Ice? Snow? So what? It’s SPRING!

March 26th, 2016


 

Pasque flowers

Pasque flowers

Despite occasional setbacks, it’s SPRING!

 

On one sunny day, pasque flowers bloom on a ridge in a northeast Iowa goat prairie. Then – hardly 24 hours later – your flowerbed crocuses seem to shiver under an icy jacket left by a late-winter storm.

 

Cold crocuses

Cold crocuses

Ice also coats the swelling buds of an ironwood tree, until the sun finally musters enough power to free them.

 

Icy ironwood

Icy ironwood

As buds swell in the soft maples in the river bottoms, the trees take on a reddish tinge, which almost glows in the first light of a March sunrise.

 

Soft maple

Soft maple

Icicles and snow may linger in the moss of a north-facing slope – while snow trilliums bloom bravely just a few yards away.

 

North slope icicles

North slope icicles

Snow trillum

Snow trillum

The song sparrow heralds the season by singing its “tea kettle” song from a conspicuous perch atop a leafless shrub.

 

Song sparrow

Song sparrow

Goldfinches turn a motley, patchy, yellow-green as they transition from drab winter plumage to their lemon-colored summer suits.

 

Motley goldfinch

Motley goldfinch

A bold tom turkey gobbles at dawn, then puffs his feathers to scout the woodland edges for still-reluctant hens.

 

Turkey tom

Turkey tom

The first great blue heron of the season stalks the Mississippi backwaters – perhaps hoping that spring floods will push a hapless frog or wandering fish its way.

 

Hungry heron

Hungry heron

Puddle ducks harvest the waste grain and weed seeds of a farmer’s inundated cornfield.

 

Ducks in a puddle

Ducks in a puddle

A pair of mourning doves shares the bounty of your bird feeder, fueling their bodies for the rigors of egg-laying and parenting.

Lovey-dovey

Lovey-dovey

 

The Canada goose already had begun incubating her eggs on the island in the pond, so she simply hunkered down to stoically ride out the storm and protect her yet-to-hatch clutch of goslings.

 

Dedicated goose

Dedicated goose

Look for more blooms. Listen to the bird songs. Smell the neighbor’s prairie fire. Touch the cool, damp earth. Taste the freshness in the air.

Savor the season!

 

Spring fever?

February 21st, 2016


Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

Fall leaves, winter snow, and spring moss mark the seasonal transition

 

“Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” proclaimed the cardinal, announcing his delight at the approach of spring.

 

You may have scoffed at that happy song a few weeks ago, with temperatures in the single digits and calf-deep snow in the woods – but Mr. Cardinal knew what he was singing about.

 

OK, it’s still February, and we’re bound to have more snow and frigid temperatures. But we HAVE gained more than 100 minutes of daylight since the shortest day of the year last December 21.

 

That increase in day length is not lost on the pileated woodpecker, who has started his staccato drumming to let females know that he’s available for the upcoming breeding season.

 

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

A hardy bluebird returns early to await the spring

The bluebirds returned to check out the birdhouse a couple of weeks ago, but they seem content to wait until well into March to begin starting a family.

 

Most other birds remain relatively quiet in the waning days of winter. Our journal says that the goldfinches should sport the first bright-yellow feathers ‘most any day, however. And southern Iowa birders are tallying migrating waterfowl by the thousand.

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

A hen pheasant searches for food uncovered by the snowplow

 

The snowplow and the warm sun have cleared the roadsides down to grass and gravel, inviting pheasants to search for grit or spilled grain. You marvel at the tough birds’ survival through the recent winds and ice and bitter cold spells. With the reprieve of a warm spell, the birds should be able to put on enough fat reserves to help them through the inevitable end-of-winter blast we Iowans have come to expect.

 

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

Lingering snow accents the gray-brown on the February forest floor

On a stroll in the woods on a mild afternoon, the first impression is of grays and browns and patches of lingering white. But as you look more closely, you begin to see green tinges of moss, accented by tiny, red fruiting bodies that already have sprung up to meet the sun. Little green rosettes of garlic mustard (grrr!) have lurked under the fallen leaves all winter. Unfortunately, the invasive plant will have a head start on spring ephemerals when they try to poke through the duff in another six weeks or so.

 

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

Mosses have sprouted fruiting bodies in anticipation of spring

The sunny days and above-freezing nights have kept the snow melting steadily, making the river high and chocolaty. Too many acres of bare soil translate into erosion and runoff from farm fields – and rising streams.

 

Even with the swift current and brown water, an impatient fisherman is casting below the riffles. You wish him luck. And then your own casting hand starts twitching. Spring fever is contagious!

 

 

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

An eager fisherman is undeterred by high water and swift current

 

 

HUNGRY!

February 4th, 2016


 

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Hungry coyote gnaws on a deer carcass

Cold. Snow. Ice. Spring is still a month away. The easy-to-get food already may have been consumed. The sun’s rays – if they peek through the overcast – pack only marginal warmth.

 

That’s why some Native Americans called February the time of the “Hunger Moon.”

 

You have to empathize with wildlife’s struggles this time of year.

 

A hungry coyote – which normally might fill its stomach by catching rabbits or mice under the cover of darkness – ventures into the cold daylight to gnaw on bones of a six-week-old deer carcass left over from hunting season. Can there be enough dried scraps of meat, fat, or sinew to make the effort worthwhile? Perhaps – if you’re hungry enough!

 

After the coyote moves on, the crows return to continue pecking at the remnants – as they have for several days. The birds must find SOMETHING, or they wouldn’t keep returning. Or maybe they visit the bone pile out of habit, expecting a replenished banquet that never happens.

 

Opossum looking for scraps

Opossum looking for scraps

Is it that wishful thinking that brings the opossum to the deer remains on a warm afternoon? For no more nourishment than the animal gained, it probably would have been better off saving its energy and staying asleep in its winter den.

 

Feed me!

Feed me!

After an overnight snowstorm, the goldfinches and juncos flock to the feeder, scratching impatiently for fresh sunflower hearts, and seeming to plead, “Feed me!” to the slow-moving human benefactor.

 

Sharp-shin

Sharp-shin

Please don't eat the purple finch!

Please don’t eat the purple finch!

But the birds themselves better not move too slowly, lest they become breakfast for the sharp-shinned hawk. The sharpie has learned that our bird feeders are its bird feeder, too. We hope the little raptor will settle for one of the abundant goldfinches, and not snatch our cute chickadees, titmice, or purple finches.

 

White-footed mouse

White-footed mouse

The bird feeder feeds more than birds, too. Many evenings, white-footed mice scramble up to the tray to nibble on scraps of sunflower seeds. But one night, another shape appeared at the feeder. Perhaps the screech owl had learned a good place to hunt for its favorite prey.

 

Screech owl in search of mouse

Screech owl in search of mouse

Even the larger critters have to work harder when snow and ice coat the land. Pheasants scour open fields for seeds – even though their forays make them more vulnerable to predators. Tough tom turkeys venture out onto a windswept hilltop, where the snow has been blown away and they can forage for waste grain or seeds.

 

Vulnerable pheasant

Vulnerable pheasant

Hilltop toms

Hilltop toms

Deer – at their peril – may hang out on roadsides, and even bed down there, where snowplows have scraped down to grass and forbs. The dry vegetation probably hasn’t retained much flavor or many nutrients – but it’s probably better than munching on prickly junipers.

Roadside deer

Roadside deer

 

I feel a twinge of guilt as I throw another log on the fire in the wood stove, and brew a cup of hot chocolate in the microwave. But then we browse the nursery catalogs, planning the annual spring ritual of tree and shrub planting. Maybe a few more dogwoods, wild plums, serviceberries, white pines, and bur oaks will give our critters a bit more habitat that will help them survive future winters.

 

Cold, dry lunch

Cold, dry lunch

 

Winter Joys

January 6th, 2016


 

Ice Forming on the Mississippi & Wisconsin Rivers

Ice Forming on the Mississippi & Wisconsin Rivers

Although a blanket of snow smothered the landscape, and the air was calm, a faint yet distinct rumbling rose from the valley and was amplified by the Mississippi River bluffs. As we stood admiring one of our favorite Iowa scenes – the view from Pike’s Peak State Park across the Mississippi and up the Wisconsin River – we were captivated as much by the sound as by the vista.

The clink, clatter, and crunch of floating ice clusters marked a temperature-dependent line between solid and liquid. The flowing water – above 32 degrees F – carried along ice floes that had formed when the temperatures fell below 32. And with the temps now in the teens, the new ice probably was winning the skirmish.

Moonscape - of ICE

Moonscape – of ICE

Sheets of ice forming in the big river floated past, on a slow journey downstream to whatever barrier might block their movement and allow them to freeze together and finally build a bridge across the open water. That (relatively!) solid cap may end the clatter of the floating ice cubes, and trap the water’s warmth to keep the river liquid underneath.

I still marvel at the high-school chemistry class revelation that water becomes heavier as it cools – then magically turns lighter as it solidifies into ice!

Ice noises aren’t the only marvels of winter, though. How about the spectacular sunrises – which happen at a civilized hour so even late sleepers can enjoy them?

January sunrise

January sunrise

And even though it was NOT at a civilized hour, this insomniac caught a few brilliant flashes of meteors between 2 and 3 a.m. the morning of January 4. The Quadrantid shower showed up on schedule near the Big Dipper.

Speaking of celestial sights, Venus and the waning crescent moon have been dancing together just before dawn in the southeastern sky, while a dimmer Saturn lurks nearby.

No lurking for the hungry crows, however. They caw boldly from the dead cottonwood, then swoop in for a few morsels of leftovers from the bone pile we left them after we cut up some venison from the season’s harvest.

Crows feast on leftovers

Crows feast on leftovers

While friends may groan about the cold (not really!) and the deep (not so much!) snow, I try to appreciate the joys of winter: skis squeaking and swishing on fresh powder, a cup of hot chocolate afterwards, watching a cozy fire in the woodstove, spotting a rough-legged hawk on its visit from the north.

Enjoy it while we can! The days already are getting longer, and spring is on the way!

Snow is for SKIING!

Snow is for SKIING!

 

Why I treasure whitetails . . .

December 21st, 2015


 

Let him grow!

Let him grow!

 

 

Why do I hunt deer? It’s partly an excuse to . . .

 

Watch a brown creeper fly down, then creep up the tree trunk –

 

Be amazed at how efficiently a pileated woodpecker can chisel apart a boxelder log –

 

Hear several other pileateds chattering and flying in woods –

 

Chuckle at the commotion gray squirrels make when chasing each other around woods –

 

Blink my eyes, as deer seem to appear out of thin air – and disappear just as quickly –

 

Blue jay, gray/brown woods

Blue jay, gray/brown woods

Be happy to see a bossy blue jay, who ads a bit of color to the otherwise –gray-brown woods

 

Admire too-small bucks calmly browsing in the brush near my stand –

 

“Dee-dee” an answer to the ever-present chickadees that keep me company in the woods –

 

Listen to a buddy’s tale of the ghostly “monster” buck that eluded both of us –

 

Ponder a fawn intently munching grass a few yards away, oblivious to my presence or my scent –

 

Welcome “our” eagles as they daily circle, soar, and screech –

 

December sunset

December sunset

Savor a December sunrise, and the following December sunset –

 

Share the excitement of 6-year-olds as they get to sit in the blind with Papa –

 

Huntin' with Papa

Huntin’ with Papa

Commend a normally fidgety 13-year-old on his patience while watching a deer trail –

 

Bring the entire, orange-clad crew into the woods to fetch a deer after a successful hunt –

Bringing home the venison

Bringing home the venison

 

Smile at the exuberance of an 11-year-old future hunter, as he hugs the deer carcass hanging in the shed –

 

Cut and process our own venison, while planning meals of tasty loins, versatile burger, and delicious stew –

 

Burger on the menu

Burger on the menu

Await the unseen coyotes, raucous crows, and hoped-for eagles that may come for a feast on the bones and scraps, to be sure nothing goes to waste from our harvest –

 

And to sleep well, after a day watching and stalking the deer trails of our Turkey River bluffs.

 

 

quiet

November 22nd, 2015


 

 

First snow

First snow

 

 

The first snow.

It’s so quiet . . . and white . . . and wild . . .

When the storm finally ended, it left a foot of sticky clumps to bend over the prairie grasses, make giant ice cream sundaes out of the deck furniture, and coat the tree limbs like frosting.

A puzzled junco pondered a mound that looked like cotton candy where the tray of sunflower hearts had been.

Junco

Junco

 

About the only other movement was the pair of bald eagles circling overhead, surveying the aftermath of the storm that had buried any potential breakfast morsels. (Yesterday’s road-killed raccoon had long since been devoured!)

I slipped on my skis, eager for the first outing of the year, and expecting to glide over the fluff.

Ski bum

Ski bum

But I quickly realized that “gliding” would be a fantasy in the sticky, shin-deep blanket of wet snow. Shuffling probably better described my gait, as I set out to test the trails that I’d hurriedly mowed when I heard the forecasts and weather advisories.

Bush clover & little bluestem

Bush clover & little bluestem

I paused often – allegedly to shoot photos of the snow-covered prairie, half-buried trees, and tree bark mottled with splotches of white. OK, I confess: the frequent photo-opps also were necessitated by my fatigue from breaking the trail through the deep, damp snow.

Cherry bark

Cherry bark

An open path I’d lain out through a woodland edge now seemed more like a tunnel, with snow weighing down the cedar branches, and clinging to the persistent leaves of the pin oaks. I ducked low to avoid bumping branches that threatened to dump mini-avalanches down my neck.

Even more than the white blanket that engulfed the landscape, I was struck by the QUIET: No traffic on the distant highway, no jets high above, not even any birds calling. The deep snow effectively muffled the noise.

Red cedar icicles

Red cedar icicles

Finally, a sassy crow broke the silence, and another member of the flock joined the debate.

Perhaps the birds had sensed the coming breeze. It “whooshed” faintly through the bare treetops, sending plops of snow plummeting from the branches, and a cloud of white swirling through the gray branches.

 

hungry downy

hungry downy

I headed home to refill the bird feeders, rest my out-of-shape skiing muscles, and to remind myself that it’s still a whole month until WINTER!

White oak

White oak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transition

October 19th, 2015


 

Bloody Run overlook

Bloody Run overlook

 

 

What a difference a month makes!

 

Bumblebee & coneflower

Bumblebee & coneflower

Early October may bring shirt-sleeve afternoons, bumblebees nectaring on lingering coneflowers, a lone hummingbird drinking sugar-water before heading south, and hillsides of still-green oaks. Chicken-of-the-woods fungi thrive on a decaying oak stump, and pure-white puffballs sprout seemingly overnight on the forest floor.

 

Chicken of the woods

Chicken of the woods

By mid-month, shimmering gold is replacing the greens, and the hardy gentians and asters (and pesky dandelions!) are about the only flowers still in bloom.

Stiff gentian

Stiff gentian

Oh, almost forgot the witch hazel – the uncommon shrub whose dainty yellow flowers bloom just as the leaves also turn yellow. Fields of goldenrod have turned dusky-brown, although the clumps of big and little bluestem and Indiangrass glow a warm purple in the morning sun.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel

 

No better time for a hike in the woods than October, when fallen leaves crunch, and still-hanging leaves paint crimson-orange-bronze-purple on the hillsides.

 

Then come the October winds, a series of cold fronts, and crisp, clear nights.

By next morning, the garden green beans and zucchini have turned limp and brown – and the puzzled robins and goldfinches are ice-skating on the birdbath.

 

Ice-skating robin

Ice-skating robin

The last turkey vultures apparently caught a ride southward on the north winds, but those same breezes may have carried the first pine siskin to our feeder – along with the sharp-shinned hawk that now patrols our yard.

First siskin

First siskin

 

Hungry sharpie

Hungry sharpie

Deer have donned their winter-gray coats, and have temporarily lost their wariness as the rut approaches.

 

Winter coat

Winter coat

This month may keep you guessing. Will it be hot or cold, bright or drab, clear or hazy? But perhaps we need those ups and downs, hots and colds, brights and drabs for our bodies – and minds – to adjust from summer to winter. Ah, the joys of October!

 

Motor Mill

Motor Mill

 

 

The Way of the Canoe

September 25th, 2015


 

Canoe country

Canoe country

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten.”

Sigurd F. Olson

From The Singing Wilderness,
“The way of a canoe”

 

 

A crescent moon hanging over the lake in the pre-dawn. Loons yodeling in the distance. Fish for supper. Geese etching a V above the sunset. A nap on sun-warmed pine needles. Wading knee-deep to ease the canoe back into the lake to conclude a rocky portage. A handful of gorp after battling headwinds.

BWCAW Sunrise

BWCAW Sunrise

For 50 years, these feelings and images have drawn me back to northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. More than a million acres of rivers, lakes, Canadian Shield bedrock, spruce and pine forests, and wildness captured my soul on our first encounter at a college field station in the 1960s. We’ve returned numerous times – the latest in early September.

My daughter, Emily, didn’t have to twist my arm very hard when she hinted that it might be nice to have one more paddler with the group she was leading on a short canoe adventure as part of her job (this is WORK?) as naturalist/educator at the Cable, Wisc., Natural History Museum. “Let’s go!” I declared.

Portage

Portage

Besides Emily, I shared lakes and portages with a retired Chicago prosecutor, a couple of retired teachers, a financial software expert, and a 72-year-young woman whose skill, strength, endurance, and good cheer were an inspiration for all.

Fish for supper!

Fish for supper!

We canoe regularly on the Turkey and other Iowa rivers – but the Boundary Waters are canoeing at its finest. The Anishinaabe who first plied these waters, and the voyageurs who carried furs and trade goods across the North Country, found the canoe an ideal craft to travel the maze of lakes and streams. Sure, you must carry canoes and gear from lake to lake – across portages that can be steep, muddy, and long – but the waterways ultimately form a Northwest Passage across the continent.

Eagle country

Eagle country

We obviously didn’t traverse the continent – only a handful of lakes off the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais: Poplar, Lizz, Caribou, Horseshoe, Gaskin, WInchell, Jump, and Allen. Each lake has its own character, but several classic traits keep reminding you that’s you’re in Canoe Country. Scattered white pines escaped logging to stand watch over spruce, balsam, cedar, aspen, and paper birch woodlands. Granite bedrock defines the landscape, with outcrops that lure campers and fishermen. Bunchberries, blueberries, twinflowers, baneberries, and a host of other flowering plants carpet the forest floor.

Forest floor

Forest floor

Most lakes sparkle clean and bright (although it’s still advisable to filter water you drink to avoid nasty parasites.) Yes, things have changed from the half-century ago when we routinely dipped a cup in the lake and took a cool drink without worry. And we now paddle 40-pound Kevlar boats, instead of aluminum canoes weighing twice as much. (But the traditional birch bark canoes probably weighed several hundred pounds!)

What hasn’t changed is the satisfaction of traveling under your own muscle power. You can almost imagine a party of voyageurs singing gaily while they paddle ahead of you – or grumbling profanely as they trot over the portages in a race to shed their two 90-pound packs and get back into the birch bark canoes.

 

Muddy portage

Muddy portage

With recognition and gradual protection over almost a century, leading up to wilderness designation in 1964, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has lured generations of adventurers. Attracting 250,000 million visitors annually, it’s the country’s most heavily used wilderness.

Wilderness? With that many people? Ironic, to be sure. But one reason the Canoe Country endures – despite almost a century of threats ranging from hydro dams to highways to float planes, resort complexes, logging, mining, snowmobiles, and utility towers – is that generations of PEOPLE have come to love its natural wonders. Let’s hope that passion helps it endure for generations to come.

 

BWCAW Solitude

BWCAW Solitude

 

 

 

 

 

Isle Royale

September 4th, 2015


McDonald Lake on Isle Royale

McDonald Lake on Isle Royale in Lake Superior – Canada in background

Fifteen miles off the Canadian shore of Lake Superior looms Isle Royale – a beautiful, 133,000-acre, one-billion-year-old hunk of rock that’s defined by contradictions.

 

A National Park since 1940, it’s on the “bucket list” for countless travelers – but still remains one of the least visited sites in the 390-park system.

 

View from Washington Creek campground

View from Washington Creek campground

Ninety-nine per-cent wilderness, much of Isle Royale’s ecosystem has been shaped by activities of humans. Indians began mining copper here at least 4,500 years ago. The natives probably imported snowshoe hares, and perhaps other animals and plants.

Snowshoe hare

Snowshoe hare

 

Nineteenth-century miners blasted into the rock searching for copper, after setting fire to the forests to clear away vegetation that slowed their efforts.

Loggers cut some of the prime trees – even with the realization that getting the timber to market across the turbulent lake could be next to impossible.

Loon family

Loon family

 

Commercial fishing thrived in the late 1700s, when whitefish and lake trout were harvested to feed fur traders and voyageurs. The industry continued well into the 1900s – and sport fishermen still ply both Lake Superior and inland streams and lakes.

 

In the early 1900s, several resorts and private clubs were developed as playgrounds and retreats for the rich from the mainland.

Bunchberry

Bunchberry

 

Caribou and lynx once inhabited the island, but disappeared about a century ago. Later, moose somehow found their way across the ice – or swam the lake – to populate the island. Without predators to control them, the moose populations cycled from boom to bust, sometimes devastating the vegetation they fed on.

 

In the 1940s, wolves came to the island and began feeding on moose, paving the way for classic predator/prey wildlife research. But with disease and inbreeding now bringing wolf populations back down to two or three animals, the balance is once again threatened.

 

Sunrise at McCargoe Cover

Sunrise at McCargoe Cover

Despite its isolation, the island is home to more than 600 species of fungi and 30-plus species of orchids, along with a rich variety of other northwoods plants.

 

Jewelweed

Jewelweed

We pondered this history and natural history on a recent week-long visit to the biggest island on the largest fresh-water lake in the world. Well, not a FULL week, because our trip was delayed a day by the whims of Kitchi-Gummi, as the Chippewa called Superior.

 

“We’re not going today,” announced the ferry boat captain when we arrived at the Grand Portage, Minn., dock for a 2½-hour ride to the island. Too windy, too rough. And if the boat captain doesn’t think it’s safe, you don’t argue!

 

5 a.m. ferry from Grand Portage

5 a.m. ferry from Grand Portage

The waters calmed by the next morning, however, so we boarded the Voyageur II at 5 a.m., and watched with anticipation as the dark shadow on the far eastern horizon gradually took shape as Isle Royale.

 

Isle Royale Lighthouse, Menagerie Island

Isle Royale Lighthouse, Menagerie Island

Once at the park, the contrasts continued. Margaret and I were able to take ferry shuttles to three different campgrounds, while our daughter and her boyfriend hiked and backpacked about 50 of Isle Royale’s 165 miles of trails. Something for both slow-paced “seniors” and more energetic explorers. Either way, a fun adventure!

 

 

Boardwalks traverse Isle Royale's creeks and wetlands

Boardwalks traverse Isle Royale’s creeks and wetlands

Here is a sampling of more delights from our trip.

 

Full moon at Rock Harbor

Full moon at Rock Harbor

 

Camera bug

Camera bug

 

Red squirrel - camp robber

Red squirrel – camp robber

 

Towering pine

Towering pine

Thimbleberry

Thimbleberry

Herring gull

Herring gull

Cormorant rock

Cormorant rock

Great River Rumble – Juy 27 – Welcome to Osterdock!

July 28th, 2015


Osterdock cozy campsite

Osterdock cozy campsite

Little town – BIG Welcome!

Packed-in boats

Packed-in boats

Massage? I needed that!

Hurrah for Susan's Mobile Massage!

Hurrah for Susan’s Mobile Massage!

 

Liquid refreshments

 

Coolin' off in the beer tent

Coolin’ off in the beer tent

Entertainment

Boys in the band

Boys in the band

Boogeyin’ Rumbers

Never too tired to boogey!

Never too tired to boogey!

Turkey River hospitality

 

Thanks, Elaine & crew!

Thanks, Elaine & crew!

Iowa evening

Bedtime at Camp Osterdock

Bedtime at Camp Osterdock

It’s full moon week

Moon over Osterdock

Moon over Osterdock

Another great day on the Turkey

 

Osterdock sunset

Osterdock sunset