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Late August in Granite Basin

Posted: September 13, 2013 - 12:01am
An open flower of copperbush shows the pollen-bearing parts displayed against the petals. In the middle of the flower are the female parts, with the developing, pumpkin-shaped ovary, which will become larger as the seeds mature. The 'handle' on the pumpkin is the route through which pollination occurs.  Photo by Kerry Howard
Photo by Kerry Howard
An open flower of copperbush shows the pollen-bearing parts displayed against the petals. In the middle of the flower are the female parts, with the developing, pumpkin-shaped ovary, which will become larger as the seeds mature. The 'handle' on the pumpkin is the route through which pollination occurs.

The day began under gray skies, but by midmorning the sun was lightening everyone’s mood. A sizable group of Parks and Recreation hikers, including several visitors, headed up Perseverance Trail with plans to turn toward Granite Basin, a favorite destination of many locals.

Despite a few heavy rains in the past weeks, the trail was mostly clear of mud. A month before, the thick remnants of an old avalanche had extended over a piece of the trail and the creek. The snow pack did not melt away in the past two summers, so in July, we clambered over a heap of accumulated snow. But by late August, that old snow was gone, except for a small ledge.

The wrecks of alders and other shrubs littered the slope above the trail where the snow had lain, but many mutilated trees had produced a few late leaves. If they can get an earlier start next summer, before too long the slope may again support a cover of brush to make homes for warblers and sparrows.

Two marmots cuddled together on top of a big boulder, basking in the sun. Several clusters of mountain goats dotted Juneau Ridge. A few warblers flitted through the alders, stoking up their reserves for the coming migration. Copperbush still had a few flowers, but most of the flowers had made fruits that looked like tiny pumpkins with a handle (the remaining female part of the flower).

There were quite a few ripe salmon berries — rather surprising in view of the many people who use this trail. Both red and yellow-orange fruits were fairly common. For the record, although there’s a myth that the red ones taste better than the yellow-orange ones, in fact the sugar content is equal. Blind taste tests with fully ripe berries showed that humans could not distinguish between the two colors by taste. We did a little berry-foraging for ourselves. So had a grouse or ptarmigan, because we found a scat in the trail was filled with salmonberry and blueberry seeds.

Wild flowers of several sorts still bloomed along the trail, and the native species of mountain ash bore its bright red fruits. A dipper searched along the edges of the pool at the entrance to basin and swam in the shallows after aquatic insects. The dippers’ customary nest site below the big waterfall had been under snow for the last two springs and was therefore unusable, but they may have nested in another site up on the back side of the basin.

Bears had wandered along the trail, leaving scats with seeds of devil’s club and vegetation fibers. Beside the trail was a wide swath of matted, broken stalks of false hellebore (a.k.a. corn lily), where bears had apparently gone after the basal parts of the plants. According to a hiker with extensive experience as a hunter, bears really do eat this plant. Although it is known to be very poisonous to humans, it’s not the only noxious (to us) plant that bears eat.

On the return trip down the Perseverance Trail, several of us had a surprise. A female black bear with two cubs appeared in the trail. We stopped, and they ducked into the brush on one side of the trail. Unfortunately, that side was very close to the creek, with a steep drop-off, so there was no ready way for the bear family to distance themselves. Because we were in a group, we carefully passed by, speaking very politely as we did so. Mama sent the cubs scurrying up a tree and let us know her displeasure by rattling the bushes. That gave us a little adrenalin spike, for sure, but in reality, this bear was not being aggressive at all. She was just telling us in bear language to get lost, so she and her cubs could go on their placid way. So we did, and they did!

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

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