How Red Prius Nearly Got Bulldozed: Day Fourteen of the Alaska Road Trip

We woke up to rain and a clucking raven, apparently boasting that the hotel was named for him. We bypassed the first trailheads we came upon, partly because birds hide away in the rain, and partly because we didn’t want to get soaked ourselves.

A dark-eyed junco at our first stop.

The first hike in sunlight was Glacier Rock Trail. The first half was a wonky boardwalk through swamp and taiga (boreal forest). It was like a ramp, slanted in two directions, with occasional steps and a twisted railing. A funhouse in the forest!

Crookedy staircase.

Checkin' out the moss islands.

I’m glad we made it past the odd footing because the next part of the trail was a spectacular climb through glacial rubble. The ice has retreated so recently that only a smattering of crustose lichens have colonized these rocks. A flock of robins tweeted as they flew overhead.

Jane stands along the path of glacial rubble.

Our next stop was Million Dollar Falls Campground. Can’t skip a place with a name like that! The boardwalk here was much more sturdy – thankfully, since it projected over the waterfall at points. This waterfall was not your average river-turned-vertical. Somehow the rock substrate was angled such that the water took a diagonal 100-or-so-foot plunge, like a whitewater slide at a water park.

Million Dollar Falls.

The frothy water would have crushed any unsuspecting dippers (little black birds that dive for invertebrates in clear mountain streams) or humans. We imagined gory deaths of head injury followed by drowning… I guess this is why my mom and I have trouble enjoying any hikes that involve heights!

Weeee!

This deep green foliose lichen (Peltigera venosa?) grew on the earthen banks of the waterfall.

We passed into British Columbia and climbed the Chilkat Pass, where low-hanging fog obscured the rainy, rocky tundra. (You can find tundra when you go really north, really high, or both.) I was amazed to find this arctic biome in BC, the province that borders Washington State! Granted, BC is enormous. I was intrigued by patches of lemon-yellow groundcover. I’m still not sure if it was moss, lichen, or wildflowers.

These ducks were floating in a tundra pond near the pass. We think they were female scaups but... why is her neck so much longer than the others'? 

We arrived at possibly the most remote US border crossing there is.

“You’re taking the ferry?” asked the young customs officer. “Not the Columbia I hope!” He told us he’d just moved up with his family from Arizona, but his ferry, the Columbia, had broken down twice. They left Bellingham a day late, then limped into Ketchikan at 30 knots where they remained for a couple days. “But, you know, it was the government moving us and paying, so we didn’t mind!” he added cheerfully. We told him we had been scheduled on the Columbia, but now we’d been shuffled around and given an extra night in Juneau. He wished us luck.

We followed the Chilkat River as it widened from a braided glacial stream to a wide saltwater inlet. Heavy rains were apparent in the rushing muddy flow, standing waves, and flooded brush.

The milepost warned us we'd be able to see "water wheels" along the highway. These large chain-link contraptions spin with the river and collect salmon for subsistence harvest.

We arrived in rainy Haines just in time for lunch.

After a lunch of a pulled-pork sandwich at a Haines coffee shop, we birded the small boat harbor in full rain gear. It was fun to see the smaller, high-pitched northwestern crows on the same beach as larger, croaking common ravens. On the road by the ferry terminal, we ran into lots of unexpected songbirds out for a sing in the drizzle: an olive-sided flycatcher on the guardrail, a couple of bank swallows darting over a gravel pit, four harlequin ducks bobbing in a sheltered bay, and a flotilla of hundreds of surf scoters. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks eyed us from towering Sitka spruce.

Glaucous-winged gull in the Haines Small Boat Harbor.

A mysterious dark raptor... perhaps a juvenile red-tailed hawk?

An American kestrel enjoying an afternoon by the sea.

Four Harlequin ducks.

An olive-sided flycatcher wearing its "vest."

A flotilla of surf scoters.

A juvenile common murre.

At one point we had parked the Prius in a gravel pull-out. Jane was across the road looking at the bank swallows through her binoculars, and I was trying in vain to get a photo, when a big yellow bulldozer barreled up the muddy side road straight toward us! I thought it was going to plow right through the Prius.

“MOM!” I yelled. She didn’t look, assuming it was another bird I’d seen. “MOM, MOVE THE CAR!” When she looked, she came running. The bulldozer stopped and a concerned young man hopped down.

“Y’all break down?” he asked. We shook our heads mutely. “You look terrified!” he laughed.

“We’re just looking at birds,” I managed.

“Oh! Okay then!” He waved as he continued to trundle down the mud road, away from our car. If Prius had emotions, she would have been quaking with relief.

Red Prius got muddy today. We're glad she didn't get crunched into scrap metal, too.

Finally, it was time to load the Alaska State Ferry. Cold and wet, we braved the deck for an hour before giving in and buying a whole game-hen and mashed-potato dinner in the cafeteria.

There's our boat, the Le Conte.

We asked to share a table with a couple from Dallas on a monster road trip. I was gazing out the window absently when I noticed some strange puffy waves in the distance. “The water is hitting those island rocks out there and jetting up like a geyser,” I mentioned.

“Sounds like a whale,” our table mate said without looking up from her book.

We looked closer and, dude, she was right! Around six humpback whales were spouting and fluking. Those “rocks” were their knobby dorsal fins.

Sailor Nina keeps lookout.

Skipper Jane shows off the solarium where campers sleep.

Low-hanging clouds shroud our view of the peaks erupting from the ocean.

We arrived at 9:30 pm to Auke Bay, drove 20 minutes into downtown Juneau (about as far as you can drive in this ice-field-and-ocean-locked town), and drank warm tea with our friend Marna before collapsing into her basement guest bed, exhausted, dry, and warm.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 14 
  • Start: Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada 
  • Miles traveled: 165 (Prius) + 62 (ferry) 
  • Hours driven: 4 
  • Favorite bird sighting: olive-sided flycatcher 
  • End: Juneau, Alaska, United States

Comments

  1. Nina, Always good to hear your reports.
    The scaup with the long neck is just in an alert posture.
    The raptor is not a juvenile Red-tail, they have barred tails. The bill looks stubby to me. I think it might be a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk. According to E-bird they have been seen occasionally in the Haines area, is that where the shot was taken?

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  2. Oh cool, that would be awesome if it were a rough-legged hawk! It was in Haines, along the coast, right by the ferry terminal.

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