Continuing rain and clouds, and since the forecast calls for more of the same during the next week I’m going to do a good bit of driving south today. The scenery in the southern Yukon Territory/northern British Columbia is extremely tranquil — the forests are considerably greener and taller than those further north, and the lakes all are clear with an emerald tinge to them that is reminiscent of South Pacific waters. Today should definitely be a relaxing day.
Stopped at the Pizza Hut in Whitehorse around noon, and they probably still don’t know what hit them. I was hungry.
I’m camped out for the night at the beginning of the Atlin Highway next to Little Atlin Lake. It’s a very peaceful spot, surrounded by mountains and with hardly any traffic at this time of year. I’ve kind of been reflecting on the trip as I’m beginning the journey home — sitting with a Dall sheep, watching the peak of Denali glow pink in the sunset, howling with wolves and so many other things have all been very special experiences. I’ve spent the past ten weeks immersed in wilderness, and in the words of Thoreau I’ve been able to “front only the essential facts of life”. As I’m returning I feel a responsibility to give something back — Aldo Leopold wrote that even if we never visit the wild places of this earth, we need to know that they exist. Having gained so much from this experience I feel the need to help to keep the wilderness as it is, so that even if I never come back I’ll always know that such a refuge is here when needed.
More rain and clouds, so I said goodbye to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and also to Alaska — from this point onwards the path home leads through Canada and eventually back to the lower forty-eight. Despite the fact that I’ve left Alaska it’s not a terribly sad parting – were I a betting man I would wager very heavily that I’ll be visiting again in the not too distant future.
I’m trying to time the driving tomorrow so that I get to Whitehorse right around lunch time. On my last visit I noticed a Pizza Hut that was advertising a lunchtime buffet, and since then I’ve had dreams about pizza on several occasions. If all goes well I should be setting new pizza-consumption world records in another eighteen hours or so — there will be no canned soup for me tomorrow, oh no.
The weather is again rainy and overcast, so while I’m seeing some amazing sights I’m unable to do much photography — it’s both uplifting to view all of the eagles that are here, and at the same time horribly frustrating not being able to capture the experience in any way other than as a memory.
Just hanging out with the eagles today. The weather is being uncooperative for photos, so hopefully tomorrow will have more sun. I can get NPR out of Haines on the radio here, and the opinions being expressed on public radio are encouraging — apparently I’m not completely alone in thinking that war should not be the first option when trying to attain peace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Him: No, have you?
…and so forth…