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On the Trails: Exploring Windfall Lake

Posted: September 14, 2012 - 12:00am
Another species of hemiparasitic plant is pumpkinberry. This specimen bears an immature fruit that will turn orange when ripe.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Another species of hemiparasitic plant is pumpkinberry. This specimen bears an immature fruit that will turn orange when ripe.

The trail to the Windfall Lake cabin is in pretty good shape with some new and improved bridges, and the muddy spots are nowhere near as bad as on some other trails. It was an easy walk in, even with a full backpack loaded for a two-night stay.

Four of us settled in, hoping for the peace and serenity that usually prevails near the lovely lake. “Twas not to be, alas, because there was a nearly constant parade of helicopters overhead, flying back and forth, presumably to the new mine being developed near Herbert Glacier. A boat with a loud jet motor careened around the lake, vanished for a time in the upstream direction, and then eventually roared off downstream.

We had hoped to launch the old canoe that is stored near the cabin, in order to explore the perimeter and the swampy area at the other end of the lake. But, no go. There are numerous holes in the aluminum hull, mostly patched with duct tape. But some patches were loose or gone, and everything was too wet for us to apply new ones. Even the skiff had bullet holes in it!

At least the weather cooperated: The rain stopped whenever we were hiking. We strolled up the trail from the cabin toward the divide that separates the Windfall and Montana creek drainages. This part of the trail was in decent shape, with only a couple of wind-thrown trees and one serious mudhole that required circumnavigation. I hadn’t hiked this part of the trail for a few years, so I was glad we went there. Bears liked that trail too, leaving evidence of their passing: scats full of blueberries and skunk cabbage fibers or devils’ club seeds.

It’s an easy route, winding up the ridge to the divide. Big, glossy deer ferns adorned the edges of the trail, some of the biggest, most vigorous ones we’d ever seen. A happy find was three juvenile toads, less than two inches long, and each with a different color pattern. Toad populations have declined precipitously in recent years, so we are always glad to find some. Cloudberries in the muskegs were quite bleached out and even less tasty than usual.

We found a stand of a little plant that has more names than it really needs: Geocaulon lividum, Comandra livida, northern comandra, pumpkinberry, timberberry, and — more interestingly — northern bastard toadflax. (I really must try to find out the derivation of that epithetic name!) I don’t see this plant very often around here, and I tried but failed to dredge up what I once knew about it from among the dust mice and cobwebs that clutter the remnants of my brain. After I got back home, with a little help from Google, it all came back to me. This plant is another hemiparasite; it has green leaves but its roots also attach to the roots of many other species, including spruce, willow, alder, and aster, so it gets part of its nutrition by stealing it from others (see Juneau Empire, Outdoors, Aug. 17). It also seems to be the alternate host for a blister rust that attacks lodgepole pines, possible including our shore pines.

Bird activity was predictably low. Ravens, jays, and a nuthatch were heard behind the cabin. A male kingfisher flew over the lake. A female yellowthroat (I think) gleaned bugs from shoreline vegetation. An eagle swooped low over the water, caught a small fish, and flew up into the forest. Shortly thereafter, the persistent screaming coming from that area stopped short, so we surmised that a juvenile eagle had been yelling for food, and got it.

 

• Mary Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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