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On the Trails: An ordinary walk at Crow Point

Posted: December 6, 2013 - 1:01am
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Horned grebes in winter plumage cruise the shoreline.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Horned grebes in winter plumage cruise the shoreline.

The walk around Crow Point near the Boy Scout camp and the Eagle River estuary is easy. Sometimes there is lots of wildlife activity, but on this day, things were very quiet. A stiff north wind was whipping up whitecaps on Lynn Canal and, with an eighteen-foot high tide, the surf was pounding the shore. It was easy to see how those big beach logs get moved around and the sand gets chewed away from the raised, grassy bench. Off to the west, the snow-clad Chilkats gleamed in the sun.

We plodded along the upper edge of the sand beach, detouring up into the grass where the surf came in too close. With a little work, we could discern otter tracks amid a plethora of dog footprints. Our jacket hoods were up and our backs were hunched against the sharp, cold wind. Not until we rounded the corner to the south-facing beach did we find comfortable conditions and, at last, a little wildlife.

Here, out of the wind, dozens of gulls (glaucous-winged, mew and a few herring gulls) fossicked around at the water’s edge or loafed, in between quick jabs at something edible. As we approached, they all shifted away along the beach, but when we perched quietly on a log, they moseyed cautiously back, until they were almost directly in front of us, maybe 20 feet away. Whatever they were finding was still too small for us to discern.

We three bumps on a log were inspected, at a distance, by two Pacific loons, a horned grebe in winter plumage and a wandering sea lion from the Benjamin Island haul out. Overhead, a raven checked us out but didn’t come in for handouts. A raven visit to a beach picnic used to be a regular entertainment here but has become less frequent, making us wonder if some people have made them unwelcome.

Making our way back around the perimeter of the big, flat meadow, we discovered several rototilled areas where bears had foraged, probably for angelica. We find these digs here every year, it seems, begging the question of how there can be any angelica plants left.

We found two small wild rose bushes, leafless but bearing tiny crops of fruit. In the slanting sunlight of mid November, even three or six rose “hips” made a conspicuous display of gleaming red globes. Who eats these fruits? Humans sometimes use them, after suitable preparation, as ingredients in tea, jam and syrups, and as a source of vitamin C, but do bears or birds eat them? Every rose hip I’ve opened up is filled with stiff bristles around the seeds, and these might be rather prickly in the mouth.

Several buffleheads paddled quietly in the slough beside the river, nicely sheltered from the wind by the tall grasses. Even when our walk-by made them nervous, they didn’t leave the lee of the upwind side of the slough.

On the bank beside the trail between the beach and the parking lot, we noted a large mat of a green and apparently very happy liverwort with strap-like “leaves.” Liverworts can be a big frustration for field naturalists, because many of them are nearly indistinguishable (in the field) from mosses. But this one was not so, and we could be sure of its general identity. Even better, we could later track down its probable species. It is reported by a local botanist to be common around here, even though our favorite plant field guide doesn’t show that it lives here.

A rather ordinary walk, nothing really surprising or wildly exciting. But perhaps that depends on one’s concept of “ordinary.” I think that Juneau “raises the bar” for defining the word ordinary! The gleaming Chilkats are ordinary? Do we take for granted a flight of geese seen against a blue sky? Or the fact that we can see evidence of otters and bears (and often other beasts as well) as one strolls along? There are lots of places where one can’t do anything of the sort.

“Ordinary” is all in the eyes and minds of the beholders.

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

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