Avalanche slopes: Windows to wildlife

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

The dark shape waddling across the open expanse of the avalanche slope looked like a small bear. Looking across Gold Creek from Basin Road, the size was hard to judge, but a quick look with binoculars revealed a fat porcupine was on the prowl, not a bear. He had the slope above the flume all to himself on this early spring evening, but he'll have plenty of company in just a few weeks.

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Early April is a great time for wildlife watching in Southeast Alaska, and avalanche slopes are prime areas for viewing. Early in the spring, the alder trees and berry bushes have yet to leaf out, and the ferns and other perennials are just beginning to push up through the soil. The view is unobstructed, and the emerging greens draw mammals to the open slopes. Insects flourish on these moist, sun-warmed hillsides and attract a variety of birds. Ravens and eagles, engrossed in courtship displays and exuberant play, exploit the thermals that rise off the slopes.

For most folks living in downtown Juneau, the Mendenhall Valley or Douglas, a five-minute walk will put an avalanche slope into view. In fact, many people can survey nearby avalanche slopes from their windows. These slopes are snow free now and likely to remain so. Snow accumulation was relatively slight this year. Attempts to trigger avalanches last week on the slopes of Mount Roberts above Thane Road resulted in a few patches of snow feebly sloughing off the hillside, barely filling the upper reaches of the gullies.

Bears will be coming out of hibernation in the next few weeks, and avalanche slopes are ideal places for viewing spring bears. When bears first emerge from hibernation, they feed on sprouting vegetation and favor the coast and the lower reaches of avalanche slopes. As the mountainsides warm at higher elevations, some bears will follow the emerging vegetation up-slope. In late April and May bears can be seen on the open slopes at 1,000 to 1,500 foot elevation. They'll come back down when the first salmonberry crop comes in.

The slope above Thane Road is clearly visible from Douglas, and every year bears can be seen working the hillside along Snowslide Creek, the most prominent avalanche slope below the Gastineau Peak/Mount Roberts ridgeline. Although it's a mile across, a spotting scope or binoculars will bring a bear into clear view. Mountain goats may also be seen on the south-facing ridgeline of Mount Roberts, above Sheep Creek.

Every spring, bears feed on the avalanche slope on Mount Juneau above Behrends Avenue, the slopes above the flume, and the avalanche chute and slope across from the overlook just a few minutes up Perseverance Trail. It's great bear viewing: They are a safe distance away, feeding on appropriate food (not raiding trash cans or bird feeders) and the view is unobstructed. Cubs of the year romp and tumble near mom, and bears will alternately feed and nap in the sunshine. Their dark black coats stand out distinctly against the slopes, and they're not too hard to find once they come out.

Mountain goats are coming out in force now and can be seen in several locations around Juneau. Goats tend to stay as high as possible - although there are plenty of exceptions - and can be seen on the fringes of snow patches at the upper reaches of the slopes. Mountain goats can be seen now on Mount Juneau, near the billboard-like structure about 2,000 feet above the high school. Several nannies and kids have moved onto the avalanche slope above Behrends Avenue. Out near the Mendenhall Glacier, goats can be seen at relatively low elevation, and they'll move upslope as spring progresses. It's possible to see nannies with kids near Nugget Falls, on the open, rocky face between the falls and the glacier. Goats can also be seen on Mount McGinnis.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation, and is the editor of the online publication, Alaska Wildlife News. His column on natural history and wildlife viewing appears every other Sunday in the Juneau Empire. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us.

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