Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pissed-Off Loons and Porcupine Renovations

            It’s the middle of June, only a week until the solstice, and we are still running our main glacier hiking trip as a snowshoeing outing.    After many hours of shoveling, we’ve gotten parts of our nature trail whipped into shape, but most of the mile-long trail out to Pedersen Glacier is still under two to four feet of snow.   We’re more or less creating an ad hoc snowshoe trail out of some snow-covered creek drainages.   I went out a few days ago with some loppers and a hand saw to take down some of the alders that have been springing up near the snowshoe route.   Not springing up as in growing really fast, but springing up as in, the snow-flattened branches are melting out of the snow and suddenly leaping up a couple of feet as the weight of the snow is melting off.   The snowshoeing has proven quite popular with the guests, I think because it’s such a novel thing to be doing in summer.   Plus, standing in front of a glacier wearing snowshoes makes for a neat family Christmas card photo.   

            Eventually, however, the snowshoe trail is going to melt out, which will be good news, and also bad news.   I am anticipating a bleak period where the snow is too slushy and half-melted to run snowshoeing trips, but our hiking trails still have enough snow on them to be impassable.   A few days ago, I went out to scout a new snow-free route to Pedersen Glacier, by walking along a tidally-influenced channel during a low tide.   (The route looks good, but at high tide we start to lose the beach we walk on.)   Paddling back in a kayak, I heard a rustle off in the bushes, and stopped paddling, trying to see if there was a bear hanging around in the alders.   Two seconds later, a river otter jumped into the water in front of the kayak, close enough that if I had still been moving forward, the otter would have face planted onto the bow of my boat.    He obviously hadn’t seen me before he jumped in – but the other half dozen river otters behind him did see me, and were scrambling back up the bank to get further away from my boat.    Even though the otters didn’t want to get in the water with my kayak so close, they weren’t acting particularly afraid of me, either.   Another lodge staff member was out paddling and had brought a camera; after I called him over, he got some great pictures of the otters peering down at us from the top of the embankment.    In fact, the otters seemed comfortable enough with our proximity that I radioed another guide who brought her canoe tour over to take a look at the otters.   Thankfully, the otters were still in sight after the canoe arrived, although they had moved further into the alders.   There were no great photographic opportunities, but all of the guests got to see them scrambling around in the bushes.   (The rest of the evening, the guests were all showing me their pictures of otter noses poking our from the greenery.)   This was a great sighting – not only were there a lot of otters all together, but it’s actually rare for us to see river otters on tours.   They’re around, but they tend to not be as visible as the seals, who frequently follow our boats around on tours.  So, the guests were totally right to be proud of their photos – very few guests actually see river otters here, and usually not so close.   
            The Red-Throated Loons are back on the Pedersen moraine, although the pond where they’ve bred for the last five years still hasn’t melted out.   Most days I can hear the loons flying over the pond, always making their ‘quack quack quack’ flight call.   They’ll loop over the frozen pond, ascertain that it is still frozen, then bank left and land in the open water in the upper lagoon.   Once they’re on the water, you can hear them calling back and forth and complaining to each other about their lack of a pond.   The loons must be even more fed up with the late spring than the lodge staff are.   For the loons, having that pond frozen is like them being locked out of their house.   It almost sounds like their ‘quack quack quack’ call is another word that contains the letters u, c, and k.   

            It’s been a rough winter for the birds; we keep finding dead ones melting out of the snow on the beaches and around camp.   There were a bunch of dead gulls on the beach, dead crows in the woods, and dead murres on the Aialik moraine.    And a few days ago, a bird melted out of the snow next to the generator shed, which is either another dead murre, or one of the juvenile red-throated loon chicks from last summer.   I’m sort of hoping it’s a murre (it’s manky enough that the subtle variations of plumage are lost, but it’s a large, heavy-boned bird, brown on top and white on the breast, with webbed feet set back pretty far on the body, and a dark, pointed bill).  

             Coming back to the lodge from a boat trip to the glacier, my guests and I had a North by Northwest sort of encounter with a red and white Supercub that was buzzing us on the beach.   I was driving our ATV-style golf cart back along the Lodge’s beach road with a guest, A, and three other staff.   Two minutes down the road, I screeched the ATV to a halt because it looked like the plane might actually be trying to touch down on the road in front of me.   A said that she thought the plane was trying to make an emergency landing on the beach.   I found out later that A is a pilot – this lends some credence to the notion that this plane was flying much closer to the ground than is normal.   Just after disappearing out of sight over the rim of the beach, the plane pulled up and went into a steep ascent, heading back to Seward over the Icefield.    So, no one had to run through any cornfields to escape the bad guys, but the whole event was a little alarming.   If I had been thinking, I would have tried to get the numbers off of the tail, and one of the managers could have looked him up and had a little chat about being respectful of other people’s immediate airspace.

            I am happy to report that several humpback whales have remained in the bay, and our kayak tours have been seeing them, from a distance where the guests are impressed and get good pictures, but far enough away that none of them are fearing for their lives.   In other wildlife news, the camp porcupine is searching for a new home, and has apparently singled out my triplex room as a potential den.   This is the guy who was living in the maintenance shed over the winter, and chewed up the seats on our ATVs.   With the maintenance shed now back to being a hive of activity, and with the porcupine’s old den (under the generator shed) being ground zero for a construction project to expand the lodge drying room, the porcupine has apparently decided it’s time to look elsewhere for a nice, quiet building to chew up.   I’ve woken up in the morning a few times to porcupine scat on my steps, and chew marks on the door frame.   (This is not the first time he has done this.   Two years ago, this same porcupine chewed on our door so loudly that my roommate and I were briefly convinced that a bear was trying to break in to our room.)   I don’t think he has much of a chance of breaking down the door, but I’ve been careful about making sure that the door latches at night.   Otherwise, I’m convinced that he would stroll right in and start nesting in my bookshelf.  

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