Saturday, July 30, 2016

Widewaters, Hiawatha National Forest

 After a grueling six-shows-in five-weeks schedule, we had planned a short vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Our original plan was to go back to Pretty Lake, in the Superior State Forest, (you can read about it here), but to do any paddling there required portages, and we had our two beagles with us--I love my dogs but I didn't want to portage two kayaks and a canoe and two dogs. Three times. And then three more times back.

After a little searching I found a whole bunch of campgrounds along National Forest Road 13, which runs south from Wetmore down to U.S. 2 between Escanaba and Manistique, neatly bisecting the Hiawatha National Forest. Widewaters campground seemed to particularly suit us--it lies on the banks of the Indian River where several ponds and a lake were accessible, and a day trip down the river could be done, all without portages. I was looking forward to four days of balsam fir, black spruce, and hemlock.

We rolled into the campground a little later in the evening than I'd hoped, having had to sit out a storm on the way up, and find a UPS drop box to take of a little business along the way. I didn't manage to get my canoe in the water until the next morning, but oh what a morning! It was just before dawn, and the warm waters breathed mist into the cool air, the moon, a few days past full, shone on its surface, and just as I was launching my boat, an eagle flew right over my head. I'd heard loons in the distance and decided to paddle to Fish Lake, hoping that's where they were.

Indian River near Widewaters Campground, Hiawatha National Forest

I think I can honestly say that it has not been since I was on the tundra in Alaska that I have been in a place that was so quiet, so devoid of human sound. Sure, there were occasional trucks on the main road, and a few planes now and then, but even the campground was pretty quiet. For me, that's a big part of any outdoor/nature experience--to be able to hear it, not just see it.

To get to Fish Lake from the campground you have to paddle up river about a mile. Fortunately most of that is wide and the current light. As I past through the first pond, I found a young frog floating way out in the middle. I wasn't sure if it was alive, but I paddled back anyway, and as I approached, the little guy tiredly swam towards the canoe! I scooped him up and set him on the foam sponson, and took him over to a partially submerged tree. He posed nicely for a photo.

I can only wonder what it thought of its canoe ride. Notice his substantial tail.

As I paddled west and south into Fish Lake, the sun was shining on the far shore, and just starting to light up the islands. The water was still and clear and clean. Birds sang from the trees. I floated, taking it all in. Then I heard the loons.

Fish Lake moon glow.

There are five islands in Fish Lake, with the largest in the middle where there is a backcountry campsite. It was occupied, but no one seemed to up yet. I couldn't imagine sleeping in on a morning like this. On the far side of the island, I found the pair of Common Loons. I was surprised to see they didn't have a chick. It was the second pair we'd seen since being up north without a chick, and I hope that their lack of success wasn't due to stupid human behavior, like we've seen so much lately in our National Parks. I hung out with them, enjoying the morning sun, then took my time heading back to camp.

Common Loon on Fish Lake.

In addition to paddling and fishing the lake and ponds along the river, there is a ten mile loop trail called Bruno's Run that is open for hiking and mountain biking. It crosses the river twice, so essentially encircles the campground and surrounding area. One hot afternoon we walked about a mile of the trail, and sat for a while along the river, down downriver from the campground, which had grown a bit rowdy with children playing. Fungus and mushrooms were starting to emerge, along with the bizarre Indian Pipes, a plant that lacks chlorophyll and so grows without any green coloring.

Indian Pipes

Pretty little mushrooms dotted the trail, like this fly agaric, and the chanterelles below.

Fly agaric were just starting to push up through the rich soil.

Chanterelle waxcaps

I grew up on the east side of a decent sized lake, and got to see the sun set all year round. So it's always a treat for me to be on water where the sun can end its day in such glory. The boat launch in the campground provides an excellent place to see it from.

Panoramic of an Indian River sunset. Pure Michigan.

The morning before we were to leave I paddled out for the third and last time to Fish Lake to visit the loons. The campsite on the island was unoccupied, so I stopped to take a look. I have decided that this looks like a wonderful place to do a self-made "artist-in-residence." I mean, look at that view! There's a fire ring with grill, a picnic table and latrine (although the last campers seemed not to have used it much, based on the number of piles of paper towels, and other unmentionable piles, there were on the way to the latrine). I don't know if I have time yet this year, but I would want to camp here when the loons are still present, to spend a week or two surrounded by their songs.

Campsite on Fish Lake Island

Leaving the campsite I paddled to the south end of the lake, but didn't see the loons. Turning back I finally spotted one near the island I had just left. As I paddled out, it swam in my direction and we met in the middle. It seemed pretty unconcerned about me, but did yodel once. I wondered where it's mate had gone. Within a few minutes, the loon started making what I can only describe as soft coughing or barking sounds. I'd never heard that before. Then movement caught my eye and I looked up to see it's mate fly past. The bird made a circle around us and I got some shots before it was out of range. It kept flying to the far west side, when I realized what it was doing. It banked before it reached the trees and began descending farther and farther until its toes brushed the water. Its tail ruddered down, and the loon did a belly flop landing about 75 feet away.

Loon landing (heavily cropped)

It quickly joined its mate, and the two birds preened and fished together.

A trip up north isn't complete unless there are loons.

Early that afternoon we paddled down the Indian River from the campground to the Tommy Paige Bridge take out, about a three hour paddle. We packed a lunch, loaded up the beagles, and set off. We had no real idea what to expect. The river is supposed to easy, but it is also a designated a National Wild and Scenic River. What that means is when there are deadfalls across the river, only enough is removed to allow canoe passage. While it wasn't the first time I'd paddled a river solo in my canoe, it was certainly more challenging than I had anticipated. There are a few spots on that stretch where there is some fast water, and I bottomed out several times on the rocks. I was happy when it was over that there didn't seem to be any damage to my aluminum canoe.

National Wild and Scenic River

I'm not really sure what the dogs think about being in the boat. Stanley, who is usually pretty restless, likes to wander around.

Beagle is my co-pilot. Of course he's mostly blind,
so not all that helpful in watching for obstacles.

Cooper, who likes to sleep, eventually finds a place to lie down. This time it was under the front seat, and I managed to drape a towel over it and the thwart to give him some shade.

This is how Cooper rolls.

For all its twists and turns and bumpy bits (I could see it being a real challenge during a dry summer), we made it out unscathed, and posed a requisite selfie near the end of the trip.

Happy campers!

We loaded the boats on the trailer, went back to camp and cleaned up a bit, then drove into Munising for an early dinner. There had been reports of a wayward Crested Caracara, a bird generally found in Florida and Texas, just to the east of town. We had failed to find it the day before, but I wanted to try one more time, a bit later in the day. I was in luck! I spotted the bird in a small tree near the Lake Superior shore. I got some shots, and both Lisa and Lori got to have a look before he flew away.

Yes, there really is a Crested Caracara hanging out in Munising, Michigan.

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!