Hiker's paradise only yards away

Wintertime offers plenty of options for Juneau trail trackers

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2007

From a point between the end of Crow Hill Drive and the water tower above, the Gastineau Meadows Trail winds gradually upward through scattered shore pines. For cross-country skiers and snowshoers, the lower meadows offer several opportunities to explore.

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When the trail rises up to the Treadwell Ditch trail, there are three obvious options:

• Go right along the ditch for a short distance and figure out how to cross Lawson Creek (the bridge is out).

• Go left a few yards and then head up to the right into a nice chain of meadows in Lawson Creek valley.

• Or go left and stay on the ditch trail to the junction with a snowmobile route.

If you follow the snowmobile route up the hill for some distance, you eventually reach the snowmobilers' cabin. It is located in on a small ridge with a good overlook of Gastineau Channel.

When I was there recently, a little flock of chickadees was busily picking up spruce seeds from the surface of the snow.

Behind the cabin is a subalpine bowl backed by prodigious cliffs, which are topped by a very deep cornic. A large avalanche chute provides somewhat soggy access to the upper reaches of Mt. Jumbo in summer - but it's not recommended during avalanche season!

Partway up the snowmobile route, you gain access to an expansive array of meadows.

They descend gradually southward toward the end of the ditch trail, offering great cross-country skiing.

When I first came to Juneau from the Midwest, this is one of the first places I went with the Parks and Rec hiker-skiers.

I thought I knew how to cross-country ski. But a couple of kindly Parks and Rec skiers sure spent a lot of time pulling me out of tree holes! I don't fall into tree holes much any more, and these meadows are grand fun - at least when a Taku wind isn't howling.

On a recent trip to Gastineau Meadows, I spotted a small flock of pine grosbeaks, flitting from treetop to treetop and singing their beautiful, warbling song.

These chubby birds feed on buds, fruits, and seeds in winter. If you are lucky enough to see them close-up, you may notice that the adult males are reddish with dark wings, the females are dressed in shades of olive green, and young males are intermediate (greenish with red patches).

They all have a bright white wing patch.

Although they reportedly nest in some coastal forests in spring, I have seen them here only in winter. The only nest of this species I've ever found was near Atlin, B.C., about 15 feet up in a lodgepole pine. That sounds appropriate, given their name, but pine grosbeaks supposedly favor spruce and fir for nesting.

This winter I've also seen many flocks of common redpolls, a regular winter visitor from the north. They love to feed on alder seeds, hanging on the branches and pulling seeds from the cones.

They come in hordes to my feeder at home. I see flocks of redpolls along the trails also, flying high from one feeding site to another. They are closely related to pine siskins and look a lot like siskins with added red caps, red chests (on the males), and black chins.

But there are few siskins this year, and most of the flying flocks of small birds seem to be redpolls.

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

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