Today I made the long drive north on the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, once again crossing the Arctic Circle. Unfortunately the weather of yesterday continued and much of the journey was fraught with blanketing fog and drizzle. The road was muddy and slippery in certain sections, particularly where construction teams had been working, and I thought what a contrast this experience was becoming when compared with the conditions I had experienced on the Dalton. The redeeming feature of today was the sighting of numerous caribou framed by the gray skyline creating a mystical feeling in the dreary conditions.
Originally I had planned to camp somewhere north of Eagle Plains, where I stopped for fuel, but with the weather looking unlikely to abate I pressed on to Inuvik, crossing into Northwest Territories and making two “on demand” ferry crossings, the first being at the Peel River, close to Fort McPherson and the second at the confluence of the Mackenzie/Arctic Red Rivers next to the town of Tsiigehtchic (“mouth of the iron river”), a Gwichʼin community. During the winter, these ferries are replaced by ice bridges and it reminds me how locals say driving the Dempster is often easier in winter because the ice packed road is more forgiving than the muddy or dusty summer conditions, all of course assuming you have the correct tires. Further more, in winter you can travel beyond Inuvik to the Arctic Ocean on the ice road across the delta.
The first picture below is from the Peel River ferry crossing and the second is from the approach to the ferry at the Mackenzie/Arctic Red rivers confluence. The white church is in Tsiigehtchic which lies between the two rivers just before they merge.
Although I was well north of the Arctic Circle, it struck me how lush the vegetation was compared with the tundra at the same latitude on the Dalton. There were even trees! I later discovered that this is due to the Mackenzie river delta, the relatively warm waters of which keep the permafrost at bay allowing for more top soil in which life is able to flourish.
The weather of the last 24 hours has consisted fog and virtually non-stop drizzle making me appreciate the fact it has been pretty favorable for most of my trip. Leaving Tok I headed NE on the Alaska Highway until I reached the turnoff for Chicken and the Top of the World Highway.
Not long after the pavement ended I pulled into Chicken, a town that has a population of 6 during the winter according to the Milepost! Swelling to a party sized 21 during the summer, I asked the person serving me tea in one of the three trading posts if she was one of the six. The reply was “no” but was informed that the woman in the Post Office was one of the year rounders.
Leaving Chicken I continued to the turnoff for Eagle which was about 65 miles due north and situated on the Yukon River. Milepost recommended visiting Eagle so I meandered along the dirt road for a couple of hours until I reached the small town stopping at the one cafe there for lunch. A tour bus was just leaving, I suspect to drop people off at the boat that transports tourists to and from Dawson City. The cafe was akin to a roadside “greasy spoons” in England and it struck me as strange that there appeared to be no desire in the one eatery in town for some quality food! Perhaps it is lack of competition, few visitors and a short season, I’m not sure. I suppose that as with most frontier towns, most food arrives by way of the distribution system rather than relying on a locally cultivated cuisine. May be I just missed the more exquisite menu items.
Passing through Canadian Customs on the Top of the World highway fog engulfed the vista. I asked the officer about the view and she said it is usually spectacular and maybe if I waited for a few hours I would see it. She then said it had been like this all day. Despite my suspicion that it would be in vain, I pulled over a few hundred yards on and waited.
A couple of hours later and my skepticism was born out. As I began descending toward Dawson City the cloud cleared and I at least got some idea of the views I had missed at the top. Once at the Yukon River I drove on to the ferry that still makes the Alaska Highway the only true overland route between Canada and Alaska and entered Dawson City where I would spend the night before beginning the Dempster Highway in the morning.
Just got back from a moderately eventful trip up the Dalton Highway but I’ll save creating posts for the last few days until later.
In the meantime, I converted one of my bear pictures into a “bear portrait” with photoshop! It’s a bit of a quick edit at this stage but an interesting effect with a few simple changes. You can see the original color image in my bear gallery here.
I wrote in the guest log at the sanctuary that it was hard to put into words how I felt about my 6 nights living with the McNeil bears. Aside from the fact that those of you who know Paul McNeil and have heard his bear joke will enjoy the obvious irony in the name of the location, this was one of those life experiences that has no benchmark. It is quite simply unique. You can read everything you need to know about the sanctuary by clicking here so I won’t spend time describing it in detail. However, I will re-iterate that the bears are truly wild, there are no fences around the sanctuary and no fences within it. The reason they come to this area during the summer is to fish. Access is by permit only through a lottery system and the boundaries on maps are expected to be respected by back country travelers. The campground for visitors is the only area where bears are not allowed and I stress the words “not allowed” because there are no fences around it. Over time most bears learn to respect the imaginary boundary. Others are asked to leave politely by the guides! Bear etiquette is described in a previous post but at McNeil it becomes possible to really appreciate the rule of standing your ground. We saw bears as close as 20 or 30 feet away without any fences. Why is this possible? Because they are wild bears that are not conditioned to associate humans with food and the guides take care not to surprise them. If bears are surprised their reaction is a defensive one as with any other animal particularly if a mother with cubs is involved. With that exception, they generally only become a threat to humans if we feed them whether it be deliberately or accidentally. When this does happen they are usually killed although some are given one chance in certain areas through relocation and tagging. The people I spoke to says this rarely works unless they are transferred to an island far enough away such that they are unable to swim back. As I think I stated earlier it is why they say in Alaska and elsewhere that a “fed bear is a dead bear”.
Because I took so many pictures and couldn’t possibly select a few for the blog, I created a gallery here. I will also add a link at the top. The gallery may change as I have many photographs to review so please bear with me! It might also take a while to load depending on the speed of your internet connection.
I caught this American Bald Eagle today on Homer Spit as he conveniently flew behind an American flag. The reason the flag is not in focus is because I used a long lens and focused on the eagle which was beyond the flag. I think it adds to the effect!
This fellow squawked to my arrival at Watsons Lake visitor center where the staff were more than enthusiastic in their promotion of the Yukon. Perhaps unfairly, I suppose the Yukon loses out to BC and Alaska much of the time.