Friday, October 30, 2009


One of the surest signs that winter is just around the corner is when the tamaracks turn golden. At the very least it is my cue to get out on the trail if I want to hike without snowshoes.

The tamarack, or Eastern Larch, is one of my favorite trees. It grows in or near bogs and wetlands, and prefers acidic soils, although it will grow in drier, sandy soils. It is easily found within the Brighton Recreation Area.

It is a tall and slender tree, with a beautiful, conical shape. In summer after a light rain or drizzle these trees look like they've been dipped in glitter as water clings to every tiny needle.

Their delicately fine needles are less than an inch long, and the tiny cones only 1/2" long.

I can't get enough of the gorgeous color this tree turns in fall. One of only a few conifers that loses its needles in winter, it is common in northern climates, able to withstand temperatures as low as -65C. Here in southeast Michigan we are near the southern edge of its range.

Poison sumac berries with tamarack in the background.

Chickadee with tamarack.

Despite the rather nasty weather we're having right now I hope to get out on the trail a few more times before the tamaracks lose their needles. Once bare, I will wait patiently for the first snows of winter.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Chicken Condo

I have always wanted chickens. More accurately, I have always wanted to live on a farm--chickens, a cow or two, big veggie garden, that sort of thing. When we moved to Pinckney from Ann Arbor three years ago I was not thinking of "farm" per se, but just looking for more space and a bigger house from which to run the business. There wasn't a barn on this property, but there were a few outbuildings, and one was an old chicken coop.

The existing coop was rather small, and had pens attached to each end. I didn't really think we'd ever get chickens so I removed the pen from the south (left) side and built a woodshed.

Now, whoever built this coop was not too concerned with making it level. The property is pretty hilly, and this coop was plopped right on the ground, without a concern for the slope. Walking into it was like walking into one of those mystery spots--your brain expected the floor to be level, so when you stepped in you immediately felt like you were falling off the edge of the earth as the floor tilted to the left.

When we got our chickens in the spring of 2008 we planned on using the old coop. But as it turned out it was really pretty inadequate--too small, too unlevel, and the pen was above the coop so when it rained the water would pool up against the side of the building. The pen top wasn't sloped so we couldn't put a roof on it without re-building it. So, after a year of making our chickens suffer with the Hoopty Coop, we decided it was time for new digs.

We had never built anything from "scratch" before except for a huge deck at the house in Ann Arbor. But decks are pretty easy, once you get past the post hole digging part. Erecting a structure that has to be square and level and plumb, where walls have to stand up and hold a roof, and doors have to be hung...well, that's another story. But we were up for the challenge, so we chose a site up the hill from the old coop, drew up a plan, scrounged as much reclaimed material as we could find, and made our first trip to Home Depot.

First, we built a foundation. It is recommended to elevate a coop to keep critters from nesting underneath, so we put the lowest corner at 9 inches, which made the far corner nearly two feet off the ground. Oops, gonna need stairs. Back to Home Depot.

We laid a sheet of vinyl flooring (for ease of cleaning!) on the deck and trimmed it to size, then started framing in the walls. We needed to slope the roof away from the pen, and wanted it tall enough to walk in without bonking our heads, so the near side is 7 feet, the far side 6 feet.

Once the walls were up we added the roof. We started with one bundle of shingles, but upon reading the package realized that was not enough. Back to Home Depot for another bundle and some more 2x4's. Near the end of the second bundle it was clear that wasn't going to be enough, so back to Home Depot....

By day four the roof was done, and we were putting siding on.

Once the siding was up we could prime and paint. We used OSB, which is not for exterior use, but it's cheap, so it had to get painted.

Here's the coop, primed, painted, at the end of day four.

The next steps were to build a door, finish the interior, and add the pen. Here the door is installed (but not the steps, and let me tell you that is QUITE a step!), as well as the pen roof. Keeping the pen dry was one of our biggest objectives with this project, and in the winter the pen will be wrapped in plastic to keep out the snow and wind.

We did a lot of researching online and found some great ideas for the interior of the coop. We installed the nest boxes along the back wall (they are the drawers from Lori's old dresser with dividers nailed in the center) and put a board over the top with a perch attached. This keeps them from roosting on top of the next boxes and pooping in them--a problem we had in the old coop. The roost to the left is for our bigger girls who cannot get up to the higher perch.

And here the coop is (very nearly) finished. Lisa installed vents in the rafters (coops require good ventilation) and we have an extension cord running from my studio to the coop for a light and a heat lamp, if needed. All that's left is some caulking and painting the door and trim. We're very happy with the results and proud to have managed to build this on our own.

Now we're ready for more chickens!!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mosquito Beach

When we arrived at Mosquito Beach I was surprised by how different it looked. While Chapel Beach was what most would think of when they hear "beach"--dry and sandy--Mosquito was anything but. Dominated by sandstone slabs, this to me is more typical of the Superior coastline. And while Chapel Beach had lots of nice, smooth Superior agates, Mosquito had only flat sandstone "skipping" stones--you know, the ones you wing out across the water and count how many times they skip.

Somewhere behind the tree line along the beach was a bog or marsh, which seemed to be continually oozing water through the short bluff along the beach and out into Superior. It would leach out from under the sand and trickle down to the big lake, and no where on this beach was there dry sand.

Here the Mosquito River empties into Lake Superior. The lump of stones off to the left in the river is one of those cairns that folks feel compelled to build anywhere they find more than two rocks to stack atop each other. I generally feel compelled to knock them down, but I refrained.

I encountered more mergansers on the beach here, and I tried to skirt this pair so as not to disturb them, but...

...I looked down and saw some great tracks in the wet sand from what I think was a mink (lens cap is for scale--it's 2.5 inches across). I must have dallied too long over the tracks cuz the mergansers got fed up and left.

Curious to see what was on the other side of the trees I climbed the bluff and picked up the trail that goes to Miners Castle. Indeed there were wetlands opposite the beach, filled with wildflowers, including lots of pearly everlasting. This flower has paper-like petals that are great in dried flower arrangements, but please don't pick them in the wild!!
I sensed it was getting close to dinner time so I headed back to camp. Sure enough, Karin, who had stayed behind for a little alone time/book time/nap time was up and about, starting to get dinner ready.

After we ate we could see the sky catching fire in the west, through the trees, so we went down to the beach to watch the sunset. This seagull was hamming it up for my camera.

Since this is a campground that does not allow fires, we sat around a small lantern that evening and talked. While we relaxed a ruckus kicked up maybe 30 feet behind the tent. We heard scurrying feet and small bodies crashing through the underbrush, headed right for us. The animals passed by, then there was a pause, and then again they took off, once again headed toward us. Just then they scampered through our camp site--two foxes! We could not tell if they were chasing something or chasing each other as the light was dim and neither one of us had a flashlight handy. They ran off in the direction they'd come, having made a circle around our tent, and we were both very happy for the brief encounter.
I did not sleep as well the second night, perhaps because I didn't take any Advil. I was tossing and turning, and Karin had already gotten up once to pee (I had already determined that I was not leaving the tent until daybreak). Not too long after that I heard a rustling sound. I was laying on my left side, my back to the door and the vestibule where my shoes and pack were stored. I thought the sound was Karin getting more toilet paper, and I thought, good grief, she has to go AGAIN? until she said, "Something's in your pack."
"WHAT?!?" I exclaimed. "I thought that was you!" "No, something's in your pack, hit the side of the tent!" So I did, then groped around for my head lamp and switched it on, and peeked out the small screen in the door--nothing. I slowly unzipped the door, and looked at my pack. Sure enough, out of the outer pocket (which does not zip but only has a flap) something had been pulling stuff. I reached in and found an empty Ziplock baggie that had once held raw veggies, a bag I didn't even realize was in my pack. We had stored all other food stuff and bags, but this got missed.
I shone the light around, looking for the culprit, but didn't see anything. Just as I was about to say this a head appeared around the front of the tent. I let out a little squeal even as I realized it was a raccoon. I tried to shoo it away--it just stood there. I got a little louder--it walked around the tent to the other end. It was then I realized that the head lamp's first setting is a red light--one that we can see but most other animals cannot. I gave the button another click and bright white light shone out. I shined the light on my face so the coon could see me, then shone it back in its face and told it to git--and it did. Needless to say every little rustle after that jolted me awake, but we did not have any more visitors after that.
The hike back to the car was short and uneventful. There's something about knowing you're going home that takes some of the excitement out of a hike--it kind of feels like you're just trying to get it over with. We had a long drive back to Karin's, but I had suggested a stop in Mackinaw City for dinner at The Depot, where I'd had a great burger with jalapenos and avocado on a previous trip. I crashed at Karin's that night, then headed home Monday.
It was a perfect trip in perfect weather, a great introduction to backcountry camping with an experienced hiker (though she told me at one point in our journey that she'd only backpacked once before--HA!). We are both eagerly awaiting our next trip.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chapel Beach to Mosquito Beach

The hike from Chapel Beach to Mosquito Beach is perhaps one of the prettiest hikes I've ever made. It follows the Lake Superior shorline above the most picturesque part of the Pictured Rocks. The young forest is thick here, lots of cedar, balsam fir and maples.

Here's me standing on the bluff above Chapel Beach at the start of the hike.

The trail is 4 to 4.5 miles long, depending on what sign or trail map you read. Although I was sore from the hike the day before (mostly from where things rubbed) my spasming back had magically repaired itself overnight and I could actually stand upright. Who knew sleeping on the ground could make your back feel better?

The shoreline was not always visible from the trail, but now and then a side trail would lead to some spectacular views. I don't know what this formation is called, or even if it has a name, but I love how you can see into the water to the shelf below the bluffs.

About halfway through the hike you come to Grand Portal, seen here at the end of this promotory. Look at that water! We again had to laugh that we were not kayaking the shoreline--what perfect weather for it!

The top of Grand Portal was wide open and flat and offered some great views of the lake. We took off our packs and hung out for as long as we could stand the black flies. Here Karin's composing a shot.

Another view of Grand Portal. Warnings abound about not getting too close to the edges of these formations as they are not necessarily stable. There were cracks running all along this rock shelf and you could see where the sand was sifting through.
Here are some kayakers as seen from the bluffs. We were jealous!

We took our time on this hike, stopped frequently, made lunch on the trail. In all it probably took us 3 or 4 hours to hike, although neither one of us had a watch (and isn't that a wonderful thing!). But finally we reached our destination--Mosquito Beach!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chapel Beach

The hike from the parking area to Chapel Beach was anything but challenging--fairly flat, 3.5 miles, plus the weather was spectacular and the company superb. But tell that to my back! Even though we went through our gear the night before and ditched some things we knew we wouldn't need and extra food, I'm pretty sure my pack was still near 40 pounds--not too heavy by backpacking standards but a ton of bricks to one who's never carried that much that far. Add to that the back spasms I'd been having for two days prior to our hike and I was really struggling.

The hike to the beach was gorgeous, of course, and followed the Chapel River. While the river was not visible much from the trail, the ridge could occasionally be seen, like in this shot of gnarly tree roots clinging to the thin soil on the cliff's edge.

While we took our time on the hike, we were still the second campers to arrive, so we pretty much had our pick of sites (there are only seven). This gorgeous view of the Chapel River seemed like a no-brainer.

After setting up the tent and laying out camp we walked down to the beach. Amazing how feather-light our bodies felt unburdened from our packs! We very nearly skipped to the beach.

Karin had been hoping for north winds to help keep the black flies at bay, but we had warm off-shore (southerly) winds the whole trip, which made for very pleasant weather but very active black flies. (I learned on this trip that black flies are the major pollinators of wild blueberries--makes sense since blueberries are native but honey bees are not. At least the little buzzy-biters are good for something!)

While we sat on the beach a group of four common mergansers came swimming down the shore. We watched as they'd put their heads down in the water and zip and dash through the shallows, obviously chasing minnows. Occasionally one would come up on the beach, flat on its belly, looking very much like a penguin.

The birds fished up and down the beach a few times before swimming out of sight.

I loved the look of the water, so clean and clear, plainly showing the different depths and colors of the bottom.

Chapel Beach is so named, I suppose, for Chapel Rock, a large sandstone formation with an enormous white pine sitting on top. Along with Miners Castle this is one of the most popular formations in the park.

We broke out the gorp for a snack and were soon joined by this little scrapper, who may have had a home under the logs we were resting against. Karin held up peanuts and he posed very nicely.

Chipmunks are cute but can do tremendous damage to the unsuspecting camper. They are quite bold and will chew through just about anything if they think there's food to be found. These backcountry campgrounds are furnished with bear poles for hanging your food on, but I think it was more for protection from the microbears than the black bears!

The night was quiet and unnervingly dark, even thought the moon rose around 11pm. I was awoken at one point to the sound of some smallish animal "barking"--I am guessing some type of weasel, not as big as an otter but maybe mink?--and running towards our site. There seemed to be two of them, and they pitter-pattered right past the tent, down the bank and splashed through the river across to the other side. By morning I had forgotten about the incident and didn't look for tracks.
I was surprised at how well I slept, altough I did take a few Advil before turning in. My back spasms persisted for a while, then seemed to let up some. I got up before sunrise and headed down to the beach to catch the warm morning light on the bluffs along the shore.

Once on the beach my eyes are always drawn downward, looking for treasures--bits of driftwood, feather, stones. What I found on Chapel Beach were myriad tracks, from mink to coyote, mouse to gulls. This was perhaps my favorite find--the track of a crow with a dew-covered feather nearby.

It is good to be reminded that, while we can't always see them, we are constantly surrounded by the creatures of nature. It made me feel good to know I wasn't alone on that sunrise beach. It also felt good to have my back stop spasming. Next time that happens I'll go sleep on the living room floor!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Frosty Morning

Fall is by far my favorite season. I love the smells of dry leaves and spicy goldenrod, warm afternoons with insect song and cool nights by a fire. I even love the preparations for winter, the feeling of going in, tidying up, getting cozy and settling down.

We had our first frost last week, and any photographer worth her salt (and that's really not me) will be prepared for such events in advance, will be in place as the sun begins to rise to get that perfect shot of the mists off the water and frost on the leaves. It just so happened that I woke up early enough to get out and take some photos around the house.

Many of the wildflowers are still in bloom, hardy plants that can withstand an occasional frost. The mullein's tight buds will continue to bloom, but this goldenrod looks like it's already done.

Asters are one of my favorite flowers, and while I especially like the dark purple ones, the white variety that dominates our property is just fine.

Just down the road our neighbor has what may be considered a wet mesic prairie. Not much of one, maybe an acre, but it's a beautiful sight, full of native flowers all year long--iris, joe pye, goldenrod, cattails... The willow in the background sits on the edge of a small pond, and we often see kingfisher, heron and turtles there.

As the sun rose higher it began to melt the frost, signaling it was time for breakfast. I am looking forward to more frosty mornings before the first snows fly.