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On the Trails: Equinoctial explorations

Posted: March 29, 2013 - 12:01am
Ravens have pulled dry grass from this tussock, to make a nest lining. They probably had made several trips, judging from their footprints and the amount of grass scattered around this area.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Ravens have pulled dry grass from this tussock, to make a nest lining. They probably had made several trips, judging from their footprints and the amount of grass scattered around this area.

About the time of the spring equinox, we enjoyed a renascence of winter, with single-digit temperatures at night and gloriously sunny days. A strong north wind whipped Lynn Canal into a turbulent froth. There were several inches of fresh, powdery snow all over everything. The wind tore the loose snow from the trees, creating showers of tiny, sun-lit crystals that made me think of falling stars.

I set out, with a friend, to walk the route from the first muskeg on the Boy Scout trail over the saddle to Saga meadow. The plan was to reach the beach and then circle back through the long meadow near Saga. The route first follows the old horse-tram line, but where the tram line dips down into the long, narrow meadow, the trail stays in the upland. We were the first humans to tread this route since the last snowfall. Ducking under, over, or around numerous wind-thrown trees, we had no trouble following the route until we reached a muskeg not far from the shore. We could almost hear the waves crashing on the rocks, but the continuation of the trail was nowhere to be seen. We looked in several likely spots where the trail might re-enter the forest on the way to the beach, but came to a dead end each time. Growling gently, we went back the way we came.

The very next day, I went out there again with two other friends, and this time we started from the Saga end. Up the CBJ trail to the little cove, over the tiny stream, make a sharp right, and keep going until the trail enters the first muskeg. Lo and behold, there was our trail from yesterday, right where I’d hoped to intersect it. The point where the trail crossed from the muskeg into the forest was very brushy, so it was little wonder that I’d missed it the previous day. It was good to get the route reconnected in my mental map.

The snow was perfect for recording mammal tracks, and we found an almost-full roster of those we could expect to find. Here, an otter had slithered over the ridge and down into the big meadow and there, it had come back, through a culvert under the CBJ trail, and over the ridge to the rocky shore. A porcupine had ambled along, and a deer or two had trotted hither and yon. Near the shore, mink had left several trackways, which often ended in a hole under a log or stump. Red squirrels had been busy, sometimes leaving little highways of repeated use. A tiny shrew had tunneled and scrambled, leaving dime-sized holes of entry and exit. A coyote had run purposefully across an opening in the forest. We were especially pleased to find the trackway of a mouse that had used its tail for balance, flipping it from one side to the other, as it lurched through the snow. But no evidence of snowshoe hares.

A few dead leaves hanging off blueberry twigs drew our attention. There seemed to be very small galls at the bases of the leaf stems, where the leaf was connected to the twig. The galls somehow may have prevented the normal process of cutting off the circulation from twig to leaf, so the leaves didn’t drop off in the usual fashion. A quick internet search determined that several things can cause galls on blueberries but nothing resembled what we observed. One more thing to learn about!

Under a rotting stump we found a miniature ice-cavern, complete with stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, and icy sheets over the old roots on one side (like flowstone in a real cavern). There was just enough sunshine coming through the tree canopy that the little cavern was lit up, glittering and gleaming. Even deep in this cavern, the ice seemed to glow with blues and purples.

To top it all off, we saw our first red-breasted sapsuckers of the season. They’re back!—so spring can now begin. Ravens already knew this, of course: they’ve been lining nests with fine grasses, ready to make a bed for eggs and chicks.

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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