The Haines Highway and Arctic Interruptus

Flying back from Gustavus to Haines, we found the truck as we left it at the Haines “Airport” – a little building with a desk, a small bathroom and a friendly dog – ID checks and the TSA have not yet arrived in this little southeastern Alaskan village. Fluorescent pink fireweed and snow white yarrow naturally decorated the grounds. The Haines Highway picks up were the Alaska Maritime Highway ends, providing a segway to the Alaskan Highway via the hamlets of Haines Junction and over the Canadian border in the Yukon, to Beaver Creek and then Tok, back in Alaska, a distance of over three hundred miles. Driving north, a glacial melt river was the foreground with the massive Wrangell St. Alias mountains in the background. The national park of the same name, combined with the abutting Kluane National Park in Canada make up the largest national park system in the world. At over fourteen thousand feet, Mt. Wrangell, an active volcano steamed ominously in the distance. Wrangell last errupted in 2002, spewing thousands of cubic yards of ash and closing air routes in the northern hemisphere for days. Along the way, small “kettle lakes” dotted the landscape. Legacies from the Pleistocene, these subarctic jewels were created when massive blocks of ice detached from receding glaciers, became buried in sediment, then melted, leaving a cast of the landlocked berg which then filled with water. Stately Trumpeter Swans breed almost exclusively in these lakes, gliding gracefully over their water, signets in tow, feeding on the abundant aquatic vegetation that twenty plus hours of summer sunlight a day produces. Down to seventy individuals in the 1930’s, Trumpeters, the largest bird in North America are now making a comeback.

Along the way, we listened to an audio version of John McPhee’s classic “Coming Into The Country” about life in the Alaskan/Yukon interior. Satisfyingly, at over forty years old, it still rings true here.

Leaving Alaska and entering the Yukon Territory of Canada, we chatted briefly with the customs officer at the lonely border crossing. “What’s the greatest wildlife you’ve seen here?” “Well, there was that stripper that went thru a while back….” Delivered with a straight face – a classic Alaskan answer. Overnighting in the hamlet of Haines Junction, we pushed further into the Yukon and were blown away by the sheer vastness of this place. Valleys, and river drainages followed by mountain ranges and sweeping panoramas to the horizon times ten. All without a single sign of man: no roads other than the one we were on. For hundreds of miles. No towns, houses, strip malls, cell towers, ranches, livestock. Nothing but tundra and boreal forest forever and ever. You don’t pass up a gas station on this road. We stopped for lunch at Buckshot Betty’s in Beaver Creek, population 103, down eight percent from the last census. Inside was our introduction to what would be the standard small Yukon/Alaskan restaurant/general store/whatever. Furs for sale from local trappers: beaver, arctic fox, wolf, wolverine. A massive grizzly hide adorned one wall, Dall sheep headmounts (white big horn) and monster salmon another. Our waitress was from a small town in Manitoba, had only been working there for a few weeks. She was saving to study graphic design in Toronto.

Built just before, and during the Second World War, the Alaskan highway pushed a road into total wilderness. Along the way, supply depots were established, one named Tokyo. After Pearl Harbor, the name became a liability, so, in the spirit of Alaskan practicality, the last few letters were lopped off, and Tok was born. Nowadays Tok is a crossroads town on the Alaskan Highway and tends to business: fuel, hardware, a landing strip for bush pilots and helicopters. RV repair. Everyone eats at Fast Eddie’s. From Tok, we pushed on to Anchorage via the Tok Cutoff, skirting the mighty Copper River and the Alaskan Range. In 2012, more than 46,000 Sockeye (red) salmon were counted entering the river in a single day. The next day, we boarded a hybrid cargo/passenger 737 jet and flew to the Kotzebue, thirty miles above the arctic circle.

The Curious Village Of Kotzebue

Located on a slender peninsula jutting into the Chukchi Sea, Kotzebue (pronounced “kot-sa-bue”) is a supply point for dozens of remote arctic communities and modern industrial enterprises in northwestern Alaska. It is also home to a sizable population of the Inupiat people native to the area. After landing, we discovered that the little departures/takeoff building was flooded by Shell Oil employees, just landed, and awaiting the massive drilling platform currently being towed into the Chukchi Sea from Seattle, more than a thousand miles south. The drilling permits were not yet approved, but apparently that was not stopping Shell. Our plan was to meet our bush pilot , who would fly us up to the western end of the Brooks Range of mountains in the high arctic. More than a hundred thousand Barren Ground Caribou would be assembling for their annual calving and migration. Our only plan was to camp there and watch what happened: caribou, wolves and grizzly bears doing what they have done for millennia. With the weather holding, our bush pilot would return in four day’s time to collect us. But a strange and new phenomenia torpedoed that plan: massive bush fires….more than three hundred of them. Visability in Kotzebue was reduced to a few hundred yards. Everything that could fly was on the ground, including our bush pilot, a hundred miles away, landed and stranded by the visibility on the gravel bar of a river: bush pilots fly by visual only, to do otherwise invites the grim reaper. An easterly wind had foiled our plan, carrying the smoke for hundreds of miles from the Alaskan interior to set up a Beijing-like haze into tiny Kotzebue. We asked around among the Inupiat locals. “Is this normal, to have smoke like this?” “I am eighty years old, and I have never seen this. I wonder what is happening. I am worried…” This was actually the least of their problems. The permafrost, the soil permanently frozen a few feet below the surface, was melting, eroding the peninsula – their home – from underneath their feet. The summer pack ice, never more than a dozen miles or so offshore, and funneling whales and seals close to shore where they could be hunted, was now a hundred miles out into the Chukchi Sea. You cannot tow a forty ton whale back that far. Their livelihood for thousands of years was becoming impossible. During the winter, more than once, it rained. Rained. In the arctic. Then it froze, creating an icy armor over the lichen moss that the caribou and Dall sheep normally pawed through the soft snow to get at – indispensable calories when it is forty degrees below zero. They died in their thousands, and with their deaths, food for the locals was denied. There were no non-believers in global warming in Kotzebue. There was talk about Shell, and the new future…..

Trumpeter swan2

Stately Trumpeter Swans with their signet young in a “kettle” lake along the Haines Highway.
Kotzebue Smoke1

Kotzebue: 30 Miles Above the Arctic Circle – fire smoke reduced visability to 100 yards. No bush planes flying. Arctic Dreams postponed……
Next, Denali and the Delali Highway

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