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Ten Thousand Islands

IMG_1728An often-overlooked aspect of Everglades National Park is that about 50% of it is covered with water… but only a few feet.  The Ten Thousand Islands is so-called because of the many mangrove islets that dot the tidal flats for over a hundred square miles before giving way to the open Gulf of Mexico.  This is an estuary: a place where fresh water from the rivers meets salt water from the ocean.  This brackish water that results in estuaries forms the basis for the most productive and diverse ecosystems on earth – and the 10,000 Islands are no exception!

This particular estuary is a result of both a submerged coastal plain (basically a continuation of the very gradual slope of land in south Florida) and the development of shoals from oyster bars.  Oysters are one of the unique organisms that not only survive but thrive in brackish water and tidal flats, and it’s only a little exaggeration to say that this area is one huge oyster bed!  The pelicans in the photo above are standing on one

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These pelicans are standing on an oyster bar, a few hours before low tide.

such oyster reef.  Oysters, and other estuarine species, make up the plentiful bottom of a food chain that feeds local and migratory animals of all sorts – but especially birds and fish!  These reefs/bars/shoals also protect the mainland from storm surges and hurricanes, breaking up the force of waves before they hit shore.  When these shoals get filled in with a little sediment coming down the rivers, the mangroves are able to get a toehold, and eventually they grow to form the islets, with some higher, drier ground at the center.  For the most part, only mangroves grow there, though as debris gets caught in

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Rabbit Key, a barrier island at the edge of the Gulf

the mangrove roots, some other plants are able to gain a footing themselves.  The outermost islands in the Ten Thousand Islands are true barrier islands, made of sand and shells and supporting a variety of hardy plants that grow above the high-tide line.

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A Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, and Royal Tern stake out posts on a shoal as they wait for a meal to swim by.

Some visitors spend their entire vacation in the Ten Thousand Islands – paddling or boating, fishing, birding, camping.  We had other stops to make, and only spent an afternoon here.  We took a private boat tour out among the islands and saw an abundance of wildlife, both mangrove and barrier islands, and capped it off with a sunset over the ocean.

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Our tour was operated by the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, which has an interesting history itself.  These tours came well-recommended, and I had hoped to get a smattering of local island lore from someone who had spent their lives in the islands, but unfortunately out guide had only been there for a few months and was about to leave for his next job elsewhere.  He enjoyed talking about the wildlife and the Islands, but not all

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All of the boat operators know how to find dolphins for the tourists! It was admittedly fun to watch them play in the wake of the boat.

of his ecological facts turned out to be true (I don’t blame him – I think he thought he was giving us accurate information!).  This was a pattern I noticed while we were down there, that most tour guides (both park staff and private companies) had memorized a little bit of information but couldn’t really extrapolate from that, and sometimes mixed up what they had learned.  This is a very heavily-visited area, and most people don’t wonder about the things I’m interested in… but if you do, I suggest reading up before you go, rather than relying on guides or interpreters to inform you!

Final note: last fall I read a novel called Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, which takes place in a fictionalized version of the Ten Thousand Islands and southwest Florida.  If you’re looking for something less science-y to read, I highly recommend it!

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Everglades

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Everglades vista – the “River of Grass” dotted with Dwarf Cypress trees

I finally made it to the southernmost end of Florida and the greater Everglades ecoregion – I spent a week in and around Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, adventuring by foot, boat, and bicycle and getting wet, muddy, and mosquito-bitten in the process!  It was different from what I had expected, and I discovered some fascinating facts to pass on!  Fresh water flowing slowly but steadily towards the ocean, over surface bedrock, has created five distinct ecosystems within those 4,000 square miles.  The next few posts will go into more depth on what I learned and experienced, and provide some recommendations for exploring this area in even greater depth!  Enjoy!

IOWA

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I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  

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In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.

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This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.

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Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.

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Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.

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It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…

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Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.

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In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in

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Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

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.

 

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.

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!

(Y)Ahn

There was one more experience from the Torino Olympics that I wanted to share – the time that I saw Apolo Anton Ohno skate to a gold medal, complete with one of those weird moments of drama that seem to only happen in the Olympic Games.  However, life inserted a pause in my blogging, and in the meantime I came across a few references to some of the less traditional athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.  These are the ones who are competing for a country that they have only a tenuous relationship to, whether due to a relative’s birth status, timely marriage, or financial incentive.  The BBC did a fun job of summing them up for us here (along with a couple athletes who are competing with genuine passion for their home countries that also happen to lack facilities (i.e. snow) for winter sport training).

Among these, perhaps the weirdest is the Dominican cross-country ski team.  I say “perhaps” because a new strange fact could easily emerge about any of the others, but this couple seems to be winning so far… though they didn’t come anywhere near a podium, we are all still talking about them – and who here can name the actual gold medalist in that event (what event, even?)?

Gary di Silvestri and Angela Morone are US residents who skied for the small island nation nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in Sochi.  When I say “skied” I mean “signed up to ski” – neither of them finished their races (only one even started).  Deadspin has a long and involved analysis of their citizenship, past exploits, and athletic prowess here.  Is this tale of scamming the system true?  I can’t know, but even if only the most basic details, available to every one of us, is factual, this husband and wife clearly don’t get what the Olympics is really about.

What are the Games about?  This afternoon I finally got around to listening to a podcast from the crew at Pop Culture Happy Hour wherein these critics had a go at the whole concept of watching sports.  They made some good observations, but I would say that they missed some of the most important points in the function of the Olympics.  Is the system corrupt, the event over-commercialized?  Do we spend too much time talking about the back story on the athletes versus showing the competition?  Yes, yes, and yes.  However, this is also the only time, every four years, that these high-level athletes get to show off their skills, and we get to watch this extreme athleticism.

Everyone wants to know the star of the football team, has opinions on their MLB team’s manager, lists their favorite basketball stars.  How many of you could have named a skier, luger, or skater one month ago?  These athletes work and train hard their entire lives.  They go through a rigorous competition season of local, regional, and international races, culminating in a World Cup circuit of some sort.  Every four years, they get a chance to compete in events that the whole world is watching, a place where one run, race, or performance will determine whether they get a big chunk of metal to hang around their necks.  They get to skate under the flag of their country, alongside their teammates who may have been rivals just weeks before.  In some ways, it may make no difference in their overall standings in their World Cup or equivalent – it is a huge celebration of athletics and sportsmanship that is a break from their usual routine.  On the other hand, they may have only one shot at the Olympic Games, and their performances there could make a huge difference in sponsorships and other income, which could in turn determine whether they are able to continue their athletic careers.  When folks make up an athletic past, buy a place on an Olympic team, and then fail to even try to complete a race, they not only mock those individuals who have worked incredibly hard to get there, but they take the spotlight away from them as well, perhaps at what could have been fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame.

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Of course, some of the athletes are competing under flags other than their native ones, for completely different reasons.  One that was left out of the BBC’s list above, presumably because it has been so high-profile, is the case of Viktor Ahn, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo.  This guy was the top medalist in both Torino and Vancouver, for South Korea. However, he was injured last season, and was unable to compete in events which served as qualifiers for the Korean Olympic team.  So, he decided to move to Russia, gain citizenship there, and compete as a Russian.  This is also known as defecting.  Some fans lowered their opinion of Ahn as a result, but that didn’t stop him from medaling in Sochi, too.  Personally, I got a little tired of hearing his story over and over.

I saw Ahn compete in Torino, saw him come in second to Apolo

On the starting line in Torino '06

On the starting line in Torino ’06

Anton Ohno in the men’s 500 meter, and lead South Korea’s relay team to gold.  There were 7 initial heats in the competition, followed by 4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, and 2 final runs (one for 1st through 5th place, and one for 6th and 7th).  The semifinals and finals took place the day I was there.  In addition, the Men’s 5000 meter relay was also competed that day.  The relay looks pretty confusing on television, or even at some points in person.  However, once you get a handle on what you’re looking at, it is a beautiful sight, and remarkable that more skaters don’t get injured!  What a great experience to see these races in person.  I keep meaning to go to one of our local Midwestern tracks (such as the Petit Center in Milwaukee) to watch some short-track speed skating.

Skaters give each other a push...

Skaters give each other a push…

... during the men's 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

… during the men’s 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

The Koreans were great, but the personality and athleticism of Ohno won the day for me.  Seeing his passion when he won the finals of the 500 m was amazing, and witnessing his emotion during the medal ceremony was something I will never forget.  I am not usually a particularly patriotic person, but I even got a little choked up as I watched our flag rise to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner, in that packed stadium.

Drama... this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium... but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

Drama… this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium… but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

 

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men's 500 m, Torino 2006

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men’s 500 m, Torino 2006

Medal ceremony of the Men's 500 m short track event, Torino '06 Olympic Games

Medal ceremony of the Men’s 500 m short track event, Torino ’06 Olympic Games