Here and there in August

meadows high and low, a snacking porcupine, and odd bear scat

Early in the month, a female mallard arrived on my pond with her late brood of three good-sized young ones, still wearing lots of down. A week later, they were well-feathered except for a distinguishing fuzzy patch of down on the rumps of the ‘kids’. At the end of the month, the kids were no longer fuzzy at all, but they still hung out with mom.

A trip with friends up to Cropley Lake in mid-August was a muddy one. But the meadows were studded with the flowers of swamp gentian and asters. Fish were rising in the lake; Dolly Varden are recorded to be resident in the lake, although a few might wash out downstream at high water. On the far side of the lake, we looked for the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian and found them on a gentle slope. The relatively rare yellow fireweed crowded a small drainage gully, a habitat it seems to like.

Broad-petaled gentian. Photo by David Bergeson

The next day, I cruised around Amalga Meadows near the Eagle Valley Center. The parking area was crammed with cars, but all the people from those cars were either up on the horse tram trail or at the new cabin. So I had the meadow to myself. The grasses were so tall that walking was not easy, except where a bear(?) had stomped through. Nagoon berries were ripe, hidden down in the tall grass, but bog cranberries were still green. The seeds of cotton grass were dispersing in long streamers from the seed-heads. Sweetgrass was seeding well. In part of the meadow, I had to watch my feet closely, so as not to step on the many tiny toadlets that scuttled to safety as they dispersed from their natal ponds.

Porcupine’s lunch. Photo by David Bergeson

Not long after that, I perched on a hillside on the way to Hilda meadows at Eaglecrest. There I watched a tiny red mite, not even a millimeter long, wander up and down over the petals of a swamp gentian, exploring the depths of the flower. From the perspective of such a wee beastie, even those small flowers have depth! Eventually it settled briefly in the deepest part of the flower, perhaps finding something usable there (?).

A walk up the Salmon Creek road with friends found that the some of the many self-heal plants, seen in bloom on a previous walk, were setting seed. By the side of the road, we found several quite handsome, large beetles with reddish-brown carapaces (I think I used to know a name for them). On the way up, we all simultaneously spotted a porcupine trundling along the side of the road ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it. Moving away from us at first, it turned around and began snacking on some roadside greenery. We tried to slither by, but it scuttled into the brush, just a little way, where it sat watching us and shaking its wet fur. We went on, and it came right back to its green lunch. As we came back down the road later, it was still there and made a repeat performance. That must have been a particularly nice meal, not to be abandoned. Near the water tower, we spotted two deer, looking smooth and sleek; one of them stayed to watch us pass by, ears up like flags.

The next day, I went with a friend to the junction of Eagle and Herbert rivers, a spot that has been fun to visit in other years. This time, however, the sketchy little trail was greatly overgrown—only suitable for those less than three feet high at the shoulder, and sometimes it disappeared entirely. On a spruce tree ahead of us, the trunk looked like it had lots of dark spots the size of a fifty-cent piece (remember those?); close-up, those spots turned out to be places where busy woodpeckers had flaked off bits of the scaly bark. Out at the point, otters had romped in the sand. Two ravens spotted us immediately but were too shy to come in for the (obviously expected) offerings we tossed out onto a sandy ledge. On the way back, we found several bear scats full of blueberry remnants and three strange, yellowish deposits composed of short chunks of plant stem and a few devils club seeds. These had presumably been deposited with a lot of fluid, because they were spread thinly and flat on the ground. I’d sure like to know what plant had been eaten and what occasioned those deposits.

Trailside observations and mysteries

bear scats, baby porcupines, adventitious roots, and more

–One day in mid-August, I wandered along the Eagle River trail, just to where the old Yankee Basin trail branches off up the hill. In that little walk—only about a mile, I found twenty-four things of special interest; twenty-three of them were relatively recent bear scats. Of course, I had to check them all out. I learned that, despite the numerous chum salmon carcasses and body parts scattered along the riverbank and the live salmon still thrashing about in the river, the bears had been having a varied diet. Vegetation fibers were a common ingredient, along with some blueberry, devil’s club, and salmonberry. Several scats also contained high-bush cranberries, both seeds and whole, ripe fruits (they are ripening early again this year). Gut passage of whole fruits may not be surprising, given the short length of bear guts, but high-bush cranberries seem to pass through whole more often than other fruits—begging the question “Why?”

The twenty-fourth observation was a brownish lump beside the trail, one that moved slightly. When I stopped, the lump became a very young porcupine, busily chowing down on a small plant called enchanter’s nightshade. After watching for a while, I crept by and went on. When I returned, the little fellow was still there, still eating. This time, as I approached, it shuffled off about a foot or two, but came back immediately to the same patch and went on stuffing leaves into its mouth. There were other patches of this common understory plant nearby, only a few feet away, but something made this patch particularly desirable. Was there some other small plant in the mix in that special spot, one that added to the allure?

–A stroll with a friend along a beach yielded, among other things, a king crab shell, covered with the characteristic large, robust spines. We wondered about the function of those spikes and guessed that they probably helped defend king crabs from predators. But which predators might be deterred and how do successful predators evade or tolerate the spikes? Apparently, little study has addressed such questions.

–A little walk on one of the North Douglas trails discovered some red alder trees with many odd pinkish/orange sprouts coming out of the lower three feet of trunk. These short sprouts were quite stiff, with rounded tips. One trunk had dozens of them. What could they be? Some digging into the scientific literature via the internet and some consultation with another scientist led to the conjecture that these are adventitious root sprouts, but not the conventional type that grow out into soil just above the normal roots of some kinds of trees, in response to flooding. Adventitious root and shoot sprouts (including those that make short leafy shoots on red alder trunks) both grow from meristem tissues (localized growth centers where new cells are formed) that are part of the normal development of the tree trunk but they often stay dormant and don’t break forth from the bark. Red alders have thin bark, which might increase the sensitivity of these growth centers to environmental stimuli, such as light (for leafy shoots) or water (for roots. Similar spiky root sprouts are reported to develop on certain willows too.

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Photo by S. P. Stanway

A return visit to these same alder trees about two weeks later showed us that most of the pinkish shoots had disappeared. The few remaining ones looked shriveled, woody, and dark. None of them had grown larger than the original two or three inches, so none of them ever became rooted in the ground.

Many questions await answers! Could these odd root sprouts be aerial roots? When sodden soils reduce the amount of oxygen that can reach buried roots, these short shoots might help supply the real roots with oxygen, which is needed for cell respiration and metabolism; they may also help eliminate carbon dioxide, which is one by-product of cell respiration. Why did only a few red alders trees make them, while neighboring alders did not? Are these particular trees growing in a site that has too little oxygen available in the soil (for instance, from saturation with water)? Although the site was damp, it did not seem damper than adjacent places in which neighoboring alders grew without the adventitious roots. Do those particular trees have roots that are damaged in some way, so they have unusual requirements that can be filled by the strange shoots? Or are these particular trees just genetically disposed to be sensitive to certain environmental stimuli such as rain-water streaming down the trunk that might have stimulated the adventitious root sprouts, perhaps on particular, very sensitive, individual trees.

–Parks and Rec hikers went up to Cropley Lake one nice day. From the treetops around the open meadows came the clear songs of olive-sided flycatchers: Quick, three beers! Quick, three beers! I often hear them here in the spring, but why would they be singing in late summer when they are about to head south on migration?

–On one of the hottest days of the year, when temperatures reached eighty degrees or more, Parks and Rec headed up the Granite Basin trail. Along the trail we found a couple of small stands of the yellow-flowered fireweed, not a common wildflower around here and therefore an unusual pleasure.

A bigger treat was the discovery that a State Parks crew had completed renovations of one section of the trail, making the way smoother and safer. And there were signs that more work is intended—bags of gravel for the muddy areas and stacked boards to replace the worn-out ones. Because this is a favorite trail for many of us, we cheered the State Parks crews.

Thanks to Robin Mulvey (Forestry Sciences Lab) and Ginny Eckert (UAF) for helpful consultation.

Hiking to Granite Basin

hot goats, salmonberry abundance, yellow fireweed, and fuzzy ducklings

There are two principal ways to get to Granite Basin, and on a wonderfully warm and sunny day in early August, the Parks and Rec hikers used both of them. Nine strong hikers aimed for Mt Juneau and the Juneau Ridge; they spent ten hours on the loop from the top of the mountain, along the ridge, and down through Granite Basin. They reported seeing goats and lots of flowers, especially noting a spectacular spread of pink-flowered fireweed in the upper basin. Beyond the Chilkats, the mighty, snow-clad peaks of the St Elias range were visible in the far distance, an unusual treat on an unusually clear day.

The rest of the hikers, slightly more numerous, chose a more leisurely hike, going up the Granite Creek trail to the basin. That old avalanche that had rested over the trail for several years was finally gone completely, no doubt as a result of our warm weather punctuated by periods of heavy rains. We noted that the trail had been roughly brushed, getting the nettles out of reach of any bare legs and making it possible for hikers to see where they put their feet. Some tread repair had been done on the lower section of the trail, but serious mudholes are getting ever larger as hikers try to walk around them. There are still many rotten or missing boards on the boardwalk and some places on a side-hill stretch that are eroded so badly that a miss-step would have unpleasant consequences. There is still time this summer for some fixing on this route…

‘Twas a great day for a hike, especially if one carried lots of water. We were a bit surprised to see two mountain goats on the side of Juneau Ridge, in the hot sun; we had expected them to be on the shadier side of the ridge. Few marmots were evident; they were presumably sensibly sleeping in their cool burrows, but I found several other items of interest along the way.

The salmon berries were ripe, and both human and ursine pickers had been busy. In the middle of the trail was the most beautiful bear scat I’ve ever encountered (and I have inspected thousands of them, to the amusement of my friends). It was a very shapely heap so full of digested red salmonberries that it positively glowed in the sunlight, the red set off by smudges of blueberry and yellow salmonberry, and dotted with numerous pale yellow salmonberry seeds. Very artistic!

Another find—spotted by a friend—was a clump of the yellow-flowered fireweed. This seems to be uncommon around here; we know of a large stand on the seeping slope behind Cropley Lake, but we seldom see it elsewhere.

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Yellow-flowered fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

The pool at the entrance to the basin itself often offers us a look at an American dipper or a spotted sandpiper, but this time we watched two fuzzy young ducklings, probably Barrow’s goldeneyes. They loafed on a rock in the sun, then went diving in the pool, and finally disappeared as they ran (yes, ran) up the riffle at the head of the pool. Still too young to fly, they must have been born near here. Females of this species typically nest in cavities, often in trees but sometimes in rock crevices, and there is even a report of a nest in a marmot burrow. Parental care in goldeneyes may be short and skimpy after the eggs hatch, and the ducklings are often left to fend largely for themselves.

At lunchtime, someone brought up the fact that there is a small city named Juneau in Wisconsin. I was born and raised not far from there, so I decided to track down a little history. The Wisconsin city was named for a relative of Joe Juneau of local fame. Reported to be Joe’s cousin, Solomon Juneau was a French-Canadian fur trader, who settled in the Milwaukee area, helping found the new city and its newspaper, and briefly serving as mayor, among other things. Eventually he and his family moved about fifty miles to the northwest, founding a village near a large post-glacial marsh, and one of his sons founded the town of Juneau, not far away. Juneau County in Wisconsin is named for Solomon Juneau too. As it happens, my husband and I once owned a house in the rolling hills there. So, in a sense, I moved from Juneau to Juneau.