Camping Cove

a smorgasbord of weather makes a fine overnight outing

Fall has somehow arrived in Juneau, without there having been much of a summer. The cottonwood leaves have bronzed and yellowed. The fireweed is done blooming in most places (the stand by my house never had a chance to do so—deer ate them all).

Despite a chancy weather forecast—well, if we waited for a sure thing (beside rain), we’d never go out at all!—four friends headed for Camping Cove near Mab Island. Two backpacked in. But one friend and I chose to kayak from Echo Cove, in order to avoid the nasty trail of mudholes and wet roots that I’ve come to loathe. That choice put us at the mercy of fickle weather, potentially stranding us in the cove if the weather kicked up seriously.

As luck would have it, however, we had sunshine and millpond water conditions all the way from Echo Cove to Camping Cove. We rode the tide most of the way, almost effortlessly covering the distance in a couple of hours. Our hiking pals didn’t even have time to make tea to greet us—we came around the corner into the cove long before they expected us.

That night we sat around a campfire, watching the moonlight on rippling waters. How often do we get a chance to do that in Juneau??!

The next day was spent poking around in the woods for a while. Then the two hikers decided to squish and splodge their way over to Cowee Creek and back. We kayakers lazed about in partial sun, and increased our pile of firewood for another campfire. This was not to be, however, because in the late afternoon the wind picked up and a storm blew in. So the next visitors to this nice state park cabin will have a good stash of firewood. But it was interesting to watch that storm creep toward us over Lynn Canal.

It stormed all night, but by wake-up time, the wind had petered out and the rain subsided to a spit or two (except when we were loading the kayaks, when it poured, just to get the gear wet). The marine forecast indicated winds switching from south the north about noon, and we wanted to take off in time to round Pt. Bridget before that happened. Again we rode the tide, up Lynn Canal, passing Pt. Bridget just as the wind changed, a bit before noon. So it was an easy paddle into Echo Cove. What luck!

The heavens opened again, just in time for us to unload the boats and haul gear up the beach to the waiting car. Our hiker friends soon arrived to check on us. They had walked through the downpour and were drenched. So, wet but pleased, we loaded the boats on the car and headed home for hot showers and tea (or something a tad stronger).

The report on wildlife viewing for this little trip is rather thin. A few seals and sea lions: the seals just bobbing up to stare briefly with their big, dark eyes, the sea lions loving to come up to the stern of the kayaks to emit startling snorts. A kingfisher and an eagle worked the cove, the eagle eventually grabbing something small. A big porcupine trundled through camp, looking suspiciously over its shoulder at the cabin, where we peered out the door. A mouse or two shared the cabin with us, causing us to hang our food from the ceiling. The best show was provided by small dragonflies. One coursed regularly back and forth over the beach grass by the cabin, occasionally indulging in aerial combat with a neighbor. It also made spectacular swoops high in the air or just over our heads, often capturing some unwary insect.

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Stories in the snow

a snowy ramble reveals winter action

I love to go a-wandering along a snowy trail, looking for signs left by others who’ve been out on their business of living. A recent prolonged cold spell had kept the snow soft, preserving evidence of a very busy wildlife community along a local creek.

Mink tracks rambled along the creek-side, dipping down to the stream and curving up into the forest. The footprints were bigger than those of a second mink that traveled part of the same route, so my naturalist friend and I guessed that the first mink was a male. His trackway led a long way upstream on one side of the creek and seemed to circle back down on the other side—at least the footprints were the same size there. This might have been a male patrolling his territory.

Everywhere, we found the delicate, stitchery trackways of small rodents. According to the books at hand, mice are likely to drag their long tails, flipping them to the side as a counter-balance during sharp turns, but voles don’t usually show tail-drag marks. If that’s right, we had both mice and voles, especially on one side of the creek. The tiny trackways of shrews were less numerous.

Snowshoe hares had been busy, especially on the other side of the creek. Trackways led up to the streambank, then away, then back to creekside, then away. It was as if the hares wanted to cross the fragile ice but, lacking the nerve to do so, just dithered along the bank.

A bird had hopped about extensively in and out of some brushy areas. The tracks seemed too small to be those of a junco. Then we found wing-prints where the bird had flitted a short distance to a new site, and the length of the wing was clearly too long to belong to a junco. My guess was possibly a varied thrush, some of which overwinter here.

The only actual bird we saw was a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk and flying down to go up the next tree—their typical foraging pattern as they search for tiny bugs in the bark. According to the literature, creepers commonly concentrate their efforts on trees with ridged bark, the deeper the ridges the better; this kind of bark harbors more insects than smoother bark.

A few deer tracks, both large and small, appeared as we walked along. But there was much less deer traffic here than, say, in Gastineau Meadows, where peripatetic deer had cruised all over the place.

My friend called to me: Come look at this! I saw a shallow groove in the snow on the streambank and, without thinking, said: Oh, a shrew trail. Look again, said my friend. Ah—there’s a faint yellow stain at the bottom of the groove. And here, where I had casually supposed my ’shrew’ had dived under the snow, was—not a burrow at all, but just a deep dimple. My friend, who is smarter than I am, said: I think a bird, maybe a kingfisher, perched on that branch near the edge of the stream and projectile-defecated a jet of hot poop, melting the groove in the snow. So we said: Well, if that’s so, then in the dimple at the end of groove there should be a little wad of solid waste. And yes, indeed there was! Good detective work, friend!

A final little treasure on this walk was a dead red alder that sported a beautiful array of conks (or shelf-fungi). The living conks all had a slightly soft pile of white stuff at their lower edges. This stuff had occasionally smeared sideways over the bark, showing that it had been soft when the temperatures were above freezing. What is this stuff?

Phellinus-conks-kathy
Phellinus conks. Photo by Katherine Hocker

I took a sample to a local forest pathologist, who put it under his microscope. He said that the white material was certainly fungal mycelium (the technical word for the mass of filaments that grow through the wood before producing the spore-bearing conk). However, without DNA work, there’s no way to know if it belongs to a parasitic fungus growing on the conk or to the conk species itself, because this kind of conk (of the genus Phellinus) often grows some of its own filaments right down through the conk itself. So we ended our walk with one more mystery.