Bison and Bears (and a C-Dory) on the Al-Can Highway

Ferdinand the Wood Bison kickin’ it in a dust wallow in Northern British Columbia. In addition to breathtaking views of the Canadian Rockies, vast forests, free-flowing rivers and an amazing array of wildflowers, a summer drive through western British Columbia and Yukon Territory on the way to Alaska provides one of the premier animal viewing opportunities in North America. (This is the first of several posts planned about the drive to Alaska and sights both along the way and in Alaska.)

In the fall of 2008 when Barbra and I purchased our C-Dory 22 Angler fishing boat, Gillie, we had no idea that 21 months later we’d be towing it 3,200 miles from Sacramento, California to Valdez, Alaska on a 43-day camping, exploring and fishing odyssey. With the exception of one night in an Anchorage hotel, we camped on Gillie – both at sea and on land – the entire trip. As Barbra and I fell into the daily rhythms of preparing meals and crawling into bed each night, our boat actually seemed to grow larger.

The trip north proved to be an ongoing revelation – one filled with far more grandeur than we’d anticipated.

I’d seen plains bison on trips to Yellowstone National Park, but we had no idea there was another subspecies of American bison, wood bison, roaming free in northern Canada and eastern Alaska. We encountered herds engaged in typical bison behavior including grunting males butting heads, females nursing spindly-legged young, and

individuals dust wallowing.

Our Tacoma had a feature we loved: a sun roof. By shooting photos from the open roof, we could safely get close to roadside animals, neither spooking them nor putting ourselves in danger. It was like having a photography blind.

At the beginning of the journey, we kept a list of the animals we encountered, dutifully tallying deer, elk, bison, stone sheep, moose, caribou, coyotes, hawk owls, and eagles. Eventually the numbers overwhelmed us. But there is one figure we still recall: thirty-two black bears. We also saw grizzlies, near Hyder, not to mention the sea mammals we encountered once we launched our boat in Alaska. And, of course, there were beavers and innumerable smaller animals and birds. But the group of animals we still most frequently talk about were the ones we didn’t see.

One evening, at the kind of typical roadside rest stop that served as our (free) campground most nights, we were walking after dinner and taking in an endless vista of taiga coniferous forest interspersed with aspen fringed lakes and swatches of magenta fireweed. It was around eleven o’clock at night, still light. With not a vehicle or building in sight, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.

And then we heard it. From a distant hill, a lone, high-pitched howl. Soon it was joined by other howls. Wolves! We listened in awe, our hearts singing.

Cow moose and their calves, such as this one, often hang out close to the highway in bear and wolf country. This helps them avoid predators, but vehicle fatalities run high.

Travelers are bound to see bears – boars, sows and cubs – as they travel along the Al-Can.

Stone Sheep ewes take in salt or other minerals near Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Notice the lamb with the third ewe. Meanwhile, other lambs watch their mothers from the safety of a nearby slope.

For us, the drive to Alaska was the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. I used to pore over my grandfather’s back issues of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, devouring anything and everything written about the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness. For both of us, the experiences we had on this trip exceeded our imaginations.

Less than a year later, we would be saying goodbye to friends in Sacramento and leaving behind our beloved E Street craftsman bungalow, a yard full of orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, apple, cherry, peach and pear trees, and our long runs along the beautiful American River. We’d be trading our patch of raspberries for wild cloudberries, our fresh tomatoes for canned.

When we first got our C-Dory, we envisioned weekends to Bodega Bay and other ports along the California and Oregon Coast. We never imagined it would take us all the way to Alaska and a new life.

The C-Dory has a cuddy cabin that comfortably sleeps two, a small dinette in the cabin, and an amazing amount of storage. A dependable Coleman stove served as our gas range.

8 thoughts on “Bison and Bears (and a C-Dory) on the Al-Can Highway

  1. These blogs just make me more excited to get to Alaska next year. We are driving our motorhome up, taking our time, mostly going for the wildlife. Thanks for the beautiful pictures. Makes me very hopeful.

Leave a Reply to delicio8 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.