The Best-Laid Plans

“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill.  The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition.  It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”

—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

 

The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do notDCP_2966 involve dozens of men for several year.  Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown.  Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself.  I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.

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I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts.  Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities.  Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.

However, it is true that I usually pack too much.  Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.”  Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!

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The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure.  Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience.  I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way.  Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me.  In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress.  It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.

What about you?  Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating?  Do you have tups to make the process go more smoothly?  What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?

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The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago.  We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction.  These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination.  That was, indeed, a frustrating project!  And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without!  Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.

 

Why Earth Day Doesn’t Matter

A friend sent me a text message this morning, wishing me a “Happy Earth Day!”  Hunh, I commented, I hadn’t realized that was today.  For some reason I thought it was the 24th of April, not the 22nd.

When I got to work, I wished my colleagues the same… and got the same response. “Hunh,” said one, “I thought it was on the 25th for some reason.”

Another wryly commented, “Didn’t you know?  Every day is Earth Day… to a Forester!”

That’s right, folks, our office is full of people whose jobs are to think about the Earth, or at least the environment. We work for an agency whose leader sent out an Earth Day message, thanking us for what we do.  We live in Wisconsin, the state where Earth Day was created, the state whose Wild Rivers legislation formed the basis for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the state where Aldo Leopold lived out his years with his family, the state where our soils, our minerals, our timber, and our waters form the basis for the economy as they always have.  And we didn’t even notice it was Earth Day.

A "sun dog" or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a  hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

A “sun dog” or a rainbow-aura around the sun, on a hot afternoon on a remote island in the southern Pacific.

I’m not criticizing us, not myself nor my colleagues.  We might not have made any special effort to conserve water or turn off lights today.  We might have wasted some paper and we surely drove some gas-guzzling trucks around.  But we did our darndest to make the Earth a better place for all of its living things to thrive.  As we do every day.

For me, I can honestly say that no day goes by when I do not think of our natural world in some way.  Sometimes it is indeed taking the extra step to recycle my grocery bags, or composting kitchen waste, or buying local produce.  Sometimes, though, it is just sitting outside on a sunny spring afternoon and breathing deeply.  And being thankful that I live in a place where that is possible.  And hoping that we can maintain the best parts of our Earth, and repair those places where clean air and water aren’t the reality.

The theme of this blog is discovery on our rare planet – discovery of the first blossoms of spring, of waterfalls and oceans, of our diverse human cultures.  This year, I haven’t been doing much exploring, because I slipped on ice and broke my leg, the day after the bulk of our snow melted.  When I have paused from my reading and internet-browsing and other indoor diversions, I’ve felt sorry for myself, because I can’t get out and enjoy the spring of the year.  I have watched as friends posted on Facebook the first wildflowers of the year, the Pasque Flowers and Hepatica.  I am facing the reality that I won’t be walking by the time my Wild Turkey hunting season rolls around next week.  I have been following the progression of spring bird migrations, but haven’t gotten out to see and hear the flocks. I join in the speculation about whether or not this will be a good year for morel mushrooms (I’m voting on the yes side, if the weather pattern holds), but I won’t be stumbling around in the woods looking for them myself.

Yet… I live in a world, on an Earth, where all of this is possible.  I am lucky enough to be able to get out and do all of those things, most of the time.  I have been so fortunate as to see so many of the truly amazing places on our continent and our planet!  And if there is one thing that I know more surely than anything, it is that I want to keep living in this amazing world, and I want future generations to have the same opportunities.

So yes, I forgot that it was Earth Day.  In fact, I don’t really care that it is Earth Day, because, even if it makes me sound like a corny tree-hugger to say it… Every day is Earth Day.  Or it should be.

A Human Pace

The second reason that Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is so fascinating to me, is its theme.  As an Anthropology major many years ago, I have a lasting appreciation of cultural exploration. I have also been particularly interested in hominid evolution since interning at the Field Museum of Natural History back in 1999.  At the time, I was involved in a project to create a computer-based “field trip” touring students through human evolution.  Technology-wise, our efforts were laughable in the face of what is commonplace today.  In fact, the Out of Eden project itself has a program to bring classroom students along for the walk, as it were.  It looks really neat – I wish I were a teacher or homeschooling parent and could sign my students up!

But I digress…

My particular interest in hominid evolution and expansion has focused on the linguistic repercussions.  I have always wondered if it would be possible to track expansion out of Africa based on the similarities of languages… and for now I am left to keep wondering!  Mr. Salopek is a journalist – his trip isn’t intended for scientific research, or to bring new facts to light for the world community.  Instead, he is documenting the way life is now in each of these places, with reflection on the first humans to have walked before him.  His intent is to slow down his speed of observation to a walking pace, to get to know the locals on his trek, and to bring that experience to the rest of us.  He has chosen to travel in a mode that humans – and one might add only humans – have always had at their disposal: our two feet.  In doing so, with all the added support and conveniences of modern life apart from transportation, he showcases the tremendous effort it must have taken those first humans, the drive they must have had to reach new lands.  Along the way, he records the struggles and ambitions of modern people along his route, in conversations and interactions that point out our universal human similarities, as well as our large cultural differences.

This is what travel is always about, for me.  I can find similarities and difference a couple of towns over – and not more or less of either on the other side of the world!  I may not get to walk around the globe, or the country, or even this state, but whenever I reach a new destination, I am full of curiosity about the people who live there.  I do get out of my car, off the bus or train, and just walk, through neighborhoods, fields, skyscrapers, or backcountry trails.  I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Salopek that you can’t see the world of people unless you are moving at a human pace.

Walk Around the World

IMG_0184Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix.  I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas.  I find it fascinating on many levels!

For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country.  This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about.  In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan.  At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on.  I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers.  I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers.  There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought.  Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…).  Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation.  It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!

In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport.  The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.

 

Wintery spring

Speaking of enjoying winter while it lasts (and lasts and lasts and lasts), I thought I’d showcase some of why I love the Midwest and its seasons.  One word: Weather.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop "virga" - rain that never hits the ground.  The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop “virga” – rain that never hits the ground. The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

We all know that adage, “If you don’t like the weather in [insert location here], just wait five minutes and it will change.”  I’ve lived in a lot of places, and in almost every one that same statement is repeated, as though their town, or state, or region has the craziest weather on earth.  Well folks, I’m here to tell you that you are mostly wrong.  For example, in the San Francisco area, this is used to refer to the daily variability of the weather… BUT the weather is exactly the same from day to day!  Every morning is foggy, then it gets breezy around mid-day, the fog burns off and it is sunny and pleasant for a few hours, before getting slightly too warm, but then the shore breezes return and the chill of the evening sets in.  That’s from, say, April through August.  In October is is sunny and warm; in January it rains all the time.  You actually have to wait months for the weather to change!  It makes a lot of things really convenient – for example, camping farther up the coast, you can usually tell by mid-afternoon if you will get any fog/dew overnight, and decide what you’ll need for a tent based on that.

What makes the setting sun look like that?  Weather!  Also known as moisture in the atmosphere...

What makes the setting sun look like that? Weather! Also known as moisture in the atmosphere…

In Wisconsin, that is never an option.  Here is Wisconsin, we start to get nervous if the weather pattern has been constant for a few days (three if the weather is bad, six or seven if it’s good).  During spring and summer, it is shocking to have a whole day pass without a front coming in or a storm cell blowing through.  Year-round, the weather is a constant source of concern and conversation to those whose lives are in any way related to the natural world.  Will we have enough snow to fill the lakes and rivers… but not so much that our towns’ budgets are used up plowing, or too many snow days close the schools?  Will spring come early or late, wet or dry, and how will this affect the planting of fields, harvesting timber, maple syrup

Green pumpkins pulled in before a hard freeze.  Last year, we had two weeks between the first frost and this freeze, which left most of my squash to ripen.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

2013 saw warm temperatures and a wet summer, which put lots of pumpkins on the vines, despite a late spring.  I covered my pumpkins for the first frost, but harvested them two weeks later before the hard freeze.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

production, or early-season fishing?  Will the summer be so hot or humid as to be unbearable, or pleasantly warm; will we have enough rain to feed the crops and leave the rivers paddle-able, but not so much to flood or flatten the fields?  Will we have an early frost, leaving me out on a chilly night covering up plants laden with green tomatoes – or one so late that leaves obscure the woods for deer hunters?

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

This is, in a word, awesome.  I moved back here from the West Coast in large part because they don’t have thunderstorms there.  Here in the south-west part of the state, the hills are high, and the late spring weather pattern brings storms in from the West, through Iowa.  If you find yourself on a tall hill, or on the central Military Ridge, you can often see four or five storm cells at once, dropping rain and lightning on towns close and far.  You know the storm is over when steam begins to rise from the wooded hills, even if a little drizzle persists.

A storm moves in from west.  It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

A storm moves in from west. It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

 

You only get rainbows when it rains...  Grantsburg, WI

You only get rainbows when it rains… Grantsburg, WI

Wisconsin also seems varied weather patterns around the state.  Location of certain industries in certain regions, and the presence of several large rivers running north-to-south, means that the weather in one place has repercussions around the state.  Right now, for example, northern Wisconsin still has a foot or more of snow on the ground, and some lakes have up to 30″ of ice still on.  The rivers have mostly opened up, though, and are flowing well.  In the southern parts of the state, all water is open as of about a week ago, but overnight frosts and snow are continuing.  The Mississippi River is expected to crest above flood stage this weekend, and the Baraboo River will be flooding as well…but those northern lakes, including Lake Superior, might not be open until mid-May, based on latest predictions.  This has major effects not only on homes, farms, and recreation, but on shipping traffic as well.

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re interested in learning more about our local weather, here are a couple of interesting links.

From the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, info on Lake Superior ice

From the National Weather Service, flood and storm warnings

Fire Weather Planning Forecast

Mississippi River Levels

U.S. Geological Survey Stream Gauges – click on your favorite river for a real-time update!

University of Wisconsin Extension’s Climate of Wisconsin page and their Corn Silage Moisture page

On Weather Underground you can find historical weather information, as well as information from various private and public weather stations in your area, and cool weather photos from spotters and interested citizens.

 

Red sky at night, sailor's delight... an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight… an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior... what you can't feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior… what you can’t feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this spring, or endless winter, or whatever you are experiencing wherever you are – enjoy the weather!  Enjoy living in a place where the weather, natural conditions, matter.  Enjoy being able to understand how the weather will affect you, your neighbors, the produce you’ll eat this summer, the milk you’ll drink, the fish you’ll catch, the animals you’ll hunt.

 

Eben Ice Cave

Eben Ice Cave.  The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes.  This cold winter was great for ice formation!

Eben Ice Cave. The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes. This cold winter was great for ice formation!

This winter, everyone was talking about the Lake Superior ice caves up in Bayfield, Wisconsin.  I thought about going, even tentatively planned to go, and then it got so popular that they were seeing crowds of 10,000 or more on the weekends!  I visited the Apostle Islands last summer, and had had the opportunity to kayak out to those “sea caves” in a small group.  I thought that it would be pretty neat to see them frozen, but that the huge crowds might detract from my enjoyment of wild nature.  Of course, if this weather keeps up, the big lake will stay frozen all summer and I’ll get to go see them in July…  just kidding!

Instead of making the three-hour drive to Bayfield, I took a 1.5-hour trip to Eben, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, south of Munising.  There is a rock overhang there surrounded by seeps which turns into an “ice cave” of its own every winter.  On the day we visited (slightly warmer than average for this winter), there were maybe 150 other people there while we were, including the half-mile hike in and out.  It was quite windy and lightly snowing, which meant that this 3/4 mile through the woods was infinitely more pleasant that a half mile out on the open ice of Lake Superior would have been!  The cave itself included spectacular formations, and was well worth the visit!

From the inside, looking out

From the inside, looking out

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

 

 

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

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The cave is on public land, but within a federally-designated wilderness area, which means no motorized use is allowed. The access is on private land, thanks to a generous landowner.  From the tiny town of Eben, small signs point the way to the parking lot.  Someone, perhaps the landowner or perhaps the Forest Service, had set up portable toilets for the crowds to use, and a donation box for them, and there was a small private concession stand in the parking area as well.  The first part of the walk parallels the snowmobile trail across an open farm field, and after that it enters the Hiawatha National Forest, Rock River Wilderness.

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

More ice forming...

More ice forming…

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

National Forest Wilderness Areas are intended to be managed free of human input, so no vegetation management (eg: timber harvest, trail clearing) is allowed, and there are no facilities for those recreating in the area.  For me, this makes for an ideal adventure.  There were plenty of down trees for my dog to jump over and under, side trails to explore (if the snow weren’t so deep…), steep ravines, and old-growth trees.  It is a beautiful hike, but will take some effort!  Snowshoes are likely to be unnecessary, since the trail is so well-packed, especially on weekends.  Ice cleats (or commercial ice-walking grips) are highly recommended… but we didn’t have them and didn’t feel that we needed them, either.  [Note to readers: three weeks ago I slipped on ice and broke my leg, so I advise that you do as I say, not as I do!]

Check out that slippery floor!  It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Check out that slippery floor! It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Spring?? Who needs spring!

Usually at this time of year I would be blogging about the spring of the year, posting photos of the first shoots of grass, buds on trees, and the earliest wildflowers.  This year, though, I am injured and confined indoors, and another winter storm is set to slam us tonight, with some parts of our fair state slated to get another foot of April snow!  I thought I would take the opportunity to showcase some of my later winter adventures.  After all, if you can’t beat the cold, you might as well enjoy it!

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin