Travel journal USA, Canada & Alaska 2007

by Claudia and PJ Potgieser

 

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Travel journal – Yellowstone , Dempster and Alaska 2007

 

This spring we had a great time in Yellowstone National Park . Although the temperatures were way too high for the time of year, we did see some great stuff.

A lot of new born animals, bears with spring cubs and for the first time we saw a grizzly nursing her cubs in plain view. A coyote had her den close to the road and the nine (!) puppies played around in the late sunlight and she also nursed them on a rocky outcrop, visible for all the paparazzi photographers.

We found the carcass of a deer (road kill) and were discussing that it would be neat to see a grizz on it before the rangers would remove it. We were standing about 25 yards away from the carcass, when we heard a loud CRACK. A sub adult grizzly showed up just behind us!  Later I read in a hunting magazine (for Pete’s sake!) that bears can walk noiselessly, but young grizzlies make loud noises on purpose when they approach a carcass, so any bigger predator can warn them to get out of there. Funny that this bear saw us as a rival. We watched him for more than an hour. By the time the rangers showed up, they wanted to remove the carcass, but had to wait until the bear was finished.

We also saw a cow elk chasing a coyote. She was protecting her calf, which was already half eaten by a coyote couple. Poor baby, but nice action shots.

We even found a black bear with light blue eyes, very weird.

 

After 3 weeks in the park we went back to Utah . The engine of the Dodge was never okay anymore after the bad diesel we took in Bolivia . We decided to buy a nice used pick-up truck, a Ford this time. My cousin-in-law Randy is a car sales man and he made sure we got a good price for the Dodge and the Ford. But now the old worn out camper didn’t  look good on the new white truck and we searched the Internet for a good used camper. We had to travel all the way to Oregon to find it, but we are very happy with it.

It just needed ‘some’ decorating to make it to our taste. We first stripped the whole camper and PJ put a dark colored laminated floor in it, I did the upholstery (theme: Africa ) and the curtains. After working on it for 2 weeks (we did a lot of changes) everything looks just fine. But now we needed to get rid of the old camper. No landfill wanted it (for free), but again Randy had the solution. His red neck brother wanted the camper to make a tree house out of it!

 

July 1st 2007: ten years ago we jumped into an old Mercedes van and started traveling south to Africa . We were going to be on the road for a year, but it turned out a little bit longer. In ten years we have visited 31 countries, driven almost 220.000 miles and used 12.000 gallons of diesel, shipped our camper five times and had three break-ins. But we have never regretted our decision to start this road trip.

Fourth of July we celebrated in Jackson Hole , Wyoming with my relatives. Cousin Julia and her husband are caretakers of the house of a multi millionaire, in the middle of Grand Teton National Park . We saw the Air force II landing on the local airport. Before the parade started, we discovered Vice President Dick Cheney in the audience. He has a summer home in Jackson and shook hands with everybody who wanted to. He looked very relaxed, but Secret Service was just everywhere!

I would rather have run into Harrison Ford, who also has a home here.

 

And than finally we could start traveling north to Alaska .

We were just in time for weekly spaghetti diner with Kathy and Ron, a ranger couple and all the regular visitors of Hyder. It was good to see all our old friends again. The first time we visited Hyder , Alaska was in 2000 and we have now spent 5 summers here and made a lot of friends.

Our first day at the Fish Creek Wildlife viewing platform was the best. A male and female grizzly bear visited the creek and started a roaring fight (courting) with lots of teeth and growling. More bears that day, one of them swam and played the green lagoon. A young bear walked the road and had a good scratch a the ‘scratching pole’.  We saw a bald eagle taking a bath in the lagoon. Too much excitement  for one day!

Seeing the sow grizzly with the triplet cubs again was also thrilling. We were so glad that she and all her babies survived winter. Every time the family showed up in the creek was a treat. The boys were always in for some boxing matches and after some fishing lessons can even catch their own salmon.

 

After 10 days we had to continue north. We wanted to see the caribous (named ‘porcupine’ herd of 240.000 animals) on the Dempster Highway , the most northern highway of Canada .

Three couples joined us. Of course Bob and SueAnn, our fossil friends, with whom we have traveled already many miles, came along. But also Dave and Jenny from Colorado , a couple we met only last year and John and Janice, oldies from Fish Creek. We took a head start, not because we wanted to be first, but because we drive so slow.

In Whitehorse our fridge stopped working and while waiting for our appointment to have it fixed the others caught up with us. They left the next morning and we were on the road again at noon. We caught up with Bob, SueAnn, Dave and Jenny somewhere on the Dempster. This unpaved road is 456 miles ( 750 km ) long and ends in Inuvik , a Eskimo settlement. That is the most northern town in Canada you can drive to. The variety of the landscape on this road is great, mountain ranges, rivers, tundra. The fall colors were just amazing. At a viewpoint Bob remarked: “The vastness of the land is overwhelming”. And that says it all.

At the arctic circle we of course made the ‘we-were-there-pictures”. Some locals warned us that a grizzly was close by. We watched the nice bear. Man, was she skittish!

We run into John and Janice again, who had parked their trailer at Eagle Plains ( 370 km north on the Dempster, the first service on this road). They had already seen a whole bunch of caribou. We were eager to continue the last 100 kilometers . We did see some caribou and three males were close to the road. PJ and I were the only two who were in time for a good shot. We camped in the middle of the caribou area in a gravel pit. We were a bit disappointed that we could only see them for far away. The rest of the gang decided to continue all the way to Inuvik (another 200 k’s). We had already done that in 2001, so we skipped it. For four days we watched the caribou, but they never came close to the road again.

It became a race to make your pictures of a herd before the Gwich’in hunters (Eskimos) saw them too, because they started gun shooting them from the road. It looked that the ‘no shooting 500 yards from the road’ wasn’t mentioned for them. They wounded two before they finally aimed right. The game became really nasty when they shouted: “Go away, you are interfering with our hunting”!

Jeee, go find your own caribou, there are 240.000 to pick from…

We didn’t dare to say anything, they had guns, you know. Later we heard that also the Gwich’en should to obey to 500 yards hunting rule.

 

After 4 days we hit the road again. John and Janice had more patience (5 days longer) and were awarded with lots of caribou crossing the road, grizzlies with cubs and even a tundra wolf!

We wanted to camp near the Arctic Circle (heard from Beth and Wayne, new Fish Creek friends, about a nice camp spot away from the road with a beautiful view). When we arrived there three German couples had already put up a camp. Oh, well, you can’t have it all and there was room enough for everybody.

But the Germans didn’t think that way. One of the guys asked us to leave, because they wanted this spot for themselves.

You are kidding, right?

No, this man was dead serious!

He asked us if we would respect their privacy…

It was 8.30 pm and we were tired and liked this place and didn’t want to argue. We just said no, we are not going to leave.

We had a good laugh about it later and it became The Line of this road trip. Every time someone of us parked to close to the other or put their tripod next to the other, somebody would say: “Can’t you respect my privacy?”.

We watched a full moon rising above the mountain range. What a beautiful spot to camp and so quiet. When I turned off my light late at night after reading a thriller, I noticed green in the sky. With a shout: “The northern lights!” I woke up PJ. He dressed quickly and knocked on the camper doors. We didn’t think it was worth to photograph because of the light of the full moon, so we watched it from our bed through the escape latch. Thanks Beth and Wayne for your advise.

                                                                  

The next night we camped for free on the Midnight Dome above Dawson City were you can look 360 degrees around you. This is a perfect spot to watch Northern Lights and it was a clear night again. We all practiced shooting with a long shutter speed and we were ready for it. PJ set the alarm every hour and looked outside, but no green curtain in the sky. The next morning we were wrecked!


We continued north on the Alaska highway to Fairbanks . We now had the disputable reputation that the Dutch can find nice camping spots and everybody was looking at us expectantly. Just on good luck we turned left somewhere into the forest. We did find a nice open spot for all of us where we even could respect each others privacy (ha ha). I saw the remains of a campfire and somebody had written TJC on a stone. When calling the rest of the gang on the radio’s I  quickly changed the T into a P with some charcoal. SueAnn was the first to notice it. Nobody believed that we hadn’t camped here before. I could honestly say that we hadn’t.


We drove to Chena Hot Springs Road (north of Fairbanks ) to look for bull moose. Again we had to share this road with hunters and all the bull moose had disappeared. We did see  active beavers and lots of cow moose with calves. As if they knew they were safe for the hunters. Again we did find some nice free spots to camp.

To see bull moose we really had to go to Denali National Park , where they are protected. We stayed 8 days in the beginning of the park (the part where you don’t have to drive the bus) and saw some nice big bulls. The fall colors hadn’t been as pretty as usual, also here is had been to warm. The leaves had just shrunk and turned brown. We did see Mount McKinley – the highest mountain of North America – at least four times. After two cold nights the leftover leaves turned bright red and at last we saw some of the famous fall colors.

Bob & SueAnn and Dave & Jenny went for three days on the bus, so we said goodbye. We enjoyed traveling with them, but we were eager to go back to the Dempster.


We drove back over the Top of the World Highway , a gravel road to Dawson City . It drizzled and it was misty, but beautiful with all the fall colors. When we stopped at a turn out we saw fresh bear tracks in the mud. We must have just missed him. A brave red fox sniffed PJ’s shoes.         

 

Driving the Dempster again, we were amazed by the change. What a difference a couple of days of rain make to a road we had driven only 12 days earlier! The first 80 kilometers was brown muddy slush and very slippery. At the campground we checked the message board. Visitors had seen Dall Sheep, Caribou and Bears, but because of hunting season they were advised not to write down the kilometer marker. Smart move, but not very useful for us.

The colors were brilliant, the yellows of the cotton trees, the red of the tundra, the green of the evergreens. When the top of the road became black mud, it was still slippery, but it also made our camper stinking filthy till the roof. Some parts we didn’t go faster than 15 miles an hour. What a hell to drive this road.

At Eagle Plains we spoke to some tourists who came from the north and asked them if they had seen anything. Yes, caribou and bears. We were very hopeful.


We arrived the next morning at the Wright pass and there were no hunters, nobody camped at the gravel pit and no animals. Not a single caribou was in sight. Just endless rusty brown hills. We drove around a bit, hanged out there, but we didn’t see one animal. But we did see Northern Lights (white this time) again on Tuesday night.

The next day we slept in, drove around, read a book, drove around, but still nothing. We washed the truck and camper at a pond just to keep us busy.

The fourth day on the Dempster it started to rain and we decided to go back. At Eagle Plains we took diesel and I asked around. “Where are the caribou?”. All the locals blamed the hunters! I was surprised by that. “They have chased them away. You might see them south of here”. Haven’t the Eskimos been hunting caribous for centuries already? What is changing the migration habit of the caribous all of a sudden?

I asked some German tourists who came from the south if they had seen caribou. “Oh yes, a herd came to have a drink near the road and disappeared over a hill. That was 15 minutes ago!”  Of course we looked and looked but didn’t see anything. Another endless drive of wet road and a filthy camper again.

Just 80 kilometers from the Junction we saw a  …. wolf? He was standing at a trail close to the road. “Did you see that?”. PJ confirmed it and he turned the truck around. From afar, while driving, we could still see him standing there. Was this really a wolf? We also had seen a parked car. Was it just somebody’s pretty dog? When we got close enough to make pictures, we knew it for sure. A beautiful grey wolf with a white face and white front legs and paws stood there for another second, turned around and walked away. When he looked back one more time his orange eyes just pierced right through us. Wow, what a mythical animal.  

 

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