Southeast Wild: Glacier visitor center makes a fine fall spot

Nearby Steep Creek is stocked with coho salmon; bald eagles, river otters and brown bears abound

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

Now that the tour ships are gone and the good weather is rapidly leaving us, you're probably thinking about all the places you intended to visit this summer but just never got around to. Well, don't panic, it's not too late. Right now is a wonderful time to spend an hour strolling around the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, soaking up what nature still has to offer.

Nearby Steep Creek still has salmon, and when the fish are in, the wildlife are out.

The sockeye might be gone, but the coho have quickly taken their place and will be around into December.

Although they aren't as numerous in Steep Creek as their cousins, they still have the same goals and rigorous determination.

Currently they are working their way from saltwater into the short, but fertile spawning grounds of Steep Creek.

Just as we aren't the only inhabitants who relish the peace and quiet of autumn, the bald eagles, great blue herons, hooded mergansers, kingfishers, porcupines, mink, river otter, black and brown bears, and the ever-industrious beaver seem to enjoy it as well.

As we've seen the last few seasons, the brown bear appear to wait until activity slows before venturing down to try their hand at catching fresh (or not so fresh) coho salmon.

This can be very exciting and word spreads quickly when they arrive. Just the other day a co-worker and I watched a black bear sow work a particular pool with her cub.

The cub patiently watched as mom made several unsuccessful attempts to catch a dime-bright coho.

She eventually relented to her hunger pains and began dragging out old sockeye scattered about the creek. Who can't relate to this?

She had no difficulty finding these well-aged salmon delicacies either, as the nose on a bear is famous for its stellar olfactory abilities.

The cub hesitated for a moment, likely needing a moment to overcome watery eyes, but soon was chowing down alongside mom with vigor.

Just another sign that fall is upon us.

To increase opportunities to view wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service has made numerous improvements along the Steep Creek Trail and at the visitor center recently.

They include adding fencing along portions of Steep Creek to maintain bank stability, posting informative signs about wildlife, tree pruning at fish-viewing platforms and protecting large cottonwoods for bald eagle perching.

The biggest additions, however, have been less obvious. In the last year, a "glacier-cam" aimed at the Mighty Mendenhall has been added to the Tongass Web site, http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/mendenhall/webcam.

Have you seen the underwater "fish-cam"?

It's been running during sockeye season for the past seven years and has been a big hit.

Even Dolly Varden, cutthroat trout and coho fry make appearances.

It's a great way to get an up-close and personal look at these wonderful fish, and the fact that it's a live image makes it all the more interesting.

Perhaps you've noticed the recent increase in beaver activity at Steep Creek? Well, you're not the only one.

The Forest Service has installed an infra-red camera into a nearby beaver lodge to capture den footage.

The image is displayed on a TV in the covered viewing area at the visitor center.

Occasionally, one or more beavers can be seen grooming, chewing on alder branches, hauling in grass for bedding, and, of course, sleeping off a hard night's work.

The cameras have received a warm welcome from the public so far, and the goal is to add these images onto the Tongass Web site alongside the current glacier-cam.

It's easy to take our plentiful wildlife-watching opportunities for granted until you see the reactions from out-of-town visitors.

More than once I've noticed tourists perform what I refer to as the "gasping, jaw-dropping, wide-eyed, finger-pointing, camera-fumbling" routine out at the visitor center.

At first I always wheeled around quickly, hoping to see a wolf and brown bear locked in battle over a killer whale that has swum into Mendenhall Lake and beached itself on a recently calved, bright-blue iceberg.

Did I mention the herd of moose swimming in the background? There's no way I'd want to miss that!

Usually, however, it's nothing more than a lone bald eagle, waiting for a bite of leftover sockeye salmon that wasn't good enough (at the time) for the sow and cub.

I've become spoiled with the wildlife-watching opportunities in Alaska. Seeing the genuine reaction from visitors, though, helps remind me just how lucky we really are.

Our opportunities are unique and I'm more than happy to do what I can to share them with everyone.

So, if you need a good reminder, come out to the visitor center and do what the bears do: Take time to stop and smell the fish.

• Pete Schneider is fisheries biologist for the Juneau Ranger District, Tongass National Forest. Winter hours for the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Contact Juneau Audubon Society through http://www.juneau-audubon-society.org.



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