Strolling on the Treadwell Ditch Trail

a trail report, fungal diversity, and fall colors

One fine day in early October, three friends set out to walk the Treadwell Ditch from the Dan Moller trail to Paris Creek. On our way up from the parking lot off Pioneer Avenue, we noted major timber cutting not far above the trail; trees had fallen over the trail earlier but had been trimmed back. The lower part of the Dan Moller trail, up to the Ditch, winds through some pretty, little meadows, but the boardwalk is in serious need of repair: there are many broken boards and popped-up nail heads. A big, sad contrast with the Dan Moller trail above the Ditch to the cabin, where the trail is in pretty good condition.

The Treadwell Ditch trail south of the Dan Moller has received a huge amount of recent work and is now in good shape, as far as Paris Creek. In addition to the big bridge over Lawson Creek, there are many new, smaller bridges that save hikers and bikers and skiers from scrambling in and out of eroded gullies. One especially nasty gully is now circumvented by a re-routed trail with steps that may be tricky for skiers and snowshoe-ers in winter. A few muddy spots remain to be ‘hardened’ by the deposition of gravel, but we strolled by a lone volunteer who was in the process of doing just that. Thanks to Trail Mix for all the good work!

We’ve been told that a bridge over Paris Creek has been planned and funded, so eventually Treadwell Ditch walkers can readily join up with the Mt Jumbo trail to the south. That will avoid the risky, slippery-log walking now required for the creek crossing and the extremely muddy informal trail that parallels the creek down to the lower end of the Jumbo trail. We did none of those things, but back-tracked to the CBJ trail down to Crow Hill.

So much for the trail report (in brief). Now for the fun stuff.

Fall is a good time for fungi of many sorts, and this trip was no exception. We were particularly pleased with the numerous delicate white ones known as angel wings. These dainty fungi grow on conifer logs and stumps, especially on hemlock. Although it is often said to be edible, it is reportedly toxic and potentially lethal for some people. Another interesting one was a small, translucent jelly fungus growing out of the softer growth rings on top of a stump.

angel-wing-fungus-2-david
Angel wing fungus. Photo by David Bergeson

The muskegs were awash with colors, a real treat for the eyes. The sedges provided a backdrop of lustrous golden orange. Bunchberry leaves showed off every possible shade of red. Avens leaves were deep red and high-bush cranberry leaves ranged from pink to red. Low-bush blueberry leaves gave us muted maroons and purples, and deer cabbage added some yellow and orange. We don’t have the blazingly colorful tree canopies of the boreal aspen forests or of the eastern forests with their maples and ashes, but if you look lower and think smaller, we sure do have spectacular fall colors!

In the forest, the devil’s club leaves had mostly turned yellow, brightening up the somber tones of the conifers. They were so conspicuous, I paid them more attention than I had earlier in the summer. If you look carefully at these leaves, you can observe that they are usually spaced out laterally so that they don’t shade each other. When one leaf does occur above another, there is usually quite a good vertical distance between them. That way the lower leaf still gets some light. It turns out that the bigger the leaves, the more vertical distance must separate them in order that they don’t shade each other too much, so the big leaves of devil’s club will be more widely separated than the small leaves of willows or blueberry bushes. In fact, this intuitive principle has been quantified and formalized mathematically, for the benefit of those who like such things.

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.

Trailside scrapbook

assorted observations from several winter walks

A common sight in our forests is a ‘nurse log’ that supports a row of small hemlocks and maybe a currant or blueberry bush or two. If the log decays, it will leave behind a neat row of trees in an otherwise rather disorganized forest. If the log persists, retaining its form and even spanning small gaps, the row of supported treelets may eventually stretch roots down to the soil.Then they can grow into tall, stalwart trees, still all in a row, with their roots arching over the nurse log. Although nurse logs with tiny trees are common, it seems to be uncommon for the whole row of supported trees to mature while the nurse log persists, but we found a fine example along Montana Creek.

If you walk long the bluff from False Outer Point to the Rainforest Trail, look down to what passes for a beach in this country. Much of the so-called beach below this trail is composed of boulders. But look closely, and you will see that some of the boulders are piled up in good-sized oval mounds, and several such mounds are lined up parallel to the bluff. According to Dr. Cathy Connor, well-known local geologist, these orderly piles of boulders were rafted here by the big ice that filled Lynn Canal thousands of years ago and got left behind when the ice retreated, about fifteen thousand years ago.

When there was lovely, fresh snow on the ground, the snowshoe hares near Steep Creek had been very busy. Their highways led hither and thither, especially among the young spruces. Out on the silt and sand flats where the willow thickets thrive and would offer a decent banquet for hares, there was little trace of hare activity. I’m guessing that the thick, low-growing branches of the spruces offered thermal cover as well as better places for hares to hide from dogs and perhaps aerial predators, and that took precedent over willow lunches.

Along the Old River Channel near the glacier, the eagles had been dancing, even prancing back in among the bushes. I couldn’t tell what they were cavorting about, except in one place right next to the stream, where pink snow gave evidence of an eagle lunch.

In one pond in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area there are two beaver lodges, right across that pond from each other, with a single cache of branches in between them. This is an unusual situation, because beaver families are typically quite territorial and seldom share ponds. I’ll probably never know why this exception exists, but it is food for thought.

And thinking about beavers in another setting: the Switzer Creek area has two old, abandoned beaver ponds up on the hillside, on tiny streams. The dams are still sound, which is why the ponds are still there. When they are not frozen, they provide foraging areas for dippers, which roam widely in winter, and for snipe, which we sometimes find even in thickly wooded, damp areas near such ponds. I don’t know why these beavers disappeared—whether they were trapped or simply moved on. But this situation reminded me that we have found beaver works in other non-ideal locations, including Eaglecrest!—showing that beavers really get around, travelling quite long distances over land, upon occasion.

Coming down through the lower cross-country ski loops at Eaglecrest, the trail crosses Fish Creek on a fairly new wooden bridge (check out the remnants of an old log dam just upstream) and follows the Treadwell Ditch. Not very far after the wooden bridge there is a very new bridge over a small rivulet that flows down to the main creek. Surprisingly, this bridge is an arch made of reinforced concrete, faced with stone. It is expected to last much longer (possibly hundreds of years!) than traditional wooden bridges. This was a personal project of Dave Haas, secretary of Trail Mix, built with the advice of an engineer and the blessing of Trail Mix and CBJ, and the help of numerous volunteers. It will be interesting to see if this style of bridge might be useful in other sites on our trail system. Go out there and see if you like it, and let Dave at Trail Mix know your reactions!