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Place Category: Trip Reports
Although I’d long wanted to visit Alaska, somehow the Yukon hadn’t featured on my radar of mammal watching destinations. 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 a lot of snow still on the higher ground many of the larger animals were concentrated 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. I relied on it to plan my trip. I ended up driving a 4,000 km figure of eight from Whitehorse to Kluane National Park, to Haines Alaska then Skagway and back to Whitehorse; and then up to Dawson City, Tombstone National Park, Keno, Faro and back to Whitehorse. Too much driving probably, but the roads were good and empty so it wasn’t a drama.
I flew into White Horse from Vancouver. There is some good mammal watching around town. 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, 100 metres before the marsh, early one morning. Late one evening I saw at least four Muskrats in the area along with more Beavers.
Dawson City is at the southern end of the Dempster Highway and 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 100 k.m. along it early one morning. I didn’t see many mammals, but the view was impressive.
The Dempster Highway
The Dempster Highway runs north for 700 k.m. from Dawson City up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. I only traveled the first 150 km or so, but vowed to return to do the whole thing. It is a good quality gravel road and runs through the heart of the Porcupine Caribou herd’s winter territory.
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 of 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.
Tombstone Territorial Park
I camped a night at Tombstone State Park and set a few traps near the campsite. I 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, which is a kilometre or two north of the visitor centre (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 Collared 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 I suspect. The best areas to look for them 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, 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 and was 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 park visitor centre had a list of animals seen in the previous 48 hours together with their kilometre post marker. 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 small herds of Caribou between the 90 km and 120 km marks, and Dall’s Sheep on Angelcomb Peak.
A year or so before Wolverine had been denning just 10km from the visitor’s centre, though they had now moved on.
Keno is 110 km from Stewart Crossing, on the road from Whitehorse to Dempster. In the middle of town a twisting road takes you the 10 km 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 mile 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 three hours from Whitehorse, Kluane 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. I 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 Arctic 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 North American 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 on the trip. I set a few Elliott traps outside the park and caught a few very furry Deer Mouse.
I spent most of the next day walking along the Alsek trail, near Haines Junction, in the hope of seeing a Grizzly. I walked about 8 km 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. I watched the bear for about 45 minutes on and off as we walked parallel to one another. A magical Arctic moment.
Late that evening I took a drive along Haines road, which runs south of Haines Junction 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 50 km south of Haines. He disappeared into the forest when I stopped the car, but he was back again five minutes later, getting stuck into the plants growing on the roadside.
The same evening I saw at least 10 Porcupines, and countless Snowshoe Hares and a lone cow Moose just outside of Haines Jn. The only other vehicle I saw was also out wildlife watching: they’d seen a Black Bear near Dezadeash Lake.
The Road to Haines, Alaska
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 120 km 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. the town 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 both around town and along the 70 km 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 sounded like they might be a little easier easier to there than the rest of the Yukon.
I spent several hours driving the back roads around Mount Mye, just out of town, looking for Lynxes as(a family were thought to be resident there. UI didn’t have any luck with the Lynx but I did see several Moose and some 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 chunky Northern Red-backed Vole (also called a Ruddy Vole) .
The next day I hired a canoe and began a 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 was on the edge of hypothermia and it a fire, ate 2 king size mars bars and slept for 10 hours (after setting a few traps of course). 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.
Snowshoe Hares were everywhere, and I suppose must have been close to the peak in their population cycle (though some people spoke of them being in plague proportions 20 odd years ago so maybe they still have some way to climb). I saw Arctic Ground Squirrels everyday, usually along the road.
Red Squirrels were common. I was surprised to see just one Least Chipmunk, not far from Faro. Hoary Marmots should be easier to find later in the summer: in Kluane much of the best marmot habitat was blocked off by snow, and I only saw one animal in Tombstone National Park. I was disappointed not to see a Collared Pika and Signpost Hill in Keno seems to be the place to look for these.
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 numbers but not diversity: 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.
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 9 p.m. though I did see a couple in the middle of the day. Bears were also easier to find than I had thought they would be. I saw seven Black Bears and two 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.