A trip back to spring on Perseverance Trail

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2008

Going up the Perseverance Trail in mid-June this year is like going from summer back to spring.

Down at the end of Basin Road at the trail head, the fern fronds were fully out and the male alder cones were empty of pollen. Late-arriving migrant birds, such as warbling vireos and American redstarts, were singing vigorously. The first northern geraniums, mitreworts, and columbines were blooming.

At the far end of the trail, it was perceptibly cooler, although not very much higher in elevation. Fern fronds were still tightly furled in fiddleheads and male alder cones had yet to release pollen to the breezes. Early migrant birds, such as fox sparrows and orange-crowned warblers, were still singing here, while down at the trail head they were pretty quiet and presumably already had mates and nests.

The "war zone," where trail repairs have exposed new rock faces, created new rock slides and torn up the trees, is still without safety railings, which will come eventually. There are efforts to begin revegetation of the zone with some of the flowering plants that formerly grew there.

The western skunk cabbage was done blooming near Ebner Falls, but a little farther up the trail it was still fresh and beautifully aromatic. The little brown beetles that pollinate these flowers were easy to see on flowering spikes that were in the male (pollen-producing) phase. A few plants were in the earlier, female, phase, with all the pollen still tightly enclosed - and very few beetles.

The devil's club plants showed clear signs of a recent frost that struck parts of Juneau. The top leaves were black and limp on all the devil's club plants growing in the open. The leaves of everything else looked unharmed, and we savored the variety of greens, textures, and sheens on the new foliage that clothed the slopes around the valley.

We inspected the leaves of Sitka alder. We learned that kids like to press the leaves against the backs of their hands, and leave them there for a time. When removed, the imprint of the leaf veins remains in the skin. Now there's a useful tidbit!

We also noted small fuzzy structures in the axils of the veins, which have turned out to be houses for tiny mites. Not all alders make them, but many do. The mites live in these structures and roam around on the leaf surface, eating fungi, other mites, and miniscule insects. First described in 1886 in Sweden, this mutualism was confirmed a hundred years later in Australia and is now known to occur in many North American woody plants also.

Up on Juneau Ridge we spotted a group of about 15 mountain goats, molting heavily. It really must be summer, because they were feeding in the alpine meadows and had left the forests where they spend the winter.

Another treat, at least for some of us, was the opportunity to observe a pair of American Dippers at their nest. The nest was a bit hard to see - a ball of moss on a mossy cliff - but both adults were in attendance. I had seen the birds lining this nest with grass the previous week, and by now she may have laid their eggs. Only the female will incubate the eggs, but the male brings her bugs or fish from time to time.

At the back of the valley, a big avalanche had dumped a small mountain of snow over Gold Creek and the junction with Lurvey Creek, below Gold Falls. Some of the cottonwood trees in front of the snow pile were damaged nearly to the top, from wind and hard-driven snow. As an extra bonus, we got an informative, impromptu lecture on avalanches from our well-known local expert, Bill Glude, who happened to be biking the trail. The avalanche we walked on here was apparently part of the same episode that damaged the towers down at Snettisham.

The sun actually came out for most of the day! I think that would have made us pretty happy even if we hadn't seen anything. Everything else was a bonus. A good day on the trail!

Here are two little challenges for curious trail-walkers: There used to be some birch trees growing at the Horn, across from Snowslide Gulch. Are any of them still there? And see if you can find the apple trees on the slope above the flat part of the trail, no doubt a memento of the old mining days.

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

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