Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Waterfalls of Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks Nat'l Lakeshore is one of those parks that offers a wide variety of things for folks to do. There's the boat tour, of course, but one can also kayak the 35 mile-long Lake Superior shoreline. Canoeing, hunting, fishing, hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing are among the others. It's a great place for day hikes, and many people come to the park to view the waterfalls. There are seven within the park, and while it was not a specific goal of ours to see them, we did manage to visit four.

The first falls we saw was Spray Falls, seen at the end of the boat tour. Somewhere near the falls is a shipwreck, but we couldn't see it. All of the waterfalls are more impressive in the spring, of course, and Bridalveil Falls, which is at the beginning of the tour, was completely dried up.

The following morning, on our way to the trailhead, we stopped to see two more waterfalls. Above is Munising Falls, which is actually inside Munising city limits. This 50 foot waterfall I thought was the most picturesque of the ones we saw, falling into a semi-circle sandstone basin covered with mosses and ferns.

Our next stop was Miners Falls, in the Miners Rock area. This was a slightly longer hike (1.2 miles round trip) and the woods we passed through were just waking up to a foggy morning.

Miners Falls features another 50 foot drop but these falls have substantially more water. We could feel the mists from the falls up on the viewing platform, and it seems the heavier spray keeps vegetation from growing very close to the falls.

The last falls we stopped to see were on the trail to the first campground. Chapel Falls has better viewing points but I was already struggling with my load by the time we came to the falls area (I was also having problems with back spasms that had started a few days before). I shot this from above the falls, looking down into the basin. It's too bad that scale can be so difficult to show in a photo as this was pretty impressive looking in person. Below is a pic from the National Parks website showing what the falls look like from below.

The hike back to the car had a side loop that offered views of Mosquito Falls, but we were pretty much done in at that point and didn't make the trip. Maybe next time!
Coming next: Chapel Beach and the amazing Chapel Rock.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pictured Rocks by Boat

It's been two weeks since my trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and I finally have time to write about it. The trip was a gift from my girls, Lisa and Lori, who arranged with our friend Karin to take me on my first backpacking trip.

Backpaking is one of those things that I've always wanted to do but been too intimidated to try on my own. It requires a lot of specialized gear and, depending on where you're going and how long you're gone, you may also need special skills. Well, Karin had a lot of gear (stove, small tent, tush wipes) that I did not. I did have a 15 year old external frame backpack that I'd never used (although mice had called it home at some point). I loaded it up with what gear I had, including bug spray and two pounds of gorp and headed up to Traverse City to meet Karin at her place. We went through our gear and made final plans for what to eat, and the next day made the five-hour journey to Pictured Rocks.

We arrived at the Visitor Center and got our backcountry permits around 3pm, and saw that the last boat tour was scheduled for 4pm. We raced over to the marina and Karin ran across the street to a Subway to get us dinner while I held a place in line. The evening light was fabulous, the waters calm, and I shot over 200 photos of the famous sandstone cliffs!

The tour starts out in Munising and passes by Grand Island, a six by 3.5 mile island that was inhabited by native Americans for over 5000 years. This structure, the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse dates from more recent times, having been built in 1868.

One of the first landmarks the tour passes is Miner's Rock, one of the most photographed formations along the coast, though usually seen from shore (that will be in a soon-to-come post). When Karin was a kid and her family came here, people were still allowed to climb around on the rocks and spires. Now a viewing platform has been erected to help protect both the rock and those with rocks in their heads.

The colors of and on these sandstone cliffs was amazing, especially in the late afternoon sun. Water oozing through the rocks carried minerals that painted the stone faces a myriad of colors, from rust, white, green and blue to turquoise. It was amazing too to see where plants could get a foothold and, if not thrive, at least survive.

There was no end to the shapes and colors and textures. I would love to do this in a kayak and be able to get up close, to paddle under the arches. The weather was perfect for kayaking, warm with light winds from the south (off-shore) and we tried not to think about the fact that we'd chosen bi-pedal locomotion for this trip!

The constant interaction of water on rock has carved out caves all along the shoreline. I can only imagine what sounds these formations make when the November gales send waves crashing into them. I'll take the placid September weather any day!

In calm weather the boats are able to enter this "cave" and give passengers a close-up look at the rock. It was a bit too dark to get clear shots when our boat pulled in, but I like this shot for the sense of scale. The boat has two decks and looked huge at the docks, but here it is dwarfed by the cliffs, which reach 200 feet high in some places.

We passed several kayakers along the way too, and I love how tiny they look set against the sheer sandstone cliffs. Makes me think twice about paddling the coastline!

In all the tour took nearly 3 hours. The National Lakeshore is 42 miles long, 15 of which are these sandstone bluffs. There are many waterfalls along the way, but by this time of year most are dried up. Even so, the views were amazing, and while I don't generally go for touristy-type attractions, this is one I'm glad I didn't miss.

Thanks, Karin, for making the suggestion!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Moth Collecting

As someone who makes her living (however meager it may be!) as a nature/wildlife artist, I feel that it is important to give back when I can. One of the ways I do this is by doing volunteer work through the DNR's Stewardship program. Mostly the program focuses on removing invasive species, planting native species or collecting seed on area State lands. Unfortunately, most of these work days are on weekends, which is of course when I'm doing shows or local markets, so I am left with having to do my time in the dead of winter. This isn't as bad as it may sound, although I have stayed home on days when the high doesn't reach double digits!

This is why I jumped at the chance to participate in the moth collecting program, which took place at night, which is often the only time I'm free. We were looking for two moth species, both of the Papaipema family, and their host plants:

the sciata, or Culver Root borer,

and the beeriana, or Blazing Star borer.

Both of these moths are of special concern in Michigan, though not legally protected. They live on plants that grow primarily in prairies, and prairie ecosystems are some of the rarest in the state. By catching and identifying these moths, biologists can determine which maintenance methods should be used in those prairies. Fire is an important aspect of prairie health, and the presence of these moths determine how prescribed burns should be carried out.
The crew gathered before sundown and equipment was doled out to be carried to our study site. From left: Bear Track Studio's own Lori Taylor; Lee, Karin and our group leader Lindsay.

The setup involves a white sheet on a frame or hung between two trees, a sodium mercury light (very bright) and a black light. The lights are run by a very pleasantly quiet Honda generator. Once the set up is done we take our seats on either side of the sheet and wait.
Here Paul is watching for newcomers.

The lights attracted all manner of insects and a huge variety of moths, but not yet the ones we were looking for.

This 4-5" long praying mantis was mesmerized by the light. We kept waiting for it to snatch up a bug for a late-night snack but it seemed to only be interested in the bright light.

We were joined too by a katydid, looking very leaf-like, while its relatives serenaded us from the trees.

We did manage to collect three specimens, one that resembled the beeriana and two that looked like the sciata. It will be several months before a positive ID is made on the specimens, but whatever the outcome we will have helped determine the condition of this particular prairie and provided information on how best to protect it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Rest of the Rifle River

You may think from my posts that all I'm interested in are loons. Don't get my wrong, they're fascinating birds, but I know there's a lot more out there than stunning, 100 million year old waterfowl. Loons are unique to me is all, and I'm excited to learn about new things.

There was a lot to see in the Rifle River Rec Area. In addition to loons and coyotes and remnant forests there were lots of birds--robins and ducks and kingfishers and warblers and flycatchers. I wasn't able to get good shots of most of them, but here's a female scarlet tanager that I caught flitting about along the shoreline.

I saw tanagers--both a male and female--here at home for the first time this summer and what a thrill that was! I had never seen one before except in a book, so it was wonderful to see one for the first time in my own backyard.

Trying to capture birds in flight has got to be one of the most difficult things for any photographer to accomplish. They are relatively small targets, so focus becomes an issue, and they are usually strongly back lit so exposure is a problem. You have to pan along with them as they fly so the shot's not blurry, and then when you're bobbing up and down in a boat, well, you're happy when then bird is even recognizable!

Above is a shot of a female hooded merganser, recognizable by the white patch on her wing, and by her rusty-colored head (just visible in this photo). Often the only way I can identify a bird is if I get a clear picture of it and look it up later. I am not a proficient birder (though I'm learning!) and I rely heavily on my bird guides. My personal favorite is Sibley's--he has the most accurate illustrations, provides more than one view (shows birds in flight, wings up and down, which is invaluable) and gives you ranges and habitats all on one page. If you're looking for a good guide, that would be my recommendation.

Here is a solitary sandpiper poking around on a floating mat of grass and weeds. (Again, thank you Sibley!)

Mammals are more difficult to find, being much more shy of us (and with good reason!). Usually one is left looking for signs of their presence and only rarely seeing the beasts themselves. Here is an old beaver lodge. You can see the pile of sticks and logs up along the shore, with more branches strewn along the lake bottom all the way to my kayak. This was an impressive lodge, stretching 30 to 40 feet from the shore and maybe 15 to 20 feet wide. It was clear though that it hadn't been used in some time (trapping is allowed in the park).

A walk in the woods on Sunday was a needed break from months of sitting in front of my computer, at my drawing table, in a kayak, at a show.... My hip ached not long into my hike from lack of activity. The morning sun slanted through the trees and until the mists burned off it felt like I was walking through a fairy forest.

For me spring is the prettiest time in the forest, as the trees are just beginning to leaf out and the forest floor is a riot of spring flowers. But there are things blooming in the woods in autumn, and Indian Pipes are one of them. This unique plant does not engage in photosynthesis and therefore lacks chlorophyll. It feeds off a particular fungus that in turn feeds off of tree roots. It is not an easy plant to find as its habitat is quite limited, but there was a stretch of about 150 feet of the trail along which this plant was growing abundantly.

We are hoping to get at least one more trip up north in this fall, perhaps to the Pigeon River area, for a long weekend. But first we have a wedding, then a show, then an open house, then another show.... Can be hard for a nature artist to get out into nature!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Rifle River Loons

I am back from a great trip in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (now a wilderness area--yay!) and am still unpacking and nursing some sore muscles. It is hard to put aside all the awesome shots from that trip and go back to the Rifle River, but I have some unfinished business there.

One of the joys of going up north for those of us who live in populous southeast Michigan is seeing loons. We delighted in them at Seney, and were treated to another family on DeVoe Lake.

Above, mom and junior are swimming together. You can see on mom's face, right around her bill, that she is starting to molt--non-breeding plumage in waterfowl is called the eclipse phase.

It rained off and on much of the day, but it had a nice effect, on the water if not on my camera equipment. Here mom's showing off her plumage and shaking off water.

At one point junior popped up fairly close off the front of my kayak and I got a few shots off before he dove again.

Dad was hanging around for a while when we first got to the lake, but he soon took off. Junior took a few flying lessons, running across the surface of the water and flying a hundred feet or so before crashing back into the water (of course I never managed to catch this). Maybe an hour after we saw dad leave a loon, perhaps dad, flew over the lake, calling. Not too long after that junior took off and flew out of sight. We followed mom to the other side of the lake, expecting to see her babe, but he was nowhere. We wondered if this was his first flight out of the lake!

She'd call out a few times (notice her expanded neck) and look around, then proceed to do a little preening.

She'd roll onto her back and clean her belly--look at the size of that foot! Helps her to swim a hundred feet deep and maneuver well enough to catch fish on the fly, so to speak.

Here's a nice wing stretch. She did not leave this area the rest of the time we watched her, and did not dive. Every few minutes she'd call out, but we heard nothing in return.

The following day junior was back with mom, on an August day that looked more like November. Soon they'll be heading for warmer waters to wait out the winter, and I hope to return to the Rifle River too next spring to see the next generation.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Busy, busy busy!

Hey all. I apologize for not posting regularly. Every time I think my life is going to slow down to some normal pace a hundred things pop up. Then there's shows, of course, which take me out of town, and my free-lance job, and running the business....

Anyway, I will try to post tomorrow some more loon pics, this time from the Rifle River trip, but then I am out of town again for five days or so, but for fun this time--a friend is taking me backpacking, my first ever back country trip, up at Pictured Rocks (now a wilderness area!). It's a belated birthday present. THEN, when I get back, maybe things will slow down a bit and I can get back to blogging more--but I'm not holding my breath!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Silence of the Big Trees

While hiking through the Rifle River Rec Area Lori pointed out a feature that I may well have overlooked--the huge, decayed stumps of the old-growth white pines that once dominated Michigan's landscape north of Saginaw. Once you've seen them, it's hard to believe you ever missed them.

It's hard to get a sense of scale in a photo, but one of the things that is striking about the stumps is that you can see so clearly that they were cut--the tops of them all were about 3-4 feet off the ground and cut straight across--right where a couple of men would bend to hold a two-handled saw.

I did a little research about Michigan's logging history, but really there's not much to it. Logging started in the 1860's, reached it's peak in the 1880's. The thick Michigan forests that prospectors thought would last for many decades lasted for about 20 years before production fell off. The speed of denuding the landscape was given a boost when rail lines were introduced. Before then, most wood was cut in the winter, loaded on sleds and pulled out by teams of horses or oxen, and left on a river back until spring when the high waters would carry logs down to the mills.

You have to admit, this is pretty impressive.

A walk through the woods here, once you're aware of them, reveals hundreds of remnants of these felled giants. Many of these trees were over 200 years old, 200 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter. The land went cheap--$1.25 an acre--and most of the wood was shipped either to the northeast or Chicago. Many of the tallest trees were used as ship's masts.

These woods are thick, but when you really look at them, you realize many of the trees are not more than 50 or so years old, many much younger. In the photo above you can just see a large stump left of center, surrounded by a motley crew of young maples and poplars, probably not more than 20 or so years old.

It's nearly impossible to imagine what this area looked like before it was logged. There's 49 acres of old growth white pine at Hartwick Pines State Park, north of Grayling, and here and there you'll come across a huge tree that was spared--either it was hard to reach or didn't grow straight enough.

I came across one of those trees on the trail near Scaup Lake. Around a bend there loomed this massive tree, which I mistook for a maple at first due to its shape. But when I looked up to its crown I saw long, delicate needles and realized I was looking at a huge white pine.

I set my green water bottle on the lowest branch coming out on the left--the bottle is about six inches tall--for scale.
I have no idea what caused the tree to grow like this. It's main trunk grows up left of center and tapers oddly about 20 feet up. Probably whatever caused damage to its main trunk prompted the tree to send out secondary branches. I imagine the odd shape of this tree made it unfit to be logged, as straight trees were more desirable. Thank the tree gods for this deformation!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Rifle River Coyotes

After arriving at the park we drove around looking for a site. We avoid the modern campgrounds at all costs, especially during the summer as they're full of screaming children, which to my mind defeats the purpose of camping (though some would say so does an RV). We picked out a spot in one of the rustic loops and the girls dropped me off while they went back and paid, bought some firewood and filled up the water tank. I read a book and watched the sun set, then started a fire with the bits of wood we had brought. The girls returned and we sat around the campfire eating fresh salsa and chips for dinner as it was now too late to cook.

While we sat enjoying the evening some people in another site started laughing loudly. This was followed shortly by the singing of coyotes off to the east, then more off to the west, then back again. The campers whooped and hollered and the 'yotes whooped right back. It was entertaining, and a good reminder that we are not alone in the woods.

Friday morning Lisa had to go to work (we dropped her off at the gas station down the road where there was wifi and Diet Coke) and then Lori and I went to DeVoe Lake to do a little paddling. Lori was dying to break in her new yak. We paddled along the shore looking at the wildflowers and admiring the scenery, hoping to see loons. We paddled along the northern shore and then started to cut across to Pencil Island. It was then we heard the loon, shouting a warning call, on the far side of the lake. I grabbed my camera, long lens already in place, and looked for the loon. I did not see a loon, but saw what had caused her alarm.

When I first saw this creature I thought it was a fawn--my brain instantly picked something it was familiar with. But then I realized that it was a coyote, walking along the shoreline.

I was able to get a few long-distance, fuzzy shots of it before it stepped back into the brush. We paddled over to the shore and found its prints in the soft marley soil.

This was a real treat. We hear 'yotes at home some times but I've never seen one here. To have heard their singing the night before and then see one the following morning was special.

Coyotes are another of those wrongly persecuted animals. As we exterminated the wolf across the country, the coyote was left with a void to fill. They are not generally pack animals like wolves--the female raises her pups alone and they are solitary hunters. They do not have the size to take down large prey and so fill their bellies with smaller prey, like mice, rats, rabbits and other small critters. Our world is perfect for them, and they are starting to be seen more and more in urban areas, drawn there by the abundance of skunk, possum, raccoon and of course rats.

They show up in the darnedest places, like train cars--

Yes, a one way ticket to Albuquerque, please

--elevators, and even open coolers in Quiznos sub shops--

What a lovely place you have made for me to cool off on such a hot day!

They are smart, crafty and opportunistic. Native Americans revered Coyote as a trickster, a rebel, one who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. Tales of Coyote's exploits are found in many Plains and western Indian folklore, including Crow, Zuni, Sioux and Apache to name a few. In some myths he created the world and all the creatures on it, including man. In other tales he gives man fire. Other tribes believe he is responsible for death. But mostly Coyote is just looking for a way to survive.

But too often we only want to see them dead, and we trap, shoot and poison them. And yet their numbers continue to increase as they busy themselves with the task of cleaning up after us and filling the voids our destruction has left.

On Coyote!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rifle River Weekend

After a very busy summer we took a weekend off and made a trip up north to the Rifle River State Recreation Area. I have yet to figure out how a rec area differs from a state park--each has modern camp grounds as well as rustic, trails, boat launches, even the same signs. Anyway, it was a well deserved break from a hectic schedule, although I tend to turn every vacation into a working vacation since I am always looking for subject matter for my artwork and drag my camera with me everywhere I go.

We got to Rose City and stopped at a grocery store to round out our supplies for the weekend. We needed chips, of course, and beer, and ravioli--the staples. On the way out Lisa shot the pic below of our "rig", the 20 year old RV we do art shows in, and our newly improvised kayak rack atop our old show trailer (we now have a 6x12 enclosed cargo trailer). It's an old jet ski trailer we got free from a friend that we then built the box on. It works perfectly for the yaks, and we can store paddles and fishing gear and stuff in the trailer box.

As you can see the weather was November-ish all weekend. Thursday night was dry, and it had not yet rained Friday morning so we put the yaks in at DeVoe Lake to do some exploring. This is Lori in her new kayak. She had a cheap yak with a rounded bottom (read tippy) and a very uncomfortable seat, so she sold the old one to our neighbors and got a new one in time for the trip. Good equipment can make all the difference!

Here Lisa and I are tucked into a reed bed watching the loons.

The weather was showery and blustery, except for Saturday when it rained for 4 hours straight. We had just gotten off the water and had the yaks loaded when the sky opened up. We are thankful to have an RV at times like that, so we're not stuck sitting in a damp, cold tent.
Kayaking in the rain can be a challenge especially when you have camera equipment around. I keep a trash bag in my camera bag to put over my lap and camera bag. Here Lisa and I are, sitting in the rain Friday afternoon.

But all in all the weather was tolerable, especially when I get to see things like this:

The pair of loons had one baby, and junior is there under mom's wing. You can see the black splashes the rain is making on the surface of the water. It was wonderfully quiet, and the loon song was haunting and beautiful.
I will post more about the loons soon, but next, coyote.