Trekking Tales: North to Alaska, part five

Fairbanks, Wildlife, and More – In late August, we reached Delta Junction, official end of the Alaska Highway

In late August, we reached Delta Junction, official end of the Alaska Highway, 1,420 miles (2,290 km) from Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, B.C., then Fairbanks.

Here, gardens flourished and flowers bloomed abundantly. Displays in the Cultural Centre, and the University’s Museum of the North, showed us Alaskan geography, history of the people and their paraphernalia, northern animals, birds, and local fish. We saw, but did not float on the Yukon River in four-decked riverboat Discovery III, checking out wildlife instead. Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were feeding, close to trails, at Creamers Field but migrated south before we did. Looking forward to seeing muskox up close, and learning the difference between reindeer and caribou, we drove to the University’s Large Animal Research Centre – closed! Returning on the morning we were leaving, we read this disappointing notice: “Sorry – Closed owing to a staffing issue.”

Opting not to travel south to Denali Park at this time, we retraced our steps past North Pole (a Santa Claus-themed community), and Eielson Air Force Base where fighter jets zoomed into space beside the highway, to Tok. From there to Haines Junction, YT, we were on an unfamiliar section of the Alaska Highway. Swans swam prettily in lakes and ponds, the drive beside St. Elias Mountains and Kluane Lake, YT, spectacular. Through high-powered binoculars at Kluane National Park Visitor Centre, we watched Dall sheep negotiate the cliffs of Sheep Mountain; others, on its ridge-top, were outlined against pure blue sky.

We want to drive from Haines Junction, YK to Haines, AK again – without low-lying fog next time. At the summit, a gopher relative munched on ptarmigan feathers, biting off the quills; the soft portions would line its winter home. Our initial descent from that wide, treeless, alpine valley totally enveloped us in thick fog. By the time we could see again, cedar trees towered above us. The road levelled off as we approached Haines and salt water. In the Chilkat River, grizzlies caught spawning salmon, eagles and mergansers on clean-up duty. A comparatively diminutive ferry took us, and car, to Skagway docking beside four cruise ships. Having been here previously, we didn’t tarry after seeking out the start of the Chilkoot Trail at nearby Dyea.

On our sunny drive back to Whitehorse, a mother grizzly and cub crossed the road ahead of us.

Near Whitehorse next day, a young, well-educated guide, born in Old Crow, showed us around the extensive acres of the Wildlife Refuge. Cameras clicked, recording (at last) muskox, Dall and Stone Sheep, bison and their young, ptarmigan and a snowshoe hare, both already changing to white, and even a partially-hidden lynx with three kits in the brush. Mountain goats roamed the rocky slopes; a moose hid in the trees beyond the swamp, while caribou, elk and deer wandered in wide-ranging fields.

Later, a towering mammoth skeleton and replicas of other pre-historic animals greeted us at the Beringia Interpretive Centre. Beringia consisted of a section of Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon that was ice-free during the last ice age. “The Centre would not be complete without the inclusion of the First Nations’ knowledge and perspective,” states their website. We investigated everything.

Few salmon were swimming up the fish ladder beside the dam on the Yukon River in early September but a morning hike beside it on the Trans Canada Trail in sunshine felt great. Our afternoon look at Miles Canyon, a death trap for some gold seekers in the past (though now tamed by Whitehorse Dam), was brief as wind and driving rain blew us out of there. Meantime, once again, John just kept feeling lost in that much-changed city.