Note to reader: A lot of hard work has gone into restoring and enhancing the Treadwell Ditch Trail. It's well kept for around 10 miles from Eaglecrest to near the base of Mount Jumbo. This column was inspired from wandering the unmaintained section, and the surrounding woods, south of Mount Jumbo. Many thanks to Trail Mix and volunteers for all that you do to keep the Treadwell DIich and all of Juneau's trails in good shape.
On a recent pleasant May afternoon, my girlfriend MC and I walked our pocket-sized golden retriever Fen around the Treadwell Ditch trail. We listened to birds and studied the new vegetation coming to life while Fen dove into a mud hole and emerged looking like a rabid Pleistocene beast. The booming mating calls of sooty grouse echoed from the mountains. A small black bear had recently dug up skunk cabbage roots in a muskeg and rooted through the remains of a dead deer. In this same area the previous May, MC and I had found the mostly intact skeleton of a small bear. Moss had been growing on its skull and its teeth didn’t look too worn.
So much effort and life went into the Treadwell mines. Now all that’s left is a trail and some ruins. Deer, wolves and bears use the trail more than people. It’s not a particularly scenic hike by Juneau standards but I think it’s a high contender for most meditative and a stark reminder of the passage of time.
A while later, we came across the remains of a buck lying off the trail. By the end of our wander we counted four dead deer — not to mention numerous other scattered bones. One had been killed by a hunter — its antlers were sawed off. The other three deaths were harder to know. Two I guessed were killed by wolves. Or, at least eaten after they died from the winter or some other cause.
The population of wolves on Douglas has grown significantly in the last few years. Fen and I even saw sign on Sandy Beach last winter. It happened on the sort of gloomy afternoon that inspired me to dress up like a private eye from the 1930s and utter cryptic one-liners to my dog. Fen is classy but free-spirited, the sort of gal that will eat a turdsickle one moment and lick your face the next. Naturally, wolf poop is her favorite. It might be my favorite poop, too. We were both excited when we found tracks and scat just below the high tide line. I did my best to usher Fen away. That savvy beast pulled a quick one, doubled back and before two wags of a wolf’s tail had herself an organic wilderness treat.
“You’re sick but that’s what I like about you,” I told her, remembering the last time she ate wolf crap on North Douglas and then vomited on my lap while we were driving home.
There was one deer carcass that MC and I passed on our hike that I had come across almost a month previously, just as melting snow revealed it. It had been a perfectly intact skeleton of a young buck with much of the hide still on. In late winter it appeared to have laid down on a game trail and died. Now it had been scattered by wolves or a bear. By the end of the summer it, and all of these carcasses, will be absorbed into the forest. Next summer, if I look carefully, I might be able to find a bone or two.
There was lots of deer sign on our walk, though. On the hike when I first found the skeleton of the young buck, Fen and I’d even caught fleeting glimpses of three bounding away.
A few days before MC’s and my walk, I’d returned from a trek on Kodiak Island. There had been an even bigger winter deer die off there — carcasses, mostly picked clean by foxes, birds and bears lay scattered on beaches, tundra and in brush. My trip buddy, photographer Chris Miller, and I came upon one emaciated doe when we were climbing up a muddy bluff. Chris and I didn’t want to stress her but the only place to walk was where she stood. The sharp lines of her bones jutted beneath her hide. She took a pained step, gave us one more glance and then lowered her head and nibbled on yellow grass. We passed within a few feet, whispering encouragement that in a short while salvation would come in the color of green.
More impressive than the die off on Kodiak was the number of deer — I’d guess anywhere between 150 and 250 animals — we saw in the 130 miles we traveled.
Toward the end of our Treadwell walk, MC and I studied songbirds rushing to and fro. We edged past skunk cabbage that had been nibbled by a deer — the tiny tracks of a fawn crisscrossed the mud — and emerged from the woods. A marmot that had recently emerged from hibernation saw Fen, whistled and scurried into its den. Sea ducks bobbed on the ocean, jockeying with each other in what appeared to be comical and awkward attempts to mate. The last quarter mile followed a forest path that wended by mining ruins. Through breaks in alders and cottonwoods, I watched two small kids walking with their mom on Sandy Beach along the edge of the surf. Even from a distance, it was apparent they too were enjoying the promise of spring.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer. His first book, “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska,” was recently published. Follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.