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On the Trails: Going to Granite Creek Basin

Posted: May 29, 2014 - 5:54pm  |  Updated: May 30, 2014 - 2:32am
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An orange-crowned warbler probes a willow catkin.  Photo by Kathy Hocker
Photo by Kathy Hocker
An orange-crowned warbler probes a willow catkin.

This is one of my favorite Juneau hikes. In mid-May, some friends and I time-traveled from almost full summer (at the head of Perseverance Trail) to very early spring in the basin, just in time for lunch. There was still a fair amount of snow in the basin and the bushes were mostly pressed flat. All along the trail the birds were singing — hermit thrushes and varied thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets in the trees, Wilson’s warblers, fox sparrows, and orange-crowned warblers in the brush. Robins were well along in their nesting cycle, but nevertheless we heard them almost everywhere. Up in the basin, I was pleased to hear the plaintive song of golden-crowned sparrows, a bird that graces some of our subalpine areas.

I’m going to give the orange-crowned warbler special mention here, because they are so often overlooked entirely. It’s a drab little ground-nester. Its chief distinguishing feature is that it has no distinguishing features. The orange crown is concealed. The grayish streaks on the breast are hard to discern. It’s just a yellowish-olive little thing, with an equally undistinguished song that could equally well come from some insect. They love to forage on caterpillars that munch leaves.

A hefty black bear grazed on a slope across Gold Creek. Marmots sounded their warning whistles as we wound our way up toward the basin. High on Juneau ridge, we spotted a group of mountain goats and were quite sure that some of them had new kids. Margined-white butterflies fluttered here and there, vising a few flowers; they certainly like violets. Male butterflies contested vigorously with each other for desirable females, and we found one couple that had reached an agreement. The female will lay her eggs on the leaves of plants in the mustard family.

Violets, salmonberry, subalpine (Cooley’s) buttercup, and the first coltsfoot of the season bloomed. Because we’d just had a “pollen storm” for several days, there were layers of spruce pollen on leaves and rocks, not entirely washed off by little rains.

As much as I enjoy going up this trail, I think it should be reported that the trail has some bad spots. The avalanche that has covered a bend in the trail for several years is still there, but it’s not hard to cross (with care). More worrisome were a couple of snow patches where one misstep could have sent a person on a very long slide straight down to the creek. The snow patches will, of course, disappear before long.

But there are more persistent and, in some cases, potentially dangerous places where erosion has worn the path to half of its normal width, with a steep drop-off to one side. Some of the board walk is quite rotten. At the first level place after the Granite Basin trail leaves the Perseverance trail, the already-large mudhole is continually expanded as hikers try to avoid the mud. It is to be hoped that the agency in charge of this very popular trail will repair at least the most dangerous spots soon!

The pool at the top of the falls that marks the basin entrance didn’t seem to have its usual spotted sandpiper, although I’d heard this species calling at lower-elevation gravel bars. As we rounded the corner above the falls, a little gray bird shot downstream over the falls and disappeared. So we couldn’t watch a dipper bobbing along the shore of the pool this time. But I could hope they were nesting a short distance below the falls. For the past several years, a late snow bridge has covered the stream where dippers had previously nested for many years, so there was no nesting there recently.

But this year, the snow bridge was gone and the nesting cliffs were largely exposed, so — just maybe — a pair of dippers could raise a family there.

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

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