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Exploring the Granite Creek Trail

Mammals large and small share space with wasps, flowers and shorebirds

Posted: Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Granite Creek Trail takes off roughly 1.5 miles up the Perseverance Trail, side-hilling along the ridges above the creek. A new switchback now bypasses a stretch of slippery bedrock.

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Part of the intermittent boardwalk is in poor condition and erosion has narrowed the trail in a couple of steep places. Watch out for the stinging nettles at the trail edge near the beginning of the trail.

The first section of the trail runs through dense stands of salmonberry and alder. Summer hikers often see one or two globular nests of paper wasps suspended from alder branches. These wasps are not particularly aggressive unless they are molested, but the sting is quite zesty. The papery nest, built of chewed-up wood and foliage, is begun by a queen that overwintered alone. She raises a first brood of workers (sterile females), which do all the work of raising subsequent broods, feeding the larvae mostly on insects.

Sometimes a black bear is seen across the creek, grazing in the small meadows or loafing on a boulder in the sun. Mountain goats often amble along the upper Juneau Ridge, nimbly negotiating the cliffs and nibbling the alpine vegetation. Most of the goats I've seen here have been groups of nannies with their kids, but occasionally there is a less gregarious billy resting on a ledge or working his way up a gully in solitary splendor.

The trail gets steeper as it approaches the narrow entry to the basin. The creek tumbles out of the basin in a long cascade. American dippers often forage here and carry aquatic insects to their nest below the cascade. The pond behind the cascade is a good place to see spotted sandpipers bobbing along the edges on the gravel bars.

"Spotties" are among the unusual shorebirds in which females mates with more than one male, laying eggs for the first male, leaving him to incubate them, and moving on to a second male and laying eggs for him to incubate. In some regions, experienced females may have three or four mates in succession, but I doubt that our summer is long enough for that. The four eggs are deposited in a shallow scrape above the shoreline, protected chiefly by their inconspicuousness. If you are wondering why shorebirds are called shorebirds, it's because they spent winters on lake and ocean shores south of us, and the people Down South who invent bird names see them there. But in summer, the so-called shorebirds nest all over the Arctic and alpine tundras and muskegs, and a few even get into forested areas.

The creek meanders across the basin, passing clumps of the small fireweed known as river beauty and scattered other flowers. The talus slopes around the basin are home to hoary marmots, which often whistle in warning as hikers and especially dogs go up the trail. Uncontrolled dogs are a real threat to marmots - I once found a very fresh carcass of a female marmot with its throat torn out, lying in the middle of a trail just after a couple of large and rambunctious dogs had passed by. Marmots are active only in summer, spending the rest of the year hibernating in their burrows.

At the back of the basin lies a series of ascending benches. Alpine blueberries grow densely on the benches, offering rich pickings for ptarmigan and marmots, as well as humans. Bears visit these berry patches too, and the signs of their fruit selection can be seen in their bluish scats dotted with tiny reddish seeds. Alpine blueberries seem to be less infested with the moth and fly larvae that sometimes plague the taller lowland species. An upper bench holds a small lake.

From here, one might climb to Mount Olds or route-find up the Juneau Ridge. Most folks, however, prefer to hike the ridge by starting at Mount Juneau and coming down the ridge into Granite Basin and out via the Perseverance trail. This is a great loop route, but the usual use of the Granite Creek Trail means going out the same way one came in. This isn't a sorry fate because things look different going the other way.

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



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