Alaska's vibrant biodiversity displayed along Eagle River

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2006

The long walk to the Eagle Glacier cabin is rewarded - on a clear day - by stunning views of towering, stream-laced rock walls across the lake. A couple more miles brings one close to the retreating glacier itself.

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The comfortable cabin sits on the lake shore, a few hundred yards above a falls where the lake waters pour into Eagle River. The old abandoned mining settlement of Amalga was located not far from the cabin.

The U.S. Forest Service has constructed several very nice new bridges and plans to build more soon. There are some stretches of boardwalk that can be dangerously slippery when wet and some very rooty mudholes that make for difficult walking in places.

The trail sidles along a huge marsh created at least partly by beaver workings. This is unusual habitat for the Juneau area, supporting some birds that are marsh specialists. Common yellowthroats nest here, their "witchety-witchety" song a hallmark of marshy habitat. The whinnying call of sora rails might be heard here, and - very occasionally - the grunting call of a Virginia rail, a very rare bird around here. Every year I listen for the songs and calls of red-winged blackbirds here, because it seems like there should be some around and some birders have found them here. So far I have failed, though we do occasionally find them near the Juneau Pioneers' Home and Fred Meyer. Expert birders tell me that the marsh is a good place for western wood pewees, tree swallows and hairy woodpeckers.

Other sections of the trail pass through seas of devil's club, that plant we all love to hate. If a hiker carelessly grabs a stem for needed stability, or slips and falls against the stems, the miserable spines fester for days in the person's skin. Step on a recumbent stem to pass over it, and a nearby stem will be pulled over and whack you in the ear. Try to cut the stems, and if you are not careful, the attacked stem or its neighbor will jump back and hit you where you least expect it. More festering spines.

Nevertheless, this plant has a number of positive features. Native people up and down the coast use it medicinally, including treatment for arthritis, digestive problems and diabetes. Properly used, it is rumored to protect against evil spirits. The red berries are food for birds and bears, but not recommended for humans. Walk under a tall stand of devil's club and look up at the leaves as the sunlight, when there is some, passes through. It can be beautiful, and sunlight on the leaves illuminates the entire understory. Naturalist John Muir even liked the sound of raindrops drumming on the broad leaves.

Chum, pink and coho salmon run in this river system, and young coho are common in some of the clearwater tributaries and sloughs. During spawning season, the reek of decaying salmon carcasses pervades some sections of the trail; this is perfume to an ecologically-minded observer. Carcasses litter the banks in places, because the bears have been busy foraging.

One reason our bears are bigger than Interior bears is that the abundant food resources support a large body size. Much of the forested landscape in Southeast Alaska is within easy reach of a salmon-spawning stream, and most of our bears probably forage at salmon streams in preparation for the long winter hibernation.

The bears' leftovers and their scat provide a significant infusion of fertilizer to riverside forests. Because salmon gain most of their weight while they are at sea, the bulk of the fertilizer derived from carcasses and digestive products is marine in origin. Neither the bears nor the forest would be the same if salmon runs declines. The natural history and ecology of Southeast are closely tied to this link between marine, fresh-water and terrestrial systems.

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

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