Walking the trails of North Douglas On the Trails

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

Although the weather forecast in the Juneau Empire predicts rain every day, we have been blessed with a few respites from gray and gloom. On one of those welcome days when the sun was actually visible, I strolled the Rainforest Trail, the Outer Point trail, and the estuary at the mouth of Peterson Creek on North Douglas.

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The forest is pretty quiet at this time of year, but I heard chickadees and wrens, and I spotted a flock of pine siskins overhead. On the calm waters of the bay were several small groups of buffleheads. Most of these little ducks were females or immatures, with a white spot on the side of the gray head, but there were a few adult males with their spiffy white cockades. A great blue heron stood sentinel on a reef, and a greater yellowlegs went yelping from the beach toward Shaman Island. Low over the meadow coursed a female harrier, looking for a hapless vole or small bird. A seal was chomping on a bedraggled-looking fish that once had been longer than the seal's own head.

As the trail goes down to the beach, it passes through ever-younger stands of trees. Just above the beach is a dense strip of young conifers growing on land that has risen above the waves relatively recently (in response to post-glacial uplift of land and the build-up of storm-deposited sands). Most of these young trees will die from the intense competition in such dense stands. Right inside the shoreline trip are some fine examples of large trees that used to be on the beach fringe. Some lean toward the beach before reaching for the light above. Others have live branches only on the beach side of the trunk, showing that the growing tree was exposed to good light only on that side.

There are several "pocket beaches" between cliffs on some of the uplift benches. These are popular for picnics and parties, which leave numerous fire rings. I was pleased to see that these sites were remarkably clean of trash.

The forest on this corner of North Douglas is clearly subject to high winds. There are several large wind-thrown trees with imposing root-wads. Numerous trees, scattered through the forest, have been snapped off, leaving tall snags. One very old broken-off trunk is now serving as a "nurse log," supporting a parade of young hemlock saplings.

Up in the canopy are many examples of witches' brooms, especially on the hemlock trees. A species of dwarf mistletoe parasitizes the branches, causing disorganized growth patterns. Instead of a nice orderly progression of side shoots off a main branch, there is a sort of knot from which emerge several distorted, smaller branches. An infestation of mistletoe can reduce cone production and eventually kill a tree. However, some studies suggest that the mistletoes benefit several species of birds by providing nest sites and good places to hunt for insects.

This mistletoe is not especially good for facilitating Christmas kisses. That holiday species has small, white berries eaten by birds that defecate the seeds on other branches, where they can grow into new plants. Our mistletoe species spreads its sticky seeds around by ejecting them explosively, shooting them out in hopes of landing on a suitable branch.

Down on the ground are the usual herbaceous species, such as skunk cabbage, fern-leaf goldthread, and bunchberry. I found some so-called rattlesnake plantain, which is not a plantain at all, but an orchid. Nor does it have anything to do, really, with rattlesnakes. Supposedly, it got the first part of its misnomer because some very imaginative people thought the leaves (green, with white marks) looked like snake skin. By the then-prevailing logic, because it "looked like" a snake, it was therefore thought to be useful in treating rattlesnake bites. Never mind that the plant does not grow where rattlesnakes hang out (even if there were any green ones)!

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

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