Autumn on Gastineau Peak

a walk in the clouds

Early September, and fall has been here for a couple of weeks already. Cottonwood leaves are turning gold, and alder leaves are drifting down into dull, brown heaps. Fireweed has gone to seed, except for a few stragglers that bloomed late. The air feels like fall is here.

Warblers are on the move. Mixed-species flocks of little birds flit through the alders and willows. Townsend’s warblers in fall plumage hobnob with chickadees, orange-crowned warblers, and two species of kinglets, along the banks of Montana Creek. Near Steep Creek, orange-crowns forage with chickadees, kinglets, and myrtle warblers. The birds move rapidly among the branches, feeding on tiny insects. The warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets are headed south for the winter, but golden-crowned kinglets and chickadees stay, toughing it out. Two cedar waxwings pass quickly through, not part of a flock.

One cloudy day, Parks and Rec hikers headed for Gastineau Peak. As usual, some started at the Basin Road trailhead and came up through the mud, while others just took the tram, joining forces at the upper tram terminal. As we went up toward Gold Ridge, the clouds settled in around us, restricting visibility to a narrow strip along the trail.

Wildlife viewing was therefore very limited. We saw one marmot just below the trail, looking up at our ghostly forms with apparent puzzlement. I saw the tails of three robins disappear into the mists, and an unidentified sparrow dove into a conifer thicket. And that was it, for wildlife.

Deer cabbage, avens, and blueberry leaves were coming into their fall hues. Most of the flowers were finished, although there were a few valerian, monkshood, and moss campion to be seen, and some broad-petaled gentians, which almost glowed in the mist. Partridgefoot and the hardy little harebells were still doing well.

Our goal was Gastineau Peak, and we wound up the rocky trail in the clouds. No vistas rewarded us, of course, and the wind was rising rapidly. So, after reaching the peak, we back-tracked to the junction with Gold Ridge and huddled in the lee of a bank by a dried-up pond to gobble a quick lunch. A small, gray and white, very tired butterfly wobbled across the stones at our feet and took temporary refuge on a wet pant-leg.

Back on the trail, we were slammed with a sudden, driving, sleety rain, and gusting winds stiff enough to make balance sometimes dicey. Nothing for it, just put your head down (and your hood up), put one foot in front of the other, and make rueful jokes as the rain found its way inside your raingear. We wondered if the tram would still be operating.

This lasted all too long. When we got down near the windsock, the curtains parted, and we had a good view of Bear Valley, in all shades of green, with the little creek calmly flowing through it. Downtown appeared. No more worries about whether or not the tram was running. From there on, it was ‘cake’.

As we left the lower tram terminal in our sodden, wind-blown state, a tourist remarked that he wished he were where we had been! He persisted, even after I told him what it had been like. Poor guy, he must have been very bored. Hmmm, maybe it was OK, after all! We were, in fact, glad we went, but hot showers and hot tea were sounding really good!

An early autumn

Leaves and flowers, fish, mammals, and birds in transition

Fall came to Juneau in mid August. Cottonwood trees began dropping yellow leaves and alder leaves browned and shriveled. The air felt different, and it smelled different, too. On fine, sunny days, clouds of fireweed seeds, floating on their white parachutes, filled the air and collected in windrows on the shores. Mushrooms appeared all over the forest, as if from nowhere.

The grasses and sedges in the coastal meadows slowly changed from green to yellow and gold. Although the splendid pink flowers of fireweed were gone, the stems, leaves, and pods still filled fields with pink and red.

At mid elevations, a few fireweed stalks still bore flowers and some had, in fact, just started to bloom. But the deer cabbage leaves already showed yellow and orange and russet. As the rains increased, the once-fluffy heads of cottongrass drooped dismally, like small mop-heads. But there seems to be a bumper crop of highbush cranberries, glowing brilliant, translucent red (slightly less ‘bumper’ now, after my visit…).

Flocks of robins scoured the roadsides for grubs and worms. In Sheep Creek valley, robins, varied thrushes, and whole families of fox sparrows foraged on elderberries. Near Steep Creek, dozens of warblers flitted from bush to bush. Most were yellow-rumped warblers in immature plumage, but the flocks included several ruby-crowned kinglets and occasional Townsend’s warblers and orange-crowned warblers. I was interested to observe the reactions of the crowds of visitors who waited, mostly impatiently, for a bear to appear. Almost none appeared to notice the many warblers that flew back and forth across the creek and gleaned bugs from the shrubs.

If the bears were occupied elsewhere, many folks enjoyed watching porcupines—studies in slow motion. There were several small ones (known as porcupettes), born last spring, that frequented the Steep Creek area. They were now largely independent of their mothers, foraging on their own and growing perceptibly from week to week. Sometimes one would spend several days in a single cottonwood, taking long naps in between sessions of shredding and skeletonized the leaves. We watched one chomping on willow leaves for a while and then wandering to the creekside, where it avidly consumed dwarf fireweed and then drank from the creek.

The sockeye run in Steep Creek dwindled dramatically during the last two weeks of August. The few remaining pairs of salmon were attended by lots of Dolly Varden, which eagerly line up behind a spawning pair. Dollies, young coho, and sculpin all love to gobble up loose salmon eggs.

Foraging bears left partly eaten salmon carcasses on the streambanks, and it wasn’t long before the flies found them. Soon some carcasses were squirming with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fly larvae (maggots). I was initially surprised to see a bear lick up a pile of maggots and then show one of her cubs the tasty little morsels remaining from her snack. On second thought, however, there should have been no surprise, because bears eat grubs and ants and bee larva when they can. But this was the first time I observed bears eating maggots instead of salmon.

A family of well-grown mallards, still accompanied by mama, foraged regularly in the creek. They scarfed up unburied salmon eggs, enjoyed a snack of maggots on old carcasses, and enthusiastically ate fresh salmon meat when a bear abandoned its catch.