Glacier Laboratory

What happens when a glacier retreats (as so many of them are)?  What plants come first, and how long does it take for trees and other forms of life to take over the scoured landscape left behind?  In Glacier Bay National Park, the Reid Glacier is a perfect little laboratory for plant succession after glacial retreat.  In fact, the whole park is a living lab.  But for today, we’ll focus on the Reid Glacier.  We have anchored in the bight formed by the terminal moraine of the Reid many times, savoring the view of the glacier in sun, rain, mist or fog.  Reid is very accessible, and we’ve enjoyed hiking to the edge of it to touch the ice and sometimes stand on it.The rocks carried by the glacier down from the mountains are a wild variety of types and colors, and I particularly like the rusty ironbound rocks.All along the shoreline, wildflowers are blooming – particularly dwarf fireweed, which is a “pioneer plant” – an early arrival after a fire or other catastrophic event.  Fireweed helps to fix nitrogen into the soil, making it more hospitable for other plants.  This year paintbrush and other flowering plants joined the dwarf fireweed.Bird life along the cobbles and gravel on the shore was plentiful and varied.  At least this year I didn’t get poop-bombed by an angry gull!

Black oystercatcher

Fox Sparrow

Least Sandpiper

Hermit Thrush

Semipalmated Plover

Pelagic cormorants camped out on a lone rock just off the shore, and I’m sure there were other little birds that I never saw, camouflaged against the rocks.  Life abounds!  Willows and alder have grown noticeably taller in the five years we’ve been coming here, requiring a little bushwhacking to get through them when the tide is too high to hike the mud flats.

And the mud – slippery slimy stuff, held a faint paw print of perhaps a wolf, softened by a few cycles of the tide.We know wolves are around in the area – friends spotted one a little north of here.

As we were hauling up the anchor to continue our exploration, we saw a beautiful brown bear on the far shore.  We were able to get the boat fairly close to him – quite a big bear.Thank you, Reid Glacier, for showing us how life returns after you’ve scoured the landscape clean.  It is very sad to see such noticeable change from year to year, a powerful reminder of the dramatic changes to our planet’s climate.

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