, but I was too tired to stay long (the light was dim) and I didn’t see any bears this day.

07/20/05: Stewart/Hyder

These two small towns, are closely linked. Even though an international border separates them, they are just 2 Km apart. The US Customs does not monitor the crossing, but Canada does. The expected currency in Hyder is Canadian.

It rained last night and it’s a gray and cloudy sky that greets me this morning. My plans include exploring the surrounding area and making another run at the Bear Observatory.

At the Bear Observatory I found warblers, thrushes and sparrows. The rangers at the observatory stated that there weren’t many fish in the creek and it seems to have resulted in very few bears feeding in the creek. Those bears that did come would not stay very long. I did see about 20-30 fish in the creek, but in a good run, there would be hundreds. The salmon here are Chum Salmon.

(Later in the evening)

Again I missed the bears today. They made an appearance early in the morning, then retired before I got there. I stayed at the observatory all day and left in the early evening. I did better with birds than with the bears. I got a couple of families of Common Mergansers, a Fox Sparrow, Cedar Waxwings (good shots), MacGillavray’s Warbler (my 1st), and some juvenile Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

I also had a couple of very pleasant meetings and one not so pleasant. In the morning I met a gal who the locals see as the ‘bird expert’. I don’t think she would consider herself as such, but she was enthusiastic about the local bird scene. Later in the afternoon I had a long, very pleasant visit with a couple from Prescott, AZ. After chatting for quite some time I decided to ask if they knew a guy who I knew had retired there. He had been my first GOOD insurance agent when I started my business in 1983. Not only did the know him, the lady had gone through school and graduated high school with him. Small world! We shared many stories about places we’d each been to in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

In between these two great meetings, who should pull into the observatory, but Steve and Corky. Its not that there was anything specifically ugly about the encounter, but it was the uncomfortable feeling that left me feeling unsettled. Given the small area that everyone at the observatory was confined to, there was no option except for us to ‘grin’ at each other. I did learn, that though I ferried, they drove all the way and we STILL ended up at Hyder at the same time … go figure!

07/21/05: Leaving Hyder

I got rolling out of my room at 6am this morning. The café (Wild Flour) wasn’t open yet, so I decided to drive the four miles to the bear observatory. While I was visiting with a gentleman at the railing of the platform and overlooking the creek, out from the brush on the opposite side of the creek pops a momma black bear and her two cubs. She put on a show running up and down the creek after fish that she could not seem to catch, ate some berries and lead her cubs along the creek. It was a nice show.

I decided that it was time to put my own ‘show’ on the road and I headed back down the road, had breakfast at the Wild Flour (very good food too), then I started my push southward.

On my drive I reached Moricetown Canyon and decided to have a soup break (I heat water with a 12v coffee pot while I drive). At this location the river below chokes down from a 80-100′ shallow, peaceful channel, to 15-20′ chute and drops perhaps 50 feet over a tenth of a mile. The gentle stream turns into a raging, churning boil of water as it roars through this narrow passage. That makes this place a natural gauntlet where the local ‘first nation’ peoples (as the Indians or native peoples are called in Canada) can stand at the banks with long poles fitted with steel hooks and try to catch a salmon swimming to spawn. I watched the scene for a half hour but I didn’t get to witness a ‘catch’. I don’t think the fish were present in great numbers for my visit, but I enjoyed the spectacle.

07/22/05: Were really moving now!

Last night, while driving south, I looked through Prince George for lodging. There were a few candidates at the north end of town, but I passed them up thinking that I’d find something at the south end of town. I fueled up at the other end of town, but found no rooms there.

After fueling, I was parked and checking my maps and making notes, when I was approached my two motor cyclists, who after a time were overcome with curiosity about my rig. It was obvious that I’d been traveling, and they were more or less just beginning their travels. They were a 45 year old father and his 17 year old son on a trip from Coeur ‘d Alene Idaho. They were two days into their two week trip which was planned for parts unknown. We shared stories for about 45 minutes. They’d heard stories about Hyder and I encouraged them to go there and talk with the rangers about their plans for the primitive road north from Hyder. After we parted, it dawned on me that they didn’t seem to have any bear interventions. My hope is that after speaking with the rangers at Hyder, they get it figured out.

I drove on south and found a room at Hixon, about half way to Quesnel (pronounced kwiNELL). While registering, the manager looked at the address and noticed ‘Poway’ on the form. It caught his attention because he had another guest at his RV park next door who was from Poway. Apparently this guest had been making pilgrimages up for weeks at a time for several years. I did not get to meet the guest, as I got on the road south before he made his normal appearance for coffee with the manager. I gave a card to the manager and perhaps I’ll get a call from this ‘Ed’ fellow. Small world?

Driving south of Quesnel, the topography opens up as it is more ‘agriculturally’ developed. There are timber stands at the margins of the fields that serve to define the boundaries, but there is no escaping the impact that farming and ranching have made on the valleys. Hay seems to be the main crop here.

I saw a sign at the side of the road that gave me a smile. It read: “All those against speeding tickets, raise your right foot.”

Further south, between Clinton and Ashcroft (no, not the US politicians), the valleys and hill slopes are dominated by sage. It isn’t until the slopes reach some elevation that the sage meets the trees. The valleys below are being worked as hay fields, but no doubt these were once dominated with sage and grasses too. Traveling yet further south, I’m struck with how much I’m reminded on the great gorge valleys in northern Idaho.

I have to hand it to Canada! There is some amazing scenery here. The road I’m on is called Highway 1 and it carries it’s travelers through a very dramatic river canyon that leads through “Hell’s Gate”. To make the passage, a series of tunnels must be penetrated. Some of them are very long and curved. The road skirts the canyon about midway between the ridges high above and the river far below and it makes for some very dramatic vistas. It’s not a road I’d recommend to acrophobics.

Hope, BC is rather near the US border. Here the road crosses to the south of the river and rides low next to the water. The wind here is strong and it has been since before I reached Hell’s Gate. The steep slopes are heavily timbered and I’m reminded of the Columbia River Gorge as it cuts through the Cascade Range.

At 7:30pm I’ve made it into Washington State. The border check was a pain. There wasn’t a problem with the agency, but there was an absence of traffic control and anarchy and chaos ruled the lanes leading to the agents. I entered the USA at Summas, WA and passed through Everston on my way to Bellingham. The town of Everston has a very 1950’s, sort of mid-west look and feel to it and it makes me think I’ve gone back in time.

For me, the road ends today between Seattle and Tacoma at 10pm. I stayed and rested until about 10:30am in the morning and took what I feel was a well earned rest.

07/23/05: The Columbia Gorge

This morning I set out on the road with the idea of driving the I-5 down to Grant’s Pass Oregon and then the Smith River route to Crescent City California. As I fought with the traffic on I-5, the idea of driving the Oregon coast began to take root. When I got to Kelso, WA I decided to drive the north side of the Columbia River, as I had never traveled that route before. While the Smith River road to the coast is very scenic, it is a road I’ve traveled a few times.

The change of pace from freeway hustle to blue highway serenity was immediately a relief. When I reached the banks of the Columbia I stopped for a while to clear my head and to look and listen for birds. It was a beautiful sun shiny day with not more than a few faint wisps of clouds in the distance. The infamous Mount Saint Helens was even in full view. Overhead I saw and heard a light juvenile Swainson’s Hawk as it soared along the vertical rock face of the gorge’s north rim. Flying low over the water, was a Double-crested Cormorant. There were many gulls. I think there were Western, Mew and Glaucus-winged Gulls. There were Caspian Terns. And I heard an Osprey.

Driving on for a short distance, there on a piling in the river, about even with the level of the road and about 60′ off the shore, was a large Osprey nest with mom (or dad) and two kids about 3/4 grown. This situation demanded that I stop and break out the camera. I could have wished for better light, but I took what was offered and burned images for an hour or so. Ah, the universe can be generous!

After driving over the river’s bridge to Astoria, OR, I had the misfortune to have timed my arrival with solid stream of  weekend vacationers and their RV’s and a second main bridge that was shut down (due to accident?). With a convoluted detour, it took an hour and a half to progress to the next five miles. Traffic after that was heavy and tense until I got down the coast to Seaside, where things eased up a bit.

As I drove past Cannon Beach to Manzanita, I was struck with how beautiful this coastline is. I’d been over it before, but I’d forgotten how impressive it is … especially driving south. The road carries you high along rocky cliffs and offers great views of the beaches to the south.

07/24/05: It’s the home of the cheese

Seeking a motel last night turned out to be a real challenge. Virtually every little cottage, cabin, motel and hotel was displaying a “No Vacancy” sign. It wasn’t until I reached Tillamook that I was able to find lodging. Even at $140, I knew I had to take it, as my energy was fading fast.

Today’s plan is still a general drive southward. It’s a beautiful morning here and all things seem possible. My drive through the north-central Oregon coast yields mostly gulls in my quest for birds. There are a few cormorants and crows thrown in for good measure. I left the main highway and turned towards Netarts Bay. The tide was out and almost the entire bay was exposed mud flats. The weekend clam diggers were out in force. If one is into that sort of activity, I’m sure the mud flats were a source of great delight. As I scanned the flats, there amongst the gulls and clam diggers were a couple of Great Blue Herons. I had seen a couple of these in BC, but they seems totally absent in Alaska.

Continuing south from this bay as it leads to Cape Lookout, one’s views are restricted to a tunnel of trees. It makes me realize that to really ‘see’ this region, I’d have to invest more time than I’m prepared to spend on this trip. There are hikes just begging me to take them. None the less, the drive is pretty.

South of Bandon, it was time to take a break. I found a back road that led me to Floras Lake State Park and parked there near a primitive boat ramp. While I was waiting for my soup water to boil, I began to notice a juvenile bird begging for food in some nearby shrubs. It was a Brown-headed Cowbird, but I wasn’t able to see who the unlucky ‘parent’ was. Birds that I was able to identify were: American Goldfinch, Cedar Waxwings and Black-headed Grosbeaks (these I heard). There was a mystery singer high up in a tree that I wasn’t able to ID. I couldn’t place  it’s song either.

07/25/05: Starting out in Brookings Oregon

By the time I reached Brookings Oregon last night, I’d had enough of traveling for the day. I toured the town a bit to see what I could see, the I checked into a room for the night. I have some old friends that I’d gone to school with that had moved here. I hadn’t seen them for a long time so I looked up their number, called and left a message. This morning I got a return call and we arranged to meet for breakfast a little later. After breakfast I followed my friend up the mountain to his new ‘digs’. What a place! He and his wife bought a HUGE house on 20 mountain top acres. At 1200′ elevation it looks down the river valley over the giant trees to the town and the Great Pacific Ocean beyond. Just awesome! After he had showed me around the place and we’d visited for a couple of hours, it was time for me to get back to the road south.

I stopped in Crescent City, CA to get Sami’s oil changed. There I learned the rear springs had fatigued and I was riding on the axle … no wonder I was tired of the driving! Not much could be done at this time and I’m sure the situation had degraded to this point some time ago, driving on as it was seemed a good option

I made a stop in ‘redwood country’ to see what birds I might meet and to enjoy some peace and quiet. There I met swallows, waxwings, grosbeaks, vultures and flycatchers. I repeated this ‘stopping routine’ several times as I continued south through the redwoods of Northern California. Often I am overwhelmed with the ‘church-like’ atmosphere in these primaeval forests. Actually no church can match the divine feeling that permeates these woods. Everything about these groves flood the senses … the light ribbons that manage to penetrate the high canopy and dance with the butterflies that play among the ferns on the floor … the pirouetting of these butterflies as they flirt with each other in spiraling flight from the floor skyward … the sounds of the wind through the canopy … the creaking of the masts of these giants as they gently sway … Wonderful!

07/26/05: Pacific Sunsets

By the time I reached the coast again last night on Highway 1, sunset was rapidly approaching. I found a trail to the beach that I’d found my last trip this way in the fall of 2001. I drove Sami out onto the beach to take some pictures. I’d been wanting to get some shots of the rig as I headed south on this trip and this was my opportunity.  There were a few other folks out on the beach enjoying the moment, and while I was fully engrossed in the photo session, kneeling for a low angle, a sweet little girl bulldog came up and surprised me with a wet nose to my cheek. She then began investigating the Samurai and became a ‘model’ in some of my frames … I forgot to get her to sign a “Release Form” …  Later I chatted with the people she owned and learned they were care taking a ranch nearby (nice gig!). We all had to get on our way again and I headed the few miles further south to Fort Bragg and found lodging for the night.

Leaving here after breakfast, my plan is to head inland on the road to Williams (on the I-5). I’ve not traveled this road before, and I am looking forward to the fresh scenery ahead. I know the interior will be scorching, but I’ll just have to deal with it.

If I continue with my present plan, I’ll turn back to the coast after the ‘Bay Area’. The most direct route would take me through Watsonville, and Santa Cruz to the Monterey-Carmel area and then south through Big Sur. The ‘upside’ of this option is the scenery … one would have to look long and hard to find its rival, but the ‘downside’ would be the traffic. I would no doubt meet crowds there. My second option is the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road that crosses over from Fort Hunter Liggett to the coast between Lucia and Gorda. I’ve driven this road in the past, but I was going the opposite direction. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again from the east to the west. I have all day to decide while I continue my march south.

Fueling up before I pulled out of Fort Bragg, I was approached by a man who was curious about my boat. We chatted for quite a while and we learned a little about each other. He was a retired Merchant Marine who was now pursuing art as his passion. We found out we had quite a lot in common. We exchanged information and I continued my journey. He said he had relatives in La Jolla, so I might hear from him when he comes this way to visit.

Highway 20 traverses the coastal mountains from Fort Bragg to the Central Valley at Williams. On the way, it skirts the northern shoreline of Clear Lake. As I drove by, I was reminded of friends who lived on the southern shore at Middle Lake. We used to play music together in the early 1980’s. I then remembered driving a section of this road from Williams in order to get to Middle Lake as part of  a Montana-Oregon-California trip I’d made many years ago.

Clear Lake is a relatively large body of water. Its about a dozen miles east to west and almost a half dozen north to south at its widest. I saw huge numbers of grebes on the waters just off shore. In measuring their numbers I’d be inclined to use ‘hundreds’ as a unit of quantity. There are probably several thousand Clark’s and Western Grebes here with young aging from days old to many weeks old. These birds are much alike and used to be considered as the same bird species. Both birds have a black ‘hat’, but the Western has dark feathers surrounding the eye, and the Clark’s has white about the eye.

My drive through the Central Valley was hot and the traffic on the I-5 was horrendous. At times it became a slow moving parking lot, but I pushed on into the early evening in order to get as far as Highway 101.

07/27/05: Fifty-six and Gilroy, “The Garlic Capitol of the World”

This day begins my 57th year on the planet and it begins in Gilroy, the self proclaimed “Garlic Capitol of the World”. The air quality in the entire region adjacent to the Bay Area has been miserable and an abuse to eyes and lungs. The smell of garlic and onions here mingles in and helps to mitigate the smog.

I made the decision to bypass the Monterey-Carmel traffic and take the ‘road less traveled’ over the mountains to the coast at the south end of Big Sur. I am curious what I might find on the beaches at Piedras Blancas a little further to the south between Ragged Point and San Simeon. At different times of the year, the Northern Elephant Seals will frequent the beaches there.

It’s a gray overcast this that starts my day as I get going to the south along this region of the San Andreas Fault. As I drive further south, the grayness yields to sunnier conditions and I can see a brownish haze to the valley air. I exit the 101 near King City at the Jolon Road exit and drive south and west to Fort Hunter Liggett. My last trip over this road was a month after 9-11 and there were no check getting through the base. Now we need to show ID, registration and insurance in order to gain the right to pass. This is another reminder how the world keeps changing … not necessarily for the better.

Soon after entering the base I crossed a creek via a steel bridge, where just down stream I kicked up a hen Mallard and a couple of Green Herons … nice! Shortly thereafter on passing their resting spot in another creek bottom, about a half dozed Mule Deer, including a small buck in velvet,  jumped up and made their way up the far bank to disappear into the brush on the hillside above.

Later, while crossing the lowland flats of grassy fields who’s expanse was often broken with large oak trees, I spotted a magpie flying. It was somehow different from magpies one often sees elsewhere, this bird had a very YELLOW beak sticking out in front of its face. I’ve been hoping to meet the Yellow-billed Magpie for several years. They are found only in this part of California. I will try on some trip in the future to get its portrait.

Further along on this Nacimiento-Ferguson road I stopped at a campground at the base of the grade before it makes its ascent over the mountains. There I found a creek, many large trees (coastal and deciduous oaks, sycamore, madrone), and lots of poison oak. While looking and listening, the call of a Cassin’s Vireo caught my ear. I was able to locate one of the birds and spent some time trying to capture a decent portrait.

On crossing the ridge and descending a short way down the western slopes, I could see that low clouds were hugging the coastline far below. It was sure to be much cooler below. I was anxious to get to the beaches at Piedras Blancas and I continued toward that destination. On my way down, I kept seeing Band-tailed Pigeons flying from the lower elevations. As luck would have it, very near the bottom of the grade, I discovered their roosting place when a group of about a dozen took flight from the chaparral just above my position on the road. One of the birds had the courtesy to maintain its perch for a few minutes and I enjoyed watching through the binoculars. It was too far away for a satisfactory photo.

I continued my southward journey, making a few stops along the way. When I reached the beaches I knew the seals might use, I had to go investigate. Sure enough, there were many enormous bachelors asleep on sands. Some were in heavy molt, which is normal for this time of year. I took a few photos then drove on into San Simeon, found a room, had dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and settled in for the evening.

07/28/05: San Simeon and Home Again

I have a cousin who lives in Cambria, just to the south of San Simeon. Last night, before going to bed, I placed a call and happily his wife answered. She passed the phone to my cousin and we made an arrangement to meet for breakfast this morning. I’d been through this area many times in the past 20 years or so, but we always managed to miss connections. Today that streak was about to end.

My cousin, at one time was the head of California’s Lifeguards. Later he transferred to the State Rangers, and was senior in the branch of the agency that manages the Hearst Castle. I learned he’d retired in 1998 and that he and his wife spend more time at the house they’d built near the tip of Baja, than they do in Cambria. I was invited to visit them there. It was nice to make this connection again after all these years.

After the visit, at about 11am, I pointed the Samurai south toward home and ground out the rest of the trip home. Some 400 miles later, I made it.

And so endeth the journey.

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