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On the Trails: Thanksgiving week strolls

Posted: December 13, 2013 - 1:03am
A very small, very wet porcupine near the visitor center concentrates on munching grass.  Photo by Denise Carroll
Photo by Denise Carroll
A very small, very wet porcupine near the visitor center concentrates on munching grass.

We had deep cold, then big snows and then huge rain, and now the gray, foggy, misty rains seem to have settled in. But it’s no fun just staying home, so out we went, on a couple of leisurely strolls.

The home pond offered some interest, even before I left the house. Two mallard drakes had ventured up the creek to the frozen pond, where they scarfed up spilled bird seed. Their perambulations over the ice left muddy trails to and from the lower end of the pond. Red squirrels had made several visits to the spilled seed, leaving a fan of trails in several directions. And — oh,oh! — mama bear and two cubbies came by. The cubs romped over the ice, wrestling and chasing, while mom checked out the out-of-reach hanging feeders. I’m told that this family has been roaming our part of the valley lately, well past the time they should be in bed.

An easy walk along Montana Creek began by discovering the new gate across the road, near the rifle range. The issue of placing this gate was discussed at least two years ago, and I had despaired of it ever happening. But here it was. Hallelujah! The gate will at least help the serious problem of dumping trash along the road; whole truckloads of junk used to be off-loaded on the roadside by irresponsible citizens. A nice set of ski tracks clung to one side of the road, and the several skiers made the skiing look good.

Near the bridge, a mink had come along the bank of the creek, then up and over the approach to the bridge, and back down to creek-side, apparently unwilling to get wet by going under the bridge. A weasel had meandered all over the place, looking in nooks and crannies for something to feed its voracious appetite. We finally spotted a dipper, busily nabbing small insects around the boulders in the creek.

Across the creek, we saw a long groove in the snow, way too loopy and curvy to be a simple crack in the shore-fast ice. It led from under a log, around a boulder, and finally over the ice edge to the gravel. The groove was too wide to have been made by a shrew, so presumably a mouse or a vole. Another traveler on the road had left baby-sized footprints with long claw marks: a small porcupine taking advantage of the shallower snow in the ruts between the deep stuff. It had really hustled along, with a stride length much greater than the more common shuffle we often see.

The next day, the Parks and Recreation hiking group walked the East Glacier Trail in mist and fog. There might as well have been no glacier, because the entire upper part of the lake was obscured by fog. We could just discern a dark, fuzzy shape across the way, where the rock peninsula is. A pavement of ice fragments marked the foot of Nugget Falls. The snow was sufficiently soft making walking was quite easy, and we were glad that the footprints of previous walkers had not frozen into lumps and bumps that make walking miserable.

Perhaps the biggest attraction along the trail was the ice, draped over boulders. Water still ran in thin sheets over the surface of the boulders, creating a lacework of frozen crystals that grew up from the ground into even finer filigree. Where ice had formed over bumps in the rock, the surface was decorated by beautiful, very fine traceries, creating what I would call vermiculations and reticulations. Of course, there were lots of icicles, of all sizes and shapes. There were all the usual spears of ice, but I was particularly enchanted by some of the complex joinings and separations among adjacent ice-spears, creating little networks of related icicles. (I would, in other circles, call these “anastomoses”; there’s another new word for some of you!).

There were signs that red squirrels or maybe some crossbills had been active, leaving scatterings of alder cone scales on the snow. Porcupines had waddled through deep snow, leaving characteristic trenches. The most fun was discovering a very young porcupine near the visitor center. It was intent upon eating grass and was not the least disturbed by the presence of several fascinated observers. This little guy was much smaller than expected for this time of year; it was about the size of those we had watched and followed last summer, four months ago. Good luck, small one!

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

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