Trails on City land

Lands owned by the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) are among the most scenic and ecologically diverse in Southeast Alaska. CBJ engaged Discovery Southeast– a Juneau-based natural history education group–to study, map and interpret 10 trail networks between Berners Bay and Douglas. In each case, a watershed framework was applied.

Trailhead signs introduce the highlights of natural and human history in each of the 10 selected watersheds. Trail brochures and a summary guide to the CBJ cover geology, habitats, and wildlife, returning always to questions about the evolving relationships of people with their dynamic homeland.

What, for example, did Gold Creek estuary look like the year before gold was discovered? Where might people have camped when Mendenhall Valley was an ice-choked bay with sea level 500 feet higher than today?

Rocks, plants, critters, people

Natural history description builds from the ground up: beginning with bedrock geology, then the surficial deposits of glaciers, seas, streams, etc. Next come the plant communities distinctive to each of these geologic landforms, and the fish and wildlife that respond to those vegetation types. Finally, comes human industry, habitation, recreation, and conservation. Like a well-built house, each of these descriptive layers gives foundation to the next.

We’ve taken this approach for each of 10 selected watersheds. Next time you visit them, check out our signs and brochures.

Here we zoom out from watershed scale to consider the entire roaded portion of our Borough. What are some of the big-picture patterns that emerge?

Faults & fish

Gold Creek vs. Cowee Creek

Juneau’s finest coho salmon streams (Cowee, Windfall, Montana, and Peterson-OuterPoint) all nestle within gently graded, fault-controlled valleys aligned NW-SE. Streams such as Gold Creek, running more directly downslope to the sea, are often too steep for fish. By “capturing” streams and turning them parallel to the coastline for long distances, bedrock faults substantially boost Juneau’s fish production.

Vegetation trends

Watershed vegetation cover

The center-panel map shows that watersheds on Douglas Island, and the fairly mellow topography of the northern Gravina belt, are covered mostly with conifer forest: brushy slide vegetation and subalpine communities are restricted to ridge crests.

That pattern reverses in the southeastern, teacup-shaped watersheds, where steep valley walls compose one continuous avalanche zone. In the Gold watershed, slide vegetation covers 70% of the landscape, and conifer forest only 12%. In contrast, 80% of Fish Creek watershed is conifer forest.

Deer forest

April Antlerless by Bob Christensen

In summer, Sitka black-tailed deer range from summit to beach, but in deep-snow winters, only a fraction of that landscape can support them. The ideal winter deer forest has moderately large old-growth conifers, at low elevation, close to salt water. A fairly steep, south-facing slope is optimum. Here, the low-angle winter sun can melt snow away from evergreen forage plants.

The southwestern shoreline of Douglas Island offers the best combination of these features. On the mainland, deeper snow, wolves, and human development reduce the quality of winter deer habitat.

Fish towns, gold towns

Scarcely more than a century ago, Auke Bay was the cultural hub of what we now call the CBJ. The Auk Kwáan village of Aanchgaltsoow (place-names map, right-side panel) boasted a south-facing crescent beach with rich-soil benches for gardens, sunny microclimate, herring swarms in spring and a sockeye run in the lake.

With the discovery of gold in Gastineau Channel, the hub shifted to rainy, gale-blasted Juneau and Treadwell/Douglas. While many flash-in-the-pan Alaskan gold towns soon reverted to wilderness, in Gastineau the boom lasted 60 years, committing these towns to their scenic-but-blustery locations.

Tlingit place names

Tlingit place name map

The Auk and Taku Kwáans (“tribes”) converged in Gastineau Channel. Within a year of the founding of Juneau, they moved from original settlements at Auke Bay and Bishop Point (asterisks) to new villages adjacent to the gold town.

This map shows cultural sites of 3 clans: the Wooshkeetaan, L’eeneidí, and Yanyeidí. “Old” sites are distinguished from those still active in 1946. To give a sense of conditions just prior to first European contact in 1794, expanded glaciers (blue tint) are shown in the Eagle, Herbert and Mendenhall Valleys. Note bergs in lower right; even as late as the mid 1800s, ships were trapped in Gastineau Channel by ice from Taku Glacier.

Especially in the Little Ice Age, áak’w Ta–Auke Bay–was a more welcoming homesite than icy, rainy Gastineau.

Overview Map

Ten unique watersheds

1) Cowee - Davies: Largest, wildest, most productive CBJ watershed. Granitic headwall with peaks almost 6000 feet high. Brown bear refuge; finest coho stream. Vast uplift parkland; great trail diversity.

2) Amalga: Lovely “risen valley” with uplift features, quiet pocket beaches. Wildlife hotspot; portal to abandoned Eagle River Mine. Dairy history. Base for the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association.

3) Peterson - 25 mile*: Jensen-Olson Arboretum; identified plants; historic gardens. Trails to Peterson Lake and to nearby beach overlook.

4) Montana - McGinnis: Healthiest fish & wildlife habitat of the greater Mendenhall watershed. Lower stream very dynamic–influenced by advance of Mendenhall Glacier.

5) Auke Lake: Along with Auke Bay, the region’s pre-gold cultural hub. The Auk Kwáan take their name from the lake. Today, a research and educational center (University, National Marine Fisheries Service weir.)6) Switzer Dzantik’i Héeni Middle School has fine array of educational trails within quick reach on foot. Good for study of postlogging succession; several varieties of old growth and wetland.

6) Switzer: Dzantik’i Héeni Middle School has fine array of educational trails within quick reach on foot. Good for study of postlogging succession; several varieties of old growth and wetland.

7) Gold: Mount Roberts trail and tram offer Juneau’s easiest access to subalpine and alpine habitats. Home of the state capital; intensive mining history. Downtown constructed on raised marine delta and mine waste. 

8) Paris: Source waters to the Treadwell Glory Hole. Mature deciduous forest is locally uncommon habitat, colonizing abandoned mining town. Well mapped ruins. Sandy Beach is mine tailings.

9) Fish: The island’s dominant, central watershed. CBJ’s only driving access to high country; Eaglecrest ski area. Largest estuary on Douglas Island; gravel ponds host king salmon fishery. Hotspot for water birds.

10) Peterson - OP*: Outer Point trail complex; uplift landforms; high habitat diversity in short distance. Best winter deer habitat of our 10 selected watersheds. CBJ’s finest large-tree alluvial fan forest.

* CBJ has two Peterson Creeks. They’re distinguished here as Peterson-25mile, and Peterson-OP.