New November snow reveals forest tracks

Posted: Friday, November 27, 2009

One snowy day in mid November, I stood on the bank of the Holding Pond in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area and was surprised to see a beaver swimming back and forth. He slapped his tail once or twice and disappeared as I turned my back to clean debris off the fence that guards the outlet of the pond. Later, I found his tracks along the shore of the pond and over the dike to the Mendenhall River.

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Photo Courtesy Of Bob Armstrong
Photo Courtesy Of Bob Armstrong

Seeing the beaver was a surprise in three ways. It was 9 o'clock in the morning, later in the day than beavers are usually active. It was also late in the season for beavers to be so active. It is common for them to slow down in late fall and become relatively inactive in winter. And the third surprise was that this beaver seemed to come from the river. I had always assumed that the beaver family that worked in the Holding Pond came from Moose Lake, just upstream.

Between the dike and the river, there were hundreds of beaver tracks left by hungry beavers that had been visiting the small bushes for lunch. This made me wonder if a new family had moved in somewhere along this reach of the river. The old beaver lodge upstream looked unattended, but there is a newer lodge not far from the Holding Pond.

In another part of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, I followed mink tracks along a trickle that flows to the river. This little predator had bounded along the drainage, investigating every small pool. Later, I found numerous snowshoe hare tracks too, but I found only one red squirrel trail. Apparently, most of them had stayed in bed that day.

After the next nice snowfall, I bushwhacked around several of the lakes in this area while tracking conditions were still good. I found a fat red squirrel watching (but not scolding) me from just overhead and several sets of squirrel tracks. A porcupine had shuffled along a lakeshore, in and out of the fringing shrubbery, until finally trundling off across the lake on the newly formed ice. Mice left their delicate tracery as they scuttled across small openings in the brush. And a shrew made a furrow in the soft snow as its tiny body plowed along from one dime-sized hole to another.

A few days later, the Parks and Recreation hikers headed toward Peterson Lake. From time to time, it snowed heavily, obliterating most animal tracks. I did find one squirrel trail and a deer had left its tracks across the trail in a meadow.

We didn't quite make it to the lake, because we wanted to be sure to be off the trail by twilight, which comes early in mid-November. Long stretches of the trail are in miserable condition, although there are two very nice new bridges over small gullies. Several sizable trees had blown down over the trail recently, but they were easily circumnavigated. Many mud holes lurked beneath a thick blanket of clean snow, and several hikers found themselves unexpectedly mired in boot-grabbing muck almost to knee level. The stairs at the start of the trail are missing in one place (replaced by another mud hole), and one remaining step shifted as a hiker stepped down, depositing that hiker in a snow-filled pit. At least it was a soft landing!

The forest was beautifully coated in snow, which clung to every semi-horizontal surface. I heard golden-crowned kinglets and chestnut-backed chickadees in the canopy. A raven called in the distance. Otherwise, the only sounds were our voices.

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

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