Finding tracks on the shores of Mendenhall

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our nonexistent summer season is past, finally. There was enough snow and frost on the ground near the Mendenhall Glacier to make good conditions for finding animal tracks. A recent walk along the shores of Mendenhall Lake was entertaining in that way.

A porcupine had ambled across the beach and over the frozen lake in a bee-line for the other side. Its trail was as straight as if it were following a compass bearing. We found one set of hare tracks on the ice at the shrubby edge of a secluded beaver pond. A mink (probably) had scuffled along an eroded bank. Otters left a diagnostic run-slide, run-slide pattern along the edge of another beaver pond.

We found several well-used lunch spots of the local beavers along the lake shore just above the beach. These are small areas where the moss has bee trampled flat and the lunching beavers have left a scattering of branches cleanly stripped of bark. All of these sites had a nice view of the glacier - although it seems doubtful that hungry beavers are much concerned with the view.

Along the way, we made a couple detours to look at beaver dams and lodges. Each beaver family had a substantial pile of branches in the water in front of the lodge, with a frill of twigs sticking up above the ice. This cache is their winter food supply. At this time of year, beavers become relatively inactive, spending most of their time at home. Body heat keeps the inside temperature warmer than the outside. Adult beavers gain weight in the fall and live partly off the stored fat during the winter and partly by eating bark from the cached branches. Young beavers are still growing, so they eat relatively more, for their size, than adults.

Winter is a good time to find bird nests, too, and play the game of deducing who made them. Recently we found a mossy thrush nest, snuggled up against the trunk of a small conifer, and a warbler nest nestled in a three-way fork of a shrub.

Although the hikers did not see large mammals on this November day, we have heard rumors of moose tracks in Spaulding Meadow, moose scat near the glacier, and bear tracks near the tram on Mount Roberts. And the black wolf is back in his usual haunts by Mendenhall Lake.

This walk ended at a local restaurant for lunch. The staff kindly allowed us to celebrate two birthdays with two (!) home-made cakes for dessert.

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

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