Gambling on Berners Bay

playing the annual wildlife lottery

Going to Berners Bay in spring is always a bit of a lottery—you never know what you might see there. Maybe nothing much, except some scenery. But if you hit it just right, things can get pretty interesting.

When the eulachon (a.k.a. hooligan) are in the bay, staging for their spawning migration up the rivers, there might be dozens upon dozens of sea lions, foraging cooperatively and rafting up to rest from their exertions. Harbor seals would be there too, in quantity, and humpback whales would be likely to cruise through. Orcas may arrive, in search of unwary sea lions or seals.

Once the hooligan are in the rivers, the action in the bay dies down. Tens of thousands of gulls and ten hundred eagles gather to gorge on these oil-rich, slow-swimming fish, which run a fearsome gauntlet of predators in the lower reaches of the rivers.

Springtime also brings shoals of herring, which often spawn in the bay. That draws lots of eagles, which line the shore and swoop down to snag a distracted spawner. Gulls feast on the eggs that coat the rockweed in the intertidal zone, and humpback whales come to fill their maws with fish.

One year, our annual kayak junket to Berners Bay happened when both hooligan and herring were bringing in hordes of predators, and the bay was a crazy place. We hardly knew where to cast our watchful gaze!

This year, 2011, was different again. The eulachon were up the rivers, attracting clouds of gulls, and only a few sea lions and seals remained in the bay. The herring had spawned recently, and their eggs glistened on the rockweed when the tide went out. The gulls were all busy with the hooligan in the rivers and ignored the herring eggs, and the mobs of eagles were notably absent.

Instead, we saw acres and acres of surf scoters—there must have been ten or twenty thousand of them. What a racket! They spent a lot of time apparently loafing and talking. Every so often, a group of them would head to the shore and nibble on herring eggs, sometimes pulling off chunks of seaweed too. I suspect they were also diving for mussels. Or they would suddenly all dash across the water with great splashing, for no apparent reason. When thousands of ducks do this all at once, it creates quite a ruckus.

Bonaparte’s gulls were diving after pink salmon fry that thronged the shallows and maybe also juvenile herring in the deeper water. Barrow’s goldeneyes in small squadrons swam along the rocky shore, gobbling up herring eggs. A kingfisher dove repeatedly and seemed to catch a salmon fry on almost every try. Three solitary black bears foraged on separate beaches.

A little walk in the woods produced three very dead and dried herring, perhaps dropped by some inept or unlucky eagle or gull. Another possibility, however, is that ravens had grabbed a fish as it tried to spawn in shallow water, or had stolen it from another bird, and stashed it in the trees. Years ago, when I was studying predators at the eulachon run, we noticed ‘rains’ of dead eulachon falling from the trees when the wind blew; they’d been stored up there by a gang of scavenging ravens.

Another stroll in the woods found us in a soggy little opening where lots of skunk cabbage grew. But instead of a cheery array of bright yellow, there were only stubs barely showing above the muck. Something had messily chawed them all off, right down to the mud line. The culprit left evidence of its passing: huge cloven hoof prints and occasional clusters of digested pellets about the size of the end of my thumb. Moose were introduced to the Berners Bay area some decades ago and they have found a nice smorgasbord there—we also noted well-browsed alder shrubs along the upper beach.

So, although we missed the show at the hooligan staging in the bay and the show at the spawning herring, we found plenty to see!

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.

July-22-Granite-Creek-Basin-44-Yellow-Fireweed-3-kerry
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.