West to Anchorage

After leaving British Columbia on the Cassiar Highway, we reached the Alaska Highway in the Yukon Territory (YT). An overnight stay in Watson Lake, YT to do errands was not very successful, though I did at least get the previous blog post published, while camped under an active and very noisy Common Raven nest!

Myosotis asiatica, Snafu Lake, YT
Above: Alpine Forget-me-not (Myosotis asiatica), Snafu Lake, YT

Proceeding west and quickly leaving the Alaska Highway again, we camped at interestingly named Snafu Lake, off Rte. 7, near Atlin Lake. There a Moose was the highlight of a lovely paddle, and a dry, open hilltop behind the campground hosted a marvelous display of wildflowers, the best we had seen since leaving Vancouver Island.

Fritillaria camschatcensis, Haines, AK
Above: Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis), Haines, AK

Farther west, we stopped at the dune field just north of Carcross, YT (Carcross is a shortened version of the original name, Caribou Crossing). There are relatively few dune fields in the arctic and most require charter flights to reach, so this one, right along a paved road, is quite a luxury. We had botanized here carefully in 1999, and we again noted the very rare Baikal Sedge Carex sabulosa leiphylla, a species known worldwide from only about half a dozen locations (most in Asia), as well as the rare Yukon Lupine, Lupinus kuschei.

Grizzly Bear, Haines Highway, YT
Above: Grizzly Bear, Haines Highway, YT

On May 30 we spent the entire day hiking on Montana Mountain, just south of Carcross. Our target here was Timberline Sparrow, a well-marked subspecies of Brewer’s Sparrow, which I think will eventually be split off as a separate species. Unfortunately, we found none, probably being a trifle too early in the season, although other sparrows breeding here (such as Golden-crowned, White-crowned, and Savannah) were on territory and singing. However, the alpine flowers at 5000 feet elevation were excellent, and we added 8 new plants and a butterfly to our life lists! We were especially pleased to find a lovely new monotypic heather genus, Harrimanella. This hike either requires crossing a dicey landslide, which obliterated the road, or scrambling across the slope above the landslide, which is very difficult cross-country travel, or adding several miles on trails to bypass it, which we did.

Million Dollar Falls, Haines Highway, YT
Above: Million Dollar Falls, Haines Highway, YT

From Carcross we cut across NW British Columbia (BC) to Skagway, Alaska (AK), a small port city with gold rush history and a current population of about a thousand people. This gave us a chance for some more coastal botanizing, but at a higher latitude. The road in passes through some striking granitic scenery, very reminiscent of the area near Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. Near the YT-BC border we saw two sizeable groups of Mountain Goats, temporarily putting that species in the lead of the mammal counts started in early May, when we first entered Canada. A morning in Whitehorse, quite a pleasant city, did wonders for our supplies and for repairing/replacing broken gear.

Aquilegia brevistyla, Alaska Highway, YT
Above: Smallflower Columbine (Aquilegia brevistyla), Alaska Highway, YT

After about a hundred miles on the Alaska Highway, we again headed for the Alaska coast, this time on the Haines Highway. During our 3.5 days on this highway, the weather was quite poor, with rain, sleet, and fog predominating, so we did not see a great deal. The BC portion of the road passes through some nice alpine areas around 3000 feet elevation but fog hampered us both times we went through this section, though we found some nice wildflowers. Haines itself had Northwestern Crow but, remarkably, for a town of about two thousand, with a major ferry terminal, it had almost no cell signal and few open restaurants.

Trumpeter Swan, Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK
Above: Trumpeter Swan, Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK

On the return trip we enjoyed camping at Million Dollar Falls, and hiking in Kluane National Park (NP), on the St. Elias Lake Trail. On the slopes above the lake, we saw Mountain Goats, just like we did 20 years ago. A final highlight was getting to study a cooperative Grizzly Bear along the highway.

Menyanthes trifoliata, Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK
Above: Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK

Once back on the Alaska Highway for about 300 miles, we were beginning to feel the pressure of reaching Anchorage in time for our flight to Nome, so we drove most of the stretch in a single day. But we took several hours to explore the Sheep Mountain area in Kluane NP, where we saw our first Dall Sheep of the trip, and racked up a nice list of plants that occur in the gravelly glacial outwash near the visitor center.

Calla palustris, Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK
Above: Wild Calla (Calla palustris), Deadman Lake, Tetlin NWR, AK

After crossing into Alaska, we camped at Deadman Lake in Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. This turned out to be a great spot for photographing dragonflies, and we identified four new species along the lake edge from our campsite! We also had a nice paddle here before heading out. Our last stop before Anchorage was near Seventeen-Mile Lake, where we did a nearly vertical scramble in the rain, hoping for, but not finding, a new orchid.

Northern Hawk-Owl, Glenn Highway, AK
Above: Northern Hawk-Owl, Glenn Highway, AK

Next time: on to Nome!

5 thoughts on “West to Anchorage

  1. Always good to see your posts. Are you seeing much evidence of fire damage, permafrost melt, etc.?
    Safe travels to Nome. Enjoy every minute. Buzzy would have loved your posts.
    Take good care.

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    1. Hi, Jane! Thanks for your comment. The most obvious sign of climate change is the raging wildfires — about 2/3 of Alaska is currently covered in smoke. It was so bad in Fairbanks that we started feeling sick (sore throat and nausea) and had to drive quite a while to find a better area to camp. Yesterday, as we entered the Brooks Range, on the way to Prudhoe Bay, we had our first day with fairly clear air since we returned from Nome. What a relief! We’ve also seen glaciers in massive retreat, and have been experiencing very high temperatures, like 89 degrees as we crossed the Arctic Circle two days ago! Take care, Brian

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  2. Absolutely stunning! Thank you so much for sharing. But can you really use “cooperative” and “grizzly” in the same sentence?!

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    1. Good point, Ellen! 🙂 Hope you’re doing well and that you got to see some great wildflower displays this spring with the rains. We’ve been plagued with smoke from wildfires the last few weeks, but finally escaped yesterday as we entered the Brooks Range, north of the Arctic Circle, on the way to Prudhoe Bay. Plants have been great, especially in higher and drier tundra areas. Hulten’s Flora of Alaska is superb, with every taxon illustrated, and both dot maps and circumpolar range maps for each — amazing! Thanks for following the blog! Take care, Brian and Eileen

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