Spruce Beetle Sap: Day Thirteen of the Alaska Road Trip

We left Tok, drove ten miles, checked our gas gauge, checked our map, headed back to Tok, got gas, and headed back out of town. Because the Tok-to-Haines-Junction section of the Alaska Highway is a repeat on our road trip (we passed through here on Days 5 and 6), we saw that particular 10-mile stretch of highway four times. Luckily, it was beautifully treed with yellowing aspens and populated with gray jays, kingfishers, ravens, and a merlin.

A merlin on the much-traversed stretch of Alaska Highway.

It was too rainy to stop in Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, but we fondly recalled last week’s hikes to the row boat and beyond.

After a substantial wait at the US-Canada border, we stopped in at our happy home from last week, Buckshot Betty’s, for second breakfast. Our harried waitress told us she was out of bacon, so no BLT’s, and my blueberry scone contained one blueberry. C’mon, Betty!

It's already looking like fall in the Yukon.

A black bear crossed the road in front of us, right before we stopped for the first of many road-construction delays. I swear, this “paved highway” is mostly dirt and gravel in the Yukon!

Big mountains by the highway!

Our less-than-accurate Birder’s Guide to Alaska told us to stop at Bear Creek Summit Pass for a trail into the alpine. Because nothing was signed, we pulled off at the high point of the mountain, parked next to a hibernating backhoe, and hiked up a brushy dirt road.

Snow-capped peaks loomed above us.

Jane worried I was scaring away the grouse and ptarmigans with my bear songs.

I made lots of noise to alert both bears and any stray humans of our presence. Don’t worry, we saw nobody but juncos, a northern flicker, and sparrows (either chipping or white-crowned -- any birders to the rescue?!)

Northern flickers are at home in the remote Yukon, or in my backyard in Walla Walla!

It has a rufous stripe on either side of its head, a pink or orange beak, white wing bars, and a clear breast.

... we are torn between chipping sparrow (pale first winter) and white-crowned sparrow (taiga/interior west first winter).

The one-mile Spruce Beetle Interpretive Trail was more inviting, with its informative signs and well-maintained trail, but it contained a total of zero birds.

Welcome to a real trail.

The lichens were plentiful, the red squirrels were agitated as usual, and a brown animal hopped out of sight as we rounded a corner. “A rabbit or a deer!” Jane proclaimed.

Jane also made friends with this gnome-faced shelf fungus.

We found this mushroom, oddly high in a spruce...

... Then its stasher came out to protect his snack!

We learned all about the spruce beetle infestation that has caused thousands of acres of boreal forest to die in recent years, probably due to warmer winters.

The beetles drill through the bark of spruce trees, leaving these holes.

Under the bark, their larvae tunnel and damage the tree's phloem.

The tree's defense mechanism is to exude oodles of sap and flush the beetles out. This tree tried and failed. Now, a brittle snag, it resembles a wax-laden candelabra.

Forgive me again, dear reader, as I prance into lichen land! (My mom had to forgive my lolly-gagging on many a hike as I stooped to take these photos.)

Flaky freckle pelt, Peltigera britannica. (That's really the name!)

Club moss.

Little Cladonia turrets.

British soldiers, Cladonia bellidiflora.

At the end of the spruce beetle trail, we came upon a glorious mountain overlook.


We gazed at this epic crevasse, pondered all the mountaineers who have lost their lives to such things, and decided never to climb tall mountains.

As we drove down the highway into Haines Junction, we passed a dozen chocolate-brown snowshoe hares nibbling grassy bits on the shoulder, so that’s probably who we saw in the forest, too.

A road-side snowshoe hare.

The Raven Hotel was our nicest lodging yet, with shiny new furniture and crisp white linens. We thought it was 8:30 pm, and luckily the restaurants in Haines Junction close at 9:00 pm. Unluckily, there is an hour time change between Alaska and the Yukon, so it was actually 9:30 pm! The friendly owner of a bar called K. P. I. for Kluane Park Inn, serving “western and Chinese cuisine,” let us in. Jane ordered red wine and I asked for a bowl of egg flower soup. Instead, an enormous pot of steaming hot-and-sour soup arrived, loaded with shrimp, beef, chicken, regular pork, barbeque pork, and mushrooms. We finished the whole thing.

Meanwhile, a couple from British Columbia decided to buy two of the oil paintings on the wall done by a local artist: a musk ox silhouetted against a flaming sunset, and a cedar waxwing picking red berries. “For our daughter in Whitehorse,” they explained as our waitress stood on my chair to remove the painting and its thumbtack from the fake brick wall.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 13 
  • Start: Tok, Alaska, United States 
  • Miles traveled: 310 
  • Hours driven: 8 
  • Favorite bird sighting: merlin 
  • End: Haines Junction, Yukon Territory, Canada