I spent a week and a bit last month in the north west USA and Alaska. I was with my kids so it was not a full-on mammal trip, though I suspect my 11 year old daughter would disagree. My ears are still ringing from her protests about trudging through the mosquito-infested tundra looking for Alaskan Marmots!
We started with a couple of nights camping with friends near LoLo Hot Sprigs, in north-eastern Idaho. Its a lovely spot to camp and swim but I wasn’t really mammal watching. I couldn’t hep but notice a few Red-tailed Chipmunks running around the campsite (The Wilderness Gateway Camp, at milepost 122 along Hwy 12), along with Red Squirrels and Columbia Ground Squirrels. I set 40 traps but caught only Deer Mice. The highlight was this Moose in a pond off the Clearwater River,3 or 4 miles east ofthe campsite along Hwy 12.
Next stop Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. A cancelled flight, a missed ferry and speeding ticket, all conspired to slow us down and the journey from Lewiston, Idaho to Forks, Washington took 12 hours, not the 8 I had expected. We arrived on the beach after dark and about 3 hours later than I had hoped. I’d heard rumours that Western Spotted Skunks were a sure thing at the primitive Hole in the Wall campsite a mile or two up the beach. But my kids refused to walk that far in the dark and so we pitched camp as soon as it was allowed, and still at least half a mile short of Hole in the Wall.
No Skunks that night, but I did see my first Trowbridge’s Shrew, and several Keen’s Deer Mice during the night.
Walking back to the car my son almost trod on a sleeping Sea Otter which half heartedly waddled back to the ocean and swum off. Quite adorable.
Next stop was Alaska. Our (let’s be honest, my!) key (realistic) targets were Alaska Marmot and Collared Pika, with Lynx a half hoped for long-shot
We flew into Anchorage and then drove 6 hours north to Fairbanks for the night, before setting off up the Dalton Highway the next morning. As others have mentioned, the Dalton Highway is far less rugged a road than many of the brochures would have you believe, at least it was in July. A lot of the first 200 miles is paved, and other than a very occasional piece of grit hitting the windshield from a passing truck there was little to be concerned about at all. Nevertheless, most (all I think) of the major car rental agencies forbid you from taking their cars up the road, so I decided to hire a vehicle for 48 hours from Arctic Outfitters in Fairbanks. It was not cheap, but it was cheaper than the competition and the second spare tire, CB radio and peace of mind was sort of worth it.
It took nearly 8 hours from Fairbanks to get to the first Alaskan Marmot habitat, which is just after Atigun Pass and the peak of the range. The drive up was pretty but the only mammal of note was a distant Black Bear. I’d checked out Marmota broweri sites beforehand with the very helpful Aren Gunderson from the University of Alaska Museum, one of – if not the – leading expert on this species (see his work here). It was Aren who helped Dave Robichaud see this species during his 2006 Marmothon.
Aren recommended checking two sites for easy Marmot spotting: a small gravel pit just north east of Galbraith Lake, and another site 10 miles up the road. I chose the latter, stopping first to look at the site Vladimir Dinets and John Fox had scored at in 2010 (on the east side of the road at mile 259). I got a distant look at a Marmot here, but got much longer and better looks at the colony that Arun had recommended, near mile marker 283 (a mile or two south of Toolik Field Station).
Directions are as follows. As you are driving north up the Dalton Highway, look for a track off to the right (east), that is one of the pipeline service roads. These side roads are quite infrequent and I think this is the only road between mile 280 and the Toolik turn-off. The road is gated, so you need to leave your car and walk under the gate and up the hill under the pipeline. The marmots are on the low rocky hill in front of you, but access is easiest if you follow the road as it turns to the north and approach the hill from the northern slope, rather than cut across the boggy tundra in front of you. I found several Marmots easily here at about 9pm.
Walking back to the car I saw a family of 3 Red Foxes playing in the long grass and looking lovely in the soft evening light (soft evening light that lasted until 3am when it was blazing bright again).
We camped the night at Galbraith Lake, where there were a few Arctic Ground Squirrels, and continued up to mile 301 the next morning to look for Dall Sheep on the north face of Slope Mountain. We saw 4 distant animals. I had wanted to drive on another 40 miles to look for Musk Ox around the Happy Valley area (a regular spot for them), but realised I would not have had enough gas to have gotten back to Coldfoot (the next fuel stop heading south) and didn’t have the time nor desire to drive another 2 hours to Deadhorse to get fuel only to turn around again.
So we drove back to Fairbanks, dropped off the car at about 8pm, and drove another 2 hours south to spend the night near the entrance to Denali National Park.
I had wanted to visit Denali National Park for as long as I have been interested in mammals. I wasn’t disappointed. The wildlife viewing is exceptional there. And even though it was peak season, the compulsory use of park buses along most of the road meant the park didn’t feel too crowded.
First, a little on the logistics. During the high season, June – Augusut, visitors to the park are generally not allowed to take their own vehicles past the Savage River campsite at mile 12 of the park highway. An exception is made for those camping at some (but not all) of the campsites further into the park. I booked a space at Teklanika River Campground, which is the last campground down the road one is allowed to drive to. If you are staying at Wonder Lake for example, you have no choice but to take the bus. Even when you are camping, you don’t have carte blanche to drive up and down the road: upon check in at the visitor centre you get given two permits to cover one trip up and one down the road (the checkpoint was shut at midnight when I eventually arrived at camp, so no one checked my permit on the way in, but the return ticket was collected when I left the next morning).
Shuttle and tour buses traverse different bits of the park road all day and you can get off one, walk a bit or a lot, and then hitch a ride on another if there is space. We had prebooked onto the last shuttle bus that day that was driving to the end of the road (Wonder Lake) and back. It left the visitor centre at about 10.30am returning about 9pm.
We didn’t see much until we passed Teklanika River, after which we saw our first Grizzly (racking up over 10 in the day). Other wildlife included a big Bull Moose, several Caribou, some photogenic Dall’s Sheep and plenty of Arctic Ground Squirrels and Hoary Marmots (especially at the Eielson Visitor Centre), plus a Red Squirrel at Wonder Lake. There were – not suprisingly – more animals moving around in the late afternoon during our return trip.
The bus drive stopped for 10 minutes at Polychrome Pass to indulge me in some Pika spotting, but we didn’t see any.
It was indeed frustrating having to watch wildlife from the bus, but there is precious little alternative in Denali, unless you try to win the lottery to drive the park road during May and September I believe.
We’d left our car at the visitor centre, so we could drive to the campsite late: this boreal forest stretch of the road is the best habitat for Lynxes but they remain rare and will likely do so until Snowshoe Hare numbers peak again. We didn’t see a Lynx, but did see 3 more Moose along the road.
We left Denali the next morning, and drove the 4 hours south to Hatcher Pass, where John Fox had easily found Collared Pika in 2010.
They were just as easy to find, and we saw several within 5 minutes of arriving at the small rocky bowl just past the sign welcoming you to the Summit Lake Recreation area (when coming from the east).
There were Hoary Marmots here too.
If for some reason you dip on the Pika then try the Hatcher Pass Lodge, about 1 minute east of the lake. There were Pikas, Ground Squirrels and Marmots living under the chalets here and we saw several during a pleasant stay. In fact it might be an easier place to see the Pikas than the pass when there is snow on the ground, as it sounded like they scavenge for scraps.
I set 80 sherman traps around the pass that night. But despite Vladimir Dinets’s reports of a “shrew plague” a month earlier I caught nothing.
We stopped at Beluga Point (on the Seward Highway just out of Anchorage)twice – on either side of a high tide -the next day. Lots of fish around – judging by the dozens of fisherman out in one creek in particular – but we only saw the back of one Beluga. I am not sure when the best time to see them is.
So a short visit to Alaska but a fun one and somewhere I would like to return to especially during a different season I think.