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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Into the Yukon

Location: Marsh Lake, Yukon
Population: 367

Yesterday, as we left Muncho Lake, were were still in the middle of what is considered by many to be the most beautiful part of the Alaska highway. We had several stops planned for early in the day, and one of our hopes was to see stone sheep - an animal I had never even heard of until this trip! It turns out they are a dark morph of the Dall's sheep that one of our field guides lists as living only in the most inaccessible regions of the northern mountains. It's hard to believe that's where we are!

We didn't have to wait long. We spotted a small band of sheep on a mineral lick where they are known to hang out, and also saw two close up alongside the highway, where they come to lick the salt off the rocks. The first picture shows an impressive adult male, and the second picture shows a female with a cockeyed horn licking the gravel:

Next up was Liard Hot Springs near the BC/Yukon border. The existence of these hot springs has made for an interesting ecosystem in the region as many plants and flowers that wouldn't normally grow here are found near this warmer region. It advertised itself as being the home for several boreal bird species as well, but in addition the ubiquitous Myrtle warbler and a few Canada geese, the only other species I saw was a rose-breasted grosbeak (178). We're a little bit early for the peak of the wildflowers, but there were several different species in bloom. I picked up a field guide for flowers of Alaska and northwestern Canada so after I've identified some of the species I'll share some photos here. In the meantime, I got to experience my first-ever dip in a hot spring! The water was much warmer than I expected - it felt like a hot tub! Very neat.

We had a lot of miles left to cover. Yesterday was actually one of our driving days where we had to cover the greatest distance. But there was too much to stop and see! We were lucky enough to see three different small groups of wood bison, a threatened subspecies of the American bison that originally lived all throughout the boreal forests. I was familiar with both the Dall's sheep and American bison before this trip, but I had no idea stone sheep and wood bison existed. I'm learning so much! The wood bison, like their plains counterparts, were heavily hunted, and at one point were thought to potentially be extinct. Currently, there are about 3000 of them living in northwestern Canada.

The picture below of a grazing wood bison shows another feature of the Alaska highway: the fact that it is mowed for 50+ feet on either side for most of its length. I'm not sure what the rationale is for this, but it does allow drivers to see animals before they might dart into the road. It also creates grazing habitats that several animals like to take advantage of, including the black bear. I know, I didn't think of the black bear as primarily a grazer either, but it turns out up to 95% of their diet is made up of vegetation. One of the managers at the inn we're staying at now explained that there are more black bears along the road now in the spring because they are eating all the dandelions. A traveler wouldn't see nearly as many bears during the summer months.

Many of the animals don't seem to have much of a fear of humans, either. (That doesn't mean this human doesn't have a healthy respect for these wild animals - I always remain in the car!) That allows for some pretty amazing photo opportunities with a zoom lens, like this close-up of a grazing bison:

The Yukon! Hard to imagine being in such an exotic, far-away sounding place. But yesterday we officially crossed into this northwestern Canadian province:

Soon after crossing the border you come to the town of Watson Lake, which is known for its sign post forest. It was started in 1942 by a homesick military worker helping to construct the Alaska highway who put up a sign with an arrow indicating the mileage to his hometown. It has now grown into a famous landmark with more than 65,000 signs of all types, such as city limit signs, license plates, and homemade signs including the dates and names of the visitors. It's pretty impressive.

The kilometers and hours continued to roll past until we neared our destination near Marsh Lake. A few miles before our turn off there was one more stop, for a porcupine! Every new species we see becomes my new favorite, so for now it's the porcupine. This guy had a very lumbering, comical walk and was very cooperative to sit up for this photo before waddling into the woods. I want to learn more about how a porcupine makes its living.

Today was a much needed day spent in the same place with no great traveling involved. That allowed for some catching up on sleep, some bird-watching, and a trip to Whitehorse. The highlight of visiting the province's capital city (which is home to two-thirds of the Yukon's residents at 21,000!) was a visit to the Yukon Brewing Company. I couldn't believe how busy it was there, with a steady stream of locals coming in to get their growlers filled up direct from the taps. The staff seemed to know almost every person by name, too. Funny!

The birds were surprisingly sparse, and I still haven't had any luck turning up a boreal chickadee, but I did add several species to the year list. The best find was our first arctic tern (179), a species I have only seen once before, back in 1996 on my first short trip to Alaska. I also saw a couple of shorebirds: the lesser yellowlegs (180) and a single least sandpiper (181). We also saw three gull species, the most of any day thus far: herring gull, Bonaparte's gull, and mew gull. Driving back from Whitehorse we got a quick glimpse of what was probably a gyrfalcon, which would be a life bird for me, but unfortunately the look was just too brief to be sure of the ID.

Tomorrow, we return to the US and reach Alaska as our destination is Skagway...


Whidbey Woman said...

Driving to Alaska has always been a dream of mine. So, it is especially fun to follow your blog now.You are having an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing it with all of us. The Orca will be here to greet you when you get back. There have been active sightings all around Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. :)

Lancs and Lakes Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Keep that news coming Monika- great stuff, makes us readers feel like we are in the truck with you. Our adventure is ending now - what a great place this part of Fl has been.


PS there is a 'wood' bison in eastern Europe too - the Wisent which was on the brink of extinction 50 years ago and now the population stands at about 500

scazon said...

That bison is awesome! I would love to go up there and experience all this for myself. Also, the hot spring. I could use a good soak…

(One minor point: the Yukon is not a province; it's a territory.)

Monika said...

Whidbey Woman - I'm glad you're enjoying following along! I've been getting the Orca Network reports and I'm glad to hear the residents have been around.

Dave - Interesting, I didn't know about the British wood bison either....

Scazon - Thanks for that! I wasn't familiar with the distinction between province and territory, but now I know.