Thursday, May 12, 2016

Bankhead National Forest and the Sipsey Wilderness

As I mentioned in my last post, we took some time in April to head south and escape the cold snap we were having in southeast Michigan. After five days in Kentucky we had planned on heading home, but the forecast called for more snow. We could stay at the Land Between the Lakes only if we changed sites, as the one we were in was reserved for the weekend. But the only available sites were not that great, and since the forecast in Kentucky called for lows in the mid-30's, and both Karin and I had brought work along, we decided we could stay another week and look for a place farther south, where spring was firmly in control.

I opened up Google Maps and looked for green blobs south of us. What I found, in northern Alabama, was the Bankhead National Forest. Was there camping? Check. Where there trails? Check.
My friend Karin read about Bankhead as we drove, and I was pleased to hear there's a wilderness area within the forest, the Sipsey Wilderness Area. In addition, the campgrounds were on a reservoir, and there were over 1,000 waterfalls within the forest.

Thanks to traffic we got in a bit late, but got a site on the water and set up the camper before it got dark. The Corinth Campground is RV friendly with full hook-ups, which is great when you have a tiny camper with tiny waste-holding tanks. There is also a tent area between the two loops of the campground.

The next day we hung out at the campground, relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. I went for a walk along the trail that linked the two campgrounds and was surprised at how pretty it was. Buckeyes were in bloom, and small streams dribbled over rock ledges. The cove directly behind our campsite was gorgeous, with steep rock walls down to the water. Lewis Smith Lake is actually a reservoir made by a dam on the Sipsey River. I have learned that there are very few natural lakes south of glaciated areas, like in Michigan and Minnesota. Lakes in the south are almost all reservoirs made from dammed up rivers.

View below our campsite. Karin saw her first armadillos here.

Bluets blooming in the woods.

Saturday was another day chilling at the campground, so by Sunday we were ready for a little exploring. The ranger told us about Kinlock Falls, on the edge of the Sipsey Wilderness and very near the road, so we started with that. It was a warm day but noticably cooler by Hubbard Creek. There was a rope swing that I could see would be very popular in a couple months.

Kinlock Falls. These were the biggest falls we saw during our visit, though not the tallest.

Thanks to its mix of hemlock and beech, I could almost believe I was in northern Michigan.

Hubbard Creek below the falls

After lunch we checked out the Natural Bridge Picnic Area, where an easy paved trail lead to the bridge and some really interesting rock formations. The whole Bankhead area is part of the Cumberland Plateau, a geological feature stretching from New York to Alabama. The region west of the Appalachian Mountains was, hundred of millions of years ago, a flat outwash plain formed by runoff from the mountains, and often covered with water. Much like the Ozarks to the west, this area was lifted by tectonic activity, then carved into the rugged landscape it is today by rain forming creeks and rivers. It is typically covered in thin soils, and due to that and its ruggedness was not heavily populated, by Indians or Europeans, until recently.

Natural Bridge Picnic Area
There were some fascinating geological formations down in the ravine leading under the bridge, but I have not been able to figure out how they were made. As far as I can find there's no volcanic activity so perhaps this is just from lifting and twisting.

Crazy rock formations along the trail

The underside of this overhang has been shaped by water filtering through the porous sandstone, carving out holes and  stretching stalactite-like fingers towards the ground.

More crazy rock formations!

Monday rained much of the day, so we set our sights on Tuesday to head into the wilderness area and hike the Thompson Creek trail. Even though it was only about 13 miles from the campground, it took us nearly an hour to reach the trailhead. We'd packed lunch and planned on hiking about 2.5 miles in to a waterfall, but within about a half mile we reached a crossing.

The stream was not particularly deep or wide, but with the inch of rain we'd gotten the day before, it was deeper than it should have been and running swiftly. Downstream in this pic are rocks to hop across, but they were down a cut bank, and the stream bed around them was deep and uneven with jumbled rocks. It would not have posed a problem except we had my two old beagles with us, one of whom is mostly blind, and they would not be able to walk across there without risking breaking a leg. We walked farther upstream but didn't find any other place where I felt comfortable walking across--they all involved taking my boots off and walking barefoot over the stones, something I didn't want to do. I got frustrated and we turned around and headed back to the van.

Stanley and me contemplating our crossing. We ended up rock-hopping downstream at the bend, me carrying the dogs. Photo by Karin.
 Back at the van we had a snack and discussed our options, and fed the dogs, as it was now around noon. While we debated, a younger couple pulled up, about to head out on the same trail. I decided to suck it up and just do it, so we hiked back out to the crossing. As I stood there still contemplating, the couple hiked up, climbed down the bank, hopped over the rocks and headed up the trail on the other side. I felt like such a wimp--the woman was only in shorts, t-shirt and running shoes, while here I was in all my gear afraid to cross the stream.

So I grabbed a dog, tottered across, set him down then went back for the other. It was NO BIG DEAL, and I felt really silly for making such a fuss about it.

Just on the other side, right along Thompson Creek, was this backcountry campsite. I see some backcountry camping in the Sipsey Wilderness in my future.

Backcountry campsite on Thompson Creek.

The trail was pretty easy, though hiking with a blind dog means watching for any hazard he may run into or fall off of. I did still manage to enjoy the scenery, like these beautiful red trillium, which we don't have here in our woods.

Red trillium, or Stinking Benjamin. I wonder who Benjamin was, and what he really smelled like.

Snail on a mossy tree.

The entire area is laced with small streams and rivulets, and we decided this was a lovely spot for lunch. The creek divided and split around several small islands here, and we could see that in heavy rain our lunch spot could be inundated by water. But today it was serene, and we lingered here before heading back to the van.

Wednesday we decided to hike along the Sipsey Fork from the Sipsey River Picnic Area. This is a popular hike, and there was a school bus in the parking lot, which I was a bit dismayed about.

Down from the main parking lot, on the road to the day use area, there's a narrow bridge. We walked down there first to check out the river, and noticed all this debris on the downstream side. We later spoke with a park employee who said the area had seen severe flooding around Christmas last year, and that the water had over-topped the bridge. I was astonished--this bridge is at least 25 feet above the river. That's a lot of water. All along the trail we saw debris stuck in the trees well above our heads, and marveled at the amount of water it would take to lift the river so far out of its banks.

Debris from flooding on the Sipsey River.
This was a bit more rugged than the Thompson Creek trail, but the more arduous hike was worth it--the trail hugs the river on one side, and is crowned by moss-covered rock walls on the other. I lost count of how many waterfalls there were. Getting the dogs around some of them was a challenge, although that was mostly due to Stanley's blindness. And everywhere there were trees growing on rocks.

We did run into the school group, and then we got hung up by another creek crossing. This one was much trickier, with steeper banks, and no good way to get the boys up and down, so we turned back after a couple miles. But the hike was well worth it, even if we didn't go as far as we'd hoped.

The next day once again called for rain, so we opted to do a little birding. There were several species in the park that I was targeting, and I was thrilled to find one of them--a Prairie Warbler. Parts of the forest are still logged, and these regenerating areas create habitat for all sorts of different species. I think we counted twelve of these guys singing along a half mile stretch of dirt road.

Prairie Warbler in Bankhead National Forest.
We stayed in the park for a week, and I loved every minute. I had no idea such a place existed in Alabama, and I'm sure I'll be back some day. Everyone we met was very nice, there are a few small towns sprinkled through the area so there's grocery stores, banks, and a few restaurants as well as laundromats and the like. Next time perhaps we will backcountry camp along one of the beautiful creeks or rivers.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Escaping A Late Winter at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

Winters in Southeast Michigan are not typically bad. We rarely get more than a few days below zero, and our snowfall is not outrageous. The two previous years were vicious, though, with bitter temps and record snowfall, and it was cold well into late spring.

This year however we had a fairly mild winter. Lots of days in the 40's, few days with snow on the ground. We got pounded a few times with big storms but the snow was gone in less than a week both times. Then came April. 

Talks had already been in the works with a friend of mine to head south for a week or so. We debated where to go that was within a day's drive. We looked at several places in Kentucky and Tennessee but only settled on a place a few days before we left, based solely on the weather. When the cold snap hit and it was snowing the day before we left, some place warm was a must. So we hooked up the camper, which was still winterized, and drove down to the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky.

Created when the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers were damned, LBL is sandwiched between the two impoundments, Kentucky Lake to the west, and Lake Barkley to the east. The flooding of the river gorges and their tributaries resulted in hundreds of miles of shoreline, and the land between became a multi-use area, with hunting in designated areas (as opposed to a National Park, where hunting is not allowed). 

One of the gems of LBL is the Elk and Bison prairie. 700 acres of prairie were created using prescribed burns and elk and bison from Canada were added to the fenced landscape. We asked at the visitor center what the best time to go would be, and she said either 6:00 pm or 6:15 in the morning, as soon as it opened. We opted for the morning, knowing we would pretty much have the place to ourselves and that the animals would be more active. 

Dawn on the Elk and Bison prairie at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, Kentucky. 

It's was a gorgeous yet chilly morning. The sun had just cleared the trees to light up last years' grasses. We came across bison very near the entrance, but they seemed quite shy and melted into the woods as soon as they saw us.

Blurry bison fleeing in the early morning light.

As the morning warmed the sun lit up the new leaves, making it seem like a crisp fall day.

 Soon we came upon a small herd of elf grazing near the road. They were not shy at all, and we got some great looks at them.

I'm sure there is some scientific research going on that requires the animals be tagged, but I still don't like it, any more than I like unconfined animals wearing bulky radio collars. It seems to me with our technology today that there is a better way to track and monitor wildlife.

Elk with ear tag.

I was surprised to see this young bull with his antlers still intact. They are typically shed in winter and should be regrowing by this time of year.

"Pffffft" said this elk cow, in response to our gawking.

We made our way around the loop, seeing only one other vehicle, a truck pulling a boat who was going so fast they must not have seen a damn thing. It costs $5.00 to enter,

Once we began our second trip around the loop we found the bison again, very near the entrance and right out in the warming morning sun. How beautiful to see them grazing among the tawny grasses. 

These two youngsters were playing by the road. Young bison horns have not yet begun to curl upwards, helping distinguish them from adults. 

We got some really nice looks at these icons of the prairie.

By the time we got back around to the elk, many of them had already laid down to chew their cud from the morning's grazing. 

By the time we were leaving at least one other car had entered, but we'd had the place essentially to ourselves the whole morning. So if you go, I'd plan on early morning, to avoid any traffic and to see the animals at their most active. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Artwork--Green-winged Teal

The primary purpose of my photography is to get subject matter for my artwork. While I will always love shooting landscapes and close-ups of flowers and things, I no longer promote my photography on a professional level. 

When I'm out shooting subject matter, I usually have to go home and sort through dozens, if not hundreds, of photos, looking for one I like. Sometimes I have to use multiple images to get the composition I want. But then there are the times when I know as soon as I release the shutter that I've got an image I want to draw. The Greem-winged Teal was one of those times. 

Taken down on Galviston Island in Texas, while I was in the area for a show, I knew right away it would become a drawing. I was excited just to see the teal so close. My only previous view of one was from at least a hundred yards away. So to see it in this little pond was great, but to get shots of it doing something--even if that was just taking a bath--well, that was even better. 

It took me two years to do the piece because I was stymied by how to do the water. But now that I've started using the stippling to do most of my backgrounds and foregrounds, I decided it was time for a duck!

                 "Splash Splash," colored pencil and ink, 14 x 11, framed to 20 x 16. $950

Not long after finishing the piece I was contacted by Steve S. With the Ohio Decoy Carvers and Collectors Association to see if I was interested in participating in their show in March. I had a prior commitment, but he told me that they have a flat art competition as well, and the winner's artwork becomes the following years' logo for the show. Funny how I'd just finished my first waterfowl! I entered the piece and came in third behind two duck stamp winners. Not too shabby!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring in Southern Missouri

 In 2015, in an attempt to extend my show season (which in Michigan is really only May through September for fine art) I did a whole bunch of shows out of state. Florida is the go-to place in the winter, and the state is crammed full of shows from early November into April. But starting in March, shows start to pop up in other southern states as spring makes it's slow creep northward. I decided to try some shows in spring in the south, to see if they were lucrative enough to make the hassle of driving that far and being gone that long worth it.

I piggybacked two shows, one in St. Louis, and the other in Stillwater, Oklahoma, so that I wasn't driving all that way for one show. This of course gave me the opportunity to explore the area in between shows. I will reserve judgement on the shows--the first, at Queeny Park in St. Louis, Missouri, was indoor, and the day turned out to be BEAUTIFUL--warm and sunny, a bad combination in spring if you're wanting folks to spend a day indoors. The second show, in Stillwater, had it's own issues, having been booted from its usual location on the main drag to a street a few blocks over, which meant a lot of people couldn't find it. I ended up cover costs, which of course is not a way to make a living, so I am not going back this year.

On the plus-side, it gave me an opportunity to explore regions that I'd never been to before. We stayed in St. Louis long enough to do the show, then drove south to the northern edge of the Ozark Mountains and camped for a few days on the Meramec River at Meramec State Park. It was spring in the hills, as much as a month ahead of our season in Michigan. The trees were budding, spring ephemerals were blooming, and we reveled in the warmth.

The park lies primarily on the west side of the river, encompassing 6,896 acres of high-quality riparian habitat. To get to the campground, which is in the floodplain area along the river, you take a long and winding road that plunges towards the river--or at least that's how it feels when you're pulling a camper with a van loaded down with your life's work. I had made reservations but it turned out to be completely unnecessary, as there was not another soul on our loop.

Meramec State Park campground. There is a small creek just to the right of this photo, and we were concerned that heavy rain in the hills to the west could swell the creek and cut off our exit. It didn't happen, but we were ready in case we had to evacuate quickly.

There's about 15 miles of established trails in the park, including the Wilderness Trail, which has a limited number of back-country campsites. We were not equipped for primitive camping so we stuck with the River and Bluff View trails which followed the river. We hiked as far as the Visitor Center, which was probably about three miles. We had hoped they'd have snacks there but they did not. The woman at the counter was gracious enough to sell us a couple cans of pop from the employee stash in the back. We had packed some granola bars, apples, and water, but it wasn't enough and we were pretty hungry. While three miles does not seem all that far, it takes us a long time to get anywhere due to the fact that I have to stop and take pictures of everything. And then of course we had to hike back. But it was well worth it. The scenery was beautiful, and the park was packed with birds.

This map is turned 90°--north is to the right.

The Meramec River, and all of the Ozarks, are the result of erosion rather than tectonic lifting. This was, once upon a time, a flat plain. But rainwater runoff eventually wore the plain down into gullies and rivers, creating the topography we see today. One sign we saw mentioned that if you stand atop one of the hills and look across the landscape, you would notice that all the hills are the same height--indicating the elevation of the ancient plain.

Meramec River looking north.

The river was edged with dogwood, sycamore and pines. Spring rains clouded the river with silt.

Meramec River looking south.

We picked up the River Trail from our campsite, walking through the group campground to the trailhead. Some of the trail was flat but much of it was up and down and a bit rugged in places. We wished we had packed hiking poles.

Bluff View Trail

Beautiful sycamores leaned over the river, leaves just beginning to emerge.

Lisa and a sycamore.
I loved the ruggedness of this trail, with its exposed roots and rocks, juxtaposed with the tender wildflowers blooming in the woods.

This dogwood on the far bank contrasted nicely with the dark rock of the bluff behind it.

And of course, as it was April in the South, there were birds. Right off the bat on our first morning at the park, directly across from our campsite along the river, I saw my first Prothonotary Warbler. Oh what excitement ensued!

We saw lots of birds along the trail, including White-eyed Vireo, White-throated Sparrows, and this poser, a Brown Thrasher.

We spotted this Turkey Vulture along the trail perched in a tree. I think this is a bird that is under-appreciated, due in large part to its rather unattractive visage. But these birds are among the most graceful fliers, and I was happy to get good looks at one standing still.

 Birds weren't the only critters about. Turtles lined logs all along the river. I am not 100% certain but I think these are two different species--a common map turtle on the left, and a Western painted turtle on the right.

More explorations to come!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Sandhill Cranes at Kensington Metropark

Where I live in Pinckney, Michigan, I am blessed to be within a half hour's drive of tens of thousands of acres of public land. Pinckney, Waterloo, Brighton and Island Lake State Recreation areas encompass more than 41,000 acres, while the Huron/Clinton Metroparks in our area add another 7,200 acres, for over 48,000 acres of space to explore. Oh, and let's not forget the 20 mile long Lakelands Trail State Park, a mostly paved rail trail that runs between Stockbridge and Hamburg. There is no excuse for us to not be getting out on a nearly daily basis, and there are many opportunities for wildlife viewing within an easy commute.

Last May photos started showing up on my Facebook newsfeed of a pair of Sandhill Cranes and their two colts. They were nesting at Kensington Metropark, where several pairs of cranes have been nesting for years now. These birds are quite habituated, and when walking the trails at the nature center you will often encounter them on the path, and can comfortably get within feet of them. We found out one nest was quite near the trail at Wildwing Pond, and Lisa insisted one dreary day that we go and see them so I could do a new piece of artwork featuring cranes.

We arrived to find the pair in a stare down with what we guessed was probably a snapping turtle. The pond is known for its huge snappers, and it's a miracle anything living on or near the water survives to adulthood. Dad was making himself big while mom peered into the water. The little ones watched from the relative safety of the center of the nest, which was perhaps three feet in diameter.

Dad ventured into the water while mom took a few steps back...

..and checked on the kids.

She eventually laid down and the colts climbed up under her wings to stay warm.

She curled up with them but kept a watchful eye.

We eventually moved where we could get a closer view. There were a number of photographers there already but the cranes did not seem to care in the least. But every time there was a new threat from the water, mom would stand up and out would drop both colts, bouncing to the ground. We worried about them and their wet bellies on this chilly day.

Both mom and dad started up a ruckus, sounding the alarm. I looked around to see what had gotten their knickers in a twist.

Ah, that would do it. Mute Swans are notoriously aggressive, and the cranes were not having any of this interloper in their territory. The swan eventually swam back over to its side of the pond.

The pickings were slim on the crane's little nest, and while mom looked for food to feed her colts, it seemed none was to be found.

They settled back down again after the swan passed and all was quiet for about two minutes. While they rested they both kept an open eye on the nest.

Could you get any cuter?

Then dad decided it was dinner time, stretched his huge wings...

...and headed for shore.

Mom poked around again for something for the kids but came up empty. She eventually left the nest too.

The colts stood at the edge of the nest for a couple minutes before the larger of the two stepped into the water to follow its parents. We all held our breath...

...but the colt made it safely to shore. The other followed a minute later. But now they were both really wet and we could see them shivering.

But at least there was sustenance to be found!