W e stood at the old dam at the outlet of Cropley Lake.
Small muskeg ponds in the area were ice-covered, but the lake was still open. A small fish jumped in the shallow pool just below the dam. A few minutes later, we found a dead Dolly Varden about five inches long. There is reported to be a resident population of Dollies in the lake, and clearly a few had either wriggled their way our of the lake or, less likely, come up the tiny overflow stream into this pool. Prospects for winter survival in this little pool may not be very good.
The dead Dolly was an adult. It had white edges on the ventral fins and traces of the fancy breeding colors remained. Beneath the remnant fancy-dress were the dark blotches known as parr marks, all along the sides. These resident dollies never get very big. Those in Cropley are usually less than eight inches long. Such tiny fish can't produce as many eggs as their sea-going relatives, and a resident female may hold only a couple dozen eggs. Given such a low possible reproductive rate, one might expect that the adults live for a number of years.
Another treasure of the day was a brown creeper, first heard and then seen. Hearing it was a treasure in two ways: My old ears could still register its high-pitched "seet, seet". And it is always a treat to find one, because they are thought to be relatively uncommon around here. This bird was foraging in the typical way of creepers, by hitching its tiny body up the trunk of a hemlock, picking minute bugs from the crevices of the bark.
We tracked a mouse or vole that had dithered its way out from a dense clump of blueberries into the open and then back in and down a hole in the snow. There were snowy porcupine tracks in several places. One indecisive individual had waddled back and forth along a tiny muskeg stream before finally braving the two-inch-deep crossing.
There were few other signs of wildlife. A few red squirrel tracks. A grouse that flushed hurriedly out of a thicket. An eagle soaring high. A small group of lost-looking mallards, perhaps searching for an ice-free pond. But not a single deer track on the ridge we had traversed on our way to the lake. We did see a set of very large boot prints tromping down the ridge.
I was pretty well soaked by the end of the hike. The temperatures weren't bad and it wasn't raining, so I didn't have on my rain pants. Mistake! Bushwhacking through snowy blueberry bushes did the job on my britches. My gloves were quickly drenched by picking up the snow-covered sticks that I'm required to throw for my retrieving friend who accompanied us.
But never mind. Home (eventually) for a good, hot homemade soup and chewy ginger cookies. A good day and a fine finish!
Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.