Tonight the rain returns. Today we can still use the sun to enjoy Mendenhall Lake. Clouds will deaden the sky this evening and heavy rain will keep many folks indoors. That’s why I was surprised at how few people have taken to the glacier trail this morning. The sun still shines, making recently freed glacier ice sparkle.
We wanted to take a moraine trail to where it drops you onto a beach on Mendenhall Lake. But several signs said that no dog, not even a poodle who has used her 10 pound body to chase away grumpy bears, could walk the trail we wanted to take.
Instead we strolled over to a saddle to take another look at this year’s artic terns. They rose off the beach in large clouds when we approached on the last visit. Today we could only spot one or two at a time. Some were collecting food for their nesters. Most kept a close by watch on the new born babes.
I hadn’t expected arctic terns this summer. Then Aki and I drove out to Mendenhall Lake. Until the Alaska weather rose to speed up the Mendenhall Glacier’s melt rate, the terns had little trouble feeding and raising their families. But now they get flooded out.
They are tough dudes too. I once watch a tern chase an adult bald eagle across the face of the glacier while pulling at the eagle’s tail feathers. Terns are also beautiful, with crisp lines and bright orange and black trim. You have to keep your distance from them when canoeing on any water. They dive toward the heads of humans who paddle too close.
For the past several summers, glacier melt has roared into the lake and raised the height of the lake water, flooding parts of the human trail and completely covering over the tern nests. It seems to get worse every year. Last summer I just assumed that the terns would never return. But on this damp May day, I am pleasantly surprised by the number of terns that that have once again flown 9000 miles from South America to hatch their eggs on the edge of Mendenhall Lake.
The last time that Aki and I stood on this Mendenhall Lake beach, a raven huddled at the base of a nearby alder, driven there by an angry arctic tern. This morning, neither raven nor tern are present. Last time, a cloud of terns hung over their nesting site. Today, we won’t see one of them.
We walk to Nugget Falls without seeing another dog or human. I wonder if the little dog is bored or as relieved as I.
On a normal summer day, I wouldn’t walk this trail. Most days last summer, hundreds of cruise ship passengers clogged it or posed for selfies in front of the falls. Other tourists paddled on the lake in oversized canoes. Today, only a piece of eagle down floats on the water.
On the way back to the car I spot a pair of nice folks blocking the trail. Their brand new, high-end raid gear marks them as out-of-towners. I could pass the guy while keeping six feet between us. But the woman stands in the middle of the trail, talking on her cell phone. I smile and wave my hand gently to the right, asking her to move far enough in that direction for me to safely pass. She looks startled, as if I had said something to her in Swedish. Her phone has transported her brain to the sun-soaked place where the other participant in the phone call stands. A second hand wave brings her back to Alaska and she moves aside to let me pass.
We pass a yearling bear on our way to the glacier. Grazing on meadow grass, it gives off a contemplative vibe, like a pastured Jersey cow. It’s brown like a grizzly, but lacks the shoulder hump of one. I suspect it is a cinnamon black bear. Being able to view the bear at a safe distance is cool. But this trip is about arctic terns.
While I get out her leash, Aki trots along the Mendenhall Lake shore. I need to get her on lead but the terns distract me. They hover over the lake, whipping their wings back and forth like a hummingbird and then dive into the glacier-silted water. Few catch anything. Those that do fly with it over to their nest.
By jogging, I catch my little delinquent and snap on the leash. Now tethered, she stops every few feet to sniff and pee. Does she know that I am in a hurry to reach the Picture Point overlook for a better view of the terns? I try not to fume and remind myself that the little dog needs to take it easy or she won’t recover from her muscle strain.
We take it very easy on the trail to Nugget Falls, stopping once to watch a tiny tern divebomb a raven. The raven, easily ten times larger than the tern, is hiding in a clump of willows. I suspect that the raven had been caught robbing the tern’s test. When the tern flies back to her eggs, the raven cruises over to a cottonwood tree and harasses a large bald eagle to flight. Attitude is clearly more important than size on the glacial moraine.
The first gray day to follow a sunny stretch is crushing. Even a dry overcast day like this one offers little reason for me to leave the house. The same is not true for Aki. She was more than ready to hop into the car this morning.
Figuring that the gloom would discourage others from visiting the glacier, I picked it for our venue. I want to see the artic terns. Those diminutive birds have just arrived after flying 12,000 miles from Antarctica. They are building their nests on the ground of sandy peninsulas that poke out into the lake. Usually they only a few birds show themselves above the nesting grounds. But when we arrive, what looks like the entire flock is swarming in the air. They’ve been stirred off their nests by three humans, one pushing a wheel barrow.
One male tern hovers for a moment over the little dog and I before flying off. It would have dive bombed us if we looked threatening. Once I saw a tern chase an adult bald eagle out of the air space above the tern nests, tugging at the big predator’s tail feathers to hurry it along.
I am surprised that the terns have returned. Each of the last few summers, water released by a collapsed ice dam on Mendenhall Glacier has released water that flooded the terns’ nesting area. Last summer a wolf destroyed some of the tern nests. After receiving such treatment, you would think the terns would migrate to a safer nesting site.