We woke to brilliant sunlight streaming in the east facing windows around 5:30 and with hot tea in the cupholders were on the road by 6. At last the Alaska Highway filled all my highest dreams of what this road could be. We were all alone and the Yukon pavement was smooth and silent. When I lived in a beautiful part of the MotherLode in California, near Sonora, I dreamed of a road to myself. I couldn’t often see the beauty because there were usually 7 cars behind me wanting to go faster and 7 cars in front of me trying slow me down. Our drive today filled my yearning for the open road, a highway uncluttered with vehicles, wild and open and all my own.
Take a minute to watch the show and get a taste of what it felt like
We took our time and pulled off often to catch the spectacular views of the St Elias Mountains. A stop at the Kluane National Park of Canada gave us just a taste of the wild expanse of ice that makes up more than half of this magnificent land. Adjacent to and combined with the Wrangell-St Elias, these two parks make up the largest contiguous extent of protected wilderness in the world, and are recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site of great significance. Ice fever called, and I dreamed of returning and taking the time to fly over that vast icefield with glaciers radiating down on all sides.
After a few moments, we noticed the flagger scanning the slopes to our east and of course, we looked up too. High on the hill above us, oblivious to the world below, a grizzly grazed intently for berries. The road folks exclaimed in awe that he was really a “big one”. It was thrilling to watch him move, so quickly and full of grace and power, even through the binoculars. The 300 lens could just barely capture him, but there he is, a real wild grizzly, no collar, no bands, unexpected, in the middle of nowhere. Without the construction slowdown we would have missed him.
We crossed Haines Pass, with more wonderful interpretive signs about the gold rush and an especially well done description of the habitat variations from tundra to hemlock forest as we descended into the valley. The rapid change was dramatic, and beautiful, as we suddenly were surrounded by the thick, dark forest and the broad glacially fed Chilkat River, home to more than 3,500 eagles in the fall at the Eagle Reserve.
Once we arrived in Haines, we took advantage of the sunny afternoon to walk around Fort Seward and explore the shops and galleries on the Fort grounds. Fort Seward was built in 1902 and operated until 1947. Eventually it was bought by a group of war veterans and the grounds and buildings are privately owned with hotels, restaurants and galleries. I especially enjoyed walking through the Native Arts Center and seeing the huge mess of artistic creativity in the main carving room.
But the main reason we took the extra time to come to Haines was for the bears, and it was time to go find them. There is a large population of both black and brown bear in Haines, but it is especially famous for the bear viewing along the Chilkoot River at Chilkoot State Park just 9 miles north of town.
We unexpectedly drove in Haines on a “cruise ship Wednesday” the only day that ships dock here, so the bear viewing site was full of people in cars and buses, with tour groups and people walking along the road. It was a zoo, just without fences. Even so, it was wonderful to see these big brown bears up close and personal.
The only ‘fence’ was the park officer walking around trying to corral all the folks who would think of getting to close to a momma grizzly and her babies. She seemed somewhat frustrated with some folks especially, and said to me, “Fine, let them get mauled, they deserve it”. She was saddened especially by the fact that the two cubs will no doubt end up being killed from their exposure to too many people. They can’t relocate these big brown bears because they stubbornly return to their homelands in record time.
If you look closely at the lower right photo in the collage, you will see a salmon fisherman of the human variety. These fishermen compete with the bears for the spawning salmon, but if a bear comes too close they will run away, leaving behind their catch. This results in bears discovering that humans are a great source of food. The saying goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear”. Sad
Still, it was thrilling to watch Mama and her little ones, a male and a female just a year and a half old. Mama was a great swimmer, and her babies were carefully staying in the shallow water as they watched her fish. The boy cub was much braver than the light boned delicate little girl but he still didn’t go all the way out to fight the strong current with Mama. Even with her collar and bands, it was wonderful seeing this great wild 7 year old bear fishing in her world, traveling the same routes her mother did and fishing the same waters while she taught her babies. There is another mom with 3 cubs in the area and 2 other males but we didn’t see them on this trip.
After our bear time, we went back to town to our home on the water at Oceanside RV Park. It’s not fancy, but it has full hookups, TV and WiFi and with our planned two day stay, it’s nice to have amenities. Our freezer stores are getting a bit low, so we went to the Lighthouse Bar just down the road for great burgers while we watched the light change over the inlet. Somehow coming to Haines was a full circle return from our cruise last summer when we watched Haines in the distance as we passed by on the Princess. It was fun to watch the cruise ships pass on the Lynn Canal as we settled into the evening.
Road condition: excellent 2 lane paved highway with a short stretch of gravel construction in BC
The rest of the photos for this day are linked here
A LOT of photos of the bears are linked here