On the Trails: Camping with iceburgs

Icebergs perched on the beach in front of our tents, waiting for the next high tide to carry them away. Others cruised by on each outgoing tide, sometimes making several circuits if they got caught in an eddy. Every morning a new batch of sculptured ice chunks greeted us, swept out from the receding McBride Glacier in the East Arm of Glacier Bay.


The icy sculptures prompted us to imagine an array of fantastic forms: a flustered goose, a baby elephant, a pair of courting grebes, a lunging crocodile. But the best of the animal brigade was real: a mother seal, nursing her pup, on a berg just the right size for them.

Our little explorations out from camp brought us an assortment of observations and little puzzles of the sort that curious naturalists love. A tall, green orchid looked like the green bog orchid, but it was growing in a most un-boggy site — the gravelly slope of a moraine. We later saw seemingly similar orchids growing in bedrock crevices and mixed with strawberries and fireweed on a sandy wave berm. Perhaps our taxonomic ability was inadequate for distinguishing among all the kinds of green orchids. Above the beach on an outwash plain, we found a little gem of a wetland. It held several dozen white bog orchids, those beautifully aromatic ones, displayed on a lustrous background of bright green mosses. Dense thickets of alder almost completely surrounded this lovely, secluded spot.

I stumbled upon a small plant I’d heard about, and of which I’d seen pictures, but had never seen in real life. This was the common moonwort (or a close cousin thereof), a most peculiar-looking relative of ferns. I never would have seen it, except that it had sent up a stem bearing clumps of yellowish spore capsules. When I got down on the ground to look more closely, I discovered that there were several other moonworts nearby, hidden under other vegetation. Much of a moonwort’s life cycle takes place underground, where sexual reproduction occurs. With the help of special fungi called mycorrhizae, a fertilized egg makes a juvenile shoot that does not emerge above ground for several years. When the shoot emerges and matures, it produces one leaf and ripe spores. The spores disperse through the air, filter down through the soil, and germinate in the dark, completing the life cycle when sexual reproduction occurs again.

In front of a glacier, we found a little outwash plain in which each patch of yellow-flowered Dryas (mountain-avens) had a young alder growing in its center. Both Dryas and alder harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria that turn atmospheric nitrogen into forms usable by plants. So these patches were getting a double dose of nitrogen and probably other nutrients. When spruces eventually colonize these sites, researchers have found that they grow better than if they get started elsewhere.

The hillsides were conspicuously dotted with female cottonwood trees, whose shining white catkins are composed of small, open pods; each pod contains ripe seeds whose fluffy white “down” carries the seeds on the wind. Cottonwood leaves are darker green above and lighter below, so when a stiff breeze turned the fluttering leaves up, the entire cottonwood-covered slopes shimmered with changing color. Cottonwoods gave us a visual treat.

A different kind of treat was found near the ground in open habitats. Strawberries! Some were still in flower, some had very young fruit and some (oh yes!) had nearly ripe and well-flavored fruits. We grazed, happily.

However, strawberries also present a wee mystery. The red color of the fruit is thought to be an attractant for vertebrates that would eat the fruit and disperse the seeds. But strawberry plants commonly have several red leaves at the same time as the red fruits and even fruit-less plants may have these red leaves. Do the red leaves somehow enhance the color display, or are they as temporarily distracting to birds and bears as they can be to foraging humans, or what?

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


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