July fun

Two Parks and Rec hiking friends share a landmark birthday this year and decided to celebrate with a summertime party on Juneau Ridge. Some of the hikers have better legs than others, and they walked up the steep trail, while those with legs that have seen better days took the easy way up, thanks to Temsco and Coastal helicopters. On a beautiful day in July, the party gathered at the top of the trail and celebrated with lots of cookies, cake, smoked salmon, fruit and chocolate.

We milled around, chatting and eating and enjoying the brilliant sunshine and long-distance views up and down the channel. The area at the top of the trail gets a lot of traffic because it provides several suitable spots for helicopter landings, as well as a resting place for up-coming hikers. So the end of the ridge is heavily trampled. Nevertheless, in between the rocks and rubble and tramplings, my casual survey found 13 kinds of wildflowers in bloom. Admittedly, they were not tall or lush on this storm-ravaged and sun-parched ridge top; they were small — but sturdy and tenacious. I particularly remember one little monkshood plant standing all of 4 inches tall, bearing a single perfect flower of intense purple.

Looking down from the ridge, we could see several lovely, clear ponds on the sides of the hill. I don’t know what invertebrates might live in those ponds, but two shorebirds that came to visit did not stay long.

Party over, some hikers trekked along the ridge to Granite Basin, thence to the Perseverance Trail, some went down the steep side of the mountain to the trailhead, and still others floated down in the friendly helicopters.

The next day, I ventured partway up Ben Stewart on a miserable trail that is nothing but mud, rocks and roots. Parks and Rec hikers were headed for the top, but my goal was just the beautiful valley to the north of the peaks. There was lots of cotton “grass” (really a sedge), some butterworts (one of our insectivorous plants), and leatherleaf saxifrage in the meadow, bordered by stands of copperbush and small conifers. A little creek meanders across the valley floor. On other visits in previous years, the creek had attracted dippers and hermit thrushes. This time, two shorebirds sailed in, poked around a bit, and took off — rising higher and higher until disappearing over the treetops. A fuzzy photo enabled one of our local ace birders to say that these were solitary sandpipers.

A couple of days before the big party, a little group of friends strolled up Gold Ridge from the tram. Among other things, we were looking for frog orchids, which had been easily found the previous week. But this time, we found only one in bloom. Some taxonomist presumably thought that the flower looked a bit like a frog, although that takes considerable imagination. I would love to know who pollinates these small green flowers (it’s not frogs!).

On the way down from the crest of the ridge, we spotted a ptarmigan family with chicks, so we all stopped to watch. The whole family — papa, mama, and about eight chicks — puttered along down the trail nipping at bugs on the vegetation. After a few minutes, the male and some of the chicks scuttled off to one side and down a bit, and we heard him “growl” a few times. Meanwhile, mama and the rest of the brood leisurely took the next switchback for several yards before finally stepping off and down, presumably to bring the family back together again.

These were willow ptarmigan, the only grouse-like bird in North America in which fathers get involved with parental care. I have to wonder how it happened that only this one species evolved this behavior! This male had molted out of his reddish upper-body plumage and only traces of red remained; otherwise he was in good camouflage plumage.

Earlier in July, I walked with a friend along the bluff trail on the west side of Douglas. We spotted a young red-breasted sapsucker just over the edge of the bluff, tapping on a tree. Creeping closer to get a better look, we could see it was making sap wells in the bark of an alder. Not a very orderly array of wells, but perhaps that happens with more practice. (That’s how this woodpecker got its name, of course; it makes holes in the bark and the sap oozes out, so the sapsucker can lick it up with its brushy tongue.) I also spotted a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk, but it flitted to another tree and totally disappeared — something that brown creepers do very well.

Back at home, I had a little excitement too. I chanced to look out a downstairs window and saw a large black back trotting along under the deck. A juvenile black bear, probably recently kicked out by its mother, was prowling the neighborhood. This one stood up to sniff the bird feeders that are hung well out of reach and tried twice to climb the corner of the house to reach the deck (a noisy process). Then it came to the window in front of my computer and left messy paw prints all over the glass as it peered in at me.

From there, it went down to the pond and scared the brood of mallards that was foraging there, crossed the creek below the pond, and headed for the campground. What fun!


• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column and appears every Friday. Her essays can be found online at onthetrailsjuneau.wordpress.com.


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