Home > Photojournal > 2004 > Fall/Winter > 18 December

Mt. Verstovia Trail to Indian River Valley

After a busy few weeks leading up to the end of the semester, I was ready to get out. Even so, if it had not been for the Christmas Bird Count which I had volunteered to participate in, I probably would not have gone out on this particular day. It was one of those very dark winter days where the clouds are so thick and the sun so low that it never seems to get much brighter than twilight. This is especially true in the woods.

Last Thursday Sitka experienced hurricane force winds and many structures around town were damaged. Many trees also took a beating, especially along Verstovia trail. I estimated that there were 20 or 30 trees down along the trail to the point where I left it near the start of the ridge. Most of these trees were across the trail, but a few were adjacent to the trail and fell away from it, taking the trail with them. The conditions were not really any worse than backcountry hiking around here, but it will definitely take some work to get the tail back into the condition that it normally is.

My goal for the day was to look for and count birds. Unfortunately, the lack of light made it difficult to see very well in the woods. Even so, there seemed to be much fewer birds around than I am used to observing. I normally will hear many birds as I walk along the trail, but on this day I only heard sporadic calls. I had not seen any birds by the time I reached the ridge and decided to leave the trail and travel along the side of Verstovia with the eventual goal of coming down near the second bridge along Indian River Trail.

I did not have much trouble making my way along the well travelled deer trails. Although I did not see any deer, I saw a great deal of sign, including droppings, heavily browsed bushes, and tracks. There was some snow, although it was mostly melted away and not very deep. There are some cliffs visible from town on the upper slopes of Verstovia, but still below the treeline. I was interested in taking a look at those, so I tried not to drop down too fast. I was able to make my way to the very top of what I think was the main cliff visible from town. It turns out there are many small cliffs in the same area, but I did not have much trouble making my way around them.

As I found my way down the slopes around the cliffs, I saw my first birds of the day. I was able to spot five kinglets and a little later I saw a raven. I also found a plant that was new to me. Due to the darkness and wet conditions, I did not figure it was worth getting my camera out, but I was later able to determine that what I saw was Holly-fern Polysticum lonchitis. I plan to go back and get some pictures when the conditions are more conducive to photography. As for birds, I did not see any more until I was down in Indian River Valley. From that point on, I saw quite a few, even though I was hurrying back to beat complete darkness.

I did not quite make it down to the valley where I had intended to because I went down a little too far too soon and was not able to find an easy crossing of a stream (waterfall). Even so, I did not have any trouble with the route I took, ending up at the lower end of the second bridge muskeg rather than the upper end. While taking a break in the muskeg, I saw a flock of 30 or so pine siskins flying from tree to tree in the distance. I was able to clearly observe a golden crowned kinglet. (Even though I did not get a good look at most of the kinglets I saw, I think they were all probably golden crowned based on their calls.) Along the trail on the way back I saw three dippers, more kinglets, a brown creeper, and at the trailhead, a winter wren. I was glad I got to report a few birds. I was afraid I would not see anything after the lack of sightings on the way up.

The wind that had caused so much damage along the Verstovia trail seemed to have had little or no effect on the trees off the trail that I saw as I hiked down towards Indian River Valley. I suspect this was due to the fact that the side of Verstovia where the trail is located was more or less directly facing the wind. The side I went down would have been on the lee side of the mountain and therefore better protected from the strongest gusts. When I made on to Indian River Trail, there was again much evidence of strong winds. Not so many trees had fallen right along the trail, but there were quite a few visible in the nearby woods. In a couple of locations trees had fallen from adjacent to the trail into the river. This may lead to the trail washing out the next time there is high water and it flows behind the root mass. It will be interesting to keep an eye on it in the coming weeks.