Alaska Bound

“When I was young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

I am not sure when I first hatched a plan to travel to Alaska and northwestern Canada. It was certainly an adventure that always felt inevitable, but the idea took on a different sense of urgency since becoming a birder. During Sylvia Gallagher’s “Western Mountains and their Birds” workshop in 2019, I started a list of some of the specific sites and birding locales she referenced and my thoughts about a summer road trip started to solidify. I considered a summer 2019 trip, but quickly realized such an endeavor would require more planning than I typically engage in or had enough time to do at that point. (Instead, I spent 6-weeks that summer traveling through the prairies of eastern Alberta and the northern Rockies, eventually meeting up with friends to celebrate our 40th birthdays on Vancouver Island.) We all know why it didn’t happen in 2020 or 2021….and, so, here we are: myself, Pipit (the dog), and Charley (the Four-wheel Camper), destined for my 50th state, while enjoying British Columbia and Yukon along the way, with hopes of making it to the arctic circle.

I usually keep a handwritten “travelogue” when I travel – a brief collection of places visited and highlights of birds and plants, etc. In hopes of better preserving the moments and memories of this trip, I am going to attempt to keep a more detailed trip diary. If you are reading this, it is because I decided to share some of these unedited stream-of-consciousness updates on my previously abandoned blog. I hope to add more details and photos upon my return. I hope this will help to capture and preserve the memorable encounters and experiences along the way and perhaps serve as a resource to someone planning a similar trip!

Part 1: Costa Mesa, CA to Meziadin Lake, British Columbia

28 May 22, Day 1: Costa Mesa, CA to Convict Lake Campground

I was in quite a rush to get this adventure started! My last final exam of the semester was Wednesday, I finished and submitted all my grades on Thursday (something I have not managed to do this quickly in my 12+ years of teaching) and finished packing on Friday. I was still running around like crazy to pack up on Saturday, but with the determination to leave. I headed to the eastern Sierra – not the most direct route, but a way of avoiding the 5 and an excuse to check-in with friends before a stretch of solo time. The drive flew by – with no birding stops due to the very intense winds and I made it to the Merv’s campsite in time to drink a beer and go to bed! But not before flushing a Common Poorwill on the road into the campground – a good premonition, I hope! Pipit has no idea what he is in for…

29 May 22, Day 2: Convict Lake and Mammoth Lakes

Hoped out of the camper bright and early to walk Pipit around the campground. Still super windy, but I am glad to start this trip in familiar territory. Green-tailed Towhee are singing a way from the tops of Great Basin Sagebrush but I suspect the wind has birds hunkered down. Warbling Vireo singing, Yellow Warblers flitting through aspens creekside, Western Wood-Pewee incessantly calling and all outnumbered by American Robin and Brewer’s Blackbirds. The heavy winds steer us away from canyons or long hikes, so we head into Mammoth Lakes proper. The road to Devils Postpile NM was closed, so we visit some other local spots instead – Earthquake Fault (Brown Creeper, Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay), Twin Lakes Campground, Horseshoe Lake, and finally the Mammoth Brewing Company.  

Other birds: California Gull, Song Sparrow, Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Gadwall, Mallard

30 May 22, Day 3: Convict Lake Campground to Eagle Campground, Susanville, CA

Slow morning at the campsite, relaxing with the Merv’s and slowly packing up. Thick-billed Fox Sparrow sang me off on my way. We made a quick stop at Mono Lake County Park – I wasn’t able to head down the boardwalk trail with the dog, but we enjoyed some mid-day bird activity around the park. From there, we headed north on the 395 toward Susanville. Saw some Yellow-headed Blackbirds along the road north of Bridgeport – a spot where I always seem to spot them. The drive was scenic and beautiful, and we arrived to Eagle Campground around 5:30 – with plenty of light left to enjoy. The campground was quiet, and my site backed up to a meadow with access to the lakeshore just beyond it. In addition to the expected birds of this area, a flock of Red Crossbills was a treat.

Other birds: Violet-green Swallow, American Robin, Song Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee, Brewer’s Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, Western Tanager, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, House Wren, Green-tailed Towhee, Common Raven, Hairy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, California Gull, Black-billed Magpie, Lesser Goldfinch, Spotted Towhee, Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, American White Pelican, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Canada Goose, Osprey, Mountain Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco.

31 May 22, Day 4: Eagle Lake to Davis Lake Campground, OR

We took advantage of the proximity to the lake, and the absence of people, to walk through the campground meadow, then the pine forest, to another meadow clearing that terminates at the lakeshore. I am slowly warming up my ears to the songs of birds I haven’t heard singing for some time. A Gray Flycatcher was calling and perched cooperatively for a photo (I am still working on the combination of dog-walking and photography skills). At the forest/meadow ecotone, Chipping Sparrows sang their insect-like song and perched at the very top of young conifers edging out into the meadow. Closer to the lakeshore, a pair of Mountain Bluebirds put on a show….diving into the grass and returning to a short perch. I didn’t bring my scope so couldn’t ID all of the lake birds, but American White Pelicans were easy enough to pick out and Eared and Western Grebes were relatively close to the shore. A male Northern Harrier flew low over the shoreline. Other campground birds included: Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, Western Wood-Pewee, Steller’s Jay, Common Raven, Mountain Chickadee, Violet-green Swallow (carrying nesting material to a nest cavity in the side of the campground bathroom) White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Robin, Cassin’s Finch, Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Wilson’s Warbler singing.

Gray Flycatcher at Eagle Lake Campground

Gorgeous drive from Susanville to Davis Lake, with frequent stops along the way. I drove through Tule Lake NWR – I overshot the most logical entrance and had to backtrack, and so didn’t spend as much time as I would like to, with still some driving ahead. Highlights include: Eared Grebe in breeding plumage, a female Ring-necked Pheasant, a single Tricolored Blackbird, a Peregrine Falcon causing all kinds of chaos among the American Avocets and various ducks, a few Redhead in the mix, and a small flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds hopping round in a saltbush (?), seemingly gleaning insects.

Arrived at Davis Lake Campground – this relatively small campground was quite crowded, but I understood why after setting up and exploring the access to the river. Beautiful views…ones we shared with a pair of perched Bald Eagles. After a loop around the campground, we settled into the camper to rest after a long day of driving. That didn’t last long – I quickly jumped out of the camper after hearing the winnowing of Wilson’s Snipe and the “peent” of Common Nighthawks. The winnowing continued even after the nighthawks moved on…

Other birds: Canada Goose, Red-tailed Hawk, Black-billed Magpie, European Starling, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Red-winged Blackbird, Swainson’s Hawk, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Caspian Tern, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Northern Harrier, Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren, Clark’s Grebe, California Scrub-Jay, Spotted Sandpiper, Olive-sided Flycatcher.

1 June 22, Day 5: Davis Lake, OR to Paradise Point SP, WA

I had quite an exciting morning, while just casually walking through the campground with a cup of coffee in hand. I returned to the shore accessible from the campground in hopes of photographing the Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage. He was easily refound as was the Bald Eagle perched just over my head. As I was photographing the eagle, I spotted a River Otter swimming close to shore and then a second that hauled up on some driftwood. Ahhhhhhh! The cuteness! Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I noticed some activity in a bank along the shore…THREE MORE River Otters poked their heads out of a den and took turns hopping into the water and doing some River Otter antics before all eventually swimming off upriver.

I would return here for the River Otters alone….the campsite was a bit crowded and sites were clustered closely together, but a weekday visit this time of year would be worth coming back for. After packing up, I drove out of the Cascades and toward Portland. The rest of the afternoon was focused on adding some miles to the trip, without many stops. I ended the day at Paradise Point State Park in Washington, just over the Oregon border. It is a neat little campground, but right off the 5 so the sound of freeway traffic was constant. The freeway proximity, however,  afforded internet access so I was able to settle into a quite little spot surrounded by ferns and wild rose and log in to Shorebirds Class!

Other birds: Canada Goose, Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, Western Wood-Pewee, Dusky Flycatcher, Violet-green Swallow, American Robin, Pine Siskin, Chipping Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler.

2 June 2022, Day 6: Paradise Point SP to Bellingham, WA

Today was meant to be a travel day but, of course, I enjoyed the birds along the way. Paradise Point SP has a lovely trail that winds through temperate rainforest edged by a meadow: Red-breasted Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee singing nonstop, a couple of very vocal and assertive Pacific Wren, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Western Tanager, to name a few.

From here, I started the drive to Bellingham WA where I planned to do a few errands before crossing the border. I was inspired by another birder’s goal to see 50 birds in all 50 states, so I figured it was worth noting the birds I saw along the way – a particularly productive rest area added Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Barn Swallow, Chipping Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow to the list! I believe I ended the day with exactly 50 Washington State birds – hey, it made the drive quite a bit more fun!

Other birds: Willow Flycatcher, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, European Starling, Bald Eagle, Osprey, American Crow, Turkey Vulture, White-crowned Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird.

3 June 2022,Day 7: Bellingham, WA to EC Manning Provincial Park, BC, Canada

Border crossing day! A few final errands in WA (my last chance at a Whole Foods, I presume) and I easily crossed the border at Abbotsford. I had reservations to camp at Lac le Jeune but a road closure extended the drive by a few hours, so I regrouped and headed to EC Manning Provincial Park. I stopped first at the visitor center and was promptly greeted by a Canaday Jay. Some of the area campgrounds were closed so I headed east to Hampton Campground – though close to the road, this was a lovely spot and my aspen-ringed site sat right next to a small creek (and a perfect distance from neighbors). I enjoyed wandering around the campground before enjoying a quesadilla and a book!

My campsite was frequented by a pair of Hammond’s Flycatchers (need to brush up on empid ID…this one was quiet!), Rufous Hummingbird, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I got just make out the silhouette of an Olive-sided Flycatcher after hearing, “quick….three beers!”.

Other birds: Northern Flicker, Warbling Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Pine Siskin, Chipping Sparrow.

4 June 2022, Day 8: EC Manning Provincial Park, BC, Canada

I decided to spend an additional night at Manning Park – after a week of a lot of driving, it felt right to slow down for a moment (and enjoy not having to break down the camper for one night!). I enjoyed a morning walk around the campground with a nice ensemble of birds – the Rufous Hummingbird is a regular around the campsite and a Red-naped Sapsucker flew in for just a quick spell. A distant Olive-sided Flycatcher called for “QUICK…three beers” and I am fairly confident that the pair of empids flitting about are Hammond’s Flycatchers, but I am still waiting for them to vocalize. I spotted a MacGillivray’s Warbler carrying nest material into the low, brushy vegetation around the creek adjacent to my camp spot. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are singing non-stop and I’ve finally gotten familiar with their songs (having been more intimately acquainted with their jidit calls). Rounding out the walk: Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Western Tanager.

We relaxed most of the day around the campsite and took an afternoon nap that coincided with a rainstorm. We left for a hike around Beaver Pond, which was quiet in the late afternoon, with the exception of a vocal Song Sparrow.

Song Sparrow at Beaver Pond

5 June 2022, Day 9: EC Manning Provincial Park to Lac La Hache PP, BC

I spend the morning feeling a bit anxious and worried about the trip ahead. I feel like I haven’t quite found my groove yet. Maybe it is the vestiges of the last couple of years – when everything that could go wrong did go wrong and fear and anxiety were rather constant.  The trip feels a bit overwhelming at the moment – and I keep running through all the things that could go wrong. Why didn’t I bring two spare tires for the Dempster? Why did people tell me it was safer to travel with a dog – isn’t he more likely to agitate bear and moose? What if Pipit gets injured far from reception or services? What if the airbags on my suspension pop? What if I am murdered in my sleep? And who-the-heck decides to do these things solo?!? I let my mind cycle through all these concerns – and even consider if I should turn around to drop-off Pipit and better prepare, but I don’t and I move forward – reminding myself that I have total flexibility and freedom and can pivot this trip at any time.

The scenery of the drive always relaxes my mind and we passed through beautiful landscapes on the way to Lac La Hache Provincial Park. We arrived to a mostly empty campground to a spot that opened up to a meadow overlooking Lac La Hache. Common Loons called from the lake and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Black-capped Chickadees were active around the campsite. As if the universe heard my worries, a park ranger stopped by the campground and stayed to chat. She is an older German woman who now lives in the area and has done a lot of solo traveling around Canada, Alaska, and elsewhere. She reminded me that my worries are what keep most people at home. She assured me that the Dempster was do-able and that there is always someone passing by to help. She also remarked on what a “good boy” Pipit was – she always travels with her dogs and advised that a little bit of common sense goes a long way with dog-wildlife encounters. It was a conversation I needed at the moment, followed by a similar one with Erin (taking advantage of campground reception!) and I went to sleep feeling a bit more at peace and confident about the trip ahead.

Other birds: Bald Eagle, Northern Flicker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Swainson’s Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow

6 June 2022 – 9 June 2022, Days 11 – 13: Prince George, BC

After leaving Tyhee Lake and en route to Prince George I stopped to explore the Scout Island Nature Center in Williams Lake. Scanning the lake and wandering around the reserve trails produced an interesting assortment of birds, including some new birds for the trip. I  was surprised to learn that Gray Catbird and Veery breed this far east! A Western Grebe was unexpected and the Red-necked Grebes were the first I’ve encountered so far! Also: Merlin, Alder Flycatcher and Willow Flycatcher, Black-capped Chickadee, Western Grebe, Cedar Waxwings, Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler…the list goes on!

I arrived in Prince George in time to login to my Shorebirds class, with plans to leave the next day. Well, this turned into a few days off the road while I wait for new tires. Somewhat fortuitous, in fact, because I think I needed the time to regroup and spend more time planning and plotting. My mind feels a bit more settled and some of the things worrying me (tires, bears, and moose) now seem smaller.  Enjoyed a few local birding spots – at Hudson’s Bay Wetland I found a pile of Barrow’s Goldeneye chicks on the shore, with mom nearby and at Forests for the World we birded in the rain, finding a Tennessee Warbler and another Barrow’s Goldeneye, but this time a male in its striking breeding plumage.

Gray Catbird at Scout Island Nature Center
Yellow Warbler

Other birds: Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing, Evening Grosbeak, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ring-necked Duck, Cassin’s Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin.

10 June 2022

Day 14: Prince George, BC to Tyhee Lake Provincial Park, Telkwa, BC

Got a bit of a late start, but finally made it out of Prince George – headed out on the Yellowhead Highway. We had about a 3.5-hour drive ahead of us but made some stops along the way – first in Vanderhoof to get my new tires retorqued. The rest stops I’ve encountered in BC are impressive and often situated in some very scenic areas. Pipit enjoys the breaks, and it gives me a chance to bird. I pulled off at Dry William Lake after spotting an Osprey soaring over the lake, along with several Herring Gull, and some Common Loon (I don’t care how many I see this summer, I will not tire of their striking black and white breeding plumage). Yellow Warblers, a Chipping Sparrow, and a singing Alder Flycatcher (FREE BEER) rounded out the quick stop.

I arrived at Tyhee Lake Provincial Park – a rather large campground, but with spots nicely spaced out. I snagged an area with a few of the lake and surrounded by aspens and a dense understory. The song of White-throated Sparrows greeted me – I find that learning songs is a constant process for me, but this sound is ingrained from the time I spent in the boreal forest in Alberta. The clear, monotone whistles are so loud and striking and reverberate through the forest (the only individuals I saw were of the white-stripe variety).

White-throated Sparrow, Tyhee Lake

I’m afraid I fall short of properly articulating the amazingness of the soundscape of this environment – White-throated Sparrows are part of a chorus of ethereal Swainson’s Thrush songs, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Warbling Vireo, (maybe Red-eyed Vireo too?), American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, and the more familiar-to-me American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, and Western Wood-Pewee.

From my campsite, I kept hearing a distinct splashing sound – I kept wondering if I was missing an Osprey? Or a large jumping fish?! I heard it probably 3 times before spotting a Belted Kingfisher using one of the aspens outside my campground as a fishing perch.

Pipit put himself to bed before me – every time I tried to get into the camper, something else grabbed my interest. After my favorite “PEENT” of a lone Common Nighthawk flying over, I finally climbed in, knowing the yodels of the Common Loons would keep me entertained for some time.

PS it is 10:35 PM and finally dark and I am still surrounded by Swainson’s Thrush song

Other birds: Canada Goose, Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Flicker, Red-winged Blackbird, Wilson’s Warbler.

11 June 2022, Day 15: Tyhee Lake Provincial Park, Telkwa, BC to Meziadin Lake PP

It is very tempting to spend another night at this lovely and birdy campground but, after the extra time in Prince George, I motivate to head north! But not before some morning birding: Common Loon yodeling from the Lake, an Osprey calling and soaring overhead, that same Belted Kingfisher diving and rattling, a quick eye-level appearance of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and the now familiar and common mix of Western Wood-Pewee, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-capped Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart. Also, Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, Violet-green Swallow, and American Crow.

I followed the Yellowhead Highway to the start of the Cassiar Highway – this 450-mile 2-lane paved road connects the Yellowhead in BC with the Alaska Highway and provides road access to Stewart, BC, and Hyder, AK. This road seems to be far less traveled than the Alcan. To start, I drove the 96.5 miles on the Cassiar to Meziadin Lake PP – of course, enjoying the spectacular views along the way of the snow-capped coast ranges. Meziadin Lake is stunning – this is one of the few campgrounds I made reservations for, so we pulled into a lakefront site. The sites here are quite close together – but the views make up for it. Campground birds, so far: Canada Goose, Warbling Vireo, American Crow, Common Raven, Varied Thrush (I will never tire of these sounds), Swainson’s Thrush, American Redstart, Yellow-rumped Warbler. We took a break in Charley while a storm rolled through then popped out to enjoy the beautiful dusk colors over the lake (not quite sunset) and the snow-covered west ridge of the Coast Range.

Swainson’s Thrush

12 June 2022, Day 16: Meziadin Lake Provincial Park

We woke up to beautiful views of Meziadin Lake and decided to stay another night after our neighbors vacated the prime lake front spots.  Today was a lazy day enjoying the views, the birds, and short walks through the campground and surrounding areas. Getting excited for tomorrow: my first step into Alaska, my 50th state!

Other birds: Belted Kingfisher, Warbling Vireo, American Crow, Varied Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Northern Waterthrush, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Alder Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, Bald Eagle

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