Exploring the shores

of Lincoln Island

Our tents were securely tucked into the forest above a broad beach, a kitchen rainfly was stretched in a sheltered spot in case of storm, and we were free to start exploring. Parts of the forest on Lincoln have had lots of wind-throw, making huge tangles, and most of our wanderings were focused on beaches and the beach fringe.

Off we went in our kayaks, accompanied by jumping salmon and numerous tiny fish (?herring) flipping up into the air. We chose to paddle up the west side of the island, hoping to stop at beaches for mini-explorations. For me, this turned out to be difficult, because the so-called beaches were made of big cobbles, on which I have trouble walking, much less toting a kayak up to a safe parking place. But with some help, it proved manageable, if somewhat humiliating.

Explorations were rewarding in several way, however. Most impressive were the rocky cliffs that bordered most of the beaches. How I wished I knew some geology! Even to my ignorant eyes, the exposed rocks were greatly varied, changing as we rounded the curving shores. How much ancient history is tied up in those old layers, fractures, twists, and tilts! One boulder at the base of a cliff bore markings like those of a petroglyph; does Mother Nature make those too?

Many of the cliffs were damp, with tiny cascades and dribbles of rainwater. They held small but lovely gardens of columbine, harebells, butterworts, and mosses. I usually see butterworts in bogs, or on gravelly soils (such as on Gold Ridge, and also near the glacier), and other nutrient-poor sites where their insectivorous habit is so useful; this was my first cliff-hanging stand of the species.

Oysterplants sprawled over the sand on the uppermost beaches. We noted that the flowers were often white, in addition to the more usual blue. Bees seemed to like them both. We found cottonwood branches, with new leaves, that showed clear signs of beaver chewing and wondered where they originated. A river otter den on a small headland was served by at least six entrances, and a family of otters swam by, including at least three young ones.

Just coming into bloom at the tops of the beaches was the robust plant called beach groundsel or seaside ragwort; its huge leaves set off the cluster of yellow flowers at the top. I was fascinated by the structures around each flower. Small leaves arc over the cluster of buds. Each flower bud is circled by thin arches, each of which supports a gauzy curtain of material that drapes over the bud; the whole array closely surrounds the developing bud. Protection of some sort, I imagine, perhaps from desiccation. But some insect is able to penetrate the shielding structures and destroy the buds, leaving only blackened remains. I would love to understand more about the functioning of all those floral parts.

We did a little tide-pooling on a small minus tide, finding lots of familiar things and three new (to us) kinds of anemones (two brown ones with unusual tentacles and one brilliant orange one with lots of babies all around it). The most notable aspect of this intertidal habitat, for me, was the abundance of hermit crabs that carried shells much too small for the size of the crab. Most of these crabs, no matter how large, bore tiny periwinkle shells that covered only the tip of the crabs’ abdomens, leaving most of the body exposed. Only two of the many hermits owned whelk shells big enough for the owner to withdraw entirely into the shell’s protection. It seems that the supply of suitable shells here is very limited. Could the crabs go elsewhere in search of good housing? Does the lack of protection mean that these crabs have higher mortality than crabs with lots of available shells? Why are empty snail shells so few here? Lots of questions, as always, but they are sometimes as much fun as answers.

Benjamin and North Islands, part 2 of 2

profitable prowlings

One of the special treats of our little excursion to Benjamin and North islands was finding ourselves comfortable in shirtsleeves—no jacket needed, even when crawling out of our tents at six in the morning. How often is it that warm in Juneau!?

In addition to enjoying the marine wildlife, we wandered around on both islands, just exploring. We saw one young deer, with a beautiful summer coat of red, and lots of deer sign. Deer had cropped the leaves of false lily of the valley, occasional stems of twisted stalk, and most of the leaves from sapling crabapple trees. A little stand of skunk cabbage had been reduced to ragged nubbins. Fresh water seems to be in short supply, particularly on North Island, so we wondered how deer would get enough water.

We also found skeletal evidence of four long-dead deer, some apparently quite young, leading us to speculate about hard winters in these sites. Two lower jaw bones caused us to query ADFG when we returned. One of the mandibles we found had four cheek (grinding) teeth in place plus a fifth one just erupting at the back of the jaw. A mature deer lower jaw holds six cheek teeth (three premolars and three molars), and the full set is in place at an age of about two and a half years. The jaw with the just-erupting fifth cheek tooth had belonged to a young deer, perhaps nine to twelve months old, according to ADFG.

The ground, in some places, was riddled with small holes, just the right size for a red squirrel, but we saw no evidence of current squirrel activity: No busy little fussbudgets chattering at us, no middens of stripped spruce cones, and many of the holes had spider webs across the opening. This year, there are huge numbers of spruce cones still on the trees, so food supply for squirrels should be quite decent. We wondered, then, if there had been squirrels here in the past, but perhaps a year or two of poor cone crops had wiped them out.

Among the rocks on the uplifted beach meadows we startled several good-sized voles, which scooted quickly into handy crevices. How did they get to these islands? They can certainly swim well, but it’s a long distance, for a vole, from the mainland to the islands.

As we stood quietly in a beach meadow with a dense population of lupines, we heard tiny tapping sounds and soon discovered the source: Mature lupine pods were explosively twisting open in the hot sun and the dispersing seeds clattered softly down through the surrounding vegetation. At the upper beach fringe, a stand of cow parsnip presented heads of closely packed clusters of maturing seeds. We were fascinated to observe that each little cluster of seeds resembled a rose, carved in wood. So the whole head was, so to speak, a bouquet of wooden roses. Beautiful!

Some very sturdy, squat plants lined the top of one beach, and bore yellow daisy-like blooms. These beach grounsels, with large, spreading leaves, are very specific to this particular habitat type. Each yellow ‘flower’ is really an inflorescence composed of a ring of showy flowers around a disc of many, small, not-showy flowers, altogether forming the daisy-like composite inflorescence. We noticed that ants were visiting the central flowers, presumably sipping nectar. What an odd place to find ants, which don’t seem to be common in Southeast.

On the forest floor were numerous evidences of predation: Three piles of crow feathers (and feet), plus a regurgitated pellet with an intact crow foot. Four piles of gull feathers. Scattered plates of chitons. Sea urchin tests (a.k.a. shells). Some clam shells and small crab legs. Eagles and otters, and perhaps others, had found their dinners.

Other sightings:

  • A row of extremely contorted spruces on a raised terrace well inside the present forest edge. What could be their history?
  • A dogwood bush, normally shrub-sized, but in this instance sending a long branch or two far up along a spruce trunk, almost like a vine. Apparently its only chance to reach the light was to straggle upward, because the dense thicket of young spruce at the forest edge effectively blocked light from shrub-level.
  • An orchid with vanishingly small flowers (with the regrettable name of adder’s mouth), presumably pollinated by insects as tiny as no-see-ums. Could those miserable pests actually have a use?
  • Several specimens of slime mold, growing on fallen logs. One kind was white and spongy, the other was yellow and fuzzy-looking. Spending most of their lives as separate cells in the forest floor, upon some unknown signal the cells come together to form the visible mold, and reproduce.
  • A family of Pacific/winter wrens in a heap of wind-thrown trees, the young ones curious, the parents wary.

From our perspective, our prowlings were profitable. These little explorations are like treasure hunts in which the treasure is unknown ahead of time but recognizable when one sees it.