What kind of tourists are we? Well, while all the other visitors to Dawson City were walking the boardwalks and visiting the historic buildings and shops, music halls and gambling parlors, we were happily bumping along on the gravel road with the worst (though undeserved) reputation in the Northwest, looking at birds. Here's how this happened: Arctic ground squirrel

Dawson City is charming. During the Klondike Gold Rush it was a major center for commerce and transportation of all kinds, reaching a population of several thousand, and even when the balloon burst and other cities became ghost towns Dawson City hung on, supplying grub and gear and machinery to anybody who could pay. Now the major industry is tourism, with Parks Canada pitching in to restore dozens of older buildings.

The Parks Canada folks were due to arrive in Dawson next week and open up, too bad! Also, the boat to Eagle was supposed to be running, but it needed some important parts, and so would be waiting in Eagle until next week, too bad! What was open in town was the museum and the Jack London and Robert Service houses, where one could learn about these authors' literary achievements, but only by listening to actors recite, too bad! We were thinking of driving past the Arctic Circle to Inuvik, but the ice was blocking the Peel River at Fort McPherson, so the ferry was not running, too bad!

We saw the videos at the Dawson Visitor Center, and learned about the Willow ptarmigan gold rush, the big dredges, the growth of the city, and the steamboats down the Yukon from Whitehorse, which don't run any more. In fact, it was possible to get to Dawson by steamer all the way up the Yukon, but the trip took a year and a half, so that route was used mostly for heavy equipment, as the stampeders couldn't wait.

Then we crossed the street to the Northwest Territories' Visitor Center, where we talked to a very friendly and knowledgeable guide about the Dempster Highway. Even though we couldn't go all the way, she suggested we drive part way, just to experience the country. We reported some of our fears -- the guides say to make thorough preparations, carry two spare tires, no services, etc. But the guide said we'd find the drive worthwhile, so we put our fears aside and set out.

We reasoned that as soon as the road got too bad we could turn around and head back. We also reasoned that even if the road was bad, we could drive slowly and avoid flat tires. Not only were we right on both counts, but the portion of the Dempster Highway we drove was in wonderful shape, beautifully graded, with few potholes, wide and dry. We ended up driving six hours -- three hours out and three hours back -- with stops for birdwatching.

The first hour and a half was spent climbing into the Ogilvie Mountains, which grew more and more beautiful as we continued. This chain separates the Yukon and Mackenzie drainage systems, and also the boreal and subarctic climatic zones. Once over the mountains, we were in tundra, filled with rivers and lakes, soon to be filled with insects and birds. This was the same topography An eagle's dinner? as around Barrow, but thirty degrees warmer and free of snow.

On the uphill slope we drove through light forest, seeing the first green leaves at the tops of deciduous trees on neighboring hills; we spooked a couple of rabbits. We reached tree-line where snow still clung to patches along the roads. At the summit, an arctic ground squirrel sat by a boulder, busily munching seeds, not minding our camera.

Descending, we found the tundra, squishy hillocks of lichen and small shrubs. We spotted, in all, eight Willow Ptarmigan, about the size of a chicken, but with white feathered legs, white and black bodies and bright red heads.

We parked by a roadside pond and alternated between the binoculars and Sibley, our bird book, while we identified ring-necked ducks and green winged teals and a pair of whimbrels, which are relatives of curlews, with long pointy curved beaks. As we watched, we saw a shadow and caught sight of a juvenile golden eagle who soared above us for several minutes.

Now we really had the spirit, so we crept along, pausing at each Spring melt likely-looking pond. In a small lake we found more ring necked ducks, but also two long-tailed ducks (our book says "formerly called Oldsquaw"; the guide in town says "still called Oldsquaw") and two northern pintail ducks. All of these birds migrate, so we were catching some of the first birds of 2001.

There were more interesting sights on the way back: four caribou grazing in the tundra, an animal skin (probably a snowshoe hare), and a huge upwelling of water in the Blackstone river where a block of ice had becoming wedged in the spring thaw. Another interesting feature was the electric plug with wires running into each culvert. We reasoned that a maintenance truck would come through pulling a diesel generator, send a jolt of electricity through to melt the ice and keep the culvert draining.

It really was too bad the ferry wasn't running; otherwise we might have decided to fill the truck with gas and make the four-day round trip to Inuvik. But we'll have to leave something for another visit.