January junkets

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

If you start at Crow Hill and go up the CBJ trail to the Treadwell Ditch, you then have three choices: sharp right on the ditch trail to Lawson Creek, which may be hard to cross in the absence of a bridge; left on the ditch trail, across some deep gullies, and then up to Gastineau Meadows, or angle-right and out into Lawson meadows.

When Parks and Rec goes on the third alternative, they usually go along the meadows that parallel the ditch and then the creek.

But this time, we made that angle-right turn and then immediately went left, up the hill and through the trees. This brought us out into another series of meadows that led us up the valley.

We'd never explored these upper meadows before, so that was a good choice. A side trip took up to an avalanche chute that we chose not to cross. We saw no birds and very few tracks of deer or porcupine.

A few days later, some of us headed up Sheep Creek Valley. Before starting, we gazed down Gastineau Channel and saw that the wind was ripping the water surface into spray and wondered if the valley would be tolerable.

The trail up the slope was in reasonable winter condition, with little ice. As the trail levels out before entering the valley proper, there are some spots that warrant circumnavigation.

The trail on the valley floor was perfectlynegotiable. Wind and sun had given the snow surface a hard glaze that made walking (with cleats) easy. We had hauled our snowshoes up there but never needed them.

The high ridges on either side of the valley sent up impressive, spinning clouds of blown snow. The wind where we walked was gusting so strongly that it occasionally knocked us off balance. But it didn't seem to be enough to bring down trees or large branches, so we trudged on to the back of the valley.

Again, we found no birds. But there were lots of well-frozen mammal tracks to consider. Deer had trotted along in many places, occasionally breaking into a four-footed bound. Porcupine tracks were very common.

We found the winter palace of a porcupine, with deep, well-traveled furrows radiated out in several directions. By looking very closely at the frost crystals on top of the glazed surface, we could see that a porcupine had plodded along one of these routes very recently.

In a place where the snow was relatively soft, there were two sets of fresh dog-like tracks, apparently accompanied by no human animal. One of these animals was large, and its companion was medium-sized. We also found some very large sasquatch-type tracks that had us mystified.

On another sunny day, I had a bad attack of the lazies. So I just wandered down to Auke Bay to inspect what might be happening there.

A tightly packed bunch of five sea lions was foraging intensively, swimming rapidly back and forth, and diving in synchrony. One sea lion was foraging solo, off to the side of the main group. About forty mergansers, both common and red-breasted, casually avoided the sea lions but were not diving very often. About six gulls were patrolling around and occasionally dove to grab a tiny fish. A group of shiny, round heads huddled together behind the outermost float, disappearing underwater in synchrony. These seals could have been avoiding the busy sea lions, or perhaps they just found a school of edibles in a different place, where they could forage in peace.

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

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