Visitors and locals who join the daily guided hikes on the Trail of Time at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center wouldn't place high in a race that measured miles walked per hour. But in a race for trivia learned per mile, the walkers would be right up at the top.
"We take over an hour to go about one-half a mile," U.S. Forest Service interpreter Janice Miller Moss told the four visitors to Juneau who joined her on a recent Trail of Time tour. "There's no hurry."
The free nature walks leave at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily in the summer from the flag pole in front of the visitor center. Most tours attract eight to 10 participants, said Michelle Warrenchuk, an information assistant work leader at the center. She organizes the schedule for all 17 staff members who give the guided tours.
Guides lead visitors along the East Glacier Trail for a half mile, stopping every 10 feet or so to describe a plant, lake, rock or stream. Forty-five minutes to an hour later, the group spills out onto Glacier Spur Road, a block away from the visitor center.
The Trail of Time tours are named because the trail is marked with the position of the Mendenhall Glacier through the 20th century. Visitors can see the succession of plants that dot the landscape the glacier once scraped across.
"Nature hates a vacuum," said Matt Brooks, a Trail of Time guide, pointing out the lush vegetation that grows where the glacier's face stood 60 years ago.
"That means I'm older than this stuff," said Kathy Lackrone of Yuma, Ariz.
Forest Service guides have given tours at the visitor center since it opened in 1963, said Warrenchuk.
Staff members, called interpreters, attend a three-week training program before the tourist season begins to become versed in all aspects of the glacier. Geologists, botanists and wildlife biologists give the interpreters a foundation for the natural history of the area. The interpreters customize that knowledge for the guided hikes.
The results can vary greatly.
"The interpreters all have their own program," Warrenchuk said. "They each have written a program up for the guided hike, and usually it's something that they're interested in more."
Miller Moss' hike focused on the trees and smaller plants that line the trail: Western hemlock, willow, goatsbeard, lupine, yarrow, spruce, cow parsnip, cottonwood, elderberry, nagoon berries, wild cucumber and horsetail, to name a few.
Brooks had a broader view of the natural history of the area. The bedrock that the glacier flows over is made of green schist. The forest around the visitor center will be considered "old growth" in 200 years when the Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees grow high enough to form a canopy and leave a relatively sparse undergrowth. Devils club is a member of the ginseng family. Female salmon make an indentation, or redd, in the base of a stream by beating their tails.
"I hope you can remember at least 10 percent of it," Brooks told the visitors who took his tour June 30.
Both guides fielded all types of questions from visitors.
"I really like doing guided walks," said Terry Latshaw of Idaho after a hike with Brooks. She was traveling with her friend, Deanna Block of Maryland. The two chose the guided walk because Block's son, who lives in Kodiak, told her it was a "must-do."
"It's great when you have questions to have someone right there to ask," Block said.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.