Bridget Point is in full flower

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Bridget Point Trail is an easy hike, boardwalks (slippery when wet) and gravel walkways traversing a nice variety of habitats. Its head is near Mile 39 North Glacier Highway, just before Echo Cove and the road's end.

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It begins in a beautiful muskeg dotted with small shore pines. Among the various herbaceous plants is the small, white-flowered three-leaved goldthread, closely related to the fern-leaved goldthread that is typical of forest understory.

Looking at the flowers, you wouldn't see much similarity: Each long, narrow petal of the fern-leaved species bears a greenish nectary in its midsection, but the petals of the three-leaved species are short, golden trumpets that bear the nectar - and the broad, white parts that look like petals are really the sepals that surround the flower itself. Still, the pinwheel fruits are very much alike - that of the three-leaved species is just a bit daintier. As the trail leaves the muskeg and enters the forest, there is a transitional habitat where both species grow alongside the trail, making comparisons easy.

In summer, hikers sometimes see small Western (or boreal) toads along this trail. The meadows near the creek have several small ponds that are sometimes used as breeding sites for these toads. The eggs are laid in strings, often attached to pond vegetation, in early spring. The tadpoles spend several weeks growing to a body length of about half an inch, and then begin to change into the adult form. Tiny hind legs emerge beside the tail, and the tail begins to shrink, and gradually the tadpole is transformed into a half-inch-long toadlet. Now they leave the pond, often gathering in heaps of a hundred or more on the shore, before dispersing through the forest. They will spend several years growing and maturing before returning to the ponds to breed. It is usually these dispersing and maturing individuals (less than about 2 inches long) that are seen by hikers on the trail.

Tadpoles have many enemies, including fish, crows and ravens, and humans that remove them from their home ponds. When toads were abundant, the human factor was not such a big deal, but now it is. The population of toads around Juneau has crashed in the past 10-15 years. Where once you could find toads hopping about the forest in many places, now there are only a few places where they can be found. So removing any from the wild populations is a bad idea.

Our sadly depleted toad population is the local manifestation of a global decline and too-often extinction of frogs and toads. The causes of this dramatic change are still being debated, but probably include damage to the immune systems from various forms of pollution and rampant infections of lethal fungi and other pathogens.

Passing down the slope through the forest, the trail skirts a large meadow formed as the land rose after the glacier receded. In June, the meadow is a spectacular show of wild flowers, including shooting stars, wild iris, northern geranium, buttercups, chocolate lilies, and lupines. Many of these are pollinated mainly by bees, but flies visit lilies and buttercups.

Beyond the Cowee Meadow cabin in the wettest parts of the meadow are stands of sweetgale, a highly aromatic shrub with separate male and female plants that flower in early spring. This plant captures atmospheric nitrogen and changes it into forms usable by other plants, which can take up the modified nitrogen from the soil. A rare treat in early spring is a glimpse of mountain bluebirds or Townsend's solitaires, stopping briefly on their way to breeding grounds in the Interior.

Near the cabin the trail branches. One fork leads into the forest up toward Cedar Lake (check out the dragonflies here). The main trail continues to the berm at the edge of the beach, from which you can enjoy a great view of Lion's Head Mountain and Berners Bay, occasional humpback whales and harbor seals, lots of gulls and sea ducks. From here, the trail leads along the edge of the forest to the Blue Mussel cabin.

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

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