Recently, I had a chance to visit tiny Hager Lake, near Priest Lake. The visit was part of a series of field tours put on by the Idaho Master Naturalists for their Fall Rendezvous.
The lake is only about 5 acres and is completely hidden from the highway on private land. It is surrounded by firs, lodgepole pine and additional boggy marshes called fens. The Pend Oreille Chapter of the Idaho Master Naturalists has been working with the landowner to catalog the plant life to restore and preserve the lake and its surrounding marshes and forests as a conservation easement.
Hager Lake is a bog lake formed as the glaciers retreated for the last time 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. A huge chunk of ice settled into the ground and slowly melted, forming the basin the lake occupies. Over time, the basin filled with snowmelt and rain that had no outflowing stream to drain the lake. Under these conditions and over thousands of years, the lake became stagnant, cold and acidic with little oxygen available to bacteria and fungi to continue breaking down the organic matter accumulating from surrounding plants. This poorly decayed matter settled to the bottom to become peat. Yes, like the peat you buy at the garden center for your garden. On the surface, sphagnum moss formed a dense mat of vegetation that created habitat for other acid-loving plants.
After bushwhacking our way through dense stands of pine, cedar, rose spiraea and unseen holes created by beavers, we were able to carefully walk on the sphagnum mat to survey the flora. Sphagnum moss can hold a large amount of water in its hollow stems and can float, forming a dense mat able to support our group of 10 or so people. It is squishy and when you gently jump up and down, it moves under your feet. Falling down meant getting wet and muddy. Case in point, I stepped in a hole up to my knee and wasn’t sure my shoe was going to follow me out of the hole. There was no bottom to the hole. Our guides said the lake was 40 feet deep at the edge of the mat.
After getting our mat walking legs under us, we began to observe some of the plant life that thrives in these rugged conditions. Bog cranberries spread out on the ground with their tiny evergreen leaves and yielded a few tart berries for sampling. Several other mosses wove among the feathery strands of sphagnum. Near the edge of the lake on slightly drier ground were sedges, reeds and an occasional blueberry bush. The berries draw in small wildlife and birds.
The most unusual plant we found was the tiny carnivorous sundew, which catches insects in a sticky liquid and then folds itself over the insect to digest them as a source of protein. Orchids, water lilies and dragon flies rounded out our observations.
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