See four seasons in a day

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where do you find spring in October? Go up to Granite Basin or to the end of Perseverance Trail. In Granite Basin, you'd find places where the edges of the deep snowbanks had recently melted back, belatedly exposing some plants to the open air and light. The gigantic avalanche pile at the back of Perseverance has retreated too. So in these places you could find new fern fiddleheads and fresh young leaves on willows popping out at the edges of the snowbanks.

The plants that put out leaves so late in the season wouldn't be able to pack away much energy. So growth should be slowed, compared to plants that had all summer to synthesize sugars in their leaves and pull up nutrients from the soil. I wonder how many years this can happen before such long-buried plants just give up and die.

Even though the avalanche heap and the snowbanks had retreated, there were still snow-bridges over the creeks. The cottonwoods had lost most of their leaves, which lay in a golden carpet on the trails.

The fine fall aroma of highbush cranberry wafted over the trail in several places. So the hikers had spring and fall on the same day, with a bit of summer in the form of a few late flowers and salmonberries.

A black bear jogged across Gold Creek, as far up the valley as it could be without climbing cliffs. Another bear moseyed up a green swathe in an avalanche chute on Juneau Ridge; it was fairly chubby, so it seemed to be successfully fattening up for winter. From the Granite Creek trail, we saw at least 15 mountain goats on Juneau Ridge, mostly nannies and kids.

Some of the hikers, who went up Mount Juneau, found a bit of winter as well. They saw grouse and winter-plumaged ptarmigan along that trail. A few hardy types continued along the Juneau Ridge, through some termination dust. They found a female bear with two cubs at the back of Granite Basin. This little family might be among those who do not descend to the salmon runs in fall but, instead, stay in the alpine zone.

I looked for, but didn't see, an interesting lichen that we'd found on another recent hike. This common and rather pretty lichen is pale green with peach-colored bumps where the spores are produced.

All lichens are composed of a fungus and an alga, growing together and providing each other with needed resources. This green and peach lichen is unusual because the fungus partner draws carbohydrates not only from its algal partner but also from the mosses over which it often grows. So it is partly parasitic on other plants. This lichen goes by several lively common names: spray-paint lichen, candy lichen and, somewhat contradictorily and much less tastily, fairy barf.

I was pleased to find a dipper foraging in the pool above the cascade at the entrance to Granite Basin. They could not nest in their usual spot below the cascade this year, because it was covered with deep snow until midsummer. This one was probably a wanderer. Dippers commonly move around after the nesting season, visiting different watersheds, foraging here and there. We've even found banded dippers that had nested way up on Gold Creek over on Douglas Island in winter.

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

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