T he area between the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and Back Loop, and between Mendenhall Lake and Glacier Spur Road, is laced with trails that can be used in any season, with access from several points on the perimeter. This area was covered by the glacier just 200 or so years ago and is still in relatively early stages of vegetation succession, with lots of alder, willow and cottonwood, plus some young spruces.
Spring is a good time for a stroll in this area, when we're ready for sunshine of the longer days. One of the first things I look for are "pussy willows" - the flowering catkins of the willows. Backlit by the spring sunlight, they are things of beauty. The tiny flowers are visited by various flies and some early bees that are seeking nectar or pollen and, in so doing, pollinate the flowers. Some catkins have male flowers, and others have female flowers. Can you see the differences?
A little later in the season, look for the curious coralroot orchid, a narrow spike of yellowish flowers but with no leaves at all; this species grows parasitically on alder roots. It appears to be pollinated by tiny flies, which sometimes mistakenly get stuck in the complex flower.
The deciduous trees and shrubs provide good habitat for hungry migrating songbirds that glean insects from the new leaves. Early flocks of ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers may be followed by a variety of other warblers, including some that are locally uncommon and a treat for local bird watchers.
Summer brings the lupines into flower. Check out the tall inflorescences - the unpollinated flowers are blue (sometimes pinkish) with a white uppermost petal, but if some flowers have been pollinated already, the white petal has turned blue. The white petals signal to the visiting bees that these flowers are likely to offer the most nectar, and so the needs of both plant (for pollination) and bee (for food) can be met. Compared to the deciduous woods of the Midwest, our woodlands harbor few species of showy flowers. But as summer progresses, look instead at the numerous kinds of moss that begin to produce their spore capsules. Without worrying about how to name each kind, just notice the elegance and diversity of color and shape of these miniature (less than 2 inches tall, usually) stands.
Fall can be a pretty dismal time around here, with the rapidly shortening days and the seemingly incessant rains, but early fall is a good time to visit this area. The cottonwood leaves turn golden, and there's a bit of red from the blueberry and nagoonberry plants, but for me, the chief draw centers on bears. Both black and brown bears harvest sockeye and coho salmon that come to spawn in Steep Creek. The new viewing platform makes it easy and safe for folks that like to bear-watch, as many of us do. Less noticeable exploiters of the salmon runs are Dolly Varden char that scarf up salmon eggs (if you watch closely, you can sometimes see them do this) and the little gray bird called the American dipper, which nests along this creek and also feeds actively on loose salmon eggs (which would die anyhow). While the bears are waiting for the salmon to come, they feed heavily on a weird plant called "ground cone," which is parasitic on alder roots. It has a thick brownish-purple spike of small flowers, but the bears also dig up the parts of the plant just below ground. It is easy to spot the signs of bear foraging on ground cones: the surface mosses have been "rototilled" and the numerous bear scats on the trails look rather like cracked-wheat porridge.
Winter brings other possibilities. When we're lucky enough to have good snow, there are groomed cross-country ski trails; hikers are urged not to walk directly in the ski tracks, because their boot prints spoil the skis' glide. This is the best time to look for animal tracks - snowshoe hare, porcupine, voles, and even shrews (which make narrow grooves with their bodies as they plow through the snow). Of course, there is also our lonely winter wolf that hangs out on and near the frozen lake. When there is some open water in the ponds and ditches, you might see river otters chomping on fish caught below the ice or dippers hunting aquatic bugs on the bottom gravels. This is an easy time of year to notice the so-called "willow roses" on some of the willow shrubs (Barclay's willow). These are not roses at all - instead, they are galls induced by a small fly that lays eggs on the tips of the twigs. The willow's normal growth patterns are derailed, and the "rose," formed of crowded, deformed leaves, makes a home for the developing fly larva.
As usual, I've only been able to mention a few of the beautiful or interesting things to be found out here. Go and look for yourself! Seek and ye shall find.
Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.