Saturday, August 14, 2010

Haul Road Tundra - July 2010

Once across the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass, you step into the Arctic Tundra. You won’t find anymore ugly Black Spruce trees (thank goodness!) nor any Paper Birch, Alder or Aspen trees. In fact, the tallest plants are the little willows that grow along streambeds, and they are about 15 ft max. But, these are few and far between because the landscape is dominated by tundra. Short (5 inch high) plants, mosses, lichens and fungi. And the most beautiful tiny flowers ever!

We pulled off at a spot and Dave went in search of Lapland Longspurs. He could see them, but I refused to climb down the 20 ft embankment onto the tundra in while gale force winds blew my around like a rag doll!

The Dalton Highway travels about 30 miles through Atigun Valley and there are mind-blowing views of mountains on either side of you. All you can do is sit back and take it all in, because cameras just don’t capture the grandeur of it all! This is the land of the truckers…

MILE 275 is Galbraith Lake campground and we stopped in to check it out.

Many people camp here because it a short, 5 mile hike to the National Wildlife Refuge and you can usually see moose, grizzly bear and caribou.

There are several great informative kiosks discussing the history of the Haul Road, the Pipeline and the lake, Survival skills in the arctic as well as wildlife. If we had more time, we’d have camped here for at least w eek and explored!

Check out this cute cotton grass Dave is holding (those are his big feet).

Long-tailed Jaeger’s are now found flying low over the tundra looking for nest eggs or hatchlings to eat. I can’t stand the Jaegers! But, Dave finds them fascinating!

MILE 284 The University of Alaska Fairbanks established a research station at Toolik Lake in 1975, and conducts sensitive studies on arctic ecosystems and global climate change.

Visitors are advised to take care to avoid the research sites, scattered throughout the surrounding area. There are no public facilities here and access to the station is by invitation only.

When Dave and I were in grad school, my office mate Val Bennett came up here to Toolik for her dissertation work. I remember thinking that she must have been at some God-forsaken outpost in the middle of snow and ice – freezing her “you-know-whats” off. Now, here we were in this absolutely spectacular landscape and its 65F and sunny! We parked the truck and took a little walk along the lake hoping to see Blue-throats. We did see this cute little Arctic Ground Squirrel – I just love these guys!

Plus, we saw Yellow Wagtail, Savannah Sparrow, Hoary Redpoll, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden Eagle, Raven and this Willow Ptarmigan.

As you move north from Toolik Lake, the mountains fade behind you and the terrain becomes flatter and flatter.

Mile 336 – Ice Cut From here on, the Dalton Highway follows the Sagavanirktok River north to the Arctic Ocean. We are in the dry uplands where thickets of willows still grow. If you pull off at Ice Cut, and look at the bluffs across the river to the east, you are likely to see a pair of Gyrfalcons. The female is a white-phase, and the male is gray. We have seen them both, but they are so far away, that you have to digiscope them. This is the best we could do.

As we pulled out of the Ice Cut turn off, and headed north again, Dave spotted a Red Fox with a kit resting down by the water. We scrambled to take pictures before she hustled her baby out of sight.

On this gently sloping plain, permafrost dominates the terrain. The ground is mostly defined in patterns of polygons formed by desiccation of the ground surface in conjunction with ice action below the surface. Many of these disturbances hold water, forming a patchwork of ponds across the landscape. Shallow and relatively productive, this habitat is the magnet that draws birds to the Arctic Coastal Plain.

I took this aerial photo when we flew to Barrow.

We took the next few photos at midnight…

We saw hundreds of caribou between Ice Cut and Deadhorse on our first trip in June.

By 1am we approach Deadhorse Alaska.

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