Saturday Wild on Gold Ridge

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008

When I got up that Saturday morning, the rain was pelting down and the wind-whipped trees were losing leaves and twigs.

The two-day storm had dumped so much rain that all the streams were "on a tear." Some trails had become temporary streams and the mountainsides were laced with waterfalls.

This was the day, however, on which the Juneau Audubon Society's "Saturday Wild" hike was scheduled to go to Gold Ridge. The Mount Roberts Tramway was running, although each car had two heavy barrels of sand strapped in place to help reduce rocking and swaying in the gusting winds.

Despite the decidedly snarky weather, about 40 people eventually gathered at the top of the tram and set off up the trail. The group was led by naturalist and photographer Bob Armstrong, with four or five assistant naturalists along to help. So up we went. The top of the ridge was shrouded in cloud, so we stopped short of the last steep slopes.

We paused frequently to look at flowers. The miserable weather meant that birds were few and far between: I saw one robin and heard one fox sparrow. And sensible marmots stayed in their burrows. There were old deer tracks but no deer; winter ptarmigan beds but no ptarmigan. The flowers, however, put on a tremendous show.

Altogether, I counted 35 species of wildflower plus five flowering shrubs, and I probably missed a few!

The prostrate willows were done flowering and were maturing seeds, so they didn't make the list (but they did often have lumpy, red galls on their leaves). This count doesn't include the wind-pollinated grasses, sedges, and rushes that are up there but don't make showy, insect-pollinated flowers. This was enough to cheer us all on a dismal day!

One of my favorites in this floral array is the very uncommon frog orchid. This diminutive plant bears several green flowers on its stem, and the flowers were just starting to open. Supposedly, the flower somewhat resembles a frog, but the alleged similarity eludes me. It is found in much of North America, but in Juneau has (so far) been reported only from the Gold Ridge area. I'd love to know what insect pollinates this flower; I'm guessing it is small flies.

My other favorite on this walk is the inky or glaucous gentian. Another small plant, it bears several unusual-colored flowers of a deep, intense greenish blue. It is found from northern Southeast to eastern Siberia in alpine areas. The flowers seemed to be firmly closed, perhaps waiting for a sunnier, warmer day when the bees would be flying.

About midday, we headed down, as the sky lightened up a bit and the wind abated. By the time I got home, the sun was shining through temporary gaps in the clouds. The storm was finally over, but the matted-down plants and raging torrents would take a while to recover. The people, on the other hand, recovered quickly with hot tea and crumpets.

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

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