Just a Regular Smokie! Day Five on the Not-Yet-In-Alaska Road Trip

Happy birthday to Grandpa Jim, Jane’s dad who would have been 92 today!

Yesterday evening, as we took a bathroom break at the Welcome-to-Teslin viewpoint, a laminated flyer caught our eye: “The Teslin Lake Bird Observatory is Now Open Daily from Official Sunrise to 6 Hours Later! Members of the public are always welcome and encouraged to visit.”

The hidden path to the Teslin Lake Bird Banding Station.

This morning, we decided to check it out! We arrived at the noted campground, where the firewood guy showed us the path behind Campground 15 to the shore of Lake Teslin. We wended our way through mist nets and signs to find a man, a desk, and a half dozen wriggling cotton sacks with tied drawstrings hanging from hooks on a board, each containing a songbird!

“I’m backlogged,” he said without looking up from his task. “You can watch.”

The "lab."

Once the bagged birds had each been banded, measured, and recorded, the scientists were free to talk and give us a tour. We learned that they work six hours a day from late July through September counting the birds their nets catch. The lead birder, Yuki, is employed and the other two are volunteers. Every half hour, they check the 23 mist nets and extract any caught birds for banding. They live at the campground and get only the occasional day off. The mist-nets are always rolled up tightly at night so birds don’t get trapped.

Disentangling birds from mist nests is a tricky skill.

The researchers began processing the 8:30 am batch. “Net 16, number 42, band size 0, alder flycatcher, juvenile male, wing 23, fat 1, molt 0.” Yuki handled the bird gently, matchstick legs grasped between two fingers, blowing on its belly to assess fat reserves, then releasing at ground level. Before we could blink, the blur of feathers would swoop into the sky.

Yuki blows on the feathers of an alder flycatcher.

He bands a yellow warbler.
The neatest catch was a sharp-shinned hawk.

Those are sparrow-catchin' talons!

It was great to confirm our ID of yesterday's fairy, I mean Swainson's thrush.

The netted birds we saw this morning included a white-crowned sparrow, two Wilson’s warblers, several alder flycatchers and yellow warblers, a Swainson's thrush, and a juvenile male sharp-shinned hawk (luckily, not in the process of consuming a songbird!) A pair of common loons bobbed in the lake; two belted kingfishers worked the pond, and a Say’s phoebe perched on the willow.

Common loon eating a fish.

Say's phoebe.

Once on the road, it was time for second breakfast! I asked the young man behind the counter of the Johnson’s Crossing Lodge a question: “What’s a Wild Meat Smokie?”

“Bison or elk,” he replied.

“Okay, and… what is it?”

“Just a regular smokie,” he replied.

“But… what’s a smokie?” I asked, perplexed.

“Oh! It’s a hotdog!” he laughed.

I ordered one elk smokie with raw onions and ketchup. It was one lean, dry, delicious, and very-smoky hotdog.

Who put this mushroom high in a tree?!

I have one guess...

Our main destination for the day was Whitehorse, Yukon: the very place I ever travelled in the north on my high school’s Senior Alaska Trip. That incredible trip took place in March, when the ice was thick on Lake Laberge and the snow was bright on the trees, but today the sun was out and the river flowed.

In Whitehorse, we had a to-do list: we got our headlight replaced at John’s Auto Shop (where I made friends with a thick-furred dog named Pearl), washed the smokie stickiness off our hands, took a photo with the welcome sign, and cleaned Jane’s glasses.

We passed by the picturesque and enormous Kluane Lake and stopped at an inviting wooden Tachal Dhal (Sheep Mountain) Visitor Center. There, we saw white Dall sheep through a spotting scope and spoke with two nice ladies who had no idea where we might go to bird watch. Together, we ended up circling all the upcoming campsites with "creek" in their name, in hopes that birds might be there.

Prius in the Tachal Dhal Visitor Center parking lot.

We didn't have much luck at the Creek campgrounds, but we did spot a pair of trumpeter swan in a pond next to the highway!

No birds here.

Here neither. But look at the amazing, stunted black spruce forest! The squishy moss floor of the taiga (boreal forest) is luscious.

Prius takes on a gravel stretch of the Alaska Highway, under constant repairs from the permafrost heaves.

Two swans and amazing lighting.

Trumpeter swan!

To pass the time before and after Haines Junction, I played Milepost Trivia with my mom. I left out key words of the sentences and rewarded each of Jane’s correct guesses with a chocolate chip. I’d say she had a one-in-ten record, which is pretty good for such obscure subject matter.

It took us five days to realize this was our Prius keychain... What a coincidence!

By the way, at this point I should probably explain the Milepost, also known as the Bible of our road trip. It’s a heavy paperbook mile-by-mile Alaska guide book with such poignant details as, “Informal gravel turnout, litter bins at north end, restroom” and, “Blueberry Creek. Fishing for grayling to 16 in. Dolly Varden to 10 lb. Use flies, July thu September.” We would be lost (in the far reaches of the Arctic, or maybe in Oregon?) without it.

This evening we’re spending the night in the lovely wooden Cabin 7 behind Buckshot Betty’s in Beaver Creek, Yukon. Can’t wait for Day 6… when we’ll finally make it to ALASKA!

Buckshot Betty's: one of six or so establishments in Beaver Creek, Yukon.

Or own wooden cabin!

Gotta stock up for winter, I guess.

All the pipes at Buckshot Betty's were covered in wooden boxes, probably for insulation. I'm glad we're not here in winter.

End of day summary:
  • Day of road trip: 5 
  • Start: Teslin, Yukon Territory, Canada 
  • Miles traveled: 386 
  • Hours driven: 9 
  • Favorite bird sighting: sharp-shinned hawk (Jane), trumpeter swan (Nina) 
  • End: Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory, Canada