Fish Ladder

Part 4: Journey to the Land of the Midnight Sun

Dick says their road maintenance consists only of trucks putting red flags along the road. According to the Milepost book: “Much of the soil along the north Alaska Highway is of glacial origin and unsuitable for road embankments. Anything that causes the permafrost to melt will cause the ice-rich soil to liquify, and liquid soil has little strength and will subside and break up. Then when this soil refreezes, it will expand or heave. This process wreaks havoc on the drive-ability of the road surface by creating undulations and cracking. Thus, permafrost continues to be a major challenge for road maintenance.”

Later Dick spots a moose drinking from a small pond off to the side of the road. A hasty halt in the road (there’s little traffic), he grabs the binoculars. I grab the camera, out the door we fly and down the road we run. And there it is: a big rusty barrel with the sunlight just right making it moose-colored. Never-the-less, I’m starting to worry about him!

Monday, August 9: Northwest of Haines Junction we drive through more beautiful mountains with glaciers and we’re burning these scenes into our memories. Home tonight is Whitehorse, capital of Yukon Territory, with a population of 24,000. We fill our gas tank – $4.29 per gallon.

Tuesday, August 10: Last year bald eagles nested in a tree at the edge of town but the nest was destroyed when the tree broke. So the city erected a pole there with a web platform and now the eagles make it their home. There are two juveniles in the nest that hatched in the spring, and we photograph them and watch as they exercise their wings. We’re amazed that human interference in nature is so successful.

The Whitehorse Fish Ladder, at 1200 feet, is the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. It was built in 1959 to provide Chinook salmon and other species on the way to their spawning grounds, access around the Yukon Energy Corporation hydroelectric dam. This is one more example of human interference in the natural world (blocking the normal passage of the salmon upstream with the dam) but then enabling the fish to pass via the fish ladder. One more place that wins Dick’s total fascination.

Wednesday, August 11: We cross the Continental Divide. Water draining west forms the Swift River, then joins the Yukon River flowing northwest for 2,300 miles to the Bering Sea (Pacific Ocean). East-draining water forms the Rancheria River, the Liard River and finally the Mackenzie River flowing to the Beaufort Sea (Arctic Ocean) after 2,650 miles.

Dick says be sure to mention that we see a bobcat. (Actually it’s not a kitty — just a Bobcat skid loader).

(The Signpost Forest in Watson Lake.)

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The Signpost Forest in Watson Lake was started by Carl Lindley, a home-sick U.S. soldier working on the construction of the Alaska Highway in 1942. Travelers are still adding signs to the collection which numbers more than 62,000. Dick uses a paint marker to add our name, town and the date.

Later, by the side of the road are four buffalo and we go nuts photographing them. But then a fourth-mile further is a herd of about 75 who don’t seem as thrilled seeing us as we of them. I wonder if I should tell them about the buffalo burger that Dick ate for lunch! Some more miles and a black bear lumbers across in front of us. And then a second one. Next is a momma black bear and three cubs. Bear number seven is chowing down on clover blossoms and totally ignores us. (He probably senses that we’re old and tough. If he starts to eat us, he’ll just spit us back out!) A herd of 18 buffalo with their little ones greet us next, this time in a parking lot in front of a restaurant, and we quit counting. A second momma bear and two cubs put the finishing touch on a spectacular show.

All this happens along the Alaska Highway between Contact Creek and Muncho Lake in British Columbia. What a day!

Thursday, August 12: We wind around the Stone Mountain Range, the northern part of the Rockies, and meander through the valleys. And this brings us four prancing caribou, four munching mule deer and five stone sheep (named for the mountain). The babies of each species are really cute.

The Heritage Museum in Fort Nelson is a tribute to the veterans and builders of the Alaska Highway, where we watch a film on the construction. Some of the actual equipment used for the highway is featured here: bulldozers, graders that were pulled by a dozer, generators, power shovels and trucks. They also have wildlife displays, vintage cars, a 1950’s machine shop and many pioneer artifacts.

Gas here is $4.61 a gallon (after converting the liter price).

Friday, August 13: After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, and the Japanese invasion of Attu and Kiska Islands in Alaska’s Aleutians, an attack by the Japanese from the north was a very real threat. So the U.S. needed to transport military equipment there to protect our Alaskan borders. Thus began the saga of the 1,523 mile long Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks, in the interior of Alaska. (The railway went as far north as Dawson Creek). We have traversed every inch of this famous road from the permafrost nightmare conditions in the north to the better conditions at Dawson Creek. The official zero point of the Alaska Highway is located in Dawson Creek with a colorful monument. We walk their downtown streets and photograph that mile zero marker.

Saturday, August 14: We visit the Alaska Highway House and watch an hour-long film on the highway. This one chronicles the human aspect of the 30,000 U.S. Army soldiers and civilians who suffered the hardships of mosquitoes, forests, swamps, ice, mud, mountains, homesickness, 70 degrees below zero (not) counting the wind factor) and death in order to punch through the vast untamed wilderness to build this vital artery.

Now we say goodbye to the great highway and enter the Canadian province of Alberta to see what lies ahead.

Sunday, August 15: Hinton, home to three major coal mining operations, is 17 miles east of Jasper National Park. Beaver Boardwalk here is two miles of wooden pathways winding through wetlands and around a functioning beaver pond. Fourteen of the critters live here and they have made a huge “house.” With loons providing background music, we leisurely stroll through the maze and watch the accommodating beavers swim, dive and eat bark off aspen trees. (They’re noisy eaters). I talk with a guy who helped build this wooden nature trail.

I wonder how they could anchor a two-mile board walk through all this swampland. Oh! They work on it only in the winter when they can get their equipment in, since the water would be “stiff.”

(continued next week)

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