Fall into winter

mallards at home, late-season hummingbirds, bears, otters, swans, caddisflies… oh my!

If autumn comes, can winter be far behind? There was ice on my home pond for the first time this year on 10 November. The mallards that gather there all summer had deserted the place for better forage elsewhere. One lone male peered up over a log in the stream but apparently didn’t want to break the ice—he went back downstream.

That male is in full-dress plumage now: glossy green head, tidy white neck ring, rusty chest, clean white and gray flanks. But in mid-October, males were in all stages of molting into their handsome breeding dress; some still looked rather like motley brown females while others had nearly completed the molt. Even some of the patchwork-plumaged males were regularly associated with females–pairs that stayed together as the other ducks shifted around on the pond. That suggests to me that handsome male dress is not just about getting girl-friends.

Mid-October also saw the last strawberry flowers blooming (in vain) by some beaches. Anna’s hummingbirds visited the pansies still flowering in pot on my deck, and other folks had Anna’s at their feeders. I’ve heard that they sometimes stay here all winter, but I don’t see them then at my house. I think that the more common rufous hummers probably have departed for their wintering grounds. A special treat, in fall and winter, is the occasional magical song of dippers as they forage in streams, tuning up for spring.

In late October, near the dam at Moose Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec Area, a single Canada goose was hiding under a clump of bent alders. It was so still, at first I thought it was an escaped decoy. But, no—it slowly raised and lowered its head. It stayed put as my naturalist friend and I walked by. I reckoned it was sick or wounded or just plain scared. In any case, it was gone the next day.

We were pleased to see a chubby little bear running across the road near Moose Lake. The coho run in the Dredge Creek area and in Steep Creek by the visitor center seemed small this year; some spawners made it all the way up the usual distance, but I thought it unlikely that there were enough to feed the usual lot of hungry bears, which indeed seemed scarcer than usual. So chubby was good—perhaps a function of the incredibly plentiful berry crop this year. Even in November, berries still hang on the bushes; there weren’t enough bears and birds and humans to harvest them all.

In early November, I chanced upon some friends at the main viewing platform on lower Steep Creek. They were watching two otters slide in and out of a pond tucked back in the trees. Presently, the otters went up over a small ridge and disappeared toward the visitor center. But when I subsequently went up the ramp toward the pavilion, I spotted them down in the nearby pool. The larger of the two (mama?) splashed briefly at the pool’s edge and came up with a nice coho; she dragged it up the bank, followed by the smaller one (?offspring). Otters may well be better at finding those fish than I am.

A few days later, on a tip from a friend, I found a group of swans on Moose Lake: six adults and three large juveniles, just resting there. They were wary as I walked by, but stayed in the cove where I found them. I later saw four adults separated a short distance from two adults with the juveniles, which probably comprised a family. I was told that the whole group got alarmed by dogs the next day and took off for other parts.

swan-family-on-Moose-Lake-Jos
Photo by Jos Bakker

On a nice day in early November, I walked with a friend in the Eagle Beach rec area. We make it a regular habit to pick up trash from beaches and trail-sides as we walk; on this day we filled two grocery bags and gathered up a long length of tangled rope that was eroding out of a riverside sand bank. But that junk was not the main purpose of this walk, of course; we were just looking to see what we could see, as usual, and it turned out to be quite a good day.

Cottonwood trees had lost their leaves by then. This is an area where we sometimes find unusually big leaves; some specimens measured ten and twelve inches long. I would like to know why some cottonwoods make such enormous leaves. In some other species, juvenile trees make larger leaves than adult trees, but these are not juvenile cottonwoods. An interesting feature of a few leaves was the color of the petiole—bright scarlet, quite a contrast from the usual yellowish-brown. Another puzzle.

Just above a little wooden bridge, we noticed lots of small ‘sticks’ slowly moving across a muddy streambed. No, not sticks, but caddisfly larvae, all wrapped in their protective cases built of tiny bits of plant debris. We could keep track of individual larvae by the variegated colors of the little bits; for instance, this one had a yellow spot on its right flank, but that one had a white mark near its head, and that one was all dark.

northern-case-maker-caddisfly-crawling-under-ice-by-Bob-Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Out on the intertidal sand flats, a sizable gang of crows fossicked around something lying on the wet sand. Of course, this required investigation, so we splotched our damp way out to see. The last few crows left as we approached, and the thing was then seen to be an old, barnacle-encrusted log. I suspect that all those crows were snacking on small barnacles, accounting for the bare patches on that log.

To finish off a good walk, we met a very small porcupine on the trail. It was not afraid of us and just wandered about, apparently not finding anything edible. Down along Eagle River, a mother bear left very clear, recent tracks, while her cub trotted along on the sand bank above. An otter had travelled over the sand bars in the river bed, probably hoping for fish too.

Horse Tram Trail

new developments along an old trail

In the early 1900s, exploring gold miners discovered good prospects near Eagle Glacier, ultimately establishing the Eagle River Mine and the settlement of Amalga. To service the settlement and the mine, a horse tram ran between there and a salt-water cove with a good landing beach for boats. The horse tram route went from the landing beach, over into the west side of the big meadow near the Eagle Valley Center, northward over the low pass toward Herbert River, over that river and up the flood plain, eventually crossing Eagle River and reaching Amalga. The mine and settlement lasted less than three decades but left a residue of scrap metal and other junk behind. The steel rails of the horse tram are still to be seen, in places, and the dike that raised the rails above the wet meadow is still there (now sporting a row of small trees).

CBJ decided to make a trail connection between the Eagle River Landing beach and the Boy Scout Camp/Crow Point trail that goes along the lower Herbert River. This connecting route avoids the big meadow, which is home to interesting wildlife and plants. Instead, it goes from the landing beach on an existing informal trail up a hill and through a small muskeg, rejoining (approximately) the old horse tram route on the north side of the low pass. Total length is about a mile and three-tenths.

Most of the new route is presently a morass of mud roiled up by hikers’ feet, but this year Trail Mix has begun some serious trail improvement. Just after the first bridge on the Boy Scout Camp trail, a wide, packed-gravel trail starts up the hill. It soon parallels part of the old horse tram route for several hundred yards; the tram route itself has become an eroded drainage ditch that channels water down the hill. Broken branches, rocks, and other debris line the new trail, waiting to be covered by mosses and lichens. Not far from the end of this year’s work, there is a junction, where the old tram route goes over the low pass to the big meadow and the new route heads up the hill.

Coming up the other side of the hill, from the landing beach, the trail crosses a small creek and turns up a route that was partly graveled some time ago. As it approaches the top of the hill, however, cribs made of logs await loads of gravel to fill the mud-holes that the cribs now guard. The first layer will be gravel from the beach; that will be topped by the same kind of gravel that surfaces the rest of the trail. I’m told that it takes a Corps of Engineers permit to put gravel down on a trail—does all of Juneau qualify as a ‘wetland’?

CBJ hopes to connect the two ends of this trail next year (2020). In the meantime, a new spur trail has been cut and graveled to a new clear-cut above a rocky beach not far from the landing beach. CBJ intends to build a cabin there: supported on concrete posts, the cabin will be built from an Icy Straits kit, delivered to this beach by landing craft. It will resemble the cabins at Eagle Beach State park but have a larger deck; the view will be very pleasing. The cut timber will be used to build an outhouse. CBJ hopes to have the cabin available for rental (from Parks &Rec) by next summer.

Two other CBJ trail projects have been funded and are planned for next year. The Amalga Meadows Trail (a short six-tenths of a mile) from the Eagle Valley Center to the Eagle River Landing beach will get a new bridge over the slough, probably next year. The Brotherhood Bridge (Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei) will get a new section that reroutes the beginning of the trail at some distance from the Mendenhall River, avoiding the rapidly eroding bank. The new trailhead is at the north end of the parking lot; the new section goes right across the meadow and joins the existing trail where the forest begins. It should be paved next spring. The entire trail will be repaved and the eroding bridge over Montana Creek replaced, possibly beginning in 2021.

Other projects on the CBJ list still require funding, so (I’m guessing) perhaps by the time full funding becomes available, still other projects will be on the list. But for now, work is planned for the Switzer Creek trail system, the Lena Point trail, and the Rain Forest Trail on North Douglas.

Thanks to George Schaaf, Director of CBJ Parks and Rec for information on planned work.

Roots and places

reaching back to the Midwest

When I moved to Juneau three decades ago, I quickly began to put down roots, which have grown stronger over the years. But I still have one good root that goes back to part of southern Wisconsin where I grew up, and every year I make a short trip back to visit, usually in fall. These are ‘my’ places! Every special place has a song it sings to those who care to listen. A respected Wisconsin naturalist called it a Song of Place.

If I use my imagination, I could say that there were signs that my move to Juneau was fore-ordained. My home town lies at the very edge of the driftless area, left uncovered by Pleistocene glaciers. So there are moraines, outwash areas, and erratic boulders in many places. The river that runs through my hometown lies in a valley that was once occupied by a branch of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The ice dam that made the glacial lake collapsed suddenly, producing an outburst flood that changed the landscape.

Another imaginary sign might be seen in the location of my summer house in the hills not far away (an escape from the corn and soybean desert of central Illinois, where my job was). The house was in Juneau County, named for Solomon Juneau (French-Canadian fur trader, business man, politician, co-founder of Milwaukee), an older cousin of Joe Juneau, for whom our city is named. Glaciers and Juneau were apparently to be part of my life.

This year I made my annual junket in late October. I was in time for good fall colors in the deciduous forest that covers many of the hills. The maples were a little past the peak of their colors, but still made outstanding splashes of scarlet. Big-tooth aspens added their crowns of golden leaves. Bright red leaves of sumac adorned the roadsides and there were even a few goldenrods still flowering. All of that lay against a backdrop of oak foliage in subtle and varied shades of bronze and russet, with occasional touches of crimson. Hard to beat!

There are lots of trails meandering about in that area and, of course, I had to sample them this year. I was surprised to see butterflies on the wing—a couple of orange and black monarchs and a smaller lemon-yellow one. (I wonder what happened to them when two inches of snow fell one night). A big dragonfly zoomed by overhead and a smaller, bright red one landed on a sign post. A couple of small garter snakes had come out to sun themselves at the trailside, but hastily slithered off as I came by. Another little garter snake had, sadly, not been hasty enough and had been killed by a passing bike. Even sadder was the carcass of a very cute, tiny red-bellied snake, not much bigger than an ordinary pencil, that had suffered a similar fate. I had to rummage hard through the rusty, dusty mental files to come up with its scientific name.

A witch-hazel bush was flowering. Late October seems like a strange time to flower, but that is normal for this species. Each flower has four slender, crinkled, yellow petals, so each little cluster of flowers looks like it’s sporting a medusa-like hairdo. The flowers produce nectar and a faint fragrance; they are pollinated by insects—probably late-flying moths and possibly some flies and bees (the reports vary). After pollination, the seeds (two in each capsule) don’t develop until the next summer. Then at maturity, the seed capsules open explosively, forcibly ejecting and dispersing the seeds—to distances as much as thirty feet away. By the way, this plant has nothing to do with witches, good or bad; the name probably comes from an old English word meaning ‘bendable’.

sandhill cranes in corn Steve.jpg
Photo by Steve Willson

It’s always fun to go looking for sandhill cranes, which migrate through there in the fall. They were there, sometimes in groups of four or five but more often in dozens. They hang out in the harvested fields, especially in the corn stubble, avoiding the barren soybean fields. Another treat is a visit to the local apple orchard, to sample this year’s offerings and enjoy their perfect caramel apples and some cider donuts.

The river running through my hometown was once a hard-working river with numerous mill dams restraining its flow. As the mills became obsolete and un-used, they were gradually removed, and by the early 2000s, all were gone. The river was free-flowing once again! Fish populations responded; now even sturgeon and paddlefish can come up the river, seasonally, to spawn.

I like being there and I like being here, but I do not like the tedious and uncomfortable travel in between. On this trip I whiled away some of the time by reading a book by an anthropologist who lived with the pygmies of the Ituri forest in the 1950s. He recounted a pygmy story about ‘The Bird with the Most Beautiful Song’ that I think is a parable for our time: a little boy heard such a beautiful song in the forest that he searched and searched until he found the singing bird. He caught the bird and took it to his father to be fed (and released). This happened again, but now the father was getting annoyed. The third time, the now-angry father took the bird and killed it. With the bird he also killed the Song. With the killing of the Song, he too was killed, and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead forever. (The pygmies considered that there are three levels of deadness).

There is, I think, a lesson for modern times in that story, a lesson that we do not learn well at all!