Up on 'The Rock'

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009

One day in early June, the Parks and Recreation hike made its annual pilgrimage to The Rock - the big, rocky peninsula across Mendenhall Lake from the visitor center.

Turning off the West Glacier Trail, we dove down through the alder thickets, as usual. But this year the alders are bigger and better and bushier than ever, and the usual informal route to the end of the peninsula is really overgrown. By unanimous vote, we declared a new "traditional" lunch spot on the next ridge to the north, closer to the ice and still very open.

Although I arrived back home with a good portion of the thickets in my cuffs and collar, the hike was a good one. The last of the purple mountain saxifrage was blooming and the pink-flowered cushions of moss campion were in full flower. We found two other saxifrages; one had cream-colored petals with yellow spots and the other bore white flowers. Dwarf fireweed was just starting to bloom.

The flowering spikes of lupine showed the effects of visiting bees. The upper ("banner") petals of the lower, older flowers on the spike were purplish, in marked contrast to the white banner petals of the upper, younger flowers. After a bee visits and pollinates a flower, the banner petal turns from white to purple, indicating to future bees that the flower has already been visited. Bees then focus on the upper flowers, which still have nectar rewards and have yet to be pollinated. Thus the plant signals to its pollinators just which flowers are worth visiting.

There was plenty of indication of animal activity out there. White hairs of mountain goats were found in several places. Wolf scats contained fur and white feathers, and bear scats held vegetation remains. The round scats of snowshoe hares were not common. Porcupines had nibbled twigs here and there and several young cottonwoods had lost branches to these foragers.

I went down to the creek on the far side of the main ridge, to see if American Dippers had occupied their old territory. After waiting half an hour, I saw one come up the creek and zip into a small cave under a boulder, where dippers have nested for several years. This bird stayed in the nest for the next half hour, indicating that she was incubating a clutch of eggs. I did not see her mate during this watch, but in general a dipper male brings occasional bugs or fish to the sitting female. I later learned that her mate is the banded male, back in his old haunts, for the fourth year

As I sat in the sun for lunch, I had a visual treat. The sunlight shone through the canopy of a small cottonwood tree, highlighting the elegant shapes of the leaves. Leaves on the sunny side of the tree were a fresh, clear green, while those on the shady side appeared black. But when the breeze shifted the leaves, some of the blacks became green as they briefly moved out of the shade. The total effect was a shimmering, dappled, green and black collage framed by blue sky. Mother Nature's version of a stained-glass window. My words don't do justice to the artistry.

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

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