It's not hard to find Juneau's kayak 'trails'

Casting off to go seal watching or island camping is easy to do around town

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2006

Some friends and I recently walked out the Bridget Point trail. As you may have noticed, our weather has been a bit wet this year and, as a result, the hikers almost needed waterwings to reach the cabin in the meadow.

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It was so wet, I thought I'd write about a real water trail -- or better, a route in local waters - for kayaks and small boats. This is a trail you can "run" in several directions, with several possible launch and take-out points.

From Auke Bay northward for several miles, the state owns several islands (or parts thereof) stretched out between the mainland and the open reaches of Lynn Canal.

There is considerable interest in having these state-owned lands included in the state park system, with the intent of keeping them open to the public for camping and hunting.

Excellent campsites are found on many of these islands, including the existing state park on Shelter Island, so island-hopping is easy (at least when the weather cooperates).

Some sites are abused by irresponsible campers who leave tarps, trash, cut trees, and open latrines when they depart, so better citizens have to clean up after them. But there is much to be seen, heard, and enjoyed on this island cruise.

The big attraction on Benjamin Island, from fall to spring, is the Steller sea lion haulout on the outboard side of the island. There's a good trail over the island from the beach to the cliffs above the haulout.

You can smell 'em and hear 'em well before you see 'em! Don't disturb them, but sit quietly on the cliff-tops and watch.

There are usually females with young pups, just in from the breeding rookeries on the outer coast, plus juveniles and big males. This haulout is convenient to wintering schools of herring and to the spring eulachon runs in Berners Bay, providing the sea lions with two of their favorite foods.

Paddle on down to Lincoln Island and do some whale-watching in North Pass. There might be a sea lion skeleton on the beach, giving you a good look at the teeth.

Take a walk in the woods and think about what creatures you see or don't see: do you see evidence of red squirrels, porcupines, blue grouse, or bears?

That's a good question to ask yourself on any of these islands - are they home to all of the same animals that occur on the mainland or only some of them? Which ones?

A common bird on rocky reefs at any time of year is the black oystercatcher. I once watched a parent oystercatcher try to teach its fuzzy gray chick how to eat a crab that the parent had caught; it was a slow learner!

In spring and summer oystercatchers nest on upper parts of beaches, where they are very vulnerable to disturbance - from bears cruising along looking for eggs and from humans who sometimes tramp up and down the beach without noticing a pair of worried oystercatchers trying to protect a nest.

This species is on the state and national Audubon watch list because it appears to be declining in abundance.

In some ponds on Shelter Island (and a few places on the mainland) live populations of rough-skinned newts. Strikingly colored in orange and dark brown, their skin contains a powerful toxin capable of killing most would-be predators.

A guy once unknowingly dipped up a newt in his coffee pot and made coffee; he drank the coffee and died. So did the newt.

A common predator of these newts Down South is the garter snake, which can tolerate the toxin to some degree. Where garter snakes are absent, the newts usually have less of the protective toxin.

Because the newts here are very toxic, but we don't have garter snakes, it is thought that the local populations were introduced from somewhere else.

The rocky cliffs on some of the islands and the stacks just offshore provide nest sites for pigeon guillemots, a pudgy black bird with big white wing patches and startlingly red feet.

The open, non-forested points on some of the islands become lovely flower gardens in summer. These are plants that can grow in thin soil and take a beating in foul weather. At the right season, the color display rivals an artist's palette.

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

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