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A choice faces hikers using Dan Moller trail routes

Either take the more used pedestrian path or the scenic way

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hikers have the choice of two trailheads on the Dan Moller Trail.

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The Pioneer Avenue access is much used by dog walkers, whose canine friends often leave numerous marks of their visits on and alongside the trail. The other, more gradual, access is from the snowmachiners' parking lot at the south end of the Blueberry Hills subdivision. The two access trails join on the Treadwell Ditch and go up the Kowee Creek watershed to a subalpine bowl and a cabin.

Although the cabin is rather dark and gloomy, it is a popular destination, and the bowl behind it is much used in winter by high-marking snowmachiners and daredevil skiers and snowboarders. Much of the trail is boardwalk, which can be perilously slippery when wet.

The trail passes through several muskegs, with a summertime flower show. Look for the unusual purple-flowered plant called butterwort or "bog violet" (which is not a real violet at all, although the flowers are superficially similar).

Deceptively innocent-looking, the low-lying yellowish-green leaves are sticky traps for insects, which the plant digests as a source of nitrogen. Insect-eating plants generally grow in nutrient-poor habitats, such as muskegs, and supplement their "income" by capturing and digesting insects. The other common insectivorous plants in the muskegs are sundews, with sticky hairs on the leaves.

Starting in late March, male blue grouse, or hooters, can be heard all over the valley. At this time of year, it is still possible to see ptarmigan tracks in the snow down in the forest, but these birds will eventually retreat to their breeding habitat at higher elevations.

Later in spring, from the edges of the muskegs, you may hear the distinctive "Quick, three beers!" song of the olive-sided flycatcher, a pretty rare bird around here. The males typically need tall trees with dead tops for their singing posts, but the nests are placed on live branches, usually in conifers. This species winters in Central and South America and arrives here in May. The western populations of the olive-sided flycatcher have declined markedly in recent decades, and the species is now listed as being of conservation concern.

Partway up the watershed, not far from the cabin, grow a few yellow cedars, readily identified by their drooping, frond-like foliage, fine bark and small round cones. A very interesting story is emerging on the ecology of yellow cedars in Southeast Alaska, from the work of Paul Hennon at the Forestry Sciences Lab. It now appears that yellow cedars may have survived the ice ages in small, unglaciated refugia on the outer coast. The winged seeds are dispersed by the wind, and colonies of yellow cedars across Southeast represent the spread of the species following glacial retreat.

The distribution of yellow cedar stands in northern Southeast is very spotty. Local outposts of the species can be found, for instance, up in Spaulding Meadow or on the side of Thunder Mountain. These small stands are just a few hundred years old, but the trees are really young adults, because this species reportedly can live as long as 1,500 years. The roots are susceptible to freezing, but a good blanket of snow protects them.

In areas of Southeast that receive little snowfall, cedar trees have been dying; nearly half a million acres of forest have dead and dying cedars. Lack of snow is especially serious at low elevations. Ongoing patterns of climate warming are likely to increase cedar mortality in more parts of Southeast. Although the cedar colonies around Juneau are still viable, the future of our stands of yellow cedars is in doubt. Climate changes are likely to interrupt the pioneering spread of this tree across northern Southeast and may cause the range of the species to contract.

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



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