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On the Trails: Eagle River beaches

Posted: October 26, 2012 - 12:01am
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Seawatch angelica plants have large taproots, which appear to be a favorite food of bears in this area. This one they missed.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Seawatch angelica plants have large taproots, which appear to be a favorite food of bears in this area. This one they missed.

The day started well—the sun was shining (!) and the mountain peaks were well frosted with new snow. The first good find was a set of tracks in the sand that were probably made by a wandering wolverine. Certainly not made by an otter and –upon consideration and consultation of field guides—not made by a small black bear: the stride was short and the foot pads did not fit the bear pattern.

The sand flats offered little but bunches of gulls and a few shorebirds, so we forsook the sands and roamed around on the grassy berms above the tide line and through some small groves of spruces. This choice proved profitable.

As we strolled through the grass, we found it easy walking where some large creature had preceded us. We then encountered numerous shallow pits, where bears had dug up roots. The plant of choice, consistently, was seawatch angelica (Angelica lucida), a member of the carrot family. It has a stout taproot, like a parsnip or carrot, and this is what the bears were after. They gnawed off the root, leaving the wilting plant to wither beside the pit. We found dozens of these pits, each one where a seawatch plant had grown. Of course, we had to wonder what made this particular plant so desirable, and whether or not it could regenerate from the leftover scraps.

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and so we also found many sizable bear scats, all filled with whitish vegetation fibers (and an occasional intact highbush cranberry). Now the plot thickens: in the open areas, these fiber-filled scats were attended by lots of small brown slugs. One scat was entertaining more than 30 slugs, and more were slowly creeping toward the bonanza. Similar scats under the trees, however, attracted no slugs, suggesting that perhaps the slugs favor the variety of leafy plant foods in the open areas. Even so, these bear scats were clearly saving some living plants from the rasping “tongues” of the slugs.

Although the understory of the wooded areas had only scattered plants, there were some nifty fungi. Pinkish-purple coral fungi sent up narrow, fleshy fingers, often in dense crowds. A lovely white jelly fungus grew under the spruces, apparently on the roots.

Emerging from the trees, we settled on the beach again, for a picnic lunch. Although ravens called in the distance, none came to the offerings of bread crusts and bits of meat. That was disappointing, because picnics at this spot are usually attended by ravens, which we love to watch as they cautiously hop toward odd food items. Instead, a friendly dog gobbled up our raven bait as it passed by. The ravens had also missed a dead capelin (with a parasite on the gills) stranded on the sand.

The humpback whales have headed to Hawaii, but we watched a river otter swim by. Its swimming motion seemed peculiar, and when it came up on the beach we saw it had a wound on its head and perhaps other injuries. But it walked a long way down the beach and seemed to have little trouble walking.

This beach is a place where we commonly see otter tracks running up into the grass and back down to the water.

Beach rye near the high tide line was heavily infested with ergot, the famous fungus that featured in many a witch hunt of yore (more on this crazy fungus later).

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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