A snowy day at Eagle Beach

A lovely day in late December found friends and I at Eagle Beach State Park with lots of options for exploration. The main trail was beautifully groomed and tracked, and there was plenty of room for us snowshoers to walk without tramping on the cross-country ski track. On the ‘back’ part of the trail, across the road and behind the church camp, ski track was set, but there was little room for snowshoes in many places, so it was not easy to avoid stomping the ski track (but we did our best). In open areas off the groomed trail, the snow was deep and gave us a bit of a workout.

At the bridge over lower Saturday Creek, a lone magpie stood sentinel in a treetop, talking musically and quietly, apparently to itself. We saw that the creek bed was dry. Remembering the throngs of salmon that came into the creek to spawn, we wondered if salmon eggs could survive here in the lower reaches of the creek, or if there was sub-surface flow that might keep them alive.

Because the tide was well out, we walked onto the sandy flats in the bend of the river. Mink tracks ran under and over logs, out to the river and back again. As the tide went out, it had stranded cakes of ice over the sands and grassy edges. In the ice cakes we found the tunnels of voles, preserved nicely in the ice. Where do the voles go, when the tide comes in? We have sometimes seen them running inland for their lives, in some cases drowning or getting nabbed by a short-eared owl. But what do the survivors do? Do they go back to their former haunts, where the next high tide might chase them out again, or do they seek new and drier areas?

We spent a long time looking at the myriad forms of ice, guessing that the ice formed from the fresh water layer that rides above the denser salt water where rivers come down to the sea. Close-packed little rafts of ice-needles covered small residual pools. Large bubbles seemed to hold smaller bubbles inside. Best of all were the paper-thin, flat sheets of ice balanced on bent grass stems; an active imagination could find butterfly wings, maple leaves, or even burro heads, all of delicate ice.

Heavy snow blankets draped the drooping spruce branches, lighting up the forest. The shrubs on the sand flats stacked up snow in vertical branch axils, making snowy reminders of the webbed feet of ducks. On horizontal willow branches, snow slid off and hung in swags beside and below the branches. In a few places, the snow was so coherent that it formed a swag at least six inches thick, hanging under a branch.

We found old porcupine tracks and lots of elderberry bushes in parts of the forest. That reminded us that porcupines often eat elderberry buds in winter. Human noses usually find that elderberry has a pungent, musty odor, but we wondered if the frozen buds were as aromatic. No; we detected little odor. Buds that we thawed in our hands had more aroma, and when we opened them, the familiar smell emerged. And thus, even if the porcupines don’t detect much of the characteristic odor at first, one bite of a bud would reveal it. Of course, porcupines undoubtedly have better noses that we do, anyhow.

On the way back to the car, we met other hikers who reported seeing a winter wren (now called Pacific wren) zoom across the parking lot. This led to the question of whether or not the wrens might roost communally when temperatures are low, in order to conserve body heat. Some other small songbirds, such as chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets, and redpolls do so. We couldn’t answer the question on the spot, but I looked it up at home, and the answer is yes—wrens will huddle, sometimes more than a dozen at a time, in cavities and old nests when it is very cold out.

Good thing we took advantage of the nice snowy day! As predicted, rain soon wrecked the snow and left the forest dark again. We say to ourselves more than once, with a sigh…. That’s Juneau weather.

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.


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