Sunday, August 16, 2015

Honk! Sizzle... Sloosh? Silence: Day Seven on the Alaska Road Trip

We left our Best Western with clean clothes, paperwork printed, a long night’s sleep, and more than half our Prius-provided miles behind us. Today was all about Fairbanks.

Stop 1: Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (Honk!)

Jane spots cranes in front of the historic Creamer's dairy barn.

A former dairy farm with a blindingly white barn, Creamer’s is now a refuge for migrating birds. Today, the enormous, spindle-legged sandhill cranes dominated the fields with their scarlet foreheads and alarmist honks.

Two of the many sandhill cranes taking advantage of the fields just for them.

We bought three one-dollar nature guides and used them to navigate the Boreal Forest Trail. We found a couple red-squirrel mushroom caches in trees, tracked down a black-capped chickadee, and climbed three observation towers. Our bird list included:
  • sharp-shinned hawk
  • female northern harrier
  • Canada geese
  • cackling geese
  • greater white-fronted geese
  • mallard ducks
  • common ravens
  • rock pigeons
  • yellow warbler
  • yellow-rumped warbler
  • song sparrow
  • savannah sparrow
  • American robin
  • dark-eyed junco
  • black-capped chickadee
Wildflowers at Creamer's.
A northern harrier hovers above an unfortunate prey item.

Stop 2: Tanana Valley State Fair (Sizzle...)

Today was the last day of a two-week fair. Established in 1924, the Tanana Valley State Fair is Alaska’s oldest. We found a Korean bulgogi booth for lunch and syrupy Thai iced tea for dessert. The canned and baked goods paled in comparison to the Evergreen State Fair, but the giant cabbage would never have grown in the relatively limited sunlight of Washington. To our dismay, all the livestock has already gone home! Save for two tired ponies waiting for their turn in the children’s pony-ride ring.

Giant prize-winning cabbage!

I guess I'm not the first one to think of this catchy name!

Stop 3: Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline (Sloosh?)

The pipeline is huge! We glimpsed it earlier on our drive as it crossed the Tanana River on an elevated beam, but today we got up close and personal. The pipeline dips above and below-ground along its length, crossing big rivers, diving under highways, and avoiding destruction at the hands of permafrost and earthquakes with such ingenious techniques as refrigerated troughs and zig-zag formations. I was astonished to learn that the pipeline is patrolled 24/7 by airplane and helicopter for security.

The pipeline is above ground for much of its length.

I could touch it if I jumped!

Stop 4: Stampede Road (Silence)

We were on our way to our Denali cabin earlier than expected, so we took A Birder’s Guide to Alaska’s suggestion to turn down Stampede Road just north of Healy. It said, “Watch for willow ptarmigan along the roadsides, and listen for whimbrel calling from the nearby tundra. Upland sandpipers and long-tailed jaegers nest here. Wilson’s snipes actively display along this stretch. White-winged crossbill and northern waterthrush are August regulars. Northern wheatears have been seen in the parking lot.” I’m not sure if the authors were optimistic or deluded, or perhaps Jane and I suffered from a temporary bout of bird-blindness, but we saw none of the aforementioned avians. I had never even heard of half the birds listed!

Our first serene view of tundra from Stampede Road.

This bee appeared too chilly to budge from its yarrow blossom.

We parked the Prius before an impassable puddle and walked up the hill, utterly alone. Suddenly, I noticed a young woman walking toward us, holding a motorcycle helmet.

We waved hello. “Do you live here?” asked Jane on a whim.

“Yes I do!” she replied. She is spending her summer working with the University of Alaska to monitor permafrost on the tundra. We had passed her scientific equipment and boardwalk earlier. Her four-wheeler had broken down, and while we talked, her rescuer arrived in an SUV. Before she left, she asked us, “Do you know anything about Stampede Road?” Turns out the bus where Chris McCandless (of Into the Wild fame) died was twenty miles past the end of the road!

A savannah sparrow.

A white-crowned sparrow.

We ate a picnic dinner of canned pate (human-grade cat food) and surprisingly raw cauliflower. Our only company were a white-crowned sparrow and a savannah sparrow.

Good thing there were no actively displaying snipes to interrupt the peace.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 7
  • Start: Fairbanks, Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 140 miles 
  • Hours driven: 3 
  • Favorite bird sighting: sandhill crane 
  • End: Healy, Alaska, United States

3 comments:

  1. Wonder what the cranes are eating? Grain?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sandhill Cranes are so huge when you see them in real life, and very protective of their chicks. We saw some in a bog over by Homer.
    I wonder if your wildflowers are snap dragons? We were amazed at the size of dahlia blooms growing up north thanks to all the daylight.
    Thank you for taking me along on your trip.
    Jeanette

    ReplyDelete
  3. Russ -- yes I think they were eating the grain grown in the fields for them.
    Jeanette -- good call! I looked it up, and it appears to be wild snapdragon, also known as yellow toadflax. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete