High on a Hill Sat a Lonely Goat Herd

Not very distant to our lodging, we discovered a cluster of sightseeing options which managed to fully occupy our attention on Sunday.  Our first stop was the 700 acre Yukon Wildlife Preserve where a variety of Arctic animals are featured in generously sized enclosures dotted along a winding 5 kilometer trail.  We eschewed the fancy (and expensive) bus tour and elected instead to walk the length of the trail on foot.

The first enclosure we encountered held a herd of caribou which we learned are the same exact animal as a reindeer.  The two different names are due to geographical differences, like calling the same crustacean a prawn in one country and a shrimp in another.  After admiring the intricate and impressive antlers sported by the caribou (caribou being the only species of deer where both sexes are adorned with antlers), we decided to pass quickly by the surly and uninteresting bison and proceed directly to the musk oxen pen. There I snapped a picture of Mark in his myriad insulating layers, bundled up against the extreme cold (Mark is not in the least a fan of cold weather) with the photo being mostly evidentiary on the behest of our friend Erin who found it admirable that Mark was willing to subject himself to those conditions.  Our walk next carried us up the sweep of a large hill (the moose were frustratingly absent, deep within the recesses of their absolutely enormous pen) to one of the most popular areas – the Arctic fox and lynx enclosures.

Mark’s excellent abilities of observation were required to spot the Arctic fox for not only is it well camouflaged, but its skittish nature and propensity to move about quickly made it extremely difficult to locate.  And yes - it is incredibly adorable, the Arctic fox - a veritable live stuffed animal.  It held its audience in thrall as it cavorted over the snowy terrain.

The lynx we spotted was much less interested in hiding although it also wasn’t the least bit willing to approach the fence.  Lynx are notoriously shy and elusive creatures, so it was a real delight for me to be able to stand and observe one without being resigned to catching only a fleeting glance as it melted into the woods as had been the case when I was lucky enough to see one at Denali park in Alaska many years prior.  The lynx has an absolutely gorgeous coat that is prized by trappers for its luxuriant softness and distinctive markings.  I love its cute little pointy black tipped ears – don’t you?

After a good long visit, we moved along to the mountain goat enclosure which I'm sure it will not surprise you to hear we learned are not really goats but rather mountain antelope. Again it was Mark that was able to pick out the shapes of the goats high above us along the ridge line of a craggy hill that was incorporated into their enclosure.  Mark observed that as they moved along at that distance, they looked startlingly like the famous Yeti of Northern legend, albeit moving along on all fours. I found it impossible after hearing that interpretation to think of them any other way so uncanny was the resemblance.  We watched the goats (...I mean antelope...) pick their way down the steep hillside in order to approach the feeding area near the fence. As they got near enough to inspect closely, Mark and I agreed that if we were to pick to pick which of the animals we’d seen that day we would most like to be based on their fur coats, we would undoubtedly choose the mountain goat/antelope.  The long silky strands of their outer fur swayed and fluttered in the wind, revealing an undercoat of thick white wool - luxuriantly beautiful, even more so in our estimation than the much sought after Arctic fox or seal.

After lingering at these three fascinating tour stops, we began to progress quickly through the remainder of the park, merely scoffing as we passed a large pen of mule and whitetail deer, since those species are virtually ubiquitous in the Texas hill country.  It was a bit like coming upon a cage full of pigeons or house cats.

When we at least returned to the car happy but windblown and cold, we agreed it was more than time to high tail it over to a nearby coffee shop (and local roaster) called North Bean for a cup of joe.  After taking the first delicious and satisfying swig, I remarked to Mark that my espresso expressed perfectly the love I have of ranging from one end of a continuum to the other (in this case cold and frosty on one end and hot and soothing on the other) in almost immediate juxtaposition.  The boy that prepared our beverages couldn’t have been much more than sixteen, but had already acquired the admirable skill of a seasoned barista and turned out delicious brews for our enjoyment.

After we had sufficiently warmed and caffeinated ourselves, we crossed the road to visit Takhini Hot Springs.  As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, I was immediately drawn to two enormous towers of ice that stood nearby, discovering when I went to photograph them that they were used for training in the practice of ice climbing.  They were eerily beautiful glistening bluely against the vibrant cloud filled sky, although I didn’t find them all that compelling as a venue for entertainment (of the ice climbing variety, anyway).

The wind was cold and the steaming springs beckoned, so it wasn’t long before we had paid our admission, changed into our bathing suits, and slipped gratefully into the springs.  I had imagined it would be a bit daunting to make the short passage from dressing room to the refuge of hot water, and it in fact was since the process required standing in a wet bathing suit (you're required to shower before entering) in the brutal cold for the short time required to hang up your towel and slip off your flip flops.  Suffice it to say it was not my favorite part of the visit.

Once I eased down the stairs into the soothing waters however, the trauma of the cold air quickly receded.  Takhini Springs, unlike most natural geothermal springs, does not contain sulphur so the waters are pleasantly unscented.  The adjacent snow drifts and the nippy air didn’t seem to affect us at all as we lolled about in the deliciously warm waters.

As Mark and I sat chatting quietly, I overhead a nearby conversation that made mention of a news item I'd read earlier in the week – an elderly Japanese tourist had been found dead, floating face down in the springs just days earlier.  I resolved to search for the details of the story on the internet when I was able and when I read the description of the incident, it felt oddly and beautifully literary in its scope.  It turns out that a late arriving tour bus of Japanese visitors had made a stop at the springs to have a quick look around (it was after closing time) and failed to realize when leaving that their headcount was short by one.  Hours later when the oversight was discovered and a search party assembled, the missing 72 year old woman had been found drowned in the springs.  She had apparently wandered off from the group during their brief visit, and slipped into the waters unnoticed.  I wondered to myself what thoughts had been going through her head as she scrambled quietly over the fence and into the steaming springs and it felt to me like a scene out of a Murakami novel, poignant, peaceful and strange.

When we judged that we'd had our fill and decided to brave the cold dash back to the dressing room, I noticed that Mark’s hair was festooned with tiny beads of ice which led him to later point out a bulletin board next to the front door that held a variety of Polaroids taken in support of February’s frozen hair contest.  The pictures were hilarious – contestants sporting angular ropey hairdos coaxed into impossible shapes by their owners as they sat basking in the springs.  I so wanted to participate, figuring I’d be the only contestant with pink hair, but alas – it would have to wait for another visit and much colder air.

It was a short and drowsy drive back to our cabin where we were able to enjoy a lovely sunset before settling down to prepare dinner.  The forecasts had indicated that there would be another good chance to see the aurora this night, and I readied my camera equipment in anticipation. 

One of the things that is daunting - and that I actually find enchanting - is the ephemeral nature of the aurora, its refusal to be easy.  While the scientific prognosticators had proclaimed Sunday evening to be an excellent opportunity for viewing the lights, the weather had decided it would not cooperate so easily.  Large heavy clouds littered the horizon, allowing only a wisp of aurora to poke through  below the curtain of gloom.  Mark and I soon tired of waiting for the cloud cover to shift and Mark retired to the cabin for a nap.  I took the opportunity to dig through my bag of LED lights, and select some new items to experiment with.  By damn, if I couldn't enjoy one sort of colored lights, I'd create another.  I was quite pleased with some of the results.

I added a mylar emergency blanket and a length of aqua EL wire to my luminous cast of implements, and was able to use the otherwise irksome clouds to highlight the sodium vapor glow of the city of Whitehorse in the distance.  Every time I experiment with light painting, I learn something new and this night yielded much new wisdom.

Another long night with a bedtime of around 4:00 a.m., a sure sign I am intensely captivated.  Yahooo!

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