Geology, wildlife on display at Montana Creek

Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2006

This trail is long but easy, starting at the bridge at the end of Montana Creek road and going over a divide to Windfall Lake, thence to the Windfall trailhead near the Herbert River. Montana and Windfall creeks lie on the 40-million-year-old Gastineau Fault, which also forms Gastineau Channel. Most of the route runs through familiar spruce-hemlock forest, but a lovely muskeg crowns the low divide between the Montana and Windfall drainages.

The route can be used all year long in most conditions. But the boardwalk can be slippery when wet, and care must be taken at several points along upper Montana Creek where the trail edges along steep, crumbling slopes that frequently erode. The slatey rocks of these slopes were formed from marine sediments about 90 million years ago and have been subjected to ancient stresses of subsequent terrane docking, when pieces of the Earth's crust were pushed up against and under the continent. Since joining North America, these rocks have been stressed again by the horizontal shearing along the fault, and they are now subject to the almost-continual process of weathering and erosion, as water seeps through the fractured rock.

The first 1.5 miles or so lie on the old road, extending from the bridge to the junction with McGinnis Creek. This part of the route is used by hikers, cross-country skiers, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles. When there is snow on the ground, it would be courteous for the hikers and ATV-riders to use just one side of the road, leaving the other side for a smooth and undisturbed cross-country ski track.

Steep cutbanks at the creek-bends are formed of slimy clay from the then-tidewater Mendenhall Glacier when sea water flooded the Mendenhall and Montana Creek valleys at the end of the last Ice Age, over 11,000 years ago. In places this blue-gray clay contains marine shells and iceberg "dropstones," and in certain spots is topped by a thin layer of volcanic ash from Mount Edgecumbe. The road offers easy access to several points along the creek, which is visited by many fisher-persons in season. In addition to the pink salmon and the early run of chum, there are Dolly Varden, a few steelhead, and coho salmon (which run earlier here than in nearby Steep Creek). One can often see belted kingfishers carrying small fish to their burrows in some of the dirt banks, American dippers looking for aquatic bugs among the rocks, and colorful mergansers cruising along in the current. A vigilant observer might see mountain goats up on the back of Mount Stroller White. Windfall Lake harbors cutthroat trout and baby sockeye salmon, sometimes trumpeter swans on migration, and various ducks in season.

Near the end of the road is an excellent place to find good crops of stink currants, which - despite their name - yield fine currant-flavored marmalade. The meadow at the divide offers some "highbush cranberries" along the edges (these aren't really cranberries at all, but make great ketchup) and bog cranberries (which are real cranberries) out on the moss; bog cranberries are the tiny red piquant ones that are so good in muffins, scones, and Thanksgiving sauces.

A common understory plant in the forest is fern-leaf goldthread, an attractive evergreen ground-cover sometimes eaten by deer. It is a curious plant, whose flowers can be male (making pollen) one year and female (making seeds) the next, but seeds are seldom produced two years in a row. The inconspicuous flower is unusual: the petals are long and narrow, and nectar is produced partway out on the petals (instead of in the middle of the flower, like most plants). Pollination is by tiny flies that come out mostly on nice days, so sometimes a flower has to wait a long time for an insect visitor. The seed pods are arranged in little pinwheels, raised on a short stalk above the shiny green leaves.

For folks with an exploratory bent, consider visiting the splendid waterfalls in the headwaters of both upper Montana and Windfall creeks. Both creeks pour, in parallel, off the mountainsides toward the divide, where they diverge, Windfall to flow northward, Montana to the south. American dippers nest near these falls, which are off the beaten path, requiring a bit of bushwhacking.

A sad side of the Montana Creek trail is the amount of trash that irresponsible persons deposit there. I have toted out bicycles, car parts, chairs, tables, and bags of aluminum cans - all of this after the Mendenhall Watershed Partnership arranged, a few years ago, to remove the discarded appliances and vehicles. The turnaround at the bridge appears to be a favorite dumping ground for tires, old mattresses, bottles, fast-food wrappers, occasional vandalized road signs, and dead animals. The burned pallets leave behind lots of nails, which have produced at least two flat tires for later visitors. This is really too bad, because Montana Creek is a lovely area accessible to many folks, who should not have to look at (or carry out) other people's trash.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.

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