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Eben Ice Cave

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

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

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

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

From the inside, looking out

From the inside, looking out

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

More ice forming...

More ice forming…

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

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

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

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

Spring?? Who needs spring!

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

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Buffalo Trace

IMG_1523_2Though the Jack Daniels tour was a great experience, I thought I might get something else out of a smaller distillery, and I still had a hankering for a sip of bourbon.  On the last day of my trip, barely following a breakfast of tea and donuts, I arrived at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in the capitol city of Frankfort, Kentucky.  It was a foggy Tuesday morning, but the 10 am tour had ten people on it nonetheless.  Buffalo Trace, as a brand, has been around since 1998, but the distillery has been in continuous operation longer than any other in the United States, since 1870.   That’s right – “continuous.”  The OFC distillery was one of four in the US that continued to distill spirits during the nearly 14 years of Prohibition, as a medicinal product!  Although the Buffalo Trace label is considered a small batch, there are many other bourbon products produced there, some at a more premium level (Blanton’s, Eagle Rare), some slightly less so.  They also bottle a wide variety of other products that were produced elsewhere, including vodka, rum, tequila, etc.  As a result, though Buffalo Trace is certainly produced on a smaller scale than Jack Daniels, the size of the operation is not noticeably different.

Seen through the fog, "Warehouse C" is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name.  It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whisky... so tempting!

“Warehouse C” is one of the oldest buildings on the Buffalo Trace campus, bearing the initials OFC at the top, which stands for Old Fire Copper, the original distillery name. It is full of barrels of tasty bourbon whiskey… so tempting!

The standard (free) “Trace” tour includes two half-shot samples, a couple history stops, a visit to a small

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

Our tour guide turned bartender at the end, pouring us half-shots of various products distilled and bottled on-site.

warehouse, and a walk through the smallest bottling room.  There is also a self-guided walking tour of the grounds, with identification of the historic buildings.  Seeing the bottling room was pretty cool, especially since it was in normal operation when I visited on a weekday.  I didn’t really miss seeing the production facilities, but that was partly because I had seen them at Jack Daniel’s.  Based on my extensive visits to breweries, I surmise that the basic production does not change significantly from one facility to the next.  If this is the only place you plan to go, though, you should make reservations for the “hardhat” tour which will take you through some of these other buildings, or even the history tour which will go more into architecture and history.  As for me… maybe next time!

The bottling room... very cool part of the tour!  They were bottling single-barren Blanton's that day.

The bottling room… very cool part of the tour! They were bottling single-barren Blanton’s that day.

The one thing that I wasn’t able to photograph in either location was the scent.  If you like whiskey, that might be your favorite take-away from an in-person visit.  In the warehouses, the leaky barrels fill the old buildings with intense whisky fumes, known in the industry as the “angel’s share.”  Outside, the pervasive smell of fermenting corn mash is reminiscent of a sweet, extra-flavorful bread or breakfast cereal.  Mmmm.

The Falls

It goes to show that change is good, every cloud has a silver lining, etc. I may have had to alter my travel plans, but they wound up leading me instead to the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States!

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, the tallest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Fall Creek Falls is striking not only because of its proportions, but also as a result of its beauty. I’m glad that I got to see it in the fall of the year, with low water levels. I find that it brings out the facets of falling water best, when there isn’t too much rushing over at once. I loved seeing the different shapes of the rocks, the cracks and troughs that the water had formed and flowed through.

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Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook.  The trail back to the visitor's center offers a "challenging" variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

Very of surrounding bluffs from the Fall Creek Falls overlook. The trail back to the visitor’s center offers a “challenging” variant, that will allow you to walk out to the edge of the bluff near the middle of this photo!

The falls, along with several others, are located within Fall Creek Falls State Park, which offers a ride range of recreational amenities and lodging options.  If you just want to see the water and move on, you can park in a parking lot which is approximately 300 paved feet from the falls overlook. I recommend the somewhat rough 1-mile walk from the interpretive center, though. A waterfall as impressive as this one can be appreciated even better if you work for it a little bit! Though, I admit the hike would be easier if I hadn’t done 12 boulder-strewn miles the day before!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Holly bedecked with berries helps to make the Tennessee woods a beautiful place in autumn!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water - fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

Rock doves seemed to enjoy flying around and perching behind the cascading water – fun to sit and watch at the mid-way point in the hike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you are even more adventurous, or a glutton for punishment like myself, you can take the half-mile hike/staircase down to the bottom of the falls. It was lovely, and a great workout! Perfect preparation for the trip home – fourteen hours of sitting in a car, eating gas station food. I earned every bite!

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

View from the bottom of the trail down to Fall Creek Falls; I chose to rest rather than clamber closer on the rocks.

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

The park contains several more waterfalls, including this one, which fell as a mist and was only visible as it hit the pool below

 

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!

Pot of Gold

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

Sandhill Crane soaring over Crex Meadows Wildlife Area

While I’m waiting for spring to arrive this year, I’ll recount an experience from last spring that has stuck with me, and of which I’m reminded with every new hint that the change of seasons is really underway.  This morning (April 6th), I heard the first Red-winged Blackbirds outside my window, and yesterday my first Sandhill Cranes trumpeted in the distance, probably looking for open water.  Every day there is less snow and ice – except for today, when two inches fell overnight, but it may yet melt before the sun sets.  What a difference from last year’s record warmth in March, when I was startled to hear Spring Peepers on March 20th, and found myself witnessing the sights below.

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A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

A dried stalk of Round-headed Bush Clover towers over the first wildflowers of spring

Pasque Flower in full bloom

Pasque Flower in full bloom

Crex Meadows Wildlife Area is owned and managed by the State of Wisconsin, Department of Natural Resources.  Most of the management of the 30,000 acre site is paid for indirectly by hunters, through a combination of license sales and a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition.  However, the Friends of Crex Meadows is a very active group that funds management and interpretive programs for birdwatchers, botanists, and other nature enthusiasts, in addition to waterfowl hunters who have traditionally used the area.  On this day, I was a birdwatcher, and I made good use of the road network on dikes between the flowages, as well as a permanent blind that was set up on the Phantom Flowage.

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

Sandhill Cranes blend in on a portion of the Wildlife Area that is closed to hunting

A pair of swans prepare to nest

A pair of swans prepare to nest

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The birds didn’t actually seem to mind when I was sitting outside of the blind, but as the cold rain got heavier, I did, and went into the roofed structure.  IMG_4742Swans, geese, and any number of ducks swam, foraged, fluffed their feathers, and occasionally squabbled with their neighbors.  Occasionally, without warning, a flock would fly up, make a few circles, and land again.  As the evening wore on, more and more waterfowl flew in for the night.

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They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, and that’s probably true, but what these pictures don’t show you is the way that evening felt and sounded.  At times, the noise of so many birds of so many species arriving and greeting each other would be overwhelming; at times they would quiet down and I would only hear muffled honks, quacks, and ruffles as they fed, dove, preened, and settled in with their mates.  The rain pattered on the roof of the blind, but when I stepped out, there was barely a sound, and the rain was warm for the season.  As I noticed the light on the water turn pink (and the swans turn into flamingos!), I got out to look around… and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of the year, complete with a double rainbow!

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Bond…

IMG_0272While I’m on the subject of frozen waterfalls, I saw a beautiful one the other day!  On a whim, I drove up to Bond Falls, a spectacular multi-level falls on the Ontonogan River near Paulding, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It is located within the boundaries of the Ottawa National Forest, but the park facilities are managed by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which operates the dam just upstream, and designated by the Michigan DNR as a State Scenic Site.  None of that matters much to the casual visitor though – we are more impressed by the scope of the falls – a 50′ cumulative drop and over twice that wide at the bottom!

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Though it’s been quite cold at night, it has been warming up enough during the days to keep most of the ice off the face of the falls.  There was still a lot of accumulation from the spray, and in more slowly-moving sections, which was impressive in itself.

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It had gotten cloudy on the drive over, but a few rays of sun came out for about two minutes, and I got some great shots of the spray hitting the walls of ice at the bottom.

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In fact, one of the best parts about this falls was how slowly it moved.  As a result, there were many small currents and eddies to see, and the rock was mostly visible under the clear water, without clouds of foam and bubbles to obscure it.

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In one section, it was clear that some concrete structures had been added , both to shore up the banks of the river, and within the bed of the river/falls itself.  We speculated that it might be intended to slow the water down for safety, or to enhance the appearance of the waterfall (unlikely to be done IMG_0301nowadays but a common enough practice earlier in our history).  We figured that it must be somehow related to the dam near the top of the cascades, but couldn’t quite figure out how.  It piqued my curiosity, and I did a little research.  It turns out that, when the dam that created the Bond Falls Flowage was built, all the water from the natural river was engineered to go through the power dam, and the falls actually dried up in some seasons, so they had to divert water back in order to make it keep flowing.  Since it flowed more slowly than before, with lower water volume, they put in the structures along the banks to keep all the water IMG_0386heading to the main falls, and the structures in the river for the sake of appearance.

 

 

 

 

On a warmer day, I could have sat on the banks and just watched for hours as the water poured over the IMG_0291rocks, pooling here, flowing there, turning around and seeming to flow back up hill before rushing over another ledge.  Of course, on a warmer day there would have been crowds of people there to change the experience.   This is by no means a “wild” falls – not only has it been slightly domesticated by the structures explained above, but the viewers are “tamed” as well, constrained the a wooden boardwalk at the bottom (offering excellent views while keeping everyone safe) and handrails on the trail up along the river (useful on the steep sections and to remind the foolhardy not to step closer to the rushing water).  However, given its history it might not exist at all, had someone not recognized its value and kept it flowing strong for the rest of us!

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