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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sunshine and Bumpy Roads

Location: Tok, Alaska
Population: 1673

Today is Day 11 of the trip and Day 11 of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s. I'm sorry to all of those of you back home and elsewhere that have been dealing with rain and cold! This weather has been great for us, but also means the fire danger is extreme with risks at mid-July levels on the first day of June. There is actually a wildfire here near Tok, and we could see all the smoke when we pulled into town. We heard today that the Alaska Highway (which we have now rejoined) was closed for five hours a few days ago due to that fire. There is also another one burning near Fairbanks, and some more lightning storms potentially in the forecast - yikes!

The condition of the highway deteriorates north of Haines Junction despite consistent efforts to improve it. The problem is that the soil is of glacial origin and some of it is permafrost. As I read today, Public Works Yukon explains the problem like this: "Anything that causes the permafrost to melt will cause the ice-rich soil to liquefy, and liquid soil has little strength and will settle or subside. Then if this soil refreezes during lower air temperatures, it will expand or heave." The result is a very bumpy highway that has fallen in some places and experienced frost heaves in others. We passed several construction sites where they were working on the highway and a couple of research stations where teams of US and Canadian scientists are studying how to better build on these soils. In the end, right now it's impossible to fix all of the rough patches in a single season before more are created next season, so instead the going is slower. The road crews do help you out by placing these neon orange flags next to especially big sinks or heaves, so we saw a lot of these today:

Our first stop today was at the Sheep Mountain Visitor Information Center about 40 miles north of Haines Junction. I was extremely impressed with this fantastic visitor's center. They had a friendly naturalist on hand who was full of information about the local Dall's sheep population and also had scopes set up so we could look at the sheep up on the mountain. They had a great natural history display, and also offered these field-guide quality booklets for free:

As someone who works as a natural interpreter, I know the challenges of the job and have seen it done with varying degrees of success. I have to say that in the Yukon they're doing a lot of things right when it comes to park interpretation (this was at the border of Kluane National Park), and I was extremely impressed! I left a donation at the visitor's center and proceeded to use the Common Roadside Yukon Flowers pamphlet to help me identify a few species I hadn't yet figured out, such as the narrow-leaved arnica (Arnica angustifolia):

Also the showy bog buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), unlike anything I've seen before:

And finally tall lungwort (Mertensia paniculata), also known as bluebells, but that's too easily confused with the English bluebells that aren't native:

Along the next stretch of highway we saw a moose and a porcupine, but I didn't get great photos of either one. We stopped for lunch at the small town of Beaver Creek where we ate at a snazzy little cafe called Buckshot Betty's. On the afternoon stretch we re-entered Alaska (our fourth and final land-based border-crossing of the trip) and drove along Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, where we took a couple of hikes hoping to see some birds. So far, birding the boreal forest hasn't been too successful, and there were hardly any sightings worth mentioning today. The one exception was this trumpeter swan on its impressive nest in the middle of a roadside marsh:

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