For Crow Point area hikers, signs of change are all around

Eagle River is broad, flat; currents, storms reshape flats; bars mostly gone

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006

The trail to Crow Point and the beach south of Eagle River run partly through private property, but the public has access to many parts of the area except those near a Boy Scout camp.

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This easy trail along Eagle River goes through second-growth forest created by wind-throw in the 1880s and across some open meadows to a long curved beach.

The shore faces the Chilkat Mountains to the west and Favorite Channel to the south. Before you get to the beach, the trail forks near a line of three old snags that make a good landmark.

The left fork crosses a low, flat area, vegetated by sedges and goose-tongue and covered with water at most high tides, and goes to the south end of the beach.

The right fork leads to the north end of the beach near the mouth of the river. This simple description, however, hides a history of complex changes that are typical of our dynamic landscape.

The river itself has changed. The Eagle and Herbert Rivers come together between the highway and the sea. The river junction has gradually migrated upstream and, during the 1950s or so, the conjoined river rerouted one of its loops northward.

This left a broad flat of river sediments north of the landmark snags, between the trail and the present course of the river. The old course is reduced to the slough that you walk along as you approach the three-snag landmark.

Lyngbye sedge is common in the tidal marsh surrounding this slough; it is a favorite food of Canada geese.

A few hundred years ago, Herbert and Eagle glaciers reached several miles farther down-valley than they do today. The great weight of the ice depressed the land, and sea water covered the valleys behind the ridge backing the Boy Scout camp, as well as the lower reaches of Peterson Creek near Amalga Harbor.

When the ice retreated, the land began to rise; the estuaries became 'risen valleys' with layers of marine sediments below the existing mud and vegetation.

As the valley bottoms rose above the saltwater influence, they were colonized by mosses and sedges, bog cranberries and wild irises, and gradually by a few pines and eventually some spruces and hemlocks.

The small boggy muskeg that the trail passes soon after leaving the parking lot is a good example.

A historic trail comes into the muskeg from the south. This narrow-gauge horse-tram line ran over the low pass from SAGA meadows and Eagle Harbor, across the river and up to the former mining town of Amalga, near the present Eagle Glacier lake.

As the glaciers retreated, the rivers draining the meltwater got longer, and glacial sediments brought down by the rivers extended them still farther out onto the tideflats.

The post-glacial rising of land brought some of those sediment deposits above the level of salt water. Storms piled up the sediments into a long berm that was colonized by grasses and some pioneering spruces and, thus, Crow Point came into being.

Currents and storms continue to reshape the broad flats of Crow Point. A few decades ago there were two extensive sandbars outboard of the north end of the present beach, enclosing lagoons favored by ducks and duck-hunters.

The bars are mostly gone, and wave action is now eroding the north end of the berm.

One of the best-known features of this area is called 'The Aisle.' Between the place where the trail leaves the forest and the landmark snags, a branch of the trail passes through a dense, even-aged stand of young spruces with a floor of mosses and 'fairy rings' of mushrooms.

The Aisle is perched on a raised terrace that emerged from the sea. But humans had a direct hand in its present condition: at one time it was a hay meadow, mowed regularly.

So venturesome little spruces were continually chopped off and their growth set back or terminated altogether. When haying stopped, the young spruces were released from continual mutilation and they grew up, forming the park-like Aisle.

There are a few wolves in the area, and bears come to feast on salmon, creating a lacework of trails in the meadows. In winter, the beach is a good place to find rock sandpipers gleaning invertebrates from the sands. You might also spot or passing whale or see some mettlesome juvenile sea lions.

Scoters are often seen offshore, along with flocks of goldeneye ducks, and perhaps some long-tailed ducks and horned grebes. You may see black turnstones and dunlins on the sands, and lots of glaucous-winged and mew gulls.

The crows that give the place its name might be foraging on small mussels in the intertidal areas, hammering them open to extract the body.

Thanks to Richard Carstensen and Cathy Pohl for more information than I can cram into one short article.

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

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