Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tongass National Forest: Starrigavan Recreation Area (Blog Hike #351)

Trails: Mosquito Cove, Estuary Life, and Muskeg Trails
Hike Location: Tongass National Forest, Starrigavan Recreation Area
Geographic Location: north of Sitka, AK (57.13297, -135.36621)
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: July 2011
Overview: A double loop hike through all 4 ecosystems in southeast Alaska.

Directions to the trailhead: Sitka, AK is accessible only by boat or seaplane.  The parking area for this hike is located at a national forest campground 7.5 miles west of downtown Sitka at the end of Halibut Point Road.

The hike: Located on Baranov Island and separated from mainland southeast Alaska by the famed Inner Passage, Sitka represents a unique point where Russian, Tlingit Indian, and American cultures converge.  The first inhabitants of the region were the Tlingits who migrated to Alaska from northeast Asia on an ancient land bridge.  The Tlingits are responsible for the totem poles you see throughout southeast Alaska (but not on this hike).
In the early 1800’s, the Russians arrived.  Seeking Alaska’s abundant forest resources, the Russian colonists forced the Tlingits from their homes.  The decisive battle in this conflict was fought at present-day Sitka National Historical Park, which is featured elsewhere in this blog. 
In 1867, having clear-cut most of Alaska and exhausted the forest resources, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million.  With the discovery of gold a few years later, Americans began migrating into Alaska, leaving their own mark on towns such as Juneau and Ketchikan.  The forest was allowed to re-grow, and the resulting mature second-growth forest today is protected as part of the Tongass National Forest.
Unlike the woodlands of the eastern United States, Tongass National Forest is a temperate rain forest characterized by a mild, wet climate.  On the morning that I hiked these trails, the temperature held steady in the mid 50’s, and a light rain fell during the entire hike.  Fortunately, I had come prepared with a rain coat and good hiking shoes, and I had a fabulous hiking experience.  The route described here is the most popular with hikers because it passes through all four of southeast Alaska’s ecosystems.
Starting down Mosquito Cove Trail
            The Mosquito Cove and Estuary Life Trails both start from the campground, but they leave in opposite directions.  I hiked these trails on a shore excursion during my Alaska cruise, and our guide led us along the Mosquito Cove Trail first because it forms a loop.  The Mosquito Cove Trail departs from the north end of the campground and almost immediately splits to form the loop.  My guide chose to take the left trail and use the right one as the return route.
The gravel trail undulates slightly as it hugs Alaska’s Inner Passage on the left.  Snow-covered Mount Edgecumbe, an ancient volcano, can be seen across the Inner Passage through some gaps in the trees.  The mountain looks peaceful now, but volcanic ash from Mount Edgecumbe lies underfoot for this entire hike.  The acidic soil produced from this ash makes it difficult for trees and other plants to grow.  Most of the Sitka spruce and hemlock trees in this forest measure the size of 70-80 year old trees in the eastern United States, but in fact they are nearly twice that age.  Goat’s beard grows on many of the trees, a sign of the area’s excellent air quality.
Mount Edgecumbe across the Inner Passage
            At 0.3 miles, you walk under a natural wooden arch formed by a tree’s root system.  Due to the tough growing conditions, trees receive better nourishment by growing on dead stumps of other trees rather than directly in the soil.  These dead stumps are called nurse stumps, and after the nurse stump rots away, the roots of the “new” tree end up dangling in the air to form scenes such as those seen here.
Trail passing under tree roots
            The trail climbs and descends some wooden steps as it crosses a ridge to arrive at Mosquito Cove at 1 mile.  Mosquito Cove is an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, and therefore its water level rises and falls with the tide.  On my visit, the tide was out, leaving a large, rocky beach exposed.  If you sift around the rocks, you may be able to find some small crabs living in the rocks, the second of the four ecosystems on this hike.
Mosquito Cove
            Past the beach, the trail turns right and begins a moderate climb up the ravine at the head of the inlet.  The creek in the ravine is crossed twice, once on a bridge and once on a footlog, a downed tree with attached railings placed across the creek.  The bridges, boardwalks, footlog, and numerous wooden steps are almost always wet due to the near-constant light rain, so step carefully on the wood.  At the head of the ravine, the trail levels out briefly and then descends using more wooden steps to close the loop and return you to the north end of the campground.
To reach the trailhead for the Estuary Life Trail, walk back through the campground to the main road, turn right, and then turn left on a gravel road at a yellow and brown sign that says “Bird Viewing Shelter: Estuary Life Trail.”  Upon reaching the parking area, angle right to begin the boardwalk that is the Estuary Life Trail. 
Estuary Life Trail approaching wildlife viewing shelter
            Almost immediately you arrive at a wildlife viewing shelter that overlooks the estuary, the third ecosystem of this hike.  An estuary is where a freshwater stream meets a saltwater sea, the Pacific Ocean in this case, to form a mixing area of brackish water.  Estuaries are normally great places to do wildlife viewing, but due to the rain and the low tide, I could detect no wildlife in the estuary.  On a better day, I would have had a chance to see eagles, herons, egrets, moose, and even black bears in the estuary.
Looking across the estuary from the shelter
            The boardwalk continues past the shelter as it gently angles right to head around the estuary.  After crossing the main stream, the boardwalk ends at a gravel parking area beside an abandoned fish hatchery.  The wooden deck of the fish hatchery offers another view down the estuary, this time from right beside the main stream.
Stream at head of estuary
              To shorten the hike, you could walk out the gravel road and turn right on the main paved road to return to the trailhead.  To get the full tour of all four ecosystems, pick up the Muskeg Trail, which departs from the other side of the parking area.  The gravel Muskeg Trail makes a long, gradual climb up the ridge using a single broad switchback to ease the grade.
At 2.6 miles, the gravel turns into wooden boardwalk as you arrive at the muskeg bog, the last of the four ecosystems on this hike.  Muskeg bogs form on flat areas of hillsides where water collects.  The bog’s shallow, wet soil does not allow trees to grow tall here as they do on the sloped mountainside.  Potholes left by uprooted trees fill with water, and some of the muddy-bottomed potholes can become many feet deep.  The treeless bog also gives nice views uphill to the mountains and downhill to the ocean.
Muskeg bog
            Past the bog, the trail turns back to gravel as it descends moderately to its end at Halibut Point Road.  Across the road lies Old Sitka, a former site for the town of Sitka.  Some interpretive signs tell about the town’s history and its unique blend of Tlingit, Russian, and American cultures.  After touring Old Sitka, turn left (right, as you came down the trail) on Halibut Point Road for the short walk back to the campground to complete the hike.

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