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.

Late August in Granite Basin

marmots, warblers, flowers and fruits… and a bear encounter

The day began under gray skies, but by midmorning the sun was lightening everyone’s mood. A sizable group of Parks and Rec hikers, including several visitors, headed up Perseverance Trail with plans to turn toward Granite Basin, a favorite destination of many locals.

Despite a few heavy rains in the past weeks, the trail was mostly clear of mud. A month before, the thick remnants of an old avalanche had extended over a piece of the trail and the creek. The snow pack did not melt away in the past two summers, so in July, we clambered over a heap of accumulated snow. But by late August, that old snow was gone, except for a small ledge.

The wrecks of alders and other shrubs littered the slope above the trail where the snow had lain, but many mutilated trees had produced a few late leaves. If they can get an earlier start next summer, before too long the slope may again support a cover of brush to make homes for warblers and sparrows.

Two marmots cuddled together on top of a big boulder, basking in the sun. Several clusters of mountain goats dotted Juneau Ridge. A few warblers flitted through the alders, stoking up their reserves for the coming migration. Copperbush still had a few flowers, but most of the flowers had made fruits that looked like tiny pumpkins with a handle (the remaining female part of the flower).

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Copperbush. Photo by Kerry Howard

There were quite a few ripe salmon berries—rather surprising in view of the many people who use this trail. Both red and yellow-orange fruits were fairly common. For the record, although there’s a myth that the red ones taste better than the yellow-orange ones, in fact the sugar content is equal. Blind taste tests with fully ripe berries showed that humans could not distinguish between the two colors by taste. We did a little berry-foraging for ourselves. So had a grouse or ptarmigan, because we found a scat in the trail was filled with salmonberry and blueberry seeds.

Wild flowers of several sorts still bloomed along the trail, and the native species of mountain ash bore its bright red fruits. A dipper searched along the edges of the pool at the entrance to basin and swam in the shallows after aquatic insects. The dippers’ customary nest site below the big waterfall had been under snow for the last two springs and was therefore unusable, but they may have nested in another site up on the back side of the basin.

Bears had wandered along the trail, leaving scats with seeds of devil’s club and vegetation fibers. Beside the trail was a wide swath of matted, broken stalks of false hellebore (a.k.a. corn lily), where bears had apparently gone after the basal parts of the plants. According to a hiker with extensive experience as a hunter, bears really do eat this plant. Although it is known to be very poisonous to humans, it’s not the only noxious (to us) plant that bears eat.

On the return trip down Perseverance Trail, several of us had a surprise. A female black bear with two cubs appeared in the trail. We stopped, and they ducked into the brush on one side of the trail. Unfortunately, that side was very close to the creek, with a steep drop-off, so there was no ready way for the bear family to distance themselves. Because we were in a group, we carefully passed by, speaking very politely as we did so. Mama sent the cubs currying up a tree and let us know her displeasure by rattling the bushes. That gave us a little adrenalin spike, for sure, but in reality, this bear was not being aggressive at all. She was just telling us in bear language to get lost, so she and her cubs could go on their placid way. So we did, and they did!