Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

Posted at 5:50 pm, October 12th, 2002

I’m nearly nine hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle now, and it’s like I’ve gone backwards in time — the temperatures are in the forties and fifties, the trees have leaves, and the smell of autumn is again in the air. I came down here to visit the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which from October to January hosts the largest concentration of bald eagles anywhere in the world — between three and four thousand eagles gather here to catch a late run of salmon. The preserve is literally packed with eagles — I counted nearly fifty on a sandbar this morning, and it’s tough to find a stand of trees that doesn’t have at least one eagle in it. While it’s amazing to see so many eagles, the most incredible thing about this place is the sound — the cry of a single eagle is inspiring, but hearing multiple eagles calling out to one another is an experience that even a poet would have trouble putting into words.

30 miles south of Haines Junction, Yukon Territory

Posted at 8:20 pm, October 11th, 2002

Early this morning I snarfed an entire Braeburn Lodge cinnamon bun — they are huge and meant to feed four, so it’s a good bet that I haven’t been eating enough lately. Oh well. After driving for a long time this morning I spent the afternoon in Whitehorse getting my fourth(!) flat tire fixed, doing errands, looking around, and checking e-mail. At the internet place a kitten picked me out of the seven people present to be her playtoy, and I left covered in kitten-sized toothmarks and clawmarks. I’m generally not a cat person, so this little one was very lucky that she was cute.

230 miles north of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory

Posted at 8:20 pm, October 10th, 2002

Almost exactly two months ago I was driving north on the Klondike Highway, and today I’m driving back south. It seems both like a long time has passed and like very little time at all has passed. When I set out it was with the desire to “make each day count.” At some point during the trip that sentiment changed to “allow each day to count.” The difference is subtle, yet it in some ways defines what this trip has done for me.

50 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 2:10 pm, October 10th, 2002

While preparing the daily meal today I looked up to see a fox looking back at me from no more than fifteen feet away. Given her close proximity I initially thought that she must have somehow habituated to people, but any time I so much as shifted my weight she would go running off, so I guess she was simply curious. She stayed around for perhaps ten minutes, making a close examination of the Subaru, roaming all over the area I was parked in, and twice coming to within three or four feet of me while I was kneeling down. At times she would dive and roll in the snow, and although I first assumed she was hunting mice, after watching her do this a few times I think she was just having fun. This experience was one of the best wildlife encounters I’ve had, partially because it was great to see a fox so close for such a long time, but moreso because this fox made me feel like an object of curiosity rather than an intruder into her world.

130 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 6:20 pm, October 9th, 2002

Earlier today I ate two pancakes, two eggs, and two strips of bacon while drinking coffee, and there was much rejoicing. Saw the first black bear that I’d seen since early August, but he was heading away from the road and I figured hiking after a bear that is frantically trying to put on weight before hibernating might not be the smartest move. Snow closed the northern portion of the highway early this morning so I’ve only seen five other vehicles today, making for a relaxing drive south.

250 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 4:30 pm, October 8th, 2002

Today is probably going to be my last day in the Richardson Mountains and I wanted to make the most of it, so I set off with the idea of heading to the highest summit I could find. The idea that anyone could “conquer” a mountain is a fallacy, but in a world where most things are made easy, standing on a mountain top remains a challenge that one must earn. I was out for about four hours total, and at times the wind was so strong that I could barely stand — at one point I was on all fours, freezing wind trying to rip me off of the mountain, clawing my way through a snow bank and onto the top of one of the many peaks that make up the Richardson Range. The windchill was going places that I didn’t even know were possible, but the experience was a tremendous way to say goodbye to this place.

As I was getting back to the Subaru a guy in a pickup truck stopped to chat. One of the things that I love about remote areas is that when you do meet other people it’s a special occasion — in the city we ignore one another, but out here when you see someone you generally stop to talk for a bit, and Albert even went so far as to offer me a cup of coffee (which was about the best thing anyone could have done after my deep-freeze expedition). The topic of conversation among almost everyone is the same — caribou — and like most people I’ve met Albert had come down from Inuvik hunting. We parted ways after fifteen minutes or so, but given the scarcity of traffic at this time of year we are something like neighbors, and it is ironic that I’ve already met several of my “neighbors” up here while in the city I’ve lived in places for years and often never even met the person living next door.

250 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 3:15 pm, October 7th, 2002

I discovered a turnoff just north of the Arctic Circle that led to the perfect overnight spot, so I’m parked for the night on a ridge that offers a wide-open view of the valley below — if a wolf, caribou or anything comes through I’ll see it. Snow in the morning and heavy clouds since, so I drove back to the Eagle Lodge to get lunch. Apparently the lady at the lodge had assumed she would see me again a few hours after my first visit — people apparently don’t do much camping here once it gets cold — and she was quite relieved to find out that I was OK. When she found out I was heading back north she said “But it’s full of wolves and bears up there right now!” “Yeah!” was my enthusiastic reply. The conversation that followed was one of those “Mars and Venus” sort of things I guess.

270 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 5:20 pm, October 6th, 2002

Hiking through the Richardson Mountains for most of the afternoon. It was cold but not terribly windy so I was able to stay outside without freezing. It’s immensely relaxing just roaming the ridges with nothing around to act as a distraction. Followed the tracks of a fox in the snow for a long while, then followed the trail of several wolves. Didn’t see any of the animals, but it was nevertheless an interesting look into their worlds to be able to tell where they had stopped, what they were looking at, and so forth.

290 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 7:30 pm, October 5th, 2002

My fingers are so frozen that I can barely type… sunsets up here have in general not been too spectacular, but tonight was an exception. I looked outside about an hour ago, and all of the snow had turned a shade of purple. I threw my winter jacket on top of the t-shirt, flannel, and down vest that I was already wearing and raced out towards a large hill behind my camping spot. Near the summit the snow had drifted to at least six feet, but I found a spot that was only waist-deep and literally rammed my way through and onto the top, thereby gaining an unobstructed view on all sides of the magnificent light. If frozen fingers are the price for viewing a sight like that then I’m more than happy to pay.

290 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 5:25 pm, October 5th, 2002

The following is a snippet of a conversation I had with an Inuit fellow who stopped his truck to chat with me this morning. In conversation the Inuit are different from any people I’ve ever met in that their conversations often move very slowly and deliberately. Having been brought up to fear the “awkward pause”, conversing in this manner can be quite an unusual experience.

Him: Hello.
Me: Morning! How’s it going?
Him: Oh, pretty good. (awkward pause) What are you doing?
Me: I’m just hanging out. Are you hunting?
(awkward pause)
Him: Yeah… (long awkward pause) Have you seen any animals?
Me: No, sorry, just a few ptarmigan.
Him: Oh… (long awkward pause) Are you hunting?
Me: No, no, just hanging out. Have you seen any caribou?
(awkward pause)
Him: No, have you?
…and so forth…

Arctic Circle Crossing, 240 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 4:30 pm, October 4th, 2002

Still glowing from this morning’s wolf sighting — a sixth wolf appeared later, following his fellows. The mood was only mildly disturbed when a short time afterwards I blew a tire and it deflated so quickly that by the time I stopped to change it the rim was riding on the ground. After getting to the Eagle Lodge the prognosis from the guy there was “I think you’re screwed” and it was downgraded to “Yep, you’re screwed” after getting a look at the inside of the tire. Oddly enough, the three times I’ve gotten a flat on this trip have all been the right rear tire. Luckily he had a tire for sale that was the right size, and since it would be foolish to travel this road without a spare I forked over some money. After a BLT at the lodge (nine days without soup!) I’m now writing from the warm interior of the Subaru at the Arctic Circle crossing while a snowstorm is raging outside.

210 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 11:40 am, October 4th, 2002

The trip is now perfect — five wolves were sitting in the snow as I was driving along. They took off into the brush as I drove near, but I stopped the car and waited and they re-appeared after a few minutes. I attempted to howl like one of them, and while they looked at me strangely when I did so, after a brief pause I had five wolves singing in chorus.

The image of the lead wolf staring back at me is one that I think has been burned into my brain forever. When an experience is said to have “stirred the soul” I think the magic comes less from the experience and more from the certainty that deep within, one does indeed have a soul to be stirred. Watching the wolves was an experience that stirred my soul, and I’m grateful for it.

160 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 4:35 pm, October 3rd, 2002

Just kind of moseying along today. Earlier I experimented with cooking while inside of my car, and that allowed me to get my stew nice and hot in only ten minutes. Whether operating a propane stove inside of an automobile is a good idea or not is a question I’m willing to ignore when the windchill feels like it’s in the single digits and the alternative is a pot of cold canned food.

80 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 3:10 pm, October 2nd, 2002

Today has been a good day for spotting unusual animals. About an hour ago a golden eagle was sitting right on the road, and he sat with me about thirty feet away for a bit before flying overhead and then off into the mountains. Later on there were two little critters swimming around in a lake right offshore from me that I assume were muskrat — I’ve never seen a muskrat before, but I can’t think of anything else that these guys could have been. One caribou was out as well, giving me hope that there may be huge numbers of them further up the highway.

Everything is covered in an inch or two of snow, making for beautiful scenery. The lakes are all perfect mirrors of the surrounding mountains, and the streams are especially pretty as they wind their way through the white hills. I should probably be out hiking, but thus far I’ve been enjoying the views from the road (where “from the road” means “from my warm car”).

A random note, but trying to cook food out here is like trying to heat something up in a freezer. As soon as the bottom starts to get even mildly warm the top seems to have gone cold again. After cooking for more than a half hour I finally gave up and just ate lukewarm chili for lunch. On a positive note, at least it wasn’t canned soup.

20 miles up the Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory

Posted at 7:00 pm, October 1st, 2002

An awesome display of the Northern Lights last night — white and green with some red and purple that danced and flickered across the sky for at least a half hour. Snow and poor visibility when I woke up, but it was still pretty and I had an enjoyable drive to Dawson City. Stopped at the Jack Wade gold dredge and since no one else was around I conveniently failed to see the “Keep Out!” notices and discovered some loose mesh on the side of the dredge, allowing me to take a tour of the inside of the seventy year old structure.

Lunch in Dawson City means that it’s now been a full week since I’ve had to consume canned soup, but during the next several days along the Dempster I’ll be getting more than my fill of Chunky beef and potato, Progresso chicken Italiano, and other fun flavors. It is very likely that I may never want to even look at a can of soup again after this trip is over.