Monday, June 29, 2009

Largest U.S. City

More trivia. Name the largest city in the United States. Notice I did not say the most populous city. What I am after here is the largest in area. If you named Oklahoma City, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Antonio as your top five you would have been correct as far as cities are concerned. But what if we also include consolidated city-counties (city-borough in AK and city-parish in LA)? In this case it turns out the the largest city is Sitka, AK at 4811 mi2. (See wikipedia.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Lynn Canal

"The Lynn Canal is an inlet (not an artificial canal) into the mainland of southeast Alaska. The Lynn Canal runs about 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the inlets of the Chilkat River south to Chatham Strait and Stephens Passage. At over 2,000 feet in depth, the Lynn Canal is the deepest fjord in North America and one of the deepest and longest in the world as well. The northern portion of the canal braids into the respective Chilkat, Chilkoot, and Taiya Inlets. Lynn Canal was explored by Joseph Whidbey in 1794 and named by George Vancouver for his birthplace, King's Lynn, Norfolk, England."

Lynn Canal connects to Stephens Passage via Favorite Channel, on which lies Juneau, AK. At the entrance to Favorite Channel from Lynn Canal is the Sentinel Island Lighthouse.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Dee and Cal reported seeing six bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) on Thursday. Although bald eagles have flourished in Alaska and Canada, the species was on the brink of extinction in the continental US late in the twentieth century. Thanks to conservation efforts (and to banning of DDT) stable populations have recovered.

"The Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve was created by the State of Alaska in June of 1982. The preserve was established to protect and perpetuate the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles and their critical habitat. It also sustains and protects the natural salmon runs and allows for traditional uses; provided such uses do not adversely affect preserve resources. The Preserve consists of 48,000 acres of river bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. The boundaries were designated to include only areas important to eagle habitation. Virtually every portion of the preserve is used by eagles at some time during the year."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Inside Passage

Links: Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS, Inside Passage)


Tuesday, June 23, 2009


After 75 days en route, Dee and Cal are in Alaska! Here is what they accomplished.
Days en route:75
Days on road:60
Rides 10-29 miles:4
Rides 30-49 miles:27
Rides 50-69 miles: 20
Rides 70-89 miles: 6
Rides 90-129 miles:3
Miles total: 3207
Miles/day mean: 43
Miles/ride mean:53
Miles/ride median: 49
Also, the Google map has been updated. :-)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tagish Lake Meteorite

By latest report, Dee and Cal are not going to Whitehorse, but were to spend the night last night in the town of Tagish, which gives me the chance to write a little about the Tagish Lake Meteorite.

"On the morning of January 18, 2000, a 150-ton space rock plunged into the earth's atmosphere, landing between the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in a remote vacation village, Tagish. The rare Tagish Lake fireball left an orange-white and blue contrail that lingered for 10 to 15 minutes as hundreds of observers witnessed the early morning events.

"The first aerial over-flights showed no crater or fragments left to demark the fireball or its impact. But fortunately for the science community, one week later on January 25th, a nearby resident, Jim Brook, found the first meteorite fragments while driving homewards on the ice of Taku Arm in Tagish Lake. He knew the frozen lake well, and had the presence to pick up the dark icy rocks with his hand inside a plastic bag. What Brook had uncovered was an extraterrestrial clue from the early solar system, a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite.

"To date, 500 more fragments have been found near Tagish Lake and hundreds have been recovered from the site - many still encased in ice. The space events of January 18th were the largest ever recorded over land by the Defense Department satellite systems. Scientifically, ;[Tagish Lake] is the find of a lifetime,' says Peter Brown, meteor scientist in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Western Ontario and co-leader of the meteorite recovery investigation. 'The entire process of recovery of the material and determination of where it comes from makes this the scientific equivalent of an actual sample-return space mission - at a thousandth of the cost.' " (From AstroBiology Magazine.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Yukon Native Language Center

Posting for Dee and Cal, Travis reported that they were on schedule so far, but that they would be arriving in Skagway on Tuesday instead of Sunday. I interpret this to mean that they decided to spend a night or two in Whitehorse after all. Or maybe they just wanted to take their time.

In any case, while they are in the Whitehorse vicinity, it is worth mentioning the Yukon Native Language Center (YNLC) at the Ayamdigut Campus of Yukon College in Whitehorse. The Centre is a training and research facility which provides a range of linguistic and educational services to Yukon First Nations and to the general public, promoting an awareness of the richness and beauty of Yukon First Nations Languages and an appreciation of the fundamental role they play in the transmission of culture and values from one generation to another.

Similar initiatives can be found at the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC), Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures (CSUMC) at the University of Wisconsin and the Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) in Santa Fe, NM.

The UN declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages. "Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalisation processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression – valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Teslin River, Lake, and Fault

Dee and Cal are scheduled to stop overnight tonight at Teslin Lake, which is a prominent feature in the Terrain view of this region: 80 miles long, 2 miles wide on average, and nearly linear (a favorite landmark for VFR pilots). This natural lake is on the Teslin River, which runs from south to north toward the Yukon River. The Alaska Highway runs along Teslin Lake for over twenty miles including the longest bridge on the entire Highway, the Nisutlin Bay Bridge. The road bed is reported to be a see-through metal grating, which should be great fun for the trikers. At the far (north) end of the lake the highway turns west on the famous Johnson's Crossing Bridge over the Teslin River.

All of the rivers that Dee and Cal have crossed so far drain into the Atlantic or the Arctic Ocean. Teslin River, on the other hand, drains into the Pacific Ocean (or rather, the Bering Sea) by way of the Yukon River. Remember that the Yukon is the third longest river in the U.S., behind the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers.

And of course the reason that the Teslin Lake is long, narrow, and so nearly straight is because of the Teslin Fault.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cassiar Mountains

Dee and Cal spent the past six nights in the Liard River basin (including two nights at Watson Lake). Having crossed the Rocky Mountain Trench, they headed into the Cassiar Mountain Range today. Tonight they plan to spend the night at or near the Continental Divide.

The name Cassiar is derived from the word "kaska", a corruption of the Indian name of McDame Creek (a tributary of the Dease River, which drains into the Liard River), where the Kaska Indians assembled in summer to fish and trade. One anthropologist says "kaska" means "old moccasins", a term of scorn that Tahltan Indians applied to the neighbouring Kaska Indians in the Dease River area.

There is also a ghost town named Cassiar, which was a small company-owned asbestos mining town located at the red star in the map above. The town, which had a population of 1,500 in its heyday, had two schools, two churches, a small hospital, a theatre, swimming pool, recreation centre and a hockey rink.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Preview of the Week

Unless Dee and Cal happen across another camper with satellite internet service, they will probably not be able to post again until they reach Skagway. Knowing the rest of us they way they do, however, the trikers have kindly posted a list of their predicted overnight locations. Not only are these sites tentative, I am not even certain of their exact locations. Nevertheless, the map above is an approximate, speculative, provisional preview of the final week (325 miles) before ALASKA.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Peterson Mountain

Dee said that "Peterson Mountain" was a much harder challenge than Steamboat Rock, but when I tried to find the location, nothing came up in the search engine. So I did an elevation graph of the road between Toad River and Muncho Lake. Based on this, I am guessing that Peterson Mountain must be about at the red balloon on the Terrain view above.

Alces alces

It was good to hear from Dee and Cal again last night and to read about their sighting of a moose. (Also interesting that they saw bison so far up into the mountains.) The species Alces alces is called "moose" in North America and "elk" in Europe. To confuse matters further, what North Americans call elk are the second largest species in the deer family, moose being the largest. Moose are also distinguished by the palmate antlers of the males; other members of the family have antlers with a "twig-like" configuration.

The moose spotted by Dee and Cal was probably of the Western or Northwestern subspecies (Alces alces andersoni), although it could have been of the Alaskan variety (Alces alces gigas). Behind only the bison, the moose is the second largest land animal in both North America and Europe. Moose are generally solitary with the strongest bonds between mother and calf. Two individuals can sometimes be found feeding along the same stream. (See also Cetartiodactyla.)

Anyone remember the Rocky and Bulwinkle show?

The trikers are about 270 miles from Whitehorse, so communication may still be a problem for a while longer. Take care (and enjoy the Nisutlin Bay Bridge at Teslin Lake).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Watson Lake, Yukon

Awhile back I promised not to speculate about where Dee and Cal might be headed next, yet I am about to speculate where they might be now. Just can't help myself. In any case, I surely jumped the gun by talking about the Continental Divide last night, because the Divide is beyond Watson Lake, YT on the Alaska Highway, and I am pretty sure the trikers will be able to post from Watson Lake. Watson Lake is right at 200 miles from Toad River Lodge where they were Monday night, and they did say they were going to slow down and enjoy the scenery (in this stretch said to be the best anywhere on the Alaska Highway). So I am going to go out on a limb and say that we will hear from Dee and Cal from Watson Lake tomorrow (Sunday) night, or perhaps as early as this evening.

Watson Lake is a community of 1000-1500 people, a small town by most standards, but in this region a booming metropolis. It lies along the Liard River in the upper Rocky Mountain Trench and, obviously, is near a small lake by the same name. It is known as the Gateway to the Yukon. The town is also famous for its Sign Post Forest.

Near Watson Lake is a small community called Upper Liard and another called Two Mile Village, both home to the Liard River First Nation.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Continental Divide

If you have been following the River List you will have noticed that the rivers up to and including the Missouri drain into the Atlantic Ocean via the Gulf of Mexico, while all those after it in the list drain into the Arctic Ocean, hence a continental divide, the so called Northern or Laurentian Divide. Still not exactly sure where they are, we can assume Dee and Cal are approaching or have passed the Great Continental Divide, beyond which the rivers all flow into the Pacific Ocean. Travel plans posted before they started call for Dee and Cal to return by way of Glacier National Park (or near it), where the Northern and the Great Divides converge in a "triple point".

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bison bison athabascae

Since Dee and Cal are still incommunicado this evening, I am going to take another little side trip, down the Liard River again to Fort Liard and Nahanni Butte, home to the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae), not to be confused with the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison), the other surviving North American subspecies. The highest point of the Wood Bison is well ahead of its front legs, while the Plains Bison's highest point is directly above the front legs. The Wood Bison is also heavier, with large males weighing over 900 kilograms (2,000 lb), making it the largest terrestrial animal in North America.

In contrast to the other mammals I have written about here, the Wood Bison is threatened to the point of nearing the status of endangered. Efforts to preserve these populations have been partially successful, but encroachment threatens them as well as hybridization with plains buffalo polluting the genetic stock. Another issue is that of habitat fragmentation, which makes the observation of wood bison crossing the Liard in summer as well as winter an important one.

The Liard River

Since the Verizon service seems to have disappeared for a few days, we don't know for certain, but by now Dee and Cal should have crossed the Liard River via the famous Liard Suspension Bridge (mile 496) in the Hot Springs vicinity. Had they stopped there, rented a canoe, and floated east on the Liard, they would have been in for the ride of their lives. The Grand Canyon of the Liard is a 20-mile stretch of Class IV and higher rapids. After descending into the foothills the river levels out and is joined by the Fort Nelson River on its way to the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories and on to the Arctic Ocean.

Instead of canoeing east, however, the trikers will have continued west on the Alaska Highway, which follows the Liard River for considerable distance (past the mouth of the Kechika River on the other side, for example). Eventually they will cross the Liard again as it swings north into the Yukon in the northern end of the Rocky Mountain Trench. The source of the river is the Saint Cyr Range of the Pelly Mountains. The name "Liard" comes from the French word for Eastern Cottonwood, which grow in abundance along many sections of the river. Because of the abundance of wildlife, the Liard River Valley and the surrounding area vies for the title of Serengeti of North America.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Kechika River

Being just a vicarious triker, I am free to explore places inaccessible to Dee and Cal. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be with them, but since I'm not, I will take a little side trip. The Kechika River will not make it to our "river list" because the trikers will neither cross it nor follow it, but it deserves a blog entry nonetheless because: (1) it flows into the Liard River, which the trikers will cross (and then follow) soon, (2) most of its course is within the Rocky Mountain Trench, which I've already written about, and (3) its pristine watershed is home to moose, caribou, stone sheep, grizzly and black bear, timber wolf, (which we have encountered before) as well as elk and mountain goat.

In the image here, I have redrawn the Alaska Highway in red to make it more visible. The green balloon is where Dee and Cal stayed last night. The Kechica River rises near the lower center of the image and flows northwest before curving toward the Liard, which it joins at the Alaska Highway. You can click on the image to make it larger, or if you go to the Google map, you can zoom in and out as you wish.

What makes this river valley especially special are "the wildlife populations and ecosystems which flourish around and along the river. ... Not only is the river corridor pristine, but the valley as a whole remains largely free from roads, leaving the Kechika River as the largest remaining undisturbed watershed in British Columbia." I would love to quote the entire website, but you owe it to yourself to follow the link above. Also read about the Denetiah Provincial Park.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rangifer tarandus caribou

The Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are threatened by habitat encroachment in Alberta and British Columia. They are not considered "endangered" because the species, Rangifer tarandus, is still widespread throughout the northern Holartic. But woodland and mountain caribou do not migrate over vast distances the way their northern cousins do, which makes them particularly dependent on their regional habitat. (See

"Mountain caribou are an 'ecotype' of woodland caribou that inhabit the deep snowbelt regions of the interior rainforest of British Columbia and parts of three US states. Their large hooves act as snowshoes that allow them to spend winters high in the subalpine and alpine forests, where snowpacks can reach depths up to four meters. The deep snows act as a barrier to predators, and as a platform that allows the caribou to reach their winter food source, lichens that grow on old-growth trees. Mountain caribou are the only member of the deer family to move to higher elevations in winter."

"The main threats to caribou are habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. Industrial logging has removed much of the critical old-growth forest that caribou need for food and for cover from predators like wolves and cougars. After old forests are logged, young shrubs and trees grow. Moose, deer and elk move in, attracted by the new growth. Their presence in turn supports more predators which incidentally and unsustainably prey on caribou. Before their habitat was fragmented by logging and other developments caribou were largely able to avoid predation through their unusual seasonal movements and by spreading themselves throughout extensive old-growth forests."

Caribou are unique in the deer family in that both females and males grow antlers. Caribou are larger than deer and smaller than elk, with males weighing approximately 175 kg (350-400 lb). Their hollow fur insulates them through the long mountain winters.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sixty-Day Update

Dee and Cal have now been en route to Alaska for sixty days. Just for fun, I compared the first thirty days with the second thirty.
Days en route: 30 30
Days on road: 22 24
Rides 10-29 miles: 2 1
Rides 30-49 miles: 6 9
Rides 50-69 miles: 12 8
Rides 70-89 miles: 2 3
Rides 90-129 miles: 0 3
Miles total: 1123 1501
Miles/day mean: 37 50
Miles/ride mean: 51 63
Miles/ride median: 54 55

The three rides of over 90 miles is amazing, but more impressive, in my view, is the riding consistency. Out of the first 30 days, 22 were on the road (73%), 14 of which (64%) were rides of over 50 miles. Out of the second 30 days, 24 were on the road (80%), 14 of which (58%) were rides of over 50 miles. That is consistency. Since they are ahead of schedule, this is a great time to adopt a "slow down and enjoy" program.

(The "mean" is the average distance per day or per ride. The "median" is where half the rides were less than and half more than this distance. In the first 30 days, the outliers were on the low end, so the mean was less than the median. In the second 30, the outliers were on the high end, so the mean was greater than the median.)

The Rocky Mountain Trench

On the High Plains and into the Canadian prairie, the Terrain View of the map has, with notable exceptions, been mostly monotonous. Not so now. I have been watching the terrain ahead as Dee and Cal approach the Northern Rockies, and for a few days now I have noticed a feature that seems highly unusual, a deep valley in a perfectly straight line for hundreds of miles, the orientation of which is an almost uniform 150/330 degree geographic north vector. Today I discovered that this is the Rocky Mountain Trench, primarily the result of faulting (with minimal glacial carving). What you see in the image above is the northern half of the Trench, beginning at the Yukon/B.C. border. It continues at just a slightly different angle to the southeast all the way to Montana.

For orientation, Fort Nelson is in middle of the upper right quadrant (at the confluence of three rivers). The town of Watson Lake would be at the top edge (or barely above it) and toward the left. Prince George would be just off the bottom edge and toward the right. The large lake in the middle of the Trench is Lake Williston on the Peace River. To the northwest, the Tintina Trench continues on through the Yukon to Alaska.

The mountains east of the Trench are the Rocky Mountains, but to the west of it are the Cassiar Mountains in the north and the Omineca Mountains a little further south. We will check out the Trench again when the trikers come back through it a little further south on their way home.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ovus dalli stonei

Enough about predators for now, although I'd also like to write about cougars and black bears sometime. Another North American mammal that Dee and Cal might see in this region is the Thinhorn Sheep (Ovus dalli), not to be confused with Bighorn Sheep (Ovus canadensis). As the name suggests, the horns of this species are thinner than those of the Bighorn Sheep. They also have a more open curl, which some consider more elegant. Two races of Thinhorn Sheep call British Columbia home. The white Dall's Sheep is found in the Yukon and in the extreme northwestern corner of B.C. The darker Stone's Sheep is more widespread, being found in much of the region the trikers are in now, especially at Muncho Lake.

Living as they do in some of the most remote wilderness in British Columbia, both Dall's and Stone's Sheep have not suffered seriously from the encroachment of human activities. There are healthy populations of both, and that is perhaps a solid lesson in the importance of maintaining large tracts of intact habitat.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ursus arctos horribilis

The grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) is a subspecies of brown bear (Ursus arctos) that lives in the uplands of western North America. Half of the grizzlies in North America live in Canada, and half of these live in British Columbia, mostly in the northern regions. (Look out, guys.)

In contrast to timber wolves, grizzlies are normally solitary animals except during salmon spawn, when they congregate alongside rivers and streams. Every other year females produce 1-4 young which weigh only 1 pound. They can grow to be over 1000 pounds in adulthood. Being omnivores, they feed on a variety of plants and berries including roots or sprouts and fungi as well as fish, insects and small mammals. The Grizzly Bear is primarily nocturnal and in the winter puts on up to 400 pounds of fat, becoming very lethargic. Although they are not true hibernators and can be woken easily, they like to den up in a protected spot, such as a cave, crevice or hollow log during the winter months.

The word "grizzly" in its name refers to "grizzled" or grey hairs in its fur, but when naturalist George Ord formally named the bear in 1815 he misunderstood the word as "grisly", to produce its biological Latin specific or subspecific name "horribilis". The Grizzly Bear is not generally considered endangered, but is listed as "threatened."

Advil Time

This preview of the next 100 miles shows what Dee was talking about, "time for Advil again." Enjoy the first 40 miles! (And from the comments from the locals, it looks like the coverage map below is right.)

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Verizon Digital Wireless

It is hard to know how accurate or precise this Verizon Wireless Digital coverage map is, but in any case, it appears that communication may be at least an intermittent problem for the next few weeks.

The Boreal Forest Biome

A biome is a major regional or global biotic community, such as a grassland or desert, defined by the dominant forms of plant life and the prevailing climate. The boreal forest biome is the largest terrestrial ecosystem in the world, characterized by conifer forests and a harsh continental climate with a very large temperature range between summer and winter. The global boreal forests are larger than even the Amazon rainforest.

"Like the Amazon, the boreal forest is of critical importance to all living things. Its trees and peatlands comprise one of the world's largest 'carbon reservoirs.'... Its wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day. And as a vast and intact forest ecosystem, it still supports a natural food web, complete with large carnivores like bears, wolves and lynx along with thousands of other species of plants, mammals, birds and insects. The boreal forest is also home to hundreds of First Nations communities, many of which rely on fishing, hunting and trapping for their livelihoods. Despite its global significance, Canada's boreal forest is in great danger today." NRDC

Canus lupus

Geography and history have been my primary topics up to now, along with a little biography. Time now for some ecology.

The Timberwolf or Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) once inhabited most of North America, but their range has been reduced by over half, now limited to Alaska, Canada, and small areas of the U.S. The timber wolf is typically a grizzled gray but color varies from white to black. The ears are erect and the tail is bushy and black tipped. The male is larger than the female and average weight is 55-130 pounds.

Wolves are highly social animals who mate for life and live in packs of 2-15. The strongest male is usually the pack leader; all members of the pack care for the young which helps unite the pack. An average of 7 pups are born to each female in April-June. Usually hunting at night, they feed primarily on large mammals by chasing down their victims either slashing tendons or driving it back to waiting pack members. The wolves howl as a means of communication and to express good spirits. The wolf will usually answer to a human howl, "which is truly a Canadian experience."

In 2007, the BC government announced a "partnership" to save British Columbia's endangered mountain caribou. The partners — BC government, logging companies, snowmobile clubs, heli-ski businesses and the Mountain Caribou Project (MCP) — had agreed to protect 2.2 million hectares of high quality mountain caribou winter habitat. They had also agreed to kill predators (i.e. timber wolves). But in the big media promotion, the habitat protection received all of the focus and predator control (which had been the subject of massive protest) received little attention.

According to "the press materials emphasized habitat protection but the actions have been just the opposite. The government is relying upon killing predators (wolves) as its silver bullet to increase caribou numbers without reducing the logging that is destroying habitat."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Canadian Rockies, Terrain View

This is the Google Maps Terrain View of the British Columbia Rocky Mountains ahead of the Trikers.

Hills on the Way to Pink Mountain

Here is the elevation graph that Dee requested for the Alaskan Highway between Shepherd's Inn and Pink Mountain. I am not quite sure why the distance is off by so much, but my indicator pins (as located by Google) may not be entirely accurate.