This photo shows a ptarmigan in snow. (Courtesy Photo / Denise Carroll)

This photo shows a ptarmigan in snow. (Courtesy Photo / Denise Carroll)

On the Trails: Strolling on the snow

Snow, and more snow!

By Mary F. Willson

Snow, and more snow!

The deep snows this winter are too much for these little snowshoes we usually use here—one just postholes, and the enlarged feet have a hard time pulling up out of the hole. The old North Woods style of ‘shoe would be more suitable. But the little ‘shoes are what we have, so we tend to stick to the groomed trails, walking on the side of the trail as much as possible and avoiding disturbance of the classic tracks set by the groomer.

Two skiers make their way down Montana Creek Trail in this December 2020 photo. The groomed trail allows for snowy strolling. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Two skiers make their way down Montana Creek Trail in this December 2020 photo. The groomed trail allows for snowy strolling. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

One day in late December, a friend and I strolled up Montana Creek, looking for signs of wildlife activity. But nary a track could be seen. Strange. Some distance up the trail, a bit of open water appeared, just a very narrow, intermittent channel. Friend wished for a dipper — and just on cue, one came around a curve, flitting downstream. It stopped briefly in each small opening in the ice but didn’t seem to find much to eat and eventually went farther downstream. But there wouldn’t be any open water there until it reached the Mendenhall River, so its explorations would have to continue. When streams are frozen, dippers often forage in intertidal zones.

The next week, we rambled around the Lower Loop at Eaglecrest, where critter-tracking is often rewarding. This day was no exception: there were weasel and porcupine trackways ranging widely; voles and shrews had scampered in and out of sheltered spots. Snowshoe hares had explored many places, usually under brush or low-hanging conifer branches, where the snow was not so deep.

There was not much sign of squirrel activity, just a few tramplings near some trees. I wonder if they were using tunnel systems under the deep snow—the squirrel that lives near my house seems to have long, well-used tunnels, which it often uses instead of traveling on the surface, popping up near what used to be a garden. I know that voles and shrews often scurry about below the snow, but they had appeared on the surface fairly commonly. So why not the squirrels— perhaps they weresnacking on things in their snow-buried middens?

This September 2021 photo shows a squirrel near Nugget Falls. There was not much sign of squirrel activity near Montana Creek, writes Mary F. Willson, just a few tramplings near some trees.(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

This September 2021 photo shows a squirrel near Nugget Falls. There was not much sign of squirrel activity near Montana Creek, writes Mary F. Willson, just a few tramplings near some trees.(Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Ptarmigan or grouse left their bipedal trackways, often in and around brushy thickets; they may have nibbled blueberry buds as they walked. One of these birds came up to a steep little bank on the edge of the trail and slid on its bum down the loose snow, to find its feet again at the bottom of the short slope.

I spent quite a lot of time in a spot where tracks were overlapping and complicated to sort out. Some were from hares, some from ptarmigan/grouse, but there were others also. Only a few of these others were clear enough to allow possible ID: maybe about an inch and a half wide, with five toes, one of them set back a little from the others. Hmmm, quite possibly a marten! There was, however, no evidence of predation, so I can’t finish the story.

One critter that commonly leaves tracks near the Loop was missing from the records in the snow on this day: Deer tracks were conspicuous for their absence.

I was interested to see that the lower-most extension of the Loop, near the opening of the Treadwell Ditch trail, showed almost no sign of wildlife activity (just one vole track). I’d noticed this lack on other excursions up there. I have to wonder why so little activity is recorded there—the habitat is the same (to human eyes), so why is this part of the Loop apparently so un-used?

In early January, we walked up the Dan Moller trail, using the convenient snow-machine route, which was packed enough to walk without ‘shoes. Up through the meadows, looking for critter signs, but with little luck. The deep snow transformed the once-familiar landscape into unrecognizable terrain. A little imagination added to the fun; the heavy snows had laden the trees and stumps into wonderful shapes. One that caught my eye immediately was clearly an old woman, draped in her shawl, stooped over while mourning a dead companion at her feet. Another was a small spruce whose top bore such a load of well-packed snow that it was bent into a full-curl ram’s horn.

There’s no end to what you might find, if you go stravaiging around on our trails!

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On the Trails” appears every Wednesday in the Juneau Empire.

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