by Dave Hanks
The Alaskan Highway is paved all the way, but they are always digging up miles of it for repair. If you take a side road, you will drive on dirt and gravel. Rocks are always flying which crack windshields and break headlights. Many people combat this with huge screens that cover grills and cause rocks to ricochet over their cabs. At the end of the main highway at Tok, Alaska, most everyone stops to wash their vehicles at a gas station that provides this service free. After leaving Tok, if you jog a little to the south and then to the northwest, you’ll come to the Denali Highway. This is not what it sounds like. It is definitely not a paved highway. It’s more of a dirt –gravel trail. It’s a wilderness road! It is 135 miles long, with a scarcity of human presence that adds to the wildness.
The scenery makes the travel inconvenience worthwhile! A high mountain backdrop: the Alaska Range, the Chugach Mountains, the Wrangell Mountains, and 13.700 foot Mount Hayes add primitive beauty. There are small lakes everywhere, and the stunted, twisted Spruce; touch some inner primeval chord to leave a deep impression. The road is closed from October to May each year and few people travel it in summer because it’s poorly maintained.
It’s a wild place for wild things and we came in contact with three wild species that are only found in the North. The WILLOW PTARMIGAN (grouse that’s the Alaskan state Bird) is abundant. And RED-THROATED LOONS and OLDSQUAWS are present on the ponds. The Ptarmigan is the most familiar of the three. It’s noted for changing from its winter white to summer brown each year. The Oldsquaw is actually a northern sea duck. An interesting fact is that it has three annual plumage changes. It’s mostly white in winter, but with a dark front and white eye patch in summer. It has an extremely long, very thin, stiff set of tail feathers at all times. It can dive, when on the ocean, to 200 feet. The Red-Throated Loon has a red patch on its throat, therefore the name. I’ve always thought loon calls to be most haunting and both sexes of this species will call in unison.
This land of the one-eyed car has a mystic charm that seems to always call one back again.