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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!

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 the Little Things

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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!

Favorites

Shortly after returning from my big trip a year and a half ago, I took a new job and moved to the northeast corner of Wisconsin – a land of tall pine trees, clear waters, and primal predators.  Living in the land of wolves, Wild Rivers, and old-growth hemlock has its perks, but I alternated between exploring my new territory and missing the cows, prairies, and delectable local brews (and cheeses) of the southern portion of the state.  I’ve had a lot of questions about what I’ve been doing up here (and, from the skeptics, what there is to do up here), but new friends have also been asking me about the trip I took, and one of the first questions out of everyone’s mouth is, “So, what was your favorite part?”  In light of that, before I jump into my “new” adventures, I thought that I would present a post on my “Favorites” from the cross-country travels that inspired this blog.

That proved to be a little more difficult than I thought.  There are a few places that stand out as #1 or #2 on my list, but when I try to expand that to a Top 5 or Top 10, I find myself asking, “Well, Favorite what?”  Places, people, and things might be highly memorable for only one reason, but not qualify for the overall “Favorite” distinction.  Since they say that people today like easily-digestible, prescriptive information, I thought that I would provide a few different summaries of such things as my favorite foods and beverages, wildlife and plant experiences, music and radio stations, and of course the overall cream of the crop.

I’ll start with a list of places that may or may not have made my overall favorite list, but that might have if I’d given them a better fighting chance.  I call it:

Top 5 Places I Want to Go Back to and Explore More

1. Salmon River/Idaho Rockies

Some of the other places on this list might think that it isn’t fair to include this, since I’ve been hoping to plan a trip out here ever since I first saw the area in 2001, moving between Alaska and California.  I made a conscious choice not to spend time in the Rockies on this last advenure, because I felt like a week-long backpacking trip needed more specific planning.  I wasn’t even planning to go to Idaho, until I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to follow Louis and Clark’s tracks over Lemhi Pass.  My one night on the Salmon River was not only a breath of cool air between the heat of central Montana and that of the coastal Central Valley, but the babble of the blue river was a relaxing break between two long and winding days of driving.  I’m hoping to get back to the general vicinity sometime in the next two years for a more in-depth experience.

2. Sonoran Desert/Tucson, AZ/Saguaro National Park

I also decided not to spend a significant amount of time in the desert Southwest, since I had spent over a week there in 2003, moving back from California.  I did, however, take a more southern route, and the plants of the desert astounded me more than the red rocks of northern AZ and NM had years before.  I dragged my feet a little bit through Arizona, trying to take it all in, but I never had a chance to spend much time in any one place.  Specifically, I would have liked to spend more than 18 hours in Tucson, visiting family and getting to see some of the artistic side of the town.  I would also get slightly out of town to get to see the more wild and undisturbed portion of Saguaro National Park, and to get a better understanding of desert ecology and plant life.  I hope to get back there sometime in the next five years, maybe for a springtime blooming of the desert.

3.  Gulf Coast

When planning my travels in Texas, I didn’t even think of the ocean and beaches, so the time I spent there was short, but enjoyable.  I wouldn’t mind spending a couple days lounging on a beach, eating oysters on the half-shell, and learning about the coastal ecology that is so valuable to the healthy function of our hemisphere.  A couple years back I went to New Orleans for a weekend, and I remember thinking that, if I had scheduled it better, I would have saved some time for the coastal bayous, as well.  I’ll probably get down to somewhere along the Gulf coast in the next few years for an informative, tasty, and relaxing few days!

4. Oregon

Unlike every other place on this list, Oregon was an integral part of the planning for this cross-country journey.  I had never been there, and wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  During my week there, I had the opportunity to look at most of the more exciting parts of the state, but each portion only briefly.  I could spend a lot more time in the mountains of the Cascades and the Coast Range, exploring the neighborhoods of Portland, and dipping my feet in the Pacific.  It would be fascinating to give myself a rigorous course in volcanic geology while driving around the state.  Most of all, however, I’d like to do a focused survey of the fresh-hop beers that are tapped late every summer.  I got a small sampling when I was there, but I was a little late for the peak season, and I hadn’t planned on touring brew houses.  Next time I go back, I’ll make sure to be better organized and have a clearer direction to my visit.  It might be a good idea to trek the mountains before I start the beer tour, though!

5.  Big Thicket

If you recall my recent post on the Big Thicket National Park, you’ll remember that I was very excited about this ecological melting pot, but didn’t even have time to enter the park proper.  I’d like to spend several days in this north Texas/north-western Louisiana area with a few good field guides and maybe even a local naturalist to lead the way.  Not sure when I’ll get back there, but there’ll be some good botanizing when I do!

To all my fellow adventurers out there – have you been to any of these places or done any of these things?  Do you have suggestions for off-the-beaten-path exploration when I finally get a chance to return?

Last Glimpse of the Ocean

Oct 30, 2010

Miles 8273 – 8369

Brazos Bend State Park to High Island, Texas

After leaving Brazos Bend State Park, I decided to go east around Houston, for one last glimpse of the coast.  I stopped in Galveston for an ocean-side meal at Benno’s on the Beach.  Lucky for me that it was still too early for oysters, or I would have missed out on the perfectly-prepared softshell crab and hush puppies… mmmmm.  I took the car ferry across the bay to the Bolivar Peninsula, and had time to watch the hustle and bustle of the harbor along the way.   The pleasure boaters, waverunners, and sightseers seemed to take no notice of the ocean-going freighters and heavy industry, while the commercial fishermen went about their business as though none of the rest of us were there.

The Bolivar Peninsula was a flat, sandy strip of land that was, I am told, significantly more desolate than it was before Hurricane Ike passed through in 2008.  It was interesting to see all of the buildings up on stilts, to protect against high waves.  While most of them were nondescript cabins, some werejust regular houses!  I stopped for a while at the only public beach I could find, though I had to forge my way through a mound of wind-blown sand to get there.  I spent an hour or so looking for souvenir seashells along the shore of the Gulf, then I hopped back in the car, turned

Oil rigs on the beach!

inland, and left it behind.

Wildlife on the Texas Coast

October 27, 2010

Miles 7901-8080

Padre Island, TX to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, TX

After leaving Padre Island, I headed north up the coast, stopping for seafood in a small town.  Unfortunately, their bay wasn’t opening for oyster harvest until the coming weekend, but I got to sample some other local specialties, with a side of hush puppies.

Fresh water at Aransas

That afternoon, I got to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where I was hoping to spot some of the early Whooping Crane arrivals.  While one pair had indeed arrived that week, they were staying deep in the refuge, in an area inaccessible by the casual visitor (as I was).  I drove the loop road, though, and got out to walk at every opportunity.  With the continued strong winds, only larger birds were flying, and they were staying low.  From an observation tower, I got to watch ospreys fish in the ocean and herons on the adjacent flats.  And… I came across a few alligators!  It was a fun experience, but I’d like to go back sometime when the rest of the birds are aloft…

Green Heron

Great Blue Herons at Aransas NWR

Heron bathing in the Gulf

A variety of habitats

Swimming in the Gulf!

October 26-27

Goliad, TX to Padre Island, TX

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After passing through the revolutionary towns of central eastern Texas, I made my way through Corpus Christi and out to Padre Island.  I could feel the humidity and salt in the air by the time I got to Corpus – but all I saw there was traffic and bright signs!  Padre Island seemed like more of the same, with a few fancy tourist resorts, until I got into the National Park.  There, the subdivisions and flashy billboards gave way to seemingly endless sand plains covered with dune grasses.  Padre Island National Park preserves 60 miles of undeveloped white sand frontage in a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico for wildlife habitat.  This is Texas, thought, don’t forget, and in Texas beaches are considered public highways below the ordinary high water line.    Yep, you can drive the whole beach (and back – there’s no crossing at the south end), if you don’t get stuck… and remember to watch out for endangered sea turtles!  There is a section of beach at the park that is reserved for swimmers and wildlife watchers, though, and I went there to take a dip.

An offshore oil rig looms in the fog east of Padre Island

Pelicans at Padre Island NP

It was too windy to lie out on the sand, so I swam for a bit amid the jellyfish and crabs.  It was really more body-surfing than swimming, due to the waves and wind, but pretty nice to be swimming in the ocean at the end of October!  I walked on the beach, watching the ghost crabs on the short, and the pelicans swooping low to catch their dinner.  I decided to camp out on the beach rather than paying for a spot in the crowded (and paved) campground, so I headed down to the public roadway section.

Only the northern 4 miles or so are passable with a 2-WD vehicle… and with the low clearance on my over-packed Camry, I didn’t venture more than a few hundred yards.   It was so windy that I knew my tent would be a hassle all night, and the balmy temperature (and romantic notions of sleeping next to the ocean) convinced me that it would be a good idea to sleep on the beach.   This turned out to be a horrible idea!  The sand was stuck to me all over, and more kept blowing on me, and the tarp I had spread out also kept blowing around under me.  I was plenty warm in the light sleeping sheet-bag I was in, but my toes were very itchy.  At first I thought it was the sand and salt, then thought of sand fleas or some other such creature, but after an hour or so of torment I realized that it was mosquitoes.  I sprayed my feet thoroughly with DEET, but it only seemed to keep them off for about five minutes.  After another hour or so of this, I gave up and got into the car to try sleeping for the rest of the night!  The wind increased in force as the night went on, until the gusts were shaking my sturdy car.  As soon as it was light, I drove off the beach, afraid that the sand would blow across the tracks made by vehicles the day before and that I would be stranded.

From my "campsite"

Pelicans at sunset

Sunset over the dunes