Friday, August 20, 2010

Juneau's Natural Side - Mendenhall Glacier

Our goal on day two (August 13) was to see as much of natural Juneau as possible. First stop: Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest.

We had barely entered the park when a black bear scampered across the road. A good omen for our nature viewing.

Even more exciting was a new sighting for us: a porcupine nestled high in a tree near the visitor center. Not a great photo, but we hope you get the idea.

We beat the crowds so we got to view Mendenhall by ourselves (reminding us of our visit to the Great Pyramid):

Mendenhall has receded markedly since Donald was here in 1988. For those of us from the lower 48, it’s tempting to conclude that contemporary climate change is to blame, but that’s not the whole story. Many of the glaciers in southeast Alaska expanded in the Little Ice Age (approximately 1550 to 1850) and have been receding ever since.

Along the trail, we also spied some excellent birds, including Wilson’s Warbler (which Esther described as "that warbler with the little mohawk") and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (perhaps the cutest bird in North America).

After a quick course in glacierology at the visitor center, we headed down to Steep Creek. After passing a luminous Townsend’s Warbler, we found Sockeye Salmon spawning in the creek. A great chance to watch these bright red salmon compete for nesting spots and mates. The females would turn sideways and wiggle her tail to clear out a nest. The male would track her and try to chase off competing males. And sometimes it seemed the female would fight off other females.

We didn’t see any bears at first, but it was obvious they frequent the area. The scat and a dead salmon provided some forensic evidence, but the real giveaway was the matted-down grass along the creek bank and in strategically chosen routes under the boardwalk.

Just as we were about the get back in our taxi, a woman asked if we had seen any bears. We said no, to which she replied "well there’s one right there.” And right she was. We followed (from the safety of the wooden boardwalk) the yearling black bear as he walked along the bear trails, under the boardwalk, sniffed the dead salmon, and then moved on to fish for a fresh one in private.

The bears pose a challenge for designers: If you build a boardwalk along a salmon creek in bear country, how do you keep the bears off of it? The answer is to put swinging doors at each end of the boardwalk – doors that swing out, which bears allegedly haven't figured out. Yet.

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