Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Drunken Forest and Caribou Velvet: Day Three on the Alaska Road Trip

After we woke up in the northern British Columbian city of Fort St. John, we couldn’t resist starting our day with a scenic and enlightening stop at… Safeway?!

Welcome to Fort St. John, The Energetic City.

Turns out Fort St. John, “The Energetic City,” is a petroleum-exploration-fueled industrial town of strip malls and apartment buildings. We spent our night at Howard Johnson, ate a free breakfast of hard-boiled egg and dried-out sausage (pretty tasty, actually), and picked up two salads at the Safeway deli to hold us over during the long, upcoming stretches without access to food.

We stopped to eat the first of those salads, which I’m calling “Italian pad thai” (a bright orange oily soup of oregano and rice noodles), at Buckinghorse River Wayside Provincial Park.

Buckinghorse River.

There were no nature trails listed in the Milepost, so we made our own. Within a few steps of the gravel parking lot, a flock of little brown birds flew overhead into a spruce tree.

“Crossbills!” said Jane.

“Siskins!” said I.

Neither of us knew what these birds were, but in our experience when birds fly overhead chittering, her birding friends always dub them crossbills, and mine dub them siskins. The birds’ bright red heads and white wing patches disqualified them as either red crossbills or pine siskins. We looked up orioles, finches, even tanagers before we looped back around to a lifer (brand new species of bird for us): the white-winged crossbill!

White-winged crossbill.

Look closely: you can see the purposefully-crossed bill for cracking open cones.

We treaded down to the river and admired the “drunken forest” of black spruce on the subsiding banks, the diverse wildflowers, and the downstream swimming pools mentioned in the Milepost.

The "drunken forest" on a disintegrating river bank.

Aster.

Clover.

Buttercup?

Yarrow?

Fireweed.

Buttercup?

Dandelion.

Jane got too hungry to wait for dinner and went beaver on me!

At the adjacent truck stop, we bought gas at a “24-hour public cardlock,” the Northern version of a self-serve gas station, and struggled through the twelve steps.

Cardlock, Jane, and Prius.

How to pump gas in the North: a twelve-step program.

There, we met a pair of bicyclists making their way down the country from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Their bikes were loaded with four saddlebags each, and their ribs were probably showing under their Lycra jerseys.

“How far you trying to go?” I asked one of the bikers.

“Argentina,” he replied, with a shrug that showed he didn’t believe they would make it. “We’ve been pushing it to 100 miles a day, trying to break the world record. I’m pretty well beat…”

We wished them luck and took heed of their advice to buy cinnamon rolls at the upcoming town of Muncho Lake.

A (pine?) beetle in the parking lot.

The first half of our drive was straight with large grassy verges and many side-roads with signs for “Sour Gas Compression Plant,” “Natural Gas Exploration Patch,” and “Sulfur Pellet Station.” The so-called Energetic City of Fort St. John depends mainly on natural gas and oil exploration for its economy, with a dose of logging and heavy construction as well.

Oil or gas exploration.

Sulfur pelletization.

I didn’t understand how construction could be its own industry until I saw how much maintenance the Alaska Highway requires. We were stopped or slowed every few dozen miles for construction in any stage from clearing rocks to smoothing gravel to laying down fresh asphalt. Every town along the way hosts an enormous white tent filled with gravel (maybe to keep it free from snow?) while the accompanying equipment often sits outside, exposed to the elements.

A burned portion of the forest.

The halfway point of our drive was Fort Nelson, where we stopped at the Trapper’s Den and tried on wildlife hides. The proprietor, who has lived her whole life in that very log cabin and avoids the “big city” of Grande Prairie, Alberta because of the traffic, advised us we’d be seeing lots of wildlife on the next leg of our journey.

Arctic fox was so soft (shout-out to Fella!)

Raccoon.

And she was right! The second half of our drive was spectacular. We climbed through the Canadian Rockies, dipping above and below the alpine tree line. Jane spotted a road-killed black bear while I took a nap. Later, a dark-brown, deer-like animal crossed the road in front of us.

“Moose?” I identified it uncertainly. It was too dark for a deer; its feet and nose were oversized, and its antlers were velvety. “I wonder when the antlers flatten out…” I thought to myself. A few miles later, another crossed the road. This time we got a better view, and Jane pronounced it a caribou. So that explains the antlers!

Caribou!

Not your typical "deer crossing" sign.

We stopped for a bathroom break at Summit Lake Provincial Campground, where the cool mountain wind and glassy lake took our breath away.

Summit Lake.

“Watch for Stone sheep along the road,” warned the Milepost. A minute later, there they were: two brownish sheep with curved horns, a dark subspecies of Dall sheep. Around the bend, a family with a lamb. We watched them nibble salt from the gravel then effortlessly scamper up the steep cliff.

Stone sheep!

Soon after, an actual cow moose and her calf crossed the road, clearing up any lingering confusion about the various deer-family species.

Moose!

After bear, caribou, sheep, and moose, we really didn’t feel like we’d seen enough big game... Luckily, we ended the day with a herd of a dozen bison in the foggy twilight near the entrance to our night’s home, Liard Hotsprings Lodge.

Right after this sign...

... We found this guy!

And his whole herd.

We brought our bags inside just as a deafening thunderstorm broke loose over the spruce forest, and we fell asleep to a raindrop lullaby.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 3 
  • Start: Fort St. John, British Columbia, Canada 
  • Miles traveled: 426 
  • Hours driven: 10 
  • Favorite bird sighting: White-winged crossbill 
  • End: Liard River Hotsprings, British Columbia, Canada

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting. Love the pictures and your sense of humor. Happy to see how much mother and daughter enjoy each other. Wish I could join you!
    Sarah

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  2. You're coming to the section where we saw the most wildlife too esp bears. We even saw one on the edge of a herd of bison hoping for a lucky break LOL I remember being able to see the steam rising off the hotsprings for miles along the hwy, it was very eerie. Safe travels and thanks for sharing. Jeanette

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  3. Congratulations on the crossbills! With all you are seeing, may be time to start a "mammal list"

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  4. ...next time I have to trim a tree, I'll just get Jane out instead of a saw. Wonderful blogging. More please.

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