North to Alaska: Destination Denali – Part 9

The final chapter of Bob and Jill Hayward’s four week vacation to the Yukon and Alaska from Barriere/Louis Creek

Jill Hayward absorbs the view while sitting above British Columbia’s magnificent Salmon Glacier

Jill Hayward absorbs the view while sitting above British Columbia’s magnificent Salmon Glacier

The skies were heavy with cloud, and a steady drizzle of rain kept the truck’s windshield wipers busy as we hooked up our 5th wheel RV and said goodbye to Denali National Park, Alaska.  We savored the adventures we had enjoyed there, and regretted those we would never know. It was time to head for home, there was still plenty of time to do a little more sightseeing on the way, but  this great vacation was winding down.

Bob and I were also a little down as we left the ‘last frontier’ behind; so to brighten our spirits we talked about all the things we had seen and done there.  The tour bus into the tundra, the dall sheep, wolf, caribou, fox, and moose we had photographed; and even the grizzly bear we had seen at some distance eating his fill on some kind of animal that lay dead beneath him.

We had hoped to see the blonde grizzlies of Denali, and although this fellow was blonde he was at quite some distance away from us.   However, he was by no means the closest we got to one of the Park’s famous bruins.

The afternoon that we took a tour bus down to the Denali Park Kennels was a beautiful sunny day, and after the kennel tour we decided to hike the one hour trail back to the Park Headquarters.  This was a well marked and well used trail, frequented by locals and tourists alike that wound back and forth across the park road and around the headquarters parking lot.  Of course we had cameras with us so spent a lot of time taking shots of Alaskan wildflowers, squirrel nests, and umpteen other bits and pieces.

We’ve spent a lot of time over the years in the backcountry, and a considerable amount of time photographing wildlife, especially bears.  We both have a healthy respect for these big boys and girls and are always careful of our surroundings.

As we hiked around a corner in the trail we both came to a full stop with our mouths open and the hair standing up on our necks.

Dead centre in the middle of the trail was the biggest grizzly bear scat we have ever seen!  It resembled a pile that a heavy horse might have left behind.But what really put us on full alert was the steam still rising from it into the cool crisp air!

We were exactly half way along the trail, and without any revealing characteristics in this humongous grizzly’s potty job that might of told us which way he was going at the time of ejection, we were stumped.  Go back, carry on; find the bear, get eaten!

We quickly decided to make a lot of noise, and carry on in the direction of the Park Headquarters; a decision which made me quite happy as I knew I would be needing the bathroom there in short order!

We never did see the culprit that left his steamy trail behind; and we later laughed about the incident and wondered if he had actually been a little guy that was just “full of __”!

Our route home to Louis Creek, B.C., took us back through Fairbanks, Delta Junction, and Tok Alaska.  We crossed into the Yukon at Border City, and then it was back onto that incredibly rough road through the Kluane Wilderness Reserve to Haines Junction.  This area was alive with game, especially moose and grizzlies; just as it had been or our way through a few weeks ago.  When we’d stopped at Beaver Creek on the way up to Denali we met a motorcycle rider who told us that he and his buddy had crashed into a momma grizzly bear when she suddenly ran out of the brush and across the road in front of the first bike.  The bike hit the bear and killed her, trashed the bike, and seriously hurt the rider who was now in hospital recuperating.  The fellow we spoke to said due to the fact that he was travelling close behind the first rider he could not avoid running into the crashed bike, and the accident had ripped the fender off his motorcycle, but fortunately he had only sustained a few bruises.  He noted that the bear had been with a very young cub that had run off after the crash.

On our way home, as we traversed the area of the highway where this crash had taken place, we observed another mother grizzly feeding alongside the road with her two yearling cubs.  Most interesting though was the fact that she also had a very young cub of this year tagging along with her, all looking like a contented family unit.  Grizzlies are known to sometimes adopt orphaned cubs, so we hoped this was the case, and that maybe this little cub was in fact the survivor of the bike accident.

We stayed in Whitehorse for another few days, and made a side trip from there south to Carcross, originally named Caribou Crossing for the herd of caribou that at one time used to swim the narrows between Bennett and Nares lakes during migration.

This is a beautiful  little tourist area,  is full of history; also boasting the world’s smallest desert, plenty of dog sledding, and an eye popping display of taxidermy that features over 100 Yukon and Ice Age mammals by Chuck Buchannon.  The same fellow whose wonderful work we previously saw in the Yukon Wildlife Gallery in Teslin.

The historic White Pass Railway also provides tourist transport to Carcross railway station from the port of Skagway, Alaska; and some of the Yukon’s oldest buildings can be found in Carcross.  They date back to the days of 1898, with some still used as businesses or residences, all in a town that sits on the shores of beautiful Bennett Lake.

From Whitehorse we travelled east on Highway 97, and then turned south just west of Watson Lake onto Highway 37, known as the Stewart/Cassiar Highway.   We stayed just south of the junction at an RV Resort called Nugget City.  This is a great place to stop, with wide RV sites, an extensive gift and craft store, a restaurant, and plenty of interesting people  to chat with.  It was here that we met travellers Jerry and Rose Hale from Hines Creek, Alberta, who are writers and authors of the books ‘Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Musgawa’.  Bob was surprised to learn that Jerry new many of the folks that Bob had grown up with, and the two enjoyed reminiscing for awhile about the people they had in common.

I like Nugget City, but I don’t like the bugs there.  This was the second time we had used the RV park in a three year period, and I found the same darn bugs were still sucking the blood out of my dogs.   I learned my lesson the first time we stayed there, when after walking the dogs in fairly long grass around the edges of the park I returned to the 5th wheel to find numerous tiny bugs bloodsucking on  our pets tummies and underparts.  I picked them all off, and each one was full of the blood they had sucked just like a mosquito.  These tiny little round brown bugs are just a small part of the vast Northern ‘bug attack force’  that seems to be never ending during the area’s summer months.

This year I was wary of repeating the bug  attack and was very careful to keep the dogs away from brush, grass, and even low ground covering vegetation in an effort to avoid picking up these  little pests, but to know avail.  Not so many this year, but they still found the dogs, and we even found a few zapping around inside the RV, full of blood and looking for a way out.  Stuff like that keeps me itchy for days afterwards just thinking about them.

The Stewart/Cassiar area is filled with impressive scenery and history; the 1900 mile Yukon Telegraph Line that linked Dawson City with Vancouver at around 1899 – 1901, the 1870 gold rush that saw thousands of miners make their way to the Cassiar Gold Fields, and the 1890’s when miners made their way up the Stikine and along the Telegraph Trail to the famous Klondike Gold Rush.

There are all kinds of outdoor adventures to see and do in this area, but for us our adventure was to make another visit to Stewart, B.C. – a scenic little town that has a big reputation for glaciers, waterfalls, and bears.  Stewart sits at the head of the Portland Canal, a narrow saltwater fjord approximately 90 miles/145 kilometres long; and the fjord forms a natural boundary between Alaska and Canada. Stewart has a deep harbour and boasts of being “Canada’s Most Northerly Ice Free Port”.

We visited Stewart in 2009 expressly to photograph bears fishing for salmon at the Fish Creek viewing platform, which is just a few miles down the road and past Hyder, Alaska.   We locked our dogs inside the fifth wheel parked at the Bear River RV Park, and then spent some six hours waiting for the elusive bears to make an appearance at the viewing platform.  At the end of the day, we accepted the fact that the bear photo shoot “was a bust”, and headed back to the RV; where we found the bears had been there most of the afternoon looking in the window at the dogs, and wondering why no one was there to take a picture?

This year however, we were rewarded within an hour of each visit to the viewing platform with plenty of opportunities to shoot bears the photographer’s way; and we had plenty of fun doing so.

Stewart and Hyder are also famous for being where the movies The Thing, Insomnia, Bear Island, The Ice Man, and Leaving Normal were filmed; and you can sure see why the horror movies are made here with the early morning mists, old wharfs, and gnarled trees hung with spooky looking moss.

Our final day there we drove through Hyder and continued up about a 20 something kilometre road to see the marvelous Salmon Glacier which is actually in B.C.   This is the fifth largest glacier in the world,  sitting at 4,300 feet, and it is a monster.  It is a ‘must see’ if you are ever in the area, but only if the weather is clear so that when you are up above the glacier the immensity of it will be stunning.

Once again we chatted with some of the tourists who were also drinking in the beauty of the glacier and one lady in particular left her impression on us both.  This gal said she and her companion had fed the wildlife in the National Parks when all the signs said “Caution: Do not feed the animals”, they’d hiked here in grizzly bear country with food in their pockets and no bear spray; and we were both dumbfounded that she seemed proud to tell us so.   I really wondered about their sanity when she argued with me that a sign on a narrow mountain road close beside the tourist stop announced in big red letters something like, “NO ACCESS:  HIGH DANGER”.  This gal was determined to drive around the sign in her little Honda something and see where the road went.  When I suggested this was probably not advisable due to the fact the road was very narrow and not graded, could be prone to avalanches, and was probably unstable, she retorted, “It doesn’t really mean that, we’re gong to go that way anyway.”  Being somewhat concerned for their safety I also suggested that they could meet a truck coming towards them from one of the mines in the area, with no room for two vehicles to pass; but she pushed that suggestion aside as well and said, “Oh, well, we’ll see” – and away they went in their little Honda into the great unknown.  Maybe they’re still there – who would know?

The final days of our holiday and the trip home went smoothly, with leisurely overnight stops in Terrace, Vanderhoof, and Quesnel.

It was a bright sunny day when we arrived home safe and sound in Louis Creek on the afternoon of July 28.  We’d travelled over 8,000 kilometers (or 5,000 miles),  filled over 100 biodegradable dog potty bags, and had the vacation of a lifetime.