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.



Five Months Later… A Different World


A couple of weeks ago, I went back to Pictured Rocks to see the spectacles blanketed in snow and ice. Munising, MI had gotten quite a bit of snow, compared

Miner's Falls Road, Munising, MI

Miner’s Falls Road, Munising, MI

to points just a little farther inland, but even so it was nowhere near the potential for that area in late winter. “Lake effect” snow falls on the band of land along the Great Lakes, a result of slightly elevated temperature and moisture content, as well as air currents. Munising’s average annual snowfall is around 152″.  I don’t know exactly what the snow depth was on March 3rd, when I was there, but I would estimate around 2′ or slightly more. Today, Munising comes in at 34″ on the ground; the deepest snow depth ever recorded for Marquette, just down the road, on March 15th, was 63″and today they’re at about 20″- so we’d have a long way to go this year. Still, I was less interested in exploring the snow than the ice – frozen water at its finest covering the largest lake in the world and its surrounding waterfalls.
I only had a couple hours between when I arrived and when the sun was scheduled to set. I stopped in at the Interagency Visitor’s Center, and the woman at the desk said that the best waterfall to see would be Miner’s Falls, but that the road was only plowed part of the way in. The rest, she said, was used as a snowmobile trail, and it would be a two mile hike down it to the falls. At least that was how I understood it… reality turned out to be a little different, with the full hike to the falls over 3 miles. The snowmobile “trail, ” too was more heavily-used than I’d expected. It was really a road, long and straight, and as I hiked along the edge, snow machines came whizzing by at over 60 mph, stirring up a mist of snow and leaving an acrid exhaust in their wake. I was happy to finally turn off onto the side road to the falls after 40 minutes of trudging anxiously alongside them.

Snowdrifts in the woods on the hike to Miner's Falls -almost as striking as the waterfall itself!

Snowdrifts in the woods on the hike to Miner’s Falls -almost as striking as the waterfall itself!

I got to Miners Falls as the sun was setting, so I didn’t have much time to explore, just to stand in the observation area and shoot a few photos. The formations of ice and snow on the falls, the frozen river, and the trail’s ridge were beautiful and amazing!

Miner's Falls and Miner's River, viewed from above

Miner’s Falls and Miner’s River, viewed from above



When I got back out to the snowmobile road, it was getting dark, and the traffic had slowed considerably – in fact only one group of four sleds passed me on my walk back to the car. By the time I arrived, full dark had set in, and the stars had come out in the peaceful cold stillness of the Upper Peninsula. Miner’s Falls is beautiful in winter, but I’m not sure it is worth the hike all the way in. However, snowmobile seems like an excellent way to explore the National Lakeshore in winter- you can access many sites in a day. Hiking out on the rugged lake ice (with plenty of windproof clothing!) would be a unique way to see the beautiful rock formations. There are far fewer people than in summer, and the austere light and colors of winter make for great photographs. I may just have to try renting a sled next year and seeing what I can find!


Lake Superior’s Shelter Bay, dotted in fishing shacks, with the beginning of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to the northeast.

White Sand Beaches

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a perfect fall weekend late last September, I found myself exploring the “North Coast” of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  My chosen timing was a little bit of a crapshoot – it could have just as easily been 40 degrees and drizzling, as the sunny and high-in-the-60s that I got instead.  Unfortunately, that brought with it the complication of itinerary-planning.

At Pictured Rocks, as at many National Parks, backcountry camping is allowed only at designated sites, and only by permit.  Pictured Rocks is a day’s drive from both Chicago and Detroit, not to mention all the points between, so its 15 or so backcountry sites can be booked far in advance.  I figured that with my post-Labor Day travel, the sites wouldn’t all be reserved.  Though I wasn’t wrong about that, by the time I arrived at the Visitor’s Center late on Friday, the pickings were slim.   I had to scrap my initial plan, as the more popular sites had already filled up for all three of the nights I had planned to be there.  I wound up making a tour of the Beaver Basin Wilderness, a valley of inland lakes and maple-beech forest, and spending the bulk of the weekend in a less-busy area of lakeside cliffs.  I never really saw the eponymous “pictured rocks,” except from a distance, but got a good taste of the rugged beauty of the landscape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI arrived at the Beaver Basin Overlook in the late afternoon, and met a group of bear hunters coming off the trail.  I couldn’t take long to chat, though, or to observe the fabulous view – I had four miles to go before the sun set!  I walked down an old road grade into the valley, and flushed a couple grouse in a grove of young aspen near the crossing of Lowney Creek.    I couldn’t stop by the babbling rapids, but pushed on, up a rise, and onto a broad plateau of maple woods.  This was the least interesting part of the walk, but it eventually transitioned into an older-growth forest, with large beech and yellow birch interspersed with knobby old sugar maples.  Finally the flat woods ended, and I began to push uphill – the end of my power-hike finally near!  I meandered along the increasingly-sandy trail, and the hemlocks that had transitioned into red pines became white and jack pines in turn.  The ostrich ferns and wildflowers wereOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA replaced with bracken ferns, blueberries, and short grasses.  Within moments I had gone from a northern mesic forest to a sand barren and finally to a north-facing cliff….where I arrived just in time to watch the sun set over Lake Superior!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

First view the next morning

First view the next morning

I spent that first night, as well as the second, at Pine Bluff campground, along with three other groups the first night, and only two the second.  I could hear

My campsite

My campsite

the waves crashing from my tent, but was sheltered enough from the wind.  There’s plenty of fresh water there, too… the only catch is you have to wade out waist deep in the big lake to get at it! So I waited in my tent until I was too warm in the morning, then I ran down there clothed in long underwear, clutching my water bottles and filter.  In late September, the lake is still pretty close to its high temperature for the year… but the air temperature has gone down a

Sevenmile Creek flowing into Lake Superior

Sevenmile Creek flowing into Lake Superior

bit.  After a few minutes of pumping my filter, trying to keep it under the waves but above the sand, I had a couple bottles of water, but couldn’t feel my toes anymore!  I ran back up the hill to get my blood moving, changed into dry clothes, and prepared for the day.  I hiked east to Sevenmile Creek, enjoyed lunch by the creek, and walked around on the beach.  The beaches looked tropical, with white sands and clear, bright blue water… but the winds were a good reminder of fall in The U.P.!    I filled up all of my water bottles in the creek and hiked them back to the campground… didn’t want to take another chilly dip that night!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Land of Clear Blue Waters!

Land of Clear Blue Waters!

The next day, I hiked westward towards the Coves campground, named for the numerous rocky inlets near it.  I took a couple of breaks along the way, one of whch was over an hour of lying on a sun-baked rock, reading a book in one of these sheltered nooks.  I got closer and closer to the outcrop of the pictured rocks, and though I never got all the way there,  I OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAenjoyed the colors and the formations of the cliffs I was on.  The Coves campground was nearly deserted on a Sunday night in late September, so I was able to relax after my long and exhausting hike.  The next morning, I regretted not

Weatherbeaten rock in a Cove

Weatherbeaten rock in a Cove

Rock on the inland edge of a Cove

Rock on the inland edge of a Cove

having swim in Lake Superior since my arrival, so I decided to take a real dip – I kept my long underwear on again (a poor substitute for a wet suit!), but I actually ducked all the way under the water for at least a few seconds.  It was a lovely morning, and the “swim” was only part of it, but it helped to energize me for the trek back to civilization.  The hike out was long, but mostly pleasant,  I took the west side of the inland lake this time, with somewhat more varied woods, and a break for lunch on the swampy shores of that lake.  When I got back to my car and looked out at the Beaver Basin Overlook, I found that the foliage had become noticeably more orange since my first look a few days earlier.  As I drove south away from the coast, I saw the “fall colors” begin to “peak” as I neared home.  A beautiful end to a lovely weekend!

The "Pictured Rocks" at sunrise on my last morning

The “Pictured Rocks” at sunrise on my last morning

Beaver Basin Overlook on Monday afternoon

Beaver Basin Overlook on Monday afternoon

Top 10 Places I Want to Go Next

It has come to my attention that what started as a “travel” blog has morphed into a “nature” blog.  This is because I have been traveling primarily locally – to those who don’t live here, it is probably just as interesting as anything else, but for me it has lost the zing! of “something new.”  Rather than focusing on the specifics of my routes, my campsites, the novelties witnessed, I’ve been looking a little more closely – at the flowers in bloom, the curious insects that cross my path, the riffles of water babbling over bedrock.  Now that the flush of spring and the annual “newness” of nature is fading into the laziness of summer, I’m going to turn over a new leaf (so to speak), and profile my travels a little more.  To kick it off, on this rainy day,  I’m going to do a little dreaming about my next vacations – some shoe-ins (I already have the plans in place), some a bit more of a stretch (might be years down the road).   I heartily welcome tips for travel to these locales, features not-to-be-missed, and ideas for great road food along the way!

1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – Upper Penninsula of Michigan.  Natural wonders, backpacking trails, and if it’s timed right, swimming in Lake Superior!  I hope to get there in mid- to late-August of this year, when the water is as warm as it’ll get (though it still takes my breath away)!

2.  The Everglades, Florida.  I wanted to see it before the wetlands were consumed by the rising sea levels, but it appears that the Burmese Pythons have beat climate change to the destruction of this global treasure.  The sooner the better, to see the amazing flora and fauna of these swamps.  I hope to schedule a trip this winter for a 7-10-day exploration of the area – at a time when the heat is at a minimum!

3.  Central America.  At this point I’m thinking of the Dominican Republic, to combine some eco-tourism with Caribbean beaches and tasty Latin food, plus exercising my Spanish a little bit.  Can I do the Everglades and the Caribbean in one winter?  I doubt it, but we’ll see!

4.  Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River, Idaho.  I loved this place from the first moment I saw it – and I got to see it for a full 24 hours, because my car broke down and needed some new electronics installed in Ketchum (in 2001!).  I’ve been working on finding the time to head back there, plus a partner for a wilderness backpacking trip, ever since.  I’m ready to actually put some energy into it now, and am hoping to get something in place for next summer.Challis Stream

5.  The Carolinas.  North or South, it doesn’t much matter at this point, because I’ve never been to either… working on that quest to hit All 50 States.  Plus I have heard they are beautiful.  Suggestions very welcome for this one!

6.  Ashland, Wisconsin and the Bayfield Peninsula.  Until a year ago, I had never been to this cool town and awesome natural areas surrounding it and jutting out into Lake Superior.  Then I went for a day for work, and whetted my appetite.  I hope to get back this summer or fall for a long weekend, maybe to take in some music at the Big Top Chautauqua or just camp, hike,  swim, and check out the historical and cultural attractions in the area.

7.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Milwaukee?  Yes!  Every time I go there, I have fun and get to see something new.  I want to spend a good 2-3 days there and have some a couple nights on the town.  It has all the culture, history, and charm of an old industrial Midwestern city, but it isn’t quite as big and bustling as Chicago!  Great food, great beer, lovely lakeshore, good music, museums, and baseball!.  I already have plans to head there in July, so keep watching for updates!  Recommendations on favorite restaurants are particularly welcome here – I have loved the Comet Cafe every time I’ve been (you should try their bacon pancakes -delish!), but want to try something new!

8.  Louisiana.  I went to New Orleans for the first time a few years ago, to visit my sister and explore the town.  It was great fun, but I want to explore some of the natural areas in the vicinity a bit more.  I’ve always wanted to go to Tab Benoit-sponsored  Voice of the Wetlands concert – blues all-stars uniting for the preservation of Louisiana’s bayous and traditional culture.  I’d love to rock out to great blues music, dine on oysters, and explore the amazing natural treasures on our southern coast!  If not this year, then next!

9.  Is it #9 already? Man, what to choose?  Or, more specifically, what not to choose?  Can I cop out, and make this spot into a whole category?  Well, sure I can – it’s my blog, I make the rules!  So I’m going to choose “Places I want to revisit” – and include Berlin, Germany; south-central Alaska; and the southwest desert all in one!  Since I don’t have any of these vacations even mentally in the works yet, they’ll have to get separated out more once a few more of the destinations above get knocked off.  I’m looking forward to it, though!

10. A new continent. Yes, another cop-out.  Technically, I have never been to most continents.  But if I can get to one new one in the next 5 years, it’ll make me happy.  Asia and Antarctica top my list of potentials, but I wouldn’t sneer at a free trip to Africa or Australia, either!  It appears that I only have “A” continents left in my never-visitied category…

How about you ? Where to next?  Or must-see places that I left off my list?

It’s Not the Destination…

…but the journey that takes you there.

I’m not sure who said that (and I’m sure it’s a poor paraphrase), but that certainly proved true last weekend.

I had to go to Target to return something that was nearing its 90-day deadline, and I thought I’d take the scenic route.  The nearest store is in Marquette, Michigan, a destination that had two advantages, in addition to the convenience of Target: 1) it is in Michigan, which has the exotic appeal of being a different state (!) and 2) I had never been there.  Marquette is normally about an hour and a half from my house, on the highway.  It somehow took me almost five hours, which included a stop at a delicious brew pub in Ishpeming and driving a good ten miles on what I think was an ATV trail, sure that it would pop me out on a road again somewhere, until I concluded that my Toyota Camry was not an all-terrain vehicle, and I would do well to turn around.  I slowed down at every little wetland that looked “moose-y,” but never got to see one on this trip.  I spent five months in Alaska and only saw moose twice, so I can’t realistically expect to see one every time I cross the river into the Upper Peninsula.

Roadtrip! I like taking the scenic route, and I was pretty sure this road would get me where I wanted to go…

…It was around this point that I finally concluded that I was not on an actual road. I went another half mile or so, to make it an even 5 miles in, then turned around and headed back out to the forest road.













Back out on the road I intended to be on, heading north between Crystal Falls and Ishpeming, through the Escanaba River State Forest.






Poor road conditions make for beautiful roadsides!



















Not a moose to be seen…






























A stretch of road north of the State Forest, in an industrially-owned forest, shows a marked difference in timber types – much more old growth here, mostly maples, hemlock, and yellow birch.



No moose, but I saw this Kingfisher catch a snack and then go to perch on a dead spruce branch.

I got to Marquette in the late evening, only to find that it was all-of-a sudden actually nighttime, because somewhere in the middle of the State Forest I had crossed into the Eastern time zone and lost an hour.   I followed the “main drag” all the way into downtown, then spent another half hour trying to find my way back out, heading west along the Lake Superior shoreline to where I hoped to camp that night.  Marquette was full of things that I haven’t seen much of in a month or two, such as stoplights and more than eight cross-streets in a row, and I found it thoroughly confusing.  With a little effort, though, I navigated my way out and onto the county highway I’d been seeking.  After driving back and forth for a few minutes, I found a small parking lot, grabbed my backpack, and hiked in towards the beach a little ways.  To camp in Michigan State Forests, unless it is in a prohibited area, all you need is a permit, which you can print from the internet at home (or a friendly library), fill out, and hang at your campsite.  Now that I know that, I’m going to keep a few blank permits in my car at all times for the last-minute get-aways!  I found a flat, soft spot, and pitched my tent under the pines but within earshot of the big lake, and spent the night listening to Superior’s waves crashing against Michigan’s rocky shoreline, reflecting on all the twists and turns I’d taken to get to that peaceful spot!

Sunset reflecting off of the water and sky behind Little Presque-Isle, just a few hundred yards from my campsite.

It’s the Little Things


When I’m driving along the road, I usually try to stop for the historical markers, informational waysides, and other signs that were erected for my education.  Sometimes I learn something that I never knew, and might never have had another opportunity to find out.  Sometimes I discover that an important event occurred not far from where I’m standing, which makes me feel part of “something bigger.”  Sometimes a famous person turns out to have passed through the area, and to have done something not-so-famous in the process; it helps me see that even the tiny things we do may have great significance. 

Sometimes the sign points out something that sets me to thinking.  This sign, on the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, is one of them. Located near the border of Forest and Vilas Counties, on the eastern edge of Wisconsin’s “Northern Highlands,” it marks the continental divide of the eastern United States.  While all water east of the spine of the Rockies ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, there are two routes to get there.  Groundwater east of this sign eventually makes its way to the Great Lakes and thence to the St. Lawrence Seaway, where it flows out the north Atlantic and mingles with the frigid waters there.  To the west of this divide, waters flow to the Mississippi River and out to the balmy Gulf of Mexico.

Reading that this morning, I pondered how curious it was that, here in the sparsely-inhabited Northwoods, we have a connection to those far-away, almost mythical-sounding locations.  I would bet that most people in Forest County have never even considered going to either of those places, yet the actions we take here have a far-reaching effect.  We are used to thinking about the watersheds affecting our local lakes and streams, but we rarely consider that we all live in the watershed of an ocean.

Beyond the ecological implications, this sign reminds me of the historical forces that shaped our northern states. The St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi were the two main routes of exploration in the early history of the United States, and both led to Wisconsin.  It is fascinating to consider what those two waterways have meant for the development of our state as it is today.

I didn’t expect to have this much to say when I pulled over on a whim today.  I encourage you, too, to stop at your local wayside markers sometime soon, and rediscover something that you thought you already knew!