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Although I'd long wanted to visit Alaska, somehow the Yukon hadn't featured on my radar of places to go mammal watching. But when I began planning a trip to Canada in 2006, and started reading about the province and its wildlife, I realised how much there was to see. It is huge, very sparsely populated, shares much of the Alaskan fauna, and probably has a more extensive road network than its US neighbour.
I visited in late May 2006. This - I was told - is a good time to look for Yukon wildlife. The trees didn't have leaves (at least when I arrived they didn't - the place was much much greener when I left a week later), which makes it easier to see animals. And because there was still a lot of snow on the higher ground many of the larger animals were along the rivers. I arrived right on the spring melt: most of the rivers had just turned from ice to water when I got there, the rest melted during my stay.
The Yukon Wildlife Viewing guide is an excellent guide that details many accessible spots to see mammals and birds in the Yukon and I relied on it to plan my trip. I ended up taking a 4000km figure of eight from Whitehorse, through Haines Alaska, Skagway to Whitehorse; and then up to Dawson City, Tombstone, Keno, Faro and back to Whitehorse. Too much driving, but the roads were good and empty so it wasn't a drama.
Dawson City is a fun place to visit for an evening. I didn't see a great deal of wildlife other than the usual Snowshoe Hares and Arctic Ground Squirrels. Otters are reputed to live in the Klondike River opposite the airport. A short ferry ride across the river takes you to the Top of the World Highway. I drove 100km along it early one morning. Didn't see many mammals, but the view was impressive.
The Dempster Highway runs north for 700km from Dawson City up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. I only traveled the first 150km or so, but have vowed to return to do the whole thing. Its a good quality gravel road and runs through the heart of the Porcupine Caribou herd's winter territory.
I camped a night at Tombstone State Park and set a few traps near the campsite, and caught a Red Squirrel and a Pygmy Shrew (which died in the trap). The visitor centre can give you directions for the walk up Goldensides mountain, close by: about 1 or 2km north of the visitor centre you take a right hand turn up a service road to the telecom tower. There are various trails leading up the mountain from the tower. Hoary Marmots and Pikas are here: I saw one Hoary Marmot but despite spending several hours in the afternoon, and a couple of hours the following morning couldn't find any Pikas. There was still a good deal of waist high snow to wade through at the end of May.
The Marmots had only recently come out of hibernation. Pikas don't hibernate but there was a Golden Eagle cruising the scree slopes for much of my time near the summit which would have contributed to the Pikas keeping a low profile. The best areas to look for Pikas is in vegetation at the edge of scree slopes. The animals live under the rocks but forage in adjoining meadowland.
Marmots and Pikas are probably found on every scree slope in the area. The trail up Angelcomb peak, a 10 km on from the visitor centre gets a special mention as somewhere else to see them (the trail was closed when I was there - probably too wet to walk up).
The Dempster is well set up for wildlife watching with signposted pull-ins at good spots. The road has kilometre posts, and the visitor centre had a list of animals seen in the previous 48 hours together with their kilometre post reference. Grizzlies, Wolves and Marmots were among those listed. I saw my first Muskrat on the partially frozen Two Moose Lake (km 102). It was feeding on the ice, often diving into the water for a minute or two, and then returning to the ice. There were several groups of Caribou between the 90km and 120km marks, and Dall's Sheep on Angelcomb Peak. Wolverine had a year or so ago been denning 10km from the visitor's centre, though had now moved on.
I was told in Dawson City that Lynx were becoming a more common sight along the road and I'd guess that you'd be pretty much guaranteed seeing Wolves and Grizzlies if you drove the whole highway. The road ends at Inuvik near the Beaufort Sea. In the summer months short sight-seeing flights run to some of the island communities and there is a very good chance of seeing Bowhead Whales, Belugas and Bearded Seals en route.
Keno is 110km from Stewart Crossing. in the middle of town a twisting road takes you the 10km or so up Signpost Hill. And, so all the brochures say, Marmots and Pikas are common at the summit and quite tame. But at the end of May you could only drive half way up the hill. I continued on foot for a km or two but ended up wading through waist high snow and gave up. I saw a Black Bear along the road between Mayo and Keno in the mid-afternoon.
Kluane National Park, just 3 hours from Whitehorse, is worth visiting for the scenery alone. It is also home to a lot of wildlife, including plenty of Grizzlies. I spent my first night camping at the Congdon Creek campground, where a Grizzly had been seen that morning. Didn't see any bears there, but did see Coyotes on the edge of campsite at about midnight, along with the ever present Snowshoe Hares and Ground Squirrels. There were plenty of Dall's Sheep on nearby Sheep Mountain, and lots of Grizzly shit on the trail. I also saw my first Porcupine in a small tree at the side of the road a few km south of Congdon Creek. This was the first of many many Porcupines. I set a few elliott traps outside the park and caught a few very furry Deer Mice.
I spent most of the next day walking along the Alsek trail, near Haines Jn, in the hope of seeing a Grizzly. Walked about 8km along the trail which overlooks the broad Alsek river valley. The only mammal I saw on the way out was a Moose, but on return leg I saw a Grizzly walking across the shallow river. Watched the bear for about 45 minutes on and off as we walked parallel to one another. Magic.
Late that evening I took a drive along Haines road, which runs south of Haines Jn towards the Alaskan border. I'd been told that Grizzlies were seen quite often feeding alongside the road in the evening, and I found one about 50km south of Haines Jn. He disappeared into the forest when I stopped the car, but he was back again 5 minutes later, getting stuck into the plants growing on the roadside.
Grizzly and Moose
That same evening I saw at least 10 Porcupines, and countless Snowshoe Hares. The only other vehicle I saw was also out wildlife watching: they'd seen a Black Bear near Dezadeash Lake. There was a lone cow Moose just outside of Haines Jn.
The following day I set off for Haines Alaska. The road traveled through some of the best mountain scenery I've ever seen. Just when I'd come upon the finest mountain views imaginable, I'd round a corner to find the finest views had just got finer. I saw a Black Bear near Dezadeash Lake. The road climbs gradually and there were a lot of Arctic Ground Squirrels alongside the road during a stretch that began perhaps 120km before the US border.
Faro is a strange town. Lots of houses, hardly any people - it reminded me of one of those post-apocalypse movies. It claims, however, to be one of the best spots in the Yukon for mammal watching. Faro is in the middle of the Tintina trench, a natural feature that runs from British Columbia through to Alaska, and is something of a funnel for migrating animals. Grizzlies and Wolves are both supposed to be common around town and along the 70km Dena Cho trail, which links Faro with Ross River. The trail looks pretty speccy and hikers can use 5 basic cabins along the way. I went to Faro to try to see a Lynx, which sound relatively common there, at least compared to the rest of the Yukon.
I spent several hours driving the back roads around Mount Mye, just out of town looking for Lynxes (a family were thought to be resident there). No luck with the Lynx but I did see several Moose, and there were Fanin Sheep (a subspecies of Dall's Sheep) on Mount Mye. Grizzlies and Black Bears had been seen in the area during the few days before my visit. I set some elliott traps around the sheep viewing platform and caught more Deer Mice as well as a quite chunky Northern Red-backed Vole (also called a Ruddy Vole) .
The next day I packed up a canoe and began the overnight paddle from Ross RIver back to Faro, stopping at one of the Dena Cho trail's cabins en route. After a couple of hours of reasonable weather, featuring a Moose and calf, the wind picked up and I ended up slogging for three hours into a howling gale and driving rain to get to the cabin. I didn't focus on mammal watching.
The next morning I had caught a few Deer Mice in traps around the cabin. Occasional snow flurries aside, the weather was a lot better so I enjoyed the paddle back to Faro. There were several Moose along the way, together with a distant Black Bear and cubs ambling along the edge of a meadow.
Whitehorse: there is lots to see around Whitehorse itself. The first morning I was there I drove out to Miles Canyon just out of town and saw a couple of Coyotes crossing the main road. I figured I'd see plenty more in my travels but only got a glimpse of one other group in Kluane. Mcintyre Marsh near town is supposed to be a good spot for Muskrats, Beavers and Otters. I saw a couple of Beavers in the lake (100m before the marsh) early one morning, and late one evening I saw at least four Muskrats in the area along with more Beavers.
Snowshoe Hare and Arctic Ground Squirrel
It took me a while to see a Muskrat, but they were very common during my last Yukon evening at McIntyre Marsh near Whitehorse. Beavers were easy to see there too. I tried hard to see Otters and Mink, without success.
My small mammal trapping was quite successful in terms of captures, but nearly everything I caught was a Deer Mouse, other than one Northern Red-backed (Ruddy) Vole in Faro, and a dead Pygmy Shrew up in Tombstone. I was surprised that I didn't catch a few more shrew and vole species.
Northern Red-backed Vole and Deer Mouse
Porcupines were surprisingly common. In several trips to the US, I'd only ever seen one dead on the road. I must have seen 20 at least during the week. I saw them mainly in the evening (after about 9pm) though I saw a couple in the middle of the day. Bears were also easier to find than I had thought they would be. I saw 7 Black Bears and 2 Grizzlies. Driving the road south from Haines Jn is probably the best way to try to see a Grizzly in Kluane. I wish I had stopped for longer to look at the Coyotes I saw that first morning in Whitehorse.
I saw a couple of Moose in Kluane and lots around Faro. Dall's Sheep were easy to see on Sheep Mountain in Kluane, Angelcomb Peak in Tombstone, and Mount Mye in Faro. I think they are less regular in these areas in mid summer.