Day 31 The Liard Highway

The Liard Trail = 237 miles of gravel road

“The Liard Trail is an all-weather gravel road (392km/ 236miles) maintained by the Government of the North West Territories. Services are limited: carry extra fuel and supplies, make sure tires and equipment are in good condition.”


During the last section of the Alaska Highway, before the turn off to the Liard, I finally saw a small herd of caribou.  I don’t know what makes them so special to me except maybe some of the encounters I’ve had with them in Alaska.  On one trip Phil and I took to the Wrangle mountains we were lucky enough to share some time and space with a few small herds.  We were there to attempt a first route on Mount Drum and the trip began with a unique plane drop off.  We had hired a bush plane to bring us to the base of the mountain where we’d begin our multi day hike to the beginning of the climbing route.  The drop off point was about 100 miles in the middle of no where and the pilot wasn’t exactly sure which gravel bar he’d use for landing.   He explained to us further that, between the weight of Phil and me and all of our climbing equipment he’d have to make multiple trips, taking one of us at a time. a  I decided to be the lucky first.  I repacked our camping equipment into my backpack and left the climbing gear with Phil.  This way if the pilot couldn’t make it back that day I’d have everything needed for an overnight stay and since weather was questionable it was a real possibility.  It didn’t seem odd to me as I loaded my pack and myself into the small bush plane nor during the 45 minute flight over vast wilderness toward a destination in remote Alaska.  I did start to question the decision as I stood watching the plane turn into a small toy in the sky, then a tiny dot and finally disappearing with a wink.  Sitting down on my backpack holding a large can of bear spray in one hand and a tiny bear bell in the other I suddenly feeling very alone and very vulnerable.  This was back in the day before cell phones so there was no way to know if Phil would be meeting me there that day until I saw that plane 2 hours later in the distance heading my way.   Needless to say, it all worked out because here I am, 25 years later, writing about it.

What does this have to do with Caribou?   It was during that same trip we had numerous caribou following us along the rivers.  Since we were very in a remote and protected area the caribou had no reason to be weary of people.  As far as these animals were concerned we weren’t a threat and blended into their environment.  One young bull in particular seemed enamored with Phil and without fear followed him for miles.  I think the ski poles sticking out of his backpack looked like a grand set of antlers and the caribou was convinced that Phil was a mating prospect.  Phil was constantly shooing him away.  Others simply migrated around us, clomping along in the goofy cartoonish way Caribou move.  They have a gentle way about them although if push came to shove they could be as dangerous as any cloven ungulate.

Perhaps it’s the early imprinting of Santa’s reindeer that draws me to them as well.

Unlike the caribou around Mount Drum,  the caribou here are extremely timid.  Even in the car it was impossible to get close enough to photograph them.  of course, with Eureka trumpeting her presence there was no sneaking up on them anyway.

They are prehistoric looking creatures, seemingly clumsy in their movement with feet look that look too big for their bodies.

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As far as road travel, caribou are easy.  They quickly leave the road and disappear out of sight, into their background.  Buffalo, however, move onto the road and stand there.  This gave the poodles time to build up into a frenzy of whines and barks.  What you don’t hear are the portions of the video where I’m loosing my mind and yelling at them to shut up.

bison-1 (dragged)

IMG_3915  IMG_3905

I thought Nickel was going to jump out the car window when she saw this small herd.  They were totally unconcerned about the Eureka’s and Nickel’s racket.  Standing  just a few feet away, they simply  glared back at the truck, daring us to pass.  There’s nothing to do but sit and endure the tin tabulations since I couldn’t move forward until the bison got off the road.  You can see that they are powerful animals just by their ease under the circumstance.  I can’t imagine what would happen if the dogs encountered one of these animals in person.

It was our first night on the Liard Trail and in Bison territory. I was more worried about encounters with bison than bears. The poodles seemed to have a respectful concern about the bears while their interest in the bison is pure prey drive. I found a pull out for the night and the were forced to remain inside the camper for the evening.

I found a quick pullout for the night.  It was a gravel patch large enough for the camper next to a meadow.  I cautiously released the poodles for their evening potty (before their night’s confinement) and I could tell that there was Bison musk all over the place.  I envisioned a beast charging out of the surrounding woods.


bison foot print


It was a quiet nondescript night but to my surprise we awoke to snow!

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I hadn’t even thought about the ramifications of heavy snow on the slide out and what damage the weight might do. There was at least 4 inches that I needed to clean off. The snow removal was a sloppy wet job but it certainly made for a gorgeous drive.

A reminder of the frigid winters and unstable ground for building.  There are very few bridges here and most river crossings in the summer are done by ferry and in winter over the frozen water.


Winter crossing of the Liard River


We seemed to leave the snow behind as we crossed the Liard River into the NWTs. Once again the weather here seems to be an enigma.




A Little About Wood Bison


The wood bison is considered by most a subspecies of the American plains bison, but some argue that they are a distinctly separate subspecies.  The two bison are somewhat different in appearance.  The wood bison is larger and has a slightly different body type then that of the plains .


The herd of wood bison I saw along the Alaska Highway was from the Norquist herd.  Here is a little history about them:

  • In the early 1800’s over 168,000 wood bison inhabited the forests of North West North America.
  • In the early 1900’s wood bison populations declined sharply due to over hunting.
  • In 1906 The last wood bison was shot in Northern British Columbia.
  • In 1959 an isolated northern population of about 200 relatively pure Wood Bison was confirmed.                                    (all other wood bison at that time were hybridized with American buffalo)
  • In 1985 wood bison were (and still are) classed as “Threatened” under the Species At Risk Act.
  • In 1995 49 wood bison were reintroduced to Nodquist area in British Columbia.
  • In 2007 the Nordquist herd population numbered about 100 animals.
  • In 2010 the roadside count was 108 animals.
  • Today it’s believed that the Nordquist group consists of three herds with a total population of approximately 200 animals.  There are several other groups which are reaching a target population of about 500.

The Nordquist herd territory can be seen in the map below:


The yellow line is the Liard Highway which branches off the Alaskan Highway at Fort Nelson.


I was happy to see these beasties along the Alaska and Liard Highways….

IMG_3760-1 (dragged)


IMG_3751Nickel and Eureka were even happier….