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Mid-January cold and sunshine

Posted: January 27, 2012 - 1:01am
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Frost flowers on Mendenhall Lake with Mount Bullard in the background.  Bob Armstrong
Bob Armstrong
Frost flowers on Mendenhall Lake with Mount Bullard in the background.

Night-time temperatures at my house were subzero and not much better in the daytime, winds aloft were creating snow plumes on the peaks, and Lynn Canal was lashed to a frenzy of froth. But the sun was shining gloriously and who could stay home on a day like that!

Bundled up to the eyebrows, I sallied forth on snowshoes with my favorite explorer friends. Although the snow was hard and crusty in general, there were soft spots, so we were glad to have big feet to spread out our weight.

Our plan was to revisit a small muskeg out the road, where years ago we had set an array of mist nets in order to sample the bird populations in the area. In that project, we opened the nets early in the morning and checked them every hour or so. One spring day, as we approached an opened net, we heard a loud “twang!!!”and a brief thrashing of bushes. My field assistant said “That’s a bear!” We dashed forward and, sure enough, there was a huge hole in the net where a bruin had popped the taut lines in its haste to remove itself from us. Not only that, there was a similar hole in the next net.

It was fun remembering that near-encounter but, alas, we didn’t quite make it to the designated muskeg. We had parked our vehicle in a safe area and tried to reach our destination via an untested route. This turned out to be a misery of jack-strawed wind-thrown trees. My twinkle-toed companions managed better than I did (no surprise there!), but eventually we all detoured down into some lower meadows where the going was easier.

In the meadows, we found several things of interest to exploring naturalists. Otter tracks lead out of one tiny patch of still-open stream, across the ice, and then up into the snows. Coyotes seemed to have trekked hither and yon and spent time around some well-gnawed old bones. All that was left of a large animal was the pelvis and a section of spine. We spent some time dithering about the identity of the original owner of the bones and decided we needed to do a bit of research. Museum and internet resources finally led us to conclude that a black bear had died, perhaps not too far away, and its carcass had been scavenged.

Poking up above the snow were numerous stalks of the wild iris, long gone to seed. Close inspection showed that many of the seed pods still held seeds that scattered over the snow when the stalk was jostled. These seeds don’t have plumes or wings for dispersal on the wind, nor do they have sweet, tasty fruits around them for dispersal by hungry animals, nor do they have sticky hairs or hooks for latching onto a passing critter. Very curious! How do they get around and colonize new areas?

Back home again, after a hot shower and a restorative cup of tea, I noticed my cat gazing intently out a window. So I peeked out, and there was a young otter on the bank of my pond, rolling and grooming, cleaning and oiling its fur. Then it slid down under the ice through a small hole, roiled the bit of open water at the upper end of the pond, and reappeared at a new spot on the bank. There it chomped happily on whatever it had found, and dove back in. Later I noticed its tracks going across the snowy ice, presumably heading toward the next available hunting area. It must have repeated its visit, though, because later I saw another set of tracks on the same route. What a neat thing to have in one’s backyard!

A few days later, the daytime temperatures had soared to about 9 degrees. A little stroll on Mendenhall Lake gave us five mountain goats over on “The Rock” and some spectacular icebergs. The berg with the tall, sharp pinnacles had a thin flange in which the surrounding mountains and the sky were reflected at unusual angles, creating some fine abstract art (as noted by an admiring photographer). The most spectacular treats were the “ice-flowers” that decorated the smooth ice of the inlet streams near where they joined the lake. Some of these delicate flowers were over five inches across. To a viewer with some imagination, some looked like flying birds, or dragonflies, or butterflies, or katydids. We could have spent the entire afternoon just looking at and photographing the fabulous array of forms.

• Mary Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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