Cowee Meadows, seen in this photo, are awash in color. The meadows were the site of at least one memorable story. “As two of us strolled quietly on a bank above some lower ground, we suddenly heard some loud snorting and thrashing of brush from a thicket below us,” writes Mary F. Willson. “Uh-oh! ” (Courtesy Photo | Louise Ketcheson)

Cowee Meadows, seen in this photo, are awash in color. The meadows were the site of at least one memorable story. “As two of us strolled quietly on a bank above some lower ground, we suddenly heard some loud snorting and thrashing of brush from a thicket below us,” writes Mary F. Willson. “Uh-oh! ” (Courtesy Photo | Louise Ketcheson)

Twice-told tales — Juneau style

This essay brings together a few of the special stories from our little expeditions over the years.

I have borrowed this title from 19th Century writer Nathanial Hawthorne, because, like his book, this essay is mostly a collection of previously reported short stories, bringing together a few of the special ones from our little expeditions over the years.

Perseverance Trail: We were coming down the trail, just below the Horn, where two benches provide a view of Snowslide Gulch. Some distance ahead of us there appeared a large black lump, followed by two smaller black lumps, moving slowly up the trail. Ooooops! What now?! Steep cliff up on our right, steep cliff down on our left and nowhere to go but back. So we quietly backed up a hundred yards or so to the Horn and waited. And there they came, mom and two cubs.

First, we tried going up on the little rubble slope on the inside of the curve to allow the bears plenty of room between us and the railing. But mom took one look at us on the rocks and turned around, heading back down the trail. Then she hesitated and looked back, as if she really wanted to continue upward. So we all scuttled into a corner of the fence behind the benches. Ah! Much better! The family came back uphill and sauntered past us — Mom completely calm and owning the trail, the kids a bit skittish. Everybody was well-behaved.

Gustavus: We stopped to braid some stems of sweetgrass, just to see how it worked, with no ambitions to construct a basket. As we bent over our task, we heard thundering hoofbeats, getting rapidly closer. Turning around, we saw a galloping female moose, with a gangly little calf that managed to keep up with her. They were so intent on getting away from whatever startled them that they ignored us and passed by, barely 30 feet away, and off they went, full tilt.

Moose have been part of both successful and unsuccessful population transplant attempts in Alaska. They are also part of at least one of Mary F. Willson’s stories from time spent on Southeast trails. (Courtesy Photo | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Moose have been part of both successful and unsuccessful population transplant attempts in Alaska. They are also part of at least one of Mary F. Willson’s stories from time spent on Southeast trails. (Courtesy Photo | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Granite Basin Trail: We watched two bear cubs sliding down a snowy avalanche chute, tumbling head first and tail first. Then they climbed back up to do it again and again. After watching her offspring, mom joined in the fun, and made several — somewhat more decorous — slides too.

On a beach somewhere near Sitka: It’s always fun to find hermit crabs, sometimes a tiny one that can hide in the tip of a big whelk shell, or one wearing a wee periwinkle shell — seemingly uselessly — on the end of its abdomen. In the shallow water by this beach, we found dozens of hermit crabs scrabbling to and fro. They came in all sizes and there weren’t enough empty shells to go around. So there were battles going on everywhere, with one crab trying to pull another out of its shell. As soon as one extracted an owner and moved in, it was subject to attempted evictions. It didn’t seem to matter if the shell was the right size for the attacking crab. Maybe any shell was better than none.

[On the trails: Intertidal highlights]

North Douglas boat ramp: Crows had been foraging on mussels and other shellfish. We often see them do this, dropping their prey onto the beach in hopes of breaking the shell and exposing the fleshy interior. Very often, the substrate is too soft to be effective. But at the paved boat ramp, although it sometimes required two or three drops, the strategy worked very well—except when some of the crows chose to sit on the sidelines and wait for their hard-working companions to do the foraging and shell-dropping, then raced out to snitch the meat without doing the work.

Cowee Meadows: As two of us strolled quietly on a bank above some lower ground, we suddenly heard some loud snorting and thrashing of brush from a thicket below us. Uh-oh! Our eyebrows and the hair on the backs of our necks went up. We couldn’t see the source of the ruckus, so we didn’t learn if the perpetrator was guarding a carcass or just feeling cranky, but we didn’t stay around to meet this annoyed beast and very carefully and discretely retreated down the trail.

Berners Bay: A sizable troop of young sea lions approached our group of kayakers. They seemed to be very curious, eye-balling us with their heads raised up and talking loudly among themselves. They made several approaches, sometimes coming within 20 feet or so of a kayak. Another time, a humpback whale eased up to the surface right next to my kayak, close enough that I could have touched it. I’m sure the great beast knew I was there and was just visiting.

Another time there, right in front of the cabin, a humpback whale rose straight up with its mouth wide open, engulfing a dinner of herring. Escaping fish cascaded down from both sides of the mouth, a glittering stream, like liquid mercury, said one observer, in the sunshine.

Glacier Bay: We were parked on a beach, sunning ourselves after a trip up the East Arm. The rising tide pushed some oystercatchers up the beach toward us — parents and two chicks. They stopped just a few feet in front of us and ignored us, giving us a great look at them, until we (unfortunately) had to move on.

Gustavus, agin: A friend and I had looked in several places here in Juneau for a particular kind of fern, a weird one called moonwort. We had failed and needed help. So we took the ferry, the good old LeConte, to Gustavus. We had to take the same ferry back to Juneau, so there was a short turn-around time. A naturalist friend met us and led us down the beach a few dozen yards, and said ‘There it is’. Finally we saw this elusive plant, and since then we have seen it and a related species in the Gustavus area and found it near the glacier visitor center. The ferry ride was good, too.

[Galls and gizzards in Gustavus]

Eaglecrest: Plodding up from Hilda Meadows on snowshoes, we followed the trail of an otter all the way from Hilda Creek, up the hill along a Hilda tributary to the divide, thence to one of the sources of Fish Creek. That critter knew where it was going.

Mountain sentinels: Snow-laden trees at Eaglecrest Ski Area. Mary F. Willson once followed the trail of an otter all the way from Hilda Creek, up the hill along a Hilda tributary to the divide, thence to one of the sources of Fish Creek. “That critter knew where it was going,” Willson writes. (Courtesy photo | Deborah Rudis)

Mountain sentinels: Snow-laden trees at Eaglecrest Ski Area. Mary F. Willson once followed the trail of an otter all the way from Hilda Creek, up the hill along a Hilda tributary to the divide, thence to one of the sources of Fish Creek. “That critter knew where it was going,” Willson writes. (Courtesy photo | Deborah Rudis)

Spaulding Trail in late winter: A raven flew overhead and dropped something — thud — onto the snow next to us. It was a wad of moss and tiny twigs, but why would that make a thud? It was an old robin’s nest, mud-walled inside the moss-and-twig mix, and frozen solid. Now the question became—was that raven bombing us, as message, or just playing games?

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears every Wednesday.

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