On August 29, I set out from Fairbanks, Alaska to follow the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes to Texas on my bicycle. The day I left, cranes were gathering in Fairbanks, feeding on barley at the university's farm and at Creamer's Field Waterfowl Refuge. It was a beautiful, clear, warm fall day as I pedaled down the Richardson Highway.
After two days of cycling, I turned onto the Alaska Highway, a road which stretches 1,400 miles (2,200 km) from Interior Alaska to British Columbia. While the road doesn't perfectly parallel the route of sandhill cranes, it would be the best way to keep pace with the birds for the first part of this long journey.
Three days can seem long when you're taking in so many beautiful sights and sounds, and for nearly three days after leaving Fairbanks, I saw not a single crane.
At 6 pm on August 31, while pedaling a flat stretch of highway through a black spruce bog, I heard a familiar sound. Squeezing my brakes, I searched the sky for where the sound was coming from. Looking up at the clouds, I saw nothing, until suddenly the cranes turned sharply and I became aware of a flock of over one hundred. My heart sang.
Sandhill cranes ride thermal updrafts in order to gain a gliding altitude for flying long distances. Referred to as a kettle, flocks in this formation circle higher and higher in a beautiful spiraling motion until they are 3,000 to 5,000 feet high. At this height, it is sometimes hard to find the birds until they make a turn.
As I gazed up and listened, I noticed another group in the spiral, numbering about one hundred fifty. My excitement grew, and I searched my panniers for painting supplies. By the time I had my paintbrush in hand, the flocks had reached their desired altitude and went from a corkscrew to two ribbons quickly disappearing in the distance.
Continuing down the road after a quick sketch, I was treated to six more flocks crossing the highway. Not long after, I decided to make camp. After a night of listening to coyote howls, I awoke to another clear morning. The sun was hitting the mountains at the perfect angle to highlight their contours. While painting the mountain in front of me, the crane calls began again. As I worked, I estimated as many as one thousand cranes divided among six different flocks, all coming from the direction of the Delta River and heading in the direction of the Tanana River.
The following two weeks brought no additional crane sightings, but a plethora of beautiful views and plenty of other wildlife. The Alaska Highway cuts through miles upon miles of wilderness in Alaska and the Yukon. I had traveled the road before as far as Whitehorse, but the speed of traveling by car can make cities seem close together. You can get from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon in one long day's drive. Traveling by bicycle slows everything down to a speed where you realize just how vast and wild the country is.
While riding, I found signs of others sharing the road with me: bear scat, wolf scat, pieces of hares left behind by whoever ate them. As a lone traveler, the distance between human habitations can be as unnerving as it is freeing. As weeks went on, I tried to embrace this feeling of vulnerability rather than being afraid.
There is no erasing the feeling of vulnerability I have when traveling alone through bear country, but even the largest mammals are vulnerable. I went through one stretch of highway where I had been warned there were many black bears. Sure enough, I spotted a black bear the first morning after leaving the town where people had warned me. It crossed the road several yards ahead while no cars were in sight. As soon as it became aware of my presence, it quickly went to the shrubs and let me go on my way peacefully. That same day, I found three bears on the roadside who had died in collisions. I wondered if anyone had warned them about us.
As I made my way south through the Yukon and British Columbia, changes began to occur around me. Though this entire stretch is categorized as boreal forest, an ecosystem that circles the upper portion of the Northern Hemisphere, the diversity of flora and fauna grows as you travel south.
From the spruce-dominated forests of Alaska, I made my way into the pines and firs of the Yukon. I also began seeing plants I didn't recognize, such as red willow. Although moose and caribou country continued on, I began seeing other deer species as well: elk bugled in the Takhini Valley and mule deer bounded into the woods near Toad River.
Along the entire route, I have felt the pressure of winter at my back. There were times I would have loved to spend extra time painting, but felt it was important to keep moving south. At Haines Junction, I began seeing green leaves again. Just when I felt I was getting ahead of winter; however, the road would return to a high elevation and bring with it frosty mornings to remind me to keep up the pace.
Arriving at Liard Hot Springs in British Columbia, I found a place so unique I couldn't resist taking an extra day off to paint and draw. The hot springs create a micro-climate, and there are plants growing there that are not found elsewhere for hundreds of miles around. The forest appears very lush, with tall sedges and ferns.
While painting the forest floor near the spring, a trumpet call rang out. I jumped up from my work. Two tourists probably thought I was crazy, as I cupped my hands to my ears to listen. It had been over two weeks since I saw the cranes near the Delta River, but there was no mistaking the sound I was hearing. The sound grew, and to my delight, a large flock of sandhills passed overhead above the birch forest! That night, under a clear starry sky, I could hear the cranes trumpeting again. Both the cranes and I had decided the area surrounding the springs was a good place to take a rest from the migration.
The days began getting shorter and shorter, forcing me to make the most of daylight hours. On the autumnal equinox, I ended my day at Summit Lake, the highest point on the Alaska Highway. It was a steep and arduous climb to the top, and the beauty and solitude I found upon arriving brought tears to my eyes. As the daylight faded, I sketched the lake from an empty campground.
Passing Summit Lake, I began to feel like I was back in civilization again. Upon reaching Fort Nelson, I found the country divided by natural gas transects, pipelines, and cut forests. Traffic increased and I found myself more afraid of my fellow human than any bear.
Towards the end of the Alaska Highway, while passing through the town of Fort St. John, winter finally caught up with me. Snow fell and accumulated a few inches. While the forecast predicted more snow, I debated whether or not to continue on my intended route to Dawson Creek, mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. Lacking studded tires, I decided to take a bus to Calgary, Alberta.
It is here in Calgary, after several days rest and deliberation, that I have written this update. I have now changed my bicycle tires over to studded tires, as the winter weather in continuing in southern Alberta and Montana. Today I will begin the ride towards the US border, where I will make my way into Montana. I anticipate passing through towns more frequently from here on out and I hope to write more often.
This is only the first part of a long journey. Already, I have gathered so much inspiration as to give me subject matter for studio paintings for over a year. I feel so fortunate to be on this migration, and I am grateful to everyone who has supported me in doing so. Thank you.
For those of you who have scrolled over these rambling thoughts, here is the story in pictures: