Archive for September, 2012

Who Runs Coal Lake?


Our bike brakes squealed. Nancy and I stopped next to the overly large pile of bear shit.

There is something perversely thrilling about messing around in country where there are critters that can eat you.

The pile of bear droppings were the first of several piles we passed on another adventure on the Alligator Lake road. They all were fairly fresh.

Without a television in the Yukon, Nancy and I have to create our own adventure channel.  On this day it meant packing lunches, water bottles and cans of bear spray for a mountain bike trek.

Even though the locals call it the Alligator Lake road, it is not really a road. There are a couple of rusted vehicle remains pushed into the bush alongside the trail. Foolish folks who chose to drive the dozen or so miles back to the remote Alligator Lake left behind these artifacts.   The jewel of a lake nestles in a phalanx of mountains. It is named for the nearby gator-shaped Alligator Mountain.  Dall sheep and caribou look down on its waters. Earlier this summer a friend cycled back to camp overnight and had three wolverines pass closely as they loped through their home range.

The road is really an overused, eroded quad (ATV) trail.  It has sections of softball-sized rocks, deep mudholes the color of last week’s coffee, sand that sucks your tires out of sight, and exposed lengths of spruce roots that rattle your teeth as the bike flies over them. Oh and you also have to cross a numbingly cold Two Horse Creek that demands you get off your bike and wade.  A day pedaling on the Alligator Lake road is guaranteed to loosen up your joints, shake your insides, demand keen reflexes, work your lungs and heart and give you a surge of adrenaline.

Our adrenaline factor spiked when we pedaled past several heaps of bear shit.

We examined the first tar black pile, shiny with mossberries. The size of the pile made it clear that it was grizzly and not black bear.

Mossberries, more commonly known as crowberries, are profuse this year. This is good news for bear and human berry pickers.  The low matted shrub, common in tundra and rocky soils, is said to be the most popular wild fruit among the Inuit. Two nights ago I had a fine piece of white frosted cake laced with mossberries.

These berries are full of fiber and tiny seeds. Consequently, the fruit makes its way through a bear’s long digestive system and are left in telltale piles of waste. And no, there were no bear bells, no shreds of clothing in the feces, just the shards of hundreds of mossberries.

The grizzly is an iconic feature of the Yukon and Alaska wilderness. Along the Alaskan coast, grizzlies are known as brown bears and feed heavily on salmon. With this high protein diet, the grizzlies living there are over-sized. The diet of interior grizzlies, like those in the Yukon, can be up to 90 percent plant material.

It’s the other ten percent of their diet that makes me nervous.

I know I need to be bear aware and as I travel and camp in bear country. Statistically, I am more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightening that be attacked by a bear.  But I still know I should hike or bike in groups, make noise to avoid surprising a bear and stay at least one hundred yards from a bear. Further is better.

Passing piles of fresh bear scat gives me sharp focus. Nancy and I simultaneously pedaled and sang or loudly chatted, not an easy task on an uphill stretch. Making noise is probably the best bear deterrent there is. Let the bears know that you are coming and they generally will bid a hasty retreat. As a habit, they don’t go around looking for conflict.

When we stopped to have a much-needed lunch, only a mile or so from Alligator Lake, we were surprised to see two quads drop down a steep pitch towards us. They slowed, pulled up next to us and turned off their machines. The first fellow pulled off his helmet and asked if we were okay. I noticed the rifle scabbard fastened just ahead of his handlebars.

We must have looked like a bad accident as they drove up. We were sprawled on the hillside, resting and eating and the bikes were lying next to us.

We affirmed that we were okay. After commending us on our workout to get back into this rugged country, he asked if we had seen any wildlife. Other than a pair of spruce grouse and a few dashing red squirrels, we had seen nothing. “Oh,” I added.  “We did pass a few big piles of fairly fresh bear droppings.”

Looking far off to his left and pointing, the middle-aged man said, “Yeah, there is a big old grizzly that runs the Coal Lake area.” Coal Lake is not more than a ten- minute bear trot east of Alligator Lake.

After a few minutes of friendly chatter, the two motorists fired up their quads and drove away. I watched the cased rifle disappear and glanced down at the can of bear spray tucked into the easily accessible side pocket of my pack. A recent study in Alaska shows that statistically bear spray is more effective than firearms when defending oneself from a bear attack.  But for the spray to be effective, the bear has to be no more than twenty feet.

What did the quad driver mean by his choice of the verb, “runs?” Did he mean that the bear runs through the Coal Lake area or does he run, as in manage, the Coal Lake area? And if he is he manager of this domain, is he a friendly manager?

We finished our sandwiches and noted the late afternoon sun. We would be negotiating the hazards of Alligator Lake Road in the dark if we didn’t start back soon. Neither of us said a word about what was really driving our decision. We didn’t want to bump into the back end of a certain grizzly that runs the mossberry route.

*Note: the photo used with this blog entry is one of a black bear hind foot. . . also from the Alligator Lake Road. The tire tread is from my mtn bike “bush pony.”


Enduring Features


The trip to the Tombstone Mountains has been on our “Yukon bucket-list” for a couple of years. Less than an hour after bumping our way down the notorious Dempster Highway we passed the sign welcoming us to Tombstone Territorial Park. (Note: The Dempster is Canada’s one and only all-weather highway that crosses the Arctic Circle. It  is a 640 mile long gravel road that ends near the edge of where North America and the Arctic Ocean meet.)

Other than one trail that limits the number of backpackers, Tombstone Park allows visitors to hike anywhere.  But, once out there, you are on your own. Our first stop was at the  park Interpretive Center to make inquiries about a challenging hike.

The uniformed young woman who helped us was a short, strong, park ranger who looked part warrior and part bike gang member with her nose ring and stubby dredlocks. We made it clear that we liked to get off the beaten trail where we would not likely see people. I saw the flicker of her eyes as she quickly scanned both of us. It was a measuring up type of glance. I don’t know if it was my faded orange, multi-pocketed pants, patched in three loci with silver duct tape or if it was our well-worn hiking boots that prompted her to unfold a topo map and boldly stab a finger on a mountain and series of ridges that she was not familiar with.

“You might try Mt. Boyle,” the park warrior said.  Pausing, she added, “I have not hiked it but it looks interesting and accessible. “But if you climb it,” she smiled,”  you have to stop back here and report to me what you found.” We leaned over the “office use only” topo map, memorized landmarks and headed north on the Dempster Highway to check it out.

We passed critical landmarks and finally slowed to a stop to pull out the binocs to assess the mountain and the shoulders of ridges that might provide us reasonable access. We decided to fix supper here and watch the magic of light play over the mountains. Even though it was mid-August, the slopes around us were already blushing with reds and glowing in golds. We guessed that we were only two weeks from full-on autumnal foliage fireworks.

Up early the next day, we packed water bottles and lunch for refueling ourselves. We  hoped to refill our water bottle as needed from  snowmelt freshets. As usual, in accessing a particular peak, the most frustrating and onerous aspect is the first section of the trek. We had to cross a quarter mile of very soft tundra that was punctuated with countless grass hummocks. With all the high stepping, our thighs were getting more of a warmup than we wanted and we hadn’t begun to climb yet.

We approached a sinuos, thick growth of tall willow. Serpentine stretches of willows usually indicate a stream, so talking loudly to announce our presence to any potential bears, we ducked and wove through the cover.  With a moderate leap, we were across soon out of the willow.

Now we were gaining elevation and the hummocks were behind us and all we had to push through now was a scrabbly hillside of buck brush. Buck brush is the local name  for dwarf birch (Betula nana). These edgey shrubs can grow nearly to my shoulders, but are usually below my waist   a perfect tripping height. Many folks scorn this transition shrub.  It is an apt  gatekeeper for accessing the alpine, but its great escape cover for ptarmigan and other small dwellers of these parts. The foliage of these restraining shrubs tried to hold us back. There fall red colors were not enough to give us pause.

There is a victory of sorts and certainly a surge of well-being when the dwarf birch grows scarcer and scarcer and finally you spy more ground hugging lichens and alpine flora underfoot. Now our greatest barrier became  gravity itself.  The topography here is took on a greater grade of elevation and the bantor between the two of us mostly disappeared with the buckbrush. Talking became laborious and discussion was relegated to short sentences broken by the steady rhythm of louder breathes.

I think of this part of the climb as walking meditation. Concentrate on the breathing. . . big, slow breaths. Occasionally I lifted my gaze to be sure I was picking the most efficient and risk-free route. Nancy claims I am good at this. I find comfort in that honor and feel self important in leading the way.

As I hike upwards I imagined my lungs, heart and leg muscles all working in perfect harmony. It’s moments like this that render me humbled at the marvel of such synchronicity.

Higher we trudged and finally we found a false summit. It’s semi-flat bench offered us a chance to shed our packs, pull out water bottles and a tidbit to eat. The chilled wind urged us to pick up the climb again. Now the column of ragged rock at Boyle’s summit could finally be discerned. At the third false summit, we sat down behind a fold, out of the wind, put on windbreakers and ate our lunch.

We checked in with each other to see how we are feeling. Good. After twenty minutes of lunching and resting, we looked ahead at the route and agreed on it before hoisting the packs again.

The last pitch was a bit dicey but there were enough good footholds and handholds to make our way up to the tip of Boyle. The top was a grass covered pate that was actually large enough to park a car.  Scattered piles of dried Dall sheep droppings gave proof that this was indeed a spot worthy of a lookout.

Here, at the top, the burning pain in the climbing leg muscles and the associated racing heart and big breathing were forgotten.  I almost always feel a giddiness and ecstatic euphoria all rolled into one burst of well-being. My God! Why from up here I can see half way to yonder!  I felt as if I was the pin on which a compass needle balances. And the air, made from the tiny breaths of stoic alpine flora tasted unbelievable! Perches like this, high above the world, with absolutely no human sign in sight, are the kinds of spots that poet Walt Whitman wrote about in his book Leaves of Grass.

 “I inhale great draught of space…

the east and west are mine…

and the north and south are mine…I

am grandeur than I thought…

I did not know I held so much goodness. ”

During our entire trek we discovered no signs of humans.  Not one ATV track in sight. No cell towers and from the top even the Dempster is but a far distant thread.   The only tracks we saw on the climb were moose, Dall sheep, caribou (Hart River herd), and a recent grizzly excavation on an arctic ground squirrel den.

Words are pathetically  inadequate in trying to portray this epic and majestic landscape. In fact with the passing of overhead clouds, the here-and-go sunlight creates a constantly changing kaleidoscope of color and texture. I swear this country could  move the most cold hearted to tears of joy. My happiness index is rarely higher than when I am in the company of summit serenity.

Here, the interplay of sun, wind, water, snow and ice has sculpted mountains and valleys. Diverse habitats from low to high country, from mountain lake to alpine pond, from  meltwater freshet to  rushing river, all give rise to an array of astonishing diversity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) <> works to create and maintain an interconnected series of parks and wildlife corridors that allow both people and animals to thrive across an international landscape.

In a recent report they mention “enduring features.” The report says, “This includes landforms, bedrock and surface geology, and water bodies—together called “enduring features”. These features are the base upon which Earth’s living skin develops, and where plants and animals grow and evolve.”  I like that marriage of two words. . .endearing features.  These are features that forge emotional bookmarks in my head; those memories that I’m confident of carrying in my pack of life.

After nearly eight hours of climbing and descending we made it back to camp satiated with Mt. Boyle’s offerings. And two days later we returned to the Tombstone Park Interpretive Center where we delightedly shared our findings with an equally delighted mountain warrior wearing dredlocks.

A Northerly Road Trip

After a recent road trip into Alaska and points north in the Yukon, we can now claim to have driven the whole length of the Alaska Highway.

Arguably the greatest feat of road building in the history of the world happened in 1942. In less than nine months, US Army troops and United States and Canadian civilian contractors scraped, filled and constructed 1,422 miles of a road from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Big Delta, Alaska. Many residents of this remote land thought at the time that such a project was impossible.

Besides being the primary conduit that carries necessary goods and supplies up the highway, it also funnels tens of thousands of tourists to the “last frontier” of Alaska.

More than half a century has passed since the Alaska Highway was built and few arterial roads, particularly in the Yukon and Alaska, have been built off the main highway.

Alaska and the Yukon are mostly roadless. There are just over 12,000 miles of public road in Alaska and less than 3,500 miles in the Yukon. There is one public road, the Haines Highway, between our Yukon home and the Pacific Ocean to the west. That span is filled with mountains, alpine, lakes and spruced river valleys.

I know this because I talked to a grizzled fellow who hiked from our road to the Haines Highway during a three-week stroll in the middle of winter.

Looking like he was sired by a grizzly bear, he added that the jaunt is far easier in the winter because you can go more direct by walking over frozen rivers and lakes.

If I were to trek east across the continent towards the saltwater of Hudson’s Bay, I would cross three to five public roads. That means that between thoroughfares there is a whole lot of wild boreal land latticed with myriads of ponds, lakes and flowages. But somehow I wouldn’t doubt that the old grizzled Yukoner has made that stroll.

Winter traveling through the north is serious business.  I mean traveling in the real north, not the mild and mannered “up north” of my home state, Minnesota. Winter cuts wheat from the chaff.

Nancy and I drove up the Alaska Highway a few years ago early in the month of January. We had flown down to Minnesota for Christmas and were driving our Prius back north to the Yukon.

Prior to leaving the Yukon for the holidays, we sought advice from our born-in-the Yukon neighbor who was a truck driver. He regularly made long runs on the Alaska Highway at all times of the year. He didn’t pontificate. In all seriousness he barked, “Don’t be a cowboy.” I think that meant don’t take any chances. The remote highway can team up with the elements of nature and kill you.

When we left Minnesota that January morning it was -24°F. And with a stout NW wind, I didn’t want to calculate the wind chill. Two, winter-weight down sleeping bags, holiday presents to each other, took up much of the hatchback. We had no problems. In Canada it’s relatively easy finding a motel with outside outlets to plug our cars oil pan heater into.

When we pulled out of the motel the next morning, in the day’s late dawning, the car creaked and thunked frigidly  onto the Trans Canada Highway. The dash lights failed to work in the cold. It was midmorning, somewhere in Saskatchewan, that they flickered and finally flashed on.

We were nearing Alberta when we spied a massive front, bearing a strong Chinook, warming ocean winds hurtling easterly, over the Canadian Rockies and spilling down onto the Canadian prairie.  The giant warming front drove back the cold temperatures and offered us a leap into unseasonably tropical temperatures. That night, in Edmonton, slush was the norm. With the thermometer rising above freezing there was no need to pull out the extension chord to plug the car into an outside outlet.

A day later found us officially on the Alaska Highway under tepid January temperatures. An axiom for successfully traveling the highway at any time of the year is to fill you vehicle whenever you can as services can be few and far between.

Traffic is never really heavy on the Alaska Highway and in the winter we experienced no RVs whatsoever. Actually we experienced hardly any traffic other than a few 18-wheelers and the random car. Summer use is dropping. It could be that folks are hard pressed to make such a trip. Or it could be that fuel costs are simply making the trip too pricey.

After World War II, Canada took over ownership of the highway.  And over the next forty years the entire span was paved. Prior to the completion of a smooth surface, it was not unusual for a traveler to have multiple spare tires and gas cans strapped to the cars roof or back bumper.

It seem like you are witnessing an old newsreel of the Alaska Highway when you still witness cars loaded with tires and extra fuel. Are they paranoid or have they not updated Milepost?  There is no better mile-by-mile travel guide than the most recently Milepost.

Now having said that it is sad to see the increasing number of old service station-café units overgrown with weeds and aspen trees, like cages, growing  around the gas pumps. At one stilled roadside station, I found an old sign laying on the ground half covered with fallen leaves and spruce needles. The other half was covered in splashes of lichens. Brushing away some leaves I was able to read the hand painted declaration: “Best Rhubarb Pie.”

Every year that we point our car up this grand highway, it seems like we discover another business gone silent. The proverbial sheet of plywood leaning against a saw horse or barrel bears the boldly painted word, usually in white,  “Closed.” Perhaps, one of these years we will have no choice but to join the traveling self-service units and be forced to tote extra treads and gas cans.

And while there is a kind of poetic justice in watching the boreal wilderness reclaim itself, I would sure miss the rhubarb pie.