Two Women, Their Binoculars, and a Red Prius: Day One of Jane and Nina's Great Alaska Road Trip

True or false: it is possible to pass through Seattle traffic, an international border, dramatic sagebrush hills, basalt cliffs that look like geologic taffy, tunnels drilled through mountains, and the conifer-carpeted foothills of the Canadian Rockies in just eight hours.

Our trusty steed, the red Prius, on a pullout off Canada 1 East.

The answer: TRUE!

Jane scans for birds along the banks of the Fraser River in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.

Join me and my mother, Jane, as we embark on an epic nineteen-day journey from Seattle to Seattle. We set off this morning, merely ten hours after I'd returned from my two-week tour of conferences, orientations, and bird-watching in Washington, DC and Tucson, AZ... but more on that later. Our '06 red Prius will be hauling us and our binoculars up through Washington State, British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and, of course, Alaska.

We reached 100 Mile Marsh in the Cariboo Region of British Columbia by sunset.

Our itinerary by the numbers:
  • 6 days on the historic ALCAN Highway among moose-crossing signs and polite Canadian drivers
  • 5 days on the Alaska State Ferry among orca whales and harbor porpoises
  • 2 days in Denali National Park among brown bears and bald eagles
  • 3,796 miles driving along (mostly) paved roads, not including side trips
  • 80 hours behind the wheel
  • 6 modes of transit: red Prius, Denali shuttle bus, Seward boat, hiking, Juneau boat, ferry
  • 19 days of adventure

The sun went down fast, making for difficult bird-spotting and dramatic scenery.

And the best part... you can read about it every day, right here. Let's get started!

A couple common grackles on a wire in the town of 100 Mile House.

In Seattle, we're used to pedestrian crossing signs, bike crossings, the occasional duck and ducklings. Up here in British Columbia, we've had a grand time trying to figure out which species are represented by the black-on-yellow silhouettes. So far we've been warned about deer (leaping), big-horn sheep (unmistakable), elk (standing in a stately way), moose (shuffling with head down), and the best of all, BADGERS!

A yellow warbler peeks out at dusk.

For dinner, we stopped in the bump-on-the-road community of Cache Creek at "Hungry? Herbie's!" drive-in for a fried-chicken meal and a mushroom burger. We sat outside on picnic tables, shaded from the intense sun by a brick column, and were immediately engaged in conversation by a local woman wearing a tattered orange-and-yellow reflective vest. A self-described army brat, she carried two canvas sacks slung over the handlebars of her bike, and her short gray hair stuck out in all directions. "The bears been eating my plums already," she began. "Gonna be an early winter." Although our dinner companion was scared of black bears when she moved to Cache Creek four years ago, she took out a book from the library to read all about them. "Now that I understand them better, I'm not too worried." She recommended baby-talking to them and looking submissive if ever confronted. She took her lesson seriously, as did we. Her fish and chips started to get cold as she demonstrated: "Who's a good bear? Who's a good bear? Who's a good bear?"

A pied-billed grebe has a distinctive silhouette.

A female scaup poses in the poor lighting.

After dark, we had only a few kilometers left until our destination of Williams Lake, but our hopes of an early night were dashed when we ended up in a stand-still lineup of cars due to an accident on the highway. There were two lanes in our direction, so we weren't sure why everybody was in the right-hand lane. Perhaps nobody had thought to move over? We decided to move over to the left lane and creep ahead. To our surprise, nobody followed us. We began to slow down and doubt ourselves. (Peer pressure, you know.) We were almost stopped when a woman rolled down her truck window and hollered something. "What?" we asked each other. "There's BEEN an ACCIDENT!" she yelled again. Mom and I looked at each other. This much was obvious, but it didn't explain why the cars were all lined up in the right lane. Oh well, maybe it's a Canadian thing where everyone cooperates so emergency vehicles can easily reach the accident. Chagrined, we put on our blinker, and a friendly Canadian immediately paused to let us in -- thinking, surely, "Those clueless Americans."

Our first mile marker along the way. Here's to a few thousand more!

End of day summary:

  • Day of road trip: 1
  • Start: Seattle, Washington, USA
  • Miles traveled: 409
  • Hours driven: 9.5
  • Favorite bird sighting: black-billed magpie
  • End: Williams Lake, British Columbia, Canada