Switzer headwaters

ice formations, a smattering of tracks, a goshawk encounter, and a secretive snipe

At the eastern reach of the Switzer Loop Trail, there is an old logging road that goes straight up the hill to end near a long-abandoned beaver pond. On a recent exploratory prowl there, I was accompanied by a two-footed friend and a four-footed friend—although it might be more accurate to say that I accompanied these two quicker and more agile hikers.

The first observation of interest (for the two-footed hikers, at least) was a set of raven tracks in soft snow, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other. At each point of the zigzag, the raven had probed into the snow with its bill, leaving a smudge of blood. What could be the story behind this record in the snow? Our speculations lasted until we reached the end of the road, where a set of mousy tracks wandered about and a weasel had meandered in and out of burrows and stumps.

The road runs through an old clearcut, several decades old (probably cut in the 1950s). Sometimes known as the Dismal Woods, this second-growth stand is indeed rather dismal. The dense canopy of young trees cuts out so much sunlight that few plants (except mosses and lichens) can grow in the understory. The forest floor is littered with rejected branches and abandoned logs. Remarkably, red squirrels traveled here often enough to leave a few well-used little trails and a porcupine had passed through.

The old beaver pond is filled with grasses and sedges. The ice-free little rivulets entering and leaving the pond were flowing well (at a time when most other streams in Juneau were frozen over), so the pond ice was feeble and offered treacherous footing. We never knew when we’d punch through the flimsy ice or humps of bent grass; after a few stumbles and lurches, we elected to go around the pond. It was reminiscent of hiking on the wet tundra Up North—which I hope never to do again.

A fine grove of red alders grows between the pond and the hill-slope behind. Where a tree had been uprooted by the wind, we saw an astounding array of needle-ice; many of the thin strands were perhaps twenty inches long. I think this formation occurs when water is forced up out of the freezing soil, and it is pretty common around here, but I’d never seen such long strands. A few big alders showed signs of long-ago bear claws. And here we found an enormous stump whose top made the entrance to the burrow of a red squirrel.

Just beyond the needle-ice, we inadvertently flushed a goshawk, which took off at high speed from behind a log pile. Closer inspection of the site revealed no signs of a goshawk lunch – no feathers or fur or blood, so perhaps it had missed its prey or was just resting.

Working our way along the upper edge of the Dismal Woods, we crossed and re-crossed the rivulets that feed the old beaver pond. At least one of them pops right out of the hillside with no sign of the origin of the water, so we guessed that the water flows down the side-slope under the soil until it reaches the little gully that holds the stream.

The clear little streams were floored with layers of dead alder leaves, which undoubtedly harbor some interesting invertebrates. A foraging snipe certainly hoped so–it was probing in the leaf packs and mud with its long bill. This one had left many lines of footprints with three forward toes and no back toe (like many shorebirds but very unlike most of our forest birds) as it walked in and out the stream, around log jams, and down to where the stream entered the old pond. It’s always a surprise to me to find a wintering snipe in the forest, because I think of them as living in marshes and wet meadows, where they often nest.

Snipes commonly eat many kinds of invertebrates: insects, worms, snails; their digestive tracts also contain seeds and vegetation, but it is reportedly not certain how much nutrition they obtain from plant material. Snipes forage by probing with their long bill; sometimes they put their entire head underwater. They can swallow small items while the bill is still in the mud, probably by using the tongue to push them back along the backward-oriented serrations inside the bill. The bill is very flexible, and snipes can open the tip without moving the base. There are sensory pits near the tip of the bill that help them find buried prey.

On the ice in one corner of the pond, we found tracks of a hopping bird (with four toes). Judging from the size of the foot and a tail mark, we guessed that a Steller’s jay had searched the edge of the pond.

After bush-whacking over to what looks like another abandoned beaver pond, my companions pranced (and I bumbled) over the piles of discarded branches through the Dismal Woods back to the road and the car. A very successful prowl!


South Treadwell

observations high and low, with a congenial crowd

The Saturday Parks and Rec hike was scheduled to start at Sandy Beach, head south along the channel to a private cabin beyond Ready Bullion Creek, and then go uphill to the Treadwell Ditch trail and back to Douglas. Ho-hum, I thought. But I went, anyway, and I’m glad I did. This hike took me to some spots I’d never visited before (and along some shortcuts that I’ll never be able to repeat!).

On the way south along the beach, we noted a flock of surf scoters and another one of goldeneyes, with a few gulls in attendance. Except for an occasional raven, and maybe a wren flitting in the log piles, that was it, for wildlife. So wildlife was not the main source of interest.

We detoured off the beach to inspect a yawning hole in the ground, which was the entrance to one of the old Treadwell Mine shafts. It has a feeble barbed wire fence around it, and a steel grate across the opening in the rock. We were told that until just a couple of decades ago, there was neither fence nor grate, so there was nothing to deter an animal or child from entering the great hole, on purpose or otherwise, leading us to wonder if there might be an accumulation of skeletons at the bottom of the long drop.

A little farther along, we checked out a cave that was reportedly was used to store mining explosives. Heavy steel doors lay in the brush outside. With a borrowed headlamp, one hiker ventured inside the cave, splashing through boot-high water that covered the floor.

At Ready Bullion Creek we heard the story of how the nifty single-log bridge was created. I’ve used that little bridge many times, when I go down there to look for dippers and often wondered how it was done. The builders rigged a high-line between two trees on the rocky banks and used it to raise the log into place. The log was then anchored to bedrock and the railings were added. The falls just above the bridge was ornamented with ice formations.

Lunch, with four (!) shared desserts (and we had enjoyed a superb apple-cranberry birthday cake on the way, too!) was followed by inspection of a clever gravity-fed water supply system and a winding route up through forest and muskeg. Frost-flowers adorned the ice surface on the muskeg ponds and needle-ice had pushed up through the mud as it froze.

Reaching the Treadwell Ditch, we headed south once more, to find the southern beginning of the ditch at Bullion Creek. There are no signs of the dam that once shunted the creek into the ditch. Apparently that dam has been gone for quite some time.

Along the trail, we noted a living but hollow tree with lots of crumbled wood at the base of the hollow. On top of the crumbles were several substantial, rusty-brown, frozen stalagmites. Rampant speculation produced visions of monsters or at least a nice black bear up in the hollow, whose excretions might have accumulated into these towers of ice. I suspect, however, that the tree itself had leaked tannins and other materials during the recent fall deluges, and these leaks had simply frozen in place before soaking into the wood chips.

On the return journey, we stayed (mostly) on the Treadwell Ditch trail. This portion of the trail has clearly received no recent maintenance, and there were more treefalls across the trail than I cared to count. In several places on this stretch, as elsewhere along the ditch, small streams have breached the retaining berm and sought their rightful course down toward the sea.

Because water levels were low, most of the streams could be crossed readily. Getting back across Ready Bullion was easy for those with rubber boots. However, several folks had hiking boots, with those vibram soles that are so treacherous on wet surfaces. One such hiker went skittering and flailing across the ice, while the more conservative hikers straddled a smooth log and hitched their way across.

After that, we trailed along through forest and muskeg, following the leader (as lemmings are—erroneously–said to do). He somehow must have known where he was going, because we came out, as planned, on the road above the old foundry site where the zipline ends. Once upon a time, we were told, the mine operators created machine parts here. Almost all traces of that activity are gone, except that virtually nothing will grow on the site, so for years I have called it the Poison Pit.

So it turned out to be a good hike, after all, for a congenial crowd of over a dozen explorers.

Lakeside findings

needle ice, a starving shrike, and early-bird willow buds

Sometime in mid-January, after a nice cold snap, the temperatures soared into the fifties; even near the glacier it was in the balmy forties. Near the visitor center, sidewalks and trails were slick with ice. A friend and I were headed for a walk on the beach, and we were glad we’d brought our ice cleats.

As we walked down the ramp from the first parking lot, we saw that the pond on the right had a very low water level—the little beaver dam that helps to form that pond was gone. Unfortunately, the lower water levels exposed an area along one shoreline where sockeye spawn. That exposure probably meant that eggs in those redds were killed when temperatures plummeted into the single digits for days at a time, earlier in the winter. Although lots of water was coming down Steep Creek, it didn’t add much to this pond but went into the lake by another outlet.

Once we reached the beach, walking was less slippery but very crunchy. Needle ice had created towers and chasms and a mini Grand Canyon as the thin needles grew up into cold air, perhaps fusing together as they grew. The low brush on the sand flats was liberally decorated with wind-blown gull feathers, both long flight feathers and fluffy body feathers, as if there had been a molting party on the beach.

A large, much battered, log had arrived on the beach. It had been standing in the forest not too long ago: it still had small colonies of moss and lichen, as well as scars from bark-chewing porcupines. We guessed that this old hemlock had travelled from Nugget Valley, down over Nugget Falls, before arriving here. A similar log, probably part of the same tree, had landed not far away, along with a smaller tree with smashed roots. We don’t often see big timbers washed up on this side of the lake. The heavy winter weather, with winds and rains, may have brought the tree into the creek and over the falls; a temporary high water level had stranded the broken trunk on the beach.

In among some bushes at the edge of the beach, we found a dead female northern shrike. The keel on the sternum (breastbone) was very pronounced, indicating that it had little stored fat and may have been starving. However, there was some blood on the face, and when we skinned the head, we found hemorrhage in the skull; there was also some internal bleeding in the abdominal cavity. This bird probably hit a window somewhere, got a concussion, but somehow managed to fly away before it gave up the ghost. We speculated that perhaps it had been chasing another bird (to eat it!) so vigorously that it failed to notice a window—this is something other predatory birds sometimes do too.

Sketch by Katherine Hocker

Shrikes come to us sometimes on migration or in winter, and we see them on the sandy flats near the glacier or out on the edges of the wetlands. They favor semi-open, shrubby habitats, often sitting on top of a bush while looking for tempting prey. They are predators, capturing insects and birds, often on the wing, as well as small mammals. They sometimes capture birds as large or larger than themselves, such as robins and jays. Birds are often captured by grabbing them with the feet, but other prey are more often captured with the bill. The upper bill has a sharp hook at the end and two small ‘teeth’ on the edge of the bill, not far behind the hook. Hook and teeth no doubt help in dispatching a captured prey animal: vertebrates are typically killed by biting through the neck, while insects are generally just crunched up. Sometimes called ‘butcher birds’(in fact their genus name, Lanius, means butcher in Latin), shrikes often impale dead prey on thorns or barbed wire, or in branch forks, to be eaten on the spot or later.

Another interesting find was a beaver-cut branch of feltleaf willow on which the catkins had lost their bud-covers and expanded into nice, fluffy pussy-willows. January is normally too early for this willow to flower, even though it is the earliest one to do so in the spring. We inspected several trees of this species along the lakeshore and found just a few fat buds and two partially open catkins. So the branch we found was well ahead of those that were still on their trees, perhaps as a trauma response to being cut. Plants can respond to damage by releasing enzymes and proteins that produce changes in undamaged parts of the plant; in some cases there is an accelerated development of reproductive organs.