Seven bald eagles huddle on the snowy shore and surround a juvenile eagle that hunches over a salmon. The big brown immature bird mantles its wings like a tent above the coho and whines a threat to its elders as it rips apart the salmon. Moments earlier the young eagle had displaced the adult that plucked the sluggish fish from an open lead of water rimming the icy pond. Fishing is easy now as winter approaches. Magpies and ravens swoop in to wait their turn for scraps. Within minutes nothing remains but stained snow, footprints and knife-sharp slash marks on the snow where the eagles' wingtips touched the ground on lift off.
While this scene is reminiscent of the world famous November gathering of eagles in Haines, it actually occurs daily at this time of year in our own backyard. Mendenhall Glacier is the stunning backdrop for this eagle encounter, viewed comfortably through the visitor center's floor-to-ceiling windows.
Eagles are gathering at the glacier for the same reason they concentrate in Haines: a late run of spawning salmon. Coho are still swimming in Mendenhall Lake and wriggling up the cold clear water of Steep Creek. Bald eagles in a variety of plumages - indicating their ages - perch and fly around the visitor center, landing in favorite cottonwood trees along the creek and beside the parking lots. More spectacularly they rest atop blue icebergs floating in Mendenhall Lake.
The Mendenhall Glacier area is full of life at this time of year. In addition to eagles, birds of many species including migrating swans, use the land and waterways. Pawprints on fresh snow track the movements of bears, beavers, ermine, snowshoe hares and other mammals. Cream-colored mountain goats forage just below the snowline on Bullard Mountain.
Leaves are gone from deciduous trees and snow brightens the ground making it easier to see into the forest and beyond. Colder weather has caused the lake level to drop five feet since summer, exposing more shoreline and open land for hikers and dog walkers. A light snowfall has already enticed children on their sleds to slide down hills. Thin gray ice covers the lake but is still too weak and dangerous to support an animal or person's weight.
This is a transition time at the glacier. Following a busy summer with a record 319,000 visitors, the emphasis shifts now to a more quiet experience. Residents and occasional travelers amble admission free through the visitor center which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. School classes, guided by U.S. Forest Service staff, enjoy conservation education programs in the observatory and auditorium. Saturday Kids Day events see a tripling in attendance.
The visitor center is also used for special free public events. This weekend two activities celebrate the coming of winter. At 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 19, the Forest Service hosts Juneau's participation in a worldwide concurrent storytelling event called Tellabration. District Ranger Pete Griffin will emcee the program featuring five local storytellers. Families with young children are invited Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for Family Fun Weekend, an annual free festival focusing on "Animals in Winter." Storytelling for children will begin at 11 a.m., on Saturday. Art project tables will be available along with animal pelts and hides. Smokey Bear arrives in the afternoon and children can learn about hibernation from Ranger Maegan. Winter wildlife videos will be shown in the auditorium. Different family programs continue on Sunday.
Wildness and civilization come together at the magnificent glacier in Juneau's backyard.
Laurie Ferguson Craig is a 35-year Juneau resident and a U.S. Forest Service interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.