Four wintery walks

sun and shadow and snowy tracks

The thermometer at my house read eleven degrees (F) after a clear, starry night; the sky looked clear, although the sun wasn’t really up yet. Juneau had recently enjoyed about six feet of lovely snow, but many of the trails had not yet been used much. In search of a well-packed trail, a friend and I headed for the Boy Scout beach trail.

All went smoothly until we reached the junction where the trail splits three ways, and none of the splits looked good. We chose to go right out onto the goose meadow and immediately found ourselves breaking trail and post-holing through deep, crusty wind-blown drifts. Even following in the footprints of my companion, I (weighing forty pounds more) plunged and lunged, knee-deep and more. However, a hundred yards or so farther on, walking became a pleasure again, because the low vegetation was almost clear of snow, thanks to some recent super-high tides that left a few scattered cakes of frozen foam and to the wind.

Post-holing again out to the beach by the iconic cottonwood tree, we decided not to face the stiff, cold north wind that was churning up waters out in Lynn Canal. So, instead of coming back on the big, exposed beach, we turned toward the camp buildings, found a log, and had a little picnic in the sun. As soon as we got out our thermoses and lunch bags, two importunate ravens landed on the beach right in front of us—they knew the drill! Of course, we obliged them, tossing out bits of sandwich that they promptly snapped up. But they eyed a fragment of a sugar-snap pea with great suspicion and avoided going close to it—no veggies for them! One of them chose to sit next to us on the log for a while.

On this day in mid-December, the morning sun barely cleared the horizon. On the upper beach, I noticed that every isolated pebble cast a shadow much longer than itself, making a grid of conspicuous black stripes that called attention to each pebble.

The Chilkats across the canal were spectacular: the low morning sun made sharp contrasts between the sun-bright south-facing slopes and the intensely blue-shadowed north slopes. Behind us, the trees on the hillsides were individually defined by the snow they carried and on the peaks the snow delineated the minor topographical features very nicely.

Few critters were visible on this walk. A seal cruised by, just offshore, and gulls fossicked about in the tidal wrack. A wren zipped rapidly from trailside to shelter under some roots; they are so tiny, I wonder how they stay warm on frigid winter days. No midges or spiders crept on the snow surface.  But there were tracks of mink along the river, red squirrels in the woods, ermine and vole at the edge of the meadow; one or two small birds (who?) had hopped and run in the beach rye lining the meadow trail. A low-flying raven (?) left the mark of one wing-tip in the loose surface snow.

The next day was mostly sunny and, again, very cold (seven degrees at my house in the morning). I opted for snowdrift-free walk on the dike trail. A few tracks of squirrels and maybe an ermine were the only natural history notes of the morning until I had almost finished the walk. And there in the stand of willows was a female pine grosbeak, busily nibbling buds. I frequently see these grosbeak in fall and winter, as they forage on high-bush cranberry, carefully extracting the seed and dropping the red fruit pulp—the opposite treatment from that of bohemian waxwings, who eat the fruit and excrete the seed.

A couple of days later, the cold remained (just six degrees here). I had an idea to try some of the lower meadows along the Eaglecrest Road, but roadside parking was hard to find and the thought of plowing through deep snow, even on snowshoes, was daunting. So, on up the road to the Lower Loop, nicely groomed and unoccupied. The sun couldn’t make it up over the peaks, but ‘shoeing was easy.

There was not a live critter in sight but there were plenty of signs of life. A porcupine was into long-distance travel, heading straight across the meadow, not stopping to forage. Ermine had cruised all over the meadows in circuitous routes, looking for a juicy morsel. Snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, mostly under sheltering conifer branches or going from one shelter to another. Grouse or ptarmigan had been active, inspecting salmonberry and blueberry bushes for tasty buds and sometimes staying long enough to trample the snow flat. Except for a few squirrel marks, the smaller folk had left no signs on the surfacebut were no doubt active below.

A day or two later, it was still very cold. A group of friends strolled the dike trail, enjoying the bright sunshine as the sun crept over the peaks. A dusting of fluffy snow lay atop a snow crust. Several voles (I think) had made sorties out into the grassy areas, circling back to the trees or to holes under grassy tussocks; we noted at least seven of these trackways, well separated from each other. Looking through the chain-link fence and across a ditch, we saw tracks on a big snow drift that looked like Two-toes—but how could a deer walk up that crusty snow on those thin legs, without punching through, when humans (on our side of the fence) generally ended up post-holing?

January bricolage

A stalking goshawk, some prime tracking, and a trip into a sub-nivean ice tunnel

Back in mid-January, during all that unseasonably warm and dreary weather, I looked out my front window one afternoon, to check on the twenty or so mallards that were congregating on the nearly ice-free pond. An adult male goshawk paraded along the bank, looking meaningfully at the ducks. The wary ducks had retreated to the center of the pond, where they waited to see what the predator would do. Perhaps they felt safer on the water than in the air. Darkness fell before I could observe the end of the stand-off.

In a recent essay I was moaning about that dismal weather that seemed to last forever, and I was looking for something cheerful to think about. But—wonder of wonders—a few days after I wrote that essay, a big moon appeared in the night sky and a bright yellow orb peeped over the mountains and the sky was blue instead of gray. Moreover, there was a nice blanket of new snow that added to the welcome brightness. Hurray!

Just before the sun really decided to reappear, we made a tour of the lower loop at Eaglecrest, finding the best assemblage of critter tracks we’d seen for a long time. A few hares had been out and about, and a weasel had bounded across the trail and into the brush in several places. Squirrels had made their usual highways out from the bases of trees. A mouse (probably) had ventured cross a small opening between two brushy shelters. Another set of obscured tracks were a puzzlement: I wanted them to belong to a marten. There were deer tracks in several places, including those of a very small one. The best finding was the wandering track way of a grouse (or ptarmigan), maybe searching for fallen seeds of for buds to nip and eventually disappearing into a thicket.

On a day of full sun (!!), we visited a meadow out the road, plonking about on snowshoes in search of whatever might be interesting. The snow was too crusty for shrews to leave their delicate traceries and voles were staying under the snow, but weasels had been exploring. A deer had come into the meadow and circled several small spruces, pausing here and there. It looked like lichens were on the menu, one kind in particular. Where the deer had been foraging, the spruces still held loads of Usnea longissima (old man’s beard) but little or no Alectoria (witch’s hair). But in parts of the meadow not recently visited by this deer, we could find draperies of Alectoria on the low branches. On other forays, I’ve seen neat browse lines along the edge of the woods, where all the Alectoria had been eaten. Now I have to wonder what makes that lichen a preferred food (at least at times).

One morning I headed out for a sunny walk on the west-side beach of Mendenhall Lake. Up at my mailbox I heard a ruckus in one of the trees overhead. There was a tight little ball of about four chickadees, fluttering and flapping and chattering, as they all tumbled from one branch to another. The fight continued down the slope and out of sight. One more thing to wonder about; this was more than a quick argument over a seed or two. Were they picking on an intruding stranger? Or had one of them seriously misbehaved in some socially unacceptable way? Or??

On another nice day, my foray took me to another meadow where the tussocks were separated by narrow channels that had been full of water; a layer of ice had formed on the surface. But the channels had dried up, leaving an air-space about a foot deep between the persistent ice and the bottoms of the channels. The snow cover made it hard to tell where the little channels were, so when a snowshoe found one and broke the ice, I dropped down catastrophically and pitched over in a heap. My ‘feet’ were twenty-five inches long and tangled unmercifully in the remaining ice layer as I tried to extricate myself, so it took a while for me to heave myself up on something solid. Eventually, I wearied of more falls and many near-misses and decided to bail out by walking under some big spruces, where there were no tussocks and empty channels to contend with. These lovely spruces were open-grown, so they had many long, low, sweeping branches for me to clamber over and under, making sure my big ‘feet’ didn’t get snagged. This was hard work too, but there was a little surprise: many of those long, low branches were decorated with a series of small mounds of cone scales, a few inches apart, as the squirrel had chosen a different spot on the branch for each spruce cone on which it snacked, rather than peeling off the scales into one big midden.  

Thanksgiving Week strolls

mallard perambulations, mustelid meanders, and enchanting ice

We had deep cold, then big snows, and then huge rain, and now the gray, foggy, misty rains seem to have settled in. But it’s no fun just staying home, so out we went, on a couple of leisurely strolls.

The home pond offered some interest, even before I left the house. Two mallard drakes had ventured up the creek to the frozen pond, where they scarfed up spilled bird seed. Their perambulations over the ice left muddy trails to and from the lower end of the pond. Red squirrels had made several visits to the spilled seed, leaving a fan of trails in several directions. And –oh,oh!—mama bear and two cubbies came by. The cubs romped over the ice, wrestling and chasing, while mom checked out the out-of-reach hanging feeders. I’m told that this family has been roaming our part of the Valley lately, well past the time they should be in bed.

An easy walk along Montana Creek began by discovering the new gate across the road, near the rifle range. The issue of placing this gate was discussed at least two years ago, and I had despaired of it ever happening. But here it was. Hallelujah! The gate will at least help the serious problem of dumping trash along the road; whole truckloads of junk used to be off-loaded on the roadside by irresponsible citizens. A nice set of ski tracks clung to one side of the road, and the several skiers made the skiing look good.

Near the bridge, a mink had come along the bank of the creek, then up and over the approach to the bridge, and back down to creek-side, apparently unwilling to get wet by going under the bridge. A weasel had meandered all over the place, looking in nooks and crannies for something to feed its voracious appetite. We finally spotted a dipper, busily nabbing small insects around the boulders in the creek.

Across the creek, we saw a long groove in the snow, way too loopy and curvy to be a simple crack in the shore-fast ice. It led from under a log, around a boulder, and finally over the ice edge to the gravel. The groove was too wide to have been made by a shrew, so presumably a mouse or a vole. Another traveler on the road had left baby-sized footprints with long claw marks: a small porcupine taking advantage of the shallower snow in the ruts between the deep stuff. It had really hustled along, with a stride length much greater than the more common shuffle we often see.

The next day, Parks and Rec walked the East Glacier Trail in mist and fog. There might as well have been no glacier, because the entire upper part of the lake was obscured by fog. We could just discern a dark, fuzzy shape across the way, where the rock peninsula is. A pavement of ice fragments marked the foot of Nugget Falls. The snow was sufficiently soft that walking was quite easy, and we were glad that the footprints of previous walkers had not frozen into lumps and bumps that make walking miserable.

Perhaps the biggest attraction along the trail was the ice, draped over boulders. Water still ran in thin sheets over the surface of the boulders, creating a lacework of frozen crystals that grew up from the ground into even finer filigree. Where ice had formed over bumps in the rock, the surface was decorated by beautiful, very fine traceries, creating what I would call vermiculations and reticulations. Of course, there were lots of icicles, of all sizes and shapes. There were all the usual spears of ice, but I was particularly enchanted by some of the complex joinings and separations among adjacent ice-spears, creating little networks of related icicles. (I would, in other circles, call these ‘anastomoses’; there’s another new word for some of you!).

There were signs that red squirrels or maybe some crossbills had been active, leaving scatterings of alder cone scales on the snow. Porcupines had waddled through deep snow, leaving characteristic trenches. The most fun was discovering a very young porcupine near the visitor center. It was intent upon eating grass and was not the least disturbed by the presence of several fascinated observers. This little guy was much smaller than expected for this time of year; it was about the size of those we had watched and followed last summer, four months ago. Good luck, small one!

The crossover

above the snow and under the sky

The day was overcast and gray when we started up the Spaulding Meadows trail, but by the time we passed the junction where the Auke Nu trail splits off, the sky was clear and a welcome sun appeared. The trail was in fine shape: nice, hard-packed snow, with only a few spots where deep post-holes made for uneven walking. We put on snowshoes and skis in Second Meadow.

Spaulding Meadows were splendid, as always. A clear view for three hundred and sixty degrees revealed shining peaks and gleaming waters, set off by dark conifers. Sad to say, some snowmobile tracks marred the surface in places, providing evidence that there always seem to be a few riders who don’t respect the boundary that is supposed to leave half of the great meadow for folks who let their legs do the work.

Wind had crusted the snow a bit in some places, but there was a thin layer of loose snow on top of the crust. This was perfect for good tracking. Animal tracks registered clearly, at least on parts of their little trails, so we could identify most of them. Mice had left tiny, paired prints in lines emerging from under bent-over conifers. A marten had looped its way across open spaces, mostly breaking through the thin crust but, luckily, occasionally leaving clear five-toed prints on the surface. A weasel (probably) had left small prints and long body marks as it leaped through some softer snow. Ptarmigan had been very active in one area, leaving footprints in a two-footed walking pattern and occasional wing marks at take-off points. A red squirrel had ventured out for a short scamper and a raven touched down briefly, leaving long wing tracings. And some small songbird had hopped along by some blueberry bushes.

After floundering around for a little while, and fortifying ourselves with shared chocolate, we found the start of the crossover to the John Muir cabin. I hadn’t done this route for a while, but parts of it began to look familiar. Lunch at the cabin, sitting in the sun, sharing more chocolate—does it get better than this??

Presently, two friendly acquaintances came along, with two Cairn terriers (still energetic after that long uphill walk on those short legs) and a black lab, all of whom had their own lunches. But when my attention was focused elsewhere, that black lab very neatly and quickly filched one of my petit écolier cookies that I’d stashed alongside me. Her person told me she gets half an oreo cookie every day, so I guess she thought she’d have a little dessert at lunch too. And goodness knows, I didn’t really need it!

Just before reaching the cabin, two of us stopped to watch some crossbills. One female sat in the top of a scraggy mountain hemlock, looking golden in the slanted sunlight. Two others clambered around in a dead hemlock, gleaning small items from the seemingly barren branches. We’d heard crossbills, both white-winged and red, all day, but these were the first we saw. We thought ourselves lucky, because it is not often one gets to see these birds at such close range.

Snow at last!

peripatetic mammals and birds, and a fungus attack

After a very dreary, dismal January, February produced some nice snow. Not enough, of course, and it didn’t last. But for a few days, snow made the daylight hours brighter and provided splendid opportunities for reading critter tracks. Here are some samples, along with ancillary observations.

A morning snowshoe walk at SAGA meadows, with fresh snow and partial sunshine was very productive. A river otter left its distinctive five-toed prints and sliding track all along the base of the ridge on the eastern side of the valley; it came from the Amalga area, heading to the saddle where the old horse tram crossed over to the Eagle-Herbert drainage. It’s a lot shorter to go by land than by sea (out around the Boy Scout beach to the mouth of the river), but we wondered why this individual chose to go by land. Maybe it likes sliding better than swimming? Long overland journeys are not unheard-of: we once tracked an otter from the Hilda Creek canyons up and over to the Fish Creek drainage near the start of the upper cross-country ski loop.

Red squirrels had been very active, making highways between brush piles and trees, and often diving under the snow, popping up several feet farther on. Under the snow there were a few little caverns whose floors were littered with the remnants of alder cones, where a squirrel had a picnic.

Snowshoe hares left their tracks especially under the drooping conifer branches. It was clear that hares had been munching twigs of highbush cranberry—small twigs of many bushes had been recently clipped and hare tracks nearby left no doubt about the clippers. Small well-trampled areas indicated a place, perhaps a latrine (?), where a hare had spent some time, but only a few of these had scattered pellets. We speculated that the hares might have re-ingested fresh pellets to extract more nutrients (a habit they share with many rodents).

A small bird—probably a junco—had hopped around under a low-hanging spruce branch and then flitted off, leaving short wing traces in the snow. A mouse or vole had travelled from one thicket to another, and some small rodent had nibbled the bark of tiny shore pines. A porcupine had wandered about before the last of the snow fell, leaving now-blurred but unmistakable traces of its passage. Near a small frozen slough, a mink or marten had walked over toward a tree; the prints were not clear enough for us to discern the subtle clues that might tell us which kind of beast it was and the trail was lost in a snowless patch under dense spruces.

A flock of red crossbills enlivened the morning, calling and flying from spruce-top to spruce-top, occasionally prying open a cone to extract the seeds. Did their messy feeding activities contribute to the fall of seeds we saw scattered on the snow or did the wind bring them all down?

We found good examples of the rough-bark fungus infection on alders, which featured in a recent essay. Some of the infected sites had been heavily used by sapsuckers, but these birds had been active in many places, leaving broad patches of their sap wells in the bark. Very young alders, still with their reddish bark, also showed signs of the fungus attack.

That was a good day, and so was the next one, when we snowshoed the upper loop at Eaglecrest. It was still snowing a bit up there, while the rain fell at lower elevations. Here, in addition to lots of squirrel tracks and those of a mouse, ptarmigan had been very busy, sometimes running across a wide open space, sometimes walking sedately from bush to bush. In one place we saw a pair of traces where ptarmigan had glided down onto the snow, wallowed forward for a few feet, and taken flight once more, leaving tell-tale depressions (from the jumping take-off) flanked by wing marks.

Trailside observations

In sun and snow and sleet and hail…

Here’s an assortment of winter observations that gave pleasure to some trail-walkers.

–Late November, Eaglecrest. Parks and Rec hikers on snowshoes went up the road, but the majority decided to go home for lunch. Two of us went on, over toward Hilda meadows, and perched on a log for a snack. Too busy feeding our faces for a few minutes, we eventually began to notice what was around us. Right behind our comfortable log was a big spruce tree with two lumps at the very top. The upper lump was pretending to be a moss wad, while the lower one was eating spruce needles. Both young porcupines were very wet, but the lower one suddenly roused up and rapidly shook itself dry—moving faster than I’d ever seen a porcupine move. The upper one slept on.

–Late November, Mendenhall Lake beach. A small stream flowed over the beach, creating a little opening in the ice. Three eagles were bickering over the remnants of a salmon carcass, which was probably fairly fresh (judging from the bright red blood stains on the ice). We often see late-spawning coho in the streams that feed the upper Mendenhall (years ago, in December, I counted over a hundred eagles on the stretch of Dredge Creek below Thunder Mountain; they were there because the creek was full of coho). One of the eagles snatched up the tail piece and flew off, hotly pursued by a pirate that eventually won the tasty morsel.

–Mid December, Eaglecrest. Lovely soft snow covered the ground, so animal-tracking was really good. Shrews had been very busy, running over the snow from one bush to another. Lots of other mammals had been active, too: deer, weasel, hare, porcupine, red squirrel, and mouse. Sadly, we found no ptarmigan tracks at all.

–Mid December, Dredge Lakes area. After a deep freeze, a warm spell had melted ice cover and opened up some of the ponds, and beavers had become active. There were new cuttings in the woods, new twigs in the winter caches, and some of the perpetrators were repairing their dams. The Beaver Patrol was called out of its own winter torpor to make notches in a few dams, lowering water levels in certain ponds so that nearby trails were dry , permitting passage of any late-spawning coho, and allowing juvenile salmon to move up and down stream if they chose to do so.

beaver-in-winter-3-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

–Late December, Mendenhall wetlands. ‘Twas a very uneventful walk in a blustery wind. But suddenly two small birds blew (not flew!) in and tumbled into the grass. Righting themselves, they revealed themselves as a pair of gray-crowned rosyfinches, a species I’ve seen in upper Glacier Bay and on Mt Roberts, but not out here. That turned the day into a ‘plus’.

–Late December, Dredge Lakes area. Very low temperatures had refrozen almost all the ponds and streams. However, the ditch from Moraine Lake to Crystal Lake had a couple of very small ice-free patches. And there we saw a dipper, bobbing in and out of those dark pools, no doubt very hungry.

Any sensible dipper would go downstream, perhaps to an estuary, where bugs and fish would be more available!

–Early January, Herbert River trail. A mink had coursed along the elevated riverbank, in and out of the brush, occasionally down to the water’s edge. A set of extremely large moose tracks crossed the trail. That long-striding giant was really moving—the foot prints were often five feet apart. The trackway led through brush and over the arching branches of a fallen tree—almost four feet above the ground. Those long legs! I would have loved to watch that beast (from a respectful distance)!

–Early January, Perseverance trail. Recent heavy rains had brought down some small landslides, not unexpectedly. Unlike the trails near the glacier, this one was nearly clear of ice, and walking was easy. There was fresh snow on the ground, up past Ebner Falls, showing up a few porcupine tracks and some very recent red squirrel trackways. A mouse had crossed the trail with big jumps, several times its body length, leaving clear footprints as it hustled into cover across the open trail. I like seeing mouse tracks, in part because I don’t see them very often.

–Mid January, Switzer Creek area. Before the predicted rains and rising temperatures wrecked the lovely fresh snow, we found tracks of deer, porcupine, possible coyote, and a few mysteries. A shrew had scuttled across the soft snow, making a narrow groove marked by its tiny feet. A good find was a trackway of a grouse, striding through the snow and under low-hanging bushes in the woods. This took a few minutes of searching to determine the track-maker, because the new snow was so soft that it often fell down into the tracks, obscuring the prints. But finally we found good marks of three avian toes.

December rambles

tracks and sightings from high elevation to low

By early December, heavy rains had mostly spoiled our lovely early snowcover. Even up at Eaglecrest, a Parks and Rec group could walk around Cropley Lake without snowshoes or skis, borne up by a hard crust.

On top of the crust lay a thin layer of new, soft snow, just enough to show good animal tracks. Porcupines had left many traces of extensive wanderings. Occasional snowshoe hares and red squirrels had ventured out. One trail looked like a weasel had looped along, and a raven had investigated a possible source of food.

We followed the route of ptarmigan as they had trotted from bush to bush. Under these bushes were scattered crumbs from the buds the ptarmigan had eaten. A small puzzle was provided by a narrow furrow in the loose snow—too wide to belong to a shrew, so probably a mouse or vole. A long tail-drag mark suggested the passage of a deer mouse across an open area toward the shelter of low-hanging conifer branches.

On another day, a friend and I watched a gaggle of mew gulls near the mouth of Fish Creek. Every so often, one would fly a few yards upstream, then drop to the water surface and float there briefly before taking off again. On a few of these ‘touch-and-go’ episodes, the gull would dip its bill into the water, possibly picking up some small item. We wondered if the high water levels in the creek might be washing down some prey items, but if so, they were too small for us to see.

In mid December, several friends ambled out the trail to Crow Point at the mouth of Eagle River. Bird-watching was unusually low-key. The only land birds seen or heard was a pair of ravens, surprisingly too shy to come close for treats. Gangs of gulls rested on the sandbars, retreating to higher ground as the tide came in. Among the usual glaucous-winged and herring gulls was a more unusual species—a Thayer’s Gull. I seldom try to distinguish Thayer’s from herring gull, but the more experienced birder in the group recalled the difference in the wingtips (check your bird book for details). Thayer’s Gulls nest in the Canadian high-Arctic but winter along the coast. A significant portion of the world’s population of this species stops in Berners Bay on the northward migration in spring, to feed at the eulachon run.

The stars of the show for the day were lichens, those much-ignored combinations of an alga with a fungus, whose precise relationship is subject to dispute and to change through time (of which more, perhaps, anon). We were on a campaign to learn some of the common lichens and easily found about fifteen conspicuous kinds, no doubt by-passing numerous others. We noted a grove of alders well-festooned with strands of beard lichen, which seemed to shine when the sun’s rays poked through the partial cloud cover. At the edge of a meadow, we found a spectacular colony of what we thought is ‘lettuce lichen’ (Lobaria oregana) draped along all the lower branches of one spruce tree. What conditions made that particular tree such a favorable site.

Along the beach, we followed a beautifully clear trail of an otter for several hundred yards, and it looked like a coyote had run across a meadow. But the day was made complete by watching the shifting light on the sharp peaks of the nearby Coast Range.