Retreat!

On August 13 we got a good fresh water fill in Dawson City (not something we take for granted!), but had difficulty locating some fairly basic food and drinks that needed restocking. Heading southeast on the Klondike Highway, we took the side road to Keno, an old mining area famous for its alpine butterflies. This area is within the region called Beringia, which remained ice-free during glacial periods, serving as a critical refugium for many arctic species. It stretched from Siberia to the Yukon Territory, and encompassed the Bering Land Bridge, across which humans migrated from Asia to North America. Even today the flora and fauna of Beringian lands contain species not found elsewhere, and the land itself looks different because it has not been subject to the massive changes wrought by glaciers. We were too late in the year for the butterflies (July is good), and in fact nearly all native plants were done flowering at these high elevations. We hiked to about 5900 feet, our highest elevation of the year, and saw only four species in bloom. It snowed here half a day after we left!

blog_yukon
Above: Map showing route followed in this and three preceding blog posts. The roads running north to the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay, AK and Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, are, respectively, the Dalton and Dempster Highways, covered in previous posts. “Yukon 6” is our farthest point on the Canol Road, and “Johnson’s Crossing” the south end of that road. The route east from there is the Alaska Highway to its junction with the Liard Highway.  

Returning to the Klondike Highway, we continued south to the Campbell Highway, which we took east. We briefly checked the Faro area for Fannin Sheep, but it was raining and a poor time of year (October to May being best). Fannin Sheep are part of the Dall Sheep species, which includes white animals in Alaska and much of Yukon (Dall Sheep proper), gray animals in southeastern Yukon and northern British Columbia (Stone Sheep), and in a small area of contact in between, grayish animals with pale heads and necks  (Fannin Sheep). These three taxa are often treated as three distinct subspecies, though Fannin Sheep are frequently instead included under Stone Sheep. Faro is the only place anywhere that provides a decent chance of seeing Fannin Sheep.

Cornus canadensis, North Klondike Highway, YT
Above: Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Klondike Highway, YT.

Continuing east on the Campbell Highway, we ran out of pavement and recoated the camper with mud as we drove in the rain. But upon reaching Ross River, an obligatory gas stop near the midpoint of the highway, we had several days of cold, dry weather predicted, and so decided to explore the all-gravel Canol Road, the only significant road in the Yukon we have not traveled previously. We crossed the Pelly River on a barge, and started up the 230 km North Canol Road, which ends in the mountains at the boundary with the Northwest Territories, where there is some mining activity. We covered 139 km, and would like to have gone farther, but there was so little traffic on the road (just three trucks, all in the first 50 km), that we felt it was risky without a second vehicle, in case of a breakdown. This was unfortunate as the portion of the of the road we covered was not especially interesting (except for Dragon Lake at Km 115, which looked like a great paddle), although we started to get some nice mountain vistas shortly before turning around. The last few tens of kilometers of the road are said to be very scenic.

Red Squirrel, North Klondike Highway, YT
Above: Red Squirrel, Klondike Highway, YT.

After refueling at Ross River, we continued on the South Canol Road, which runs for about 220 km in a southerly direction, before ending at the Alaska Highway. The northern portion of this road was especially scenic, with aspens turning golden-colored, and lovely lake country. We saw a single distant Stone Sheep from a campsite in the Lapie Lakes. Farther south, we had some nice botanizing along the gravelly banks of the Nisutlin River, locating a new sunflower-like Arnica species, A. chamissonis. Although we had been averaging about 1.2 new species per day for the year through the terminus of the Dempster Highway at Tuk, once turning south and covering places and habitats already seen, our rate plummeted, with only five new species in fifteen days. The South Canol Road crested quite close to its southern end, at around 4000 feet of elevation.

Spruce Grouse, North Klondike Highway, YT
Above: Spruce Grouse, Klondike highway, YT.

Soon after reaching the Alaskan Highway, on which we headed southeast, we again encountered rain. We were disappointed to find Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park (PP), in British Columbia, closed because of extensive storm damage to trees. In 1999, we saw a Pine Marten at this fascinating location, as well as finding the lovely Round-leaved Orchis (Galearis rotundifolia). There are two beautiful parks where the Alaskan Highway crosses the Rockies, Muncho Lake PP and Stone Mountain PP, and this general area is excellent for mammals. In 1999 in this area we had superb looks at Gray Wolf , Stone Sheep, and Woodland Caribou (a rare subspecies occurring south of the taiga),  as well as seeing our only Dusky Grouse ever. This time we were hampered by yet more rain, as well as snow and fog, but did greatly enjoy long studies of Wood Bison (the more northerly of the two subspecies of Bison), Grizzly Bear (digging up the underground parts of Hedysarum, a member of the pea family), and Black Bear (including a very dark brown mother with three cubs, two jet black, and one cinnamon).

Lapie Canyon, Campbell Highway, YT
Above: Lapie Canyon, Campbell Highway, YT.

You’re probably getting a little tired hearing about rain – it’s already been mentioned four times in this post, and was mentioned four times in the previous post as well. In fact, after having experienced nearly perfect weather the whole year up to that point, during the 28-day period from July 25 (Eagle, AK) to August 21 (Stone Mountain PP, BC), we had 15 days in which the weather was bad enough, for long enough, that it seriously affected our plans. Soon after Stone Mountain PP, we reached the key junction with the Liard Highway, which heads north into the Northwest Territories, where we had several weeks of touring planned. But taking into consideration the apparent early onset of rainy, windy, cold fall weather in the Arctic, we decided to save the southern Northwest Territories for another year, and retreat farther south, in hopes of catching up to some better weather.

Wood Bison, Alaska Highway, BC
Above: Wood Bison, Alaska Highway, BC.

But the snow, fog, and rain on August 21 led to one of the most amazing phenomena we encountered all year. While watching the Black Bear family frolic in the snow, I noticed a small flock of sandpipers land along an icy stream. Evidently they were forced down into the mountains by the storm system interrupting their southbound migration. When I got my binoculars on one of the birds, I was astonished to see it was a Baird’s Sandpiper! This species nests in the high arctic, from Siberia to Greenland, and winters in South America, from Tierra del Fuego north into the Andes. It migrates principally through the prairie provinces and states, and does not spend a great deal of time on the ground, overflying large portions of the continent in good weather. So it is not a bird seen commonly in numbers; I would guess that I’d seen no more than 75 birds in my life, and no flocks exceeding single digits. So a flock of half a dozen birds in snow in the mountains was pretty exciting!

Grizzly Bear, Alaska Highway, BC
Above: Grizzly Bear, Alaska Highway, BC.

But that was just the beginning. As we continued driving east through the stormy weather, we kept encountering flocks of these birds, with about five to fifteen individuals each. Some of the flocks landed in the road or along the margins of the road, the closest thing they could find to their preferred habitat of low, turfy vegetation. All individuals I saw well were in fresh juvenal plumage and so were born this summer. This segregation of ages in migration is a common phenomenon in sandpipers, the adults migrating south a bit earlier. When we finally broke out into better weather, near the Alberta border, we saw no more sandpipers, but the running total was approximately 155 Baird’s Sandpipers, in about 15 flocks! So at least we got something good out of all that crummy weather …

Baird's Sandpiper, juvenal, Alaska Highway, BC
Above: Baird’s Sandpiper, Alaska Highway, BC.

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