Monday, July 14, 2014

Return to Kluane

About 30-years ago, Karen poked into a thicket of willows on the west side of Kluane Lake in Canada’s Yukon Territory.  The day had turned into the kind that make the lake famous for treacherous winds screaming out of the Slims River valley in Kluane National Park.  The roar of the waves, the slapping of branches twirling and dancing like the tail of a hereford shooing away horse flies, masked all extraneous sounds. 

The trail of a red fox had lured Karen from the “safety” of the lakeshore and into the thicket.  Winding her way in a half crouch through the dense willows, Karen parted overlapping branches blocking her path.  She froze in horror as, there, a handful of feet in front of her, she found herself face to “face” with the hind quarters off a grizzly bear -- tearing into the ground like it was plowing a field --  totally focused on digging a tasty morsel buried among the willows.  Camouflaged by only the wind and the direction the bear faced, Karen gently eased the willow “door” shut and crept back to the lake --  praying fervently that she hadn’t been discovered.  Only the crashing waves and the slapping brush kept the grizzly from knowing it’s territory had been invaded.  To say that the gauge measuring Karen’s adrenalin level, when she arrived back at our tent,
registered well above the "yikes, I've been called into the principal's office" line would be an understatement.

We both have a long history with Kluane Lake.  In the aptly named outpost of Destruction Bay also on the lake’s western shore, the muffler fell off Karen’s 1976 raw umber plymouth station wagon during her first trek up the then 1000-mile gravel-topped Alaska Highway.  Her dad, copilot and mechanic for the adventure, wired it back in place with a coat hanger.

                                Sheep Mountain (yes it really has sheep -- Dall sheep) across Kluane Lake

In the mid 1960s a couple of us set out on the lake in a Grumman aluminum canoe.  Reflections of the far shore made the lake appear about as threatening as a New England mill pond.  So tempting, yet, aware of the reputation of these northern lakes, we followed the shoreline, hugging its’ every bend and curve. Suddenly, without warning, the lake erupted into a tempest as a wind storm roared out of Kluane National Park.  Yes, my foresight isn’t always dim.

Still, Kluane Lake remains one of our favorite Yukon destinations.  This spring we opted for three nights on our northward journey and one on the return, this time on the easterly side of the lake -- no longer tenting, but spoiling ourselves at Kluane Bed and Breakfast.  The B and B is the only remaining habitation in, or at least adjacent to Silver City, a bonafide ghost town whose other mammalian inhabitants include red and ground squirrels, chipmunks, snowshoe hares and according to Cecile, our hostess, an occasional wandering grizzly.

This chipmunk at Kluane Bed and Breakfast may offer a clue to how a chipmunk showed up on our deck last fall.  All one would have to do is stow away in a trailer or back of a pickup truck, bound for Petersburg, get a free ferry ride and jump ship when it reached our island.  There aren't supposed to be chipmunks in Alaska.

Deep and 150 square miles in size, Kluane Lake doesn’t freeze over until late in the fall nor does it thaw until late in the spring.  We timed our visit perfectly to coincide with it’s breakup.  Only a narrow band of water surrounded the ice-covered lake when we arrived late in May, yet three days later open water dominated it’s surface.  

Kluane lake still mostly frozen over at the end of May, but certainly not real inviting for a skating party.  Yes, that's fresh snow in Kluane National Park.

           If the scientist in you wants to study ice crystals, Kluane Lake at breakup will provide an ample sample size.

According to the website Sights and Sites of the Yukon, 300 to 400 years ago, the outlet from Kluane Lake flowed southerly down what is now the Slims River drainage to the Gulf of Alaska.  That ended with the advance of Kaskawulsh Glacier which cut off the drainage.  After rising some 30 feet (10 meters in Canada), the river cut a new channel north to flow into the Yukon River drainage -- thus the lake’s waters that once ended in the Gulf of Alaska now end in the Bering Sea.  Interestingly, Cecile told us that chum salmon that have run over 1800 miles up the Yukon River drainage now spawn in front of Kluane Bed and Breakfast.  She has photos to prove it.  It sure makes me wonder about the history of that amazing run of fish.

Savoring the luxury of the bed and breakfast was quite a change from past visits -- but then we were consoled that our favorite campground -- the only designated public camping area along the lakeshore -- was closed to tenting anyway.  Tent campers were having too many close encounters with bears.  Besides, ground squirrels may have have vacated the campground, but not Kluane Bed and Breakfast and Karen needed a squirrel fix.

                                           An Arctic Ground Squirrel eases Karen's rodent withdrawal symptoms.

                                Our morning view of the Kluane Range while we ate breakfast on the deck.

You can almost hear the wives of the miners living in Silver City telling their husbands they just mopped the floor so, "please wipe your feet."

Flowers and rodents constitute Karen's favorite photographic subjects (besides anything else that lives).  So, of course she was delighted to find this Pasque Flower.

            OK, this Wandering Tattler isn't a flower or rodent, but stalking it gave Karen a great deal of pleasure.

The sun drops below the northern horizon some time after 11:00 PM to provide a brief period of twilight before reappearing a few hours later. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Haines Highway

Karen and I have several favorite drives in America, whoops -- better add the adjective North to the location.  That’s because one near the top of the list is the Haines Highway connecting Haines, Alaska with Haines Junction, Yukon.  There’s no relationship, as far as I know, with the Haines’s of the north and the Hanes brand of BVDs.

The Haines Highway as seen by a ground squirrel doing what ground squirrels like to do -- sit in the middle of the toad.

An Arctic Ground Squirrel contemplates when it should head for the middle of the highway -- probably to show off for Karen.

Since you must be curious, both Haines’s were named after Francina Haines (really -- a guy with a name ending in “ina”) who in 1879, along with S. Hall Young was one of the first missionaries (Presbyterian to be exact) in the area.   Back then, if you were the first to do something, you could get a spectacular road and a couple of towns named after you.  It’s harder these days since most of the best places have already been spoken for.  

Google maps pegs the distance between the two Haines’s at 148 miles.  However since most of the road runs through British Coumbia and the Yukon, you should think of that as 41 miles plus 172 kilometers.  Our favorite section is the Canadian portion of the road running above timber line, but then the backdrop in the US portion, the Chilkat Range, is so stunning that movie director, Randal Kleiser, chose it as the backdrop for the movie, “White Fang.”  For those of you unfamiliar with Jack London’s novel, White Fang is a dog -- albeit a pretty smart one.

We spent a day driving each way along this section of highway.  Over the little more than two weeks between our traverses the season changed from pre-green up spring in late May to summer (sort of) in early June.  I say "sort of" because fresh snow fell on nearby peaks as we motored south.  Come to think of it, it also made an appearance on our northward journey.

Hikes on the wide open tundra easily topped the list of our favorite activities going in both directions. Both were precipitated by a desire to photograph willow ptarmigan.  Of course Karen proved most adept in finding and photographing them.

                                    Don, I think I may have found a male willow ptarmigan in breeding plumage. 

                                                  No way, sweetheart.  It's a female willow ptarmigan.

  Oops, guess we're both right.  For the record, the third critter (the one in the blue checkered shirt) is not a ptarmigan.

We’ve driven the Haines Highway multiple times over the years and our track record for conversations after every trip remains 100 percent along the same line of thinking -- how can we spend more time there?  This trip was no different.   

A cottonwood tree surrounded by equisetum growing along the Alaska portion of the Haines Highway provides quite a contrast with...

                            Reindeer Lichens growing in the tundra on the British Columbia side of the border.

  Lofty unnamed peaks in Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Wilderness Park close to the Alaska/BC border contrast with...

       Rolling tundra further into Canada.  Note the sole distant ribbon of highway bisecting this wild corner of the world.

From a distance the tundra looks barren, but a closer looks reveals it is anything but void of beauty -- for example these Alpine Azaleas -- appear so delicate yet able to survive the harsh climate which can dip below freezing any month of the year.

              Look closely and even a seemingly bare rock will be covered in lichens framed by other tundra vegetation.

Back in Alaska, on our homeward journey, we make one last search for an NPR (a near perfect rock).  Karen's pockets will soon be bulging and the springs on our car sagging as we leave one of our favorite places in all the world.