Walking the Mendenhall Peninsula Trail

The upland part of this trail is full of ups and downs, roots, and (in wet weather) mudholes, and a messy camp mars a nice terrace between bluff and beach not far from the trailhead. But, by dropping down to the beach shortly after the start of the trail, you can make a loop with only half of the route in the upland. The beach is walkable at virtually any low tide. I’m told that if you park a car at the end of Fritz Cove road, you can beach-walk almost all the way there.

I walked the loop route with a friend in early August. A few migrating shorebirds skittered along the tide line, while the trees above the beach were full of eagles of all ages, dropping old feathers like autumn leaves. As we went along the beach, one after another took flight with a whoosh of wings and crashing of branches, only to land a hundred yards farther on — and do it again and yet again as we continued. It was like herding eagles! Underneath the perch trees on the bluff, the ground was littered with shed feathers.

At the upper limit of the beach, we noticed a beautiful stand of bright yellow flowers; from a distance, they looked like dandelions. Up close, we saw that these were no dandelions! They had wiry (not hollow) stems, sharp prickles on the leaf margins, and some of them were 4 feet tall. It’s yet another invasive non-native plant, known as prickly sow thistle. Invasive it is, but the floral display, this late in the season, was lovely.

The mudflats were pimpled with hundreds of worm castings — wee turrets of digested matter extruded at the opening of worm burrows. Some of the flat rocks lying below the high tide line bore traces of worm (or snail?) travels: long, narrow, wandering lines laid down when water covered the rocks. The lines were erasable and clearly not part of the rocks themselves. A mystery mark in the sand had us guessing: a 3-foot wide spiral, with a divot at one end where the maker had dug in or lifted off, and numerous small, nearly vertical marks at about 1-inch intervals around the outside of the spiral. Who could make such marks? One guess is a starry flounder.

When you see the first rooftop through the trees on the bluff, that’s the place to pick up the return trail through the woods. Look for a big fallen tree that sprawls onto the upper beach, some beach rye, and a thicket of thimbleberry bushes, and head up the bluff. Although the upland trail is braided in places, the strands come together before long. This forest was logged many years ago, so it is second-growth forest with a few sizable trunks among the more numerous thin ones.

We spooked the eagles all over again on our way back under the trees. More wing whooshes and clacking of branches. There are erratic boulders on the hillside, reminders of glacial times out here. One large boulder supports three good-sized trees (one now dead), whose roots drape over the sides and down to the earth.

Somewhere along the middle portion of the trail, we found a large log — an old wind-throw, now partly moss-covered. But this was no ordinary log. It was beautifully sculpted by smooth grooves up to four inches wide and several feet long; the crevices between the grooves were filled with soft, brown material that could be decayed bark. It looked as if giant teredos (marine wood-boring molluscs) had been at work. However, we were quite sure that teredos, even giant ones, don’t live in the bluff forests. Could these sculpted grooves be what’s left of a “fluted” trunk? Hemlock trees in certain places (such as Sitka, parts of North Douglas) develop numerous curved ridges (with grooves between them) twining up the trunk. The “flutes” are thought to develop especially in areas where there has been catastrophic disturbance (by clearcutting or severe wind) and soils are shallow; the fluting may contribute to stability of a growing tree. However, the hemlocks now standing on this bluff do not exhibit fluting, so was this old tree just an unusual case? What are some possible, natural, alternative explanations?

As usual, the first part of the trail here collects empty beer and pop containers. It is astonishing, in its way, that those full cans and bottles can be so easily carried in but the empties are too much to carry out. By my count, beer and liquor containers greatly outnumber pop and juice cans or bottles; what does that tell us?

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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