SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2001
BIRDING FOR YUKON GOLD
by Margo Hearne
The Dempster Highway was our destination; we just never made it. We tripped over Pacific Loons in Ross River and got tangled up with Pileated Woodpeckers in Fort Nelson. We also dipped into the Liard Hot Springs along the Alaska Highway as our friends had given us strict orders to swim in the Springs before we left, otherwise our journey north would not be worth it. They were right, it's almost mandatory to soak up the minerals and walk the lovely boardwalks beside the warm pools. Apart from the sultry indulgence of it all there are song birds in the trees and tropical plants near the ponds, including fourteen orchids and fourteen plant species that survive this far north only because of the Springs.
Our journey from Prince George took us north through Pine Pass where a family of Black Bears fed on dandelions beside the highway. It was such a pastoral scene that it looked as though we all shared the same piece of paradise and could hop out of the truck and hand-feed them. Foolish thought, for look who's around the corner. None other than Ursus arctos, Mister Grizzly, harmlessly munching wildflowers. We had a close look at this majestic creature from a locked truck with rolled-up windows for although Ben Gadd, in his wonderful, informative book 'Handbook of the Canadian Rockies', assured us that 'grizzly bears almost never attack humans to eat them' we had no inclination to be the 'almost' added protein to this vegetarian snack. We drove on to Windy Point and watched finches eating seeds while we sipped coffee, a far less risky activity all round.
In Fort Nelson we stayed at a friendly motel off the highway where we could watch the endless sunset and did a test run of our cooking equipment before heading out into the wilds. We drove down to Parker Lake and had a tail-gate supper of beans, burgers, and buns while admiring the pristine lake and watched Red-winged Blackbirds as they swayed and sung from the very tips of the reeds by the shore. Two colourful Pileated Woodpeckers zipped across the road, intent and silent. It looked as though the woodpeckers were going flat-out to ensure that the next generation was bred and fed before freeze-up a few month hence. The gulls and grebes in the lake didn't appear so rushed, seeming to float idly on the blue surface like so many painted decoys.
Just outside Fort Nelson the road forks north and west. As we had taken the northern route to Fort Liard the year before it was Alaska Ho! for us. It's a busy little boulevard. People are so jaded with the constant traffic through to Fairbanks and beyond that they assume everyone is going there. Even the lovely town of Fort Nelson has become merely a through route and the campground is full of 'or-vees' practically throughout the season, the owners spending hours and gallons of water washing them down and filling them up. Visitor information centre staff there are so pleased to meet people who are not going to Alaska that they will chat for hours and help out with all sorts of information and advice on the best roads to travel and the best places to visit.
The mountains of Stone Mountain Provincial Park, along the Alaska Highway, are magnificent. In places they looked as though they had been stirred vigorously by a huge hand then had solidified into striated curves and whorls. We had plenty of opportunity to admire them as we were often trapped behind a convoy of RV's or sat waiting it out as road construction crews hung from ropes and picked off loose rock from the cliffs beside the road. These stops, while mighty chilly from a glacial wind sweeping down the mountains, gave us the opportunity to admire Stone Sheep, indigenous to the northern mountains of BC and southern Yukon, as they grazed casually along the highway. They didn't seem to care that their fascinating ancestors had survived the ice-age of 10,000 years ago when Alaska and the Yukon was connected to eastern Siberia by the Bering land bridge (Beringia, now as lost as Atlantis). When the ice melted and their homeland began to fill with water they moved south along the ridges of Stone Mountain where today they are extensively studied, being more Asian than North American. We also saw the occasional Grizzly bear in the distance (happily) equally oblivious to its fame, who's ancestors had 'swept out of Beringia to populate all of western North America'.
The lakes along the highway are dazzling. Muncho Lake lay like a sheet of turquoise and emerald silk, Toad Lake (great name!) had diverse ducks including a family of tiny mallard chicks strung out behind mom and looking as though they were being towed to the far shore.
We made it to Watson Lake, our campsite for the night, and discovered we had packed an old ratty tent, full of holes, instead of our spanking new wilderness one. We looked at it in dismay as it lay there, completely useless, then unpacked everything from the back of the pickup and made that our quarters.
After dinner we found Watson Lake airport, which handles traffic from all over the north including at one time, Russia. It's a great place to watch birds. There were a few picnic tables at the bottom end of a grass runway with Yukon Government signage warning us to 'keep it clean' yet dandelions sprouted everywhere, the grass was long and untrodden and it was pretty swampy. Perhaps the area is used by travellers from the north who pitch their tents while waiting for the next flight to the Arctic Circle, or, now that we had dipped into the Yukon, it was for ghosts of miners who camp out there while waiting for the next silent and mysterious flight to the fields of gold. Stranger things have been done in the midnight sun. There were a few shorebirds in the swampy area, including a greater yellowlegs and we had a really good look at the golden-yellow flash-marks of a Redstart, the butterfly bird, sparkling among the trees.
Back to our quarters, which were adequate at best for, without the protection of tent netting, it was a mosquito massacre, although I confess I hardly noticed as I fell sound asleep after our long day on the road and my relaxing dip in the Liard Hot Springs.
Next morning we dawdled along the Robert Campbell Highway, stopping every 100 metres to listen to warblers and scanning the lakes along the way for birds. At the north end of one of the lakes two immature bald eagles were feeding on the remains of a fresh moose kill which had been been dumped into the water. We didn't think there was anything strange about this, other than the waste of a wonderful creature until, as we looked out over the lake a small power boat, whose occupants had been fishing languidly out in the middle, suddenly roared to life and zipped out of sight. We realised later, after reading a pamphlet on poaching, that there might have been an unsavoury connection between the moose and the motorboat. Unseasonal slaughter?
At the vanished town of Tuchitua, the Nahanni Range Road jogs up to Tungsten. We had deliberated earlier as to whether or not we should take it but the decision was taken out of our hands when we got there. The road was a wreck and closed to all traffic. Fortunately for us, as it turned out, for we never would have made Tungsten before darkness fell, even in this never-ending twilight zone.
At Frances Lake, the largest along our route, we boiled up a billy of fresh coffee for it's hard to beat a decent cup when things begin to close in around you, especially mountains. It seemed that every creek and river poured from them into the lake and we could almost sense water slopping around our ankles beneath the picnic table. As we chowed down on cheese sandwiches we remarked on the unusual décor around us. Mew Gulls and Herring Gulls hanging out in trees. Not their usual habitat. They were showing off, saying. "Hey, guys, we're up here. Follow us." So we do, away from their nest hidden somewhere else. The sky darkened, thunder growled in the distance and a black fox ran across the road. Time to move on.
There's nothing like a slick, mud highway in the teeming rain to focus the mind and quickly find someone to blame, but there was no one around but ourselves. Conditions deteriorated and it was do or die, for we were almost equidistant from the turnoff at Watson Lake to our destination at Ross River. If the gold-seekers of long ago could travel through this stuff, well darn it, so could we. The narrow road had soft shoulders and major potholes. There were many steep, blind hills along the road (highway is too grand a word for it) with signs at the bottom of each warning us to 'keep to the right'. We soon discovered why as we almost ran into the double wreck of a recent head-on collision. Both vehicles were badly crumpled and the hazard lights of one flashed in the murky light. We stopped anxiously to seek out the wounded but tracks in the road showed that the occupants had got a lift from one of the very few mining vehicles that had passed us earlier. The scene put a definite damper on our spirits and we checked the 'Milepost' (never go north without it) and discovered that there was an airstrip ahead at Finlayson Lake. Perhaps we would try and camp there and give our brand new tent, purchased that morning in Watson Lake, a test run.
When we got there, however, we discovered a perfectly levelled and abandoned airstrip quickly turning into a buttercup field. There was neither human nor habitation to be seen. Rain dripped relentlessly from the bushes and a Semi-palmated Plover nesting in the middle of the strip was the only sentinel. The silence of the north settled over us. We fled back to the safety of the truck to the whistle of a White-crowned sparrow, cheerily undaunted by the gloom.
We carried on past grey, swollen rivers and along hill passes; remote, beautiful, mysterious country until finally driving into Ross River at nine o'clock at night, totally exhausted from the tension of the long day's drive. Everything seemed battened down and locked up. We looked for a B&B, or even a campsite, but finally gave up and checked into the 'Welcome Inn', a very welcome inn indeed. The manager/cook/bartender was young and cheerful and had been in Ross River for all of two weeks. He remarked on our lucky arrival as four vehicles had gone off the road ahead of us. He cooked up a delicious dinner of fish and chips and as we ate, we chatted to a bush pilot at the next table who had just checked in. He knew his way around the north and told us of the glory days of mining, when the north was booming and money was flowing. 'It's quiet now,' he said 'and I miss all that, but the north is beautiful in the fall when all the colours are red and gold and I can fly along the Tintina Trench from Dawson to Watson Lake.'
'Sounds lovely', we agreed. "What's the story on Finlayson Airstrip"?
'It's just an emergency strip now, although during the mining craze it was pretty frantic with traffic going all over. I've used it myself. It's handy knowing it's there especially with the quick weather changes in the north.'
We shared his sentiment and drank a toast to the inn for providing food and shelter at the end of a long day.
Hermit Thrushes sang through the half-light of the long night and next morning the rain had eased and the pilot had flown away over the endless north. Over breakfast the manager told us that the vehicles that had gone off the road yesterday had been towed into town and everyone was fine. We set off to explore Ross River. In the 1840's it was a Hudson's Bay trading post and many of the old buildings still remain, although boarded up and empty. Just outside town we found one of the most fabulous spots for nesting water birds we had seen. Pacific Loons in breeding plumage with chicks riding their backs, colourful Ruddy Ducks, Buffleheads, White-winged Scoters and Lesser Scaup. They are all coastal birds that fly over the mountains and up the valleys to find t
We spent most of the morning along the Canol (Canadian Oil) Road following the route that surveyor Austin Rand had taken in 1944. The road had been build by the US War Department in 1942 at a cost of $134 million to move oil from Norman Wells to Alaska in case of an invasion by the Japanese. Only one million barrels of oil were pumped to Whitehorse before the war fortunately ended. Peter had discovered Rand's report when researching for our trip and made a surprising connection to the islands, for in 1933-34 an RCMP officer named W.T. Irvine collected birds at Teslin Lake, on the south section of Canol Road for none other than Ronnie Stewart, who lived in Masset from 1936 to 1957. Rand had made a list of the birds seen along the Canol, the first in recent history. We added a few more species to his list, notably a pretty little Tennessee warbler, all green and yellow among the aspen.
We had run out of time. We would never make it to the Dempster. We took the road to Whitehorse which was partially paved and the going got easier. At Eagles Nest Bluff we stopped to admire the view and watched as a Townsend's solitaire took wing, flew and sang down a dizzying slope to the Yukon River far below where the river divided past a huge island. A disaster had occurred there years ago after a crewmember aboard the paddle wheeler Columbia accidentally fired a shot into a cargo of gunpowder and blew the boat to pieces. Tragically, not everyone found gold in yesterday's Yukon.
We found Whitehorse to be an attractive, cosmopolitan town and after browsing through the bookstores and reading up on local history, we pitched our tent at Wolf Creek campground. The river was running high and infiltrated my sleep giving me sad dreams of old, unhappy times. After a few cups of morning coffee in the sunny campground, however, the world was set right again. The Yukon is fabulous country and the Dempster Highway will still be the destination for our next trip north.
SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2001