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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

Sunset boat trip (7)

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

Sunset boat trip (12)

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.

Sunset boat trip (39)

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!

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.

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.

 

Savage

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Though my goal had been to get to the Smoky Mountains, I never made it… but had great fun exploring the Cumberland Plateau instead.  Covering much of central Tennessee, this plateau is nearly 1,000 feet above the height of the Cumberland River (to the southeast), and contains an incredible diversity of plant and animal species.  It has been carved over millenia by many creeks, and the geology of the area is apparent at every turn.

I decided to take a short backpacking trip (one night… though now I’m convinced to go back for more), and decided on the Collins Gulf sector of the Savage Gulf State Natural Area, which covers nearly 16,000 acres on the western edge of the Plateau.  On a longer trip, I could have traversed the area, which is cut through by several rivers and creeks, giving it the aerial appearance of “a giant crowfoot.”  If you are handy at reading a topographic map, you’ll find this one quite impressive.

Despite the topography, I figured that a twelve-mile hike in one day was do-able, if potentially exhausting. The volunteer at the ranger station had told us that in the drought and late fall conditions, there was “no water” on the trail, so we packed in all we would need.  It turned out that there was enough water to filter in several places, so I will do my research better next time.

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

View from the top of the plateau, with shortleaf pine in the foreground, and hardwoods blanketing the hillsides

Twelve miles should have been do-able... if several sections of the trail hadn't looked like this!

Twelve miles should have been do-able… if several sections of the trail hadn’t looked like this! On several signs and in the park brochures, we were repeatedly admonished, “No hiking after dark.” Foolishly, I didn’t think much of it until we started encountering sections these rickety boulders!

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

Blazes marked the trail to keep us on track, here winding between trees and rocks in the upland

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included "the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek" in a wetter year.

The trail traverses the edge of this cliff, which would have included “the spectacular triple waterfall of Rocky Mountain Creek” in a wetter year.

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The author, on a trail switchback along rock wall terraces, built by early settlers to provide areas flat enough for grazing livestock!

The loop trail we took crossed the "Gulf" (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

The loop trail we took crossed the “Gulf” (a local term for ravine or hollow) twice, on suspension bridges.

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

We took a rest where the trail encountered Fall Creek, the waterfall a trickle of its springtime glory, layers of geology exposed to our autumn view

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees.  We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone.  The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Though the sun still shone, it got harder and harder to see our way in the evening, under the shadows of cliffs and trees. We crossed our last boulder field after the sun had set, but just before all of the light was gone. The last mile or so, though, we hiked in the dark, returning to camp to make a well-deserved supper by our headlamps!

Mammoth Cave

I found myself winding through the hill country south of Louisville as the sun began to set.  There was no need to get off onto side roads – the scenery was amazing from the highway (and the same was true on the trip back north through Lexington).  I was having trouble deciphering the Kentucky State Park campground information, so decided to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park.  After a sub-freezing night among the oaks in the campground, I decided to wake up early, pack up quickly, and get in line for the first cave tour of the day.  The second accidental detour of the trip was another wonderful experience!

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The park was busier than I would have expected for a weekday in October, and the tour I was hoping to take sold out with the customer in front of me.  After chatting with the very helpful park staff, I decided on the “Historic” tour, which was also enjoyable.  After my limited experience, I would recommend that you not visit the park as I did!  Plan to spend two full days, and include some above-ground hikes and maybe two different cave tours, one each day.  It really is an amazing natural wonder, and worth a little bit more attention!

The lobby at the park was lovely - a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture.  The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

The lobby at the park was lovely – a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture. The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

Mammoth Cave, unlike many of the other “show caves,” is largely a “dead,” or dry cave.  That is, in most of the cave there are no showy stalactites and stalagmites, no pretty colors with minerals trapped in the calcite, or water dripping into pools.  In fact, as the Historic tour showcases, the cave was dry enough to have had many uses throughout history.  The cave was carved as a channel of the Green River passed underground, eating away at the limestone in the process.  Over millennia, the above-ground river carved a deeper and deeper passage through its valley, and the altitude of the underground portion of the river decreased accordingly.  This created several layers of passages, connected by vertical tunnels, and in the lowest of these, the river continues to flow today (in the cave, they call it the River Styx).   As a result, Mammoth Cave is, with 365 miles of known passages, twice as long as any other cave in the world!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

It is possible to take a hike through the oak- and maple-dominated upland to the point where the River Styx comes out of the ground and re-joins the main Green.  I wish I would have taken that hike, as well as one to areas of the park which contain older-growth forest.  If you go, spend more time than I did, and tell me all about what I missed!

Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night.  I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol.  This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there.  It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods

 

Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective.  Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy.  Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween.  Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park.  And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum.  Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground.  Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.

By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south.  Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn

Uh...what?

Uh…what?

cool.  The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc.  Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.”  A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range.  The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south.  From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control.  Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area.  I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there.  Check it out and let me know how it is!